El Ingeniero stood at his office window, watching through binoculars as the big black plane touched down on runway B.
Never, in all his years as Operations Manager, had an aircraft this size landed at the airport. Mostly they ran turbo props and Embraer jets back and forth to the capitol and the beach resorts. He’d spent the last two decades persuading airline executives, with the help of fifty dollar mescal bottles and private helicopter tours of pre columbian ruins, that this provincial backwater was the tourist destination of the future. Then along came some campesinos with bull horns and molotov cocktails; the story got picked up by CNN; planes arrived half empty, and in a matter of weeks, the airlines were threatening to pull out.
The black plane stopped just short of the fence that separated the airfield from the neighboring goat pasture. The green and blue foothills shimmered in the hot air from the four engines.
High heels clicked across the floor behind him. He didn’t turn around.
“Good morning, Ingeniero.” It was the English teacher, the pretty blond one the language institute sent on Tuesdays, Rachel, Rebecca—something like that. He didn’t think she would come today. The demonstrators had barricaded the highway again; that’s what he told Wife #3 (and counting) when he didn’t make it home last night.
“What are you doing?” the teacher said. Her Spanish put his English to shame. She was about the same age as his daughter, who lived in Cuernavaca with Wife #2, fresh out of college, living it up abroad before settling down to marriage, career, whatever it was girls wanted these days.
“Birdwatching,” he answered.
“Cool! What kind of birds do you see?”
“Oh you know, pigeons, hawks, buzzards, the usual.”
“You ever see an eagle?” she asked.
“Once in a while.”
The black airplane taxied slowly in the opposite direction of the terminal. The wings made an inverted triangle spread out above the grass on either side of the jetway. It reminded him of the black moths that hatched during the rainy season, the ones that got inside your house and stuck to damp places on the ceiling, the ones the Indios said signaled death, not that he believed in that kind of thing.
“I saw a bald eagle once,” the teacher said. “At the lake in Minnesota.”
“I saw one too—on the back of a dollar bill.”
The teacher laughed. “Too bad they’re endangered.”
El Ingeniero followed the plane with binoculars until it stopped at the far side of the airfield. He counted twenty prisoners, lined up against the chain link fence, blindfolded, hands cuffed behind their backs. Most were Indio—short, dark-skinned. A few were women. One couldn’t have been more than eighteen, pretty, black hair hanging loose to her waist. None of them he recognized from the news. That’s how it went; the leaders were never brought to justice, only the poor pendejos desperate enough to believe their promises.
Every day there were more demonstrators. They came from every part of the province, and from outside it. They moved into the streets and the plazas, entire families, sleeping on sidewalks, stringing laundry between the shade trees, pissing in the fountains. They said they wanted higher wages, better schools, clean elections—same things he and his friends marched for back in ‘68—but mostly they threw rocks, set fires, spray painted slogans, often misspelled, on the 17th century facades.
In ‘68 he was a student in the capitol. Until that day, he hadn’t paid much attention to the demonstrations, unless they blocked his way to class. But that day’s demonstration was to be the biggest yet, and all his friends were going. They joined the crowd that packed the Plaza of the Three Cultures and spilled out into the churchyard of Santiago de Tlatelolco and the archeological park nextdoor. Thousands perched along the stone platforms where the Mexica made their last stand against the Spanish. He couldn’t help but think that if Cuauhtémoc had this many in 1521 he would have won, and they’d all be indios now.
El Ingeniero had never seen so many girls in one place, and not girls like he knew back on the rancho. His father beat his sisters if they stepped out without a shawl, but these girls wore their hair long and skirts short. They held banners, and roared slogans. He remembered how at the end, when Cortes had the Mexica surrounded, the women of Tlatelolco tucked up their skirts and joined the fight.
The crowd was so tightly packed that warm bodies touched him on every side. He felt the roll of womens’ hips, their hair brushing his face as it spilled over their shoulders. Maybe his senses were heightened from smoking mota, or the events that followed distilled his memory, but he never forgot the smell of their hair, like fruit lollipops.
“You okay, Ingeniero?” The teacher asked.
“You’re quiet today.”
“I’m just tired, not getting enough sleep these days.” The nightmares were back. Some nights, he relived running from the tanks in ‘68; some nights he was running from the Spanish; other nights he turned and ran the other way, only to be confronted with Aztec spears. He never knew what side he was on, except that it was the wrong one.
“Me neither,” the teacher said. “There’s so much noise in the street, shouting, glass shattering. The other night I thought I heard gunshots.”
“Nah,” he said. “It was probably just firecrackers.” When he’d first started working in aviation, the noise of propellers set him off; his heart raced and his hands and feet felt like they were no longer attached to his body. That’s when he began carrying a flask in his jacket lining, so he could take a nip to steady himself—mostly pulque back then, now Don Julio.
“These nacos don’t have any guns,” he said.
“The police do.”
He tightened his grip on the binoculars. “But why would they open fire on their own people?”
“Why not? When they know they can just blame it on the demonstrators.” She wasn’t such a dumb blond after all.
“Why don’t you just go home,” he asked. “like the other foreigners?” There were no tourists now. The hotels had been boarded up and spray painted with caricatures of politicians, fantastic and obscene. “What’s keeping you here? A boyfriend?”
“No!” He could almost hear her eyes rolling.
“What about your parents? They must be worried sick.”
“I keep telling them to stop watching CNN. Most of the time it’s not like that, with the tear gas and that buses on fire. Most of the time it’s like this.” She stepped up beside him at the window. He wished he could see it as she did: black dots on a hazy green campo, raptors soaring against the blue wall of the Sierra that separated the provincial city from the outside world.
When the shooting started in ‘68, he ran so fast he could have qualified for the maldita olympics—smack into the line of oncoming tanks. The shots came from above, from the roofs of the high rise apartment buildings. He turned and ran back towards the church, but he saw soldiers swarming up between the ruins. All around him people fell. The sound of machine gun fire was louder than the screams. He made it almost to the steps of an apartment building before his knees failed him. There were limp bodies over and under him. He felt moisture trickling down the back of his neck and didn’t know if he’d been hit or if it were the rain that had begun falling .
Hours later, when he staggered to his feet, he saw the plaza littered with women’s shoes; pumps, stilettos, kitten heels, kicked off in flight, mangled in pools of blood and rainwater. He didn’t see his friends anywhere.
“Come on Ingeniero, let me see!” The teacher stood close behind him, her head nearly resting on his shoulders. Holding up the binoculars this long had drained the blood from his fingers, but he wouldn’t put them down.
A hatch opened in the hull of the black aircraft. The soldiers prodded the prisoners up the ramp with their rifle butts. The German Shepherds nipped at their heels, as one by one they disappeared inside the dark hold. When the black-haired girl got to the top of the ramp her knees gave out. A soldier pulled her up by her hair and flung her into the hold. The dogs lunged after her.
“Please, Ingeniero?”He could smell the teacher’s shampoo, like fruit lollipops, feel her breath on his neck, and to his shame felt himself getting hard. “I want to see!”
His hands shook but he wouldn’t let go of the binoculars.
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