Rumor on rumor is what you’ll think of me. I was there when it happened. I heard him speak, I caressed his blood-soaked beard, I marveled at his gestures, yes, I got caught up in his bullshit too. But I could never invent such an event ex nihilo. I lack the necessary skills. I won’t deny it, I’ve made a few stylistic emendations to my testament. Nothing really: a touch of purple-prose here, a pinch of abstract commentary there. But for the most part, what I’m presenting is hard to come by nowadays: a truly adulterated account. You don’t believe me. It makes no difference. I’ve been tasked to write this tragicomic gospel, not for your sake. You never mattered much. It’s not for my sake either. After all, I was there to witness everything firsthand, so to speak (I recorded the non-essential part of it on my phone). So, why write? No one can ever answer with certainty.
I used to frequent an indie café in my youth, back when I believed cafés might serve my generation as salons did the Enlightenment. I’ve learned they’re no more than a sanctuary for those wishing to be alone together.
The café’s walls were littered with the banality known at the time as local art: a naked woman on a red armchair, and behind her, unattended laundry on a clothesline; a collage of fast-food iconography; a man with a sky-colored box for a head surrounded by biplanes and bitten apples. The café was populated by glossy chairs. The tables were peppered with invitations to art shows and concerts. Against the far end of the café was a long cabin whose flank covered the wall with every conceivable periodical in print at the time, stamped with PLEASE DO NOT TAKE NEWSPAPERS & MAGAZINES TO THE TABLES UNTIL THEY HAVE BEEN PURCHASED. Every day, I’d walk up to the counter, order six shots of espresso, and douse it with a few dribbles of venemum jecoris. A grim panic would grip me and throttle me and throttleme andthrottleme until it shoved me into a fun-house of mirrors that left me dead-eyed and trembling, witnessing the Worldpuppet spitting out a tired script from its tired lips. As awful as the play was, I was tasked to scribe this Worldproduction, catching every last bit of chatter and tossing it into this damned echo-chamber, watching syllable after syllable ricochet from wall to wall, until I was barricaded behind a wall of stacked letters.
When I’d hyperventilate, I walked out to stand at the edge of the feeder contiguous with the café. I’d wave at cars passing by, tallying how many waved back versus how many gave me the finger versus how many ignored me versus how many never noticed me. When this became boring, I’d march into the armpit of the overpass and lay on myback, knees bent, still tailing cigarette after cigarette, until the sun went down or my head dissolved into wispy smoke.
The sun was so deep in the horizon that twilight was clinging to the last bit of blue, when I noticed him sleeping against a tagged column upholding the overpass. The sun finally swooned and the world glowed black and orange when I approached him. This man was extremely ugly. He had black crumpled hair and a beard festooned with debris. His skin was yellow and his figure was pitifully waned. He didn’t notice me, so I kicked his foot. Nothing. I kicked him again, this time harder. Still nothing. I wondered if he was dead. I kicked him harder still—and he sprung to his feet foaming at the mouth and clawing in every direction. I slipped out of his reach and ran. I could hear his laughter booming over the cars zooming by.
God-knows-how-much-nicotine into the next day, I looked out the window of the café and saw him standing there, grinning. I blew a kiss at him. He laughed and walked away. I pursued him but he disappeared, though I could smell his lingering stench.
The next day I entered the café and noticed the regulars: the man whose one-true-love’s head had sprouted from his neck then, withered, so that every day he sipped his macchiato somberly, the black hood over the shoulder shrouding the limp skull of his former love to whom he sometimes whispers secrets; the enormous negress on the patio with no more love to give, dressed in an umbrella and smoking before a small mirror that she fishes from her sunflower hat; in the corner, a frazzled ghost always drowned behind a citadel of jagged gears and wheels that serve no purpose except to build a pathetic firewall about her, behind which she hisses at me; behind the counter, the little birdie I loved, with her soft beak and yellow feathers and black feathers that shimmer red in the setting sun; and the bald, middle-aged Filipino businessman always threatening me with… If you ever tell anyone about this, I know people… every time I finished sucking off his married cock in the restroom.
But on that day, I noticed someone new—there, sleeping on a maroon leather couch with his head tilted back, his mouth agape, and his coarse hair gathered into a pony-tail crowning his head. With what right did this degenerate come into my café to drive out customer after customer with his insufferable odors? Why hadn’t management addressed the situation? I took matters into my own hands. I grabbed my fresh coffee, marched up to him, and dashed the contents over his head. He screamed and his skin steamed and dangled from his bones. —No, I did no such thing. Of course not. I did obsess over doing it. I went over the process again and again—get up, walk up to him, toss coffee, scream, steam, dangling skin— until the image of it was more vivid than any actual memory I possessed.
Instead, coward that I am, I sat there all day, drawing him while he slept, hour after hour, wondering what his triumphs and troughs were, wondering if he’d ever had a mother to kiss, wondering if he’d ever known true love or whether he was one of the many who n’ont-ils jamais connu la douceur du foyer, wondering if and what he was dreaming, wondering whether his slumbering consciousness knew that I was immortalizing him with the scratches of my humble pen.
So it went for a long time. He never begged for money. He never spoke. He just slept on the maroon couch—a cup of water on the table in front of him, there as a defense against any possible objections by disgruntled customers— meanwhile I sketched a thousand and one possible lives for him.
Unceremoniously, months later, he opened his eyes and stood. No one noticed. He surveyed the room, but avoided eye-contact with me. He lifted his hands. “Put down your gadgets! Put them down.” He had a broad accent. His tongue- tip kissed the back of his teeth at every cusp of syllables. He stood up on the maroon couch. Everyone turned. “So soon? So soon in the race and the enemy already has you in fetters? You’re nothing but broken horses, tied down to a world of illusion—eidolons, eidolons, eidolons! Don’t you see? The electronic gadget is the Holy Spirit of the age!” He went on spewing pitiful street- corner philosophies like this for some time. “Put them down—before the world becomes flat again. And rise, comrades!” I couldn’t believe the turn of events. “The day has come when generals have substituted their horses for desks. A day when our youth has softened into dough, having abandoned noble causes for curses. And for what have we surrendered so much? For morsels of numbness. With what right? None at all. Haven’t you heard? You’ve sold the world for a pitiful distraction!” A baby bawled in the corner. He cackled. “What can flesh and blood do against the enemy we’ve spawned in the name of democracy, fraternity, equality, liberty? Can’t you see? You’ve been enslaved in your sleep, meanwhile the world has been replaced by a counterfeit.”
He pointed at me and laughed. I felt as though I had no skin. “Once I was a man, just like you, a fleeting image. But lesser men took over my cause: they seized my mask, emptied my pipe, butchered my horse. Assassinated by my own creators, now in death my hell is to be flesh and blood. I’ve gained memories and habits I never played out, I’ve developed nostalgia for moments
I never knew. But when once I was a living image, the world knew my mask as my face. I was called Subcomandante Marcos.”
I recognized the name and laughed. “Someone, get the men in white coats.”
He stretched out his hands like a falcon in midflight. “I tell you: in one year, not a single rock will stand upon rock, and everything—even this little café—will be lost in a vast wasteland, patrolled by the ubiquitous eyes of the enemy. Then where will you hide your memories and dreams? Where will you hide your souls? Don’t you see? Even if all the people of the world unite to combat the bastard powers born of our curiosity—what will that accomplish? You don’t believe me. What business is it of mine if you don’t? I am that Subcomandante, Galeano, Delegado Cero. And I’ve returned to tell you, there is hope, and the antidote is clear…”
“Sir, please, that’s enough. Get off the couch,” warned a white whale from behind the counter. (I was surprised they let the fool seep out such steaming shit for that long. But his tongue was harder to stop than a locomotive. There he was, fancying himself some post-modern Prometheus, chosen to lead the people to a new form of Enlightenment in a most tiresome fashion. How pretentious of him. No, worse— how perfectly unsubtle!)
El Subcomandante seized his cup of water and flung it at the barista, who showcased his superb reflexes by ducking so that the projectile crashed behind him. “Call the cops, call the cops!”
El Subcomandante foamed. “What for? Take me out yourself. Coward! Kill me and make yourself a worthy man. Let’s see it. No?” He laughed. “You’ve lowered yourself beneath beasts to the status of a modern man—pitiful, pious, petulant…”
Two male baristas came out from behind the counter and tried subduing him. But the old fart bit and kicked like a mule and managed to drag them to the floor. He scratched and stomped, leaving them in a pool of blood so thick I could taste its familiar metal tanginess from where I stood. Enormous Negress screamed and lumbered out. Little Birdie collapsed into herself like a blind- man’s walking-cane and cried pathetically. Everyone ran for the door as the incarnate Subcomandante Marcos flattened the skulls of the two baristas.
By the time the police arrived, the café had cleared out except for me, White Whale, and Subcomandante Marco—once the symbol of I don’t remember what anymore, it was so long ago. He sat cross-legged beside the two sleeping victims, one of them motionless, the other in hypovolemic shock. El Comandante grinned peacefully at me.
Four cops stormed into the café and thrashed the savage violently, unaware of my presence. They handcuffed Subcomandante Marcos and tossed him into the back of a cop car and sped off. I grabbed my coffee, jumped into my car, and shadowed them.
They drove deep into the city’s filthy entrails. The sun was dreaming when they arrived at a secluded tunnel riddled with the colorful designs of delinquents’ unrecognized genius. They dragged him out of the cop-car and threw him down into the concrete mouth of the tunnel. I crept behind them, at a distance, careful not be noticed. Deep in the tunnel’s throat, there were no lights. I risked climbing down to see. I took my phone out and witnessed the whole thing through the frame of the device. Their silhouettes and flashlights danced in every direction in synch with the music of Subcomandante Marcos’ disquieting screams, muffled only by the tunnel’s amplifications of his bones crushing into dust, screams that only incentivized the cops to finish their deed quicker. They grunted and struggled, pouring their souls into the death of the homeless man who every so often kicked—though that was likely unintentional convulsions due to the violence inflicted on him.
True, El Subcomandante probably never resisted. But don’t mistake his passivity as Christ- like resignation. The manwas a terrorist, a murderous martyr, a trickster who baited the poor policemen into becoming worthy of living, as he himself would say.
The cops subsided. They remained there, panting and hunched over their knees. They whispered amongst themselves for some time. When they started shuffling towards me, I darted out of sight and hid in my car until I saw them drive away.
When they were gone, I crept back into the gaping tunnel. I walked until I felt myself delving so deep into the darkness that it became a thick fluid ever anchoring my feet with every step. I journeyed like this for some time, until I tripped over the corpse of Subcomandante Marcos. I smashed my face right in his shattered skull and yelped and scrambled to my feet and rummaged my pockets for my phone, but my hands stuttered and the phone fumbled onto the floor. I dropped to my knees, now feeling the darkness closing in. My own breath terrified me. I patted the tunnel floor until I found the phone and I clicked it to life and turned on the L.E.D. Flashlight app.
Once the temple of a modestly great mind, El Comandante’s skull lay fanned open for all the world to admire, his deathbed a free art gallery where the forsaken sowed their illnesses. Among the pink and gray swirls of his thoughts, I could decipher images of his past: his noble horse, a tobacco pipe, the jumbled letters of his written discourses, the faces of hungry Mayans lifting their tattered hands to him. My head rang and my stomach sputtered—I became sick and spewed coffee-colored vomit all over his corpse.
When I came back to my senses, I forced myself to stare at the unstitched mind of the resurrected Subcomandante Marcos, there displayed in magnificent Pollocklike mixtures of yellows and reds and greens and oranges and whites, completed now with the addition of my black bile. He was faceless, again, this time a pool of colors nearly as flat as the tunnel floor. The only thing I could recognize as the face of a man was his tongue and hair. In a fit of sickly pity, I petted what was left of his beard and became sick again. I re-recovered, then held up my phone to capture the blood-spangled ghost. I laid him to rest by returning him to his most transcendent state: an image.
In a matter of hours, the video and pictures of the resurrected Subcomandante infected nearly every thinkable fountain of information, preceded by titillating NSFWs or Please Be Advised…The holy images of the dead homeless man were kept lit day and night, so that it seemed that all of society was trying to purge itself.
It was my greatest hope that the world would witness a Great Awakening. It was my hope that think-tanks and experts would counsel gravely, that activists might tit-tatter away on their phones and laptops, and that pundits might make outrageous conjectures, trying to make sense of it all. Sick with the image of the newly sanctified mask of Subcomandante Marcos, I hoped earthlings would take to the streets, first in this city, then elsewhere. I naively ached for revolution.
Nothing of the sort happened. The impossible sprouted space-time dimensions, and humanity blinked stupidly. Though the rules of reality became unfastened, there was no universal euphoria. The incident lost steam in the stream of social media and sank to its lower recesses. Only a few enthusiasts remain, there who tell ridiculous retellings of the story, ridiculous because they strive for scientific exactitude.
You’re absolutely wrong. Yes, I was present when the incident unfolded, but I’m not an enthusiast, nor am I the man himself, nor do I even believe that Subcomandante Marcos was a good man. I? For better or for worse, I was simply there to witness everything in its indefensibility and meaninglessness. And having looked back at the incident for somany years now, I’m not compelled to say more on the matter, except this: despite my reservations, Subcomandante Marcos is worthy of admiration. He spoke what he spoke and did what he did because he foresaw what no one else has the courage to see: the imminent end of Culture. Yet he was no harbinger of the end of days.