the sacrificial circumcision of the bronx

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books
©2008 Arthur Nersesian

ePUB ISBN-13: 978-1-936-07051-0

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-60-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2008925941

Akashic Books
PO Box 1456
New York, NY 10009
[email protected]
www.akashicbooks.com

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The character of Paul Moses is a fiction, loosely built around a handful of facts as described in Robert A. Caro’s biography,
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and Fall of New York
(Vintage, 1974). The “Mkultra,” though fictionalized in this novel, was an actual series of science projects developed and financed by the CIA dealing largely with mind control; files related to it were destroyed by CIA Director Richard Helms in 1973.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”

He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

—Genesis, 4:9

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Author’s Note

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

Chapter Twenty Five

Chapter Twenty Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight

Chapter Twenty Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty One

Chapter Thirty Two

Chapter Thirty Three

Chapter Thirty Four

Chapter Thirty Five

Chapter Thirty Six

Chapter Thirty Seven

Chapter Thirty Eight

Chapter Thirty Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty One

Chapter Forty Two

Chapter Forty Three

Chapter Forty Four

Chapter Forty Five

Chapter Forty Six

Chapter Forty Seven

Chapter Forty Eight

Chapter Forty Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty One

1

P
aul had a tall skinny younger brother and a short shy sister. His mother, Bella, was an overbearing bull of a woman who despite everything always meant well. His father, meek and weak, was an utterly henpecked man. Robert, his brother, jumped when Mama spoke; since Paul was the eldest, the mantle therefore fell upon him to stand up to the Czarina Bella Cohen.

The first girl he ever loved was a stunning Jamaican named Maria who was about ten years older than him and always had a cigarette burning. Bella had seen how hardworking and honest Maria was at Madison House, the do-good organization, and hired her as a domestic. Young Paul couldn’t take his eyes off of Maria’s unbelievable curves. He was raised in turn-of-the-century affluence, with money from both sides of his family rushing in and swirling around him. His childhood was spent mostly up in New Haven, Connecticut, where the servants called him
Mr. Paul
and his younger brother
Mr. Robert
. He’d tell them to just call him Paul, but his brother was always Mr. Robert.

When Paul hit his teens, the flood of cash rushed the entire family through some subterranean pipeline, flushing them out into a plush new brownstone on 46th Street just off of Fifth Avenue. As he and his younger brother reached college age, their mother wanted them to go to Yale, their hometown university. Mr. Robert was glad to comply, but Paul found the old school stodgy and was looking for a more liberal education. Woodrow Wilson, the progressive, opinionated president of Princeton, had just announced that he was running for governor of New Jersey. This excited Paul to such a degree that the young man selected Princeton as his first choice.

When he got his letter of acceptance six weeks later, he tore open the envelope right at the dinner table and made the announcement. Though his father Emanuel seemed happy, Bella silently nodded her big head in dismay. By making a major decision for himself, Paul hoped to teach his younger brother that he didn’t have to be such a little mama’s boy. His father opened an expensive bottle of cabernet and made a toast. His mother just sat there. To further irritate her, Paul guzzled down several glasses of the wine as though it were water.

While the others at the table talked, Paul’s head began spinning from the wine and he had a strange daydream that he lay suspended, just floating in darkness. When he closed his eyes he felt as though he were submerged, bouncing along the sides of some kind of giant underwater conduit.

“Paul, what do you think?” asked his dad.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

Paul’s father suggested that he consider a career in banking or finance. Lightheaded, Paul pretended to listen as the alcohol just floated him along.

2

W
hile attending Princeton, Paul Moses had lofty ambitions of being either a scholar or statesman. During his freshman year, he hung out with young gentlemen who dressed in herringbone tweed and fussed over sybarite subtleties, such as unusual pipe tobacco and exotic teas. In his sophmore year, however, Paul decided that it was all just a competition of vanity that gave rise to legions of nancy boys and self-involved powder puffs. Soon, he dismissed the whole Ivy League as nothing more than an extension of European royalty, American aristocracy at its most pretentious.

During school breaks, nonetheless, he displayed his newly acquired sensibilities to his brother and sister, reciting French Symbolist poetry and discussing the latest advances in European art. Although Paul’s father was proud to hear his son’s growing sophistication, Bella rolled her eyes. Paul further enjoyed irking his mother by taking an active interest in the Zionist movement. Gradually, as he read more and more about how fellow Jews were being mistreated around the world, he became firm in the opinion that only when their people had the security of their own homeland would the persecution end.

“None of this would happen if they simply blended into the countries they’re living in,” Bella would say.

“But
we
are Jews,” Paul would shoot back. “Do other groups have to deny who they are?”

The Jewish settlements in Palestine occupying unpopulated lots in the desert gave hope toward a permanent homeland for all Jews. Paul’s other liberal sentiments were rooted more firmly in the plight of the working man, particularly as championed by Eugene Victor Debs and the Socialist Party of America. It was primarily for this reason that he joined the Democratic Reform Club, a leftist organization at the college. In a fit of zeal he soon accepted the nomination and ultimately the office of its presidency. Although the position didn’t offer many privileges, he did meet more girls.

What captivated him most about Millicent Sanchez-Rothschild was her strong, defiant face and cascades of shiny thick, black hair. He was delightfully surprised when he heard her explaining to another student why Oliver Wendell Holmes was the greatest juror who ever sat on the high court.

Millicent had just arrived from the University of Pennsylvania to hear a lecture that his club had organized. Williams Jennings Bryant, the Democratic presidential candidate of 1900, was giving a talk on how the Supreme Court was stonewalling labor reform.

After spending the majority of the evening talking with Millie, Paul asked her on a date.

“If you want to make the trip down to Philly, I’m all yours,” she replied.

He took the first train the following week. In Philadelphia, they spent the afternoon just chatting. Or rather, she talked and he listened. She was from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who had settled in Mexico City. Despite the fact that her parents were rich conservatives, she was very progressive in her views. Rights of the working man, socialism, the suffrage movement—they were in agreement about nearly everything.

Though Millie had many suitors, Paul continued seeing her throughout the semester, taking the train down from Princeton on weekends and holidays.

Over the next few months, she shared various aspects of Mexico—its history, its conquest by Cortéz, the destruction of the native culture by the Catholic Church. “The Mayans produced vast libraries that Bishop Diego de Landa ordered his priests to collect and burn in huge bonfires,” she explained, “though a few books survived as the Maya codices, preserving some record of their heritage.”

Millie’s family, which made its fortune in mining, had benefited greatly under the repeated presidential terms of Porfirio Díaz. Yet she was part of a consortium of young Latin compatriots studying in the United States who despised “El Presidente.”

Aside from her own desire for social justice, her beloved cousin, Pedro Martinez—her rebel mentor—was a prominent member of an anti-Díaz group. Following a national convention of various liberal clubs in 1901 and 1902, the Díaz regime arrested a group of their leaders—including her cousin—and suppressed their publications. When Pedro was finally released, he migrated to the United States along with other radicals and they unified as the Mexican Liberal Party. In 1906 they published a manifesto entitled
El Programa del Partido Liberal
calling for, among other things, guarantees of civil liberties, universal public education, land reform, and a one-term limit for all future Mexican presidents.

“How many times has Porfirio been elected?” Paul asked on one of his visits.

“Six, but last year he promised to retire at the end of this term, so we’re all waiting anxiously.”

Suddenly, Paul felt a strange jolt through his body and his knees buckled.

“You okay?” Millicent asked, taking his arm.

“I just feel a little light-headed,” he said, and when he closed his eyes and let her lead him, he felt once again as if he was submerged in warm liquid.

“Paul, what’s the matter?” Millie demanded, brushing his arm nervously.

“I’m sorry. I think I have a touch of the flu.”

3

D
uring spring break, Millicent joined Paul on a trip home to meet his family in New York. They arrived late in the afternoon and Millie found herself seated with Paul’s parents and siblings for a wonderful dinner. His sister Edna brought up a recent strike that had been in the news. Millie commented how the American government was behaving like a Pinkerton private security force for various robber barons. Paul’s mother Bella politely responded that things might be changing, as indicated by the fact that Teddy Roosevelt had been the first president to stand up to big business, ordering them to negotiate with labor unions during a major strike several years earlier.

“But he didn’t go far enough.”

“What was it like growing up in Mexico?” Edna asked, trying to steer her away from controversy.

Very
traditional,” Millie replied tiredly. “

Bella stared out the window tolerating Paul’s precious coquette. As coffee and dessert were served, Edna asked a casual question about the suffrage movement and whether Millie thought a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote could actually get passed. It compelled Paul’s date to launch into one of her signature arguments for women’s rights.

“Tell me, dear,” Bella finally said, “what exactly is it your parents do?”

“My father is the head of a mining company down in Mexico.”

“And do you think he exploits any workers there?”

“My own guilt doesn’t excuse anyone else’s,” Millie replied.

“Young lady, I don’t know who taught you the fine art of hypocrisy, but—”

“It’s my life mission to give restitution. What’s your excuse?”

“You can’t talk to my mother like that!” Mr. Robert interjected, rising to his feet.

Paul had to bite his lip to keep himself from laughing. After an awkward silence, his father Emanuel made a comment about the weather.

When Millie left early the next day for the train back to Philly, Paul’s mother called him into her study and explained that she didn’t want him seeing “Señorita Obnox-chez” ever again.

“I love her,” he said simply.

“How can any man love such a sanctimonious and vain person?”

“I can ask the same of Dad,” he snorted back.

“Paul, I made an effort to be nice to her and only got scorn in return.”

As Paul stormed out of the room, he bumped right into the maid, Maria, nearly knocking her down.

“Pardon me,” he said, but the words sounded strange, like they were muffled behind some invisible wall. Hard as he tried to reach out, he couldn’t.

“Paul, are you okay?” Her face seemed to ripple as she spoke.

“I’ll be fine,” he muttered, and left.

4

T
hough his younger sister Edna liked Millicent, neither his mother nor brother had anything nice to say about her. On a visit home toward the end of the year, Mr. Robert inquired whether Paul was still seeing “that opinionated young lady.”

“Sure I am, and I plan to see her as much as I can.”

“You’re certain you’re not just using her to anger Mom?”

“Mom is such a stick in the mud. Everything angers her.”

“I know she can be pretty bullheaded, but she is our mother.”

“We’re her children, not her whipping boys.”

Mr. Robert nodded silently.

That fall, to his mother’s great joy, Mr. Robert began attending Yale. Soon the two brothers fell out of touch.

One day the next spring, Paul, as president of the Democratic Reform Club, was invited to a tea hosted by the dean of Student Affairs. There he was introduced to the tall, dapper Woodrow Wilson, who was now serving as governor of New Jersey. He had come earlier that day to meet the constituents of Princeton, where he had formerly presided. Paul and a few lucky others had the opportunity to chat with the bespectacled politician for nearly twenty uninterrupted minutes.

“Regarding workers,” Paul asked, “what exactly would you do to alleviate their hardships if you occupied the Oval Office?”

“Well, I’m not running for president, but if I was, I’d probably draw up a bill of rights for the working man.”

When Paul called to tell his sister that he had met his hero Wilson—who incidentally supported the idea of a Jewish nation—she interrupted to say that Robert, who had been captain of the Yale swimming team, was in the middle of a huge imbroglio with the head of the university’s sports funding.

“What happened?”

“He tried to get more money for the swimming team and ended up resigning.”

“Good for him,” Paul said, happy to hear that his brother was finally standing up for himself. He wanted to congratulate Robert for confronting the administration, but still felt uncomfortable about how they had left things regarding Millie and Mom.

On the morning of the summer solstice, Millie called him in tears. She’d just heard that President Díaz had formally declared that he was running for a seventh term—he had lied!

“Well, I’m sure he’ll be defeated,” Paul said, not knowing how else to respond.

“No, he won’t,” she retorted. “People are afraid to run against him.” Millie told him that a prominent member of a respected Mexican family, Francisco Madero, had announced that he was going to oppose Díaz in the election, but Díaz had Madero thrown in jail, effectively destroying the hopes for a democratic nation that so many had spent years patiently waiting for.

Over the next month, her like-minded compatriots at different universities joined together and formed an emergency organization, Latin American Students and Teachers Still Concerned about Mexico—LAST SCaM.

Now, every time Paul visited Millie in Philadelphia, she talked obsessively about how Díaz was taking some new and diabolical action to destroy Mexican civil liberties: abolishing freedom of the press, then undoing all the land reforms that had been put in place before him. American slaves and Russian serfs had been set free, yet Mexican peasants were still captive.

Paul spent much of the summer helping Millie, who along with her committee launched a letter-writing campaign to raise money for the cause of those oppressed in Mexico. When she heard that Francisco Madero had escaped his captors, she called Paul and declared, “You know what this means? Porfirio’s days are numbered!”

“Well, there’s still the small matter of getting him out of office.”

“Díaz has everything but the people. And the people
are
everything!” she countered. Even Paul found this a little hokey, but he didn’t want to discourage her optimism.

One morning in early September, a week after he had started a new semester at Princeton, Paul got called to the pay phone in the noisy hallway. Pressing the earpiece against his temple, he heard Millie shouting, “It’s about to commence! People are racing down to Mexico. The revolution’s starting!”

“That’s great!”

“I’m heading down there too. I’m going with four other women and six men from the committee.”

“Sweetheart, you don’t want to get killed. Why don’t you think this over some more?”

“They can’t kill all of us. Mexico is about to go into the fight of its life!” she shouted. “These blackguards are trying to steal the country from my people. There’s no way I’m just going to sit here quietly while this is happening. I’m leaving tonight!”

He told her that she couldn’t go without seeing him one last time.

“We’re all boarding a train at 9:35 this evening,” she said. “If you want to come, you better head over here now.”

The commuter train from Princeton to Philly left six minutes past every hour and took roughly ninety minutes. He barely made the next train.

He arrived in Philadelphia at 8 p.m., dashed several blocks to the University of Pennsylvania, and headed across the sprawling campus. Men were not allowed up inside the women’s dorm, so, trying to catch his breath, he called from the reception desk downstairs. When Millie came down, she led him into a dark alcove; once alone, she threw her arms around him and gave him a passionate kiss.

“Please don’t do this,” he pleaded.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” she whispered. “But this is my own … escape.” It was as though she were drunk with the possibility of a new life awaiting her.

“Whatever does that mean?”

“It means when I’m visiting you at Princeton or even when I’m here at the campus, everyone looks at me as this proud, smart, annoying girl, but that’s only because I’ve done such a great job hiding my true self behind this pale face.”

“But what does that have to do with you now?”

“I was raised in Mexico City. I didn’t know a word of English until I was six. Heck, my mother’s father fought against the gringos when this country stole the northern half of our land more than fifty years ago.”

“Look, fifty years ago my family were Jews living in Prussia,” Paul replied.

“All I’m saying is that I’m stuck outside my country, trapped in a petticoat and a social strata. Your mother was right when she said I was living on my father’s blood money. And this is my chance to make amends.”

She’s going to get herself killed,
Paul thought, and kissed her hard on the lips.

“Unacceptable! Unacceptable!” one of the university matrons shouted over to them, clapping her hands loudly.

“I still have to pack my bags,” Millie said. She kissed him again and dashed back upstairs.

Paul paced tensely in the reception area. Some from Millie’s committee had already come down with their steamer trunks and suitcases. A taxi sedan had arrived and was waiting out front. Once they all squeezed in with their luggage, there was no room left, so Paul stood on the running board, hanging on the side. Despite the wind as they drove, he kept shouting to Millie through the window, “Please reconsider! This is a dangerous idea!!”

They finally arrived at the huge marble-columned station where redcaps with large wooden hand trucks grabbed their trunks and heavy leather bags. They met up with others who had come from various points nearby. After exchanging greetings they all headed to the gated ticket windows. Paul waited until he was alone with Millie, then dropped to one knee and said, “Marry me!”

“What?!”

“Be my wife!”

The surprise in her eyes melted to a slightly amused sadness. “I’ll do it if you come with me.”

“That would defeat the whole point.”

“Which is to keep me here.”

“To keep you
safe,
” he clarified. “Is there something wrong with that?”

“No, but I do love you, Paul,” she said. “And one of the reasons I love you is because I know that if we were in Mexico City and you heard that America had been taken over by a tyrant, you’d come back up here to oppose him.”

Not if I were a woman,
he thought.

One of the fellows on the LAST SCaM committee, a skinny young man named Victor Gonzalez, handed her a train ticket and the group walked over to their track. The first leg of the trip was an express train which would take them as far as St. Louis. Paul walked alongside Millie and a redcap valet to the door of the train.

“I’ll write you at every opportunity,” she said.

Paul boarded the locomotive with her. The entire committee had bought sleeping berths in first class.

“Where can I write to you?” he asked nervously.

She proceeded to scribble down her family address in Mexico City, as well as the addresses of three friends living in the countryside. “I’ll write you as soon as I get down there, but if you don’t hear from me, one of these people should know where I am.”

“A person’s life is defined by the caution of their choices,” he said in an effort to sound authoritative. “This could be the worst decision you will
ever
make.”

“Despite what you might think, I’m not trying to be a hero and I have no desire to die, but I love my country and I have to do this.”

He remained with her on the train until the conductor called out, “All aboard!”

She walked with him to the Dutch door at the end of the car and watched as he stepped down onto the sunken platform. The conductor lifted the wooden step and jumped on board. As the train started pulling out of the station, Millicent waved.

Paul stood alone on the platform until the locomotive slowly vanished into the night.

5

P
aul took the next train back to Princeton and returned to his dorm room just past 3 that morning. Unable to sleep, he skipped his French and Spanish classes and remained listlessly in bed. As he eventually began his daily routines, he once again felt strangely captive. It was as if he were sealed in some kind of long, narrow tunnel, wanting to get through it quickly and out the other side. Without her, all alone, he felt as though he were drowning.

Roughly a week later, he got the first postcard from Millicent, sent from St. Louis. She explained that they were about to board a second train that would take them to Galveston, Texas. She had to be in Mexico by now, he thought. A second postcard came two days later from Texas saying they were about to cross the Rio Grande.

Two and a half weeks later, a letter arrived detailing how it was too dangerous to go to Mexico City, so they were instead heading west to Baja. Apparently, several revolutionary organizations had formed their own governments in the area and Millie’s group felt it could have the greatest impact there.

October went by without a single postcard. The Mexican postal service wasn’t very efficient, and Paul figured that the political turmoil must have further delayed the delivery of foreign correspondence. Hard as he tried to invest himself in schoolwork, Paul found himself suffering from repeated attacks of vertigo. He would usually just lay in bed trying not to imagine the worst: short, fat, oily soldiers with large, dirty sombreros taking turns violating Millie as she spat out blood and noble slogans.

The only ideas distracting him came from
The Physical Sciences,
the primary text for his Introduction to Physics class that he was taking to fulfill his science requirements. Reading the principles of physics from Galileo and Newton, he found himself mesmerized as if he was engrossed in a mystery novel.

Finally, on November 3, he received another post from Millicent. The letter had been given to a friend who was heading into Texas. It began:
My beloved Pablo, I’m assuming
you didn’t get any of my other letters as I haven’t received any from you
… It went on to explain that her committee had broken up. Two men had joined Pancho Villa’s contingent in the northeast; four others had joined Señor Zapata in Chiapas; but she and one other were still in Baja in a commune run by the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón. Despite these different factions, Madero was still generally regarded as the new hope for Mexico.

You’ll be happy to hear that Señor Flores is a pacifist. He
doesn’t even have a military attachment. He’s simply trying to lead by example. The other day a calvary of federal soldiers galloped through, almost daring us to provoke them. We’ve been wearing clothes we bought here, trying to blend in with the locals, but we spend our days heading down the peninsula trying to familiarize the peasants with the issues of the impending revolution …

The letter had been sent from somewhere called Cór-dova. As November progressed, stories about the brewing troubles in Mexico began appearing in the
New York Times
.

Bella called to invite Paul up to New York for Thanksgiving, saying she missed her eldest boy and wanted to hear how he was doing. He ended the short conversation without uttering a single word about Millie, knowing that nothing would bring his mother greater pleasure than hearing of the girl’s reckless voyage.

Opening the
New York Times
on November 20, Paul saw the headline:
TROUBLES IN MEXICO! CALL TO ARMS!
While still a fugitive from the law, Madero had announced from Texas that it was time for the people of Mexico to revolt against the tyrant who was holding their country hostage. Paul feared this would end with widespread bloodshed.

During the early train ride the next day for Thanksgiving, Paul felt on edge. When he finally arrived in New York City, he briskly walked the fifteen or so blocks from Penn Station to the family brownstone on 46th Street, near Fifth Avenue.

Upon greeting the maid Maria, he learned that his mother had been in a foul mood all day. Paul took a stiff belt of Scotch and listened as Bella bossed the help around. He couldn’t stop wondering if the federales garrisoned in the small Mexican village of Córdova had noticed the young students arriving from abroad.

He retreated into the study and located some paper and a fountain pen. He started writing Millie a passionate letter about his constant fears and boundless love for her. Before he got very far, however, he was interrupted by joyous shrieks. Mr. Robert had just arrived home from Yale. His mother squealed in delight, and showered her son with kisses. Paul could hear Robert giggling boyishly in response. Though Bella had been told the story numerous times, she made Robert once again relay the heroic events in which, despite his having to resign, he raised an unprecedented amount of money for the Yale swimming team.

When Paul’s sister Edna arrived, Bella’s mood shifted. She started bellowing about how her favorite charity, the Madison House in Lower Manhattan, was misusing her funds.

“You should’ve donated the money to Lillian Wald instead,” Edna said.

“Paul, come on down and say hi to your brother,” Bella called out, ignoring her daughter’s comment. Paul quit trying to write and joined them.

When their father showed up late, Bella berated him for making them all wait while the dinner grew cold. Emanuel didn’t sound contrite enough, so his wife went on about how he was a lazy ne’er-do-well, spending his days just laying about the house.

“You were the one who forced him to retire,” Paul muttered softly to himself.

Robert sat with a frozen smile on his face, waiting for his mother’s tantrum to pass.

Bella looked angrily around the room and, seeing Paul glaring at her, she said, “Please tell me you broke up with that mustached shiksa.” Robert snickered.

“First of all, she’s Jewish. Secondly, save your rancor for those who are afraid to defend themselves.”

“Hey, Princeton boy,” she replied, “don’t forget who pays for you to learn how to recite French poetry!”

“Well, you can keep your damned tuition,” he lashed back. “Cause I’m done with that … that finishing school for robber barrons!”

“I’ll believe that when I see it!”

As Paul furiously headed for the front door, he heard Robert saying to his mother, “Let him just simmer down.”

True to his word, when Paul got back to Princeton, he waited until Monday, then went to see the dean of Student Affairs and applied for a multisemester leave of absence that wouldn’t affect his grades. Next he returned to his dorm room and packed his bags. He was about to call Bella, but instead dialed Robert. The phone rang until someone in the hallway of his brother’s dormitory answered and said Robert wasn’t around.

Paul kept calling over the next four hours until he finally got ahold of Robert. As soon as his brother said hello, Paul explained that he had just withdrawn from classes.

“Please say you’re joshing.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Mother was just having some fun, but this is downright spiteful.”

“I didn’t do it out of spite.”

“The semester’s almost over, and then you only have one more year to go!”

“Robert, I have no choice. Millicent’s down in Mexico and I’m sure she’s in distress.”

“Oh my,” Robert said. “So what are you hoping to do, go down and rescue her?”

“I suppose.” It sounded melodramatic even to Paul.

“But you’re not seriously planning on fighting the government of Mexico, are you?”

“No, of course not, I just want to protect Millie.”

“Paul, you’re handsome, rich, and young. You don’t have to get yourself shot in another country to save some wetback mistress. Hell, you can sleep with Maria—I know you fancy her.”

“Damn you, Robert!”

“I’m sorry, Paul, but this is just crazy.”

“Look, it’s one of those things that if I don’t do, I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting.”

“And how about if you get yourself killed? Do you have any idea how angry Mom would be if that happened?”

Paul smiled, but then realized that Robert was serious.

Robert wasn’t afraid of his older brother’s death, only concerned about upsetting their mother. Paul replied that he simply had no choice.

“So you’re really going through with it?”

“I am, and I hope you’ll learn from this.”

“What exactly am I supposed to learn, Paul?”

“That you shouldn’t be afraid to fight for something you believe in.”

Paul heard a sound that could’ve been a snort or a chuckle. He wasn’t sure if Robert was indignant or amused.

“Good luck,” Robert finally remarked.

Paul hung up the earpiece on the cradle of the candlestick phone. Trying to stand, he found that his left leg and right arm had fallen asleep—like he had pinched a nerve. After several minutes of nervously shaking his body, his circulation returned to normal.

He gave away many of his possessions and put the rest in storage, then packed a single rucksack of necessities. He headed straight to the train station and mapped out as direct a route as he could to the tiny Mexican village of Cór-dova. The trip was six days of continuous travel with four connecting trains. The food was awful, but Paul enjoyed watching as the passengers, climate, and landscapes slowly changed while they moved southwest. He also became friendly with most of the Negro Pullman workers on the trains. It was the first time he had traveled out west. The wide-open ranges and the soaring mountains stretched his imagination, but the endless rolling desert filled him with an inexplicable déjà vu.

As Paul’s train eventually approached the Mexican border, he changed into a new suit to extinguish any suspicion that he was aligned with the revolutionaries. He didn’t have a passport, but when the two federal soldiers marched slowly down the aisle, Paul handed over his Princeton University ID. One of them looked it over and handed it back to him.

The train stopped three more times, and each time a different pair of menacing soldiers walked down the aisles of his train, carefully checking the identity of foreigners and asking what business they had in Mexico.

“Just vacationing,” he always replied with a tight smile.

When Paul eventually descended from his final train in Mexico, he felt a painful crick in his neck; it seemed as if an invisible force was pinning his head in place. He assumed it had something to do with the pinched nerve he had suffered earlier, so he simply trudged along in discomfort.

6

F
ollowing a full day of travel on a mule-drawn carriage, Paul finally arrived at the small village of Córdova in the state of Sonora. Millicent’s last mailing address turned out to be a home full of peasants.

“Are any students from America staying here?” he asked one of the men in his passable Spanish.

Paul was directed to Victor Gonzalez, one of the original committee members, who said that Millie was running the canteen attached to a small brigade roughly fifty miles to the east. It was headed by Colonel Ceasar Octavio-Noriega, a short man with a bushy white mustache.

Paul was able to catch a ride there the next day. As rebel soldiers stopped the wagon upon his arrival, Millie came racing up with her arms spread wide.

“Paul!”

He kissed her hard on the mouth and squeezed her tightly.

That night, over soggy corn-flour burritos with rice and beans that tasted like they had been refried one too many times, she filled him in: Things had not been going well. When Madero escaped his captors and made his formal call to arms, he expected to find a trained army of sympathizers waiting to assist him when he crossed the Rio Grande. A small crowd was gathered there, but the ragtag group hardly constituted an army. Madero was forced to retreat back up to Texas. In Mexico, there were some minor skirmishes, but the expected uprising fizzled. Nonetheless, word spread and various insurgent leaders started joining together. Peasants began to grasp the significance of the fight and joined the insurrection. In the state of Chihuahua, Madero supporter Pascual Orozco took over the town of Guerrero. At the end of the November, Francisco “Pancho” Villa captured San Andrés. Back in Sonora, another revolutionary, José María Maytorena, organized a series of small bands which soon infested the north. From the southern state of Morelos, the great Emiliano Zapata sent a delegate to Madero to discuss cooperation in fighting the Díaz regime.

“I can’t believe you came all the way down here,” Millie said excitedly to Paul.

“Believe me, I didn’t want to,” he replied, putting his bag down.

With a wide smile and a beautiful tan, Millie looked like someone else. She led him around the camp proudly showing him off to her various friends and colleagues.

“Who is this?” Colonel Octavio-Noriega asked suspiciously.

“My fiancé,” Millie replied.

“Good, then he’ll stay in your tent.”

That night, Paul and Millie made love for the very first time. Over the following weeks, as the band rode east and then south, Millicent introduced him to a variety of zealous young comrades, many of whom had come from abroad to help with this struggle. All seemed to believe that a worldwide revolution was imminent. Paul sat quietly at night around the campfires.

“Civilization comes to the point,” one Italian volunteer named Carlo struggled to say one evening, “where iz no longer need for the leaders who divide and exploit the work man.”

Listening to them, Paul found a renewed faith in the American system of government. To Millie’s displeasure, he told her that he had decided to stay out of all combat in Mexico. His sole task would be protecting her.

“Can’t you see how bad it is here?” she appealed. He replied that he did, but that he just didn’t think these people were ready; the poor seemed to accept their fate and the rich clearly felt entitled to theirs. His noninvolvement soon became an ongoing argument between the two of them.

It all changed by accident one day, when a young Russian anarchist who was an expert sapper arrived under orders from Pancho Villa. Vladimir Ustinov, who wasn’t much older than Paul, had ample experience with bombs from his time in czarist Russia. He had been sent out to teach various militias, some of whom were filled with foreign fighters, how to build homemade bombs to be used against the local garrisons.

In the turbulent state of Chihuahua, almost none of the peasant fighters spoke anything besides Spanish. Other than Russian, Vladimir only knew French. It often took him three hours to give a twenty-minute lesson, but that day he was pressed for time. Getting a full demonstration with all the equipment, Paul, who had studied French at Princeton, spent an hour learning from the Russian before the man had to gallop off to his next mission.

“So should I teach your soldiers?” Paul asked the colonel after the Russian departed.

“Teach them what?”

“What Señor Ustinov taught me—how to use the explosives.”

“You’re our official sapper,” the commander said to him in Spanish. “Just instruct them as you need.”

“But I’m not a volunteer,” Paul explained. “I’m just here to protect my fiancée.”

“Congratulations, you’ve officially been conscripted,” the commander replied.

“Look, I’ll teach your men what Vladimir taught me, but I refuse to kill people in a war that I don’t believe in.”

The commander pulled an old pistol from his cracked leather holster and pointed it at Paul’s forehead. The young American stared angrily at the older man, refusing to believe that the bastard would pull the trigger.

“I’ll teach and oversee your men, but I simply can’t kill anyone. If you really are going to execute me, so be it.”

The commander put the gun down and told him to wait outside the tent. Five minutes later, the man sent for Millicent, who he greatly respected. The two spoke alone for five minutes, then Paul was summoned.

“Okay, I’ve agreed to your terms. You can instruct Millie here.”

“Millie?”

“Yes, she’ll be your hands. Your first mission is tonight.”

“I’m not going on any mission,” he replied.

“Fine, then she’ll do it alone. Instruct her as best as you can. She’s going out in a few hours.”

“What’s the mission?”

“There’s a supply train passing two hours from here. She’s going out with a detachment of the European volunteers to blow up the track.”

“Millie can’t do it.”

Before Paul could opine that most of the European volunteers were criminals who’d sooner rape her than follow her, she spoke up: “I’ve done missions before.”

Paul finally relented and agreed to be the militia’s official sapper instead of Millie.

Along with a dozen men, most of them Italian volunteers, they rode out on horseback. From a distance, Paul could see a large regiment of federal soldiers patrolling both sides of the tracks. He had his men tie up their horses at a safe distance, then waited until night. He brought three men with him, proceeding forward on foot. They were almost caught when a passing patrol found their tracks in the moonlight, but they cautiously advanced from tree to tree and rock to rock and reached the target undetected. Paul and Carlo hastily wedged three dynamite sticks under each of the tracks, while the others kept watch. Paul lit a slow-burning fuse and they ran like hell.