. . . but a pleasant enough dinner nonetheless
nboard the train going from Denver airport to the city proper, Valdivieso rattled the pill bottle in his pocket and read these words, the last their author had ever written, or rather reread the carcasses of these words, dry now, bare syllables exhausted of meaning after so many repetitions, and tried to imagine—again, as he had done so many times—Pérez de las Casas writing those words, and then Pérez de las Casas, after he’d written them, putting his face through a mirror. Not just through but against, grinding his face on the silver-painted glass and its wooden backboard until his eyes were gone and his face was deep tatters of sinew and pigskin, crimson and leather and pale beige.
Valdivieso now had all the elements he needed to reconstruct the scene, the image having evolved within his mind as he acquired the details and incorporated them, one by one, into the rendering, until the bathroom that he’d seen in his mind’s eye when he was first told the story—the early imagined version of which, he realized, was set in the bathroom of a house he himself had lived in as a child— was replaced with the actual bathroom that Pérez de las Casas had done it in, and likewise the imagined mirror was replaced with the actual mirror; the imagined wounds with the real wounds, of which he had seen every photograph that existed.
Valdivieso had stood in that bathroom where Pérez de las Casas had destroyed his body, and he had drunk in all the details that made the place what it was: the fragile creaking white wood which brought to mind Amsterdam, though it was only DC; the chipped and clawed tub; the faint though unmistakable smell of these renovated townhouses, too old and too new at once. The investigators had taken note of everything, down to which lights in the house had been on at the moment it happened, and to Valdivieso’s question responded that all the downstairs lights had been off, and that upstairs the writing-nook lights were on, as were those in the hallway; the bathroom stood in darkness but for what light entered from the corridor and the street.
So for the thousandth time, Valdivieso imagined the scene. For the thousandth time, as though trapped in a Greek hell of repetition, Pérez de las Casas gripped the edges of the bathroom sink with both hands, craned back for momentum, and then swung his whole trunk forward and drove his face into the mirror. In the sky outside the train, a herd of blue thunderheads grazed across a plain the size of countries.
Valdivieso was tired; the re-creation of the scene, though more accurate, was becoming more lifeless also with each revisiting, and so he lay his head back and closed the binder wherein lay Pérez de las Casas’s notes as well as his own, notes abounding with narrativized depictions of that scene, which crawled through the pages, like the stages of a fish out onto land grotesquely evolving limbs, in almost as many iterations as it had existed within his mind. In one version, written before he’d learned that the lights of the bathroom had been off, it is precisely the fluorescent lighting and its exposing nature that lies at the heart of the scene, the man seeing himself too clearly and overcome by that clarity’s horror; in another, written after he received that information, Pérez de las Casas is instead hidden even from himself, his reflection in darkness and only one half of his jaw visible in the slanted beam from the half-closed door. There is one where he screws his eyes shut tight before swinging; another where he keeps them open for the whole thing, until their input shorts with a shard through the cornea; one where he takes painkillers to numb it; another, after Valdivieso learned he did not, where the only inebriants are internal and dark.
Joaquín Pérez de las Casas, or Perez day lahs Cahsas, as he himself had been known to pronounce it with his tragic gringo accent, had never struck Valdivieso as a particularly talented author—certainly his prose was nothing to write home about—and yet, with the blandness of his sentences, with the abhorrent solidity of his facts, the texts he created were terrible things. They had absorbed Valdivieso when he’d first encountered them as a young man, drawing him in as if the skin of the world had been peeled back to reveal the void beneath; now, as a middle-aged man, they meant or did not mean anything anymore; they were simply that to which he had dedicated his life.
It was the pull of the wrong that lay at the heart of those books. The sick, the inhuman, which appeared therein laid bare and without judgment, and which, because of that very absence of judgment, seemed to act as a mirror, laying bare the sickness and wrongness of anyone who out of whatever morbid fascination forced themselves to wade through those lines—and indeed, had Valdivieso not been an academic, Pérez de las Casas’s work would still have exerted that pull on him, like the awful entrancement he’d felt as a boy when he saw for the first time the beggar crawling on all fours down the street, some realization about the nature of the world that went beyond the immediate horror of what he was seeing. He was, however, an academic, and inside the little world of those who lived from writing about the writings of others (and variations on the above formula) it was not only tolerated, but encouraged, to pick as narrow a field of study as the work of a single author, and then to spend decades devoting quantities of time and mental energy to it that no human being should ever devote to thinking about any other single human not their own offspring, and so it was that, from the age of twenty-three, when he had penned his master’s dissertation and first paper about de las Casas, La Comisaría Reporta: The Language of Latin American Cronicas in Joaquín Pérez de las Casas’s Prose, he had dived headfirst into that little grim world, which was now the only world left for him, and the author had become, like a god or lover, the central figure around which orbited his empty life—but a sad god, an absent lover, who gave nothing back for the fanatic’s handing over of himself.
He had met his god only once and found the writer’s balding and potbellied presence to be as unremarkable as his sentences. I don’t think anything had been the single phrase that remained from the encounter. It was some university lecture, a reading from Interrogation, Pérez de las Casas’s exhaustive biography of former torturers from various dictatorial regimes, and after the passage had concluded, the strident voice of a student had called out in evident distress, But what do you think? his jaw tight, voice straining with a need for moral clarity that approached desperation but also entitlement, a sense that the one responsible for the discomfort owed it to him to provide a way out, and Pérez de las Casas had blinked and squinted and looked out, myopically scrutinizing his audience for the face, What do I think?
The student had nodded, Yes, what do you actually think about all this horrible stuff you write about? And with a shrug that was very much the shrug of an old man, though back then he was not yet in his fifties, he had gone back to scanning the crowd for the next question, as though this one were so abstract and academic as to be completely beyond him, and then added as an afterthought, I don’t think anything. I research and write about what I find . . . ■