Lili inched the car down the centro historico’s narrow streets, dark as an old ghetto. Madero, Cinco de Mayo. The grey, ancient buildings loomed, ready to cave in on top of her. She peered over the dash. A block away, the wide plain of the Zocalo was jammed with crowds. She saw big signs and banners. “Manifestation,” they read. She would never be able to turn. She abandoned the car in an illegal space on Bolivar Street—they wouldn’t even be able to tow it—-and pushed her way through the shouting demonstrators, her hands tight around the pawn stub. She slipped into the arcade of Monte Piedad, cavernous, labyrinthine unsure where to go.
Inside one large room on the left, gold jewelry hung behind glass cases, ropes, drapes, swags of it. “Si queiro desempenar algo?” If I want to claim something? Lili asked the lady behind one of the brilliant display counters. “Down the hall,” the lady told her.
In the room on the right, Lili saw a line of people carrying clocks, boom boxes, trophies, a china platter, waiting to pawn their treasures. In the room on the left, she saw a policeman and a little row of bank teller windows. “Desculpe,” she asked a woman in line. “Yes,” the woman told her. “You pay here.”
The man behind the small barred window took her card.“ May I see some identification, please?”
Lili reached into her purse, found her passport.
“Muy bien,” he said. “Excuse me a moment.” He slid a wooden bar in front of his window. Cerrado, it said. Closed.
Lili wondered if this were normal. Didn’t the man seem to be taking a long time? She peered through the bars. The man handed her passport to another man, who took both the passport and the pawn stub. She watched him type something into the computer, get up from his desk, button his coat jacket, and walk over to another clerk’s stall. He did not remove the closed sign.
“So, I see special arrangements have been made for this payment,” he said when he returned. “It appears you owe for the past half year. Is that not true?”
He asked her how she intended to pay, and she asked if he accepted an American credit card. He said this could be arranged. She watched as he opened a small desk drawer and pulled out a receipt booklet. He filled out the receipt in what seemed to Lili to be painstaking detail. He tore off her copy, handed it to Lili.
“Senora Vivienne said you would come. That will be all.” He handed her the receipt face down. On the back, he had written Mercado Sonora, Sra. Ofelia Mendoza, La Llave Maestra.
“How do you know my sister?” Lili asked, taking the receipt. She recognized he name —La Llave Maestra—from the packet in Alejandro’s drawer.
“Que le vaya bien, Senora,” he told her, not answering. Good day. He slid off the stool, and the other clerk resumed his place.
“Listo,” the clerk called to the next in line.
Lili left the car where it was, took a cab to the market, found the herb stalls. Smells—dried mint, woody roots, dusty burlap— assaulted her. The sounds of birds shrieks, of vendors rang in her ears.
“Que le ofrece, Senorita, Hermanita?” toothless crones called to her. What can I give you little sister? “Strong herbs, good herbs,” the vendors squawked.
Lili wandered past rows of lit candles. The red heart of Jesus flickered. The Mother of Sorrow’s tears were bright with candle wax. Vivienne was somewhere in here behind the virgins and saints, sasparilla and chamomile.
“Donde esta La Llave Maestre?” she asked an old man selling Tarot cards.
A small boy ran up beside her. “Five pesos and I’ll take you.” He held up all the digits of one small hand.
“Okay,” she said.
He wove her in an around the market stalls, past pinatas, past frying meat, past magic dusts and powders, and bath salts to wash off the evil eye. “Aqui esta,” he pointed to a stall and was gone.
There was no senora hawking her magic potions, only a middle-aged man with a dark mustache and a plaid cowboy shirt. He was sitting on a stool behind a counter of herbs, doing a crossword puzzle, but he knew right away what Lili wanted when she asked for Senora Mendoza. “ She is my mother,” he said. “A good Catholic.” He seemed to expect Lili to understand his meaning. She looked up at the sign, thinking of the magic potion in Alejandro’s drawer. Alejandro must have known where Vivienne was. Lili waited next to the shop owner while the man lowered the aluminum shutter to his market stall and padlocked the door. “Ven,” he told her, leading her to his VW, parked behind a chain link fence. He called for someone to get the snarling dog. He said nothing more as he drove and parked in front of a boxy, concrete house.
“Momento,” he told Lili, leaving her standing in a dark entry passage. She would never be able to find this place again—a lower middle class neighborhood, the house lime-colored, but in God knows what part of the huge city.
In front of her was a small courtyard where parrot cages hung covered for the night. At the far end of the courtyard, a yellow stamp of light, the kitchen, blared like a beacon. She watched the man. After a while, he came out again, this time with an old woman.
“Se fue,” she shrugged. She’s gone.
Senora Mendoza led Lili into the room where her sister had stayed, cloistered away from the world. The woman closed the door behind her. The room was empty save for a bed, a bureau, a crib. It smelled like talcum powder and laundry detergent.
“She waited a long time,” the woman scolded Lili. “ But the baby came early, and she couldn’t stay. She took him to see the old woman and she left.”
Lili sank to the bed. “Where?” She could hardly breathe.
The woman shrugged.
“Do you mind if I look around?”
The woman shrugged again, but didn’t leave.
Lili felt the woman’s eyes on her as she touched the pillow seams—nothing hidden there— the crib mattress. “My sister is not well,” she explained.
The woman shrugged again.
Lili opened a drawer— only a few diaper pins. “May I?” she asked, not knowing why she wanted them. She lifted the bed skirt, looked under the mattress—nothing. Lili stood, walked to the corner and held up the wastebasket. “Was anything in here? Have you thrown it out yet?”
The woman left, came back with a plastic bag and handed it to Lili.
Kleenex, baby wipes, a dried tea bag. “Thanks,” Lili said, handing the bag back to the woman.
“The bathroom’s in there if you want to wash your hands.”
Lili closed the door, ran the water. She looked in the medicine cabinet, lifted the top of the waste can—only a copy of Tiempo Libre, the entertainment section. Looking underneath it, her heart leapt. There—a piece of paper with her sister’s handwriting, its ink bleeding from a damp cotton ball.
She tried to read the scrawl. Sm, Vivienne had written. Maybe it was the word “same,” followed by moc or more, and tm. Was that short for tamales? Was it just a shopping list? Her eyes passed over the column. Vc, ma—it read. Indecipherable. She stood up, put the note in her pocket, washed her hands.
“If you know anything or find out anything, I can pay you for your information,” Lili told Senora Mendoza when she came out of the bathroom.
Senora Mendoza looked at her a long time, sizing her up. “She would have had no one if my nephew at Monte Piedad and I hadn’t helped.” The woman stood, finished with her reproach. “God is the one who settles the account, Senora, not I.”
By the time the cab drove her back to the car, the demonstration was over, the Zocolo empty. The driver waited until she unlocked the car, got in and started the engine. After the cab had gone, Lili sat with the engine running not sure what to do next. In the rear-view mirror, lights glowed from the sinking buildings, and big spots beamed on the drooping flag above the Palacio Nacional. After a while, she stepped on the accelerator and headed to the northern bus terminal—the only one she knew how to find. She would head out in that direction—to Vallarta or Careyes, some beautiful place where she could think, come up with a plan.
The bus terminal buzzed with light, activity. Cars and taxis moved menacingly through the crowd. Car radios blared. Busses downshifted, their motors snorting like horses before they sighed to a halt.
Bare lightbulbs hung over food stands—greasy stars in the dark, spring night— lighting up the campesinos drinking cheap sodas. The smell of diesel fuel and cooking fat hovered everywhere, a thick fog Lili pushed through to reach the inside of the terminal, to reach the order of the cold, tiled walls and the dispatcher’s calm voice. Sale el camion para Morelia en la sala treinte-uno. Sale el camion para Guadalajara, para Mazatlan, para Playa Azul. Where should she go first, Lili wondered, looking up at the board on the wall behind the first class ETN ticket counter? There was a bus leaving for Manzanillo at 11:45. She’d be there by lunch the next day. She could pay a cab to take her to a resort in Careyes. She could soak in her own plunge pool, listen to the waves drowning her questions— why didn’t she come to me?—drowning the answer—if I’d wanted to find her, I would have.
She rolled her carry-on to one of the few canteens still open inside the terminal. She was shaky and dry-mouthed with hunger. Her breath tasted metallic in her mouth, her saliva sour when she swallowed. “Una coca y una torta,” she told the girl behind the counter. The girl handed her a tray with a fried pork sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a can of coke. Diez cincuenta, the girl told her the price.
It would feel good to eat something, and then her bus would come. She would sink into the seat, pull the curtain and watch the city fall away from her like an old, dead skin. She would climb up the mountains to Toluca and then away toward the coast. She bit into the sandwich. Next to her, a group of young North Americans had gathered, backpacks and all.
“So did he ever canoe down the Usumacinta?”
“Dude he got bit by a cascabel. They had to medevac him out.”
“So are you still with that guy you were with in Puerto Escondido?”
“Him? No, we were just, you know, hanging out until, you know.”
Lili couldn’t bear any more. Her head felt it would explode with words, so many and none of them making sense. Si tu lo encuentras… you will know I am alive… I’m surprised it took you so long… He was broke and drunk… have fun living in the past…Arid, frigid, obsessed with the love she never got…The noble have to sacrifice… You were her rock… She would have had no one.
Lili swallowed hard to stop the tears, to free herself from dizzy torment. She lifted a discarded Tiempo Libre off the seat next to her, flipped through the pages. ARIEL one of the ads blared—GIRO NACIONAL. Lili looked at the places he was touring, the dates. San Miguel, Morelia, Tamazunchale, Veracruz, Monte Alban, San Cristobal de las Casas.
One of the American girls laughed. “I’m up for whatever,” the girl said, hefting her backpack.
Lili looked at the names of the cities, again. This time—it hit her. Vivienne’s clue had been tossed in the watsebasket. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the discarded note and read the letters—tm,vc ma. She heard Ariel’s voice chime in with all the other voices—“Your sister sometimes followed the band.” Tamazunchale—tm, Veracruz—vc. It was worth a try.
Lili rolled her wax paper into a ball and dropped it into the open garbage can, dragged her suitcase over to the telephones, looked through her address book and punched in Carlito’s telephone number. What had Ariel said? I stay at Carlito’s when I’m in town.
It was a long shot, but maybe Ariel was there.