A Family Like Any Other
THE FATHER. Pastor Pagán knows how to wink. He's a professional at winking. For him, winking an eye-just one-is a way to be courteous. All the people he deals with conclude their business with a wink. The bank manager when he approves a loan. The teller when he cashes a check. The administrator when he hands it to him. The cashier when he plays the fool and doesn't inspect it. The chief's assistant when he tells him to go to the bank. The porter. The chauffeur. The gardener. The maid. Everybody winks at him. Headlights on cars wink, traffic lights, lightning in the sky, grass in the ground, eagles in the air, not to mention the planes that fly over the house of Pastor Pagán and his family the whole blessed day. The feline purr of the engines is interrupted only by the winking of the traffic on Avenida Revolución. Pastor responds to them with his own wink, moved by the certainty that this is dictated by good manners. Now that he's on a pension, he thinks of himself as a professional winker who never opened both eyes at the same time, and when he did, it was already too late. One wink too many, he thinks in self-recrimination, one wink too many. He didn't retire. He was retired at the age of fifty-two. What could he complain about? Instead of punishing him, they gave him nice compensation. Along with early retirement came the gift of this house, not a great mansion but a decent place to live. A relic of the distant "Aztec" period in Mexico City, when the nationalistic architects of the 1930s decided to build houses that looked like Indian pyramids. In other words, the house tapered between the ground floor and the third floor, which was so narrow it was uninhabitable. But his daughter, Alma, found it ideal for her equally narrow life, devoted to surfing on the Internet and finding in its virtual world a necessary-or sufficient-amount of life so she did not have to leave the house but felt herself part of a vast invisible tribe connected to her, as she was connected to and stimulated by a universe that she thought the only one worthy to take possession of "culture." The ground floor, really the basement, is occupied now by his son, Abel, who rejoined the family at the age of thirty-two after a failed attempt at leading an independent life. He came back proudly in order not to show that he was coming back contrite. Pastor received him without saying a word. As if nothing had happened. But Elvira, Pastor's wife, reclaimed her son with signs of jubilation. No one remarked that Abel, by coming home, was admitting that at his age, the only way he could live was free of charge in the bosom of his family. Like a child. Except that the child accepts his situation with no problems. With joy.
THE MOTHER. Elvira Morales sang boleros. That was where Pastor Pagán met her, in a second-rate club near the Monumento a la Madre, on Avenida Villalongín. From the time she was very young, Elvira sang boleros at home, when she took a bath or helped to clean, and before she went to sleep. Songs were her prayers. They helped her endure the sad life of a daughter without a father and with a grieving mother. Nobody helped her. She made herself on her own, on her own she asked for a job at a club in Rosales, was taken on, liked it, then went to a better neighborhood and began to believe everything she was singing. The bolero isn't good to women. It calls the female a "hypocrite, simply a hypocrite," and adds: "perverse one, you deceived me." Elvira Morales, to give conviction to her songs, took on the guilt in the lyrics, wondered if her fatal sap really poisoned men and if her sex was the ivy of evil. She took the lyrics of boleros very seriously. Which was why she inspired enthusiasm, convinced her audience, and provoked applause night after night in the white spotlights that fortunately obscured the patrons' faces. The public was the dark side of the moon, and Elvira Morales could give herself blindly to the passions she sang about, convinced they were true and that, since in song she was an "adventuress on earth," she would not be one in real life. On the contrary, she let it be known that the price of her love was high, very high, and whoever wanted the honey of her mouth would pay for the sin in diamonds. Elvira Morales could sing melodically about the abjectness of her fate, but offstage she jealously preserved the "springtime of her worth" (it rhymed with "adventuress on earth"). After the show, she never mixed with the audience. She would return to her dressing room, change, and go home, where her unfortunate mother was waiting for her. The patrons' invitations-a drink, a dance, a little love-were turned down, the flowers tossed into the trash, the small gifts returned. And the fact is that Elvira Morales, in every sense, took what she sang seriously. She knew through the bolero the dangers of life: lies, weariness, misery. But the lyrics authorized her to believe, to really believe, that "true affection, with no lies, no wickedness
," can be found when "love is sincere
THE DAUGHTER. Alma Pagán made an effort to find a place in the world. Let no one say she did not try. At eighteen, she realized she could not have a career. There was no time and no money. Secondary school was the most she could hope for, especially if the family's resources (so limited) would go to help her brother, Abel, at the university. Alma was a very attractive girl. Tall, slim, with long legs and a narrow waist, black hair in a helmet cut, a bust ample but not exaggerated, a matte complexion and veiled eyes, a partially open mouth, and a small, nervous nose, Alma seemed made to order for the recent occupation of aide at official ceremonies. Alma dressed just like the other three or six or twelve girls selected for business shows, international conferences, official ceremonies, in a white blouse and navy blue jacket and skirt, dark stockings, and high heels; her function was to stand quietly behind the speaker, refill glasses of water for panels, and never smile, much less disapprove of anything. Expel her emotions and be the perfect mannequin. One day she joined five colleagues at a charity event, and she saw herself as identical to them, all of them exactly the same, all differences erased. They were clones of one another. They had no other destiny but to be identical among themselves without ever being identical to themselves, to resemble one another in immobility and then disappear, retired because of their age, their weight, or a run in a black stocking. This idea horrified Alma Pagán. She quit, and since she was young and pretty, she found a job as a flight attendant on an airline that served the interior of the country. She didn't want to be far from her family and therefore didn't look for work on international flights. Perhaps she guessed her own destiny. That happens. And it also happens that on night flights the male passengers, as soon as the lights were lowered, took advantage of the situation and caressed her legs as she passed, or stared hungrily at her neckline, or simply pinched a buttock as she served drinks and Cokes. The drop that filled her glass-of alcohol, of Coca-Cola-to overflowing was the attack of a fat Yucatecan when she was coming out of the lavatory. He pushed her inside, closed the door, and began to paw at her and call her "good-looking beauty." With a knee to his belly, Alma left the peninsular resident sitting on the toilet, pawing not Alma's breasts but the paunch of his guayabera. Alma did not file a complaint. It was useless. The passenger was always right. They wouldn't do anything to the pigheaded Yucatecan. They would accuse her of being overly familiar with the passengers, and if she weren't fired, she'd be fined. This was why Alma withdrew from all activity in the world and settled into the top floor of her parents' house with all the audiovisual equipment that from then on would constitute her secure, comfortable, and satisfactory universe. She had saved money and paid for the equipment herself.
THE SON. Abel Pagán did not finish his studies in economics at the Autonomous University of Mexico because he thought he was smarter than his instructors. The boy's agile, curious mind searched for and found the obscure fact that would leave his professors astounded. He spoke with self-assurance of the "harmonies" of Bastiat and the GOP in the Republic of Congo, but if they asked him to locate that country on the map or to make the leap from the forgotten Bastiat to the very well-remembered Adam Smith, Abel was lost. He had learned the superfluous at the expense of the necessary. This made him feel at once superior to his professors and misunderstood by them. He left school and returned home, but his father told him he could stay only if he found work, this house wasn't for slackers, and he, Pastor Pagán, hadn't been lucky enough to go to college. Abel responded that it was true, one bum was enough. His father slapped him, his mother cried, and Abel sailed away on the ship of his dignity. He went out to find a job. He longed for freedom. He wanted to return home in triumph. The prodigal son. He confused freedom with revenge. He applied to the firm where his father worked. The office of Leonardo Barroso. Abel told himself he would show that he, the son, could handle the position that had destroyed his father. "Do I care about Barrosos? Little authoritarian bosses? Tin-hat desk dictators? Let them act tough with me!" He didn't have to wink. They received him with smiles, which he returned. He didn't realize that fangs lie halfway between smiles and grimaces. Big fangs. They took him on without further negotiations. Not even how easy it was perked up his antennae. They needled him, as if they were afraid that Abel was spying for his father, which meant he had to prove he was his father's enemy, and this led him to rail against Pastor Pagán, his weakness and his laziness, his lack of gratitude toward the Barrosos, who had given him work for over twenty years. The son's attitude seemed to please the company. The fact is they gave him a job as assistant floorwalker in one of the firm's stores, where his occupation consisted of walking among possible buyers and impossible sellers, watching them all to make sure that one didn't steal the merchandise and the other didn't take little breaks. Abel was the elegant civilian gendarme of the store. He became bored. He began to long for his university days, the protection of the family, their savings destined for his education. He felt uncomfortable, unappreciated. His own filial insolence, his own love of easy living, his ingratitude, appeared to him like habitual, ungraspable ghosts. He felt that the carpets in the store were clearly wearing out under his useless walking back and forth. He made friends. The best salespeople received commissions and appeared in the weekly celebratory bulletin. Abel Pagán never appeared in the bulletin. His bad reputation spread. "Be more accommodating with people, Abel." "I can't help it, Señor. I've always been rude to stupid people." "Listen, Abel, you saw that Pepe was in the bulletin this week." "How little intelligence you need to succeed." "Why don't you try to get into the bulletin?" "Because I don't care." "Don't be so difficult, kid." "I'm not difficult. I'm just taking on the disgust all of you ought to feel, a bunch of brownnosers." "Why don't you accept things the way they are and try to improve them every day, Abel?" "Because everything is the way it is, and it's not my style." "I wish I understood you, pal." Life was turning into a very long walk between the shoe department and the shirt department. Then the unforeseeable happened.
THE FATHER. Looking back at the past, Pastor Pagán asked himself, Why wasn't I dishonest when I had the chance? Weren't they all thieves? Except me? Why did I have to speak to Señor Barroso himself and tell him that everybody had gotten rich but me, Señor? Why did I settle for the pittance-a check for five thousand dollars-that they gave me as a consolation prize? Why, from that time on, did they stop winking at me? What crime did I commit by talking to the big fish, to the boss? He soon found out. When he presented himself as the only honest employee, he implied that the others were not. For Barroso, this meant he was belittling his fellow workers. A real lack of solidarity. And without internal solidarity, the company didn't work. When he set himself up as the one employee above suspicion, Pastor aroused Barroso's perverse intelligence. As far as the boss was concerned, they were all corruptible. This was the central premise at all levels in Mexico, from the government to the company and from the grocery store to the communal pasture. How could Pastor Pagán presume to be the exception? Barroso the boss must have laughed to himself. Pastor did not commit the crime of asking for a taste, he committed the crime of calling himself honest. He did not understand that it wasn't enough for a powerful man like Leonardo Barroso to give an improper commission to a minor employee. Pastor offered up his naked breast so his boss would try to really corrupt him. Now, forced into retirement with a pension for life, Pastor had time to reflect on the motives that drive each person to destroy others. Sometimes it's necessity, when the enemy is dangerous. Sometimes vanity, when he is stronger than you. Sometimes the simple indifference with which you squash a fly. But on occasion it's also to eliminate the threat of the weak man when the weak man knows a secret that the powerful one wants to keep hidden. Pastor Pagán lived in retirement, shuffling the possibilities of his destiny, which, after all, had already been fulfilled. The truth was they exchanged the whip for the cudgel. When he asked his employer to let him be another militant in the gigantic army of corruption, he committed the crime of accusing others while excusing himself. From that moment on, he was in the hands of the boss, which is to say, power. After that, Pastor would lack moral authority. He would be just another crook. The rule, not the exception he had been before. What would he have gained by not asking his employer for anything? Would he be freer, more respected, still employed? The bitterest day of Pastor Pagán's life was the one on which he realized that whatever he did, and without even knowing it, he was now part of the web of bribery in the small country of his own job. For years he had served corruption, carrying checks back and forth, accepting false accounts, winking, being winked at, morally captured at that photographic moment when a single eye closes in complicity and the other stays open in shame.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes. Copyright © 2008 by Carlos Fuentes. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.