cooler

Nine Coolers
by Efrén Ordóñez
translated by Robin Myers

I met Jesús Amor a few hours before I left the city, on his last day of work and the first of this story. “Goddammit to hell,” he spat, taking a seat at the table. I figured it was me he was talking to, although his eyes were fixed on the fluorescent posters hung up on the wall, or maybe on Kennedy, the stripper, her gorgeous body abstracted through the mirrors. We sat in silence. The man beside me—he had a thick mustache and dark, cracked skin and grimy hands, and he was wearing a dirty white shirt and a baseball cap—ordered a beer and started picking the dried blood out from under his fingernails. Then he set a Styrofoam cooler between his legs, the kind they’ll exchange at a convenience store for a few cans of Tecate and twenty pesos. I followed his gaze: the tired-faced woman, sheathed in sequins and elevated on her spike heels, was snaking around the room, her eyes hunting her next client. Now everything really had been damned right to hell. He repeated the phrase, not looking at me. What he didn’t know was that, as far I was concerned, everything had been damned to hell a long time ago.

 

I’d reached the station early that night, almost ten p.m., a couple hours before my bus was scheduled to leave for Oaxaca. To avoid last-minute hedging, I decided to go out and drag my feet around the city, the streets flooded with multicolored glimmers and cheap-sin stimulants. I knew them by heart. My walk could be a kind of homage, a pre-exile goodbye. Even though I’d snuck out of my house, even though I hadn’t told anyone I was heading south, I guess what I was doing couldn’t really be called an escape anymore, just submission to defeat. I followed the concrete labyrinth for a few more minutes as I imagined my life by the sea. At last, a life of solitude. Maybe I’d finally be able to write. Losing myself in these thoughts, I ended up in the doorway of the Catarinas strip club. I walked in, thinking I’d just have a beer and kill some more time before departure. A few minutes later, in walked Jesús Amor.

His words spilled forth, beer in hand. He started to tell me a story: his. I expected a confession, and since I had nothing better to do, I squeezed the bottle and leaned back into the chair and awaited the story I’d never asked to hear. He sighed. His knees gripped the cooler between his legs and his eyes shifted back to the entrance. He stared at it for a few seconds. He lit a cigarette. Just as he was beginning his monologue, I felt a soft pair of buttocks graze my neck.

 

The best way to describe Jesús is as a local artist. I could also introduce him as a murderer, but that would be a lie, because he never killed anyone. He was employed, until he sat down beside me, as a mutilator. He spent his days sawing at bodies, dismantling the bones of disfigured corpses, their identities erased. All raw material. That’s why they don’t hang over me, he said partway through his account, wiping a dribble of beer from his beard. The dead people, I mean.

They got him when he was just a kid. Years ago now, when this plot of dirt was considered an industrial utopia. And it was, though its depths already harbored the inferno now displayed across the concrete. He did simple stuff at first. Just hustling, he said. Little things he’d do with his friends from childhood. They were all involved. It didn’t matter. It was a safe place even for low-level thieves associated with the higher-ups. But then everything darkened. Serious guys showed up, the kind who don’t fuck around. Arms executives. They started recruiting, little by little, and he decided he’d better keep his distance for a while and supported himself on various jobs that lasted only a few months, minimum-wage gigs with long hours. And he carried on like this for several years until he ended up as a grill cook. That’s where they found him the second time.

He got married and had two kids, and his family lived in a small house, colorless and unfinished. A settled-down man, he’d show up for work every day, seven a.m., at the chicken joint—which was set deep into a street dense with factories, hardware stores, and car repair shops—and he’d arrange the chickens, prepare them. He’d light the grill, clean and heat the spit. Then he’d spend the rest of the day rotating chickens, hacking them into pieces, and bagging them for the clients. One after another. Chicken after chicken.

According to Jesús, he avoided them for several weeks. The fuckers. It was never a violent sort of harassment, because he always managed to flip any kind of confrontation around, even at the risk of being taken for a coward. The thing is, he said, we can’t escape it, the violence, the real kind of violence, especially here. That’s how he made it through all those nights, getting lost along the streets and alleyways until he found his way home. Looking away. Avoiding recruitment. Until the day they cornered him, around six in the evening, a few blocks away from the grill, and he told them he wasn’t jumping guys anymore, wasn’t getting into the big-league stuff, so to speak. But they didn’t want him to go after anybody; they wanted him far away from all of that, wanted him safe. They said they were coming to him because they were friends, because they’d been buddies all those years. He’d have a place to work, like at the chicken joint, and his job would be almost the same. And so, with this friendly threat, he had to follow them, almost as if they were leading him by the hand.

They took him to a warehouse all the way up on a hillside where houses and shacks jumbled together. The law doesn’t climb that far, and even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. They’d set up an enormous worktable for him—his desk—and laid out specific tools: fillet knives, butcher knives, cleavers. Jesús didn’t understand—or, rather, he understood and played dumb. They told him he’d work normal hours, nine to six, office hours. Like a little bureaucrat. With the occasional emergency late-night call, of course. Anyway, he’d have to wait here for them to bring the guys in.

The job: he’d spend a few hours sitting in the warehouse. Every so often, they’d show up with the dead dudes and he’d cut off their heads and hands, or cut them into pieces to be divided up afterward. They’d play it by ear, figure it out. He didn’t say yes, but he couldn’t say no. The next day, he quit his job at the grill and started working at the warehouse.

And that’s what he did for two years.

He was exhausted. He told me about that, and about the grueling monotony of dismemberment. More so with every job. At first, he’d close his eyes at the sound of the bones splintering under his hands. He’d feel the blood spattering his arms and face. He thought he’d eventually stop minding it—grinding up some dude’s arms or working twelve hours straight in a screw or car-part factory. Like before. Infinite repetitions on the production line. At the end of the day, work wears us all out, he mused. Luckily, he had a TV so he could watch the local channels, stay informed, entertained. Once in awhile he’d call one of the on-air magazine shows or the news station. Once he saw himself onscreen.

 

Jesús was tracking what went on in the Catarinas. He’d ordered a bucket of beers and downed the little Carta Blancas within seconds. Interrupting his own story, he took long swigs and watched intently to see who was coming in or going out, who was going upstairs to the private rooms on the second floor. And who was around him: a few young men in shirts and ties who mocked their surroundings; a couple of very thin and very dark-skinned kids; workers; massive-machine-operators. He barely paid them any attention. He squeezed the cooler between his legs again. Then he set down his beer on the tabletop and kept talking.

 

The part he admitted he enjoyed, although he was now ashamed to remember it, was seeing his work on the air. He felt as proud as any artist beholding his own music video onscreen, his painting hung up on a wall, or his book in print. The first time he recognized himself on TV through the severed bodies, he felt sick. He thought of his two sons: one was seven, the other four. That was the first thing I thought of, he said. Then the news story continued, lingering on the images for several minutes, and he started to feel, in a way, important. With every frame, the dozens of people who had crossed his worktable, their faces, began to fade from his mind. He didn’t want to reveal his identity or associate his name with the dismembered, but an anonymous interview sounded reasonable. A phone call to the news station, to Alegría AM: We have the handsaw-artist on the line with us, a man who…

Over time, his goal became to actually appear on TV. The local news channels have always been benevolent with strangers’ misfortunes, with viewers’ charms. Under the banner of giving people what they want, they endeavor to “inform” the public of accidents and tragedies, especially when there are deaths involved. He got creative and his work started appearing in local news reports. Day and night. Sometimes, especially at first, he didn’t recognize his own efforts; maybe it was someone else’s, the labor of unknown people, unknown artists. Deep down, although he respected some of their work, he began to envy certain ideas, started to wish he could have tried it this way or that. Ultimately, though, the screen was partial to his images. And more and more often. At one point he wondered whether it was possible to measure the ratings of the reports that showcased his work as compared to the ones that featured his colleagues. That’s what he thought about.

He grew cold, indifferent. But he certainly had work. A lot of it. In the day-to-day, he saw it all. All kinds of people: clothed, naked, uniformed. More than once, he received some famous figure, some local celebrity: reporters (most of all), anchors, musicians. All of them had made somebody angry. It was all coincidence, all fun and games, until the day he found a childhood friend’s body in one of the sacks. El Cheto. He hadn’t seen him in years, but it was him; there he was. Why? What had he done? Where had they caught him? One of the other men from the truck was approaching from behind the sacks. The guy was carrying several Styrofoam coolers stamped with the logos of different beer brands. He’d seen them advertised in TV commercials. With 50 cans of Tecate plus twenty pesos, you’d get one of those little coolers. They were nice. The man set them down in front of the worktable: there were nine.

 

He went silent. It was close to midnight. More people had come in, and although I hadn’t noticed, Jesús had made careful note of each and every one. He hadn’t missed a single face, even though his back was turned to the entrance; the mirrors above the dance floor allowed him to peer through Azul, Rita, and Mélodi’s legs and see every single new client. He adjusted his baseball cap. He took another bottle from the bucket. I said nothing, waiting for him to resume his story. He looked me in the eye and continued.

 

The instructions were clear. He had to cut off the heads and some limbs, body parts he’d distribute among the nine coolers, and they’d leave the coolers in different spots around the city. That step wasn’t his responsibility anymore. The only thing he could do was nod and raise his hand to them as they left. When they were gone, he sat and thought for a while. He thought of heading south until they’d lost track of him and his family. He called his wife and told her to get into the car that evening, to take the kids, hit the road, go find her cousin in Veracruz. And then they’d see. For now, though, he and his machete would have to get to work. The morning news came to an end on TV.

He worked all afternoon, pondering the best way to escape. It wouldn’t be easy. He was in the middle of it, he was inside, and you don’t head out and skip town without permission. You don’t just quit and look for another job. Besides, there was always someone in the warehouse, and so it wasn’t as if he could simply walk off, just like that. The second news program started at midday. They’d found some hands along the highway that extends all the way up to the US border. He’d had the idea—just to see what they’d say—of cutting the pinky finger off each hand. There was no other reason, really; he just wanted to see it on TV. People were brooding over it: why the fingers? What was the message here? There wasn’t any. That he was bored, that’s all.

But Jesús kept thinking about El Cheto. His friend didn’t have a name anymore, and he’d never have one again, so that was the least of his worries. There he was, all of him, laid out on the grimy table. He distracted himself by scraping off the dried blood with a spatula. His eyes shifted out of focus. He felt the man’s arms, his limbs. He stripped him down. Then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, lifted his arm, and let the machete fall onto the neck. He didn’t cut all the way through, but the head tumbled to the ground on the second try.

 

I imagined him standing before the Styrofoam coolers, with the Carta Blanca and Tecate logos stamped on the sides, hyping the flavors of the north. His visor pulled down, covering a gaze glutted with bones and cartilage.

 

I decided to leave a little in each of the eight coolers, he continued. His friend’s remains, his head, his hands—he put those in the ninth. He said he started thinking about the guy, whoever he was, who’d go out in the morning for a quart of milk or a soda, and how he’d find a hand, a head, the leg of some nameless, bodiless dude. But, hey, work is work. And if that’s what he thought about, it’s because it was his last gig ever. That’s why I’m celebrating, he said, and you’re the only guest.

 

Then he set out. He left the warehouse, cooler in hand, and headed straight for his truck. With the engine reverberating, he slipped into the darkness of the hills. They followed him. Two pick-ups descending the gravel roads at top speed. They veered among little houses whose windows still exposed people eating their dinner. Through gang-owned alleyways, illuminated by a scattering of pallid, mournful streetlamps. Jesús drove his truck with a steady head, attentive to the lights glimmering up from the city center, thinking of a route—or not even a route; just how to keep going. Deep down, he imagined it would be impossible to escape. But he tried anyway—he was still trying, sitting here in the Catarinas. He drove all the way down and took one of the bridges that crosses the dry strip dividing the city, following it onto one of the major downtown roads. And then he’d continued on foot, running aimlessly, shaking them off, until he’d come into the strip club. But for some reason, he imagined them close by, about to find him, tracking him effortlessly. They weren’t going to let him go.

 

We turned to look at the entrance and watched as a man in black peered in through the doorway. It didn’t seem like he saw us, but he exchanged a few words with the bouncer. They’re here, said Jesús.

 

It’s strange how we try to revitalize our days. While some people spend regular working hours surrounded by men and women’s body parts and cartilage—carrion, really—some of us dedicate our lives to inhaling hot air, condemned to cooling off our bodies with beer, whiling away the days, waiting for something to happen. Or maybe not even that—just waiting for the nothingness to stop happening. If we don’t find a reason for it, our lives turn into an image, a vast, arid square empty of even a timeline.

Jesús Amor sat beside me: a hopeless case, tethered to something, a family man now penniless. He drummed his fingers on his knees, waiting for the men to come in, maybe to put up a fight for a few seconds, and then let himself be seized, hauled out, probably annihilated. I lost myself in the taptap taptap of his fingers and then I understood it all.

 

The men walked in. I managed to see them out of the corner of my eye: a pair of gun-gripping shadows. They upended tables, people, dancers as they crossed the club. I think they fired at least a couple of times. Before I made my way into the bathroom and escaped through the window, just as the door was closing, I adjusted my baseball cap. The white shirt hung a little loose on me and the cooler was heavier than I thought. I kept still, waiting for them to see me. When they did, they shot, but the bullet sank into the wall. Before I pushed through the bathroom door, I understood in a single instant that my destiny wasn’t the beach, the south, the north, or another country. I wasn’t bound to live as an exile, but as a wandering vagabond, forever pursued—and, if I was lucky, never caught. Before the door swung shut, I didn’t only see the two men running toward the bathroom, the pair of armed henchmen with their empty eyes. All the way in the back, next to the dance floor, I caught a glance of Jesús Amor, taking a swig of his beer—or was it mine? If my memory serves me well, I think he was smiling.

 

Efrén Ordóñez is a writer, editor, and translator. He founded Editorial Argonáutica in 2017. He is currently finishing his second novel, written under a grant from Young Creators Program part of the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, in Mexico. He translated Melville’s Beard/Las barbas de Melville, by Mark Haber, for Editorial Argonáutica. In 2017,  Mexican Nitro Press published his first novel, Humo (Smoke), which received the State of Nuevo León Prize in Literature in 2014. He also wrote the short story collection Gris infierno (Gray Inferno) (An.alfa.beta, 2014) and the illustrated children’s book Tlacuache. Historia de una cola (Possum. A Story of a Tail) (FCAS, 2015). He was a grantee at the State of Nuevo León Writers Centre in 2013. He also works as a writer and translator in the writing agency he founded, Courier 12 Escritores, and as a part-time creative writing teacher at Literaria in Mexico City. You can find him on Twitter: @ordonezgarza.

Robin Myers currently writes, translates and lives in Mexico City.

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