Sleeping With Pancho Villa / Excerpt / “The Gift”

The Gift

He had just started across the zócalo, moving under the elms with white-painted trunks, where boat-tailed grackles were screeching noisily and settling in for the night, when he heard a voice calling through the din of the birds:


Then another:

“Hey, Jake!”

A green-and-white cab circling the town square counter­clockwise pulled up to the curb on the other side of a low wall. Guillermo was at the wheel, looking wan and translucent, and beside him in the front seat was Jordan. Jake stepped over the wall to shake Guillermo’s cool, limpid hand and squatted down to peer across to Jordan, who said:

“We’ve got problems, man. Get in.”

Jake slid into the back seat, and Jordan handed him a fifth of tequila—the cheapest sort, Jake saw, which came in a clear bottle that looked like glass until you picked it up and squeezed it and realized it was plastic. He took a pull from the bottle and handed it up to Guillermo, who gazed at him in the mirror with woe­ful eyes, and Jake feared the worst. Guillermo was dying, and the local doctors were doing their best, but that wasn’t enough. What he needed was to get to Mexico City or some place where there was a real hospital. Jake could tell from his skin, the way it almost glowed, that he didn’t have long to go. A wife and four kids, too.

But that wasn’t it at all. As Guillermo moved the taxi from the curb, Jordan turned to Jake, took a slug from the bottle, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“The landlord, Don Pablo, needs my place. His niece is getting married, and he wants to set up house for them there.”

“What about the mural?”

Jordan stared at him, and Jake saw a scared look in his eye. “We’ve got problems, man.”

Guillermo locked the cab as Jordan opened the thick, old wooden door to his home, and they followed him through it into the patio. The sun had just set, and the vine-choked patio looked like a jungle. Guillermo and Jake waited just inside the door until Jordan had picked his way through the foliage and turned on lights under the veranda. Then they too moved for­ward through the jungle, and as they did the Mural of Fear became visible to them behind the columns of the veranda. They stopped before it, and Jordan brought chairs for them from inside.

Jake sat, lit a cigarette, and studied the mural. It was a good, yet stupid, work of art by a man who lived off a government check barely adequate even for Mexico, a hungry artist who needed to sell some canvases. But he spent his time painting a twenty-foot-long mural on the wall of a rented house. The mural appeared to consume him, like some seemingly benign but ultimately voracious cancer.

Jordan picked limes from a tree in the patio and passed them to his two guests along with the plastic tequila bottle. Guillermo and Jake drank and bit into the limes.

“¿Quién es este?” Guillermo asked, gesturing with the bottle toward a figure of a man.

“Es Mao Zedong,” Jordan explained, “el jefe comunista de China y la Revolución de Cultura. For gringos, the commu­nists are evil spirits, like the devil.”

“¿Y estos?”

“Those are sinners being fed to the fires of Hell, the flames of eternal damnation that puritans fear.”

Jordan began pointing out to the cabbie other elements in the mural that manifested American fear: Negroes, terrorists, and foreign hordes; serpents, darkness, disease.

Guillermo shook his head. “Gringos are fools to fear such things. It only invites death.”

Jake caught Jordan’s eye, but neither said a thing.

Fodder for the mural came in part from American newspa­pers and magazines, which Jordan read whenever he could find them, since he himself hadn’t been back to the States for twenty-­five years—a seeming manifestation of his own fears. But the best aspects of the mural, Jake thought, came not from Time or Newsweek but from deep inside Jordan. Such as his father, a stern, menacing presence looming over the left half of the mu­ral like a wrathful black God. Beneath him a scroll with Gothic lettering read: “My eye is on you, boy.” Or the trio of comely yet malevolent witches at the bottom right who stirred a living, yonic cauldron filled with mementos of childhood: toys, kit­tens, and Mother Goose.

Yet at the center of the mural was bare white wall. That was the part Jordan couldn’t seem to finish, the one unifying ele­ment that would hold it all together.

“When does Don Pablo want the house?” Jake asked.

“By next month. His niece won’t be married till fall, but the workers need time to repair the garden and to plaster and paint.” Jordan looked at his mural. “The sons of bitches will come in with rollers.” He took a drink of tequila, pulled a lime from the tree behind him, and bit into it. “Why now, after all these years? And just when I’m about to finish it.”

Jake looked at Jordan and saw that it was just wishful think­ing. He still had no idea what went in the center.

“Do you know this niece of Don Pablo?”

Jordan shook his head and asked Guillermo. Guillermo said, “I know who she is.”

“Does she look like Don Pablo?”

“No. She is young and beautiful and could marry anyone.”

“And what about her fiancé?”

“An asshole called Pancho.”

“That narrows it,” Jake said.

“He is a mere asshole of a sculptor,” said Guillermo. “Not a true artist like you, Jordan.”

“Tamayo, Orozco, Siqueiros, Rivera,” Jordan said, holding up four fingers. “The four great Mexican revolutionary paint­ers, and”—he stuck up his thumb—“I’m number five. I’m go­ing to finish the revolution.”

Jordan saw Guillermo staring at him intently and realized he had lapsed into English. “Do you know these men, the greatest of your artists?” he asked in Spanish.

Guillermo shook his head.

“Orozco’s fresco at Guadalajara is the agnostic answer to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

Guillermo again shook his head. Jordan explained:

“Many years ago, on the ceiling of the Pope’s chapel at the Vatican, Michelangelo painted a fresco of the Creation. In it God reaches out to touch Adam’s fingertip, investing man with life and establishing the relationship between God and man.”

As he spoke, Jordan stretched out his arm, first as an all­-powerful yet benevolent Creator then, turning around and as­suming a meek and innocent demeanor, as Adam.

“Then, at Guadalajara,” Jordan went on, “Orozco created a similar painting on the ceiling of the rotunda of El Hospicio Cabañas. But instead of God and Adam touching, two men reach out for one another—but never touch. They are forever frozen in a godless solitude.” And Jordan stood at the center of his mural, caught in the bright spotlights he’d arranged so he could work on the wall both night and day, his long, dark fin­gers outstretched, grasping at air, a look of existential pain on his smooth, mahogany face.

“And in the capital, at the Fine Arts Palace, is Rivera’s Man in the Time Machine. Not the original. That the Rockefellers destroyed out of fear. This is Rivera’s replica.”

Taking on a cow-like look of stupidity, Jordan told of the blond gringo astronaut in the center of the mural at the con­trols of the time machine. Then he emulated Lenin, Trotsky, and the enraged workers on the right half of the mural and the symbols of capitalism and repression on the left: the indifferent sophisticates sipping champagne, the mesmerized middle class, the gas-masked armies and looming bombers, Jordan diving fiercely at Guillermo, arms spread as wings. He described, too, the forces of nature—ice and fire, the heavens and earth, the flora and amoebic fauna—over which the time machine was superimposed.

Jordan went over to Jake for more tequila, and Guillermo stared fixedly at the white space in the center of the mural as though he saw Rivera’s masterpiece reflected there.

“God must allow you to finish your work,” Guillermo sud­denly said. “Your picture must be preserved.”

Jordan handed him the tequila bottle. Guillermo took a swig and went on:

“There are three things a man must do before he dies: plant a tree, father a child, and write a book. In this picture, Jordan, you have done all three. It is your seed, your child, your story.”

Jake glanced at Jordan and saw him looking back, thinking the same thing: Guillermo was a goner. He talked like a dead man.

Jordan asked him, “When did you last see the doctor?”

The Mexican shrugged. “Yesterday.”

“And what did he do?”

“He examined me here and gave me some medicine.”

Guillermo lifted up his shirt and pressed the area just below the armpit. He had cancer of the lymph glands and had gone for help too late, and the help he got was not so good.

“What did the doctor say?”

“He said to rest and to stay away from the curandera.”

“Why would he say that?”

“Only because he is afraid she might cure me and then the town find out, and he would be out of business as a doctor.”

“So you went to her.”


“What did the witch do?”

“She chased the evil spirits into an egg and spilled the blood of a rooster and gave me this to take.”

He took a vial from his shirt pocket and passed it to Jake.

Jake pulled out the stopper and sniffed. “Turpentine,” he said, and handed it to Jordan.

“What did she say to do with this?”

“To put a spoonful in water and drink it three times a day. It is tonic.”

“It is turpentine,” Jake told him in Spanish. “Poison.”

Jordan poured out a bit on the stone floor and lit it. It burned a short, blue-green flame. Then he got a bottle from the table where his paints and brushes lay and carried it to Guillermo.

“Smell. Now this. It’s the same. Turpentine. I use it to clean paintbrushes. Don’t drink this shit, hombre.”

Guillermo nodded obediently, but Jake could tell he was going to take it anyway. It was all he had.

Jordan made a torch out of an old paintbrush doused with Guillermo’s turpentine, and they all lit cigarettes off it. Then they passed around the tequila and stared quietly at the Mural of Fear.

After a silent minute—silent except for the noise of crick­ets in the jungle behind them—a shape suddenly appeared at the center of the mural, a small, dark shape moving across the bare white wall.

Guillermo stood, strode to the mural, and plucked a scor­pion off the wall with his fingers. Then he dropped it to the stone floor and crushed it beneath his boot.

“Asshole of an alacrán,” he said and sat down with a look of satisfaction.


For the next few weeks Jake saw very little of Jordan and nothing of Guillermo. Jordan did not drop by the Café Cristóbal Colón mornings to mooch breakfast as he often did, since his landlord, Don Pablo Martínez, was always there at his corner table, drinking coffee and cutting deals. Similarly, Jordan was not answering the door for fear it might be Don Pablo with his strong-arm men to put him on the street. But after three weeks Jordan showed up at Jake’s place.

Jake rented a small room on the roof of an old colonial house and was in his hammock on the terrace taking the sun when he heard a knock at the door. Below he saw the maid moving from her washing to answer it, and soon Jordan was coming up the concrete stairs to the terrace. He spread his arms like a crucifix and proclaimed:

“I am saved! Resurrected!”

Jake looked at him from the hammock and waited for an explanation.

“I saw Don Pablo in the street. He no longer needs the house. He says it’s mine as long as I want it. ¡Híjole!”

Jordan began shadowboxing, ready to take on the world.

“What made him change his mind?”

Jordan clapped his hands and did a dance. “The fiancé died!”

Jake later realized he should have asked then how the fiancé of Don Pablo’s niece had died, but it didn’t occur to him at the time. People were always dying in Mexico. All he knew was that by the grace of God, Jordan’s mural had been spared.


But Guillermo soon followed the fiancé to the grave, and his death seemed to affect Jordan strangely. He sprang for a big spray of flowers for the casket and afterward did whatever he could to help Guillermo’s widow and children. And whenever Jake met him on the street he seemed agitated.

“I’m working, man. Catch me later.”

That was all he would say.

Most odd was the day Jake saw Jordan going into the cathe­dral. He followed him in and found Jordan, an avowed atheist, kneeling in the front pew with hands folded, as though praying. Jake stepped back behind a thick stone column and watched. After a minute Jordan crossed himself and rose then moved to a small altar on the right side of the church where he lit a red votive candle and dropped a coin in the poor box.

Jake slipped out without being seen but couldn’t figure it. Perhaps Jordan had made some sort of promise to Guillermo, he reasoned.

Then, one afternoon the following week, the maid brought an envelope upstairs to Jake. His name was written on the out­side in an elegant hand, and beneath it was a black thumbprint. Inside he found a note from Jordan:

“Come tonight at eight.”


It was nearly eight-thirty by the time Jake arrived at Jordan’s house and found that the outer door had been left ajar. Sounds of music and conversation poured through it into the street.

He slid through the door into the patio and saw perhaps two dozen people under the veranda—some dancing to a mariachi band in the corner, others chatting and drinking, and still others admiring the Mural of Fear.

As Jake emerged from the jungle-like patio, Jordan spied him and waved him over to a makeshift bar he had set up on his work table. He poured a brandy for Jake, who asked:

“What’s the occasion?”

“The mural—it’s finished.”

“Then you found what you needed for the center?”

Jordan did not answer but put his arm around Jake’s shoul­der and led him toward the wall:

“Perdón. Permítame, por favor.”

The crowd parted for them, and as they stood before the completed mural, Jake felt a sudden coldness, as though glimpsing some dark and secret ritual. For enwombed at the center of the mural sat Guillermo with his pale, translucent skin, curled like a mustached fetus in a black egg of death, and on his face the certain knowledge of that death, a horrible awareness of its com­ing. He sat cut off from the surrounding jungle of fear, be­sieged, alone in his fortress, forever waiting.

Jake turned to Jordan, and their eyes met, and Jake knew that Guillermo had done it, that he had killed the future hus­band of Don Pablo’s niece. Jordan shook his head and whis­pered:

“I knew nothing about it, Jake. It was a gift.”