With time, I learned to love and master my scenes, putting all the devotion and care into them that our town, our Shakespeare, deserved.
Odilon Redon, Lady Macbeth, c. 1898.
The car doors close and the boys have to ask for some kind of confirmation that the journey will eventually end. I told them it was just two more hours, that we’d arrive in the late afternoon. I don’t think they are ever really interested in my reply, though. I imagine their questions are a form of protest, nothing more. A protest just for the sake of it.
“When will we get there?”
“How much longer?”
But maybe the questions are also a way of telling us they won’t put up with having to look at our backs, won’t tolerate our not looking at them. It undoubtedly unsettles them to be able to see only the crowns of our heads over the high front seats: my lopsided bun, like something a superannuated samurai might have; my husband’s thinning black waves. From behind, we can’t be a very inspiring sight. An ordinary man and an ordinary woman, former dancers with the Ballet Folklórico Mexicano de Chicago. Two people—who happen to be their parents—resigned to following the straight line of the highway with the same docility they use to confront everything else in life.
At times, as we progressed through this enormous country, their father told them stories—also thinning and wavy, uninspiring. When it was my turn to provide some entertainment, I didn’t tell them any stories because I don’t know how. Instead, I set them riddles I’d learned so many lives ago that I couldn’t even remember the answers:
A cowboy goes into a saloon. He’s soaked through. He asks for a glass of water, and the bartender hands him a pistol. Then, the cowboy says, “Thank you,” and leaves the saloon.
“That’s it?” asked the eldest.
“That’s it,” I confirmed.
“That’s the end of the story?” said the little one.
“Yes, my love, that’s the end of the riddle,” I said.
“Is it important to know that he’s soaked, Mom?” asked the eldest.
“Yes, it is.”
“Was he really soaked, Ma?” checked the youngest.
“No, I didn’t say he was really soaked. But he was at least wet.”
“OK,” they both said, and began a long deliberation about the cowboy, the glass of water, and the pistol, until their thoughts strayed and developed into a game with rules so arbitrary and capricious, they were impossible to understand or follow from the front seats. Just as so often before, the game gradually turned into a debate about the rules of playing it. The boys argued until sleep unraveled them. In the car, they both sleep with their mouths open, their heads hanging to one side, or drooping forwards, always in positions that give them a sinister similarity to dead bodies. They only woke when we finally pulled over at the entrance to the town.
Right from the start, we discovered a rule for getting through the slow, laborious trek from the Midwest to the Southwest of this country: we had to lie to the boys. If we generated high expectations about the place where we were going to spend the following months—telling them exaggerated, even false stories about it—the whole thing would be much more bearable for them and, consequently, for us too. It didn’t matter that, afterward, reality would completely betray those expectations. Anyway, we thought, disappointments are character-forming. The boys needed that, because what awaited them was not an easy life. It was a tolerable, perhaps even interesting life, but not easy. They were going from being little Chinelo dancers in the Ballet Folklórico in Chicago to being real actors in the American West.
Our auditions for the Southwestern Re-enactment Company had begun two years earlier. We were in the changing room of a high school in downtown Chicago, where the four of us had gone to dance with our company, and had seen several of the flyers pasted on the walls: the Southwestern Re-enactment Company was looking for families willing to move to New Mexico or Arizona, no previous acting experience required, and the age range was from four to sixty-five. A phone call to the number provided filled in the rest of the details: the auditions were to be held during the last week of March in the State Auditorium in Tucson, the scene to be performed would last at most three minutes, and participants would be notified of the results by email on the Sunday evening, that same weekend, the last weekend in March. If we were selected, our contracts would start on September 1.
My husband had been more enthusiastic than I was about the prospect of moving to the Southwest to work as actors for a historical re-enactment company. He was tired of dancing huapangos and jarabes, and thought that, at least for our children’s sake, we had to assimilate better into the United States. It was about time we did, he said. Besides, we had to stop representing something that even in Mexico was considered foreign.
We auditioned for the roles of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Big Nose Kate, and Doc Holliday.
I had my doubts about the change. My only experience of acting had been humiliating. At the age of twelve or thirteen, I’d memorized Macbeth’s soliloquy after Lady Macbeth’s death, when the English soldiers, guided by Malcolm, are about to enter the castle to oust and kill the unlawful king—Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and so on. When I auditioned for Macbeth’s role, my drama teacher had congratulated me on my good memory and fine diction, but afterwards suggested I take the role of a tree. The trees were important, she’d said: they were not really trees but soldiers in disguise, covered in branches and leaves to intimidate Macbeth and finally drive him mad. In that production, the trees would actually be seen advancing from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane during the traitor’s last hours.
But the trees didn’t speak a single line and that bothered me. Gathering up my dignity, I’d refused the offer, and never again trod the boards as an actor. Instead, I’d spent my whole life playing the traditional parts of China Poblana, Jarocha, Indian Woman, and even an Adelita in folkloric Mexican dances, and had never opened my mouth on stage, except to brighten up the tapping of my heels with a polite smile.
In March, as we’d planned, the four of us flew from Chicago O’Hare to Tucson, via Phoenix. We auditioned for the roles of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Big Nose Kate, and Doc Holliday. They didn’t hire us.
In the email turning down our application, they gently recommended, considering we were Mexicans, that we audition for Mexican parts rather than those we’d originally selected. My husband and I talked it over, and agreed that we could perhaps start out as Mexicans and little by little make our way up to more important roles.
The second time around, in March of the following year, we were better prepared. We’d researched the history of the region, and watched new and classic Westerns. Stagecoach was our favorite. We’d studied a few film scripts and plays featuring Mexican outlaws and Mexican families, memorizing scenes and immersing ourselves in the gestures, accents, and way of life of the old Southwest. We fell in love with it all, if somewhat vicariously.
In the end, I don’t know if any of that preparation was necessary. The only thing my two boys had to do in their audition was beg for money in a mock-up of a railroad station where a gunfight later took place. For my part, I was just asked to lean out an imaginary window and shout, “Juan.” I did it pretty well, considering I only had five seconds to be convincing. My husband had the scene requiring the most dramatic skill. It was the re-enactment of a confrontation that had originally taken place in 1879 between a Mexican outlaw and the legendary sheriff of Cochise, Arizona. After the sheriff had pulled out his gun and fired at point-blank range came the following dialogue:
Sheriff: You gonna do somethin’ or just lie there and bleed to death?
(Mexican Outlaw bleeds to death.)
Sheriff: No, I didn’t think so.
This time, the email arrived a few days late, on the Wednesday night, when we were already back in Illinois and had perhaps lost hope. We were delighted to discover that, of the three Mexican families who had auditioned, we’d been selected. We were less delighted to discover that we had been assigned roles not in Tombstone, Arizona—a more settled community with a long tradition of historical re-enactments—but in the town of Shakespeare, New Mexico: a small, godforsaken place outside of Lordsburg, where a minuscule cabin and a combined salary of $20,000 for the whole season awaited us.
But the decision had been taken. When I phoned my mother to tell her we were going to live in Shakespeare, and would spend six months there—June to December—she expressed very little interest in my impassioned explanation about what it meant to be a historical re-enactor, and simply said: “And don’t get it into your head that I’ll visit you there. Those places are full of pale-faced murderers.”
Her skepticism didn’t touch me. Filled with enthusiasm for the life ahead, I packed the few belongings we would take with us, and we hauled them along to the other side of the country.
Between 1870 and 1890—when the real-life events we would re-enact had occurred—there were around twenty Mexicans in Shakespeare, all miners, laborers, or domestic servants. We, as a family, would represent the Bacas: Juan Baca (35), Juana Baca (28), Teresio Baca (6), and Victor Baca (4). As there were more male roles than available actors, my husband Juan Baca would also play, as required, Mexican Outlaw, Mexican Smuggler, and Mexican Bandit, just so long as those parts didn’t coincide with his scenes as Juan Baca, a peon with more duties and a higher status than any other Mexican in town.
Shakespeare had been founded in 1856, and was later re-founded several times with an equal lack of success. In 1879, there was a small mining boom, but the town never expanded enough to warrant the construction of either a school or a church. When the railroad that entwined the country in a single, powerful commercial route was finally built, the nearest station ended up being three whole miles away, in Lordsburg, and this fact buried the town of Shakespeare in the dust. The last of its residents left in about 1893.
Years later, in 1935, Frank and Rita Hill bought the abandoned town, or what remained of it. They set up a ranch, and when that went bust, they transformed it into the rickety site of historical re-enactments we were now driving into. With the passing of the last generation of the Hill family, which had—again, with no great success—carried on the traditions of the town and its re-enactments, the company in Tucson that had held the auditions had purchased the concession, with the intention of making maximum profit at minimum cost.
That was the story of Shakespeare, or at least the version delivered to us by a lame and taciturn Doc Holliday, whom we met at the entrance to Shakespeare upon our arrival. Very soon, he was comparing his misfortune with ours. As he was showing us to our cabin, at one end of town, he confessed that he, too, would have preferred to be Tombstone’s Doc Holliday rather than Shakespeare’s. He’d worked in the latter for two seasons now, and the wages weren’t even enough to give his family—in California—a decent life. He was making arrangements to go back to them, and for some time now had been secretly preparing for an audition as Mickey Mouse in Disney—which would amount to three times his salary as Doc Holliday. He could hardly wait to get out of Shakespeare.
We also learned from him that, in addition to earning comparatively low wages, the actors in Shakespeare worked much harder than those in Tombstone, let alone Disneyland. In order to make Shakespeare a going concern, the company managing our historical re-enactments had decided that we would offer an experience that was “more real than real life.” In practice, that meant the actors in Shakespeare lived right there on-site, wore period costumes every day, and were permanently in character, so that when any tourists turned up in the town, they would have the impression that they were voyeurs in a real place, and not the audience in some artificial, ephemeral tourist trap.
In addition to accurate representations of daily life in the late nineteenth century, we offered re-enactments of the seven most iconic events that had put Shakespeare on the historical map as a cowboy town: “Just One Diamond,” “Death Over an Egg,” “Happy Bob Passes On,” “Lynched on the Porch,” “The Hanging of Arkansas Black,” “Silver Nuggets Visit Shakespeare,” and “Death of a Government Contractor.” The golden rule was that these re-enactments, unlike those that occurred in other so-called ghost towns, were never to be scheduled. They happened spontaneously. That’s to say, when one of the actors involved in a scene pronounced a phrase or part of a speech from it, the scene in question would run from that line.
For example: “Death Over an Egg.” If the actor who played Ross Woods walked into the Stratford Hotel one morning at about nine o’clock and told the waitress: “Gimme an egg, why dontcha?”
Then I—usually, at that moment, cleaning the floor of the corridor behind the scene—had to run upstairs and wake Bean Belly Smith, so that he’d come straight down, still in his pyjamas, sit at an empty table, and also order an egg. Then he’d start cursing Ross Woods loudly and aggressively, across the room, having been told by the waitress that Woods had just ordered the last egg in the hotel kitchen.
Putting his knife and fork down on his empty plate, Ross Woods would leave his table silently, go upstairs to his room to fetch his pistol, and then come down again and shoot—but miss—Bean Belly Smith from the doorway. Woods would then be hit by a bullet from Smith’s pistol, which would send him staggering—another stream of curses—until he fell, sometimes at the bottom of the stairs, sometimes on a table, sometimes on the floor. And so ended “Death Over an Egg.”
My children’s favorite scene was “Lynched on the Porch,” in which the cowboys Sandy King and Russian Bill were the victims
After that, we could all get on with our regular tasks until some other phrase, spoken in the post office or the dry goods store, would spark off “Just One Diamond” or “The Hanging of Arkansas Black” or any other of the seven official re-enactment scenes. And so our days unfolded, almost always happily.
My children’s favorite scene was “Lynched on the Porch,” in which the cowboys Sandy King and Russian Bill were the victims. The re-enactment opened when our sheriff and hangman, Dangerous Dan Tucker, found out that Sandy King and Russian Bill had rustled some of his cattle. Dangerous Dan Tucker was famous for his ruthlessness, and his hatred of Apaches, Mexicans, and foreign folk in general. I kept well away from him, just in case there was something of the character in the actor.
On discovering that his cattle had been stolen, Dangerous Dan Tucker organized a “vigilance committee,” composed solely of himself and his ass-licker sidekick, the bartender Jim Carroll. After the mock trial, the two of them took the cattle thieves across the street, where the nooses were strung from the porch. Before the hanging, King famously asked for a drink of water to wet his throat, which, he claimed, was dry from so much talking to save his life.
Once the two cowboys had been hanged, the four youngsters in the town—my sons Teresio and Victor Baca, the wild John Wray, son of a German miner and the waitress at the Stratford Hotel, and Nimmi, the beautiful, captive Apache girl who lived as a kind of slave with Dangerous Dan—came running out from their respective homes. They planted themselves in front of the bodies of Sandy King and Russian Bill and started to throw stones and sand at them. The kids were pitiless. Some afternoons, I watched them from my window. Backlit by the long rays of the setting sun, those four savage, insolent children looked beautiful as they laughed, and hollered, and threw golden handfuls of dirt at the two corpses dangling in the air.
In the beginning, we all used to wait diligently for the cues to our respective scenes. On some days, we even spent hours repeating the same scene over and over, dozens of times, with minor variations, in order to internalize and perfect them. But as the months passed, some actors began to tire of the routine. They seemed to despise the burdensome repetitiveness of their everyday lives, the feeling that they were following a circular track that always led back to the same small, identical actions. One morning, in September, for example, the waitress at the Stratford actually stabbed poor Ross Woods with a blunt knife when, newly resurrected from his fourth straight death, he turned to her and muttered once again, “Gimme an egg, why dontcha?”
I, however, never tired of our re-enactments. With time, I learned to love and master my scenes, putting all the devotion and care into them that our town, our Shakespeare, deserved. We were, it seemed to me, like an old-time circus troupe, except that the world came to us instead of us going to the world. Our lives were free and unconstrained: they were far away from all those castrating institutions, far from servitude to unnecessary technology, and free from the weight of having to act as ourselves. They were far, also, from that country out there, which was always advancing on its unforgiving path toward progress and power; far from that cruel and loveless country beyond the last little shack in our town. Sincere friendships began to grow between some of the actors: my husband Juan and Doc Holliday spent almost every day together, and the Government Contractor, who lived a few houses down from us, soon joined them. Nimmi, the Apache girl—I later learned she was not Apache, but the first-generation immigrant daughter of a Tamil family, and had grown up in Tulsa, Oklahoma—started to visit me each morning. We’d drink a cup of milky coffee together and eat a slice of bread and butter in silence, while my sons were over at the corrals or cleaning out the hen house in the backyard. Afterwards, she’d help me pick the grubs out of the beans and lentils, and I’d help her grind the nuts and acacia seeds we’d later mix to make bread.
Dangerous Dan and Doc Holliday had a particularly gory confrontation with the famous Wild West malefactor Billy the Kid, who used to return to Shakespeare from time to time to torment us all. At sundown, every now and again, Billy the Kid would kick open the door of our cabin, looking for his enemy, Doc Holliday. With his thumbs tucked into his gun belt, he’d stand in the middle of our dining room, looking down on us from his short but dignified stature, interrupting our supper. Furious at not finding Doc Holliday, he’d take Juan Baca out of the cabin at gunpoint and tie him to the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office, where some afternoons—if no one had gotten around to cutting them down—the tired bodies of Sandy King and Russian Bill were still hanging. After tying Juan Baca to the post, Billy the Kid would return to the cabin, take me hostage, march me to a room in the Stratford Hotel, and rape me.
The rape, of course, wouldn’t happen, and our scene together ended when he pushed me, or sometimes dragged me by the hair, into what served as one of our props rooms in the hotel. We had to wait ten or fifteen minutes there, after which I returned to the cabin, and he set out to look for Doc Holliday, buttoning up his fly as he went. He’d find Doc in the central square, and attempt—without success—to kill him, before galloping back towards Lordsburg in the dark, dodging the erratic gunfire of Dangerous Dan, who would have just come out of the sheriff’s office, always at least a bit tipsy, his revolver in hand.
Billy the Kid carried himself with an air of calm assurance. He had a way of being distant, but didn’t seem indifferent or insensible to the world. More than fearsome, he looked dangerously vulnerable, like those American teenagers who one fine day suddenly open fire on their classmates without anyone ever having expected that, or anything else, from them. He had a desert-hard face, furrowed by the sun and tobacco smoke, in which a pair of blue eyes and a gaze of almost bovine docility seemed out of place. He preferred Mexican hats to the cowboy variety, had killed his first victim at the age of seventeen, survived Apache raids, hunted buffalo, and broken out of jail twice; he was an excellent dancer, had a universally disarming sense of humor, and spoke Spanish. His last words, in fact, were spoken in that language: on 14 July 1881, in the dark kitchen in which his murderer was waiting for him, he asked, “Quién es, quién es?” before receiving a fatal shot in the chest. Of all the characters in Shakespeare, Billy the Kid was undoubtedly the most complex, the saddest, and something in his blue eyes silently pleaded for salvation.
The dry, rasping heat of summer passed and the redeeming October winds began to blow. There were just under three months left until the end of the season. Nimmi, the false Apache girl, was by then spending the whole day with me in the cabin, as far as possible from Dangerous Dan, whom she despised more and more with each passing day. Ross Woods had jumped ship, fed up of the Stratford waitress’s increasingly venomous invectives. The fainthearted Doc Holliday had still not gotten his much-sought-after job offer in California—not as Mickey Mouse, nor Shrek, nor even a pink hairy monster from a movie only my children have seen and would remember. Every day, for want of a better idea, Doc Holliday—abetted by Juan Baca, and with waning resolution—would kill the Government Contractor, who came to claim the cow we kept in the corral behind the cabin. It was a long, dispassionate shoot-out, after which the murderers dragged their victim up a hill to the west of town, where they dug a pit and buried him. So ended the scene “Death of a Government Contractor.”
A few minutes later, the murdered Contractor would rise up from his grave, first poking his head above the ground to check that there were no tourists around to witness the change of scene. It was an unnecessary precaution because hardly anyone ever visited us except for lost couples, occasional busloads of pensioners, or the odd group of Mexican or Central American migrants who had crossed the border at Douglas or El Paso and strayed. Having ensured that no one was looking, the Contractor would start off downhill to where his wagon was tethered near the entrance to town. He’d brush the dust off his clothes, get into the wagon, take a turn around the town, pull up behind a clump of bushes, and finally enter his house. That’s where Juan and Doc Holliday would find him. Together, the three would drink the various pints of bourbon that, every night, left them lying like newly felled trees wherever they dropped.
For my part, after a few months of playing the scene with Billy the Kid, I began to await his irruption into our cabin with nervous anticipation. The afternoons when he failed to turn up, and the sun had already begun to set behind the bare hillside outside my kitchen window, seemed gray and pathetic. I resented his ever more frequent absences to the point of considering writing to the company to complain about his apparent disinterest in his work and neglect of his responsibilities. My dislike of the vile Dangerous Dan also increased, since it was his intimidations that, when you came down to it, drove Billy the Kid out of Shakespeare on the odd occasions he did appear.
I came up with a plan. It occurred to me that if, one day, with Nimmi’s discreet complicity, I could manage to ensure that the lynching of Sandy King and Russian Bill preceded the irruption of Billy the Kid, and my later kidnapping, by a few minutes, and that this scene almost immediately preceded the Contractor’s, I could perhaps extend my time with Billy in the Stratford Hotel long enough for us to consummate our—until-then unfinished—act together. It was a scheme more complicated than complex, but it was possible.
Juan Baca would be tied to the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office, and the children would arrive to throw stones and dirt at Sandy King and Russian Bill. As Juan wouldn’t be in the cabin when the Government Contractor came to claim our cow, his knocks on our door would receive no answer. Doc Holliday would come round the back of the cabin and, noting that Juan wasn’t there, would have to run to untie him, maybe dodging the stones the children would then be throwing at the freshly lynched bodies of Sandy King and Russian Bill. Only then could the two of them—Doc Holliday and Juan—return to the cabin and get in through the rear door, behind the Contractor’s back. Nimmi, in the meanwhile, would be taking care of the drunken Dangerous Dan.
By that time, Billy the Kid and I would have been alone for a good while in the hotel room.
The day came in the middle of December. It was a cold but radiant afternoon. For the first time in weeks, a busload of pensioners had arrived in Shakespeare from Silver City, and their presence had us all on edge.
Billy the Kid and I had been in the room for a few minutes, looking out the window onto the main square. To make conversation, and keep him entertained, I offered a riddle.
The sun was going down, and Juan Baca and Doc Holliday were dodging stones outside the sheriff’s office. Unaccustomed to visitors, and spurred on by the applause and laughter, they lingered there even longer than I had calculated instead of hurrying on to the scene with the Contractor—who was already waiting for them at the cabin.
Billy the Kid and I had been in the room for a few minutes, looking out the window onto the main square. To make conversation, and keep him entertained, I offered a riddle: A cowboy goes into a saloon, he’s soaked through. He asks for a glass of water, and the bartender hands him a pistol. The cowboy says, “Thank you,” and leaves the saloon. Why?
Billy looked at me the way a cow would contemplate a fly circling around it and said: “The cowboy had the hiccups. Is that the best you can do, honey?”
I raised my eyebrows: I was lost for words. A change of strategy was in order. I said I was worried that if we went out of the room straight away, it would be too early to do the scene with Doc Holliday, and he’d have to mooch around the town aimlessly, waiting for the Contractor to be buried on the hilltop. That seemed to convince him to stay put. We agreed that it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave the props room until the next soporific skirmish between Juan, Doc Holliday, and the Contractor had come to a close, and the burial had taken place; it would then be at least twenty or thirty minutes until Holliday would be free for the dire scene in which he and Dangerous Dan run Billy the Kid out of Shakespeare.
“What are you thinking about, Billy?” I asked.
“I said what are you thinking about.”
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and said nothing, just turned his gaze back to the window onto the main square, where Juan Baca and Doc Holliday were basking in the heartfelt applause, doing a turn that wasn’t in our script: a ridiculous routine, like something circus clowns would invent, involving acrobatics, hat-throwing, and shaking hands with the audience. In the meanwhile, behind them, the four children from the town—John, Nimmi, Teresio, and Victor—were tying Dangerous Dan to the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office. The latter must have been drunk because, instead of resisting, he went obediently along with it. We watched Nimmi slap him a couple of times, and put a heavy stone on the top of his head, forcing him to balance it there. He let it fall. She slapped him again and placed the stone back on his head. Doc Holliday then disappeared inside the sheriff’s office for a few minutes and reappeared wearing a Mickey Mouse costume, firing his revolver into the air. The audience erupted into screams and roars of laughter.
Finally, Billy spoke. Without taking his eyes from the window, his face stern and expressionless, he said: “My knife’s sharp, honey.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant that literally or was inciting me to do something. I thought about undoing the buttons of his waistcoat and his fly, and pulling down the long johns the men in Shakespeare wore under their woollen trousers. I’d never raped a man, much less a man of Billy the Kid’s legendary proportions. Rumor had it that despite his short stature, his penis was as fat as an eggplant. The thought of it! I didn’t know where to begin.
Sure that our signal to leave the room would be some time in coming, we dragged two chairs out from a corner, where they were jumbled together with a couple of brooms, a hatchet, coils of rope, a bunch of artificial flowers, and a suitcase, and sat down facing each other. He lit a cigarette and I stretched one leg, allowing the side of my unshod instep to rest on his worn boot. As he didn’t move an inch, I dared to slide my other foot toward him and rested it on the same boot. He watched me, maybe with indifference. I asked for a drag on his cigarette and when he held it out to me, I caught his wrist and leaned forward to put my lips to its tip. I inhaled deeply, without releasing his wrist, and fought down the desire to cough. I also fought down the suspicion that my new role as a slut was beyond my acting skills. Then he ran a finger along the low neckline of my dress. With that gesture, I regained my confidence and sense of purpose. I stood up, pulling down the long underwear I wore under my skirt, and sat astride him, face to face. He let his cigarette fall, ground it under the sole of his boot, and put his hands around my hips.
“I’m your Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “Why don’t we have a spelling bee?”
I didn’t understand the reference, or the question, but I opened his fly and ran my fingers along the stiff cloth of his long johns until I found the slit through which the tip of his penis poked, living up to its fine reputation. I gave him a long kiss that tasted of pure salt. Then I went on kissing his neck and the lobes of his ears, continuing to move my fingers between the tip of his penis and the wrinkly folds of his testicles. Outside, a gust of laughter rose from the crowd, followed by a rush of applause and whistles.
I thought that Doc Holliday and Juan Baca must finally be walking toward the cabin to meet the Government Contractor. Or perhaps the children were still holding Dangerous Dan hostage, and were playing their version of William Tell with him—instead of apples on his head, stones. Suddenly, gunshots rang out, and the erection that was just beginning to swell deflated between my hands like a burst balloon.
“Have they killed the Government Contractor?” he asked solemnly, perhaps worried.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, trying to squeeze my thighs against his hips.
“Holliday’s gonna catch me if I don’t get to my horse on time.”
“They have to bury the Contractor first,” I said, and tried to extract his pistol, which was digging into my right thigh. He put a hand to his holster.
“I’m not afraid to die like a man, fighting, but I wouldn’t like to be killed like a dog, unarmed,” he said.
I laughed, unsure if anything he said was meant to be taken seriously, or if he was really incapable of speaking to me as if we were two normal adults simply about to fornicate.
“You know, at least 200 men have been killed in Lincoln County,” he went on, “but I didn’t kill all of them. People thought me bad before, but if ever I should get free, I’ll let them know what bad means.”
“What?” I asked, tetchily.
“People thought me bad before, but if ever I should get free, I’ll let them know what bad means,” he repeated.
“What are you saying, Billy?”
“I’m not afraid to die like a man, fighting, but I wouldn’t like to be killed like a dog, unarmed,” he said again.
“Needle stuck?” I asked, standing to put my underwear back on.
“You know, at least 200 men have been killed in Lincoln County but I didn’t kill all of them,” he went on.
I walked over to the window. Billy took out his box of matches and lit another cigarette. Outside, the laughter and applause had died down. There was no one in the main square except for Dangerous Dan—still tied to the hitching post—so deeply asleep that he appeared dead, his head drooping. Nimmi was standing guard beside him, holding a shotgun. She fired twice into the wide, open sky.
I knew that was my cue. I picked up my empty chair and, in a single movement, swung it at Billy’s head. He had no time to react. A narrow trickle of blood slid down from his forehead, his whole body crumpled. His lit cigarette fell to the floor and I ground it under my bare foot.
I checked his pulse was still beating. It was. I undressed him slowly and tied him to the chair with some rope. Then I sat astride him. You could say that, in some sense, I danced a jig on him. When I’d finished, I put a bunch of artificial roses between his legs.
Shakespeare was silent and I’d switched off the light in the props room to be able to see, from my position on the floor, the burning desert stars.
When Billy came round, maybe forty minutes later, I was still lying face up, looking at the sky, striking and blowing out the matches he’d left by his chair when he’d lit his last cigarette. He cleared his throat and said: “People thought me bad before, but if ever I should get free, I’ll let them know what bad means.”
“Sure, Billy, whatever you say,” I replied.
“You know, at least 200 men have been killed in Lincoln County,” he went on, “but I didn’t kill all of them.”
“Shut the fuck up, Billy,” I said calmly, and he obeyed.
We went on breathing together in the darkness for a little while until we heard a slow creaking sound. The door opened, letting in the light from the hall of the Stratford Hotel. Outside, probably rather drunk, passing around a half-empty bottle, were Juan, the Contractor, and Doc Holliday, who was still dressed in his Mickey Mouse audition outfit. Behind them, like a kind of Greek chorus, a group of octogenarian tourists watched us, wide smiles on their faces, ready to enjoy the final scene their tour of Shakespeare would offer.
“Quién es, quién es?” murmured Billy the Kid, unable to protect himself from the flashing cameras of our audience.
I took Billy’s revolver, still in the holster thrown on the floor among the tangle of his clothes. This was my moment, I was certain. I rose from the floor, and struck a match to light my face better for a few seconds. Standing next to Billy, holding his own revolver to his temple, as the flame died, I said:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Billy closed his eyes before the sound of the smoking shot was heard. He opened them again at the applause, which started slowly, timidly, and then exploded into a loud ovation. I was disappointed to discover that my children were not among the crowd watching my scene, though perhaps seeing Billy naked would have been an unnecessary shock. Juan Baca and the Contractor—arms around each other’s shoulders—passed the bottle between them and, wrapped in their strange cloud of torpor and half-happiness, raised it together in a toast. The pensioners cheered and whistled with generous appreciation. Doc Holliday had taken off his white plush mitts to applaud more easily and, from behind his enormous mouse mask, was shouting resounding bravos.
This story will appear in the anthology Lunatics, Lovers & Poets, forthcoming in 2016 from And Other Stories.
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983. She published a book of personal essays entitled False Papers in 2010 and her work has been published in magazines and newspapers such as Letras Libres and the New York Times. Her first novel was Faces in the Crowd. In 2014, she was named one of the “5 under 35” by the National Book Foundation in the US and her most recent novel, The Story of My Teeth, is one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Asymptote, McSweeney’s, and Granta. She has recently completed a PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in fourteen languages.
Christina MacSweeney is a literary translator specializing in Latin American fiction. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks, and The Story of My Teeth have received critical acclaim. Christina has also published translations and articles on wide a variety of platforms, including Litro, Words Without Borders, Brick Magazine, and A Public Space, as well as in the anthology México20 (Pushkin Press, 2015). Her translation of Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in spring 2016.