“A glass of milk,” the short Yanqui demanded.
Juan the bartender rattled his copy of El Toro but did not look up.
“Leche! Leche, damn you!”
“This is a saloon,” Juan said very slowly. “If you want milk, speak to a cow.”
“Milk is the nourishment of the proletariat,” the short man announced. “I guess it is good enough for me.”
“Nonsense!” a bespectacled, sharp-faced man said from the floor. “Liquor is the drink of the proletariat! Do you think revolutions are fought with bellies full of milk?”
The short man thrust his hand inside his jacket and whirled to the drunk on the floor. He had not noticed him in the darkness and he did not like to be surprised.
“I know who you are,” the short man said.
“Do you?” the man on the floor said as he crawled very slowly and deliberately toward the nearest barstool. “Inform me. I’ve forgotten.”
“You are Leon Trotsky. And I am Jackson.”
“Hurrah for us! Do you insist on buying me a drink?”
“Leon!” the short man exhorted. “Stand up! You were the leader of the 1917 Revolution! Such a great Bolshevik should not be lying on the floor of a filthy Mexican saloon.”
“Watch what you say about this filthy saloon,” Leon advised. “Juan will not stand for it. He is a proud man and likely to take grave offense. Juan, you have my permission to beat this gentleman of the left.”
Juan rattled his paper and said, “I do not understand men who speak from the floor.”
“The floor, yes,” Trotsky said, rising to his knees. “Juan likes to tell tales of me falling five times to the floor during a night, but he does not mention the five times I got up. He dwells on the defeats, but never the triumphs.”
Trotsky clawed his way up a barstool’s legs and heaved himself into the seat. “Tequila! Do you understand me now, peasant?”
“What is wrong with being a peasant?” Jackson snarled.
“You are a Yankee,” Trotsky said, watching Juan pour his shot of tequila. “I can tell it by your manner of ordering a drink.”
“I am Canadian. It is unfair to identify me as an American imperialist.”
“Calm, comrade, calm. There is no mob of the proletariat here to rip you apart. What’s more, the bartender is a sworn reactionary. He will spit in your drink if he thinks you a Bolshevik.”
“I did not see him spit in your drink,” Jackson said with a meaningful look.
“I am his best customer,” Trotsky confided, raising his glass. “That is how we will beat the capitalists. We will beat them with their own bottles.” Trotsky knocked back the tequila and shuddered.
“I cannot believe what I am seeing,” Jackson said. “What of the revolution?”
Trotsky peered at Jackson through his dirty glasses then turned to the four campesinos drinking beer and tequila in the back of the room.
“What of it, boys, shall we start the revolution tonight?” Trotsky shouted at them. The peasants stopped talking and looked up. They looked at each other and laughed.
“Do you see?” Trotsky said. “No revolution tonight. So we must wait. And drink.”
Trotsky fished his hand inside his jacket and fumbled out a dull silver flask.
“The first time I tasted tequila was from this flask,” he said, fondling its dented surface. “It is a very fancy one, wouldn’t you say? You might ask what a patriot of the worker’s revolution would be doing with such a fine flask. Well, let me tell you. I took it from a captured Cossack captain. It was in 1917 in Moscow and we had the last band of Whites surrounded in a police barracks. They fought very well, then we threw a few firebombs onto the roof. Soon a Cossack captain came out waving a white silk handkerchief. His greatcoat was singed but he marched out like he was on parade before the Czar. My men brought him to me and the captain said he wished to dictate the terms of their surrender. Isn’t that hilarious! The roof was on fire and he wished to dictate his terms! So I told my second in command to shoot him. And he did.” Trotsky rattled his empty glass against the bar top. “Pour, my friend, pour. I am telling the story of my first taste of tequila, not my last.”
Juan refilled the short glass, Trotsky threw it back, wiped his mouth and continued.
“My second in command shot the Cossack in the heart and the bullet had no effect. It just made him take a step back. The captain was as surprised as we were. He stepped back forward and said, ‘The glory of God has saved me from your bullet!’”
Juan crossed himself and whispered, “Madre.” Jackson frowned at him and Trotsky continued.
“So I drew my pistol and shot him in the right eye. God did not choose to stop that bullet. When the men ripped open his coat to examine the damage of the first bullet they discovered this flask in his pocket. They gave it to me. It was dented where the bullet had struck, but was otherwise in excellent condition. I gave each of the men a drink then sent them back to their positions, as burning Cossacks were beginning to rush from the police station.”
“That was your first drink of tequila?” Juan asked.
“Not yet. It could have been poisoned. The Cossacks were full of such tricks. I took my first drink later that evening, when I discovered the men seemed in good health. I’ve carried this flask ever since. It was the only thing Stalin let me keep when he sent me into exile. He probably thought it proof of my secret bourgeois sympathies. Which was his mistake, because when I first tried tequila I hated it.”
“You seem to like it fine now,” Jackson said.
“That is a lie. I despise the vile liquid. Unfortunately, it is the only protection against the beastly heat.”
“Water is better,” Jackson assured.
“That is not the heat I am talking about,” Trotsky said. He attempted to return the flask to his pocket and it slipped from his fingers. It clattered on the floor and the campesinos in the back looked up. Jackson bent toward the flask, grimaced, opened his coat to shift the ice pick in his waistband, then retrieved the flask. He examined the flask with a critical eye, then held it out to Trotsky.
Trotsky accepted and pocketed the flask, his eyes never leaving Jackson’s belt.
“That is a very efficient-looking tool in your belt,” Trotsky said. “What purpose could a man have with such a tool?”
“Such a tool finds its own purposes,” Jackson said with a crude grin. He closed his jacket and turned to face the bar. “Tell me, Leon. You had so much. Why did you turn against your revolutionary brothers?
“Let me tell you something,” Trotsky said. “Sometimes you just have to walk away from it, on principle.”
“Walk away? Stalin had you arrested and deported.”
“Well, there was that too.” Trotsky turned to Juan and lifted his glass to eye level. “You know, Juan, I have drank in many places with many different people. In Paris, for example, they drink expensive brandy and shout revolutionary slogans at the waiters. In New York they shake your hand and buy you beer until you’re drunk, then ask if you are a Jew. In Norway they kick down your door, turn your home inside out, then wonder what manner of vile host doesn’t offer his guests a drink of wine. In Turkey they drink in secret shame then later confess strange affections that will follow you all the way to the train station. And here in Mexico there are people who call themselves bartenders but have to be flogged into pouring a customer a drink.”
Juan blinked, then poured. As Trotsky tipped back the glass, Juan asked, “How do they drink in Russia?”
Trotsky made a face as the tequila came back up once, twice, and a third time, making his cheeks bloat like a bullfrog’s. The fourth time it stayed down. Trotsky beat on the bar with the palm of his hand then hung his head at the floor. “In Russia they offer you a glass of vodka and when you reach for the glass it is empty,” he said in a strangled voice. “When you ask where is the vodka they break the full bottle over your head and call you a pig for wasting it.”
Juan tried to imagine the benefits of such a tradition then decided he would never go to Russia.
Trotsky took a bag of cheap Mexican tobacco out of his pocket and leaned against the bar to light his clay pipe. First he had difficulty lighting the match, then more difficulty getting the flame into the bowl.
Not such an impossible task, he thought, fumbling with the match with numb fingers. Certainly no more difficult than driving the Whites out of Moscow in ‘17. Of course, we didn’t have tequila then. The revolution would have been a much different thing had we tequila.
“What was that? Juan said.
“I said the revolution would have been a different thing had we tequila.”
Juan nodded as if it were an obvious truth and went back to reading El Toro, the most racy of Mexico City’s six bullfighting sheets.
“What is that nonsense you’re reading?” Trotsky asked.
“A very serious account of the goring of Juan Gillardo, Spain’s most serious bullfighter.”
“Spain! Don’t get me started on Spain.”
“You were there for the war?” Jackson asked.
“No, but I wrote an essay about it. That swine Stalin prefers Spanish wine, did you know? The joke around then was he sent 10,000 Russians to Spain not to defend the proletariat but rather the vineyards.”
Jackson’s stare soured.
“It’s much funnier in Russian,” Trotsky said.
“I’m glad we had this talk,” Jackson said. “It makes things easier.” He nodded at Trotsky, adjusted his belt, and walked out of the saloon.
“That man is a killer,” Juan said.
“We had men like him during the revolution,” Trotsky said. “Their mouths full of questions and their belts full of weapons.”
Juan nodded and went back to the goring of Gillardo.
Trotsky examined his empty glass. Where had the revolution gone? One moment he was its very beating heart and the next he found himself standing on the outside, watching the heartless zombie lurch about, smashing and killing. Every now and then he printed an essay or pamphlet, but who was reading them besides the Stalinists who were fashioning them into a sturdy gallows.
“I was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein,” Trotsky muttered. “My father was a good but stupid man.”
“Eh?” Juan said, lowering El Toro.
“Tequila,” Trotsky said. “It’s getting hot again.”
–Frank Kelly Rich