It seems strange to be writing this introduction after all these years, since I am practically a ghost now and since my dear, old friends have been ghosts for quite some time. In fact, by the time I met the Gangster, I had long stopped thinking about the Decapitated Generation or about our heedless and ruined youth together. I had even stopped thinking about poetry. But the past, as they say in Latin America, is a form of madness that never gives the impression of letting up. It endures.
The first time I saw the Gangster was in 1971, or maybe it was the beginning of 1972. I’m not entirely sure, however, I do remember that it was winter, one of those long sentimental winters in Chicago, a winter where the sky transforms into a charcoal or white phenomenon, and, in some circumstances, takes on the qualities of a vague and separate dimension. But that’s not entirely the point. What’s important is that it was my last year before retirement when I first saw the Gangster. For years, I had owned a shop in Jeweler’s Row on the 16th floor at 5 N. Wabash called Sabato’s Jewelry and I remember I was going over the balance account for my retirement when he came into the shop with a ring he wanted polished. He was tall and thin and wore a sea green suit jacket and denim jeans. He looked like someone out of a forgotten or lost American film from the 50’s. He walked right up to me and handed me the ring and some cash. He then nodded quickly and left. When he was out of the shop, one of my employees, a young and lighthearted Mexican caster from Oaxaca, told me that he knew the Gangster and that he was half Haitian and half Colombian. I got the impression that the caster held a certain fear or fondness for the Gangster, sentiments that might best be reserved for a politician in Latin America during those times, a barrio socialist from Buenos Aires or Mexico City, for example, but not one without the potential for corruption. Of course, as I later explained to my employee, a gangster and a barrio socialist could be one and the same.
A few weeks later the Gangster came in again and told me that he needed a special necklace made for his wife. For our anniversary, he said, and I’d like it if you made it. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a necklace, I said. He insisted, at which point I understood that he would pay more if I made the necklace. OK, OK, I said and laughed. He started laughing too. Where are you from? he asked in uneven Spanish. Ecuador, I responded, the coastal city of Guayaquil. But that was a long, long time ago, I added. That must be it, he said, or something about the way you talk. Like someone I used to know. I nodded. He then took out his wallet and showed me a photo of his wife. She was beautiful.
Make it expensive, the Gangster said, and use an emerald from the Amazon.
I motioned to one of my salesmen to take down a few notes regarding the necklace. The Gangster seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, but then he turned to me and smiled. We met when we were sixteen, the Gangster said. I was wandering up and down State Street and she was just sitting on a bus stop bench. It was like a dream, or like one of those hallucinations that feels like a dream. I smiled. I then made out and handed him a receipt that said Pay on Delivery across the top and he left.
Later, while riding the train home, I thought about the Gangster’s story and I was reminded of those famous American love songs from WWI. Those love songs that sailors brought with them from the States to Santiago, Chile, those love songs that sailors sung in whore houses which then spread up the Pacific coast to reach us in Guayaquil months and months later. But, of course, by then the songs had been changed into songs about sex and blondes, which to us, the street kids of Guayaquil, just fifteen or sixteen years old, was an amazing thing, especially since we didn’t know any blondes, let alone any blondes who would let one of us fuck her, so really, we thought the songs were extraordinary, and we would drunkenly sing them to each other late at night, walking home together arm in arm through some quiet and empty plaza, or spread out across the beach like from a badly choreographed black and white newspaper photo of a skinny and dog-drunk street gang.
I worked on the necklace for the Gangster carefully. Since I was somewhat out of practice, I took a sketchpad home with me. Every night for a week, I cooked the same plate, rice and broiled chicken, or variations of the same plate. After I ate, I sat at my large, oak dining room table and drew sketches of necklaces. When my hand started to hurt, possibly due to arthritis, or some other condition which seems to afflict old men in cold climates, I read the newspaper, or stared out the dining room window. Enormous clouds hung over the center of Chicago and I imagined that they were portals to another universe which opened and closed every twenty years or so. It took nearly thirty sketches, but I finally got it right. I settled on a slender necklace with a solid, graceful pendant. It reminded me of a necklace I had once seen on a woman waiting for a train. After finishing the sketch, the rest was relatively straightforward. At my shop, I made the wax mold from the sketch and then cast the necklace and the pendant. Immediately following, I filed the necklace and the pendant. Afterwards, I thought for a while about the photo the Gangster had shown me of his wife. She was quite glamorous, actually! She had a long, sylphlike neck, a movie star’s neck, and I decided to spare no accounts. After all, the Gangster had asked me to make it expensive. I ordered a rare, green Colombian trapiche, a beautiful type of emerald which has a six pointed radial pattern, like a star, and which refracts light a thousand different ways, which is to say the emerald behaves like memory.
Years before I owned my shop and when I was new to this country, I learned the jewelry trade from a quiet though unpredictable Jew from the city of Vitebsk. A stunning city, he told me once, that rests on the banks of the Dvina, Vitba, and the Luchesa rivers. During my time with him, he often gave me two pieces of advice that he had brought with him from Vitebsk. First, he would say while holding up his pointer finger, always flee a civil war. They are the bloodiest wars and rarely do they have winners. Second, remember that people can’t tell the difference between the real and the symbolic. For this reason, he would say, jewelry was the perfect symbol. People digest symbols like they are digesting real things. Only jewelers know this distinction. So, there will always be trade for a jeweler.
For the most part, he had been right. I did well for myself. For years, my shop was busy and the material and the symbolic were a perfect sort of working machine. But, thinking about it now, under the watchful, luminescent eyes of my dear, old friends, I can’t help but think that I am no better than my customers. Sometimes, I don’t know which parts of my life have been real and which parts have been symbolic.
When the Gangster picked up the necklace he said it was a wonderful piece, but he didn’t seem to have time to elaborate or talk much. In fact, he seemed quite rushed. I thought that I might never see him again and I imagined that he would become a walking ghost, but I was wrong. Two months later, he showed up and asked for me.
The Gangster explained that he had been to Bogota to visit his grandmother, who had been sick for quite some time. He had spent one month with her and then she had died. He had spent the remaining month wandering the coast and staying in various hotels in Cartagena. He told me that although he had been born in Colombia, his family had come to the States when he had been three, so he could never quite remember it.
Instead, he said, I only remember or think I remember a vast ocean and a lightness in the quality of the air. I guess I wanted to see and feel that again.
That could mean a number of things, I said.
Maybe something to do with mortality, the Gangster said, or fear, or even contentment. I don’t know.
The Gangster smiled and I realized that he was confiding in me, although, at first I had no idea why. I suppose, looking back on it now, that he was a sort of ghost, a half-ghost like me, which is to say a Latin American ghost lost in the States, a type of silhouette existing in another country, or rather, a shadow, yes! a shadow, wandering through an exhaustive and sweeping labyrinth.
In Cartagena, the Gangster spent his days sitting in parks and watching people, in particular the government officials and the displaced, los desplazados in Spanish, a word he had learned while there. They were so poor, the Gangster said, especially the teenagers, and they had the same cocoa-colored skin as me and spoke the same type of Spanish as my mom. I watched them for days, he said. The Gangster then stared at a display case full of gold rings and said los desplazados again and again, as if it were an address to a haunted house or a type of talisman.
I didn’t say anything. The Gangster smiled, shook my hand, and left. When he was out of my shop, I was suddenly reminded of my dear, old friend, Humberto Fierro, who used to sit in parks for days at a time when he was depressed or at a loss for meaning. I remembered that he used to write me long letters about parks in Quito, especially during sunsets, and frequently called them a melancholy wasteland. And then, for the first time in years, I thought about all of my dear old, friends who, in my sudden imagination, seemed to be suspended between the blessing of adolescence and the malaise of adulthood. I then imagined time as a prehistoric bird, a vicious pterodactyl hunting and circumnavigating the earth. Hunting for what or who exactly? Ah! Me, of course. And my dear, old friends! We all died so young! In another world, another time.
The Gangster came back a few days later just as the shop was closing. He asked me if I wanted to grab a drink. I said yes. We walked in silence down Wabash for a few blocks to a corner bar. The place was lit soft blue. We sat at a long, pine bar on two stools near the service door. The Gangster ordered two Jack and Cokes. A few tired and tipsy men at the bar nodded at the Gangster and the bartender shook his hand before getting our drinks. The Gangster seemed to be well known and well liked at the bar.
After some time, the Gangster asked me if I ever missed Ecuador. I said sometimes and we got to talking about Guayaquil and the beaches near the city and the idiosyncratic Ecuadorean sun, which sets at exactly the same time every evening, as if the sun were a blueprint or a mechanized device. We then talked about immigrants and coincidence and I surprised myself when I told the Gangster that the other day he had reminded me of a dear, old friend. A poet, to be more exact, I said. Someone who I had not thought about for a very long time.
Who would that be? the Gangster asked.
Humberto Fierro. He used to sit in parks all day too.
Yeah? the Gangster said, suddenly interested.
He was quite melancholy at times. Although, thinking about it now, he was also happy sometimes. Viciously happy.
The Gangster laughed.
That about sums me up, the Gangster said and motioned to the bartender to pour two more drinks.
So, tell me about him, the Gangster said.
He was part of a generation of poets in Ecuador called the Decapitated Generation. Generación Decapitada in Spanish.
Generación Decapitada, the Gangster repeated. Why were they called that?
They all committed suicide at a young age. Humberto Fierro1 was one. Arturo Borja2 and Ernesto Noboa y Caamaño3 were two others.
I realized that I hadn’t spoken my dear, old friends’ names for over fifty years. I also realized that these names, these seemingly ineffable names, these incandescent names, would mean nothing to the Gangster.
So, the Gangster said, they were called Generación Decapitada because they all died young?
Yes, no. I mean not all of them, I said.
Humberto Fierro, eh? the Gangster said, I’ll have to read his poems one day.
Some time passed. The bar became crowded and the Gangster talked to a few men at a nearby table. We ordered more drinks and talked about other things: spring, cars, and the rising price of gold. The Gangster then smiled and stood up to leave. He was drunk and his smile was radiant. He said that he had enjoyed our conversation and he shook my hand. There was a familiarity in his handshake, as if we had been drinking together and shaking hands throughout the entirety of human history. He then nodded and left.
I decided to stay for one last drink. I listened to a small group of men at the other end of the bar arguing about the mayor or someone who worked for the mayor. The soft blue lights of the bar had been dimmed even further and I imagined that I was in the belly of a submarine, a Balao-class submarine from World War II, which was slowly making its way through the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Somewhere in those watery depths were the Generación Decapitada, the forgotten ghosts of my dear, old friends. For years, they had been nothing more to me than that —ghosts. A shadowy presence in the back of my mind, or rather, in the least symbolic terms possible, a semblance of a memory. Either way, I had tried to force them to those depths. But now they returned.
The Gangster continued to visit my shop and order jewelry. Occasionally, he brought up the Generación Decapitada, a question here or there. We mostly talked about business or Latin America, especially regarding the current wave of political dead-ends and the types of men, women, and children who would be caught up in those dead-ends, which means that we talked in great length about los desplazados. The Gangster also suggested movies for me and even let me borrow a video cassette player, which I set up in my living room with an old 1966 Zenith television set. The movies he suggested were full of flying saucers that attacked cities and creatures that sulked around small towns like heartbroken young men. The Gangster’s favorite movie, however, was Night of the Living Dead by George Romero. It was his favorite film because, according to the Gangster, zombies were a Haitian thing. Also, because the hero of the film was black. He had never seen anything like it. It’s the future, he said.
In some otherworldy way, the films motivated me. I started to write again. Although, thinking about it now, maybe the films were just a pretext. Of course, I wanted to tell the Gangster, but I could never really find the right time. As it turned out, I didn’t need to.
Early one evening, mid-summer, the Gangster showed up at my house. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to see him and I invited him in for dinner and a few drinks. He looked tired, as if he had been dealing with something unavoidable. An unavoidable violence or heartache, I imagined. Halfway through the dinner, he told me that something had been bothering him for quite some time and he had a question for me.
What’s that? I asked.
But I understood immediately.
You’re one of them, he said, you’re one of the Generación Decapitada.
That’s not much of a question, I said, and laughed a little, maybe to hide a sense of apprehension or nervousness.
I told the Gangster that he was correct and that my given name was Merdardo Angel Silva, or that long ago I was Merdardo Angel Silva, a different version of him, a different version from another world, another universe even, but yes! in my heart and mind, I still carried that name.
I then told him my story.
Unlike my dear, old friends, I said, I grew up poor, so the only place my mother could find for us to live was near a graveyard. In some ways, thinking about it now, I grew up with a preoccupation of death. But more than this preoccupation, more than life even, I wanted to be a journalist. I think this happened around the age of fourteen or fifteen. At that time, I also dropped out of school. During the nights, I wandered the beaches and streets of Guayaquil with other teens and during the days I taught myself French and stalked around the offices of city newspapers. I started to write poetry as well, since, in some strange and naïve way, I imagined that all journalists wrote poetry in their spare time. Poems about foreign cities and endless wars. But, of course, I wrote about death and graveyards. In fact, a few were even published. Then somehow, through a friend of a friend, I managed to get a job as an editor of the newspaper El Telégrafo. At a party thrown by one of the newspaper’s editors, I met Ernesto Noboa y Caamaño. He was older. In his twenties by then, I believe. I started to follow him around neighborhood streets all over the city and we’d occasionally go into a bar to get drunk and talk about poetry or types of graveyards in Guayaquil, which itself seemed to be a type of graveyard, a vast graveyard of the Pacific. I remember thinking that he spoke like a true madman! One night he even told me that I should contact the poets Humberto Fierro and Arturo Borja, although, by then, Ernesto said, Arturo had already committed suicide. Still, I wrote letters to both of them. I guess I was a little mad myself. A year or so passed this way. You have to understand that back then everything seemed inevitable, although now, that seems like a ridiculous thought. Nothing is inevitable.
Around this time, I explained, I met a girl. She had auburn hair and the most beautiful way of describing horrible events. She would often say that our relationship was like a series of explosions. But now, with age, with so much age, I can confidently state that our relationship was marvelous and disastrous. Of course, I was in love! Shortly after, I was sent by the newspaper in Quito to interview Humberto Fierro. By then, we had been exchanging letters often. He was rather quiet and worked as a clerk, so I’d meet up with him after work and we’d wander around that volcano city for hours in silence, a hallowed silence, the silence of true friendship. Occasionally, he’d say something about his work or his family, and, in rare times, he would speak for hours on end. Frantically and out of breath, as if drowning. One night, we even got madly drunk and wrote letters to Charles Baudelaire and Arturo Borja. Letters to the dead, if you can imagine!
When I returned to Guayaquil, a month or two later, I went straight to my girlfriend’s house and found her in bed with someone else. A street kid, more or less, like me. When I discovered them, I was furious and disorientated, so I pulled out my knife. It had a bone handle and had been a parting gift from Humberto Fierro. But when I drew closer to the street kid, a more unsettled and despondent version of myself, I realized sadly, I saw that he was weeping. He had not known about me either. The next morning, he was found dead on a nearby street. A gunshot to his head. I knew that he had killed himself, but that I would be blamed. The police were already looking for me. The only option, you understand, was to flee the country. My editor agreed to report that I had been the one to commit suicide and, with the help of my mother, my poor, poor mother, I changed my name and escaped to Buenos Aires. The only thing I took with me were my books and letters. I lived there quietly and in solitude for some time, working at a newspaper stand, until one day, I read an article in a poetry magazine about Ernesto Noboa y Caamaño and Humberto Fierro. The article stated that both of them had committed suicide. For reasons I still don’t understand, I then fled to Paris and stayed there until 1939, though, it might have been 1940, just before the occupation. I don’t entirely remember. In fact, I don’t remember much from that time in my life. A vast black hole of memory. For all intents and purposes, I was finally dead myself.
I was quiet for some time. I looked at the Gangster. He was young. In one evening, an entire era had come and gone.
So, the Gangster asked, how did you end up in Chicago?
A French-Jew took pity on me and brought me with his family to New York. From there, I worked my way west.
And nobody even recognized you? Nobody ever said anything?
No. Once or twice I thought I saw someone who knew me. They either hadn’t noticed or they pretended not to notice. As they say in this country, everybody is trying to escape their past.
It was late. I could hear the rattling and phantasmal whistles of a train echoing through a far-away neighborhood. I looked out the dining room window. A few luminous stars lit up the night sky. Other worlds, other times, I thought.
I want to read them, the Gangster said, all of them. Including you.
I went to my bookshelf and gave the Gangster a handful of poetry books written by my dear, old friends. I also gave him letters and notebooks full of poems I had written long ago when I lived in Buenos Aires, poems that were not about graveyards or the abyss, but about something else entirely. Finally, I gave him a series of poems that I had started since meeting him, the first thing I had written in forty years, a sci-fi saga set in the year 2072 called Heroes and Madmen.
I had planned on burning all of this at some point, I said.
I told the Gangster he could stay the night. He smiled and nodded. I then retired to my bedroom. For a long time, I sat up in bed and thought about my dear, old friends. I asked their ghosts to forgive me. For what? I don’t entirely know. Surviving? Abandoning them for so many years? Could they even forgive me now? I then fell into a deep sleep, without a point of reference or even dreams.
In the morning, I found the Gangster sitting at the oak dining room table reading. He looked exhausted, as if he hadn’t slept the entire night, but happy.
Can I take these? he asked, motioning to the pile of books, letters, and notebooks spread out in front of him.
Take everything, I said.
I found a cardboard box for the Gangster and we went outside. The summer morning light seemed charged with cadmium or gold flecks. We walked to the corner and the Gangster stopped by a light blue Cadillac Coupe Deville. He put the cardboard box into the trunk and told me that he would do something good with the poems.
I know a guy in Printer’s Row who owes me a favor, the Gangster said.
We sat on the hood of his Cadillac, giddy, younger versions of ourselves, like street kids, like American desplazados (which, in some ways, we were) and talked at length about my dear, old friends, about their suicides, which seemed like a thing that only happened in desperate black and white films from another era, and about their miserable and romantic lives.
I like their poems, the Gangster said. They remind me of when I was younger and when I met my wife. When I wanted her so badly that it hurt. When I would’ve killed myself if I couldn’t have her.
Nearly three months later the Gangster was shot and killed. He was thirty-four. That means I must have been seventy-four. The Mexican caster from Oaxaca had heard the news from a cop and then read it a day later in the Tribune. When he told me, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, sorry patron. The gesture seemed incomplete, the half scrawl of an unfinished poem or an imperfect polish. Or, more likely, and according to the good nature of my employee, the gesture was sincere, even generous, and I just felt like shit.
For a long time after, I waited to see if anything would happen. If, for example, his successor would come into the shop, or if I would be robbed, although now this seems like an irrational, if not stupid, thought. One night, shortly after retirement, I even dreamt that he came into the shop. He was riding a horse, just like a rancher out of the Argentine pampas. He wore a sea green suit jacket and denim jeans. Then, somehow, he was also part of the horse, or the horse and him were one in the same, like a centaur. Yes! I remember now. A centaur exactly. He looked as if he had just galloped across a scorched prairie or a prehistoric wasteland. He stomped his hooves and spoke vaguely about his grandmother and Colombia, los desplazados, and the death of a generation.
Medardo Angel Silva
1 Although sources state that Quito born poet Humberto Fierro was introverted and modest, he was sometimes prone to bouts of fervor. He worked all his adult life as a clerk at the office of a public prosecutor. His first collection El laúd del valle (The Lute in the Valley) was published during his lifetime in 1919, but his second collection La velada palatina (The Evening Palate) was not published until 1949, twenty years after he committed suicide at the age of thirty-nine. (1890-1929)
2 Arturo Borja was born in Quito. His brief life was filled with sadness and the strange nostalgia of youth. For a few years before his death, he lived in Paris. The city was said to have impacted his poetry, however, it might be better stated that the city collided into his poetry. The poems in his collection La flauta de Onix y 6 poemas más (The Onix Flute and 6 Other Poems) were largely influenced by Baudelaire and Verlaine and were marked with an obsession with death. A few days after he returned from his honeymoon with his wife Roza Carmen Sanchez, he killed himself by overdosing on morphine. He was twenty. (1892-1912)
3 Ernesto Noboa y Caamaño was born in Guayaquil. For much of his life he suffered from a type of neurosis or a type of depression and often took morphine as a result. In order to ease his state of mind, and much like other Latin American poets from his generation, he traveled to Europe, but once there he found only ghosts and madmen, or rather, men and women who mirrored his own condition. His collection Romanza de las horas (Romance of the Hours) is distinctly marked by anxiety and boredom. He killed himself at the age of thirty-eight. (1891-1927)