"You Remember Cantinflas, Don't You?" by Ewing Campbell

Ewing Campbell

Ewing Campbell

Ewing Campbell lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and has taught in Spain and Argentina with support from Fulbright fellowships. He also received a 1990 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction. His most recent book of fiction is Afoot in the Garden of Enchantments (2007).

You Remember Cantinflas, Don't You?

Remember Cantinflas, my cockatoo that barked like a dog and screeched so loud the neighbors had to slam their shutters? Every time someone knocked at the door or put a key in the lock, he used to shout, “Open the door, Leti.” He learned to say it by repeating the words of my friends who always called up to me from the street when they came over: “Open the door, Leti Inés. It's us down here.”

What a racket he made, but I never should have started covering his cage at night because no dog ever barked louder if intruders got any ideas. I only covered him after Melchor Malquiado came around with complaints from the neighbors in Santo Domingo Street that cries for help were coming from my house. They said they heard a woman screaming, "Help me! Help me! Someone help me, please!"

That's when Melchor Malquiado showed up, but instead of someone being murdered, he found Cantinflas practicing a new sentence. And that wasn't the first time either. Maybe a year before, Cantinflas was crying like a baby for hours, and the neighbors thought there was an abandoned baby. But it was only Cantinflas. So Melchor Malquiado came in and looked at the window above the street, then at Cantinflas next to it, telling me to put something over his cage at night, “Señorita Letitia Inés, so people can get some sleep and not have that awful screaming for help that frightens everyone.” Or else he'd have to take the bird to the police station, begging my pardon. He said this, his eyes first on one thing, then another—a chair, the rug, a lamp—in a way that made me nervous. I didn't like the way he shrugged his shoulders and looked at everything in the room as if making plans for the future. He wiped his face and neck with a handkerchief, staring at Cantinflas inside his cage. It was hot, and maybe he was biding his time before going outside where the sun was bright

But he didn't come to my house again as a policeman because the town finally took his uniform away and sent him back to the chaparral where he had a piece of land they had given his grandfather. Someone said he was stripped and sent away for having fingers that stuck to other people's things. That's what they told me anyway. Customers said it when they came to the pharmacy. Who knows? Maybe it was so, but Melchor Malquiado was telling the truth about the neighbors' complaints.

Doña Trinidad reported in confidence that Señor Gaj didn't want to hear Cantinflas shouting at him to open the door every time he turned his key in the lock at Casa Alférez. She said the noise entered a gap in his damaged nerves, and when it did, pain shot through his leg and all the way down to his foot, the lame one on the right side. If you saw him outside in the street, he was always dragging his foot like something tied on to hobble his progress. Maybe that was why he didn't want Cantinflas staring at him from the second-floor window or hurrying him up when he was already going as fast as he could. Maybe he was bothered about how much time it took to do things. I never blamed him, poor man, because I wouldn't like it either if I was in his place. Being rude is no way to treat a cripple and a guest of the town. I don't care if it was only a bird acting that way. There's no excuse for being cruel because children might see it and think it's all right to act like that.

At the pharmacy, though, Cantinflas always behaved himself and greeted anyone who started to come in by saying, “Open the door, Leti.” I carried him to work every day because he couldn't bear to be away from me, not even for a minute. If I was in back where I kept supplies, measuring out sulfa powders or weighing some grains of streptomycin, I never had to worry about the front of the shop. And nobody ever had to wait. People came in just to hear him talk when they needed medicine even though that place on Canal Street—I won't say the name—had a larger supply on hand. That's the reason I changed the name from the Parish Pharmacy to Farmacia Cantinflas, to honor his place in the business.

But that's not why I cried when someone came in the night and carried Cantinflas off. I cried for love and sadness because, as I told you, we couldn't bear to be separated. Who would believe anyone could reach a window on the second floor? The new policeman took one look and decided the thief used the grill on the lower window to climb up, perhaps with a hook tied to a rope so he could pull himself up the last few feet. Then he would have used the same hook and rope to lower the covered cage with Cantinflas in it to the cobbles below. Nothing else was taken. So whoever committed the crime was looking for my cockatoo. The policeman thought there was one thief and maybe someone waiting down in the street or maybe not. He couldn't say for sure. He asked if I heard anything in the night or noticed a stranger hanging around outside the day before?

No, I didn't hear or see anyone, but from then on, with Cantinflas gone, I heard many things at night—the train before dawn when it passed through on its way north, dogs barking, and cats fighting. It was a lonely sound the train made. Worst of all, I heard silence in all the rooms of the house, and I heard the church bells tolling the hours because I was awake, thinking that a man who would enter a house uninvited and steal another's treasure wouldn't treat a bird any better than a person. Such a man would be heartless although we did learn of a thief who broke into the Church of San Antonio Abad last year and made off with Our Lady of Solitude's holy relics. The very next night, just before vespers, everything that had been carried off was found intact in a side chapel, returned by the thief who must have repented because his shame was unbearable. For a whole month, we wondered who could be so depraved he would rob the church, but we never knew at that time who it was. Then later, we forgot this crime against God. Even so, there was at least that one time when the worst kind of man was touched by mercy. It didn't happen often, and yet it could, as was proved by the thief of San Antonio Abad. So I kept saying a prayer and hoping.

To our shame, this is a nation of thieves, but you might say, “Which one isn't?” Just the same, something's wrong when a man harms a community and its people without provocation or, even worse, plunders the House of Redemption for no other reason than to steal from the ones who sacrifice for others. What kind of creature despoils the altar of God? May God have mercy on his soul and on the one who came into my home on a hook and a rope although the police hadn't confirmed this was how he got in. For all anyone knew, he used a ladder although you can carry a hook and rope coiled under a poncho or jacket without being noticed while anyone with a ladder on his shoulder would stand out. Not all mysteries are easy to solve, and a long time passed before any evidence turned up. Even then, it was because of a coincidence. It happened about three o'clock in the afternoon, two days after Señor Gaj fainted in the Cantinflas Pharmacy from the pain of having his teeth pulled. He came in to get something for the awful pain.

And just two days later, a Seventh-Day Adventist showed up in search of some true aloe after she had spent too much time in the sun, going from door to door out in Barrio Chino, where a mixed neighborhood of working people and a few immigrants lived because houses were cheaper on the outskirts. The Protestant was as friendly as a Samaritan, which you have to be in that kind of calling. I was wearing the small name plate with Letitia Inés on it, and she asked if that was the name my friends used.

Sometimes, I replied, if they were teasing or wanted to get my attention, but more often they just called me Leti.“Leti?” she said, a look of surprise on her face. “What a coincidence. When I knocked on a door in Barrio Chino this morning, someone inside called out, 'Open the door, Leti,' and a lady came to see what I wanted. But she didn't have time to let me in or to visit. Just think, two in one day.”

I couldn't believe what I heard and made her repeat it to make sure. When she confirmed it with the same words, I had to think a while, knowing that a clear head was needed at a time like this. First, before even thinking of the police, I wanted to find the house. Could she show me this place if I hired a taxi? My legs were trembling, but I was trying to stay calm just the same.

You can imagine the long pause following such a question. She had to wonder what was going on and what she was getting into. Just think how you would feel, but it's not as hard to trust someone who's known in town than to trust a stranger in the street who might be anybody because my Uncle Guzman said, “Pickpockets in Mexico City look just like your grandmother.” I think my little shop counted for something. And it also helped that she was always calling on people in their homes, where some might think it was an imposition. This trait more than anything else probably convinced her to go along when I locked the door and stopped a taxi.

We rode in silence as I tried to think ahead, passing alongside Plaza de la Soledad and the Convent of San Francisco de Sales, skirting Nuestra Señora de Salud and the Temple of the Oratorio. After avoiding the foot of Cerro del Chorro, we turned into Piedras Chinas and went out along its cobbles for some distance, going under the arch and entering Barrio Chino, where we found the house isolated at the end of the Arroyo of Avocados. You couldn't mistake the location. It was the last house before a desolate upland chaparral that climbed into a line of barren ridges and windswept heights. I gave the driver a ten-peso coin for his trouble and then another for him to wait, trying to think what to do now that I had located the place where someone was shouting, “Open the door, Leti.”

You might ask why I didn't go to the house right then and reclaim my stolen property. Believe me when I say I thought about it, but I used the ride over to imagine what could go wrong, trying to sort out the best way to act. The truth is I didn't have the right or the power to reclaim anything. Charging in like that, only to be turned away without Cantinflas, would give the thief time to move him from there to a hiding place. So, no, it was better for an official to confront the occupant of the house while Cantinflas was barking out commands for everybody to hear. He always spoke for himself no matter what else was happening, and his words, coming from inside, would point the accusing finger.

When the police arrived, a woman answered the door. You could hear a hoarse voice shouting inside, “Open the door, Leti.” Because of that, they went in before she gave permission and found Cantinflas perched on a windowsill, growling like a dog guarding her young. The woman was a quarrelsome recluse known to the police from times past when she lived on Cerro del Chorro and fought with her neighbors. A notorious troublemaker called Martita Gusano, she'd complain that the neighbors were growing vines on her wall, which formed the back of their patio or she'd accuse them of throwing refuse over the partition and stealing into her courtyard to rob her of charcoal in the dead of night while she slept.

“When did you move out here, Martita Gusano?” asked the one in charge.

“It was a while ago,” she said.

“And where did you get this bird?” he asked, pointing at Cantinflas.

A look of concern came into her eyes, but only for a moment because her quarrelsome nature got the better of her judgment when she defiantly asked him, “Who wants to know?” Then without waiting for an answer, she changed her tone and added that, one night just before dawn, a loud knocking at her door woke her. “When I asked who was there, a voice told me he was a messenger with a gift from Mother Superior.”

By the time she unbolted and opened the door, the messenger was gone, but he had left the cage with the cockatoo in it.

“You never saw this messenger?”

“Not a sign of him except for the cage on the ground at my front step.”

She was the one doing the talking now, saying this with the sincerity of person you would never doubt. The one in charge of the inquiry let her go on with her lie, but not for long because she saw from his face that he didn't believe her. They said she was always making up things as an unrepentant liar. He wondered had she ever seen the inside of the prison. And if she knew what happened to someone like her inside a place like that.

It was enough to make her pause as she thought about his meaning. As you might imagine, she changed her story. The truth was the bird really hadn't been a gift from Mother Superior but the answer to her prayers as advised and sanctioned by Captain Malquiado of the municipal police. His Excellency, the captain, had come round when she still lived on Cerro del Chorro and warned her to behave herself after one of those outbursts. Otherwise, he'd have to lock her up if there were any more complaints. So she confided to him that she was moving to a cheaper house in Barrio Chino and would be leaving the neighborhood of all her troubles. All the same, she admitted to Melchor, it would be better if she had a talking bird as a companion because nobody likes to be alone all the time. When she added that she might pay as much as four hundred pesos for such a companion, he told her to say her prayers and to trust in God. And soon after that, the strange creature the Sisters of Charity called Atanacio San Dimas brought the bird around late at night and took away her life savings of four hundred pesos.

“First of all, Melchor Malquiado was never a captain, Martita Gusano, and you know he was at the bottom of the pile. The next thing you should know is he's been dismissed, stripped of his uniform, and is headed for jail if I have anything to say about it. So he couldn't approve anything for you except a place in prison as his accomplice.”

But they didn't take Martita Gusano off. Instead, they left her with a final warning that they had an eye on her and returned Cantinflas with apologies for my distress. A squad of police went out to Melchor Malquiado's hovel up the river near Ojo Zarco, where you'll find the rock quarry for those pink stones they use on new buildings. Maybe you remember it's not far from the road they call the Route of Chapels. A creek rises from a crack in the ground out there and runs through the chaparral to the river. You go down into the dry bed where the river disappears underground and climb up through the huisache scrub on a track that barely marks the plain

At Melchor Malquiado's place, they found his hammock empty and no sign of him anywhere or anyone else except Atanacio San Dimas out in the cowshed, sitting on a stool and staring at the mountains as if in a trance. He was covered with those boils you get from sandfly bites, and there were lumps and bruises on his head. They asked him where Melchor Malquiado was, saying they had a summons for the former policeman. They said this as soon as they saw Atanacio sitting there with a blank look on his face, but he didn't answer or seem to hear the question. One of them who went out back and was poking around the property came to the cowshed and told the others there were two coyotes sniffing at a pile of river rocks and not running off when he threw a stone at them. And if you looked at the branches of the nearby huisaches, you could see buzzards standing watch like a choir of black-robed priests. Maybe, he said, they should look under the stones to see what brought those scavengers around.

“Listen,” he added, “you can hear the coyotes howling in the brush.”

So while the one in charge rested in the shade, the others started scattering stones until they uncovered a man's foot and then his leg. When they got all the rocks off Melchor Malquiado, they found his head cracked open like a ripe melon that had fallen from a truck out on the highway and beside him an iron hook with blood and hair sticking to it and the rope still fastened on. The one who was resting in the shade of the cowshed yanked Atanacio off the stool and dragged him around to show him what they had uncovered, but he didn't seem surprised or sorry to see Melchor there on the ground without a shirt, a great clot of black blood matting his bushy hair on the side of his head above his ear.

“See what you've done?” the corporal said. “You've made a mess.”

Without changing expression, he looked at the dead man. For all the emotion coming from Atanacio, Melchor could have been one of the rocks used to cover up his corpse. Just the same, anyone who hides a crime knows he's done something bad because otherwise he wouldn't go to all the trouble. And it took an effort to move that many rocks.

“Is this how you repaid the man who took you in?” That's what they asked him.

“It's how I paid the man who almost killed me.”

“You think it's right to crush the hand that feeds you?”

Atanacio said the beating was bad enough, but even that would have been all right if Martita Gusano had not put a curse on him that raised boils in his flesh. He couldn't lie down because of the pain. Running sores opened up and tiny black worms came out, stinging him and making him itch all over. He said he only wanted his share of the money from the bird to pay Elpidio to cure the boils, but Melchor Malquiado told him to put ashes on the sores to stop the itching and burning. Besides, Melchor made him return the holy relics he took from the Church of San Antonio Abad the year before, the very things that would have protected him from the evil eye. Even then, he wouldn't have done anything if Melchor hadn't, in a bad temper, grabbed him by the hair and thrown him down when he caught Atanacio San Dimas trying to take the share that rightfully belonged to him.

“Melchor Malquiado knocked me down with a stick of firewood he took up. He kicked me in the head and ribs more times than I could count, cursing and holding me down, drubbed my back and shoulders until the stick broke from the force of his blows, and added insult to injury by spitting on me when he was too tired to go on with the beating. That's how it was,” Atanacio said, adding that he was left paralyzed on the ground for more than an hour and couldn't stop his legs from jerking. But when Melchor got drunk and went to sleep, Atanacio made himself get up and move. He didn't want his master to wake up and start over again.”

“No,” the one in charge agreed, “we can see you didn't want that, and now you don't have to worry because Melchor Malquiado won't be waking up unless he becomes a second Lazarus.”

That's what they told me when they came around to put my mind at ease and let me know they had Atanacio in jail, where Elpidio the curandero is trying to cure his boils and rid him of the worms that look like tiny hairs. But the best thing that happened was getting Cantinflas home again because you remember we were always good friends, Cantinflas and I, even if the neighbors think he talks a lot and says nothing. They aren't so happy he's come back to me with his barks that keep the thieves away and his shouts of “Open the door, Leti."