The Mysteries of Patio Vistahermosa

by Pablo Piñero Stillmann


It’s been my cross to bear from a very early age (and I understand it’s not an uncommon cross) that worrisome thoughts pop into my head as soon as I get in bed at night. As early as seven years old I was robbed of sleep by fears that Katia, whom I thought to be the girl I was destined to marry, hated me. At ten, my qualms turned from romantic to the mystical-academic: I feared that when I awoke all my knowledge of multiplication and division would be erased from my brain and, as a result, I’d be held back a year. Then, in early adolescence, my father lost his job at the ad agency and, although my mother herself had a good job, I was afraid we’d end up in a homeless shelter where I would inevitably be sexually assaulted. (Over dinner one night, my parents and I had watched a long news piece about the epidemic of sexual crimes in homeless shelters.)

After my father’s firing, my problems at school worsened and then my anxiety reached such levels that it began seeming more like insanity. During my insomniac nights, weaved in with ruminations about school, I worried a lot about my father. He was in his short-sleeved blue bathrobe and slippers when I returned from school, when I left for French class at the Alliance Française and when my parents and I sat down at night to eat dinner in front of the television news. He’d stopped playing squash on Saturday mornings and now refused (out of shame, I understood that even then) to attend my mother’s family Sunday lunches at my aunt and uncle’s. He was a smart and disciplined man: why had he been fired? What did he do all day? Wasn’t he supposed to be looking for another job?

These were only some of the thoughts swirling in my mind during the night when my switch finally flipped. Things inside my head turned violent. I imagined myself torturing and killing my cat. I’d never had a thought like that before. Said cat, Potasio Limantour, named by my father after Norberto de Zúñiga’s first minister of Colonization and Industry, was a brown Siamese I loved dearly. Potasio loved me, too—I knew this because every day when I came home from school he climbed up my leg onto my torso. That night, the bad night, however, I couldn’t dispel fantasies in which I threw my feline friend against the wall, cut him open from throat to genitals, took his little head and—

It was a horror movie made exclusively for me and it wouldn’t end. The more scared and ashamed I felt about the thoughts, the more violent and vivid they became. I lay in bed for seven hours fighting those horrific scenes, heart pumping and skin tingling, gripping the sheets so I wouldn’t run out of my bedroom and murder my cat.

Shortly after the sun came up, as soon as I heard my mother’s pumps clack down the stairs and into the kitchen I went straight to her, squinting so I wouldn’t see Potasio.

Alarmed by my droopy, pale face and bloodshot eyes, my mother stopped pouring cereal into a bowl. Potasio slept on one of the island stools.

Back when my father had a job, he’d be the first to wake up every day to make us breakfast. Often, while we enjoyed eggs or French toast, my father would raise his fork like a royal staff and remind us that our kitchen had once been part of Luca Sabaleta’s drawing room, the same drawing room where that illustrious man had retreated to for rest and a brandy after assisting in the capture and execution of a dozen rebels during the failed coup of 1903. After the firing, however, I’d rarely see my father before I left for school.

My voice regressed to its prepubescent days when I asked my mother to grab Potasio and keep him away from me.

“You’re not feeling well?”

“Mom,” back to my regular voice, “grab Potasio.”

She did, holding the cat against her chest.

I explained to her that I’d gone crazy and might kill our cat if left unsupervised.

My mother’s expression confirmed my suspicion that I was a very dangerous boy. She called to my father who eventually showed up scratching his beard.

“You need to take Luca to a psychiatrist,” said my mother. “Now.”

And off she went to work.



Norberto de Zúñiga ruled this country with an iron fist from 1881 to 1916, when, while delivering one of his infamously long speeches, he was shot, victim to a conspiracy by some of his closest allies. The few members of de Zúñiga’s extended cabinet whom the conspirators deemed too loyal to recruit were all killed in some way or another shortly after. Among these loyalists was Luca Sabaleta, de Zúñiga’s Undersecretary of the Interior, my great grandfather and also my namesake.

The history books haven’t been kind to Sabaleta, portraying him either as a spineless sycophant or a vicious goon, sometimes both. Yet my father always took great pride in being his grandson.

Sabaleta built himself one of the first mansions in the Patio Vistahermosa neighborhood, which back during the height of de Zúñiga’s power wasn’t a neighborhood, but a series of rural lands just outside the city. Other de Zuñigistas followed and, before long, the whole place was filled with luxurious homes, all trying to look as European as possible with their mansard roofs, arched windows and balustrades.

By the time I came along, Sabaleta’s mansion had been divided and redivided by his descendants. It now comprised eight smallish homes, one of them ours. We were the only Sabaletas who remained living on the property.



After a forty-minute chat, the psychiatrist, a bald man in a shirt and tie, told me I had nothing to worry about. Was he joking?

“I almost killed my cat,” I said.

He explained that the intrusive thoughts I’d had were nothing more than that—thoughts. I was an anxious boy, he said, and at fourteen my brain was going through some uncomfortable changes. That, added to a difficult situation at home, had led me to an anxiety attack. For many, he concluded nonchalantly, an episode like this is a one-time thing. (This wouldn’t be my case, but that’s a story for another day.)

I didn’t know what to say. This man was telling me that everything that had felt so real an hour ago was nothing. In some ways this calmed me down and in others it made me feel even crazier.

“What do you enjoy doing the most, Luca?”

“Reading,” I blurted. This was not only a lie; it was the biggest of lies. I hated reading, but my father always said that people who didn’t read were idiots. Our bookshelves were filled with thick, hardcover history books and bestselling Latin American and European novels. Had I been honest, I would’ve told the psychiatrist that what I loved doing the most was watching television, preferably shows about detectives chasing criminals.

The doctor responded joyfully to the lie. “Wonderful news,” he said. He even added that I looked like a reader, and that, to me, was the best of compliments. “If you’re ever feeling a bit anxious, grab a book and lose yourself in it for thirty minutes. That’s two birds, one stone: the act of reading will not only help you relax, but it’ll be a way to take your psychic temperature. If you can sit down to read, you’ll know you’re nowhere near an anxiety attack.”



During the ride back, driving on Flamboyanes (only a few minutes from home), my father shrieked and pulled over. A flat tire, I thought.

“Look at that!” he said pointing across the street.

A man in an orange vest holding an electric saw was hanging from the branch of a coral tree. There was a small mountain of branches already beneath him.

My father exited the car and raced past the median to the tree, flailing his arms and shouting things I couldn’t make out. It appeared he was ordering the man to get down from the coral. This both seemed to amuse and perplex the man in the orange vest, who turned on his noisy electric saw and continued with his activity. There were other workers on the ground and they all shook their head.

Patio Vistahermosa had changed dramatically in the past decade. Many of the mansions had been torn down to make way for buildings; hundred-year-old trees were routinely cut down to accommodate parking entrances; both our local bakery and butcher shop became nightclubs; Parque Libertad, a French-style garden, was replaced by a discount department store.

No one was more heartbroken by this change than my father, for whom the neighborhood was a crucial part of his identity. Ever since I could remember, he’d been lamenting the fall of Patio Vistahermosa, once the crown jewel of the city, an oasis of elegance and class amid the chaos, a reminder of a time when this country still harbored hopes of becoming a world power. My father, when he still had a job, would come home at night, remove his tie, take off his shoes and complain about the valet parking guys who’d colonized Rosas Street, or the fried food stand that had just set up on the corner of Santo Domingo and Izote.

“You don’t care?” he’d squeal at my mother for ignoring him. “Ramona, you not only live here, but you’re married to the grandson of the de facto founder of this neighborhood!”

“What do you want me to say? Neighborhoods change, cities change, life changes.” She was a pragmatist. “To fight this is to be eternally frustrated.”

And it got worse once my father lost his job. He had too much time and energy on his hands. Leaving the house with him meant hearing endless complaints about the local politician’s insatiable greed, or, worse, witnessing a confrontation like the one with the orange-vested men.

The day of my visit to the psychiatrist, my father ended up hailing a police car.

I heard him shout something about permits. The chubby officer attempted to calm him down. “You don’t even have a cursory knowledge of the law!” cried my father walking back toward the car. “This city is doomed because of people like you!”



The doctor’s comment about using reading as a thermometer led me, for the first time, to peruse my home’s many bookshelves. Constantly afraid of killing Potasio, now I read every day on the bus ride home (around thirty minutes) to make sure I wasn’t close to having an attack; then my cat and I could hug all we wanted. If the bus had been too rowdy for me to concentrate, I’d be very careful not to be left alone with Potasio until I did the required thirty minutes. Sometimes I felt a bit of adrenaline tingling in my stomach or on the back of my legs while watching television and my heart would start pumping faster, harder, so I’d quickly grab the book closest to me and lock myself in my room.

The problem with the thermometer solution was my parents’ taste in books. My father’s all had titles like Latin America’s Forgotten Modernity and The Agrarian Reform: From Latifundia to Neoliberalism, while my mother’s novels told stories of middle-aged couples struggling through marriage.

For weeks, however, I went on like this, reading books I hated, thinking it was a problem with no solution. The book, I thought, was an inherently boring medium created by and for boring people.

Then I met Sócrates López Candil.



I enjoyed spending my afternoons with Potasio watching television, specifically sitcoms on cable, while doing homework. I was addicted to watching American teens wiggle their way out of sticky situations and learn a lesson in the end. (I was certain the cat, too, had come to like the sitcoms—its canned laughter and impossibly bright colors.)

Now, in order to sit and watch television, I had to read fifteen pages or so from one of my parents’ dull books. One afternoon, after reading from a brick with a title like Topography of the Soul, I grabbed Potasio and turned on the television just to realize that our cable had been shut down. My father’s unemployment had hampered his cognitive abilities and it had become common for him to forget to pay the bills. All Potasio and I had for entertainment were the five over-the-air networks.

I flipped from one channel to the next until something—someone—caught my eye on TV Educación, a channel regarded by all as little more than a sedative. The man, who had greasy hair down to his shoulders, sunglasses and a bright green polyester blazer, sat on a couch looking bored and smoking a cigarette. His name, Sócrates López Candil, was written in digital watch-style font on the bottom of the screen over the word Writer. The colors and sound quality of the interview, conducted by a woman with puffy hair, placed its original airing somewhere around the late seventies.

This person was a writer? Impossible. He looked less like the authors on the jackets of my mother’s books and more like men whom I’d seen stumble out of cantinas.

I couldn’t take my eyes off this man: his every move, every word seemed infinitely interesting. When asked about the upcoming elections, López Candil said we needed a strongman dictator to get rid of all the scum. Prompted with the names of The Great Writers—Reyes, Delibes, Borges (the interviewer pronounced them with reverence)—he responded with either disparaging comments or fake yawns. What about Octavio Paz? said the woman with the puffy hair as a last resort. To which López Candil replied he’d first stab himself in the cheek before reading another sentence written by that megalomaniacal sellout. Questioned about his hobbies, my new hero listed old movies, hallucinogenics, billiards and prostitutes.

As soon as the interview ended, I scanned every bookshelf in my house hoping to find a López Candil. It didn’t surprise me to not find a single one. Then I called the local bookstore and got no answer, as they’d closed for the day.

That night at dinner, during a pause in between my father’s stories of the destruction of our neighborhood, I mentioned the writer’s name. Had they heard of him?

“He’s an idiot and a communist,” said my father.

My mother was subtler with her disapproval: “If you’re interested in literature, I’ll gladly lend you a book. I think you’d love Javier Marías.”



My school librarian had no idea who I was talking about and recommended, instead, that I check out The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling.

Later, when the bus dropped me in front of my house, I ran to the used bookstore, scared that my father would worry if I got home too late.

“Do you have anything by Sócrates López Candil?” I said, out of breath, to the gray-haired man who owned the dusty, little shop.

He said nothing and led me to the literature section, where he handed me three raggedy paperbacks: Little Red Rooster, A Coat So Warm, and You Are the Desert, but the Desert Is Gone.

Even though the store was having a clearance sale—that place, too, was being priced out of the neighborhood—I still only had enough money for one book.

“You know,” said the gray-haired man, “that’s not literature.”

It was the best endorsement he could’ve given López Candil.

I was leaving through the books anxiously, waiting for one to give me a sign—maybe a character named Luca or the description of a naked woman—when the owner, out of pity or impatience, told me I could take all three for the price of one.

I ran back home and hid the three novels in my backpack before opening the door. Of course my father didn’t realize I was home twenty-five minutes late. He was lying on the upholstered fainting couch reading the newspaper. I told him I had a stomachache and would be in my room all afternoon. (Potasio had to stay in the hallway because I hadn’t read all day.)

I chose to begin with You Are the Desert, but the Desert Is Gone because its cover art was a Hindu goddess holding a rusty sword. The novel was about a couple of college students who, fed up with their respective families (and society in general), decide to elope to the North Desert with plans of eating peyote and getting married by a shaman. The couple spends most of the book wandering around small villages, meeting all sorts of strange characters and experimenting with all kinds of drugs, all the while meditating about life and love. Toward the end of the book, the couple finds the shaman and quickly realizes he’s a greedy huckster. Disappointed, they jump on a bus back home and on the way there confess their infidelities to each other.

Before I knew it, it was dark out and I’d read the whole book. I vaguely remembered eating a sandwich at some point in the afternoon and bringing Potasio into the room with me. What a glorious feeling! I was cured!

I slept with the three López Candil books in bed with me and I slept like a baby.



The following afternoon when I got home from school I wanted to lock myself in my room again, but my father seemed sadder than usual, so I sat in the Louis XV chair close to him.

“Do you remember when I used to take you to the flower market?” he said to me.

Sure I remembered. We went there every Saturday because as a little kid I loved flowers and told people that when I grew up I wanted to be a botanist, a word my father taught me so I’d stop saying I wanted to be a florist.

My father was lying down, staring at the ceiling. Again I asked myself what he did all day. It seemed unconscionable to me that a human being could be home at, say, eleven in the morning.

“They’ve shut it down,” he said. “No more flower market.”

“What are they replacing it with?”

My father belted out a cynical laugh. “Who cares?”

I’d spent all day in school secretly reading Little Red Rooster, sticking it in thick textbooks during class, taking it with me to a locker room stall during physical education, and retreating to the library during lunch. Little Red Rooster turned out to be even better than the book about the desert. The narrator, Matías, was an adolescent from a middle-class family whose parents were getting a divorce due to infidelity. Matías skips school constantly and befriends a gang of bohemians who live in an abandoned mansion that once belonged to a famous actress. The protagonist spends his days with his new friends reading Paul Valéry, drinking whiskey, smoking pot, taking mushrooms, listening to the blues on vinyl, and stealing food from grocery stores. When the bus driver shouted at me that it was my stop—I’d been so immersed in the story that I lost track of time and space—Matías was huffing paint thinner in an empty swimming pool with a pretty bohemian girl, possibly about to lose his virginity.

So I just said some platitudes about the flower market to my father and ran up to my room, feeling more than a little guilty, eager to finish the book.

I was relieved to read that Matías did in fact lose his virginity in that empty swimming pool with the pretty bohemian (who turned out to be the famous actress’s niece). I read the scene maybe ten times and then masturbated as Potasio eyed me from the corner of the room.



When the bus dropped me off at school the next morning, I retreated to the little wooded area behind the faculty parking lot where no one could see me. Once the bell rang and everyone shuffled into buildings and classrooms, I jumped the fence out to the street.

Although I attended a private school, it was located in a dangerous part of the city. As soon as my feet hit the hard pavement of the curb, I, for the first time, yearned for the safety of my classes, for its predictability and familiarity.

When a couple of shady guys across the street who’d seen what I’d done chuckled, I noticed one of them barely had any teeth.

I could’ve easily gone back to school—jumped the fence again or told the security guard at the entrance that I’d missed the bus and my father had dropped me off—, but what would López Candil think of me then? The people who did stuff like that in his novels were fools.

In my backpack was a Discman loaded with the only blues CD I’d found in my house (my parents listened mostly to classical music) titled Eric Clapton Does the Blues. Sadly, from the cover I could tell that this Clapton fellow was white, and Matías’s bohemians said that blues was a genre of music that could only be interpreted properly by African-Americans because of their heritage of slavery. My plan was to walk around listening to the CD until I found something cool like an abandoned mansion, a group of bohemians or a pretty girl, but I was scared to take out the Discman for fear I’d get mugged. I’d never really looked at my school’s surroundings until now, at its graffitied walls and empty lots with broken windows.

A strange hand on my shoulder made me yelp. It belonged to a tall homeless man with a long, white beard who mumbled something about cancer. I said “No thanks” and walked away as the guys who’d chuckled at me before now started to cackle.

I walked faster and faster in the direction of Avenida Colmenar, where at least there was traffic and I could scream if someone tried to rob me. The street vendors called out offering fried foods, pornographic VHS tapes and other things I’d been taught were harmful for the body and soul. I was scared for my Discman, a Christmas present from an aunt, but I was even more scared that my parents’ Eric Clapton CD would get stolen. How would I explain this to them? Was that marijuana I smelled?

When I finally arrived at the corner of Colmenar, winded, I found a decent diner filled with people in cheap office wear and my heartbeat retreated somewhere close to its normal rate.

I sat at one of the booths next to the window and ordered a coffee. I’d never had coffee before, but the characters in López Candil’s novels loved drinking it when hungover and waxing philosophical. I wiped the sweat off my face with a paper napkin before taking A Coat So Warm from my bag, feeling a tingle in my stomach as I turned to the first page.

During the following weekends, I’d make several trips to the National Library to do research on López Candil. There, I learned that A Coat so Warm was the writer’s failed attempt at Serious Literature, a book that he thought would put him amongst the writers he claimed to loathe. Longer than his previous two novels put together and written in a baroque stream of consciousness style, the book was panned and even mocked by the critics, sending López Candil into a deep depression and back to the industrial town where he was born. He taught literature there at a public school until his death of liver failure at the age of forty-one. That day at the diner, however, I was sure that I couldn’t get past page six of A Coat so Warm because of a failure on my part—I was dumb and López Candil was a genius.

Without anything else to read, I turned to Clapton’s whiny guitar and raspy voice:

Have you ever loved a woman so much you tremble in pain?

All the time you know she bears another man’s name.

After about an hour and two coffee refills, the manager informed me that if I wasn’t planning on ordering any food, I’d have to leave. This wouldn’t happen now, but back then kids in this city were still second-class citizens.

My plan was to return to Patio Vistahermosa and hang out there until the time that the school bus usually dropped me off at my house. Without money for a taxi (or even the knowledge of how much a taxi would cost), I decided to walk up smoggy Colmenar to where I could hop on a trolley that would take me straight to what had once been Parque Libertad.

The walk was longer than I’d calculated and Colmenar smelled of gasoline, garbage and shit, so by the time I got on the trolley I was sweaty and cranky. I sat at the back and ate the lunch my mother had made for me—a sandwich and two bananas—while chiding myself for not befriending a group of bohemians.

It was almost noon when the trolley dropped me off. With three hours to spare, I first went into a CD shop and scrutinized the blues section, making a mental list of which CDs I’d buy once I got my birthday money. I leafed through the gossip magazines at a newsstand in search of bikini-clad celebrities until the newsstand guy told me to buy something or leave. I even went to a furniture store to waste time, sitting on the couches and chairs, ranking them on comfort level.

Then I saw my father while walking down Flamboyanes.

At first I didn’t think it could be him, because this man, who looked so much like my father, had actual clothes on: khakis, a tucked-in plaid shirt and a black baseball cap. He was sitting at a sidewalk table of the legendary Café Nápoles having an espresso and reading the newspaper and it was definitely him.

The first thought I had was that he was waiting for his mistress. (It was a theory heavily influenced by López Candil’s novels, which all, in some way or another, dealt with infidelity.) Everything made sense now. My father had been fired from his job because he’d been having an affair with his boss’s wife. The tryst had ruined my father, but still, he couldn’t stop seeing her.

I sat on the bench of the ample median that was somewhat hidden by shrubbery. I wanted to see the woman who’d destroyed my family. Would she be much younger than my mother? Would she be beautiful? Should I confront them? How would this play out if I was a character created by López Candil?

Eventually, however, my father finished his espresso, paid for it and left. But the mystery continued, as he wasn’t walking in the direction of our house, but toward Avenida Central. I followed him from afar, feeling the adrenaline in my arms and chest.

We walked past what was once Mr. Fernando’s liquor store, now a 7-Eleven, and what used to be the Egyptian restaurant, now a bank.

I followed him for about ten minutes until we reached the flower market. My father walked over to its chain-link fence as I stayed in the corner, half my body hidden by a new building.

My father tried to open the gate, but it was locked. What used to be a whole block of bright colors and pungent smells was now nothing but hot concrete.

Again my father tried to pull the gate open. Was he remembering the both of us walking down those aisles hand in hand? Imagining scenes of what he’d once hoped his life would be? Was he having a deep conversation with Luca Sabaleta?

My instinct was to run up and hug him, but of course I couldn’t.

Pablo Piñero Stillmann’s work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingThe Normal SchoolWashington Square Review, and other journals. His novel, Temblador, was published in Mexico by Tierra Adentro.