An Account of Roger Duarte's Murder

Cristina Herrera Mezgravis

             It was 7:00 and school started at 7:45. On average, it took us twenty minutes to get there. Roger was always at our house by 6:30, which I deemed, in my characteristic morning annoyance, unnecessarily early. It was 7:00 and Roger wasn’t home yet.

            Usually, my brother and I changed into our school uniforms and got back into bed until my mother came to really wake us up. But my parents were on a business trip, which made me responsible for my brother being ready on time. The doorbell hadn’t rung and the uninterrupted snooze made me wary.

I was awake when the phone rang. All mornings look grey to me, no matter the weather, as if the world too were slow to open its eyelids. That morning, the marble floors and the white walls looked cold as I walked to the kitchen to pick up the phone.

            “Hello?” I said, my throat still hoarse from sleep.

            “Cristi?” It was my mom’s friend the gynecologist, whom I refused to see for appointments on account of a statement I once overheard: “A doctor is a man or a woman before a doctor.” I couldn’t help picturing doctors chatting at dinner parties or over coffee and, even if no names were mentioned, I didn’t want to risk being the topic of their conversation. At least, not so close to home.

            “Mary. How are you?”

             “Good, honey. Is anyone home with you?” Her voice shook a little.

            “No. We’re waiting for Roger to pick us up.”

            “Oh, honey.” She hesitated. “Roger won’t be coming to pick you up today.” She waited. I said nothing. “OK?” she asked.

            “OK,” I answered. I suspected that he would not come tomorrow nor the following day. I suspected this because in Venezuela you hear stories: the neighbor’s nephew had his cellphone stolen, they broke into the house down the street, the maid missed a workday because her cousin was killed… And yet, as crime increases, we become progressively anesthetized and speak of thefts, kidnappings and murders over coffee, saying, “at least it was an express kidnapping[1],” or, “they didn’t take her car?” Stories start closing in on you: your brother’s friend is express-kidnapped, your father’s aunt is express-kidnapped, they steal your cousin’s cellphone, they steal your aunt’s car… You may hold your breath a little, a distant voice in your head may wonder when your turn will come, but then life goes on and the voice is drowned by your ordinary worrying: will there be milk in the supermarket?[2] Will the meat in the freezer spoil during the next power outage? Crime is worse in the barrios, where Roger lived. When I heard he would not pick us up that day, I suspected his turn had come. I assumed that Mary had chosen not to tell me over the phone and yet, my first thought was a cynical, “Well, she managed that artfully.”

            I splashed cold water on my face and did not look in the mirror. That day I was delivering one of the four speeches for my school’s National Honor Society (NHS) initiation ceremony. An audience of middle and high school students, teachers, and proud parents would make up an audience of around 300.

            Our uncle came to pick us up shortly after the phone call and I rehearsed the speech in my head all the way to school. I didn’t tell my brother about the phone call. I didn’t ask my uncle any questions nor did he fill in the silences. I just hoped that, wherever he was, Roger had not noticed my annoyance when he greeted me by my full name, loud and clear: “Good morning, Cristina Alexandra.” And I hoped that, if he had, he would forgive me.

            I was too agitated either by the expectation of the coming speech or of Roger’s death being confirmed at any moment to fall asleep as I unwillingly and customarily did during our 7:45 calculus class. Second block for seniors was spent in the computer lab, where we worked on college applications--or watched YouTube videos and played video games.

            My relationship with my classmates was not a close one. My parents didn’t allow me to have the fake IDs most of them used to get into nightclubs, nor did my parents judge it wise, based on the increasing theft, murder and kidnapping rates, for my brother and I to hang out in public spaces. So at fourteen or fifteen, when my classmates started getting drunk at bars and clubs, I was allowed to visit friends if they lived in a safe part of town and occasionally go to the movies before sundown on a weekday. My classmates did not see me “out” much and called me, “Herrera,” instead of “Cristi.”

            My school was small (22 in my graduation class), elementary through high school connected in one campus. It was a private school accredited by AdvancED, a non-profit organization in the US dedicated to reviewing schools. Locals called it “the American school” because speaking English was mandatory and most of the instructors, if not Venezuelan, were born in the United States. For many, the school was synonymous with expensive fees and exporting students to universities abroad. In a school so small, a lot of people knew Roger after seeing him standing outside, leaning against his motorcycle during drop-off and pick-up hours for more than seven years.

            Second block started at 9:20. We were in the air-conditioned computer lab when one of my peers walked up to me. She was known for being loud and spontaneous, and had a way of making the class laugh by bothering instructors, posing impertinent questions and waiting with a wide smile to see what they’d answer. In the computer lab that day, I heard the hiss of surrounding whispers and made up my mind to ignore them. I wondered if they knew what had happened to Roger, but I pushed the thought away and rehearsed the speech in my head.

            She decided to release us from the tension. I remember her face as if emerging from darkness; as if the door were opened and the grey light of the overcast day shone on her face, blurring computers and chairs behind her. She smiled.

            “Herrera, is your bodyguard dead?” she asked. Something about hearing the words out loud made my heart pick up. She was still smiling. I could see she felt comfortable in the spotlight.

            “Well, I don’t know,” I said, “I suspected it, but now you’ve confirmed it for me.” Her first reaction was a nervous giggle. She covered her mouth. “So yes,” I said, “I guess he died.”

“I’m so sorry, Herrera,” she said, giggling behind her covered mouth as she looked around to see how many of our classmates shared her embarrassment.

An unfinished sentence ran across the Word document on my computer screen. My eyes travelled over and back, over and back, not knowing what it said. My mind seemed to be reading another sentence: He died. He really died. They killed him. He died.

            I did not cry before my speech, nor do I remember if I thought of him often.

He used to take my little cousins on motorcycle rides. My brother and I used to look out the car’s rear window when it rained to see him in his bright red rain jacket and jeans, lifting his legs, as a little child does when riding a merry-go-round, to escape the splash of murky puddles. Even my mother laughed. The school guards teased him and told him he looked like a firefighter. He got extremely mad that time our maid stirred salt in his morning coffee instead of sugar as a December 28 joke (a date equivalent to April Fool’s). He allowed my brother and I to practice our driving when my parents were out of town--as long as he sat in the copilot seat.

            Roger was the first person to teach my brother how to fight. I remember them throwing fists at each other in our red-tiled garage. Roger laughed loudly whenever my brother punched or wrestled himself into an arm lock. My brother also remembers Roger’s “women advice”: when you see a pretty lady, bring her a piece of chocolate.

            I, in turn, remember very few intimate interactions with Roger even though I saw him every day from elementary school to senior year of highschool. I know we had regular conversations, but actual scenes, I remember only two. The first, a time my baby cousin drove her hands into his mustache. My mother was driving, my aunt in the copilot seat, Roger and I in the back. I was holding my cousin, who stood up on my lap, her chubby feet pressing into my legs for support. She patted Roger’s mustache, shrilling at the texture. Roger and I were amused. My aunt smiled back at us, but when she was sure Roger wasn’t looking, she widened her eyes at me and shook her head. I didn’t understand, but slowly, as inconspicuously as I could, I tried to pull my cousin back and get her to sit. My aunt later told me that we didn’t know what germs hid in Roger’s mustache.

            My memory of the second scene is rather vague, more present in feeling than in images. Roger was speaking with one of my closest friends in the garage, next to the hotdog stand my parents hired for one of my brother’s birthdays. My friend, who they call chaguaramo[3] for his tall, lean figure, must have been around 17, three years older than me. He had a way of crossing his arms over his chest and hunching down to level his face with the person he was speaking with. Roger was very short. They both joked and laughed. I remember feeling glad, even relieved.

            Both scenes seem to have something in common—an almost imperceptible preoccupation with class division. In the first, I felt anxious that class division was acknowledged. In the second, relief that there appeared to be no class division restricting the interaction. I was (and perhaps remain) anxious that others would judge me for my family’s ability to afford. The anxiety did not arise from a belief in class division, but from the words I grew up listening to—words that blamed us for our ability to afford. I cannot blame President Chávez[4]for all the problems that exist in Venezuela, but he did preach with a rhetoric that divided us. He preached that the poor were poor because of the imperialist United States and because of the Venezuelan elite. He told the masses that if the poor were poor, the rich were to blame. Though some individuals do take advantage of their privilege, Chávez blamed them for all the problems of an incompetent government, creating a seemingly insurmountable divide between Chávez supporters and non-supporters. We came to hate each other. Some still, despite Chávez’ death continue to hate “the other,” who is to blame for the rising inflation, for the lack of medicines, for the scarcity of basic products, for the mounting murder rate, for the power outages, for the filth in our water, for our cratered roads, for a country that is falling to pieces at the seams. Creating such hate among fellow citizens is a crime hard to forgive.

            Such hate created tension between employers and employees. Though I love my parents as the sensitive individuals that they are, I felt guilty and wondered if we could have done more. I wanted to do more, partly, because I didn’t want to be hated.

So when people asked me who he was, the short, lean guy with spiked up hair standing next to the green Kawasaki motorcycle, I told them he worked for my father’s car company and came to look after us when they had no work for him to do. In a sense, this was true: he ran errands for the company when they involved going to public places. But he also went places my father wanted us to avoid after his kidnapping.

            I was five when my father was kidnapped and remember only from accounts. It was no express kidnapping; the men who kidnapped my father bought a truck from him a year and a half before the kidnapping. The day of the kidnapping, they came to this office for a business meeting they’d scheduled a week before. They convinced my father to let them ride in his car on their way to see six Land Cruiser trucks they wanted to buy. When they reached the freeway, my father felt a cold, metal circle press against the back of his neck. They made him pull over, blindfolded him and put him in another car. They took him to a small house in the outskirts of the city. In the house’s main bedroom, a painting covered a small entryway to a hidden corridor that lead to an air-conditioned room where they kept him. The room was equipped with mattress, toilet, shower and sink. They asked my father to change into a sweater and sweatpants they provided. He spent the night there, reading a copy of Caballo de Troya[5] and an Avianca[6] airline magazine.

The man with my father’s car drove it into the shrubs and hitched a ride from a truck driver. Another man saw him and borrowed a motorcycle to race the truck to the toll. Thanks to this witness, the police found and interrogated the man who hid my father’s car. The following morning they found the house where my father was held captive. After a shootout in which three were captured and two escaped injured, they brought my father home safely. The captors were planning to sell my father to the Colombian guerrilla. He would have been taken deep into the jungle and we wouldn’t have seen him for a long time, if at all. The three men were released after nine months in prison.

            When my father decided to get a bodyguard, even his older brother thought he was exaggerating. Roger escorted my mother to the bank and the supermarket. Sometimes he went alone. He drove our cars where they needed to go—picked up our clothes from the drycleaners and bought desserts for occasional afternoon coffee gatherings.

            I felt self-conscious of our bulletproof cars. I shrunk at people’s bewilderment when it took an extra inch of strength to close our car door. I felt self-conscious that we could afford a water tank when they cut the water off our streets twice a week because of government water regulations. Light is also regulated, but it comes and goes unexpectedly, returning in a couple of minutes or leaving citizens in the heat of mosquito-infested rooms for hours on end. But we could afford a generator when the light shortages became too long and frequent; a generator that, running on gasoline subsidized by the state (literally cheaper than water), could run for 48 hours straight.

            At first, Roger was the only bodyguard standing outside, talking with the school guards at drop-off and pick-up times. But with time, other bodyguards joined him as mounting crime rates made other families afraid. Bodyguards, bulletproof cars, security guards, security cameras, barbed-wire fences, tall walls with electric wire or sharp pieces of glass on top, water tanks and generators spread throughout the country. Not only houses, but schools, hospitals, bakeries, restaurants, dental clinics, everyone who could afford security, water and electricity, furnished it for themselves. With time, these measures became so common that we were no longer surprised by them. They became invisible to us. My uncle, the one who thought my father was overreacting, now had four bodyguards.

            I hoped that Roger never perceived my embarrassment when he grew mad at drivers who cut in front of him and mouthed insults at them through the dark, bulletproof glass. Once he was so mad that he took out his gun and pointed it at the offender with a menacing stare. He did this while my mother was in the car. Just as she had strongly suggested that my father ask Roger to cut his hair when he started working for us, she strongly suggested that my father say something about his reckless gesture.

            My mother and Roger were often at odds with each other, especially right after he started working for us. My brother and I were in elementary school then. There is a photograph of us in our white shirts and navy shorts (our elementary school uniform), standing on my grandmother’s porch. Roger and a maid who used to work for my grandmother are standing behind us, their hands on our shoulders. My mom got mad whenever he stopped traffic by cutting in front of other cars to let us pass. She felt this drew more attention to us, the opposite of what we wanted (I also suspect that she took this as a violent display of masculinity, and that this irritated her as much as it irritated me). She told my father how she felt and soon Roger was lingering far back in his motorcycle, idly letting two, three, four cars pass by before slowly catching up with us again. My mother rolled her eyes when she saw him through the rearview mirror and told us how much she’d rather drive without him. When our school prohibited the entrance of armed individuals, Roger would thrust his motorcycle onto the opposite sidewalk and wait with his arms crossed over his chest for the ten, twenty minutes it took our mother to drive through the drop-off and pick-up queues. Even if my mother’s complaints were justified, I shrunk away from conflict as if thinking, “now he’ll hate us.”

***

            We had a shortened second block because of the NHS ceremony. It was 10:30 when we walked down the asphalted hill to the auditorium. I was probably nervous before delivering my speech, though I don’t recall feeling anything other than resignation. In a small school, my acceptance to Stanford in 2012 was only the second, the last one in 1993. The news travelled quickly. I was assigned the speech on Scholarship, one of the four pillars of the society. It was the pursuit of passion, I told the audience, my hands leaving sweat prints on the wooden podium, that got me into Stanford, for I was convinced, perhaps idealistically, that it was my love of writing that got me in. I remember the dad of two middle school girls watching me. He sat with his back straight against the white, plastic chairs the school brought out for these events, stretching his neck to see over other heads. I wondered if my speech had met his expectations or if he was just thinking, “that girl lost her bodyguard today.”

            My grandfather, grandmother, aunt and uncle stood in the front row. They congratulated and hugged me when the ceremony was over. My aunt hugged me last and I felt heavy in her embrace. My brother left his class to join us and then they drew us apart, my aunt taking me to sit at one end of the aisle, my grandparents and uncle taking my brother to the other end. 

            I don’t remember exactly how my aunt phrased it—that Roger had died. I just remember the empty auditorium. It had high, white columns supporting a tin roof that bent and popped when it rained. It was not air-conditioned because outside air blew in through a green-railed veranda on the second floor that staff used to manage stage lighting. The weak light of the overcast sky shone through the veranda, making the rows of empty, white chairs glow. The four white candles representing the society’s pillars had gone out. Dark silhouettes lingered at the periphery of my vision, slowly drifting out of the aisles or lingering awkwardly, as if unsure whether to watch or leave us alone.

            As I cried in front of the sinks in the women’s restroom, my aunt hugged me and her friend patted me on the back. Her friend had once had a fling with my aunt’s brother and it was hard not to feel that she was trying to earn some sort of brownie points with my aunt. My thoughts then seem ungrateful now—perhaps even an attempt to distract myself by projecting a narrative onto someone else.

            There was a customary post-ceremony gathering in the elementary school library for the old and newly-accepted members and their families. Parents who inferred that Roger meant something to us approached me and told me they were sorry for my loss. Some of them ventured farther in confirming their suspicions and asked me, “He was very close to you all, wasn’t he?” This question didn’t offend me, in part because I kept asking myself the same question and I didn’t know the answer. I saw in the eyes of a few people, or in how they squeezed my hand or arm, that they did believe he was close to us. I wanted to believe that too. Everyone seemed to know about Roger’s death except the librarian, who asked:

            “Oh, honey, are you OK? What happened?” Her question made me tear up. I stared at her blue eyes, her short, white hair and her fair skin burnt by our harsh sun.

            “Oh, were you moved by the ceremony, honey?”

            I turned away and left her standing there. I judged her ignorance unfairly, blaming it on her foreign nationality. Her assumption that I would be moved to tears by a speech I had just delivered or by the nostalgia of the ending senior year was insulting to me given what had happened.

***

            I don’t remember who gave me the details of Roger’s murder. He was driving his used, brick-colored car—which he used only when he needed to, like when picking his daughter up for a movie or ice cream. He had seen someone he knew on the sidewalk—a lady who I’ve imagined as his neighbor, with white hair, slight hump on her back and tanned skin the tight, bristle consistency of wax paper. He got out of the car to chat with her. I imagine him leaning over the open car door. A man walked up to him, pressed a gun to the back of his head and fired. He fired and Roger fell forward, scraping his face against the concrete. The man took his car. He killed him to take his car.

            The day Roger died, my boyfriend tried to comfort me by saying that Roger would protect me from wherever he was. I didn’t want Roger to protect me. I wanted him to have a chance to turn around and face the man who killed him, to look him in the eye and to draw out his gun.

***

            My grandfather passed away three years after Roger’s death. He left us after a slow and painful degeneration due to Parkinson’s and senile dementia. He was confined in his body, a body he could not move and that seemed to melt into his bed as the days went by. Unable to swallow, he had a feeding tube inserted into his stomach through which they fed him diluted vegetable soup. He seldom spoke, but made intermittent moans of pain that reminded us of his confinement. He frequently failed to recognize people or where he was, as if in the constant jumps from present to past, present to future, his mind had lost strength and let itself drift in a limbo where surrounding conversations mixed with the sound of the TV, with words muttered long, long ago by a speaker no longer present or alive. His sad gray eyes glazed over with the conflation of past and present faces. Whenever his eyes did clear up, as if his soul had landed back in his body from a disorienting dream, it was truly moving to be in his presence.

            Roger was one of the people who knew my grandfather before his degeneration; the man who stood in the auditorium with his hands in his pockets. Roger bothered him when my grandfather’s favorite baseball team lost and asked mockingly, as if he was a gentleman assisting a lady, if he needed help getting out of the car. My grandfather would fain anger, demanding with his index finger that he show some respect, though I could see the smile on his lips. Roger must have reminded him of the times he used to joke around with his friends and made his degeneration feel more masculine, if not more dignified; something I couldn’t achieve without worry creeping into my voice or without self-consciousness making our interactions unnecessarily awkward.

            We had not gone to Roger’s funeral because the cemetery was in one of the most dangerous parts of town: in the outskirts, alongside a highway, between a barrio and high uncut grass. I thought less of us for that. The cemetery was right next to the crematory where we were waiting for my grandfather’s ashes three years later. It was even more dangerous to be there than before, but we couldn’t excuse ourselves this time. My father had two men in charge of the company’s security stand close by to surveil the area. I was hugging my aunt, listening to her heartbeat, when I looked over her shoulder and saw one of the security men leaning against a pole. He was short with broad shoulders and very tanned skin. He had a square jawline, short hair that he spiked up with gel and a well-kept mustache in an otherwise clean-cut face.

The resemblance made my pulse quicken. I started to wonder if this was Roger’s brother when I saw light shift in his eyes; he seemed to recognize me. When he smiled, memories raced through my mind: the salted coffee and the angry driving, the firefighter raincoat and the irritating morning greetings, the baseball jokes and the driving lessons… They were memories of both Roger and my grandfather as they’d been in my childhood. I hugged my aunt harder and cried sincerely for the first time for both of them.

            “What happened?” she asked, alarmed. She looked over her shoulder.

            “Ah,” she said, “you saw him?”

            I nodded.

            “He looks a lot like him, doesn’t he?”

            I nodded again.

            “Do you want to go talk to him?”

            I shook my head. What could I possibly say to this man? A man who didn’t know me but knew who I was, and whom I felt I failed.

            When I calmed down, I asked my brother to go with me. As we approached, Roger’s brother smiled.

            “Hi,” I said, stretching out my hand.

            He shook my hand and my brother’s. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said. The words struck chords that made me shrink. I heard words in my head that I was never able to say: I’m sorry for your loss.

            “Thank you,” I said. I waited. He smiled and searched my face. He was wearing jeans and a blue, button-down shirt with a black truck logo sewn into the front pocket.

            “Your brother was a great man,” I said. And he was murdered by a coward. I hated when people said that at funerals—he was a great man, she was a great woman—and there I was, finding nothing better to say. Judging by his smile, he didn’t seem offended.

            “He spoke about you a lot,” he said, “he had great affection for you both.”

            Roger hadn’t hated me. The thought filled me with relief, guilt and sadness; he hadn’t hated me and I had felt ashamed of him.

            I couldn’t bring myself to say anything else. My throat was dry. I nodded awkwardly and looked at him, hoping that he’d see in my eyes the apology I was unable to say.

***

            Roger’s death continues to haunt me—both for what it represents and for what he means to me. In my country, they murder to take your car, your cellphone, your gun, your shoes, and that’s what your life’s worth. If you’re not related to a pran[7]or have no connections with the government, your murderer can get away with it easily. As easily as I’ve made my fictional characters fall, fall slowly and scrape their face against the bare ground.

            “Cristi, why are your stories so sad?” my brother asked once.

            What he means to me, I still can’t define. I don’t know if I ever will. Whenever I drive I still hear his voice in my head.

            “You just keep right,” he says, “You stay calm and let others pass by you—don’t let that bother you. Just keep your eyes on that white line and you’ll be alright.”

· · · · ·

[1] Express kidnapping is a method of kidnapping usually committed by unorganized crime where immediate ransom is demanded: criminals make the victim withdraw money from ATMs, ask the victim’s family for money or make the victim lead them to the victim’s house, where they can steal money and valuable possessions. Express kidnappings last short periods of time, usually only one night.

[2] Venezuela is undergoing a serious scarcity crisis of even the most basic products.

[3] Species of palm tree native to Lesser Antilles, Colombia, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago that can reach heights of up to 40 meters (130 feet).

[4] Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013.

[5] Caballo de Troya (Trojan Horse) is one out of a series of ten books by J.J. Benítez about Christ’s life narrated by a time traveller from the twentieth century.

[6] Avianca is the national airline and flag carrier of Colombia.

[7] Person who’s head of a crime gang usually involved in drug dealing and other crimes.