The following is from Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novel, I'll Sell You A Dog. Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. His first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was the first translation to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (in 2011). He writes regularly for publications including Granta and translated Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s novel All Dogs are Blue into Spanish.
I escaped from the volley of tomatoes as best I could and headed straight for the greengrocer’s, where I was greeted with a hearty laugh:
‘Good and ripe, were they?’ she’d ask. ‘I saved the best ones for you, they’re from the Hyatt Hotel!’
‘You shouldn’t give that sanctimonious lot ammunition!’ I protested.
‘Everyone has the right to rebel, even them!’
The greengrocer had made rebellion her way of life and her principal source of income: I never saw her sell a single vegetable that was in the least bit edible. Instead, she acted as the official supplier to every riot. Her foul-smelling tomatoes were famous at all the well-known sites of demonstration: on Paseo de la Reforma, down in the Zócalo, on Avenida Bucareli; she even furnished the peasants of San Mateo Atenco with vegetables when they rose up to protest at their land being confiscated to build the airport.
The best thing about the greengrocer was that she was five years younger than Francesca and eleven years younger than me. At this stage in life the effect of age difference has to be multiplied by three, at least. One might say that Francesca was better preserved than the greengrocer, which was logical, considering the wear and tear of an intellectual life as opposed to one of action. But the state of preservation didn’t matter because we weren’t bottles of milk in the refrigerator, or wagons from the 1930s or ’40s. What really mattered were the desires and motives Francesca suspected the greengrocer of having, more intense than her own, and far more so in Francesca’s head than in reality. Since reality was another thing that didn’t matter and what Francesca thought actually did, I calculated that my flirting with the greengrocer could well end up increasing my chances with Francesca. And all this without even taking into account the ostentatious dimensions of the greengrocer’s chest! It was a psychological and sexual battle that would have would have made even Freud’s beard stand on end.
On the wall of the vegetable shop was a calendar showing special commemorative dates to observe and the vegetables that were in season on each one. March was the time of the nationalisation of oil reserves, the birth of Benito Juárez, courgettes and chayote. May was high season: Labour Day, the Day of the Holy Cross, the Battle of Puebla, Teachers’ Day, Students’ Day, chayote, lettuce and tomato. In September, Poblano chillies, the annual presidential speech, Boy Heroes Day and Independence Day. In October and November there were only a few dates, but more tomatoes than ever were sold: the Tlatelolco Massacre, the Day of the Hispanic Peoples and the Mexican Revolution.
The greengrocer would stretch out a chubby arm and hand me a roll of toilet paper with which to wipe the flecks of tomato from my face, hair, neck and arms, and give me a yellow T-shirt from the 2006 electoral campaign to change into. I would return the T-shirt to her later, only for her to lend it to me again after the next barrage of tomatoes. This happened so often that, in time, people in the street came to think I was a supporter of the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Then she would yell out an order for two big bottles of Superior from the shop on the corner, a girl would bring the beer, and the greengrocer would pour us each a glass and begin:
‘So, where did you leave the intellectuals?’
‘Back there–they ran out of tomatoes and went back to their little books.’
‘And to think how much they’re needed out here in– ’
Our chats were interrupted by some trucks arriving to unload past-their-best vegetables: from the restaurants and hotels of Polanco, from the branch of Superama on Avenida Horacio, from the Las Américas racetrack; even from a green-grocers up in the fancy neighbourhood of Las Lomas. Instead of throwing the rotting produce away and, above all, to stop the beggars from hanging around their premises to collect it, they had been persuaded to donate it to the greengrocer so she could sell it at ‘community prices’ to those most in need. This was what she had told them and, in a way, she hadn’t lied. In her shop, the price of a pound of tomatoes was one per cent of market price. For the price of one pound of fresh tomatoes, rioters could get a hundred pounds of ammunition. It was a truly community-minded act, although not the one the donors had imagined: they would receive the vegetables that their exquisite palates had rejected smack in the face.
We sipped our beer and by the second glass, without fail, it was Francisco I Madero’s turn. Always Madero: the nation’s fate had gone downhill because of Madero. Things would have been very different, the greengrocer said, if Flores Magón had led the Revolution instead.
‘You know what we should do?’ she asked, not waiting for me to answer. ‘What we should do is put a few bullets into Madero.’
‘They did that already, right there by the Palacio de Lecumberri,’ I reminded her.
‘Well, let’s do it again, then! Do you know where he’s buried?’
We made plans to go and desecrate Madero’s tomb in the Monument to the Revolution. It was close by, three metro stops away. Along with Madero were buried Pancho Villa and José Venustiano Carranza, Plutarco Elías Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, all of them sworn enemies. The only thing they had in common was that they all had moustaches. The greengrocer shouted:
‘That’s what dialectic’s for: building monuments!’
Madero had been killed exactly one hundred years ago, in February 1913, but in the greengrocer’s head it was as if it had happened yesterday. She lived in a time when all the misfortunes of the nation, from the murder of Zapata to the electoral fraud committed against López Obrador, happened simultaneously, or were placed right up close to each other like a series of rocks encircling the planet and then heading out into space, all the way to Pluto.
The greengrocer had another theory about my novel, or rather about how Francesca knew what was in my notebook. According to this hypothesis, Francesca was a CIA agent. I refused to accept this, because experience had taught me that reality does not bow to ideology.
‘Think about it,’ she said. ‘Do you know anything about her? Whether she’s widowed or divorced, whether she’s got kids, whether she’s a spinster, what she used to do?’
‘I know she was a language teacher,’ I replied.
‘You see! English teachers work for the CIA, everybody knows that. It was even in a film. How do you think she ended up in your building?’
‘She entered the draw, like the rest of us.’
‘No one ends up there that way. Did you enter a draw to get a place there? Only influential people get an apartment in that building. Skint, but influential.’
Despite the saying that silence speaks volumes, I kept my mouth shut; I didn’t like to reveal how I’d got the apartment. You were supposed to fill in a load of forms and pray to every saint under the sun, first for one of the current residents to die or be declared incapable of living unassisted, and then for the bureaucrats to awaken from their superannuated torpor and set the process in motion. On top of this you had to be selected by lottery and the probability of success was one in thousands. Barring the part when the dead resident was carried out, leaving the apartment available, this procedure was never adhered to.‘
She came to the building because she’s on a mission,’ said the greengrocer.
‘But she’s retired.’
‘A CIA agent never retires!’ she would repeat. ‘Do you think if she was retired she’d need to live in that shabby old place, that stuck-up old thing? If she was retired she’d be living in Tepoztlán or Chapala, somewhere fancy like that. I’m telling you, she’s on a mission, that’s why she’s spying on you and brainwashing everyone in her salon at the same time. Think about it: all she needs is a glass tumbler, she holds it up against the wall and then puts her ear against it.’
‘But I don’t write out loud!’
‘You wouldn’t even need to! These people can decipher your writing by listening to the pen scratching away in your notebook.’
She suggested that when I wrote in the book I should use some kind of device that made a noise to foil Francesca’s attempts to spy on me. So the next time I grew bored of drawing, I switched on the blender, which I never used, and wrote some things down in my notebook that I’d remembered:
Five hundred riot police were sent to capture Alejandro Jodorowsky for crucifying a chicken. José Luís Cuevas painted a temporary mural and invented the Pink Zone. The bones of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Dr Atl and Siqueiros ended up in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men. Juan O’Gorman took cyanide, put a rope around his neck and then put a bullet in his brain. His bones ended up in the same place. La Esmeralda art school was moved to the neighbourhood of Colonia Guerrero. One of Rufino Tamayo’s paintings was auctioned off for seven million dollars, one of Frida’s for five, another of Diego’s for three. The Rotunda’s name was changed: where it had said ‘Men’ they changed it to ‘Persons’. They moved María Izquierdo’s remains to the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons.
The next morning, Francesca was waiting out in the hallway and when I left my apartment she ran over to confront me.
‘That’s the last thing we need! Taco sellers who think they’re art historians.’
‘Do you know what a customer once said to me?’ I replied. ‘That that was precisely what we needed: taco sellers who knew about art, who were interested in art.’
‘Who was your customer? Gorky?’
If Gorky were alive he’d be shocked at the price of beer in museum cafes.’
I complained to the greengrocer that her theory had failed.‘
All I managed to do was blow up my blender.’
‘It must be telepathy, then.’
‘I knew it! You’re mad.’
‘That’s precisely what the CIA’s strategy is—don’t you get it? They use crazy techniques so that no one believes it when they are discovered.’
‘So what does she get out of spying on me?’
‘You should know, you’re probably a danger to the system.’
‘Well, I’ve always thought you were suspicious, you know? All that clowning around’s got to be a ploy to distract people. Who knows what secrets you’re hiding . . .Or perhaps the future of the human race depends on your notebook, just imagine!’
With the help of a comrade who was undercover, she’d gone so far as to get hold of a list of names of supposed CIA agents in Mexico. We couldn’t find Francesca’s.
‘But that’s not her real name!’ the greengrocer said.
So we looked for her real name, or at least, the one the salon members called her by, the same one her post was addressed to and with which she signed the minutes of the Residents’ Association meetings. That one wasn’t on the list, either.
‘You see?’ I said.‘That only proves one thing: that name’s false, too. You really think she’s going to use her real name? I’m telling you, she’s on a mission! Actually, now I think of it, we shouldn’t be using our real names either.’
‘What do you want to be called?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t know, can you think of a name? Pick a pretty one.’
‘What about Juliet?’
‘Yeah, but pronounced the French way, Juliette, so it packs more of a punch.’
‘I like it! What about you?’
‘I want to be called Teo.’
‘As if !’
‘Well what, then?’
‘Teodoro, but just call me Teo.’
You had to say her name Juliette to make Francesca jealous. Then Juliet would dare me to force my way into 3-D, Francesca’s apartment, to confirm her theory. This usually happened around the third beer, when I would wisely take my leave. I needed to rest a little in order to get through the rest of the day. On my way back from the greengrocer’s shop, when I crossed the lobby and looked around at the salon members, all hypnotised by their books, perfectly pacified, I’d call out:
‘Still here? How are your piles doing?’
And Francesca would shout:
‘Juliette is the name of a French whore!’
* * * *
One morning the salon was cancelled because a poet had died and everyone rushed off to mourn the dead man. Everyone except Hipólita, whose varicose veins prevented such exertion. I was about to shoot off like a rattletrap rocket to the bar on the corner when I ran into her, putting her hand into the letter boxes to deposit a piece of paper: she was organising an exhibition of little birds modelled out of bread dough down in the lobby. I folded up the invitation to the vernissage and put it in my back pocket, and was almost at the door when Hipólita intercepted me.
‘You’re an ungrateful wretch.’
I turned around to face her. She had come close enough to the entrance that the morning light accentuated the down on her upper lip. Away from the lobby’s deceptive gloom it was a proper moustache.
‘I don’t get a mention in your novel,’ she explained.
‘You know it’s not a novel.’
‘You must think I’m so insignificant.’
‘My dear, you talk like one of Frida Kahlo’s paintings: nothing but moaning. Hey, did you see that?’
I pointed at the right-hand wall of the lobby, covered in damp patches, and then fled as fast as my bunions allowed.
That night I wrote in my journal about a childhood memory: my mother’s brother, a bachelor who had been the first taco seller in the family, had a moustache so outrageous he used to get bits of food stuck in it.
‘It’s a northern thing,’ my mother would say, excusing him.
Her family was from San Luis Potosí which, technically speaking, wasn’t even in the north. If anything it was the south of the north. I had seen him spend an entire Sunday afternoon with the tail end of a jalapeño pepper entangled in his whiskers.The next day there were new chairs in the lobby. Reclining wooden ones, with cushioned backs and seats, super comfortable. They’d nicked them from the poet’s funeral. These were truly dangerous people: they’d lugged them all the way from Bellas Artes, six stops on the metro. The new chairs didn’t fit in the room we used as a dumping ground, where the folded Corona beer chairs were stored. They started leaving the new ones lined up on either side of the lobby, like in a waiting room. The salon members considered them the pinnacle of elegance. The cockroaches rather liked them, too.
Posterity decreed that the dead poet was only mediocre: he failed to merit a statue or even an avenue named after him, never mind a place in the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons. They named a dirt road after him in Irapuato, where he’d been born. Then another poet died (poets were always dying). The salon members seized the opportunity to steal another chair for Hipólita. This poet had a statue erected to him in a park. The pigeons were over the moon.
From I’LL SELL YOU A DOG. Used with permission of & Other Stories. Copyright © 2016 by Juan Pablo Villalobos.