The Man of Stone
The great Lloyd Rosenfeld, columnist, was popularly supposed to have fused into his desk, which had long since petrified, like one of those terrifying Aztec statues clutching a stone tablet you might see out on the street, Balderas. Huge haunted eyes staring across Mexico City, elephantine legs, a back preternaturally large and grey, and hands whose veins had solidified into hard blue streaks, sculpted with love but with less thought for use. Like the sculptures, the horrifying thing about him was that he was obviously still alive. The more perceptive even noticed that a faint humming came from his desk, as if his was the energy that kept the whole newspaper empire going, through all five floors of the building and right up to the giant red N revolving atop: N for Novedades, News.
Thus Lloyd. He had been too long in Mexico. He had reached the stretch of ‘road’ as defined by the American journalist and littérateur Ambrose Bierce, who vanished without trace in Chihuahua in 1913, “A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be, to where it is futile to go.” Lloyd attended the American hospital and the American synagogue, he spoke with fatal tolerance of the Mexicans and generally behaved as an expatriate, but he had undergone the metempsychosis that awaits so many visitors to this land of unexplained journeys: he had left the young Lloyd behind years ago somewhere in Mexico, and had migrated to this strange body which he had never dreamed of inhabiting. Now legs of stone stumped him along to the lavatory to pass, with difficulty, what might be a thin tinkle down a rock face, his only excursion from his desk until they went to press at noon; all morning, thick lapidatory fingers would pick out the right words on the keyboard, with care, for not only were the maestro’s columns followed faithfully by the city’s English-speaking population, he also had the ear of Death, who read him with particular attention.
This aficionado was invisible to the younger journalists, who only resented how Lloyd never left his desk, for they were too transient to have desks of their own and the office was perennially short of machines, as they called the computers, which meant a lot of hanging around, like hovering raptors. Yet another coffee in Roger’s, the café over the road, eyes wary and listening while the rain fell.
“C’mon, let’s have another go, he must be finished by now, it’s about his time.”
Back to the office, white-hot, waving their identity cards at the security guards, who were bored to tears with them, and up to the third floor.
“Hey come on guys, he can’t still be there – hell, he is! He is still there! How are we ever going to get to file our copy? This stupid system! The way it’s set up! Why’s it all got to be done internally? Why won’t it take stuff from outside?”
To which Lloyd, “Hey, what’s the big deal? This job didn’t even exist for you two months ago: why’s it so important now?”
And he regarded their anxious faces with his age-old, weary, sardonic eyes, his grey hair falling about his shoulders, like a tide withdrawing and leaving the shore scattered with scurf. But Jewish-Mexican fatalism cut no ice with the twitchy next generation with their protestant hearts and their blue eyes; he’d never met a young journalist yet, girl or boy, English or American, who didn’t have those keen, greedy, live-blue eyes. They went off and got themselves shot in Nicaragua, their clothes sent back to their weeping friends, tumbled in the big transparent plastic bags stamped with the paper’s logo, Novedades, SA de CV; they came in to the office at 1am and 2am when the machines were at last free, to work on the political supplement, which the paper then refused to publish; they slunk about Belize in old clothes, looking like feral rats and smelling of the dust of earthquakes and war; they raced round the city after big fires, like real journalists, ducking the warm blast of descending helicopters; they drank to excess, starting with tequila in a salt-frosted cocktail glass and ending with the worm itself. In general they lasted a few months to a year. So Lloyd told them.
“You guys are still tourists here. You don’t know Mexico. You’re just passing through.”
And they rushed off, shrieking and laughing in noisy protest. “Dios mio, Lloyd! Give me a break! Give me a complete and utter break!”
Perhaps their fluid exuberance was preferable to the slow process of petrification, but Lloyd no longer had any choice. His lower half was a creeping recrystallization of silica and calcite, minerals that were beautiful flowers of rock in their own right, but which woke him in horror at night as they settled on his limbs, permeating further and further inward; mud, silt and ash flowed in his veins; in plain terms, defibrillation and dialysis were becoming of increasingly less use to a body that was slowly seizing up. From that desk of his, with its faint, insistent smell of ammonia, he had grown roots which reached to the aquifer beneath the city. His wife now drove him to the office every day from their flat on Reforma, and gripped her hands to the wheel to stop herself helping him as he clumped up the steps and into the foyer where the guard already had his finger to the lift button for him.
To emerge straight on to the goldfish bowl, as the dome of glass was called where the editor had his being. Enclosed but visible like some strange species trapped beneath a glass bell jar, indeed the editor with his slight, gold, questing head and his little o of a mouth did have something of the look of a domestic aquatic. He wore a shirt of pale pink and white stripes and braces, and had an air of reading blind the copy he was bent over.
“Goldfish bowl – goldfish brain!” The growl was audible through the glass and the editor looked up sharply as Lloyd forged heavily past, in his suit of dark-grey stone. It was the daily refrain, Lloyd’s greeting, usually followed by a sardonic reference to what the tennis court was missing, with the editor trapped in that foreign element, indoors. When he should have been out on the court, courting! As Julietta the secretary observed, No hay amor perdido entre ellos, there was no love lost.
There on the third floor love was in any case in short supply. In the open-plan office where even in the rainy season the white blinds were always drawn against the sun, they were just tolerated by the Spanish language paper on the other side, whose staff were remote, bolshy professionals, always slinging themselves into their jackets and walking proudly out after a real story. They ignored the English-speaking team magnificently, with the exception of Lloyd, who would occasionally receive state visits from the political editor and other luminaries for a chat in heavy Spanish, visits which were in due course courteously returned. On the second floor, in a cavern of ceiling-high machines lived the compositors, a race of lubricious fawns always glad to see you, short young men with black slit eyes and a lot of hot backchat, waiting for Lloyd to press the Mandar key on his machine upstairs and send the copy down.
This done, after a judicious pause, Lloyd rose, stretched with a long hunch of his boulder shoulders, buttoned the slightly shiny overhang of his jacket, and made his way back to the lift, while the young ones, defeated once more by the seizure of his machine by the senior reporter, scampered back down the three floors.
They all met up again in the café over the way, for even stone has to be fed, even if only in the manner of an evaporite which gains its being from deposits of seawater. Here too Lloyd had his own table, with lunch of the unpretentious house chicken soup with rice and lime juice, and mild milky coffee. It was one of those little cafés you find anywhere in Mexico, with clean hard shiny tables and immoveable chairs and a blue fly catcher; on the tables, small bowls of red and green salsa and a short menu sealed in plastic.
Across the anodyne radio came the fervid chatter of the young reporters, hunched round their table. Beaks all set to tear the heart out of the next story. They were wild to go to that pueblo magico San Cristobal de las Casas, or the nearby village of Chamula, where the Tzotzil Mayans beheaded statues of saints for ignoring local prayers and made use of the Coca Cola liquid and live chickens during their magic rituals in church, and where a couple of tourists had been shot for taking photographs. A story mysteriously ignored by the paper. The young ones were wild for the newspaper to send them down there – of which there was, of course, not a chance – whether they would fly to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, or risk the overnight bus, or how they might deal with the camera problem, or whether it would be worth crossing the border to Guatemala while there. So might Cortes and his band have talked, with just those eyes.
From his soup Lloyd looked round the tables, nodded to them.
“So. What you going to report this time?”
And their eyes, those young keen eyes, fell or looked away elsewhere, out the window to where the rain fell steadily onto the street and the passing traffic. As the green smell of cilantro, coriander, and the hard yellow smell of tacos crept in from the kitchen they all felt homesick, including Lloyd.
“Lloyd. Why didn’t they cover that story?”
“Which was?” Being slightly deaf, Lloyd had in truth not distinguished their talk from the patter of the radio.
“Those two Germans who were shot in Chiapas.”
“Oh, that. Well, you see, that never happened. It’s just a rumour spread by the locals who want to set up their own tourism businesses. Lucrative guide tours. Don’t want outside busy-bodies cashing in. In their interests to discourage independent tourism, see?”
“No, I don’t. You’re kidding us it was just scaremongering? A made-up story to scare off private tourists?”
“U-huh. So they say. Why, the paper says so. They must be right. I work for them and I know.”
“Come on, Lloyd!”
“At any rate, it’ll make visitors more willing to dig into their pockets before they start snapping away at people’s private religious ceremonies.”
“In this day and age, no one has the right to any privacy.”
“They do in Mexico.”
“Don’t think so! Mexico’s no different to anywhere else.”
“Oh? It isn’t? My mistake.”
Only Lloyd had lived long enough in Mexico to understand. The perfectly good camera that wouldn’t work in a certain spot of the jungle because it was sacred to the aluxes, the spirits of the Yucatan Mayas. The computer that didn’t show the story you wrote but saved it all as gobbledegook. The tourists who were shot. He knew how it feels to have part of your soul stolen by someone’s callousness or indifference; why the saints in the Chamula church wore small mirrors to reflect people’s spirits back into their bodies. He understood why Bierce had vanished. Hadn’t he, Lloyd, vanished himself, years ago? Just a simulacrum of stone sitting at the desk. He understood his responsibility with the words he wrote. In Mexico, words were still magic. Could make things happen or could hold deeds in storage, good or bad. He understood that some things could not be reported, except by the recording angel.
But the maestro was needed. The cafe door opened, and kicking in sideways came Odi, chief of the compositor fawns, bearing a long, narrow proof that curled up at the end; Lloyd sighed, a jealous silence fell on the young ones, their heads swivelled round like birds of prey.
“I’m coming,” furrowing in his pocket for his wallet. “Ya me voy. What does he want this time?”
“Disculpe, maestro.” The ritual opening apology as Odi sat down next to Lloyd, unscrolling the proof and gesturing at the passages marked in red. So might one of the Chiapas Indians have propitiated his own stone idol, with such deprecatory gestures.
“Holy cow!” Lloyd snatched the proof, gestured Odi away, extended an arm to the proprietor with the usual note tucked between the fingers. “Holy cow! What! He’s cut - must be a third of it! What the hell does he think he’s- ”
He made for the door, and back over the road, Odi dancing and gesticulating at his side like a satyr by a moving batholith. The growl, “Only good for playing tennis,” floated back to the cafe.
The young ones sighed, back to their coffee dregs and the falling rain. So it would go on, the battle between the old Chicago fossil and the youngish, blondish Californian who had married into the newspaper dynasty straight from the tennis court and understood he must toe the line. Then Lloyd would meld with his desk again for the afternoon, drafting tomorrow’s column, until his wife came to collect him at 6pm, touching him gently on the shoulder to bring him back to life, while the hand of Death rested on his other shoulder.
The editor was convinced that Lloyd died long ago, only no one noticed, and so he was by no means shocked when the day came and they did indeed find him sitting dead at his desk. The young journalists had been more willing to believe he lived, because they wanted what he had, and so they were sorry, sorrier than might have been expected. It took two days to discover Lloyd, not five, and then it only took so long because his wife was away for a short break with friends in Cuernavaca. But even then, life isn’t that simple. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between a statue and a live person sitting at a desk. Stone cannot walk far, nor perhaps display a great range of emotions, and the day must come when it crumbles under stress and time. Then its only end is sand. But meanwhile it must endure whatever stone has to endure: sunrise, sunset, and the emergence of stars that will long outlast it. So Lloyd Rosenfeld sat at his desk, waiting for the process of crystallisation to be complete.