by Theo Czajkowski
Bobby Kennedy undergoes one transformation more, from animate matter to fertilizer. Simple entropy, no cause for gnashing of teeth. Still I cannot help this godawful pessimism.
What to make of such a killing. There is something intimate and rather anticlimactic about this slaying in comparison to that of the brother. Here we have a hotel kitchen, a closed-in unremarkable place, a ferrying between places. A few popping gunshots at close range, a scuffle, a few grainy photos. This, versus that comparatively symphonic, comparatively sublime sequence drenched in November sun. A ferrying, yes, but a ferrying meant to be seen. A procession turned by the rifleman’s gesture into a spectacle of horror whose very savagery precluded the hand of God, however God-fearing the faithful be, and in its own obscure way edifying. What could possibly account for this second killing, which could not hope to serve any didactic purpose?
The worst thing is to feel God is playing a sick joke. This is the genesis of guilt, of the notion of just punishment by the divine. In the end the God who breathes evil into the world for his own amusement is the same who castigates that evil out of his own sober sense of justice.
The fact that I volunteered for Bobby would seem to indicate some alteration in me, spurred in part by the change I recognized in him. In college a few years ago, if you’d approached me on the Diag and suggested I lend my support to a Democrat in his bid for the presidency, even a reformed Kennedy, I would probably have given you the bird and fucked off to smoke dope. Because though I considered myself very much a revolutionary in those days, one thing you did not do, as a student radical, was anything that was not fun. And knocking on doors on behalf of political candidates, no matter their ideological persuasion, is not fun. Quite possibly I would have reacted in the same way to the same proposition in 1968, had chance not brought about an encounter with Kennedy in the flesh.
By early spring last year I had made my way to California and after becoming disillusioned with the Haight wound my way south toward the border with the notion I would walk into Mexico. I’d heard that part toward the end of “Hey Joe”:
I’m goin’ way down south
Way down to Mexico way
Way down where I can be free
Ain’t no one gonna find me
Ain’t no hangman gonna
He ain’t gonna put a rope around me
Pretty rich, I admit, for a girl from Michigan with a credit card and no criminal record to be carrying around such a rakish self-image. But the song had painted an image in my head, so to speak, and I made my way down. Coming through the Central Valley I saw hosts of migrant workers and hearing about the strikes so often in the same breath as that name Chavez. Though as I have mentioned I considered myself a leftist, I did not stop to investigate. I would not have admitted it at the time—I admit it now—I found the whole scene lacking in romance, lacking in excitement. What is a strike anyway, if not a waiting game? Dusty day laborers, dusty fields. And so I continued on. The further south I got the more Spanish I heard. I had learned the rudiments of the language in college and though it was clear I had an ear for such things I never had the chance to build on that basic instruction. When I finally crossed into Tijuana and ended up staying in Mexico the better part of a year, drifting from town to town along the Pacific, I was presented with that chance and by the end of my sojourn was fluent. The dangers of wandering solo in that country were patent enough. All you could do was avoid unnecessary risk. Ultimately my experience was that of a royal making the grand tour, if royals travelled in battered buses and flatbeds loaded with farmhands. A dirty blonde, a blonde nonetheless, I received plenty of attention, all mostly pleasant. I was bought many a mezcal, many a tequila. If anything it was a bit embarrassing to always be on the end of so much generosity. I am inclined to believe that, if such obsequiousness be a defect, it is not particular to Mexicans.
In Mexico I discovered the worth in certain of the merest things. In a small restaurant by the sea run by penniless rustics where an accordion heaved not dissimilarly to the surf there were no apter words than abundance, providence. And it was good. In such an establishment I sat one afternoon sipping beers with a Mexican boyfriend, who out of some impulse invited me to consider the emblem in the middle of his country’s flag. I’d cast eyes on the Mexican flag a thousand times before, and had long found the image in the center a pleasing enigma, if nothing more. Certainly better than the asymmetry of our flag which also manages to be boring. In any case, my companion coolly explained the eagle holding the snake atop a cactus. Here was a tactile feast requiring no contact. The scaly snake, the prickly plant, the feathered raptor. You could practically feel them. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, the god revealed to the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, synthesized the slithering earthbound reptile and the soaring, sovereign eagle—flesh and spirit. Do you know how many different indigenous ate mushrooms and saw the same creature, harbinger of the terrible unity to which we resolve? We finished our beers and ordered more.
Perhaps I begin to suggest the newfound perspective with which I began the present year. I never even took peyote. I did, it was true, drink more clear liquor than at any point in my life—hardly consciousness-expanding stuff. In any case, shortly after returning to my country in the first days of 1968, I started missing Mexican people. I missed their austerity, also the germ of making outrageous jokes at one’s own expense. Their almost sacramental commitment to goodnatured debauchery. I missed speaking Spanish. Without thinking about it too much I bought a bus ticket to Delano from San Diego.
Back in the Central Valley I went around from place to place where farmworkers were organizing, figuring I could at the very least swell their numbers by one. I worked in the fields when necessary. It didn’t take too long to get the hang of picking fruits and vegetables—it was, after all, called unskilled labor—though I was far from the most productive worker. Unskilled, perhaps, but still far beyond anything a machine could manage, and in that sense essential.
Spending time with the workers I realized any fears of feeling self-consciously an outsider had been mostly unnecessary. In the beginning there had been some head scratching on their part but little else. A bit like in Mexico, my counterparts welcomed the break in the homogeneity of their experience that I represented. They were amused by my handle on Spanish. There were plenty of exhausted sullen encounters. But we had our laughs, too, breaking bread in the canteen beneath the hanging lamps whose yellowy light gave proceedings an unlikely luxuriant cast. We discussed more serious topics, and quickly my superior book-learning became difficult to overlook. My comrades seemed intrigued about what they might glean from one so widely read. In this way their harkening was self-interested, as for that matter was mine. In the end I proved a sight more useful than I’d ever thought likely, redacting a great many letters and other documents for them in English and Spanish. Illiteracy was quite common among the workers. It was an issue I never once considered before and one that blows my mind in an age when we are poised to land a man on the moon.
One day we learned John Kennedy’s younger brother Bobby was coming out. It really did demand seeing to be believed. No politician of comparable stature had ever paid such a visit. But there he stood a day or two later, on the podium in the brutal sun, hardly more convincing in the flesh than his rumored apparition, looking like he was about to dry up and blow away in a tie as skinny as his figure. And as might have been expected he dealt largely in platitudes, at least to my proud and critical ear, though this seemed of oddly little consequence, in comparison with the gesture of his coming, and with decidedly less stilted tête-à-têtes that took place after his speech. If we choose to believe he only made the trip to help carve out a niche in the electorate—I was cognizant of this possibility—then that was a red herring too. The most memorable part of the speech had nothing to do with weighty matters and came when he tried to say something in Spanish, which might as well have been in Hungarian. His self-deprecation following this butchery saw me laugh along with everyone even as I questioned my own rapt reaction.
Kennedy was received very much in a scaled-up version of the way I was received, as if he were the big Russian doll and I the little. We were two güeros and our advent on the scene occasioned a phenomenon that is difficult to put into words. The people’s reaction, their giddiness, seemed at once to have everything and nothing to do with us. Equally difficult to describe was the way Kennedy had about him, which you would certainly not label sublime charisma, nor well-oiled charm, but more accurately as decency, humanity. You did not even feel a great need to spill ink qualifying the man, you forgot about his clan, his party, his martyred brother, leaving you quite free to focus on the issues, but neither was he soulless in the manner of Governor Reagan. So it was that, watching the candidate shake hands with the workers and listening to him converse with leaders from as close a position as I could manage amid the crush, I decided not only that I would vote for him, but lend his campaign my support in whatever way should prove most useful. I considered I had happened upon worthwhile public action.
The most useful activity, of course, was knocking on doors and making sure people were registered to vote. Because as unimaginable as it is in certain circles, many millions disdain to vote in this heartland of democracy. Bobby Kennedy died in Los Angeles in the wake of his victory in that state’s primary, an effort to which I lent my energies for weeks. I called on a countless (in any case I lost count) number of households in rural California, canvassing and making sure prospective voters were registered. In light of what transpired at the Ambassador Hotel, one visit stands out, chilling in retrospect as it is instructive.
It was one of the last homes I called on before the election. I had dragged my ass to a little town on the western shore of Death Valley. After some dozen mostly ambivalent encounters with the locals night started to fall and the dry air to cool at last. I figured I’d knock on one more door and pack it in. I was in high gear by then, wanted to finish on a good note though there was no indication the next place would yield a result better than the last. There was a little low-slung house outside town, about a half-mile down the highway—already I’d exhausted the low-hanging fruit—and I set out in its direction thinking I would make it back to town before dark, no problem.
The little house was set back perhaps a football field’s length from the asphalt. I started toward it between the shallow ruts comprising its drive sending the odd pebble skittering into the scrub as I walked and humming to myself. Approaching the place I noticed it was in some disrepair. The roof sagged slightly and there were planks stove through on the porch. There was an outhouse to one side but otherwise nothing else on the property apart from the spare vegetation. I heard nothing but my own trudging footsteps as I approached.
I thudded up the steps and knocked. After a moment the door shuddered and opened on a very small old woman in a black shawl and everything beneath it black down to the slippers. Her searching eyes the blacker against that attire. A cat wound itself around her shin. I grasped my clipboard between my hands.
“Good afternoon, ma’am” I said. “My name is Jeanne Pfeiffer. I’m here on behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy campaign.”
The woman looked up at me, shifted her weight. I repeated the introduction in Spanish.
She smiled. “Pase,” she said. “Pase.”
I stepped inside. A combined living and dining area, in the back a kitchen opposite what I presumed was the sole bedroom. Dust in the corners, holdouts against the best efforts of the elderly. A striped rug on the floor, battered furniture. Two dim lamps at either extreme of this front room. Opposite the entrance, at the end of a short hall, a door leading out the back of the house, its screen admitting the paling light.
The woman was already in the kitchen preparing coffee and heating what would comprise a modest supper. I dragged a chair from its place at the table and sat facing her. The cat found its way to me and arched itself against my leg.
“Muy amable,” I said.
The woman continued about her work. I asked her name and she told me. I asked her if she spoke any English but she interrupted in Spanish telling me to be careful because the coffee was hot as she brought it over in a clay mug and set it down on the table before me. Then she sat down across from me and looked at me the way you returned to a crossword puzzle having put it down to complete some errand of fifteen minutes.
I thought it couldn’t hurt to refresh her as to my purpose and after a sip of the coffee, surprisingly robust, I told her again in Spanish that I was here with the Kennedy campaign. She asked if he was some relative of the one they killed. Yes, his brother. I told her it was Bobby’s wish to honor the memory of his late sibling but that this younger Kennedy had plenty of ideas of his own worth fighting for. He is very noble, no? the woman said. Yes, I said. He wants to end the war, I continued, unsure if she would know to which I was referring. He wants to make sure minorities get their due. He sees all the poverty in the country and wants to do something to fix the system. I tried to speak plainly, at least in these opening stages. I asked her if she was registered to vote but she had gotten up to check on the food.
I saw no point in shouting at her across the room, so I sipped my coffee and stroked the cat’s whiskery cheek with the tips of my fingers. The woman came back with a bowl of hardboiled eggs and tortillas and in the other hand a bowl of frijoles. The bowl of eggs and tortillas was set atop a plate which she set down and after removing the bowl pushed the plate before me. Looking at the food I realized I was extremely hungry.
I thanked her again and reached for an egg which I set on my plate and which would require peeling but not before I scooped myself some beans, dipped a tortilla into them and took a generous bite.
I asked her if she lived alone and she said yes, that her husband had died a long time ago along with her son and that her daughter had moved to Fresno and she only seldom heard from her. I slowed my chewing, said I was sorry to hear about that. I resumed eating with greater solemnity and was thinking of a way to broach the purpose of my visit again when the woman did so herself.
The Kennedy boy was a good one, she said. Surely they would kill him.
I slowed again in my chewing and repeated the last part of what she had said to make sure I understood. She repeated her claim, asked how could it be otherwise. I asked why she was so confident. It was after all a horrible thing to imagine. Yes, yes, she said, casting her eyes down and nodding. How can you be so sure then, I asked. Nothing to do, she said. Nothing to do. She asked if I knew much about her godforsaken country. I told her some but she proceeded as if I had confessed to utter ignorance.
She had been born in Sonora towards the end of the last century and was a young woman when the revolution broke out. She said broke out, but in those days no one yet knew the butchery it would turn into. After a minimum of violence, the first real elections had been held in Mexico and to her great satisfaction a rich northern rancher of liberal outlook named Madero had won.
The task of Francisco Madero’s youth, one presumed, had been to solve the riddle of astonishing privilege. From the start he sat atop a mountain of sacrifice, his younger siblings at his feet, while at the base were the thousands of farmhands who owned not even the clothes on their backs. He might have gone mad had he not discerned his own messianic calling. He would not have recourse to the religion of the commoners. Such faith could never hope to assuage a conscience beset from all quarters. Unlike the peasants, he never once found himself so depleted as to heft his uncertainties onto the back of the Lord. He himself was the only master he could recognize in all that sprawling country.
After his schooling abroad he returned to Coahuila to commence the work of his adulthood, cured as if by miracle of his former sickliness. He brought chests of medicines to the homes of laborers in person and established schools and commissioned buildings as disparate, for example, as a soap factory and an observatory. Meanwhile it became plain that the dictator would not cede power without a fight. At the critical moment, when Francisco had reentered Mexico across the Rio Grande armed along with a hundred-odd followers at personal expense, the people had rallied to him. From the outbreak of hostilities, people all over Mexico shouted his name and brandished his doctrines. In spring of the year he ousted the old man.
He took up residence in the capital in a castle on a hill. Even as the masses who populated his hacienda, who had been the central fact of his youth, were lost from view, he found himself surrounded by elites. The partisans of the fallen regime were solicitous enough as he heard them out one by one at state functions and most retained their positions in government.
Installed in the palace he was known to commune with his late brother Raúl, among others, by occult means. He consulted advisors from beyond who spoke of a world to be claimed, of a century that promised paradise, if only the agents of hygiene stayed the course. Democracy had been secured in Mexico, and this was great progress. Now might he not wean the country off graft, lasciviousness, alcohol, the flesh of animals?
Around the city the well-to-do began to mutter. They had never forgiven him his original transgression. When revolts broke out in the north and south their doubts grew to a chorus. The rebels, for their part, accused him of getting too friendly with the well-to-do. The tiger of which the departing tyrant prophesied spawned litters and things unraveled in due course. A coup by old money, followed by Madero’s arrest. His small riddled corpse and the corpse of his vice dumped on the outskirts for the newspapermen. His fate of a piece with the love he inspired in Mexico’s anonymous.
Raúl was not Madero’s only brother, nor was Francisco the only politically inclined of that brood. Gustavo Madero formed part of the president’s cabinet and was at least as astute as the president, having in the preceding months been alive to the threat of an ouster—during which the younger Madero too was to be slain, in more horrible fashion yet than his brother, because of this wariness. Any serious usurper would have been mad not to eliminate both. My host said from what she had seen of John Kennedy, they were liable to do the same to Robert.
I had busied myself peeling an egg and having completed the task set the naked rubbery thing on the plate before me staring at it. I sat back in my chair looking at the egg and said she was entitled to her opinion. It was still very unlikely you would have two such killings one after the other.
The woman smiled sadly. “Nada más come, mija,” she said.
A few days later Kennedy was assassinated. In the boardinghouse where I was staying mournful sounds had started up from the ground floor and when I went down someone told me. I just stood there with my hand on the banister a while. Then I went back to my room and lay on my bed until in the small hours I slept.
A few more days have passed, in which I find myself terribly idle. I ponder the woman’s words. On the one hand her pronouncements, her reckless prophesying, seem to denote the most backward, old world superstition (reckless, does that word not smack of superstition?) The certainty with which she spoke, almost haughty, dare I imagine caustic, winking? I refuse to believe it brought her any joy to make her prediction. More likely her glee at my unexpected appearance found no quarrel with the direness of what she had to tell and this may well be its own hue of wisdom.
Westward flight, new development, greener pastures. These are the words on the lips of the powerful and will be forever until the world lies desiccate. Tonight I hold up the example of the woman who gave me to eat, who called me daughter.
About Theo Czajkowski
Theo Czajkowski is a native of the Detroit area currently living in Mexico.