Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
When my symptoms became worse, I decided to consult a doctor, only to discover that nothing more could be done for me. After a battery of tests that left me totally broken, physically and morally, the doctor made me wait for more than a half an hour shivering in a blue robe that didn’t close in the back. Finally he opened the door, looked at me with a mixture of courtesy and pity, and told me I only had a few months left to live, that the disease was too far advanced and no operation could reverse the damage, and that in a way I should consider myself lucky because I had enough time to put my affairs in order. I supposed this included paying for his fees and the expensive laboratory tests he ordered.
“I’ll have to get a second opinion,” I said, surprised at how calm I was.
“Don’t you think I know what I’m talking about?” he responded, becoming even more serious. “Do you think I’d go around handing out death sentences right and left so irresponsibly? Do you believe I could give you such news if I had the least doubt? I have 38 years of experience, and I’ve never been wrong. Get as many opinions as you like, but you should know, I don’t make a diagnosis lightly.”
He tossed the folder with the test results on the desk and began to write something. Shivering, I kept quiet while trying to warm myself by rubbing my hands on my arms. I waited for the doctor to turn his attention to me again. After a few moments he raised his head and said:
“You’re still here? I thought you didn’t trust me.”
I didn’t answer, but didn’t have the strength to get up, either.
“Look, I’m going to give you the telephone number of someone who can help you. I’ll send your records to this person, so all you have to do is call him. Please stop at the receptionist’s desk before leaving, goodbye.” He gave me a card and opened the right drawer of his desk, closed it, opened the left drawer, closed it, then looked me in the eye again and made a face.
I knew I couldn’t stay there one minute longer but I was frozen, my joints were stiff, and my skin was stretched as tight as a drum. I thought that there was no cliché more hackneyed than “skin stretched as tight as a drum.” I also imagined that the doctor had made a mistake, and I would die right there and then without time to settle my affairs.
After opening and closing the drawers several more times, the doctor stood up and took me by the arm, gently at first, and then forcibly, until he managed to pull me up from the chair, whose plastic cover had stuck to my bare ass. I walked to the small closet where I’d hung my clothes and dressed in silence. For the rest of the day I couldn’t warm myself and my body kept shivering. The following morning I couldn’t get up to go to work. For hours, I effortlessly succeeded at doing what thousands of Carlos Castañeda fans attempt to do when they pursue that nonsense about “the warrior’s path”: I stopped my inner dialogue completely, I immersed myself in absolute silence and forgot about “reaffirming the world.” The experience didn’t enlighten me in the least. At night I got out of bed wrapped in blankets, ate some cold leftovers, and went back to bed.
“To wait for death,” I said to myself, but I couldn’t sleep.
Some days went by and apart from the fact that I blacked out at times and woke up lying on the floor covered in vomit and other secretions, I felt relatively okay. I thought about returning to work, only because I didn’t want to give up completely and also didn’t want to die with the television as the only background noise. I thought that I looked more or less normal and that I wouldn’t attract any attention, but I was wrong. As soon as I went through the front door to the office, all eyes were glued on me and no one made a sound. Finally my boss approached me slowly and asked:
“What happened to you?”
“Nothing. I have a stomach flu. But I’m getting better.”
“You don’t look good at all. You should go home.”
“But I’d rather work. It’ll get out of my system faster that way.”
He didn’t accept my reasoning, and told me to take all the time I needed to rest and get better. From the tone of his voice I immediately understood that he knew I wouldn’t recover. By then I’d resigned myself to the fact that there was no point in looking for a second opinion. I walked home trying to calculate how many idiots would tell me I should go to the sea to wait for the end, just like in those corny movies that glamorize a slow death. The enormity of the sea, the oceanic silence, the salt water, tears, a sepulchral silence, death as an oasis of peace. Nothing more naive than this pathetic banality.
As I took my keys from my pocket, the card the doctor had given me fell out. It only said Matías Schmidt, Esq., 566-8778. I couldn’t imagine how a lawyer could help me, but I had nothing better to do to occupy my dwindling time. A secretary answered the phone. I gave her my name and mentioned who had referred me. She told me that they did indeed have my records and were waiting my call. She put me on hold, and I listened to a Muzak version of Feelings while waiting for Mr. Schmidt to pick up the phone.
“I’ve been waiting to hear from you. I was starting to get worried.”
“As you know, we don’t have much time. Have you made a will?”
Now I thought I understood why Schmidt’s services had been recommended to me. I told him I had nothing to leave to anyone and was about to hang up.
“That might be true now, but soon you’ll have to decide who’s going to get 15 million.”
“I don’t have 15 million, nor do I have any life insurance or anything of value.”
“But you will. We’ve almost sold the rights to your death to the Juanmaría Aviles Show. What’s more, we think that a multinational sneaker company may be interested in using you in a commercial or two. You’ll see—once you appear on a few morning shows, offers will start pouring in. Of course, some invitations will be from charitable organizations, but others will no doubt be very well paid. Have you thought yet about donating your organs? Do it—people will be so moved. Especially if it’s your eyes.”
“What do you mean, eyes?”
“Yes, that’s the first thing you should donate. You know, thousands of people will start crying when they hear how your sacrifice will give someone the miracle of sight.”
He spoke so quickly that I couldn’t say anything. I wasn’t able to turn down the appointment he set up early the next morning in his office, either. Schmidt was experienced at his job and knew that not even an imminent death will eliminate ambition. The next day I arrived punctually at Schmidt’s office. He opened the door in person to receive me. When I left his office I had signed a contract in which I named him my representative for life and gave him various powers of attorney. I authorized him to manage me as if I were a movie star, and left all my public and private affairs in his hands. From that day on, Schmidt was in charge of taking me from one office to another so that he could be present at meetings with producers, agents, and executives. He had to make sure his product would sell. These comings and goings made my condition worse and as a result I looked more appealing: I vomited blood all the time, I fainted several times a day, and I was shivering from head to toe.
The most delicate contract was, of course, the rights to transmit my death by television and Internet. Schmidt fought tenaciously in the negotiations for the best possible terms. Nevertheless, the station was not willing to budge on certain points. A few clauses in particular disturbed my agent, such as their taking control of my medication once I signed the contract, or their demand to apply electrodes to monitor my vital signs at all times.
“You don’t realize that my client’s suffering guarantees you an extremely photogenic and drama-filled death. Besides, it will last long enough for a mini-series,” my legal representative affirmed.
An executive who couldn’t have been more than 20 replied, “You don’t understand the enormous risk this company is taking with your client. If he dies before expected, we’ll not only be in serious trouble with our sponsors, but our ratings will plummet, and that’ll have fatal consequences.”
“Don’t forget, we could go right now to Channel 2,” Schmidt emphatically countered.
Without consulting me, my lawyer agreed that cameras and microphones could come into my home any time the program director thought it was appropriate. He whispered in my ear that it was a standard condition. I was worried that the program would be motivational and inspirational. Schmidt tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the clause that completely barred me from giving interviews or participating in any news programs, debates, comedies, or game shows on other channels.
“In any case, we’ll have to find actors to play your client’s father, mother, and brothers and sisters. We’re not going to use amateurs—they’re too unpredictable and incompetent in these kinds of situations,” one of the producers said.
I protested. Schmidt, clearly annoyed, looked at me. My behavior was totally unprofessional. He assured me that he would handle it and told me not to worry. He asked me to wait outside. I had been sitting there waiting for half an hour when a very tall, thin woman in her thirties sat down next to me and asked:
“Are you one of the people who were contacted?”
“I am the Contactee from the 21st century. I traveled by spaceship to the Diomedes galaxy and was told about the future of humankind. They’re going to do a show on my experiences. What about you—what do you do? Where did you go?”
“I haven’t been anywhere. I’m dying and they’re going to do a live transmission of my death.”
“Oh. It’s not very painful, is it?”
“No, it’s very inspirational and motivational.”
Fortunately, after this exchange we sat in silence until my lawyer came out of the meeting room. He signaled me to follow him. He was visibly affected. We got on a crowded elevator. Schmidt, almost shouting, told me that if those sons of bitches wouldn’t pay, they’d get nothing.
“Nothing, you hear me! Nothing!”
They didn’t want to pay more than a million for the rights to my death. That, according to my lawyer, was an insult to human dignity. He said that he had gotten five million for a client who had lost both hands in a hydraulic press.
“Those bastards no longer respect anyone, that’s what it is,” he said as we got into his car.
“You think it’s right to use actors instead of my family members?” I asked.
“A few years ago the parents of a four-year-old girl with leukemia visited me. They had already appeared in news reports asking for help in finding a cure. I told them that they should have seen me first before doing such a thing. I explained to them that, quite frankly, their case had immediately lost value.”
“But my parents want to appear and they’ll be insulted if actors are used in their place. Besides, I haven’t told them anything about my condition yet,” I said, but Schmidt didn’t listen. He was talking at the top of his lungs and emphasized each sentence as he pressed the gas pedal closer to the floor.
He seemed to have forgotten that he was driving on a highway.
“Anyone would understand. Why should I donate my services if I could receive a substantial fee? I told them that they committed a crime against their own daughter by not consulting with me.” He looked at me while gesturing wildly with his hands, which made me very nervous.
“Watch the road,” I said, afraid of making him angrier.
“But those people didn’t understand anything. Even after signing a contract with me they agreed to be interviewed by a newspaper and allowed pictures to be published of their little daughter. Tell me, how in the world could they have done such a thing?”
The lawyer suddenly hit the brakes and we barely missed colliding with a van.
“But despite everything, I got them on a late-night talk show. And you know what they did … ?”
Before he could tell me, he was interrupted by what seemed to be an explosion. We had rammed into the back of a truck that was carrying steel reinforcing rods. Like enormous arrows, the rods pierced the windshield and the skin of the trunk as if these were made of paper. The airbags opened in time and then instantly deflated. I couldn’t move from my neck down. I felt nothing more than a sharp pain in my nose. Three rods had skewered me, one in my left arm, and the other two in my stomach. I think that one went through Schmidt’s chest and others into his stomach. When everything became quiet, he moved his hand and reached for his cell phone. Because he couldn’t lift it to his ear, he held it as close to me as he could and commanded:
“Call them and say yes. Don’t say anything to your family yet.”
I tried to reach the phone but I couldn’t. My hand was firmly nailed to the seat by one of the steel rods. People crowded around to look at us. At first, no one dared to approach, then the curious pushed each other to get a better view. I pointed to someone who was filming us with a camcorder, but my agent didn’t answer, or if he did, I wasn’t there to hear him.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson.
Margaret Carson is a freelance translator of Latin American fiction, poetry, and plays. Her translation of Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó and Griselda Gambaro’s The Camp will appear in the anthology Stages of Conflict: A Reader of Latin American Theatre and Performance (University of Michigan, 2007).
Naief Yehya was born in Mexico City in 1963 and has lived in Brooklyn since 1992. An industrial engineer by profession, Yehya has written film, music, and cultural criticism for several magazines and newspapers in Mexico for the last 19 years. He has published the novels Obras sanitarias (Sanitary Works, Editorial Grijabo, Mexico, 1992), Camino a casa (Walking Home, 1994), and La verdad de la vida en Marte (The Truth About Life on Mars, 1995, both Editorial Planeta, Mexico); and one short-story collection; Historias de mujeres malas (Stories About Bad Women, Editorial Plaza y janés, Mexico, 2002); and several essays. Yehya’s fiction and nonfiction work deal mainly with the impact of mass media and technology in culture.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.