The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
by Derek Alger
Neely stood on the hotel terrace, a cup of coffee in hand, looking out at the sloping street that ran down to the ocean. The Spanish roots of the city could still be traced to the architecture, to the 16th Century cathedrals, but the streets were now a frenzied multi–glot of
the international order. The European businessman, and his more heavily armed American counterpart, traversed the streets in slow moving cabs, weaving through the rainbow fabric of humanity, as the middle–class merchants opened shops and peasants came down from the hills to peddle wares, or beg and steal.
No wonder Suarez had a following, Neely thought, as he sipped his coffee. Benito Ramirez Suarez wasn't even from this country and yet he almost overthrew the government.
Neely walked back into his room, savoring the comfortable warmth of the sun greeting his back. At this time tomorrow it would be over, Suarez would be dead. A simple routine, no fanfare, an obscure courtyard, a wall, men with rifles.
Seven years, for seven years Neely had been working on the book, since he first read about the string of bank robberies and then the kidnapping of the American Ambassador's daughter. He remembered his editor at the magazine laughing when he said that the robberies and the kidnapping were connected. And now, here he was, seven years later, and it was finally coming to an end.
Neely glanced through the day's newspaper. Suarez was a passing phenomenon. There was no mention of the revolutionary leader in the paper. Neely wondered if they'd even report the execution.
He took a shower and dressed in a tan business suit. He combed his now thinning hair, wetting it down, more in a vain attempt to cover the bald spots, and then put on his sunglasses. He was ready, ready for the last meeting.
On his way to the prison, Neely chain smoked in the back seat of the cab, as the driver meticulously edged his way through the crowded streets which brought together vestiges of the feudal era with the indifference of modern technocrats, all traveling on different levels in one crammed space.
He couldn't believe that Suarez would be dead tomorrow, though by all rights he should have been disposed of immediately after his capture seven years ago, but there was too much coverage. Suarez, the front page sensation, the charismatic rebel, his mustached face staring defiantly out at the world, now a mere footnote. A man who once inspired millions over a radio wave, now finished long before the story was close to being complete, reduced to making a final desperate stand against a plethora of government troops with a dozen diehard followers who were in too deep and had nowhere to go.
The guards checked Neely at the gates to the prison. They knew him, had seen him come and go more than most others, but they were still thorough. It took over an hour before Neely was being led through the labyrinthian underground chambers of the prison to Suarez' isolated cell.
Suarez was sitting on a cot, his hands clasped together, as Neely waited, staring through the bars.
The guard opened the door, the clanking of the keys on metal echoing through the hollow passageway. Suarez sat passively, not looking up.
Neely entered the cell, hesitantly, as if he were interrupting.
"Relax, my friend, have a seat." Suarez raised his head, his hands still clasped between his legs.
Neely grabbed a wooden chair, turning it so the back of it was between him and Suarez.
He then sat down, resting his arms across the top.
"Were you praying?" he asked.
Suarez laughed. "What for?"
"You know about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow, bah." Suarez waved his hand. "Tomorrow has promised the same my entire life."
"You're not scared?" Neely asked.
"Be serious, man. They're planning to line you up against a wall and shoot you."
"We all have plans."
"That's bullshit!" Neely said. "Tell me how you feel."
"I feel nothing," Suarez said. "Do you have a smoke?"
Neely pulled a pack of Marlboro out of his shirt pocket, extending the familiar red and white box to Suarez. The prisoner lit a cigarette and exhaled, watching the smoke linger before him in the desolate cell.
The eyes were the same, Neely thought. Suarez still had fierce gray eyes, alive, as if privy to some secret amusement, but the rest of him had changed so much. Suarez had jumped from youth, bypassing middle age in a cell. He was emaciated, his once round, exuberant face now gaunt; a man in his late thirties whom no one would believe was less than fifty.
"You say you feel nothing," Neely said. "But you wanted a cigarette."
"A simple vice." Suarez drew smoke deep into his lungs and exhaled with a sigh of satisfaction.
"A pleasure when there are so few," he said.
"A pleasure you won't have after tomorrow," Neely said.
Suarez flipped the cigarette butt on the floor, grinding it out with his laceless boot. He smiled, his former cunning smile, and said, "In that case, could I have another smoke?"
"You're impossible." Neely gave Suarez a cigarette.
"What do you want?" Suarez asked, lighting the smoke. "A dramatic last scene? Remorse, confession? Or would you prefer that I plead and cry, wailing about the injustice of it all, pathetically pleading for my life?"
"It's your life," Neely said. "Don't you want to live?"
"It's not for me to decide."
Neely jumped up, knocking the chair over. He turned his back on Suarez, walking over and extending his arms out against the far wall.
"I can't believe this," he said, still not facing Suarez. "They're going to kill you and you act like you're facing a school detention, or your father won't let you go to the movies."
"You know my father died when I was three," Suarez said.
Neely wheeled around, glaring at the condemned man. "Don't try to be so fucking clever."
"But you do know," Suarez said. "You probably know me better than anyone."
Neely righted the chair and sat back down, his arms once again resting across the top.
"That's more like it," Suarez said. "Relax, have a cigarette. In fact, can I have another one? Yes, we'll both have a smoke, the subject and the artist."
"I'm hardly an artist." Neely lit a cigarette off his own and passed it over to Suarez.
"And, my friend," Suarez said, "I'm afraid that I am more of an object than a subject."
"How can you say that?"
"When's the last time you saw a 'Save Suarez' placard? Life is hard, people move on. It's been a long time, people forget."
Neely lit a new cigarette off the end of the one which he had smoked down to the filter.
"You can't believe it was for nothing," he said.
"Not nothing," Suarez answered. "It was like first love. It happened and the peak was so high that you keep going in the false belief that because it feels so good, so right, it can only get better. But the best was behind and that feeling could never be regained, only none of us knew that at the time. It cost us a lot, you and me, but it wasn't for nothing."
Neely looked at Suarez and wanted to curse him. Then he wanted to hug him, to squeeze him and not let him go, to not let them kill his subject.
"I've lived my life and then you tried to live that life secondhand," Suarez said. "Was it worth it?"
"It's a story that should be told," Neely said.
"Why?" Suarez held out his hands, palms upturned, and shrugged. "Surely not cause of me. It wasn't me. It was Sarah. If there was no Sarah, there'd be no you, and there'd be no Suarez.
"Admit it," he challenged Neely. "The kidnapping of the ambassador's daughter was what brought you down here. That was the story, that was the hook. If we had succeeded, if the government had been overthrown, that still would have been less of a story than the kidnapping of Sarah." Neely smoked in silence.
"You know it's true," Suarez said. "We've been through too much, my friend, to hold out now."
"What do you want me to say?" Neely asked. "Yes, the kidnapping was what jumped up at me, what hit me between the eyes. Yes, that was the hook but I had no idea what the catch would be."
"Would the . . . " Suarez paused, his composure faltering for a moment. "Would the catch, as you say, have been better if Sarah had lived?"
"The facts are the facts," Neely said. "It would have been a different story."
"Oh, come now," Suarez laughed. "Be honest, Sarah would have made a better story. Young woman, wrong place at the wrong time, the absolute example of the arbitrary fragility of life. She walked into a bank and was swept up into something beyond her control or comprehension.
"Give me a cigarette," Suarez said. "Yes, Sarah would have made a hell of a story."
"You know she loved me."
"So you've said."
"Fuck it, write your book the way you want." Suarez took rapid drags on his cigarette, a rush of smoke coming out of his mouth as he spoke.
"She loved me, and that was real," Suarez said. "She chose love for me over all she had been raised to believe. She didn't care about the revolution. Capitalism, socialism, those were just words without meaning to her. She wanted love and acceptance, and with us, for awhile, she found it."
Neely thought Suarez was losing it, shifting from perfunctory philosopher to master of the melodrama. Neely didn't blame him. It was almost over, Suarez had to hold on to something.
"Do you believe I didn't kill Sarah?" Suarez said, his penetrating eyes focused completely on Neely's face.
"I believe what you say."
"But you believe others, too."
"I report what others say."
Suarez waved his hand in disgust. "All sides to a story."
"What do you want?" Neely said. "The world according to Suarez? You weren't the only one affected by what happened."
Neely took a deep breath. He couldn't afford anger. He was the observer, the book was done, all that remained was tomorrow and closure, the end.
"Do you believe she shot herself?" Suarez asked.
"I believe you said that."
"Damn it!" Suarez stood up. "You've known me for almost seven years, you've pried into every corner of my life, what do you think? Do you believe I raised my revolver and put a bullet in her head? Is it too hard to believe that she shot herself out of solidarity to us? That she saw being rescued as betraying me?"
"There were two shots in her head," Neely said.
"Where did the second bullet come from?"
"I don't know. A government rifle, a simultaneous shot. She fires, a second shot hits her in the head, my Sarah is dead."
"You can see why people are skeptical."
"But you still have a so–called suicide with two fatal shots in the head."
"And no ballistic tests," Suarez said. "Why did they never bother to try and match the bullets to the gun?"
"Out of respect for the family, you know that."
"And fuck me, right?" Suarez shouted. "I'm the inhuman animal, the cold blooded menace to the social order. We don't even know for sure whether the bullets came from the same gun. We only know what they say."
Neely nodded, his face an expressionless mask.
"What's the matter?" Suarez asked. "Emotions hurt your writing?"
Neely was relieved the book was written. Suarez was still trying to persuade him, to argue the case, but it had already been written and the case was closed.
A guard appeared outside the cell. He hit the bars with a nightstick, running it across and catching the two mens attention. A half hour to go, he informed Neely, then the visit would be over.
"Thirty minutes," Suarez said. "You have thirty minutes to ask any final questions."
"No more questions."
"You have all the answers that raise questions and questions that will be answered differently by different readers."
Suarez started laughing, slapping his hand against his knee and laughing louder.
"You don't get it, do you?"
Neely looked confused.
"We're the same, you and I," Suarez said. "We both rolled the dice and lost. Made an investment and came up empty.
"Are you blind, man?" he asked. "Don't you see? No one cares."
"You're wrong," Neely said. "People will care."
"If I'm the main principal of the drama and I don't care, why should anyone else?" Suarez said. "I'm afraid, my friend, you mistook a footnote for an epic. You're no Mailer and I'm not Che."
"That doesn't change anything," Neely said. "You rocked a country. One man, you created such upheaval that the foundation almost cracked."
"But it didn't." Suarez smiled. "All avalanches come to an end. You remember for a while, but then you rebuild, and forget."
"The people will remember you."
"The people don't read."
"That's not my market."
"Bravo." Suarez clapped his hands. "A moment of truth."
"The book will sell," Neely insisted.
"Why, because you want it to? Because you've invested so much? It's yesterday's news."
"I forgot, you're a man of letters, an arbitrator of the public's taste. What was it, school in Switzerland, Paris, just the right elitist background to go with your compassionate facade?"
"You miss the point," Suarez said. "Unfortunately, what you fail to realize is that we have lived past our potential fame."
Neely glanced at his watch. It was almost time to go. Suarez could say all he wanted, he wasn't going to be around to see that he was wrong.
"You're almost free," Suarez said.
Neely quickly, self–consciously lowered his arm. "It's not that," he said.
"Yes, it is. You want it over. It's been a long ordeal."
And it had been. For Neely it certainly had been a long ordeal; but a big payoff was just around the corner. Seven years, seven years of his life devoted to unraveling this man's story. Who would have thought it would have taken so long?
Seven years, during which time he had lost the job at the magazine to devote more time to the Suarez book; his marriage had broken up four years ago, his former wife remarrying a year after; and recently, the legal problems, the publishing house hounding him, complaining about the substantial advance and nothing to show for it. Neely needed this book. If nothing else, he had to prove that he could deliver.
"I feel sorry for you, my friend," Suarez said. "Even in this stink hole I hear things. You have to strike while the iron is hot." Suarez jabbed his left thumb toward his chest. "This iron is so cold it's almost prehistoric."
"You underestimate yourself."
"I don't think so."
The two men looked at each other, neither flinching.
"Come, let's have a last cigarette together," Suarez said. "Two friends at the end of a journey."
Neely cupped his lighter as Suarez leaned over and puffed to get the cigarette going.
"It's a shame about Whitney Houston" Suarez said. "So young, so much to live for."
"Whitney Houston, we get news in here. That's who you should write about. Even a bad book about her would sell better than a classic about me."
"I'm not interested," Neely said.
"Ah, but the people are. Three hundred are slaughtered in a Syrian village and the world mourns for Whitney Houston.You see, there it is, celebrity has superseded social change."
"You're comparing yourself to Whitney Houston?" Neely said.
"I'm not comparing," Suarez said. "That's where we all lose. You can't compete against the fairy tale that powerless people need to believe — that a select few can obtain what the multitude could never achieve."
"It's always been like that," Neely remarked.
Suarez shook his head sadly. "I know." He took a last drag of his cigarette.
"The appropriate response should always be outrage," he said. "Instead, we have instant idolatry and maniacal worship of a figure that never was.
"The rational person would say that there are hungry people all over the world, why not feed them rather than squander such obscene expense on a lavish funeral?"
"We need myths," Neely said. "You above anyone should know that."
"Who me?" Suarez laughed. "Me, yesterday's myth about to be shot in a prison basement?"
There, he'd said it, Neely thought. Suarez had admitted it, finally acknowledged that he was going to be executed.
"Are you scared?" Neely asked.
"That's a stupid question."
"Would you stop it if you could?" Suarez said.
"You heard me."
"I don't understand. Would I stop it? I can't, I have no authority. That's like asking if I'd be willing to cut off my pinkie to prevent a child from stepping on a land mine."
"And we only have two pinkies," Suarez said.
"That's not the point."
"The point is you need me dead."
"Don't say that."
Neely wanted to leave. Thank God, time was almost up. The guard should be coming any minute.
Standing up, towering over Suarez, Neely tossed the pack with the remaining cigarettes on to the prisoner's cot.
"That to ease your conscience?" Suarez asked.
Neely lunged forward, grabbing Suarez by the front of his shirt, yanking him off the cot and pinning him against the wall.
His knees were on the cot and he was holding Suarez up before him. "You bastard!" he said, his face nearly touching that of Suarez.
Suarez didn't waver. His head remained steady, his fierce eyes so close they almost sucked in Neely's.
He smiled, the winning smile that helped launch a revolution. The steps of the guards could be heard coming down the corridor toward the cell.
"Will you be at the execution?" Suarez asked.
Neely tightened his grip, bunching up the top of Suarez' shirt.
"I'm going to look you right in the eye and say goodbye."
Neely then jerked his head downward as he released Suarez, knocking the man off the cot and onto the floor.
He was brushing the wrinkles out of his suit jacket when two guards burst into the cell and hoisted Suarez up against the wall.
"I'll see you tomorrow." Suarez was laughing, as Neely turned and walked out of the cell.
That night, after a steak dinner of which he was only able to eat half, Neely continued his drinking at the bar in the hotel. Fuck Suarez, he had been the only one who had seen to Suarez' needs over the years. He had sent Suarez cigarettes, extra food, books, newspapers, whatever was needed.
Neely drank his scotch, staring wearily at the rows of bottles before the mirror behind the bar. He wished Suarez was here drinking with him, wished he and Suarez hadn't parted the way they had.
He couldn't believe it. He ordered another scotch. It would really be over tomorrow, he could complete the final passages of the book and ship it off to the publisher by the following day.
Christ, he never wanted Suarez to die. He had nothing to do with it, Suarez just opened
up to him and they continued, always knowing, but never sure, where it would end.
He never told Suarez to start a revolution. He had never heard of Suarez, no one
had. Suarez started with a band in the foothills and descended on banks in the city with a vengeance. And then he was back among the people distributing the money, giving them hope and food, and more important, commanding loyalty.
And the robberies continued, and the legend grew, until finally, the ambassador's daughter innocently walked into a bank and everything started to fall apart.
Yes, Neely thought, they were no match for you, Suarez. That is, until the United States became involved. In the fast flowing adrenaline of the moment, someone thought it was a
good idea and they walked out of the bank with Sarah and the walls started closing in and it was impossible to rewind time.
He'd lost count of how many drinks he'd had as he slurped down the last of the melted ice and scotch in his glass and ordered yet another. It was almost midnight, six hours to go. This would be the last, he thought, as the bartender placed a fresh drink before him.
His head was swimming as he thought about the ending of the book. How would Suarez die? Would he crack, breaking down and sobbing, pleading for his life? Or maybe, Neely thought, after all this time Suarez was so bereft of hope that he wanted to just get it over with.
The following morning when he opened his eyes, Neely desperately groped for his bearings in a panic. The panic increased when he thought of the time. Oh fuck, it was almost five–thirty, he was never going to make it.
Stumbling through the hotel room, he found his shoes after brushing his teeth and throwing water on his face. He remained in his clothes from the day before, which he had slept in. His mouth was dry, his head throbbing and he wished he'd had the foresight to keep some scotch in the room. Instead, he popped two Valium, placed another one in the breast pocket of his shirt and hurried out to flag a cab.
The ride was torture. Neely's stomach was queasy and he felt like he wasn't going to
make it. He had failed himself professionally, and he had also failed Suarez. There would be no familiar face when Suarez was lined up against the wall.
He didn't care so much about missing the execution, the details could be reconstructed easy enough. Yes, they could lie to him about how Suarez behaved but he didn't think the captain would, the captain wanted to be in the book. He would attribute everything to the captain.
Almost there, but it was three minutes after six, too late. Neely slumped back in the seat
of the cab and lit a cigarette, disgusted. And, yet, coupled with that disgust was relief that he hadn't been forced to see the man he had come to know so well face such a pathetic, dismal end.
The captain was waiting when Neely hurried through the front gates of the prison.
"You have heard?" the captain greeted him with a smile.
Neely stopped before the captain, a slender man in his early forties who moved with cautious efficiency.
"Good news for your friend Suarez," the captain said. "He is alive. El Presidente has granted a stay."
"What?" Neely was shaking his head. "Alive, no execution? Why?"
The captain shrugged. "Politics, who can figure?"
"Is there a new date?" There was desperation in Neely's voice.
"Maybe next year," the captain said. "Maybe never. Who knows? Elections are coming and no one wants extra commotion.
"Would you like to see Suarez?" he asked.
Suddenly Neely was lightheaded, gasping for breath. A sharp piercing pain sliced through his gut. He clenched his stomach and dropped to his knees, then toppled over.
He was aware of all the activity; being placed on the stretcher, the captain calling out instructions.
"A trauma," the captain said to Neely. "You will be okay. Your friend has been saved."
Neely closed his eyes as they carried him out to the ambulance. It wasn't the ending he had imagined for his book, not the expected ending at all.