From El vendedor de silencio, Enrique Serna, 2019
[Miguel Alemán was president of Mexico in 1946-52]
He’d been waiting nearly an hour and a half in the outer office. Before long he would finish the book he had brought with him to kill time: Maeterlinck’s The Lives of Bees. He got up to stretch his legs. In front of the picture window that looked out on the main plaza, he admired the imposing cathedral, built of pink stone, tinted purple by the fading light of sunset. The plaza’s pigeons, frightened by the church bells’ ringing, flew off in formation to the gazebo handrail. He wouldn’t mind settling in Zacatecas when he reached retirement age. A pretty province, too attractive to be governed by a swine like Leobardo Reynoso.
He was undoubtedly killing time in his office, wanting to puff himself up by showing who was boss in this fiefdom, and, along the way, taking his visitor down a peg. No other governor had treated him this way. They all received Mexico’s most important journalist punctually and spoiled him rotten. But Reynoso held a grudge against him for the hard time he’d given him when he was a congressman, and now the governor was getting even by showing his disdain. So much for him, if he wanted the journalist as an enemy. He should be worrying about getting good press. The ex-president had placed him in the governorship and it was an open secret that [President] Miguel Alemán couldn’t stand him. Even worse, the journalist knew from a well-placed source that Alemán had considered demanding the governor’s resignation. Alemán held back out of respect for his predecesor but, after two years as president, had not visited Zacatecas. A governor out of presidential favor was a spent force. So what was the point of acting like an emperor?
“The licenciado is just about done,” said the secretary – young and busty, with fine, porcelain features, wearing a lilac dress with a plunging neckline. “Would you like some more coffee?”
“No, thank you, I don’t drink it at this time of day; it keeps me awake.”
Her peach-shaped mouth led him to obscene fantasies, but he didn’t try to move on her. He was certain that she was Reynoso’s girl. He felt sorry for her as the bedmate of that vulgar scoundrel. Womens’ lack of dignity had no limits. They started trading on their bodies when they were young, hastened by a sell-by date that sooner or later condemned them to the rocking chair with their knitting. Whether they got a good marriage or a concubine arrangement was all the same to them. The idea was to take advantage of their youthfulness. The big winner was of course the girl’s secret lover, maybe a kitschy poet who whispered lame verses in her ear. He returned to his chair and returned to his reading for another 15 minutes. When he reached the book’s second to last page, the secretary told him that, finally, the governor would receive him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Denegri, they had me in a meeting, but I’m at your disposal now. Please take a seat.”
Pompous and chubby, with brown skin and stiff hair, Reynoso barely fit in his gray suit, whose jacket buttons were about to burst. He had a short neck, with a dual fold of skin under his double chin, lively, possum eyes and a bulging vein in his forehead. When he greeted the journalist, Denegri detected a slight odor of alcohol, badly covered by a mint. Apparently he had enjoyed a few cognacs during a long post-luncheon discussion. They took their seats in a room decorated in colonial style, including the tijera chairs. On the wall was a big portrait of Father Hidalgo, and a glass case with a first edition of the state constitution.
“Let me be frank with you, Don Leobardo,” Denegri said, crossing his legs in relaxed fashion. “I didn’t ask for this interview to ask you questions about your term as governor. I asked for it because I’ve gotten alarming news about your administration’s bad management.”
“Ah, caramba.” Reynoso knit bis brow. “It must be some false rumor.”
“I’m afraid not.” Denegri took a blue folder from his briefcase. “The information I have is reliable, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you. I have written an article in which I lay out all of the embezzlement and abuses of which I’ve become aware.”
He handed over a couple of stapled sheets, entitled “Zacatecan Pillage.” The corruption episodes began with embezzlement at the Agricultural and ejido [land held in common] banks, which only granted credits to friends of the governor, who were named, while other farmers were abandoned. In addition, using partners and straw purchasers, Reynoso had turned himself into the state’s major cattleman. “The budgetary appropriation of two million pesos for the construction of a hospital in Frenillo which, we are informed, hasn’t even started; the ruinous local road from Sombrerete to Chalchihuites,full of potholes and landlsides, which cost three times the initial estimate; the abandonment of the rural schools, some of them in ruinous shape; and widespread misery in the countryside, where foot and mouth disease ravages communities because of the lack of medical care, make plain the insatiable greed of a political boss who has dedicated himself to systematically sacking the public treasury.” Reynoso’s face turned from green to purple, and after he finished reading could only utter a hoarse groan.
“The information you’re working with is false. My administration has justified every budgetary expenditure before the appropriate authorities – down to the last penny.”
“I have in my possession documentary evidence of everything I write about.” Denegri cast a hawk’s eye on the governor. “And I have Part II in the oven. In that one, I report on how you’ve enriched yourself in recent years, with notarized filings on your hacienda in Juchipila, the house in Polanco, the two you’ve got in Cuernavaca, your yacht anchored in Acapulco Bay and the two hot-sheet hotels now open in Mexico City, the Canada and the Marlow. But take it easy, licenciado, I didn’t come here to attack. If I had wanted to hurt you I would have already published everything I know about you. I don’t harm anyone’s reputation before giving him a chance to negotiate. I’ve also written an article in which you come out very well. Please give it a read.”
It was a hymn of praise that acclaimed the civic virtue of an “exemplary Zacatecan” who during his past four years in office had propelled agriculture, mining and manufacturing to national leadership in productivity. “So intelligent and honorable in his conduct as a public servant, Reynoso has won the unanimous admiration of his peers. In fact, he is considered one of the most popular governors in the province’s history. Those who have seen him carrying sacks of corn and beans, delivering modern machinery to ejidos, visiting the most remote mountain hamlets, his boots covered in mud, know that Reynoso places the progress of Zacatecas before any personal ambition, expecting no reward except the satisfaction of having carried out his duty.”
When the governor finished reading, the color came back to his face, and he wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. Denegri, adopting the tone of a mephistophelean merchant, proposed a deal “that would be in the interest of both sides.”
“You decide which article you’d like me to publish. The first one is free. The second one will cost you 50,000 pesos.”