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Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

from Chapter 1

A battered wooden chest in the bedroom, its inlay shedding, its key finally found in a locked bottom desk drawer. Inside: A recent diary (orange suede cover, hand-burnished a smooth caramel [inside: translations, riddles, jokes, poems, notes, other]). First editions (Autoplagiarist, Red Earth, The Collected Fictions, The Enlightened, et cetera). A dilapidated overnight suitcase (white Bakelite handle; stickers from hotels long shuttered [the lock is forced open with a table knife: the scent of pencil shavings and binding glue, a sheaf of photographs {slouching at the edges}, his sister’s childhood diaries held together by a crumbling rubber band, pregnant manila envelopes {transcripts, newspaper clippings, red-marked drafts of stories, a lock of amber hair, official documents <birth certificate, vaccination records, expired passports, et cetera>}, a canvas portfolio {charcoal, graphite, ink sketches <horses, facades, portraits, cutlery>}, a battered set of Russian nesting dolls {the innermost missing}, other assorted miscellany {a Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, inherited medals from the Second World War, et cetera}]).

*


My friend and mentor was quite alive the night before. The door cracked open, only his nose and eye visible. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.” The blue door clicked shut, unapologetically. The dead bolt slid in with a finality I did not at the time recognize. I left and had a bacon cheeseburger without him, irritated by his uncharacteristic rudeness.

What could I have said to him? Should I have forced open the door? Slapped him twice across the face and demanded he tell me what was wrong? Days, weeks later, all the fragments still would not click together. The events seemed unreal, confusing. Some nights I’d tiptoe quietly out of bed, cautious not to wake Madison and risk igniting her anger; I’d sit on the couch, deep in thought until the sky turned lilac. Both suicide and murder seemed like two sides of the same primetime seduction. In retrospect, this was healthy for me to feel. Clichés remind and reassure us that we’re not alone, that others have tread this ground long ago. Still, I could not understand why the world chose to take the easy way out: to write him off simply, then go home to watch TV shows with complicated plots. Maybe that’s the habit of our age.

Then, at four weeks after Crispin’s death, I was telephoned by his sister (her voice as thin and pale as a piece of string) and asked to divest his life’s possessions; I entered his musty apartment as if it were a crypt.

At four months, I found myself unable to sleep at night; I’d sit and listen to Madison’s breathing, thinking, for some reason, of the parents I never got to know, and how I missed Crispin, with his stupid fedora and strong opinions.

At six months, I began Crispin’s biography; the long hours in the library, the idea that his life could help me with mine, somehow kept me sane.

At eight months and one week, Madison left me for good; I hoped she’d call but she didn’t.

Late in the night of November 15, 2002, nine months to the day of Crispin’s death, I was watching my inbox for any e-mail from Madison. With a bing, three new messages lobbed in. The first was from Baako.Ainsworth@excite.com. It said, in part: “Sharpen your love-sword rubadub soundess. Help that breeds arousal victories. How to last longer making love and have more feelings.” The second was from trancejfq22@skaza.wz.cz. It said, in part: “GET DIPLOMA TODAY! If you’re looking for a fast way to next level, (non accredited) this is the way out for you.” The third e-mail was about to be trashed when I noticed who sent it. The message said, in part: “Dear Sire/Madame… I was informed by our lawyer, Clupea Rubra, that my daddy, who at the time was government whistleblower and head of family fortune, called him, Clupea Rubra, and conducted him round his flat and show to him three black cardboard boxes. Along the line, my daddy died mysteriously, and government has been after us, molesting, policing, and freezing our bank accounts. Your heroic assist is required in replenishing my father’s legacy and masticating his despicable murderers. More information TBA. The sender was crispin1037@elsalvador.gob.sv. I brought up a blank message to respond. I wrote: “Crispin?” The cursor winked at me. I hit "send" and waited.

The next morning, I bought my plane ticket.

Excerpted from Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Copyright 2010 by Miguel Syjuco. To be published in May 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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