“They were all sitting around a table, right here in New York, not far from here.”
“Where?” I asked instinctively.
He gave me a look that said he couldn’t believe I was stupid enough to ask a question like that. What I was about to hear was an exchange of favors. The police had arrested a young man in Europe a few years back. A Mexican with an American passport. He was sent to New York, where they let him stew in the swamp of the underworld instead of in jail. Every now and then he’d spill some news to keep from being arrested. Not an informer exactly, but pretty close, something that didn’t make him feel like a rat, but not one of those silent as stone types either. The police would ask him generic questions, nothing specific enough to expose him in front of his gang. They needed him to say which way the wind was blowing, what the mood was, rumors of meetings or wars. No proof or evidence, just rumors. They’d collect the evidence later on. But now that wasn’t enough. The young man had recorded a speech on his iPhone at a meeting he’d gone to. A speech that made the police uneasy. Some of them, whom I’d known for years, wanted me to write about it somewhere, to make noise, to see what sorts of reactions it got in order to find out if the story I was about to hear really went the way the young man said it had, or if it had been staged, a little theater piece. They wanted me to shake things up in the world where those words had been uttered, where they’d been heard.
The police officer waited for me in Battery Park, on a little jetty. No hat or dark glasses, no ridiculous disguise. He showed up in a brightly colored T-shirt and flip-flops, with a smile that said he couldn’t wait to spill his secret. His Italian was full of dialect, but I could understand him. He wasn’t looking for complicity of any sort; he had orders to tell me about the speech and didn’t waste time. I remember the story perfectly; it has stayed inside me. The things we remember aren’t stored merely in our heads; I’m convinced that other parts of our bodies remember too. The liver, testicles, fingernails, ribs. When you hear such words, they get lodged there. Each body part sends what it remembers to the brain. More and more I realize that I remember with my stomach, which stores up the beautiful as well as the horrendous. I know that certain memories are there, because my stomach moves. My diaphragm, that membrane rooted at the very core of my body, creates waves. The diaphragm makes us pant and shudder, but it also makes us piss, defecate, and vomit. That’s where the pushing during childbirth starts. Where everything starts. And I’m sure there are places that collect much worse, that store up the waste. I don’t know exactly where that place is inside of me, but I know it’s full. My place of memories, of waste, is saturated. That might seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. Because if the waste doesn’t have anywhere to go it starts worming its way into places it shouldn’t. It thrusts itself into places that collect different sorts of memories. That policeman’s story filled up forever the part of me that remembers the worst things. Those things that resurface just when you start thinking everything’s going better, when you start imagining you’ll finally be able to go home, when you tell yourself it really was worth it after all. It’s in moments like that when the dark memories resurface from somewhere, like an exhalation, like trash in a dump, buried and covered over by plastic, that somehow finds its way to the surface and poisons everything.
The police officer told me that the young man, his informer, had heard the only lesson worth learning—that’s what he called it—and had recorded it on the sly. Not to betray anyone, but to be able to listen to it again. A lesson on how to be in the world. And he let the officer hear the whole thing; they listened together, sharing the young man’s earbuds.
“Now you have to write about it. Let’s see if somebody gets pissed off . . . which would mean that the young man’s telling the truth. If you write about it and nobody does anything, then either it’s just a load of crap from some B-grade actor, and our Chicano friend is making fools of us . . . or nobody believes the bullshit you write.” He laughed.
I nodded without promising anything; I was just trying to understand the situation. Supposedly it was an old Italian boss talking to a group of Latinos, Italians, Italian Americans, Albanians, and former Kaibiles, the notorious Guatemalan elite soldiers. At least, that’s what the young man said. No facts, statistics, or details. Not something you learn against your will; you just enter the room one way and you come out changed. You’re still wearing the same clothes, have the same haircut, your beard is still the same length. No signs of being initiated, no cuts over your eyebrows, no broken nose, and you haven’t been brainwashed with sermons either. You go in, and when you come out, at first glance you look exactly the same as when you were pushed through the door. But only on the outside. Inside you’re completely different. They didn’t reveal the ultimate truth to you, they merely put a few things in their proper place. Things you hadn’t known how to use before, that you’d never had the courage to take in.
The police officer read me the transcription he’d made. They’d met in a room not far from where we were, seated in no particular order, randomly, not in a horseshoe like they do at ritual initiations. Seated like they do in a club in some small town in southern Italy, or on Arthur Avenue in New York City, to watch the soccer game on TV. But there was no soccer game on TV in that room, and this was no gathering of friends. They were all members of criminal organizations, of all different ranks. The old Italian gets up. They knew he was a man of honor, that he’d come to the United States after living in Canada for a long time. He begins talking without even introducing himself; he doesn’t need to. He speaks a bastard Italian, some dialect thrown in, mixed with English and Spanish. I wanted to know his name, so I asked the police officer, trying to sound casual, as if it were a passing curiosity. He didn’t bother answering me.