The One in White

"Captain," I say, "you've got about two hundred Mexican soldiers waiting for you in the plaza"
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Bunky Millerman caught me from behind on the third day of Woody Wilson's little escapade in Vera Cruz. Bunky and his cameras and I had gone down south of the border a couple of weeks earlier for the Tribune. I'd been promised an interview with the tin-pot General Huerta, who was running the country. He had his hands full with Zapata and Villa and Carranza, and by the time I got there El Presidente was no longer in a mood to see the American press. I was ready to beat it back north, but then the muse of reporters shucked off her diaphanous gown for me and made the local commandant in Tampico, on the Gulf coast, go a little mad. He grabbed a squad of our Navy bluejackets, ashore for gasoline and showers, and marched them through the street as Mexican prisoners. That first madness passed quickly, and our boys were let go right away, but old Woodrow had worked himself up. He demanded certain kinds of apologies and protocols, which the stiff-necked Huerta wouldn't give. Everybody started talking about war. Then I got wind of a German munitions ship heading for Vera Cruz, and while the other papers were still picking at bones in Tampico, I hopped a train over the mountains and into the tierra caliente. I arrived in Vera Cruz, which was the hot country all right, a godforsaken port town in a desolate sandy plain with a fierce, hot northern wind. But I figured I'd be Johnny-on-the-spot.

Anyways. That Bunky Millerman photo of me. Almost three years later I was in Clyde Fetter's office at the Tribune. His steam heat was running behind a gale off Lake Michigan, and we were hunching down into our collars and blowing on our fingertips and hashing out the details of me heading to Europe to get ahead of things again. I'd be on the docks of Le Havre when our first boys arrived. Wilson would have to pull the trigger soon.

Then I see the postcard up on the cork wall behind his desk. It's surrounded by clippings and Brownie shots and news copy, but it sort of jumps off the wall at me. Clyde's paused anyway, trying to relight his cigar with frozen fingers, and I circle around him and look close.

It's me, all right. Bunky snapped me from behind and I'm walking along one of the streets just off the Plaza de Armas and there's been a gun battle. Bunky had the photo printed up on a postcard back for me, and I sent it off to Clyde. I've inked an arrow pointing at a tiny, unrecognizable figure way up the street, standing with a bunch of other locals. In the foreground I'm striding past a leather-goods shop. The pavement's wide and glaring from the sun. Even from behind I've got the look of a war correspondent. There but not there. Unafraid of the battle and floating along just a little above it all. Not in the manner of Richard Harding Davis, who came down for a syndicate after the action got started and who wore evening clothes every night at his table in the portales. Not like Jack London, either, who was in Vera Cruz looking as if he'd hopped a freight from the Klondike. I've got a razor press in my dark trousers, and my white shirt is fresh. We boys of the Fourth Estate love our image and our woodchopper's feel for words. It's an image you like your editors to have of you, so I sent this card—even though by the time I did I'd learned a thing or two I couldn't put in a story for the Tribune or anybody else.

I pull the card off the wall now and turn it over. I've scrawled in pencil, "After the battle notice the pretty Senorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry." I draw my thumb over the words, compulsively noticing the dangle of the first phrase, which was meant like a headline. I should have put a full stop. After the battle. And I've made "Senorita's" singular possessive, capitalizing it like a proper name. Maybe this was more than sloppiness in a hasty, self-serving scrawl on a postcard. It was in fact true that I had no interest in the other girls. Just in whatever it was that this particular señorita had inside her. Luisa Morales.

Clyde takes a guess at where my mind has gone. "Good thing we've got a copy desk," he says, a puff of his relit cigar floating past me.

"If I were you, I wouldn't trust a reporter who bothered to figure out apostrophes," I say. But I'm not looking at him.

I've turned the card over once more, and I'm looking at Luisa, dressed in white, far away. And I'm falling into it again, the lesson I was about to learn seemingly lost on me. Because what I'm not looking at in the picture—or even while standing there in Clyde's office, really—is the two dead bodies I've just walked past, still pretty much merely arm's length away. A couple of snipers, also in white, dead on the sidewalk. That's what they pay us for, Davis and London and me and all the rest of the boys. To take that in and keep focused. I get the head count and work out the politics of it, and I can write the smear of their blood, their sprawled limbs, their peasant sandals, without a second glance. I can fill cable blanks one after another with that kind of stuff while parked in a wisp of sea breeze in the portales over a glass of blue agave. If I get stuck finding the right phrase for the folks on Lake Shore Drive or Division Street or Michigan Avenue, I just tap a spoon on my saucer and along comes a refill and inspiration, delivered by an hombre who might end up on the sidewalk tomorrow showing the bottoms of his sandals.

"So what became of your señorita, do you suppose?" Clyde says.

I look over my shoulder at him. He's drawn his craggy moon of a face out of his collar and has it angled a little, like he's sprung a horsewhip of a question on a dirty politician.

I ruffle around in my head trying to think what I may have said to him about her. I'm not coming up with anything. "Did I get drunk around you sometime I'm not remembering?" I say.

"Nah," Clyde says. "Call it a newsman's intuition."

I shrug and look away from him again. But I'm not talking.

She sort of came with the rooms I rented in a little house just off the zócalo. I'd barely thrown my kit on the bed and wiped the sweat off my brow with my wrist when she peeked her head in at the door, which I had failed to close all the way. These two big dark eyes and a high forehead from her Spanish grandfather or whoever. "Señor?" she says.

"Come in—as long as you're not one of Huerta's assassins," I say in Spanish, which I'm pretty good at. I figure that accounts for the smile she gives me.

"No problem, señor," she says. "I'll take your dirty things." She's swung the door open wide now, and I see a straw basket behind her, waiting.

"Well, there was this time with Roosevelt in San Juan ..." I say, though it's under my breath, really, and I let it trail off, just an easy private joke when I'm roughed up from travel and needing a drink.

But right off she says, "You keep that, señor. Some things I can't wash away." She does this matter-of-factly, shrugging her thin shoulders a little.

"Of course," I say. "It's probably a priest I need."

"The ones in Mexico won't do you much good," she says.

She keeps surprising me, and this time I don't have a response. I'm just looking at her, thinking What a swell girl, and I'm probably showing it in my face.

Her face stays as blank as a tortilla, and after a moment she says, "Your clothes."

My hand goes of its own accord to the top button on my shirt.

"Please, señor," she says, her voice full of weary patience, and she points to my kit.

I give her some things to wash. "What's your name?" I say.

"I'm just the local girl who does your laundry," she says, and I still can't read anything in her face, to see if she's flirting or really trying to put me off.

I say, "You've advised me to keep away from your priests even though I'm plenty dirty. You're already more than a laundry girl."

She laughs. "That was not for your sake. I just hate the priests."

"That's swell," I say. Swell enough that I've said it in English, and I say something equivalent in Spanish for her.

She hesitates a moment more and finally says, "Luisa Morales," and then she goes out without another word, not even an adiós.

I put her aside in my mind and beat it down to the docks, where I find out the location at sea of the German ship, the Ypiranga, said to be carrying 15 million rounds of ammunition. Then I stop at the telegraph office, where Clyde has wired me. It seems that half the Great White Fleet is also headed in my general direction, including the troopship Prairie, the battleship Utah, and Admiral Fletcher's flagship Florida. Things are getting interesting, but for now all I can do is wait. So I end up at a cantina I reconnoitered near my rooms.

Not that thoughts of Luisa Morales come back to me while I'm drinking—not directly. I soak up a few fingers of a bottle of mescal and sweat a lot at a table in the rear of the cantina with my back to the wall, and I watch the shadows of the zopilotes heaving past, the mangy black vultures that seem to be in the city's official employ to remove carrion from the streets, and I think mostly about what crybabies Wilson and Bryan, his paunchy windbag of a Secretary of State, have turned out to be. I lift my glass to Roosevelt and toast his big stick.

I did that same thing in Corpus Christi a couple of weeks earlier, with a guy who knew how it would all happen. I was waiting in Corpus for my expense money to show up at a local bank. I found a saloon with a swinging door down by the docks, but the spot I always like at the back wall had a gaunt hombre with a stuffed bandolier and a beat-up Stetson sitting in it. He saw me look at him. Coming in, I'd passed a couple of johnnies rolling in the dirt outside, gouging each other's eyes, and I didn't want to add to the mood, so I was ready to just veer off to the rail. But the guy in the Stetson flipped up his chin, and the other chair at the table scooted itself open for me, a thing he did right slick, timed with the chin flip, like the toe of his boot had been poised to invite the first likely-looking drinking buddy.

So I found myself with Bob Smith and a bottle of whiskey. He didn't like being called a "soldier of fortune," if you please, he was an insurrecto from the old school, 'cause his granddaddy had stirred things up long before him, down in Nicaragua, and his daddy had added to some trouble too, somewhere amongst the downtrodden of Colombia before all the stink about the Canal, so this was an old family profession to him, and as far as personal names were concerned, I was to address him as he was known to others of his kind: that was to say, as "Tallahassee Slim."

I said, "There's a bunch of you Slims in all this mess, it seems."

He agreed happily, listing a few: Chicago and Silent and San Antonio and Death Valley. He and Dynamite Slim had even spent time side by side with Villa last fall. Now Tallahassee Slim had come north to regroup and dally with some white women before heading south again. We traded war stories, and I got around to complaining about Wilson, who I took to be a lily-liver.

"Not exactly," Tallahassee Slim said, leaning a little across the table and rustling the ammunition strapped to his chest. "At least a lily-liver has a straightforward position. This guy isn't one thing or another. You hear how the man talks? Teddy would put his pistol on the table and call it a pistol. Old Woody sneaks his out and calls it the Bible. He preaches about upholding civilized values, stabilizing governments, giving the Mexicans or the Filipinos or whoever a fine, peaceful life. Not to mention protecting American interests, which means the oilmen and the railroad men and so forth. And as for the locals, you simply try to persuade the bad old boys who happen to be running a country we're interested in to retire to the countryside. Problem is, the cojones that got those fellas into power in the first place will never let them walk away. So when it comes down to it, Woody's going to go to war. Over a chaw of tobacco, too, when it's time. Mark my words."

So we drank to Teddy Roosevelt, and I did mark those words. One thing I'd learned filling cable blanks from various tierras calientes for a few years already was to listen to anybody with live ammunition who called himself "Slim." You can keep your three-named windbags with bow ties.

And I also lift my glass that first afternoon in Vera Cruz to Tallahassee Slim. A couple of times. I drink mescal till it's too hot to stay upright, and I decide to follow the example of those who actually live with the infernal bluster of El Norte and take a nap.

When I get back to my rooms, I find my shirts and my dark trousers folded neatly at the foot of my bed, which leads me to notice a quiet babble of female voices somewhere nearby.

I step out into the courtyard, and Luisa and two other señoritas are under a banana tree, hugging the shade and talking low. So she sees me looking at her, and she rises and steps into the sunlight, crossing to me but taking her time.

"Señor?" she says as she approaches. "Your shirts are clean, yes? Your pants are pressed just right?"

Even in the United States of America, land of equality, when a girl who works in a shop or a beanery or does laundry, for a good example, gets a little forward, you take it in a different way than you would from a girl of money and fancy family who you meet somewhere official. I've had a few blue-blooded girls say some pretty cheeky things in my presence in this day and age. But the shirt-washing Señorita Luisa Morales standing before me, as beautiful as her face is, with maybe even some granddaddy straight from Castile, she's sure no sangre azul, and she's already been plenty forward with me, and she doesn't have to get up and come over and ask about my laundry based on me just looking in her direction. So given all this, it's natural to think she's ready to spend some private time together.

I speak pretty good Spanish, but my vocabulary has some gaps. The few things I know to say in this situation I've picked up in cantinas and a burdel or two, and though I figure she's ready for the substance of those words, I'm not feeling comfortable with the tone of them. She has a thing about her that I'm not understanding. So, trying to go around another way, I say, "Why don't you come on in and we check out the crease in my pants?"

She puts on a face I can't decode. Then I say, "I speak softly and carry a big stick."

Maybe Teddy loses something in translation. Or maybe not. She's gone before I can draw another breath. I remember those big eyes going narrow just before she vanished, an afterimage like the pop of Bunky's flash.

Right off, I have a surprisingly strong regret at this. Not just the missed opportunity. The whole breakdown. But I've still got too much mescal in me, and the afternoon is too hot, so I go take my siesta.

Before I see my señorita again, it's two days later, the German ship arrives, and so does the U.S. Navy. Bunky and I go down to the docks first thing, and the German ship is lying to, just inside the breakwater, with the American fleet gathered half a mile farther out. There doesn't seem to be any serious action out there, and it's only a few blocks inland to the Plaza de Armas. So I figure I have time to write a dispatch to Clyde.

I take what I've decided will be my usual table in the portales and even have a couple of beers. Bunky, as usual, is off on his own, snapping what strikes him as interesting, and he swings back to me and gives me a nod now and then. For a teetotaler from Kansas, Bunky is a straight guy. Then, well into the morning, the local Mexican general, a guy named Maass, marches a battalion's worth of government troops into the plaza. I figure it's getting time for the offloading of the Ypiranga. I'm also the object of some nasty looks from a major on horseback as I finish my beer while the locals are discreetly heading for cover.

So Bunky and I beat it back down to the docks, and it's begun. I count ten whaleboats coming in, full of American Marines, who I later learn are from the Prairie. No sign behind me, up the boulevard, that Maass is sending his troops down to meet them. I've got my notebook and pencil stub in hand, and Bunky takes off to find his camera angles.

It all goes fast and easy for our boys and for me during the next hour or so. The Marines, who number about two hundred, are followed by almost the same number of bluejackets from the Florida, and they bring the admiral's Stars and Stripes with them. We take the Customs House without a shot being fired.

I'm still waiting for the Mexicans to come down and put up a fight, but there's no sign of them. Meanwhile, a bunch of locals are gathering on the street to watch. A peon in a serape and a sombrero calls out "Viva Mexico" and throws a rock, and even before the rock clatters to the cobblestone street, twenty yards from a couple of riflemen, he's hightailing it away. The riflemen just give him a look, and the crowd guffaws, and it's all turning into a vaudeville skit.

Then a detachment of Marines clad in khaki and wrapped with ammunition start to march through the street along the railway yards. They turn like they're heading for the plaza. I signal Bunky and take off after them. They're going down the center of the cobbled street, the zopilotes hop-skipping out of their way and giving them a look over their shoulders like these guys could be lunch. I'm hustling hard and gaining on the Marines, and they're passing storefronts and balconied houses. Mexicans are strung along the street, watching like it's the Fourth of July.

Just as I'm about to overtake the captain in charge of the detachment, I see Luisa. She's up ahead with some other señoritas, but she's standing by herself and she's dressed in white and she's standing stiffly with her chin lifted just a little. But I've got a man's business to do first. I'm up with the captain, and I slow to his pace, and he gives me a quick, suspicious look when I first come up, but then he sees I'm American.

"Captain," I say, and I lift my arm to point up ahead. "You've got about two hundred Mexican soldiers waiting for you in the plaza."

He gives me a quick nod of thanks and turns his face to halt his detachment, and at that moment I look toward Luisa, who is just about even with me, but I pass her with my next step and my next, and I slow down, even as the detachment is coming to a halt, and it registers on me that Luisa has been watching me closely, and I feel a good little thing about having her attention, but at that moment the gunfire starts. The crack of a rifle, and another, and a double crack, and the Marines are all shifting away, and I spin around, knowing at once that the rifles are up above, that the Mexicans are on the roofs, and Luisa has her face lifted to see, and I leap forward one stride and another, and my arms open and I catch her up, Luisa Morales, I sweep her up in my arms and carry her forward and she's impossibly light, and I press us both into the alcove of a bakery shop, the smell of corn tortillas all around us.

"Stay down," I say, and I put my body between the street and her, and I realize I've spoken in English. "They're firing from the roofs," I say in Spanish. "Don't move."

She doesn't. But she says, "They're not shooting at me."

"Anyone can get hit."

"They're shooting at you," she says.

"I'm all right," I say. "This is old news to me."

A rifle round flits past my ear—I can feel the zip of air on me—and it takes a bite out of the wall of the alcove. I twist a little to look into the street—I'm missing the action, this is news happening all around me—and as soon as I do, I feel Luisa slip out past me and she's moving quickly along the storeline, heading away. Another round chunks close in the wall and I can't do anything about my spunky señorita, so I press back into the alcove to stay alive for the afternoon.

It isn't a bad spot, actually, to watch the skirmish. The Marines do a quick job of sharpshooting the Mexicans, some of them falling to the pavement below, and others going down on the roofs or beating a fast retreat.

Then it's over. I step out of the alcove. Bunky is coming up from the direction of the docks, and he's doing his camera work. I stay with the Marines while they regroup and tend to a couple of the wounded. The Mexicans on the roofs turned out to be poor shots, and the Marine captain thinks they weren't regular troops. Meanwhile, a scout comes up and says that Maass's men have moved out of the plaza and off to the west. Later in the day the Mexicans will go over the hills on the western outskirts of town to flank the battalion of Marines in the railway yards and along Montesinos Street by the American consulate. The boys on the Florida will see what they're doing and break them up with the ship's guns, and Maass and his men will all run away.

But for now the Marines muster and march off toward the plaza, and I cross onto the wide sidewalk in the sunlight and saunter in the same direction. I'm starting to shape a lead paragraph in my head. I pass a couple of dead Mexicans. I've seen plenty of dead bodies. My business is getting stories. You're dead and your story's over.

Then up ahead I notice a figure in white. I'm very glad to see her. She got through the bullets okay. I head for Luisa, and she sees me coming. I'm still not within talking distance, and she says something to the girl next to her and moves off. I stop. The girl Luisa spoke to looks at me with a blank face and then looks away. I'm not a masher. A little dense sometimes, maybe. I'm ready to leave Luisa Morales entirely alone, if that's what she wants.

Early the next morning, long before sunrise, I wake abruptly to the scratch of a match. I turn my face and see a candlewick flare up and glide to the night table, and before I can quite comprehend it all, the business end of a pistol barrel is resting coldly on my left temple. Floating in the candlelight is Luisa's face.

"You were working for them," she says.

"Who?"

"The American invaders."

I'm reluctant to get into a political argument with my laundry girl who has a pistol pointed at my head. I choose my words carefully. "I'm a newsman," I say.

"I saw you with the American officer, directing him."

The pistol is getting heavier. If her weapon is cocked and her bearing in on me is unconscious, her tired hand could do something it doesn't necessarily intend. I try not to think about that. There are some other pressing issues. For one thing, her attitudes aren't adding up. I need to talk to her about this, but I have to make the point carefully. I don't remind her of her hatred of Mexican priests—they're all I can think of in her culture that might speak against her pulling the trigger. But I bring up the logical next thing. "I don't think you're a supporter of General Huerta," I say.

"I hate Huerta. Do you take me for a fool?" She nudges my head with the pistol in emphasis.

"No. Of course not. But these Americans. They're here to help free Mexico of Huerta. That's all."

"Did you see who was dead in the streets?" she says.

Lying sweating in my bed, a pistol muzzle to my temple, I'm still unable to set aside the impulse to deal in either the literal facts or the political rhetoric that are goods of my trade. Rhetoric would be dangerous, and I'm short of facts. I didn't look closely enough to identify the bodies. I'm not saying anything, and I feel an agitation growing in Luisa. I feel it in the faint, nibbly restlessness of the steel against my head.

"Did you see who was dead in the streets?" she says again, very low, nearly a whisper.

"No," I say.

"Mexicans," she says, and she cocks the hammer.

My breath catches hard in my chest and I wait. She waits too. Weighing my Americanness, I suppose. Weighing my life. Charting a path for herself.

Then the hammer uncocks and clicks softly back into place. The muzzle draws off my skin. The candle flame vanishes in a puff of her breath, and I lie very still as she slips through the dark and out of the room and out of the life she's left for me.

Not that my lead paragraphs the next day and the next are any different from what they would have been. The weeks go on, and General Huerta resigns and is exiled to Long Island. Venustiano Carranza becomes President. I stay and write more stories, and the band shell in the plaza goes back into business after a week off. German bands play American tunes. Mexican couples return to the ballrooms at the bigger hotels and promenade to the Cuban danzón. Down at the docks the Marines willingly restage the taking of the Customs House for the Pathé moving-picture cameras. That newsreel plays all over America as an image of the actual event, and nobody is any the wiser. Seven months later U.S. troops leave Vera Cruz, with several hundred Mexicans dead. Wilson tries to control Carranza over the next few years. And then he takes us into the European war, saying that the world must be made safe for democracy. Not that any lesson you learn is simple. The first Mexican President of the revolution, the one before Huerta, a former big landowner, foresaw his revolutionary future in a Ouija board. And the peasants who rose up in his behalf did so because they were convinced that Halley's comet had been a sign from God to change their government.

But standing in Clyde Fetter's office that cold February in 1917, I took a moment to look at the two men dead in the street. Whatever the madness on both sides, they'd died for their country, trying to help some Americans die for theirs. I gave them a little nod. As for Luisa, I suspect she went off to join up with Villa or Zapata or one of the others. She was a swell girl, and to this day I haven't stopped wishing I could have done something to make things good for her.

Robert Olen Butler is the author of thirteen books, including A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This story will appear in his forthcoming book Had a Good Time, which is based on his collection of antique postcards.
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