Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Hiding Places

BY PABLO PIÑERO STILLMANN

I wasn’t on speaking terms with my mother when she left for Egypt to chase an ex-boyfriend. That Saturday I woke up to a series of her texts:

Boarding [plane emoji] Paris then Cairo.12:57AM

Please look after the house&Goyo.1:01AM

[Three money bags emoji] in freezer for expenses.1:03AM

(I’d once told her of an American congressman who was caught with $100,000 in bribe money hidden in his freezer. She was delighted by the story and often found excuses to imitate the disgraced politician.)

Annoyed, I immediately called Juan Carlos, as my mother was by then somewhere over the Atlantic.

“What?” I’d woken him up.

“How about hello?” I said.

My brother works 65-hour weeks and then attempts to sleep through the weekend.

“What do you want, Antonio?”

“Mom left for Egypt?”

“And?”

“Why Egypt?”

“That’s why you called me?”

“She texted saying I was in charge of the house and the dog.”

“And?”

“What about Guirnalda?” I said. “Doesn’t she usually take care of things when Mom’s gone?”

“She’s pregnant. Left three months ago. Goodbye.”

“Wait! I just don’t understand how she just—”

“I’m sleeping.”

“Do you know when she’s coming back?”

“No.”

Click.

 

The key was in its usual hiding place: inside a fake avocado hanging from the ash tree outside my mother’s house. (The fact that there seemed to be an avocado growing from an ash tree never tipped anyone off.) Goyo did his darndest to wag his tail as I entered. The big guy always liked me. Enjoying his company would be one of the perks of this arrangement. Another one would be living in a big house with a beautiful garden out in the calm suburbs instead of in a tiny, old apartment surrounded by noisy neighbors and a bustling neighborhood. The downside—

The downside is hard to explain. Let’s just say I didn’t have a happy childhood. Let’s also just say that when my father left our lives turned chaotic. The house, and I’ve never completely understood this, always provided me with a sense of calm but also deep sadness. It was a bit as if your favorite warm blanket gave you cancer. If the house could’ve talked, it would’ve said something like, Everything’s alright for now, but just you wait…

I tried to focus on the positive. The garden, for example, looked gorgeous under the morning sun. I left my travel bag in my childhood bedroom and went outside to one of the reclining chairs with the latest issue of The Economist. Sonia called me soon after.

“We got him by his tiny balls,” she said. “His tiny, wrinkled, hairy balls.”

“What are you talking about?”

She sighed.

“Of your many faults, Toño, your biggest is probably that you’re too out of it. Turn on a goddamn laptop, an iPad. Hell, turn on a fucking TV.”

Sonia, my boss, was a barely thirty, super successful workaholic. For her, Saturday was just a weekday with less traffic.

“Laptop open,” I said from inside the house.

“Go to El Universal.

There was a picture of a high-rise right next to the ocean. Under it, the headline read: Navarrete Owns Six Luxury Properties, Two in Miami.

 “You don’t need to read the article,” said Sonia. “Just get to work. Two weeks until the election. We need all hands on deck.” She said this last phrase in English before hanging up. Sonia loved peppering her conversations with English phrases as a way to remind people that she did a semester of college in Austin, Texas.

Back when I was a political science student, all I wanted was to work for a big consulting firm and get urgent phone calls. After graduation, and almost a year of unemployment, one of my ex-classmates, who knew I wasn’t having much luck in the Real World, told me Soto Consultores was looking for people to join their team.

I sent my CV to SC’s HR and, excited, read up more about them on their website. Their offices were in the upper floors of a new, gargantuan building overlooking Chapultepec Park. I began to imagine myself walking into that building in a suit and tie while talking on the phone with a client.

Working for SC, however, turned out to be nothing like what I’d imagined. For starters, after almost two years at the firm I’d never even visited their offices. I’d offered several times to attend in person, but Sonia would always say something like, Why bother?, or, It’s already so crowded in here. My work uniform, instead of a designer suit, consisted of flip-flops, pajama pants and a tattered Centre Pompidou sweatshirt my mother bought me years ago on a trip to Paris. (For Skype sessions with Sonia, I’d tuck a button-down into my pajama pants and comb my disheveled hair.)

While my formal job title was Opposition Research and Special Events Monitoring Executive, I was mostly just a digital goon. My main duty was to come up with memes, tweets and other social media content and disinformation to slander our clients’ opponents. This content would then be deployed by the infinite number of bots and official-looking websites created and managed by SC’s IT guys. My finest work had been during the Coahuila gubernatorial campaign. One of our opponents was rumored to be in business with a cartel leader. Using a picture of the candidate in a bathing suit, I photoshopped a tiny head of the cartel leader coming out of his shoulder with the caption, THIS FUCKING TUMOR IS KILLING ME. It was a rush job and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it quickly went viral. Sonia even praised me during a conference call with the whole team.

Our current client was Dora Gols who was running against Raúl Navarrete for the governorship of a faraway state I’d never visited. When Gols hired SC she was up eleven points in the polls, but after a heinous debate performance—she was no Churchill when it came to her oratory abilities—and a slew of articles about how her family’s construction business had made millions with shady government contracts, Navarrete was only five points behind.

As soon as I hung up with Sonia, I got to work on a short video that made Navarrete seem like he was dancing to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” in South Beach with hundred-dollar bills falling from the sky. (It made me chuckle.) Then I put together a few memes and tweets. Before sunset I was back in the reclining chair drinking a Tecate Light.

 

The following morning I took Goyo for a walk (his walks were getting shorter and shorter) and when I came back I found a man sitting on the doorstep. He wore dress shoes, jeans, a T-shirt and a jacket that was too heavy for the warm weather. His salt-and-pepper hair was in a flattop.

I asked, in a somewhat forceful tone, how I could help him.

He rushed to stand. “Good day, sir. My name is Ifigenio Baldosas Olguín, at your service.” We shook hands. “I’m looking for the woman who lives here. Is she your mother?”

Was he a salesperson? I hated people who tried to sell me things. Again I asked how I could help him.

“My cousin Salomón, who works over in that house, told me the woman who lived here needed someone to wash her car, tend the yard and make some minor home repairs.”

That definitely sounded like my mother. Ever since I can remember she’s always on the lookout for hired help of some sort.

“She’s on vacation,” I said. “If you leave me your number I’ll make sure she calls you when she gets back.”

“Might you know when that will be?”

“No. Unfortunately.” I took out my phone. “Give me your number.”

“It’s fine, sir. I’ll be back. Thank you.”

I felt bad watching him slog up the steep street to the avenue where he’d take a bus that would maybe take him to a subway station or to another bus. I would’ve hired him on the spot to take care of the house and Goyo, there was more than enough money in the freezer to pay him, but I couldn’t leave the house in charge of a complete stranger, no matter how much I hated my mother at the time.

When Ifigenio was about to reach the avenue, I called out his name and motioned him to wait for me.

I was winded when I finally got to him.

“Do you need something, sir?” he said to me. He had to shout, as the drivers, suddenly stuck in a traffic jam, began honking their horns in frustration.

“You came all the way here for nothing,” I shouted back. “Let me at least pay your bus fare.” I took a fifty-peso bill from my wallet, more than enough for the commute, and tried to hand it to him, but Ifigenio took a step back.

“What are you doing, sir?” he said.

“Just bus fare, Ifigenio.”

Not only did he not want to take the money, he seemed scared by it—his eyes looked haunted. This, in turn, scared me, so I put the bill back in my pocket.

“Are you sure?”

He nodded. I turned and walked down the street.

Back at the house, as always when I turned on my laptop in the morning, I drowned in a deluge of emails that Sonia had sent throughout the night asking me to do all sorts of things. The woman didn’t sleep. Maybe that’s why she had a twenty-something floor office overlooking Chapultepec, most certainly a luxury car and more money than she knew what to do with, and I was housesitting for my mother in my pajamas.

New accusations had surfaced about the Gols’ construction business: they hadn’t paid taxes in years, had built an enormous shopping mall in a residential area, and were suspected to have ties to a judge who always exonerated them of everything. The usual. After concocting some tweets, memes and replies for the bots, I went upstairs to my mother’s room to watch TV with Goyo. I settled on a baseball game, like in the old days.

When I was a teenager and into my early twenties, one of the few things that soothed my anxiety was to get high and watch a baseball game. The one I found that day was Astros @ Yankees. Good enough. All I needed now was to find my mother’s stash. She’d started smoking in her forties to deal with her insomnia and early-onset rheumatoid arthritis. She hid it from Juan Carlos and I, of course. And I, of course, routinely searched for the stuff, as hers was of much better quality than what was sold at my school. She always knew but couldn’t confront me about it because that would mean admitting that she herself smoked. It was our little game.

I finally found the weed inside a handcrafted decorative mate gourd, but not before finding something else—a manila envelope labeled David that was hidden behind a painting. I took out the contents of the envelope and leafed through them as I rolled a couple of ultra-thin joints. They were meticulously printed and ordered emails my mother had been exchanging for months with her high school sweetheart.

Forgetting about the baseball game, I smoked while reading page after page of the correspondence. (She’d do the same to me, I told myself to quiet the guilt.) The high school sweetheart was recently divorced and worked as a petroleum engineer in Cairo. My mother reintroduced herself as a recently retired bureaucrat and a widow. The truth was that she hadn’t worked in over eight years since she was fired form the National Institute of Fine Arts for reasons that remain murky to me. As for the widow thing, it was technically true, but by the time her second husband died, my mother had already been separated from him due to years of nonstop fighting.

All the lies in the letters made me feel for my mother. I couldn’t stop crying, smoke coming out of my mouth and nose, as I read them. He spoke of his life in Egypt, complained of not having a good relationship with his kids, and tried to explain his job to her. She, being a news junkie, commented on Mexico’s sorry political situation, reminisced about her youth, and never said more than half-truths about the personal stuff. In the last emails they planned her visit to Egypt.

All she knew was deceit, which led to loneliness, which she then tried to remedy with more deceit. Lies were the main reason we fought and why we weren’t speaking at the time. Our quarrels always ended with me supposedly learning to accept that my mother was a compulsive sneak, but when she did it again, again I got angry. This pattern went all the way back to my childhood.

After reading the emails I put them back in their place and watched the rest of the game in a state of almost catatonic sadness.

 

The next morning when I returned from walking Goyo, Ifigenio was sitting at the doorstep, this time putting together a besom with twigs from the surrounding trees.

“Good day, sir.”

“Ifigenio. What are you doing here?”

“Just wanted to know if your mother was back from her vacation.”

“Oh, no. You must’ve misunderstood me.” I felt bad. Who knew how many buses it took to get from wherever he lived—it couldn’t be nearby—to my mother’s house. “She’ll be away for some time. A long time.”

“You said you weren’t sure when she’d be back.”

“Not the exact date, no, but I know it’ll be a while. She’s all the way in Africa.”

“Africa.” It was as if he were saying the name of a newly discovered planet.

“Right. It takes twenty hours just to get there, so it’s not like a weekend trip. You understand?”

“Africa.”

“Sorry.”

“Should I clean the yard?” he said holding up the nearly finished besom. “I can see through the gate all the jacarandas and bougainvilleas that need sweeping. And the cars need washing.”

“Leave me your number and I’ll be more than glad to pass it to my mother. I promise she’ll call you. In fact, I’ll make sure of it.”

“I’ll come back then. Thank you, sir.”

 

He was there again the next day and we had a very similar conversation.

The day after that I couldn’t take Goyo for his morning walk because Sonia woke me up before dawn in a panic attack. She wasn’t happy with the team’s work. She appeared, draped in an Hermes scarf, the only face on all of our screens. We hadn’t done nearly enough, she said, with the six-properties-two-in-Miami scandal. Hell, it hadn’t even become that much of a scandal. In our new polls, Navarrete was within the margin of error of our client.

We’re walking on very thin ice!” Sonia said in English. Then back to Spanish: “Yesterday I fired Jorge just to calm the boss down.” Of course I had no idea who Jorge was and wasn’t sure who she meant by “the boss.” “Today I want bloodshit. All day. Nonstop. CC me on all your submissions.”

Bloodshit was how Sonia referred to intense trolling. It meant coming up with violently upsetting material for the IT bots to post on Navarrete’s social media and blog. So say, for example, that someone clicked to expand a Navarrete tweet, the first reply should be a death threat. Or if Navarrete blogged about whatever, the comments section had to be flooded with pornographic images—preferably with Navarrete’s face photoshopped onto one of the participants. When Navarrete put out a Facebook post, the bots were to be ready to spam it with offensive GIFs. The point was to make the candidate’s digital outlets unnavigable for any decent human.

As always when I went full troll, by the time five o’clock came around my soul was hiding behind my appendix area crouched in the fetal position, muttering to itself. Goyo slept under the table, using my right foot as a pillow. He liked sleeping this way because then he was alerted if I left the room.

“Goyo?”

He turned to look at me.

“Wanna go for a walk, buddy? I need some fresh smog in my lungs.”

The dog licked my ankle.

I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting this, but when I stepped outside Ifigenio was sitting there holding his besom.

“No,” I said. “Please. Not today.”

“Sir, I was wondering if your—”

“Not in the mood, Ifigenio. Tell me how I can get you to understand that my mother won’t be back for a long time.

“Yes, sir.”

“You understand then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you really? Say it. Say she won’t be back for a long time.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

I went back into the house with Goyo and slammed the door. My head filled with rushing blood and I immediately felt bad for the way I’d treated my personal Bartleby. After all, it wasn’t his fault that my life had turned out this way.

Ifigenio was in his usual spot early the next morning when Goyo and I went for a walk.

“Good morning, sir.”

I ignored him as I walked out with the dog at by side. While I didn’t want to be rude, I also didn’t want to continue this thing, whatever it was, that we were doing. Maybe if I weren’t so nice he’d get the point.

He was there again when we came back—“Hello, sir”—and again I ignored him.

Sonia was in Guadalajara for a work emergency, so she didn’t call me that morning. I did very little trolling. Then I went out to the reclining chair to smoke a joint while reading The Economist.

It was hard to relax knowing that Ifigenio was out on the doorstep. A grown man waiting for my mother to return from Egypt so he could work for a pittance. Ifigenio was a symptom of this rotten country, not the problem. The weed made me believe I could hear his breathing all the way to the backyard.

Still, I did my best to focus on the articles. I liked The Economist because I fantasized about working in the type of serious politics discussed within it: geopolitics, war, fiscal reform, trade agreements, etc. That was where I was supposed to be, not photoshopping pornographic images and making GIFs.

Goyo and I hurried inside when it began to rain. I went to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich and remembered Ifigenio. I opened the kitchen door and found him standing under the ash tree with his jacket over his head. I waved him over and he ran inside.

“Thank you, sir,” he said wiping his wet soles on the mat.

We each sat on an island barstool.

“I see you don’t plan to stop coming.”

“Have you heard from your mother?”

“I haven’t.”

“My cousin said she was very nice.”

“If you’re going to be coming here everyday, you might as well hang out in the kitchen. I’ll leave the door open so you can come and go as you please. There’s food in the fridge and pantry for when you’re hungry. Stay away from the freezer.”

“Of course.”

“But I want to make it clear, for the last time, that my mother won’t be back any time soon. You’d be better off looking for other work in the meantime.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The week leading up to an election was always the worst. During those seemingly endless days, Sonia expected everyone to work as hard as she did. Once, just before a close race in Tabasco, I was so tired and stressed that I flipped out when Sonia called me after midnight, cursed at her, hung up, turned off my phone and went back to sleep. At six the next morning an SC messenger showed up at my door with a wicker basket containing a six-pack of Red Bull, a box of caffeine-laced aspirin and a handful of Ritalin tablets in a re-sealable bag. The note, written on the back of Sonia’s business card, said, Buck up, cowboy! Since then, whenever we got this close to an election I always gifted the contents of that basket to myself.

During the final week, besides creating the usual social media contents, I was expected to, for example, design fliers with false information about when and where the opposing candidate’s rallies would take place and fake documents (contracts, checks, bank statements, and so on) incriminating him or her in all sorts of scandals. A lot of my time was spent writing fake news stories that our IT team then designed to resemble screenshots from actual news websites.

Goyo’s lethargy became more evident as I, my blood bursting with stimulants, worked on my laptop, paced while on the phone with Sonia, listened to the television and radio news simultaneously while doing pushups, and tried to come up with new ideas. It always startled me when I walked into the kitchen to find Ifigenio sitting on a barstool, usually looking through a tabloid newspaper.

“Hello, sir,” he’d say to me.

But I wasn’t in a state of mind that would allow me to have small talk, so I’d just smile and walk back out.

I began to get paranoid. Who was this man? Was he desperate or insane? Maybe he was a spy. Surely he was at least a criminal.

I wrote a fake news story that went viral: Navarrete had been a member of the late-sixties ultra-violent paramilitary group Los Halcones. The screenshot of the article, supposedly published by Milenio, decorated with photographs of the Tlatelolco massacre, spread all over social media and for a couple of hours it even trended on Twitter.

Navarrete called into several television and radio news shows to deny the veracity of the story, a mistake on his part that should’ve earned me a raise. He explained that of course he hadn’t been a member of Los Halcones and that in1968, at the time of the student killings, he’d been a twelve-year-old boy.

You da man!” said an elated Sonia over the phone. “I’d kiss you if you were here at the office.”

“I can get there in fifteen minutes.” This was only half a joke. I often fantasized about Sonia and I doing it in her office, her expensive clothing strewn on the floor, her toned abdomen meeting my flabby belly.

“To be honest, when I first saw it I thought it was too stupid to work.”

“You’re the one who taught me that there’s no such thing as too stupid in our line of work.”

“The boss called me to congratulate the team and I told him it was all you.” I doubted Sonia had given credit to anyone but herself. “Take the rest of the day off.”

“It’s almost midnight.” She’d hung up by then.

I was too hopped up on Red Bull and Ritalin to sleep, so I went up to my mother’s room, turned on SportsCenter and smoked a joint.

 

The Friday before the election, Ifigenio showed up in the kitchen with a plastic bag of tamales. It was the first piece of evidence I had that the man actually ate food. I’d presumed he took things from the fridge and pantry, but I’d never actually seen him eat.

He laid the tamales out on the island, two of each: chicken, rajas and mole.

“You shouldn’t have, Ifigenio,” I said taking a Red Bull from the fridge.

“You looked ill yesterday, sir. And you don’t look so good today, either. Whenever I get sick it helps me to eat tamales.”

“I look this way because I’ve been working too hard and haven’t been getting enough sleep. But it’ll all be over Sunday.”

“You’re quitting your job?” he said with incredulity.

“No, no. The elections are on Sunday.”

“Elections?”

“Down south.”

“Politics doesn’t interest me. It’s all just lies.”

“Can’t argue with you on that, my friend,” I said grabbing two tamales.

Gols and Navarrete were now tied in the polls, so that day I got twelve calls from Sonia, most of which made me worry for her sanity and my job. In addition to that, the Friday before the election meant that besides the impossible amount of work I was already doing, I also had to call people on the phone from 3-4:30 AM on their landlines asking them to vote for Navarrete.

Sonia had come up with this strategy during an election in Hidalgo. Call people in the middle of the night pretending to be from the opposing candidate’s campaign, thus making them angry at our opponent. After the time we first did it, people were all over social media complaining about our opponent’s disrespectful campaign workers waking them up. Everyone in our team had to do these calls

By the time I went to bed, as I set my alarm clock for 2:46 AM with a joint in my mouth, I wondered how much longer I could last at this frenetic pace. It took too much out of me, physically and emotionally. It had made me forget who I was or at least who I wanted to be.

 

It seemed like a dream when, in the middle of the night, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a pot of coffee in preparation for the phone calls, I found Ifigenio lying face down on the stone tile next to Goyo. No, it wasn’t a dream. Were they dead? I sniffed for a gas leak.

I called out Ifigenio’s name and his body shuddered as if lightly shocked by a faulty defibrillator. Goyo opened one eye, saw me, and closed it. He’d be dead in less than a month.

When Ifigenio saw I was there he quickly stood and tried to seem as collected as possible.

“Sir,” he said. “Has your mother returned from Africa?”

“What’s going on?”

“Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir. I’m sorry.” He turned to leave.

“Wait. Let me just— How long have you been sleeping in the kitchen?”

“Sir, I—”

“Just tell me the truth.”

“There’s a man,” he said. “An evil son of a bitch. Over by where I live. You know the type of man I’m talking about. He lent me some money. I had no choice, sir. It was for my daughter-in-law’s medicine. She’s very sick. And I haven’t been able to pay this bad man. If I go back home empty-handed…”

“How much do you owe him?”

“Two-thousand pesos, sir.”

“That’s all?”

I blushed as the words escaped my lips. Ifigenio looked down in embarrassment .

“I’ll just lend you the money,” I said. “Pay me back when you can.”

“I’ll never borrow money again, sir.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not an evil son of a bitch.”

“I made a pact with God.”

“I’ll just give you the money, then. No need to pay it back.”

“I can’t, sir. We’ll just wait for your mother to return from Africa.”

I must’ve smiled when the idea came to me. Not only would this help Ifigenio, but I’d finally be able to get some sleep.

“Come with me,” I said leading him to the living room. I sat on the sofa and he took one of the chairs. Then I handed him a printout of the phone numbers. “You’ll be working for me tonight.”

I told him to go down the list of numbers, calling each one, making all the calls he could until 4:30.

“What do I tell them, sir?”

I handed him a copy of the script. “Just read this to them.”

“Won’t I wake them up, sir?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about that. They’ll probably hang up before you read the whole thing. Some will hurl insults at you. Don’t take it personally. Move on to the next number. Got it?”

“Even if I wake them up I have to read this to them?”

“You got it. Fortunately for all of us, the job happens to pay two-thousand-and-one pesos.”

He furrowed his brow. “For one-and-a-half hours?”

“Why do you think people get into politics?”

“That’s too much money, sir.”

“You wanted to work, right? You’re a worker? This is work.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Read the script to yourself a couple of times and I’ll supervise your first call.”

Ifigenio took his time reading the paragraph to himself with the utmost seriousness. Then he looked at the list and dialed the first number. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. “I’m calling on behalf of Raúl Navarrete, candidate for governor.”

I felt a wave of relief. In a few moments I’d be up in my cozy childhood bed, safe, sleeping.



Pablo Piñero Stillmann’s work has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Normal School, Washington Square Review, The Arkansas International, and other journals. His novel, Temblador, was published in Mexico by Tierra Adentro. He can be reached @harmsndwich on Twitter.