My dying father and his friend, the former mayor, told me that if it was stories of the massacre I wanted, then there was this farmer living in a seaside village we should track down. So, we lowered ourselves into the mayor’s old green Volkswagen Beetle—my wheezing father in the passenger’s seat and myself in back—and made for La Costa Esmeralda.
From what I gathered on the road, this farmer we were after, he’d been a riot policeman at La Noche de Tlatelolco, the massacre during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. “Sin duda,” the mayor said, “he killed many people that day. He is a farmer now, my uncle. A very old man.”
My father turned to me, smirked, and raised an eyebrow. Was he actually excited by these details? Since losing his job, he’d become homeless, I’d gathered through relatives—and yet, as his mischievous expression seemed to declare, up for an adventure. I was, too. Across all the years of being raised by my mother and then afterward working in Louisiana, I’d hardly known the man, but I’d been told often about this spirit of adventure he possessed. It was the one thing I’d hoped might have bonded us, though it never had.
Near the coast, the forest spit us out, and we came upon a tiny town called Cazones. Stray dogs lay in the road, ribs showing. Crumbling cinder-block houses slumped under the simple weight of their tin roofs, and women in full-length dresses held baskets, looking at us with practiced indifference. Barefoot children stopped kicking a soccer ball to watch us pass like we were a funeral procession carrying some famous dead through their streets. One of them raised his hand at the sight of Vicente, the former mayor, who waved back. Potholes dotted the dirt road, and as the road came to a T that met the shore, the brown sea washed up against rocks beside us. It was a cold December day, and the clouds made it feel even chillier.
Vicente banked a hard right just as it seemed we might tumble into the surf. Looking between their heads and out the windshield, I saw the gray of the sky and a hill rising green and rocky beside the shoreline. We passed an abandoned hotel, beautiful in its decayed splendor, gaunt with its courtyard of plastic chairs and tables. Beyond, we came upon a cattle guard and a homemade gate. Vicente braked and got out to unlatch it. My father turned to ask me what I thought of all this, and I liked how this made our little operation feel like a collusion.
“We won’t tell this old man you’re a journalist,” he said. “We’ll just invite him to lunch and get him drunk. Then he’ll start talking.”
Vicente drove us through the open gate. The path rose up a muddy incline. Behind us, the gray sea became vaster with our heightened vista, and when I turned to face the front again, I saw an open field and an old man wearing work boots and a jumpsuit. He was brandishing a shovel, spearing the dirt to dig a hole for a fence post. He didn’t hear our Beetle, but when Vicente parked and we slammed the car doors shut, he turned to size us up. He stood like a bull, his expression impenetrable, and I had my first inkling of the obvious, that this was a bad idea. Vicente waved. “Tío!” he shouted.
The old man walked over, still holding the shovel. His eyes became legible. He had a full head of gray hair, wrinkles in his face that cut to the bone. They etched him into a constant expression of mild frustration. He was a hard worker, that much was plain.
“Tío Héctor!” Vicente said. They hugged. Héctor eyed my father and me. “Excuse me, uncle,” Vicente said. “This is Manuel, my friend. He was a protestor at La Noche de Tlatelolco. Isn’t that something? And this is his son. Also Manuel. He’s a journalist. He wants to ask you some questions about the old days. You know, the riots. The ones you worked as a granadero. That was another lifetime ago, wasn’t it?”
I knew better than to look at my father. Héctor stared at me and said nothing. His eyes said everything. “Mucho gusto,” I offered. “Lo que pasa es que—” but Héctor cut me short. He whispered to his nephew. Vicente whispered back. Old Héctor excused himself. He said he wanted to check on his hens, but we all knew he was making a decision. When he moved out of view behind his farmhouse, I looked at my father for some sense of the moment. He was looking at Vicente. The two set themselves on the verge of laughing gravely, but they absolutely didn’t.
“He knows he has sinned,” Vicente said, as if this were simply a joke.
“Maybe we should leave before he comes back,” I said.
“No!” Vicente replied. “We will do it like you said, Manuel: we will take him to lunch, get him drunk, and he will start talking. It’s nothing, Manuel. No pasa nada.”
“Well,” my dad said, “that wasn’t exactly the pl—”
Héctor returned donning a Dallas Cowboys cap, having removed his work gloves. He looked at me. “So, you want to hear about the massacre? Let’s eat.”
As he walked toward the car, Vicente opened the door for him. He got in back with me. We sat shoulder to shoulder, this killer and I, my father and the mayor in front again. We coasted the hill, cold sea frothing white before us, and then passed through the open gate. Vicente got out to close it, but he couldn’t figure out the latch. My father joined him, but to no avail. They fumbled with it while I remained shoulder to shoulder with Héctor, who turned to watch them struggle. He smelled of sweat and fowl and manure, and sitting next to him, I became aware of my own clean scent, which felt like an affront to his life’s work, whatever it had been, and I hoped he wouldn’t hold this against me, whatever that might mean. My father and Vicente still fiddled with the latch, and I felt I had to break the terrifying silence. “They’re no farmers,” I said in my simple Spanish. To my relief, he laughed.
“No,” he said. “Vicente, he was always like his mother. Very smart, that one, but very weak.”
Still, more time to fill. “How many cows do you have?” I asked the murderer.
“Three,” he said. “There is one you cannot see behind the house. She is the prettiest one.”
“What is the weather like this time of year?”
Before he could answer, the bumbling duo returned. “We got it,” Vicente said.
“Nice job,” Héctor replied, then turned to me and winked.
As we rode on, his farm faded in the rearview. Vicente cruised along to the abandoned hotel, only it wasn’t abandoned. We pulled up a gravel drive beside the courtyard, where an old woman appeared. She waved at Vicente, and he waved back. As we got out of the car, she came over to hug Héctor. Vicente introduced my father and me, and we took our seats in the plastic chairs, less than a stone’s throw from the roaring sea. Because it was so cold, the woman brought us all jackets to wear—except Héctor, who remained sleeveless. “I’ll bring you something to eat and to drink,” she said. Shortly, she returned with shrimp tostadas and coffee and took a seat beside Héctor.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked.
“Well,” Vicente started, and we each settled into distinct roles: Vicente was the touchstone, the middle-aged nephew with the ability to connect strangers to family. The old woman—Héctor’s sister, it turned out—was the dutiful cook, the modestly dressed matron who fed us and saw to our comfort as the conversation kept on. My father, confirming for me his reputation as a charmer, was the gracious and curious interviewer; his different take on the old days helped him quickly establish a rapport with Héctor. I was the listener, the one for whose benefit my father asked his questions. And Héctor, he was the storyteller.
He told many stories, any one of which a writer would happily stake his reputation on: of prostitutes holding court with Octavio Paz in a giant mansion off the Paseo de Malecon in Veracruz, of grenades hidden in a middle-school classroom in the jungles of Guerrero during a standoff between agitators and the military, of secret orders given behind the scenes of the massacre I’d made the trip to Mexico to write about. He told the kinds of stories you don’t forget, the kind I’d so far failed to find in my middling career. The kind you ache for in times when you want to bury your own life away. The kind you wish were your own, if only you could have them without the lived experience and pain beneath them.
There was one story he told at my father’s precise prodding, one I know my father and I both cherished in the same way, though we never talked about it and I never saw my father again after that trip. When I think of him now, I think of this story. It was a story that helped me see that, at least in accidental moments, Manuel really could be the man I’d always dreamed he was.
In 1956, Héctor was eight years old. This was in Tuxpan, where he was raised, just a few kilometers from where we were sitting. In those days, Héctor and his friends would play guitar and sing songs at the bridge passing into town. Sometimes, beachgoing tourists would stop and ask for son jarocho, and the kids would play a song in that style, and maybe get a peso or two in return. Héctor was all right on the guitar, and the money added up.
One day, a strange man crossed the bridge on foot. They didn’t see where he’d come from. He had a foreign accent. “Do you kids want to make some money?” he asked. “Sure,” they said. “Okay, then. Come next week at exactly this time. If you’re here, I will know you are serious, and I will ask you again.”
They thought nothing of it. A lot of crazy travelers came through. Still, they made sure to play the bridge the next week at the same time. And again, this same man came by, this time driving a car. A Cadillac. He was dressed in linen. He wore dark sunglasses and a pressed shirt. He smiled like a fox and he seemed to know what he was doing. “Do you still want to make some money?” he asked. “Sure,” they said again. “Okay, then. Not far from here, there is an open field, a triangular cow pasture bordered on two sides by the sea, on the other by the road. Follow this path beside the bridge for two kilometers, and look to your right. That is the field. Do you know it?”
“Okay, then. Meet me in that field next Saturday, and if you do what I tell you, I’ll give you each 8,000 pesos.”
The stranger left them at the bridge, and they leapt in excitement. This was 1956, and 8,000 pesos would have been—“Well,” Héctor said, “think of what we could have done with that money!” They were going to be rich. They spent that week immersed in the dream of eloping from Tuxpan forever, of leaving their families behind for great adventures.
The following Saturday, they walked to the field. The stranger was there. “Okay,” he said. “Here is what will happen. In thirty minutes, planes will fly overhead, very low to the ground. Very loud. They will drop boxes from their cargo holds. The boxes will be wooden crates with parachutes. They will land in this field. When the crates land, pick them up. They will be heavy. Carry them to the house at the top of the hill.” And the stranger pointed to the top of the hill. Héctor recognized the house then, the one with the boat beside it. “When you finish bringing all of the crates to the top of the hill, meet me by the—” But Héctor had stopped listening once he saw the house. The boat gave it away. Everyone in town knew it. It was headquarters for Fidel, the house from which he’d been planning and preparing. And these crates, they would be filled with the guns and ammo he would use once he landed in Cuba.
These children, including Héctor, they did not stop to say no thank you, and they did not stop running until they were in their homes with their mothers and their fathers. They hid inside for a month, and then for longer—until that boat was gone, and with it Fidel, until it was safe to go back to being the children they’d been before: children playing at being grown-ups, whose parents still worried for them, children who strummed guitar at the side of a bridge, happy to think that the people who passed through their lives were nothing but benign strangers, also mothers and fathers, the kind of people who might take pity on local boys with only innocent songs and no whiff of revolution, no hint of violence or mischief yet in their eyes.
Héctor fell silent. He was as shocked that he’d told the story as any of us—except my father. My homeless wreck of an emphysemic father, who would die only weeks later. He’d known what to ask. When to stay quiet. What expression to offer at what moments of the telling. When to give that subtlest of laughs that is simply an exhalation through the nose. In the wash of the surf and the quiet of the table by the sea, the very sea that Castro had braved sixty years before, he had stolen a glance at me as the old man gestured and held court. I’d caught it, too. It didn’t last longer than half a second. His eyebrow had raised. Hint of a smile, soft as rain. Here, my father was saying: this is for you.