Around six I went out to the zocalo for a bottle of Presidente and enchiladas. The demonstration was still going on there. I’d been to it earlier with my camera and there were still as many people. The planned, all-day event marked three months since the May 21st arrests. I was sure this one would end at the time on the permit. I doubted they would want to give the authorities a reason to take more of them in. What would be gained if more people were arrested when the point being made was to draw attention to those who already were?
The Del Jardin was full. There wasn’t even an empty chair I could pull away from the tables to sit on. I went to another café on the opposite side, one tourists flocked to. With the military presence and the shootings and the implied danger there were fewer of them now, and that meant a small table was open and I ordered.
I sat there hoping someone I knew would come by. I felt like talking. I wanted to hear from someone I hadn’t seen in a while. To exchange some gossip or news items and go on about the demonstration across the street. To make a night of it, was what I had in mind. To go to Del Jardin when we finished there and join a table of conversation. Buy a round of drinks and then another. Make a run to the cigar shop around the corner and bring back a handful of robustos. It was a natural social thing to do that I hadn’t got enough of the way the old men did at the D’Monica Café. Every day they brought their personalities and stories and exaggerations to the game. It would even be all right for one of them to be quiet on occasion. To just not say anything.
Sitting there, no one I knew like that came by. Not even Adrienne. It was understood she needed a night off. So I ate and drank and read the paper. Or I stared at the goings-on in the zocalo. Photos of the detained were clipped to pieces of string that stretched between the trunks of two elms. They were all colors and sizes, not unlike a display in an elementary school, where student paintings are hung up around the room. Next to them, off to the right of the gazebo, a man stepped to the microphone. Tall and thin, with dark hair, he talked into it with heat. Each fractional pause he made brought an affirmative response and nod of heads. He didn’t look down at pages of notes he might have prepared. He didn’t need to read what he had, or what someone else had prepared hours or days ago. He caused a stir, not just from the people near him but those far in back, a large group with clenched fists pumping over their heads each time he paused.
The report of the first shot fired seemed so inevitable I didn’t take note of it until I felt the jarring force of the English woman at the next table bump into me as if she was pushed my way. My bottle of Presidente crashed to the cement and shattered into jagged green pieces. The bottle of red sauce lay broken at my feet. What was left of my food was still on the plate, but now it was on the other side of the table. One leg of my khakis was wet. And yet I didn’t move. I sat there watching the commotion in a kind of suspended state. The English woman looked at me and excused herself for making a mess of my table.
It wasn’t a problem, I told her. And it wasn’t, considering. I thought, “It never ends.” And I meant the struggle of the oppressed against any ruling authority. You might be able to shock them. You might be able to disrupt their mission. But you could never change or control them.
More shots came from a distance.
“That was a gun,” the English woman said to her companion in a voice filled with fear. She pointed toward the other side of the zocalo. “We need to go. We need to go now.”
Heads were turned in that direction. Screaming had started. There was another shot. From a different direction came the BOP BOP BOP of a rifle. Three violent bursts. More spray of gunfire followed. It continued in waves of varying frequency. Once it began it didn’t stop. None of it was close by. It was on the other side, but it started a panic of people running from that direction.
I was on my feet, standing in the street. The sound of sirens drowned out all other sounds, the voices, the engines of the military trucks stopping in front of the hotels and cafes. Soldiers jumped down and circled the zocalo to contain the crowd and keep others from joining them. I tried to get close, but a soldier waved me back. I made my way around to the other side and saw two bodies on the grass, another in the street. There were more of them elsewhere, I was sure. There was too much shooting for there not to have been.
I stared into the shifting mass that was running off. The gunfire continued. Up ahead more soldiers gathered, their rifles pointed at the people going past them with quick steps. On the other side of the zocalo ambulances and medical personnel arrived to take care of the wounded. The barrier of soldiers wouldn’t let anyone else near the carnage. I went back in that direction to see if I could get through, but a solider closed an opening and used one of his hands to push me back.
“Soy reportero,” I said, and made a reach for my wallet.
He answered, “Usted no peude ir alli.”
I had my wallet in my hand and shook it between us. “Un reportero.”
He locked his rifle across his chest. “No.”
I counted five bodies with sheets over them. At least another nine lay wounded. A woman held her hands on the face of a middle-aged man who groaned in even intervals. He’d fallen into a flower bed. His tan shirt was bloodied. The people around me made room so an ambulance could get past, its lights flashing, the siren silent. A tallish man with a stethoscope around his neck slammed the door of the car he’d parked in front of Del Jardin and hurried to the wounded with a brown bag in a hand. I snapped a few more photos despite the protests of the young soldier who made a grab at my camera.
“It’s mine. You get it? Mine.” I said in English. I wanted him to know what I was saying without understanding the words. “It’s legal to take anywhere I want. To do whatever I want with. I’m a reporter.” And I knew he didn’t care what I was saying. But I had no intention of handing it over without a struggle that was sure to land me in jail.
Maybe it was his age and mine, or that no superior was around to order him to arrest me, but he let me go on with my business. When I was done I went to the corner and walked down Insurgentes in the direction of the Hotel D’Monica. Maybe I should have stayed in my room there? It had been a whim. There was no urgent reason to leave it. There was nothing to complain about. There were no foul smells or bugs or bad plumbing. I was going back to it to get an outdoor table at the café. It was far enough away from the shooting and the bloody mess that always drew the attention of the curious so I was sure the tables would be open until all the bodies were moved to the hospital or mortuary. And I was right. I took the table next to the old men. They talked in heightened tones. They knew everything that had happened. They didn’t need to go to the zocalo to see it for themselves. Word had been brought to them.
One of them looked at me. He was the best dressed of the three and the most animated. He used his eyes to figure out how much of it I’d seen.
“Es muy malo,” I said. “Muchos son muertos y heridos.” And it struck me as funny that after all the months those were the first words I’d spoken to them.