From the story "The Kidnapping"

Ten seconds before they kidnapped me, son of a bitch, I was walking my dog, Azteca. There are little stalls all over my neighborhood in downtown Mexico City. They sell everything—paper, plastic beach balls, bolts of cloth, straw hats, tight jeans with sequins, bright plastic Tupperware, blow-up superheroes, chilies, tacos, fried pig skin, speakers for local bands, tools, and wedding cakes. You name it, it’s being sold down here in the center of town. I like to watch the hot women walking around my neighborhood. I like to even check out the tranny prostitutes—not that I’d ever want to sleep with one of them, but man, they do it up all the way, you know what I mean? They go whole hog.

So I was walking my dog late at night. Another dog was barking ferociously from a rooftop. I don’t usually go the way I was walking after 10 p.m., ’cause walking down that way gets a little hairy. During the day, it’s fine. But at night, you gotta be careful. Normally, no one messes with me ’cause of the dog. I have a Xoloitzcuintle, which is some kind of pure-race dog from the time of the Aztecs. It’s one of only three kinds of 100-percent pure, authentic, Mexican dogs. People come up to me all the time to try to get close to the dog. They’re a little afraid, but they’re curious, and they’re especially curious ’cause I’m an American, and they know something ain’t right with a white-looking guy, a güero, with one of these pure Mexican dogs. So it gets their head spinning and they come up and ask me what my dog’s name is, and I say Azteca, and that gets them laughing, ’cause it’s almost like calling your dog George Washington, or something unduly serious and patriotic like that, and since my dog’s big, they keep their distance, and they like that my dog is big.

But man, those motherfuckers, when I was walking late at night at 11 p.m., trying just to get to my studio where I do some of my bigger paintings, or more conceptual type of work that takes up some larger space—those dudes just came up to my dog and shot him, point-blank, one shot right through the rib cage, and Azteca twisted his ears first toward them, even before they got the shot off, but he didn’t have a chance. It was cruel to do that shot. Azteca got blown down. He cried while his rib cage was jerked around. And then my dog, which had always guarded me so well, was kaput.

I was standing on one of those empty streets downtown, in the center of the old Colonial city, where there’s always garbage littered around in the middle of the night after all the people coming and going have bought and sold whatever they’re going to take home for the day from the stalls. So I was standing naked in that street, other than my dog, the harsh mercury of some streetlights in the distance the only thing making the street safe. Usually, there’s at least someone on the street watching, hanging out, talking with their buddies, but these dudes who did the kidnapping, they knew what they were doing. They must have been watching for just the right moment. There was no one, and I mean no one on the street when I finally saw them coming and when they shot my dog.

One shot. I looked up the alleyway. A car comes screeching up from the shadows. These two dudes, who smell like a combination of too much piss, alcohol, and bad perfume, push me into the car. One of them puts a gun to my head. He tells me to shut up, in really fast, crude Spanish. He tells me to bend over. They put a blindfold on me. They tie my hands behind my back with the leash from Azteca. Azteca was gone, of course. They left him back on the street, stone cold dead. I tried to tell myself to stay calm. I told myself just to do whatever they wanted me to, ’cause I usually have this attitude that if you stay calm everything will work out. But it wasn’t doing me any good. This one jerk, and I mean that with the greatest of all understatements, he spit in my hair, he told me I was a filthy pig and that my mother would never see me again unless I begged for mercy. Beg, he said. Beg, now. Beg for your life. So man, I begged. Oh yeah, I begged. I tried to do it calmly. I tried to do it with all the sincerity I could muster. I’m gonna beg until they get whatever they feel comfortable with, I thought. One of them hit me on the back of the head, and when I came to I had a large welt on my scalp.


I’ll tell you what’s terrifying. It’s not being alone in the place where they take you after they kidnap you. It’s the fact that you’re not alone, that there are other people with you who you know are going through the same hell they’re putting you through. Here’s what they did every day for five straight days. They woke me up in the middle of the night, they slapped me on the side of the head, they did all this after I listened to them cut the finger off some young woman in the other room, and then they took me in the back of the car to an ATM, where they forced me to take out all the money I could, the daily limit, before they slapped me on the head again, beat me in the chest, and stuffed me back in the car. You’re like a gerbil on a spinning wheel, while they do this. You’re in the ninth ring of hell. I mean, you don’t know what day it is—whether it’s the same day as the day before. Whether they’re just gonna fuckin’ waste you right there. Whether they’ve already found a way to get in touch with your family, and whether your family is gonna pay. It’s just one big, black hole of no information. Maybe you’ll live, maybe you’ll die, and that finger they cut off the woman in the next room—that’s real. That’s her begging for them not to do it. That’s them coming in, in a posse of three, and you hear them scuffling with her, and you hear them shouting at her in Spanish, “They aren’t paying, señorita. They aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. So they’re gonna have to be convinced.”

The cry from that woman, there was no faking there. They take a pair of kitchen shears. They run it up along the skin. They scrape your knuckles with the edge of the blade of the scissors, until they bleed. I know how they do it, ’cause later they took one of my fingers off and sent it to my family. This is what they do. They tease you. They make you shit your pants. They have you saying, Please no, please don’t do it. Please. No. For Christ’s sake, I’m a painter. I’ll do anything. I’ll get you more money. I’ll get you any money you want.

There were two guys when they did it to me. One was the man I saw shoot Azteca. He had a couple Fu Manchu hairs growing out of his jaw, his face was trapezoidal, his eyes sunk in, his skin leathery like a burnt turtle. He had all the look of a Neanderthal you could imagine. He had a tattoo on his right upper bicep that said mamá, with a heart below, and a dagger through the heart. The other guy was skinny, like he was addicted to heroin. He never said anything. He would just hold my arm down against the wood table. He was a lot stronger than you’d expect for a junkie. It was like all his junkieness, all his neediness, came out in his grip. He’d hold my bicep, while the Neanderthal threatened to cut off my finger, and then one day the Neanderthal did it. Blood was gushing all over the fucking place. They cut my pinkie. They said they were gonna start with the small fingers first and then go up the scale, with each request to my family that didn’t come through for money. One thing about Mexico, it’s impossible to send any mail. You can’t get any letter anywhere in less than a week. It takes a full eight days just to get a letter sent from one side of Mexico City to the other. So these guys aren’t dumb. They use FedEx. They work for the cartels. They aren’t some loners. They’re pros. They FedEx’d my finger to my family in Pittsburgh.


My father, he’s as straitlaced as they come, as straight a shooter as possible. He never lies. Or, if he does, he does it for a good reason, to help someone. He was the football coach at Pitt for twenty-five years before he retired. I’m forty-four. He’s seventy-eight. I’m one of seven kids. I used to joke my parents had kids until they realized the Pope wasn’t watching anymore.

My father, his idea of cruelty was making his players run fifteen miles. He’d have them woken up by his assistant at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, and make them run to our house out of town and press the doorbell. Then he’d have them run back into town before breakfast. If he was torturing someone, it was for their own good. He’d tutor his students personally. When the army called him up, he went. There was no question in his mind ever, what you did; you did the “right thing.” The guy has a heart of gold, but he has this sense of duty that sometimes blocks out everything else. So if the FBI told him he shouldn’t cave in to any extortion, that it was just going to make things worse, that giving in to kidnappers usually results in having someone killed, that he should just listen to the cops and be firm and not negotiate, but only say a deal could be cut—if they gave me back, no charges would be pressed—then that’s what he did. It pained him. This kind of decision pained him. It’s not the kind of decision he’d like to make for himself, but the FBI had more experience in these matters, and if that’s what they told him then that’s what he should do.

My dad coached a lot of winning teams. He’s probably the smart one in the family, but if it hadn’t been for my mother, I’d probably be dead now. She sent the first amount of ransom. She sent ten thousand dollars behind my dad’s back. She sent the money, so they stopped cutting off my fingers for a while. But it was never clear if they were stopping the finger-cutting exercises because they were just gonna kill me.


I’m not sure what the purpose of life is, but I can tell you this, every person has a reason to be on earth, and that reason isn’t to be kidnapped, isn’t to die in some war, isn’t to end up some puffy body left in a trench or to be the residue of some crazy drug war, like what they’ve got down in Mexico now. I kind of think the purpose of life is to sing. I don’t mean, literally, always to sing, but to sing metaphorically, to sing in some way of beauty, to raise the spirits of our voices in hope.

So here’s something I did one day, while they had me kidnapped, sitting on the floor with my hands tied behind my back, my head leaning against a hard concrete wall. I started to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I’ve got a bit of a gravelly voice. I like to smoke my share of stub cigars. I like to drink mezcal, if it’s offered to me. Or, more like, I like to give it to friends if they come around. I like to have spontaneous parties. I like to get a bunch of people together and buy too much food. There’s a tranny who works in a restaurant below me, and she makes the best plantain empanadas this side of the world, and just looking at the pride on her face when she brings up the food for a party, that’s what I like. I want people to be happy, you know what I mean? So I started singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Amazingly, they let me sing, at first. I started singing louder and louder. I wanted the woman in the next room to hear. She’d been going downhill. She’d lost two fingers already, and I thought, if I can sing this song loud enough she’ll come back to life. So I just started singing. I don’t know why in the hell I chose that song. It’s just the one that came to me. It’s easy, you know. And after I’d been singing for a bit, I swear I heard that other woman singing, too. She wasn’t singing the same song. She started singing some Mexican song. But there it was, some other nice song in Spanish that somehow fit together, perfectly, with “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and even though her voice was weak, she was singing with some kind of inner strength, in perfect harmony with the melody of my own song, and the two of us sang to the concrete ceiling, feeling like we’d stolen a moment, going round and round, repeating the songs a few times, like some kind of chorus of monks but with more joy. They shut us up, of course. They came in and hit me on the mouth. But it didn’t matter. It’s those moments of joy that make life worth living. It’s that harmony, when all around you there’s dead silence...