In a New York courtroom, a legal interpreter with a failed family life of his own struggles to maintain neutrality in his boorish new client's inheritance dispute.
Civil and criminal courts are all about brawls, beheadings, hatred, theft, and beatings. Family courts, too, but there you might bear witness, at least in theory, to a hearing with a happy outcome, like a marriage or an adoption. It happens once in a blue moon. People bring balloons, have their pictures taken with the judge, and shed tears of joy instead of sadness. If Julio had time and wanted to lift his spirits, he would wander over to the family court section to see if he is lucky enough to catch one such event.
When he arrives, a hearing is already underway, so he sits in the first row behind the bar. Both parties are seated at dining room-sized rectangular tables facing the bench where the judge presides. At the table on the right, Julio identifies two people by their backs alone; the utterly miserable figure, without a doubt, is the negligent mother du jour; the other, flanked by two stacks of files, is a social worker wearing an austere bun on her head. On top of the table, in front of the mother, sits her shabby, garish pink purse. A woman in a suit, probably a representative of Child Protective Services, stands at the podium addressing the audience. In the few seconds that she’s been up there, she has weaponized the mic to badmouth both parents-in-charge almost in a single breath. The stepfather, with a bad shave and a slumped profile, looking high, sits by himself at the table on Julio’s left. All he seems to have brought with him is a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, in blatant contempt of the interdiction on eating or drinking in court. The dark-haired heads of their four kids, seated by age on a bench next to the bar, appear to be arranged in descending order on a scale of I-suffer-more-than-thou.
As the song goes, if it weren’t for bad luck I would have no luck at all.
Julio figures the hearing will stretch on, and that he has no choice but to approach the judge’s bench.
He stands up. As usual, he feels a pang of hesitance about drawing the judge’s attention: his cellphone might ring or the swing door might squeak when he pushes it. He holds the door steady with his hand to prevent any noise, crosses the bar, and greets the bailiff with a nod. Truth be told, any one of the half dozen couples whispering among themselves with their lawyers seated behind them, anyone in the public, the brats scurrying from bench to bench out of sheer boredom, or the babies in the carriages stationed in the main hallway, anyone could do something reckless and attract attention.
Julio approaches the bench from the side. One of the clerks turns to face him. The judge does not acknowledge him, still listening to the child welfare expert. Julio mouths at the clerk: Did you call me? and she, in turn, nods indicatively while mouthing back: interview room. He turns around, grateful on the inside.
A gesture from the clerk toward the other side of the courtroom would have meant going to the holding cells. In family court these are mostly empty or else hold homeless people, some random addicts, or penniless bad hombres skipping out on child support. The smell is not as foul as in the criminal court cells, but it still makes you wish you had one of those pine tree air fresheners for rearview mirrors to press against your face.
The interview room is a totally different story. It’s your average office, a vestibule where a fat clerk types. When Julio enters, he finds the defendant sitting idly at a conference table. His head is pitched forward at a rather odd angle, and when Julio looks into his eyes he realizes that the man is blind. The man’s lawyer is standing across the room, looking out the window and snapping his fingers. Though the lawyer is bald, there are what look like flecks of dandruff on his suit collar. Julio pulls up a chair to sit down, and the blind man reacts immediately:
“You the translator?”
His voice is tinged with a resonance Julio attributes to the blind.
“Yes,” Julio replies.
The lawyer turns around and starts to speak without greeting him. Julio realizes that he is clutching the back of a chair with both hands.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Señor Portillo? How many? Really.”
“. . .”
“Today’s your last chance, but I see you didn’t bring anything, yet again. You show up here empty-handed, looking for pity. But let me tell you this: you won’t find pity here, because pity was sent to jail for contempt of court. No more deadlines for you. I’ve told you a million times and a million different ways. If you don’t place any of your assets as collateral today . . . finito! Game over!”
“ . . .”
“One of your real estate properties, for example. Or a percentage of any property, anything will do . . . if not . . . finito! This judge has the patience of a fakir lying on a bed of sewing needles; no more delays for you. It’s over and done with. He’s been dealing with your case for three years now.”
Silence. The lawyer shakes his head and closes his eyes. Julio uses the pause to translate.
“Don’t you see that Diana is out there . . . ?” The lawyer hesitates. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Sorry for what?” the blind man replies in Spanish without waiting for the translation. He sighs.
“Don’t you realize that Diana is out there, in the courtroom, and that she’s here to see what comes of all this because she’s worried about your future?”
“Diana!” the blind man blurts. “Bah! I should’ve done the DNA test on her, not the other one. My daughter, they say! A sorry excuse for a daughter! A bloodsucker, that’s what she is! Sucking the blood right out of my veins! Serpientes, all of them, Judas’s spawn!”
Julio twitches at this point.
“Serpientes straight from the belly of the Evil One! All they want is to take what little life is left of me! That’s all they all want. They all have a serpiente’s tongue, and you . . . !”
He points to the lawyer.
“You’re no different. And that goes for Diana, and Carmela—every last one of you ! They’re plotting against me! They worship at the altar of this gown-wearing Satanás to rob me of every penny I have. But I don’t care. Verdad y justicia have opened my eyes. Truth and justice, I see it all clearly!”
The fat court clerk pokes her head over the door when she hears him shouting.
“Doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Up in heaven there’ll be a reckoning. Right at the Heavenly Gates. Everyone, with the same faces that God, our Padre Eterno, gave each of us in this life.”
Julio uses the pause to translate the sermon into English the best he can, serpents, eternal fire, and all the other gems. He renders the Spanish sanguijuelas as bloodsuckers, but then immediately realizes that leeches would have been a better choice. The lawyer cracks a smile.
“Are you done, Mr. Portillo?”
The blind man shrugs.
“I won’t repeat myself for the millionth time. I’ve advised you to pledge some type of collateral to show goodwill to the judge. If you don’t, you will pay the price, Señor Portillo. Your disability is no excuse. Well, good luck to you,” he says.
Before Julio has time to react, the lawyer has already stormed past the clerk and shut the door.
All of a sudden, the room feels quiet, and the silence amplifies the murmur seeping through the courtroom wall, the distant ruckus of traffic coming from outside, the clerk’s typing, and even the blind man’s breathing. Julio stares at him for a moment, knowing that no one is watching him now. A stubborn jaw, deep crow’s feet, vacant blue irises contrasting with his dark skin. One of his earlobes is pierced, evidence of some earring he likely wore in the past. On the top of his head is a bald spot the size of a quarter, surrounded by curly white hair. His lips are moist, as though he were stewing on more insults.
* * *
Here you can always find somebody worse off than you: ashen diabetics en route to jail who turn even waxier when they realize no one knows when their next dialysis session will be; autistic people being restrained by two guards and minutes away from a straitjacket because their teddy bear or comfort blanket was seized during their arrest.
They once wheeled in a sickly guy with a freshly open tracheotomy hole. His first court hearing in street clothes, right after his arrest, wasn’t the worst of it all. Every two to three months he would show up to complain about his prison conditions. His orange jumpsuit hung looser with each appearance, and his face grew more emaciated. He carried a Kleenex to dab at the gap in his throat when he’d start coughing, as though he could possibly soak up all the mucus. He was probably suffering from cancer or some other terminal disease. His voice, which had been a faint whisper the day of his arrest, dwindled to a half whisper, and then to a quarter of that. To translate for him, Julio had to bring his ear very close to the sick man’s mouth just to hear him. During his final appearances he couldn’t put together three whole phrases without being gripped by a coughing fit. The prison phone—how could Julio forget—was his biggest complaint: he kept asking for a voice synthesizer to be installed so he could talk to his family back home. He didn't have a single soul to visit him, not even the good old nuns.
In the end, he never got a chance to say goodbye.
Or, at least he didn't say goodbye to Julio.
That meant that a blind Black dude, no matter how dire his situation, was not going to be dubbed the king of suffering in a place where madness and misery ran rampant. These were the thoughts swirling around Julio’s head. He was also thinking about “bloodsuckers” versus “leeches,” and about the fact that he would’ve liked to use “pearly gates” instead of “heaven’s gate” when the blind man started babbling about heaven. Not that it mattered; his lawyer had no interest in the translation of a speech he had already heard a thousand times. Julio would’ve liked to remember that other expression because it certainly sounded more sophisticated. The Pearly Gates. Oh thy lofty heaven cometh! Or something like that.
Just to show off.
As he routinely did every time he felt bored, he searched the first page of his notepad for a clear spot to draw. It was not a small pad like most interpreters carry, but regular-sized with a clipboard, like the one you get at the doctor’s office to fill out forms. That gave him plenty of space to doodle, and to jot down anything he needed to.
He stared blankly into the air for a couple of seconds before sketching the first thing that came to his mind. It was the head of a gorilla that vaguely resembled Donkey Kong. He started drawing in black ink, then used a red and a blue pen to bring out certain details. The gorilla wore a military gala suit that up to that point only consisted of the jacket collar, richly adorned, and a shoulder with an epaulet. Out of the epaulet emerged a muscular arm holding a marching band drumstick. Julio was drawing a circle for the head of the drum when the blind man tugged at his shirtsleeve.
“Disculpe, joven,” he said, “pensé que se me había ido.”
“No, I haven’t left, I’m still here.”
The man continued in Spanish, “Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to run something by you because you get the meaning of words and all that stuff.”
Well, well, Julio thought to himself, it was legal counseling hour.
“Do you know what a woman and a hurricane have in common?”
“No, I don’t.”
“They both come at you strong and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car with them.”
The blind man burst into shameless laughter. His voice was an affront to decency and good manners.
The fat clerk poked her head out again, but Julio did not say anything. He went back to drawing the drum, which he decided to decorate with tassels and ribbons, as he had seen in military parades. Thirty seconds later the blind man fired away.
“Disculpe, joven, I’m serious now, I promise. This is a language question,” he said. “You know how the word pollo is chicken in English, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why doesn’t repollo—you know, cabbage—translate to re-chicken?”
This time he laughed so hard he sprayed Julio with saliva. Coincidentally, and not because of his guffawing, two bailiffs happened to open the door that led to the courtroom.
They poked their heads into the vestibule.
“Here,” Julio replied.
One of the two guards approached. “The judge wants him out,” he said. “They’re going to call his case soon.”
Then he turned to the blind man. “C’mon buddy.”
The guard tried to grab him by the elbow, but the blind man shook free. Instead of accepting his help to stand up, he planted both hands in his lap.
Others have been tasered for less than that, Julio thought.
The blind man placed something that looked like a pile of metal tent poles tied together on the table. He untied the knot and put together, piece by piece, a foldable walking stick. Once he was finished, he pushed his chair back, hoisted himself up with the help of the chair arm, and headed toward the door, sniffing around with the tip of his walking stick.
The same bailiff tried to help him again, grabbing for his elbow, but his gesture was met with outright harshness. Against better judgment, the bailiff responded:
“I’m not your buddy,” the blind man replied.
No one else tried to grab his arm again. They herded him over to the first row and had him sit down. Julio sat next to him, while his lawyer, who had seen them arrive in the courtroom, made his position quite clear by standing at a distance. There were far fewer family members and busybodies in the room now, but the four spectators seated behind the lawyer seemed to be new faces: they still had their coats on, and the two women in the group were clutching their purses with both hands, as though ready to leave. One of them—dark-skinned, young, and very pretty—looked like the blind man’s daughter. The four new faces stared intensely in the blind man’s direction.
Someone had left a window cracked, and the breeze rustled the corner of the American flag. Its companion, the New York flag, hung unperturbed on the other side of the bench. Julio was focused on finishing the gorilla he had started in the interview room. The drum was finished, and in the exact spot where the drumstick struck the head of the drum he drew an exploding text balloon around the onomatopoeia BAM! He was now concentrating on the ribbon running along the seam of the gorilla’s pants, and on the wrinkles fanning from one of the knees. The boot attached to the same leg and the ground where it stood were just two rough sketches.
The blind man addressed Julio from time to time. Complying with the basic codes of ethics of his profession, Julio limited himself to listening without voicing any opinions. He would utter a claro or ajá every few phrases so as not to disappoint his client, but he didn’t react to any of his arguments, unmoved by the man’s convoluted lines of reasoning.
“Do you think that this lawyer is working in my best interests?”
“I cannot provide any legal counsel.”
“No, of course, it’s not consejos. If that was the case, I’d hire you and not him, right? Finito. Se acabó. Right?”
“I don’t mean counsel. I mean a general impression from someone like you, who can really see and is unbiased. What do you think? Is he helping me out? Sí o no?”
“Well, he looks like a lawyer.”
“My daughter, my other daughter, the one who doesn’t cause me any trouble, she found him for me. Zimmerman, I think that’s his name—from Queens. Because I had another lawyer before him that she didn't like at all. And I told her, ‘OK.’ Jewish people love their coins, right? So chances are this guy does a better job. But I’m not so sure now. What do you think?”
“My previous lawyer was an Italian guy with a boxer’s name. I got the recommendation from some people I know because, you see, I’m not the type of man to be mixed up in lawsuits. So I said to myself: an Italian, he'll definitely fight for me. But it was the same thing. He didn’t call back, didn’t visit, and he always said it was because he couldn’t get one of those . . . uh . . .”
“Your job. What do you do?”
“An interpreter, you mean?”
“Right. He’d say that he couldn’t hire one, so we couldn't talk. That it was better for me to wait until we go to court. And I thought, maybe un abogado hispano would do better. At least I could speak in straight Spanish with a Hispanic lawyer, right? But Hispanics are all liars. And they drain your pockets, don’t you think? Do you have a business card?”
He went on and on like that.
Julio gleaned from the conversation that the guy had not been born blind and that what he lacked in eyesight he most certainly did not make up for in tact. In fact, he’d brag about all the ass he’d laid his hands on, and how he was never averse to enhancing his intimate encounters using his auditory and olfactory senses, in light of his condition. His case revolved around some joint property he’d had with a now deceased wife whose children—and at this point he’d cross himself repeatedly, kissing his thumb—had nothing to do with him. They weren’t his, unlike the other four or five he’d fathered with other women.
“A long life is always full of stories, don’t you think? Even if you leave them behind, in the past.”
Because this had all taken place way before he found our Señor Jesucristo and was born again. Praise his name!
“I think this thing with my eyesight was a sign. Cataracts clouded my eyes, sure, but they turned out to be the holy clouds of heaven!” he told Julio. “When I could see I was in darkness, you know? But now that I have no eyes, the divine light is right in front of my face. Amen.”
During the fifteen minutes or so that it took Julio to gather all that information about the blind man’s life, or rather to be bombarded with it, the courtroom had remained relatively quiet. Some people had stepped out to stretch their legs, while their lawyers checked their phones or glanced at the calendar pinned up by the entrance. Little brats were running up and down the hallway, and every now and then there was the sound of a child crying. A few mothers holding babies had also stepped out, perhaps to breastfeed or to change diapers.
The judge was leaving the bench, most likely to conduct some in-camera business, when he asked for the blind man to be brought in. The door leading to his chamber remained closed, and the only people in the courtroom, apart from the bailiffs, were the blind man’s lawyer, and his four relatives, all still wearing their coats, all clutching their belongings.
By now Julio was tired of sprucing up his gorilla. Since he’d run out of space, he killed time doodling around his previous notes on the page. That was a challenge he enjoyed. He had sketched, for instance, a dog peeing over the name of a former case—State vs. Armendáriz—and a marquee teeming with light bulbs around the name of a former defendant, as though he’d committed a Hollywood crime. He was now tinkering with a steaming witch’s cauldron around which he drew random words and numbers on the page.
All along Julio had been listening absentmindedly to the blind man, raising his eyes to the door from time to time so as not to be surprised by the judge’s entrance—court etiquette required everyone to rise when a judge entered the courtroom. How do people with ten kids keep their sanity when I, with a daughter I barely see, can’t get my life together? he thought.
Julio’s own family project had been tumbling downhill at a steady pace. Katie had been gradually moving his daughter farther and farther away from him—every year and a half, to be exact. New Jersey right after their separation, then Pennsylvania, and now Indiana. West Indiana, to make matters worse. Over the phone his daughter increasingly resorted to English, and he felt constantly disheartened at the tombstone-heavy pauses in their conversation when they had nothing to say. So, Julio resorted to stealing a syllable from his rival’s name every time he had to pronounce it.
At first, he insisted on calling him Douglas to avoid giving the impression that, because of his accent, he was insulting him by calling him Doug. But whenever he heard Katie talk about “Doug this” and “Doug that” nonstop, he tried to mimic her. But her muffled giggles meant that he was failing, that he was pronouncing it “dog” indeed. One day, about two months earlier, he made the mistake of giving Katie a call after a few too many drinks.
He slurred in Spanish, “And what's the dog up to?”
“You know, mounting me doggie style, and making me take it like a bitch.”
She must have had her repartee ready for months, waiting for the right moment. Even if her Spanish was almost flawless, she had a hard time pronouncing the double rr of perra—bitch—producing a fruity confusion with pera, meaning pear. Her gaffe might have even been endearing to anyone else but him.
“Is he there?”
“Why? You wanna come?”
“His manly musk is here. And his gun is on the nightstand.”
It was obvious that she had been practicing.
“Sue her. That’s sexual harassment,” his friend Hector would advise him whenever they talked about it. “If you go see her in person she’ll probably open the door wearing a wig and a garter belt.”
“And a pocket knife hidden in the garters,” Julio added.
It’s true that Katie would send him emails—and every so often snail mail—containing explicit and crude clippings about erectile dysfunction, penis enlargement, syphilis, and other humiliating articles she found. She acted like a teenage boy obsessed with his dick, a telltale sign of her inability to get over their breakup any better than he had.
Hector was right, of course, but for Julio, her boisterous cues meant nothing. Your ex can’t forget you—big deal. He was convinced he would die exactly where he was: old, fat, and deaf, while his ex-wife shared her life with someone else in Indiana.
Things had fallen apart because of his two-week betrayal four years earlier. A meaningless fling, after succumbing to the animal scent of some passing bitch. And now all this anguish and suffering as a result. Sitting by his side, the blind man continued to detail his colorful biography in a monotone mumble. Women, drugs, perdition, and then la salvación in the end. Julio’s mind bounced back and forth like a space satellite seeking a signal that was scrambled. He hated the man, seeing him so full of himself. He thought about drawing him stark naked, tied to a bedpost, and subdued by a dominatrix in leather cracking a whip over his head.
But he didn’t because at that precise moment the door to the small office behind the bench opened, and the court clerk patted the doorframe twice to draw their attention.
Julio sprang out of his chair. The blind man seemed to relish remaining seated when the judge and his assistants entered the room. For a split second Julio’s first impulse was to offer his arm to help him get up, but then he realized the man had not even considered shutting his mouth, only lowering his voice as he blathered about his life.
I’m not your buddy either, Julio thought.
The hearing was over quickly. The judge headed for his chambers and the blind man to a cell for thirty days. For a family court case that could have been solved with a bit of collateral to end like this was a rarity, but it was obvious that the blind man had pushed the judge’s patience to the limit. Contempt of court, time to teach him a lesson, he needs to show some respect . . . these were the reasons cited repeatedly by the judge. His lawyer displayed great professional integrity trying to keep him afloat despite everything. But his client had kept hacking at the hull of his own boat with a hatchet, and no vessel on earth could endure such hard blows. He constantly asked for the floor—in spite of his lawyer’s exasperation—and launched into the furious rants they were all too familiar with, questioning everything from the authenticity of the property deeds to the validity of the DNA test results.
Julio had to translate his venomous speech, sadly aware all the while that because he was interpreting in real time he would only remember a handful of the blind man’s pearls. There were more than enough to fill a month’s worth of bar talk, had he had friends to share them with. When the blind man relinquished the mic and the judge refuted his claims one by one, he started fuming and shaking his head convulsively. He was clenching his fists so aggressively that one of the bailiffs—legs spread, hands gloved, wielding a thick belt so loaded with gadgets that it sounded like a baby rattle—advanced a few steps just in case.
Once the judge vanished with his retinue of assistants carrying all his paperwork, the tallest of the bailiffs took the blind man by the elbow and escorted him back to the front row of the gallery. Then another bailiff approached the bench, before coming back with a stack of forms. When he handed the stack to his partner—a burly, albino-looking man with bland facial features resembling a snowman—he unhooked a walkie-talkie from his shoulder.
“I need a one-thirty-eight to Judge Gleeson’s courtroom for a body going down.”
“Copy,” a voice buzzing with static replied.
“Body has a disability. No wheelchair. No English, also.”
“Saravia’s out to lunch.”
“No worries. How long?”
After a few more exchanges, the bailiff ended the conversation. He pointed at Julio.
“You’re coming down with us.”
New regulations required it, but Julio still felt a bit intimidated. The lawyer had stayed nearby out of sheer pity, and the next question from the bailiff was for him:
“You’re taking possession of his belongings, right?”
The lawyer shook his head, and then the bailiff asked the blind man, “Buddy, do you have any relatives in the courtroom?”
“Yes,” said the lawyer.
“No,” said the blind man.
The Snowman did not move. He continued filling out the form, replying that they’d carry out the inventory in the basement and hold the belongings for safekeeping until discharge, whatever that meant.
The blind man didn’t say a thing, but he stirred a bit, the most articulate gesture he could muster, when his lawyer put a hand on his shoulder. Julio, standing next to him, looked at the blind man the same way Donald Duck eyeballed his nephews when they were too quiet.
He’s cooking something up, he thought. No doubt about it.
As soon as the bailiff was done with the customary questions and was about to leave, the blind man, as though he could see, sprang back to life. He had a rather unusual request.
“Necesito una biblia,” he demanded.
Julio translated what he’d said, and the bailiff replied that he could not take anything down to the basement with him.
“Diana or Carmela can bring you a Bible when they visit,” his lawyer added.
“I don’t want those two to visit me,” he cried out in one breath, then added, “I don’t want to take a Bible with me to the basement; I want it right now because I need to do something with my lawyer, Mr. Zimmerman, right now.”
Julio translated, and the lawyer stood there dumbfounded.
The second bailiff—a small-framed, dark-haired man, the perfect comic match for his gigantic albino-looking partner turned to the first, “Should I?”
The Snowman nodded, and the little man came back with the Bible used to swear in witnesses. Julio passed it to the blind man, who measured the weight of the sacred book with his hands and felt reassured, if reassurance was something that he ever needed.
“Señor Zimmerman,” he said with his loud voice, “since you are my lawyer, please stand in front of me, and look into my face one last time. And you, Señor Translator, stand here, too.”
It’d been a while since Julio had caught a glimpse of the blind man’s daughter, but he could see her clearly from where he was standing now. She was following the scene attentively, her lips trembling and her cheeks wet. Big, beautiful eyes. She must have been fifteen years Julio’s junior; he felt a sudden and strong temptation to cross over to the opposite side of the courtroom.
“Señor Zimmerman,” said the blind man, “give me your hand. Yes, like that. Place it on the sacred book.”
The lawyer, who was almost certainly Jewish, wore a smile of disbelief.
“Repeat after me: I swear on the sacred word of God that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
“Mr. Portillo, your family doesn’t pay me enough for this charade. What do you want?”
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?”
“What do you want?”
“I know how Diana pays you. I know too well that she’s been using the slit between her legs as a cash register. If that makes you happy, that’s fine. Women are all the same.”
Julio blushed when he had to translate this. The woman kept staring at them with the same intensity. The lawyer withdrew his hand from the Bible, and stepped back.
“You still owe me two payments, Mr. Portillo, and I guarantee you that I’ll be getting all my money. Every last penny. Because I’ve done my job well. I have put all my energy into your case. But you wanted to go down with your ship, and you just got that. That’s your problem.”
He started to turn away.
“You see everything in dollar signs, don’t you?” the blind man shouted as the lawyer walked away. “But I wanted to talk about the only important thing here. I wanted to talk about justice! But no, usted no quiere hablar de eso, ¿no?! ¡No quiere hablar de justicia!”
The lawyer was now leaving the courtroom, and he wrapped his right arm around the daughter’s shoulders. The three other likely relatives followed close behind. Julio could not help but wonder if the woman really was sleeping with the lawyer, and he felt disgust when he realized that he’d just sided with the blind man.
As he waited for the platoon to escort the blind man away, Julio thought about the myth that artists are always sleeping with loads of women. But he was never showered with amorous propositions back when he worked as an illustrator in his native country – not boring work by any means since he had even illustrated the sleeve cover for an LP, when LP covers were still a thing. His luck turned somewhat when he moved to the United States but still, Katie was the first woman he ever bedded on a regular basis. All this probably explained why he now found himself doing something he rarely did, and which could hardly have been a good idea: drawing erotic figures on his notepad.
He couldn’t even remember how it started.
There were three women comfortably perched in the middle of the page before him, positioned diagonally above the gorilla playing the drum. The gorilla was now complete, save for a leg, and the women were only half-drawn. Their efforts to squeeze into the empty space on the page were an indication that Julio had only started drawing them over the last few minutes, along with some of the other creatures. His previous notes on the pad traversed their bodies like tattoos.
One woman had a mop of hair that was entangled with a Corinthian-style vine decorating the names of two lawyers. Another one lay down on her back on one of the lines of the pad. One of her arms dangled languidly; her silhouette exposed the towering profile of a monumental breast. Her hair was a blurry and undefined mass. The third woman lay on her back, with her two ample buttocks rising toward the eyes of her beholder. Her open legs, ending in a pair of implausibly skinny stilettos, formed the sides of an isosceles triangle; the base of the triangle consisted of the word “abuse” trapped between her ankles, drawn with a penmanship that simulated melted wax bathed in dreary shadows. The composition was an imitation of the stickers that bikers glued on their gas tanks.
When Julio looked back at his sketch he wondered, for the millionth time, what the heck he was doing. He chose to believe that his drawings and the blind man’s logorrhea did not spring forth from the same fount. He sat up immediately.
“¿Ya nos vamos?” the blind man asked.
“No, we’re not leaving yet.”
“Will you let me know when we do?”
“The system is very quick to convict but very slow to punish,” the blind man concluded philosophically.
Julio pulled his thin notepad out from under the clip, turned the page over, and squeezed it back in to keep it out of sight. He then turned the clipboard over, pressed it against his lap to make sure the page was safely concealed, and looked around to see if the coast was clear. In their respective positions, the tiny and the tall bailiffs guarding the bench looked like permanent fixtures. There was a third bailiff standing next to the courtroom entrance. The blind man was silent now. He limited himself to gesturing with his chin from time to time, like a figurehead at the bow of a ship, and to letting out raspy guttural coughs that, had he been out walking in the streets, would probably have indicated he was about to spit.
Julio was wondering how else to kill time, but in that precise instant his cell phone vibrated. He looked at the screen and saw that it was Hector.
He moved toward the door.
“Hello?” he answered in a hushed voice.
Hector sounded very distraught. There was some kind of accident involving his car.
“Hold on, hold on,” said Julio, moving the cell phone away from his ear.
“I'm outside if they need me,” he whispered to the bailiff as he pushed the swing door and walked out into the hallway.
When he came back into the courtroom, his phone still hot from everything Hector had said, the blind man was no longer where he had left him. He was now by the door leading to the cells, handcuffed and surrounded by six uniformed guards. A couple of kids were looking at the scene as if it were a movie set, and the few civilians accompanying them were also watching the group.
Julio tried to apologize when he reached them, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. The Snowman just said: “We’ve got the interpreter! Let’s get going!” and then pushed the door open. Julio tried to get closer to the blind man, but the guard at the rear of the convoy told him to follow behind.
Except for the brazen stench of confinement, the half dozen holding cells flanking the polished concrete floor of the corridor were empty. A heavy barred door blocked their march at the end of the hall, and the Snowman proceeded to type a code on a small wall panel. After a beep, he spoke on the intercom, needing confirmation before the door would unlock.
“Transporting a body downstairs. We need opening for . . .” he said, and then he read the printed numbers next to the door “. . . 532 . . . 9 . . . 7.”
“Opening. Stand back,” a voice replied, then a buzz, and a violent clack of the lock.
They repeated the same procedure at the next two doors, and Julio surmised that the entire routine was the access protocol to the most restricted area in the court building. The bailiffs did not have any keys on them, and entry was managed from a central operation room. He had never been comfortable being in situations where he’d be the only one wearing a suit; now even more so, as he was carrying a selection of his finest erotic art, all bearing his name.
After a third coded-access door they halted in front of an elevator with the same armored feel as the doors. One of the bailiffs typed a code into the corresponding panel, and asked for the elevator to be sent up. A few seconds later the call button lit up automatically without anyone touching it. They had to wait at a similarly secure elevator. One of the bailiffs, the one who had ordered to walk behind him, stepped close to Julio and tried to engage in small talk.
“You speak Spanish, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Look, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask a Spanish-speaker for a long time.”
“You see, there’s this neighbor of mine,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Julio, “He lives next door . . . I think he’s from Mexico or something. Hor-hay, I’ve heard his wife call him—or actually yell at him—all day long, Hor-hay this and Hor-hay that. All in Spanish.”
“Well, every Saturday morning this Hor-hay blasts some kind of music at full volume with a beat that sounds something like ratatatan, tatata, tacatataran . . .”
When the bailiff whistled the rhythm, it certainly sounded familiar to Julio, but the name of it stopped short at the tip of his tongue. He felt more embarrassed than curious, as if the guard were challenging him with that question to make him look ridiculous. He was about to say something, but the clank of the opening doors interrupted him.
The bailiff remained silent for a few seconds. As soon as the elevator started moving, he insisted:
“Ok, listen carefully now. It’s something like this: ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . .”
The other five members of the platoon could hardly contain their laughter, including the tiny bailiff who had been in the courtroom with them. Julio felt like he was being watched and wished the blind man would say something, anything, to bail him out. He wondered if the bailiff subjected all the guests in his underground domain to the same display of musical know-how. Every time the man puffed up his cheeks, collective laughter ensued.
The doors opened directly into an office where a guard wearing a different uniform waited for them at a desk. Julio had never seen anyone in that uniform before, but given his rotten mood he guessed that it was a corrections officer. The guy stood up but did not shake hands with anyone. With a nod of the head, he asked for the handcuffs to be removed. Then suddenly, without giving the blind man any time to massage his wrists, he started to address him:
“Remove your belt,” he said.
After translating the instruction, Julio stepped forward to help the blind man out. He passed the belt to the corrections officer, who put it in a bag that he had numbered with a thick marker after checking the forms sent from the courtroom.
“Sit on that chair, and remove your shoes and socks.”
Julio had barely started to translate the order, stretching out a hand to guide him to the chair, when the tiny bailiff grabbed the blind man by the arm, and seated him by force. The whole situation felt like when you get transferred from your credit card’s customer service to a collection agency. Julio said nothing. He only managed to squat a little and translate for his client.
“They can keep it all,” the blind man replied.
When Julio raised his eyes he noticed that the tiny bailiff, who had remained rather calm in the courtroom, was carrying the poles of the foldable walking stick in the back pocket of his pants.
The blind man started to untie his shoes. His fingers betrayed no reaction but Julio nonetheless was moved by how the man felt around so thoroughly before doing anything. His dense and coarse white hair, and his shirt collar, were only ten inches away from Julio’s nose.
The singing bailiff was still gleefully singing his ratatatan, tatata, ratatatan tatatara . . . His baritone whistling permeated the office air. At that precise moment, as he imitated a high-pitched crescendo building toward the end of the melody, Julio realized it was a Mexican corrido.
He told him.
“A corrido?” he said, stumbling on the Spanish double r. “Well, well, I see.”
He did not seem too enthused about the topic of musical genres.
“Well,” he repeated, “the thing is, there’s always a section in the song where the singing stops, and only the instruments carry on, with something that sounds like an accordion. You know, like something Italian. And then, as soon as that happens, the so-called Hor-hay always shouts: Ayayayayayay!!!”
The distinctive grito of a Mexican charro singer yelling in absolute ecstasy resonated in the room. The blind man jumped, and the uniformed corrections officer turned his head.
“Give me the shoelaces,” the officer asked.
Julio handed them over, and the officer placed them in the numbered bag.
“Ok. You can get dressed again,” he said.
Julio translated the phrase and the blind man started to put his socks on. Julio moved closer, and when he noticed the man was moving his lips, he thought he must be praying. But as he looked more closely he wasn’t so sure. It sounded like he was muttering numbers. The blind man was counting.
“Ayayayayayay!!!” the bailiff shouted again.
Mexican corridos, Julio seemed to remember, were narrative musical ballads. The emotional catharsis would peak, for instance, the moment the hero agonized on the sweltering desert sand surrounded by a landscape crisscrossed by so many bullets that even the cacti bled. The cowards from the DEA or from Border Patrol would stare at the man with hyena smiles. Bad company and the corruption from the northern neighbor were to blame for everything. The hero’s aged mother, a pair of white braids hanging over her shoulders, would burst out crying when she read the news, her endless tears creating furrows in the letter she clutched in her hands. At that precise moment the vocalist would use the interlude to let his or her feelings run wild –Ayayayayayay!!! – before the background singers repeated the same moralizing chorus ad nauseam.
Julio pictured the singing bailiff—red-haired, freckle-faced, and skinny as a toothpick—in the Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, with a sombrero and a big guitarra. The other guards would finally contain their laughter. The corrections officer, disregarding the singing bailiff, knelt down and raised the hems of the blind man’s pants to make sure he was not hiding anything. He stood up next to the singing bailiff but did not deign to look at him.
Julio translated, but the blind man shrugged his shoulders.
He kept moving his lips.
“Ok. Size ten,” said the corrections officer randomly.
“That’s exactly how my neighbor shouts every damn Saturday,” the bailiff continued with his riffing. “And I’ve wondered for a long time: Is he shouting out of pain or joy?”
“Alright, any tattoos or birthmarks? Any distinctive physical traits? Any surgical scars?” the corrections officer asked, returning to his desk with a pen in his hand.
Julio translated the questions.
The blind man answered yes, that he had one tattoo on his chest, two on the left arm, and an appendicitis scar.
“Let me see them.”
Three pairs of hands busied at his command. The blind man tried to grab the top button of his shirt. Julio, out of some reflex he had developed over the last hour, also reached out his own hands. But the bailiff who was closer to the blind man—also dark-haired but taller than his colleague—let out a hiss as if he wanted to scare a cat away.
“Pssss! Stand back!. Let me do that.”
He unbuttoned the blind man’s shirt from top to bottom. Then he grabbed the prisoner by his shoulders, and made him turn around to face the desk, where the corrections officer stood up a little to lift the hem of his shirt and jot down what he saw. The first tattoo was over his heart, a cobra with boobs and red lips. The corrections officer announced his description of the tattoos as he jotted down every word, either because it was legally required or because of a tic, and Julio felt vaguely ridiculous translating simultaneously to the blind man.
“Así es. Sí.”
For Julio, an old man with erotic tattoos was embarrassing. Once the officers were done with the first tattoo, they lifted the shirt from one side—leaving it to dangle from the opposite shoulder—and moved on to the ones on his left arm. Fortunately, these were religious. Julio noticed the flimsy, cotton-like wisps of hair on the man’s chest, the stretchmarks of old age, and his purplish nipples.
At least the blind man was keeping his mouth shut now. What in the world had he been counting before? The number of people he would take revenge on? The number of minutes left in his thirty-day sentence? In the adventure novel The Count of Montecristo, or maybe it was The Man in the Iron Mask, there is a masked prisoner who counted his steps the first time he was taken to his cell, already planning his future escape. And it was an island-prison, if Julio remembered correctly.
When they were done, the bailiff who had half-undressed the blind man told him: “You can put your shirt back on.”
The singing bailiff raised his charge again:
“What do you say then, since you speak Spanish? Tell me, is it a shout of pain or a shout of joy?”
“Frank, please,” the corrections officer stepped in. His expression indicated a fatal lack of a sense of humor.
Julio hesitated. He turned his gaze away from the singing bailiff, and turned around to continue translating for the blind man.
“Phone and address?”
Anticipating that the answer would require him to jot down numbers he didn’t want to forget, Julio stretched his arm to reach for his clipboard, which he’d left on a chair. He translated the question while he grabbed the pad. As soon as he turned it around and lowered his eyes, he noticed that something was different. The pad was where he’d left it, but instead of finding the first page folded back and pressed under the clip how he left it, there was a tear. The second page of the pad was now entirely visible.
When had he torn the page out? Had he? He put his hand in his pockets while the blind man started to talk.
“Two hundred seventeen Admiral Street, Perth Amboy,” he said in one breath.
Julio removed his hands from his pockets to write that down. He had not found anything in the pockets of his jacket, but he still had his pants left to search. He couldn’t tell if he didn’t want to face the fact that the page had flown away, or if he was still struggling to overcome his surprise, but while he tried to write the address down, his mind veered away, and he heard himself reply to the corrido music question:
“I don’t truly know. It can be either or, I suppose. Pain or joy. As a matter of fact . . .” he paused to ask again: “217 Admiral Street, Perth Amboy, right?”
“Sí, sí. Halmira estreet,” the blind man repeated. He passed the information down, and the corrections officer insisted, “Telephone?”
“The blind man understood the question in English and started to recite a sequence of numbers that Julio wrote down and translated.
“Very well, now take everything out of your pockets. Everything, don’t leave a thing.”
After he emptied his pockets, he asked him to turn them all inside out. While the blind man did as required, Julio also did the same, but he didn’t find anything. No crumpled ball of paper. His drumming gorilla, his pissing little dog, and his three naked women had vanished.
The blind man’s pockets, on the contrary, were a pit of all kinds of objects that Julio placed one by one on the corrections officer’s desk: a pen cap, a lighter, a crushed pack of Marlboro Lights, a key ring with only three keys. He also handed him a wallet with only a few bills and some useless business cards: income tax joints, and a botánica for all his folk medicine, candles, amulets, and mystical object needs. The chain of human hands ended at the desk of the corrections officer, who immediately recited what was handed to him, and proceeded to jot it down in the corresponding column before placing it in the numbered bag. At the last minute, as though he almost forgot, the tiny bailiff handed them the metal walking stick.
It began to unravel on the desk, and the corrections officer fumbled with it between his hands.
“How do I store this,” he asked into the air.
One of the other guards searched in his pockets until he found a rubber band, and the corrections officer squeezed the poles together and put the band around them before pushing it into the bag. Now especially, the walking stick looked like a bunch of white asparagus.
Telephone numbers. That’s what the blind man was probably reciting under his breath. The phone numbers that he didn’t want to forget in order to dial them from jail. Mi hermano, no sabes lo que me ha pasado, me metieron pa’ dentro—that’s how he’d start the conversation, telling his buddies that he was doing time now. Or maybe it was really numbers, doing the math to see if spending thirty days in prison was a better choice than sacrificing his savings. As if that kind of choice could ever be put into numbers, and by someone like him.
Julio knew that the missing notepad page—folded in four, probably drifting around like the many sheets from legal documents that would show up at home as bookmarks—was not going to materialize in the blind man’s inventory. His three naked women, his military-clad gorilla, what use were they to him? And at what point would he have put them in his pockets? He imagined him caressing the back of the page with his fingers, touching the tiny crests embossed into the paper by the pen’s point. And feeling the contours of the drawings, discovering the women with his fingers, fondling a plump buttock. But Julio didn’t press hard enough with the pen to form mountain ranges on the backside of the paper. Perhaps he would have, had he been blind, and grabbed the pen clumsily, his hand like a paw, and doodled his name on a page he couldn’t see.
It weighed on him now that the stolen sheet of paper was nowhere to be found. And that he was not going to find it. The corrections officer closed the bag, sealed it and said:
“Face against the wall.”
“Beg your pardon,” Julio blurted.
“Tell him to face the wall over there,” the guy explained.
Julio translated for the blind man, not for him to do anything but to let others do it for him. The big blond snowman bailiff was already guiding him by the shoulders. He started to face him toward the wall with his arms stretched out. He had him unfurl his fingers so he could lean on the wall with open palms, and he spread his legs open. Then, since he could not see the wall, the bailiff put a hand on his forehead to keep him from hitting his nose.
Julio stood next to him, translating the minimal instructions for the final search. It was the type of situation that anyone could understand, and in which anyone knew it was better not to resist.
A second bailiff approached the blind man and searched him meticulously from top to bottom.
“All clear,” he proclaimed.
Julio watched the corrections officer approach the adjacent cell, and open it with a key.
“Welcome to The Marriot,” he announced, taking a bow.
So the bastard did have a sense of humor after all! The snowman started to guide the blind man by his arm.
“I’m not sure,” Julio hesitated. “I suppose it can be either or, a shout of pain or a shout of joy. Depends on the song. Depends on the emotion you want to convey.”
He was not sure if the whistling bailiff was listening. He was also not sure why he was picking up the conversation, if it was even a conversation at all. He watched him squat, open a locker with a key, and place some folders inside.
“Buena suerte, caballero,” Julio said in the blind man’s direction.
“A usted,” he replied.
It was a custom of his, wishing his clients good luck when he finished with them, regardless of the outcome of their legal plights. Julio’s legs were trembling, and he suspected that he’d be facing another sleepless night. Alongside the blind man, his drawings were now new inhabitants of the dark, humid, and violent universe of prison. As a last-ditch effort, he rummaged once more in his pockets, including his jacket’s breast pocket, the one where classy gentlemen usually arrange a folded handkerchief, but he didn’t find anything there, either.
It was probably a natural habit for the blind man—stealing. He could hide things better than any sighted person. Once in his cell, he’d take the drawings out of their hiding place, and stick them on the wall with Scotch Tape, next to his bunk bed, like everyone else. The ubiquitous images of naked women. Maybe he was not blind after all, and it was all a farce. Maybe the theft of the missing page was the telltale evidence that he was faking it. Julio didn’t think he was condensing any particularly profound piece of wisdom when he simply said:
“In the end, no one really knows why people shout.”
“That’s for sure,” replied the tiny bailiff with a smile.
The heavy cell door closed, resounding all around them. The same bailiff who had been whistling his heart out clapped noisily and blurted: “Ok, guys, pizza time.”
He turned around to face Julio as though he was just now noticing his presence.
“Would you like me to take you back upstairs first?”
Julio managed to nod somehow, although his head felt as heavy as an anvil.
He’s the one. That’s the thief, he thought, as he let the man step out in front of him.
“No One Really Knows Why People Shout” © Mario Michelena. Translation © 2021 by Lindsay Griffiths and Adrián Izquierdo. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.