"Commander Téllez! Phone call for you!" screams the telephone clerk with a smirk. Every other person at the office of Novedades - one of Mexico's most prominent newspapers - go on with their lives entirely unaffected by the interruption. Eduardo 'El Güero' Téllez Vargas, on the other hand, was furious. It was past five o ' clock on August 20th, 1940, and Téllez was on his way out, ready to be less of a journalist and more of a beer-drinking dominoes player.
"Who the fuck is this?" he reasonably inquires. It was 'The Monk', a dispatcher for the Green Cross. History does not remember his actual name.
"Güero, is Trotsky the guy who was doing the revolution thing in Russia?" he heard.
"Yes, that's right."
"And isn't it true that he now lives in Coyoacán?*."
"Yes. What is going on?" Téllez asks impatiently.
"Uhm, grab your things and go. There was a huge shootout, many injured and dead and everything! I just sent a bunch of ambulances."
El Guero almost smiled when he realized his left hand had already wandered off to fetch Genaro Olivaires - photographer -. Both had come back about five seconds ago; Genaro was hastily loading a bag with rolls of film.
*a district of Mexico City.
One day, fifteen years before that evening, my grandfather set sail to France. Mexico had forgotten a war or two and lived through the REM phase of a dream where everything was gloriously French. We had our very own Palais of Beaux-Arts, butter instead of cempasúchil, well-off people wearing corsets and top hats. Mexico's educational programs and health systems were (and still are) modelled to please stringent French standards. It was, therefore, only logical for Agustín Guízar to study medicine at the Sorbonne Université.
Agustín knew little French, but he had spare time and a brilliant mind. Knowing there isn't a single person in the world who can't teach you something, Agustín spent his evenings at the parks, learning by listening to the kids. I imagine his second language as a small, quivering baby, growing in all directions like an overflowing river, looking for older and older playmates as it did. Soon my grandfather's teenage-French was talking to other teenagers and eventually reached the equivalent of his physical age: 25.
By 1929, a different Agustín was climbing up some tree at the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to see the funeral procession of Ferdinand Foch. He comes back down, effortlessly exchanges a quick word or two with a casual passerby, and goes back to his studies. On the far horizon, dark clouds were starting to form.
Mexico had black-and-white versions of ideologies that flew unrestrained through the winds of France in full technicolor. My grandfather's mind had outgrown his body in this fertile ground and drank from all the pools of knowledge gathered on streets, coffee shops, universities. A part of him suspected that, soon, he would return to a Mexico that, like a baby eagle, was slowly starting to flex a newly found set of intellectual wings. Here, he was years ahead. This was a time to drink up, to amass immaterial riches.
He did what he did best. Conversation. The more esoteric, obscure, antagonistic his interlocutor, the better. Agustín had little time for exchanges that would not expand his mind. This was the France in-between wars. Artists, musicians, and writers from all over the world flocked to Paris. We will never know if he exchanged words with Fitzgerald, Stendhal, Hemingway, Balzac, Faulkner. But we know he spoke at length with Jacques Mornard, a strong socialist voice at the Sorbonne. Jacques and his girlfriend Sylvia, an intellectual from Brooklyn with a direct line of communication to none other than Leon Trotsky, introduced my grandfather to their ardent theory of a shared world. The trio spent many evenings of unhurried smoking* at the café by rue Laplace. My grandfather never recalled hearing anybody more ready to jump into the fire for the benefit of mankind. That fire - he shared many years later - seemed to be the only way for Jacques and Sylvia to change the world.
*It would be this habit, and not wars or revolutions, what would ultimately end my grandfather’s life.
Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Ribera, applied the combined strength of their political might to offer Leon Trotsky a safe haven in Mexico, at least for a while. El Güero Téllez met Trotsky for the first time in April of 1939 at a press conference concerning some recent agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Trotsky had just moved a few houses down the street after the couple and the Soviet revolutionary could no longer share the same space.
Téllez would meet Trotsky for the second time in May. A group led by the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros launched an attack so fierce that Trotsky's survival seemed highly suspicious. Colonel Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Secret Service at the time, asked Téllez to interrogate Trotsky in an attempt to excavate the subterranean truth. That evening Pablo Neruda was smuggling Siqueiros out of the country and Téllez sat on a chair in Trotsky's home, asking the questions only a journalist posing as an inspector can ask. Did Trotsky stage an assassination attempt? Trotsky said no, and responded with patience and openness to all of Téllez's questions. As he was leaving, Trotsky added with the widest of smiles: "You, Mr Téllez Vargas, were trying to fool me, but I assure you it wasn't so. You are a journalist and not one of Colonel Sálazar's men. I remember you perfectly well. You stepped for the first time in my house that night I spoke about the pact between Hitler and Stalin."
"I'm going back," said my grandfather. "I see war, and Mexico needs me. How about you?"
"Leaving as well, " said Mornard, "but Sylvia and I are going to New York. What about your studies? You are so close to finishing."
"I arranged to continue them in Mexico City. One little push, and next time we meet, you will call me a Doctor."
"I look forward to that day. Be well."
With that, Agustín Guízar closed a chapter overflowing with stories now lost in the dark forest of time. On the next day, he boarded a ship back to his country. It was the month of October, 1939.
Téllez and Olivares are driving at breakneck speed to the house on Viena St. They arrive. They see several Cruz Verde (Green Cross) ambulances outside. Two of them - one, with the number 8 - are just heading back to the hospital. Téllez and Olivares get out of the car and walk towards the house. The soil has the bittersweet aroma of fresh crime. A guard, tall like a mountain, won't let them in.
"I'm from the Public Prosecution office!" yells Téllez with the determination of a hawk. The mountain moves.
Trotsky's secretary brings Téllez up to speed. One Frank Jacson, Canadian, attacked Leon Trotsky with a piolet (ice axe), and here it is for the gentleman to examine. There is a chunk of encephalic mass hanging stubbornly from the pick.
"Olivares!" orders Téllez with severity, "Make sure to photograph all the evidence." Olivares is photographing like crazy.
"Tell me,” to the secretary, "how did this Frank Jacson manage to get access to the victim?"
"His girlfriend, Sylvia Agelofff knew Trotsky well, " responded. "It was not the first time that the couple visited. But today Frank came alone. He wanted to get Trotsky's advice on a piece he was writing."
"I don't know, sir, but I know the hotel where both are staying. I gave the address to the police when I called."
"Those two ambulances…"
"One is carrying Trotsky, - still alive, heavens! - and the other takes Frank."
"I presume Trotsky's bodyguards tried to kill him." ventured Téllez.
"Yes, sir. Trotsky told them to stop. He wanted to make sure Frank could confess later."
Among other innate instincts, Téllez had a perfect intuition for the amount of time left before the real public prosecutor arrived. Not wanting to be around when that happened, he takes Olivares back to the car and heads over to the Cruz Verde hospital, on the corner of Victoria St. and Revillagigedo.
But he is too late. The police did not waste time, and more than a dozen officers protected the entrance. Without missing a heartbeat, Téllez parks the car near a public phone and dials the number of Rubén Leñero, chief of medical services (and friend). Rubén is amused by Téllez’ request to be let in.
"Look, Güero," whispers Rubén hastily. "you are asking the impossible. But you and I have been friends for a while and I have a soft spot for you. Here's the deal: if you manage to come inside, I will see that you can move freely."
Eduardo Téllez Vargas hangs up, a smile slowly materializing on his face. This world is yet to give him a lock he cannot break.
Fate has a keen sense of organization and is quite less chaotic than people seem to think. The capricious forms that fill its tapestry are geometric in shape. J.L. Borges was a friend and neighbour of H. Longfellow in Cambridge. During the war, Longfellow kept himself busy translating Dante's Divine Comedy and introduced Borges to some cabalistic symbols. Borges later wrote essays like Golem and The Circular Ruins to illustrate their importance. Life is drawn upon the symbols of fate; those who understand these symbols have the power to create and destroy. As for fate itself, Borges wrote, in a poem called Chess:
"Dios mueve al jugador, y éste, la pieza.
¿Qué Dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
de polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonía?"
"God moves the player, and them, the piece.
What God behind God begins this scheme
of dust and time and dream and agony?
Agustín Guízar steps down from the ambulance and rushes to the house on Viena St. As part of the crew on call that day, he has cards to throw into the table where fate is playing one of its most audacious games. Agustín enters the room and wants to call a bluff. Trotsky is bleeding on the floor, and surrounded by bodyguards is none other than his friend Jacques Mornard, with minor wounds. The tall, muscular men are partially stunned by something Trotsky just said, but Agustín sees them coming out of the spell and decides to move now and think later.
"An ambulance for each!" he yells to the paramedics, "Quick!"
Making sure Trotsky's car goes first, Agustín jumps into the second ambulance. He looks at Jacques (a.k.a Frank Jacson) in the eyes for five minutes as the car speeds through the streets of Coyoacán. Jacques looks back in silence. Both men are creating a thousand stories in their minds - and a thousand interpolations - before picking one that will allow them to move forward.
Agustín is going to speak. Jacques moves quicker.
"Doctor, " he says, and pauses to breath-in before continuing. "Here is a letter that explains my actions. Please, give it to the police."
The letter is written in French.
"Qu'est ce que tu as fait!" asks my grandfather with the frailest thread of a voice.
"Ce que j'ai fait, fait ça." responds Jacques. Nobody says a word for the rest of the trip.
No more than twenty minutes later, at the corner of Pescaditos St. and Revillagigedo, Eduardo Téllez Vargas is having a heart attack.
The Monk picks up the phone. On the other side of the line, a very distressed woman needs an ambulance not very far from the hospital. The Monk smiles. Five minutes later, at the back of the emergency bay, a rather healthy Téllez steps down from the vehicle. He smiles when he sees that his friend, Dr. Agustín, is already waiting with an extra set of medical clothes. Face mask and stethoscope included.
The place is swarming with cops. José Manuel Núñez, commander in chief, would be very displeased if Trotsky died by anything other than natural causes after this point. Téllez and Agustín are walking to the operating room where Drs. Eduardo Mass, Rubén Leñero, Rafael Ramos, and Gustavo Baz (later the Dean of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) desperately try to save the life of Leon Trotsky.
A voice stops them on the spot.
"You! You are doctors, right?" The inquiry comes from commander Núñez himself.
"We are." responds Téllez.
"So, you speak French, right?..."
"In that case, I order you to translate this letter, it belongs to Trotsky's aggressor. But be warned about making any other copies!" Núñez adequately stressed the point by repeatedly impacting his index finger on Téllez's abdomen.
Téllez writes down what Agustín reads aloud. Frank Jacson, indeed Jacques Mornard. Belgian. Born in Persia. Disillusioned with Trotsky because he would not bless his marriage with Ageloff, and on top of things wanted to send him on a quest to kill Stalin.
"As true as a piece of paper can be." whispered my grandfather, no longer sure of anything.
"Where is Mornard now?" asked Téllez after scrawling a second copy of the letter, for private use.
"We're keeping him upstairs, come."
Rebecca Solnit speaks about the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform to move forward. I believe that Sylvia Ageloff must have gone through a similar metamorphosis after she arrived at the hospital. Completely beyond herself, she threw the sea of tears and hatred she had become towards Jacques and would have killed him were it not for the nurses who got in the way. Possessed by absolute distress, Sylvia's trembling fingernails begin to tear-off her own clothes. In an attempt to shed a life that included Jaques, she had to reshape her skin, her very existence, into one where he wasn’t.
Sylvia still didn't know that Jacques had been living many lives for quite some time, his current one the shadow of a shadow of a man called Ramón Mercader.
Téllez had seen enough for a day and his nerves were aching for relief. He later wrote that it was his smoking habit what got him expelled from the hospital. Out in the courtyard, his mask removed, a familiar voice from behind asked, or perhaps pleaded.
"Güero, for god's sake, you are going to get us all fired. Please leave."
Jesús Galindo, then commander of the Secret Service (and friend), escorted Eduardo Téllez out of the premises.
By that time all the cards had been laid on the table. Leon Trotsky died the next day. Fate stood up, reached out for its hat, and left the room with a grin on its face.
Photo: probably by Enrique Díaz. Tellez at the back. Mercader on the bed. My grandfather is the doctor.
As a kid, my grandfather was always a mystery. Some benevolent force of nature promised me that the box of secrets would unfold as soon as I could speak to him in French. In the meantime, my grandfather was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a consulting room, a gramophone, a carpentry with hand-made tools, an apothecary with colourful substances in capricious flasks, the personification of what I would later understand as a free-thinking mind.
I would not grow fast enough to open the box. Alzheimer's kept it sealed forever. One last story, though.
Many years later we were vacationing on the beach, my grandfather already in the clutches of that horrible disease that runs away with one's identity and leaves nothing behind. We were driving the car by the shore when Agustín must have thought he was being kidnapped.
"Sirs, there is no need to get violent, " he stated with surprising tranquillity. "I assure you, I will never speak of what I know."
And he never did.