Do you like to go to the club, Mr. Buht?” the girls drawled coyly, withdrawing vialed potions and little studded mirrors from their purses, unclasping powders, fingering the heavy pendants and charms that clanked and jangled at their beautiful cleavage—and he realized, no: he had never been to the club, probably. He couldn’t swear he fully knew what one was. He had been to Bonnaroo; he had pitched his tent in Big Sur; he had stood with his dogs on the cliffs of Baja looking out at the bloodred sun sinking into the black of the Pacific, on the long drive down from Santa Cruz to this teaching post at the Madison School in Mexico City . . . But the club, no, probably not.
He was a very upright sort of American. Not uptight—he wore his brown hair shaggy; he often smoked a bowl and then another and pulled Neil Young up on iTunes, painted a picture or fooled around on his acoustic guitar—but quite without an underbelly. One or both of his two long-haired dogs passed out across his stomach as he watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? The world of the elite Mexican adolescents who were his students—who prattled heedlessly as he lectured, and texted under the table, and, in the case of the girls, hit on him more explicitly than fully adult women in his native country ever hit on Ellis Buht—seemed to him intimidating, even nightmarish.
“Open your Slaughterhouse-Five, María Cree-stina,” he said stiffly. Someone tittered at his pronunciation.
Buht had accepted this job on a whim, via e-mail. Things with a girl back home had cooled; his teacher-trainee contract had been up; something whispered, Dude, the world! Check it out. With the help of his buddy Rook he’d changed all four ball joints and the shocks on his 4Runner—both boys barefoot, with toe rings, dogs underfoot, consulting a MacBook in the grass.
“Bro, you’re a force for the good,” Buht had announced when they’d finished.
“Bro, ditto!” said Rook, stashing the roach. They embraced briefly and parted. Buht’s muscled little mother, dressed always in sweat-absorbent materials and waving five-pound weights, off-loading baggies of macrobiotic snacks, had said cheerful things and wept. His father, a precariously employed advertiser, paunchy and sack-eyed and gentle, thin hair the color of buttermilk long in a fringe behind his ears, waved from the porch of the bunkhouse in back where he’d lived since the divorce six years before. Down Buht had come. “Buht,” he told the students, suddenly aware of the fraying hem of his cargo pants. Did they never tread on their hems? “ ‘Byoot’—not ‘butt.’ ”
In many ways initiation had been swift. Quickly, that is, he had understood there would be much he wouldn’t understand, and he largely let it be that way. Certain recalibrations were straightforward. For instance, he thought they’d be poor, in the way Americans think Mexicans are poor, but instead they were privileged, in a way Americans can’t fully grasp. The students received Lexuses for their fifteenth birthdays; some girls got plastic surgery. They’d been to Japan, to the South of France for the summer holiday; they’d flown quickly up to San Antonio last Saturday for back-to-school shopping. The freshmen couldn’t get their course syllabi parent initialed—not till October, when the cruise ship docked; overslept seniors flounced in late to class with lipstick-smudged mochaccinos, blaming the driver, the maid.
Of all the kids, it was Juan Miguel Toro—a certain pale-eyed, skinny, earbud-plugged senior of aggressively withheld engagement—who psyched Buht out the most. Buht had been told in his ed. program that it’s the kid who psychs you out the most who’s the most like you, but Buht felt certain that was not true in this case. Toro liked rap music. Buht thought, and said, that he liked rap music, but he liked the Digable Planets; he liked this albino guy called Doc Francis whom he’d interviewed on his college radio program. This became an area in which Toro planted tests for Buht. “I’m quoting,” he’d say, dismissively, in answer to Buht’s red pennings beside a line like, “If you think money doesn’t grow on trees, you’ve obviously never sold weed.” Juan Miguel spent summers in Miami; Buht had heard him call the math teacher a redneck.
They asked, shuddering, “Mr. Buht, is it horrible downtown?” They asked, “Do you think Gisele Bündchen is classy?” They said, “We think Gisele Bündchen is classy.” They said, “Uh, Mr. Buht? There’s dog hair on your shirt.” When he prompted them to sketch their childhood homes in Personal Memoirs, they asked, “All of them?” When he referred to the tutoring an English-department colleague offered, they said, “Miss Turner is your lover, isn’t she?” When he asked them to put away their phones in class, he was told they weren’t phones. These were so much more than phones.
The job had come with a list of students who were under no circumstances to be photographed, nor let to linger near the school gates—whereas Buht had believed kidnappers mostly a phenomenon of Little Orphan Annie. The school’s front walk was lined with bodyguards, radio wires coiling down under their suit collars. Others leered at Buht through the windows of bulky SUVs. “Bway-nos días,” he had started off saluting them, to which they patted him down with their eyes. “It takes a while,” said Chloe Turner, the tall AP teacher from Connecticut, who always seemed to be smiling a little at her own thoughts. “Qué pasó, Fede?” A stony face at the end of the row softened; the guy nodded to Chloe from behind his shades. She raised her eyebrows at Buht and moved past him toward the school gate. He rehoisted his hemp shoulder bag, reached around to bounce a cargo-pant leg whose hem had gotten underfoot.
Penthouse neighbors got carried off by cops; someone’s uncle was in witness protection. A few years back a father had been shot dead, point-blank, with his business partner, while looking at a property in Querétaro. Estefania Hernández felt she’d been followed from the pharmacy Friday; Adolfo got a weird feeling about his bodyguard and had him traded. “We gave him another raise, but in the end it’s a loyalty you can’t buy.” His soccer buddies nodded knowingly. Buht had played JV soccer. He tried to remember what he and his buddies had talked about. He considered it as he awaited his two noontime quesadillas from the portable outfit up the street, the proprietor of whose son—pop-eyed and shy, an ace whistler, a little fatty—never seemed to go to school at all, but rather kept those two yards of sidewalk impeccable with a big thatch broom. “No onion!” Buht wanted to say, but he’d forgotten how.
Sure, Buht could have studied up more on Mexico before coming down—he’d chatted a bit with the busser at Viva Zapata; he’d bookmarked a URL or two—but anything further wasn’t his style. That is, he could tell you a lot about hay-bale construction, about portable solar units, about the breakup of the Beta Band—his was a healthy blog consumption, along its own axes—but he wasn’t one to read a formal newspaper too religiously. He considered it his right not to practice, like religion. The reality of his big, aging dog, Chops, and his little, rowdy dog, Flow, seemed nearly always more pressing. The Santa Cruz Sentinel never barked to be let out, nor puked in his guitar case.
“Did you come to school in the metro, Mr. Butt?” the kids asked knowingly, tittering at this enormous joke.
“Excuse me,” said Carlos Rioseco, reassuming his seat after another of the long phone calls he tended to entertain daily in the corridor, smoothing his fine shirt, opened to expose a hairless chest nearly to the navel. (It was Carlos who’d announced during first-day introductions that his stepdad was Coca-Cola in Mexico. As a sophomore he’d been cut off in traffic by the same Cadillac Escalade a few funny times one morning and had been pulled then and there for a year of boarding school in Canada.)
“Want me to tell ’em to shut up, Mr. Butt?” offered Jorge Luca, winking at who knows whom, in a spirit Buht couldn’t reliably classify. Luca leaned over to whisper something to Rioseco. Buht wondered again if there was something pecuniary in the alliance between these two—the one shouldery, shaved-headed, writing for Personal Memoirs about fights outside the club (he’d broken the jaw of someone who’d called his sister easy, he wrote—telling not showing, vocabulary unvaried, comma-splicing madly—but only because the guy was talking when Luca clocked him: “You can’t leave that the jaw to hang loose,” he’d written, which Buht had taken to heart); the other pencil-necked and kind of wet looking, a lot of purple in his wardrobe and a length of silk knotted at his throat. A length of silk! Buht himself had gone to a pretty liberal high school, but even there . . . Clearly the burly gates of acceptance were manned differently down here.
Buht waved them both off now. Where I come from, he protested, silently, feebly, we think you people are poor!
The freshmen cheated. They put their names on sonnets a quick search revealed to be the works of one Doris Morning; they recycled older cousins’ papers on To Kill a Mockingbird. The time Buht was startled to find, mid-reading quiz, not a crib sheet, not a page of SparkNotes, but the novel itself on one cologne-drenched redhead’s lap, the wind had gone out of him. Not that he’d been entirely clean in his day of, say, the odd physics formula inked on the inside lip of his pocket, but this was brazen. At last the cerebral-palsied son of the Chilean ambassador stuttered, “Ugalde him.” Of course. Buht came to and sent the cheat to Dean Ugalde.
Buht’s seniors, though, were truly subtle. Impressive. Almost heroic, by late week, in their battle against hangovers first period, eyes held open manually, pupils huge and slow, as they hedged bets about Buht’s reading questions. At Buht’s training school in Santa Cruz, kids slouched, they burped, they pulled their hoods up and over, down to their brows. Here they draped the sleeves of Lacoste sweaters over their shoulders, they pulled chairs out for girls; you sensed their acclimatization to coming home drunk and performing nonetheless a charming round in the dining room, plying a little wit to the high-ranking guest, flattering the aunts, before tilting up the stairs. Eventually they gave up—“Aw, Mr. Buht, it’s Friday,” shrugging apologetically—and slipped easily and absolutely off task and onto an unabashed rehash of the red-carpet night before: who’d fought and who’d had the blow and how much was he charging; who’d taken whom home and who’d simply taken whom to his car and asked his chauffeur to take a walk; what you could and could not see through Monica Cervantes’s baby-pink leggings.
“You should’ve been there, Mr. Buht,” laughed Fofo, in a turtleneck sweater, tossing his slapdash little essay, with Buht’s unhappy comments, into the recycle bin as he left. “The freshmen’s first party. They called it ‘Tequila Mockingbird.’ ”
Of all kids, it was Juan Miguel Toro whom the others had endowed with a disproportionate authority. Or he’d endowed himself. He was, in any case, the crowned king—the last word, the Law. (It’s always someone. In Buht’s day it had been the soccer forward, all in all benign. He’d used his centrality largely for good, even—he’d hired Buht’s cover band for a party once.) Toro worked over the freshman girls one by one (lovely Alana Sálazar with the big nose and the wonderfully filled-out butt was the most enlightened choice, Buht, in another role, might have judged). Toro sat silent in class with lids half-sunk over red-rimmed eyes—but with none of the mirth of a stoner. He often handed in work with his name in the upper right corner and nothing more on the page. On the day of introductions, when they’d gotten to him, he’d said, “Pass.” If he crossed Buht in the hallway he said simply, “Buht,” in a commandingly low octave, jutting his chin, as if they were lacrosse teammates. In the classroom he gave no sign of having seen nor heard Buht.
What Buht needed was a friend. This lack he felt deeply. A friend to help work out the chords of that Petty tune, a friend to prop and pin his bike when the wheel needed truing. A friend with a wheel that needed truing! A friend! Jameson, the Intro Econ teacher, wouldn’t serve. He was a bull-necked, tribal-tattooed, former Sigma Pi brother from Milwaukee, dangerously short, for whom pride issues were chronic. During teachers’ Ultimate Frisbee Saturdays, he chased down the tall guys like a boar; twice he’d dived at Ellis Buht, buckling him, and Buht was only of average height. He, like the students, called Chloe Turner’s course “Cliterature.”
Nor with her had Buht come far toward a friendship. She’d stop by his classroom now and then—he’d grow suddenly self-conscious about the customized Sublime poster on his wall, the quote from Ferris Bueller. It was something about the vintage suit jackets she wore, her height, the words she used, in contexts he wouldn’t have thought of: grotesque, uneven, sexy.
Plus, Buht quickly deemed her expat findings would have little bearing on his own life:
“Two girls who fuck the same guy are called hermanas de leche. What I can’t tell is how much hold the Catholic sensibility still has, surreptitiously. I mean among the new wave of bobos. Could be at the end of the day guys are still looking for that doting wife—the Sunday comida, the scolding—and you’re disqualified if you’ve ‘given it up’ too fast. I hate that. Don’t beg me, like you have to wear me down. Like, listen. Honor my female desire!” It was bothersome to find himself a little hard even as he was trying to remember what bobo meant.
“Stop spread-eagling for the gun lobby! Have you put that in your postcards home? We’re sponsoring this shit show down here, Ellis! Tell your friends in la-la land each time they key a bump of blow they may as well cut a check to Los Zetas.”
Spread-eagling? Buht used fuck as a swearword. His friends back home preferred drugs they grew themselves. The girls, too, wore windbreakers and said “dude”; they wore colognes of natural oils that smelled like their dinners, and they sang smilingly with bluegrass bands. Didn’t Cliterature ever feel like wearing, like, a T-shirt? Her dress was like a rug somehow. He couldn’t even tell if she was cute. What was up with a bun right up front like that, like a unicorn? They went for a drink once and he found he had little taste for his beer.
She thought there was necrophilia in Romeo and Juliet. She suspected Holden Caulfield desired children. She thought To Kill a Mockingbird was a love letter to Harper Lee’s father. “And Atticus and Calpurnia are definitely fucking, can we agree?” To this and many other things she said, he had nothing to say back.
(At times Chloe Turner seemed to be proposing sex with him, Ellis Buht, for whom sex was something to be proposed when you truly loved someone, and even then in the most roundabout and noncommittal ways. Ellis Buht still largely approached sex, if he approached sex at all, as if it were something you shouldn’t confess you liked. He could, indeed, get a little grumpy with those rare women with whom he’d had it, as if they’d wrested from him and out into the light something kind of grubby, squirrelly, low, which he preferred not to account for in his spirit.)
It was Toro who’d rechristened Women’s Lit—like it was Toro who’d fitted Luca and Rioseco out in ski masks and sent them over the school walls one night to leave the shit on Jameson’s stack of ungraded midterms. He himself had waited coolly in the get-away Porsche Cayenne. “Pinch-shitters!” Jameson had pretended to laugh it off. As they bore their two-day banishment—from the cameras, Dean Ugalde had matched Luca’s Calvin hoodie—Toro sat statue-faced in class as usual. He’d gotten a picture of his testicles on the school Web site, briefly, back in the eighth grade. He’d done coke off Carlos’s mom’s bible; he’d done coke off the stomach of a college girl. “So then the chick’s like, ‘Either you really don’t like me, or you really want to sleep with me,’ ” Buht overheard while taking a leak in the student bathroom one recess, “and Toro goes, ‘Or both.’ ”
One Wednesday no one showed up to class. “They’re protesting, seems,” explained the next-door teacher, a graying gay Aussie who taught listlessly from photocopied worksheets on “Self-Reliance.” He sat grading gratefully in the quiet. Gloria Trevi came in low over his computer speakers. “They want lunch lengthened.” Buht went to look. Outside, upperclassmen rallied around Toro, who stood with his hands in his pockets, now and then tossing the fringe of blond bangs from his forehead, receiving pounds on the back with just that subtlest thrust of his chin. Jill O’Brien, the principal, stormed across the blacktop, her face red, her awkward coat flapping, looking near tears. By the end of the week, lunch had gotten fifteen minutes longer.
It was forbidden to sell tickets to the enormous glittery parties it was forbidden to host, and the less sleek kids, the kids without bodyguards, were known to have been suspended for such activity. And yet every Friday there was Juan Miguel Toro peddling tickets by the school buses, holding Buht’s eye as he made change.
Sometimes when Buht left the Madison and walked down the hill, the whole basined city seemed engulfed in a thick salmon haze, the jumbled cement homes backing up to the hospital all raw and broken looking, the volcano peeking up through the smog like a great apocalyptic shark fin. Inside the sweaty nine-seater taxi down to Tacubaya, a toddler pointed and stared and clung to his teenage mother, who flicked at the bright plastic tassel bouncing on her cell phone and maybe took a picture. Toro appeared in Buht’s dreams: once, they were fighting an old-fashioned duel on the fifty-yard line. Another time, Buht made a move over the desk for his BlackBerry—but it was not a BlackBerry! It was not an iPod Touch. It was an AK-47, which Juan Miguel slowly hoisted, never moving his pale eyes from Buht’s forehead.
“Hey, let me talk to you a minute,” Buht tried one day as kids filed out after class, in real, waking life, his mouth dry. Buht had been preparing for this. He’d worked up to it. If he couldn’t do this, he’d decided, he would give it all up and go home and try to get his old job back, or maybe just stay on his parents’ couch and blow on his harmonica. He’d call up his ex and see if she was sure she didn’t want to come over and watch DVDs forever.
Toro raised his eyebrows and started out the door.
“I’m worried about you and this course!” Buht called to the boy’s back, feeling like his head was in a tin drum.
“Don’t worry,” Juan Miguel mouthed, laughing, taking the waist of a redhead in volleyball shorts and kneepads, who was leaning against Buht’s doorway licking chili off a stick of jicama.
The morning of Model UN, Chloe insisted on buying him a coffee. (Buht had told her about a dozen times he didn’t drink coffee, but this she wouldn’t accept, which he couldn’t help but take as a correctional little warning: Men drink coffee.) They slipped from the gym, out the guarded gate (“Buenos días,” Buht saluted dutifully; no response) and headed for the café down the street from the school. Seated out front, lo and behold, was Juan Miguel Toro, with an accomplice, baldly skipping opening ceremony, sipping lattes in the sun. If they were ruffled to be caught in defiance of school policy, they gave no sign. Certainly their clothing apologized for nothing: the teenagers were rigged out in light linen suits, shades, the tongues of silk handkerchiefs peeking out their breast pockets, and with what Buht initially would have sworn was a cane, at rest, which turned out on closer inspection to be a leg of a wrought-iron chair, but still. This their spin on diplomat-wear, presumably. The sidekick nodded breezily as the teachers approached. Juanmi didn’t even look up.
“Um, but shouldn’t you guys be in school?” asked Chloe, looking caught off guard in a way Buht hadn’t before seen. She glanced over her shoulder at the school’s tall wall; she glanced back at Buht. “H-how did you get off campus?” The gate guards were there to prevent this. Bribing them seemed like too much. But then, looking over the teens now—their watches, their buffed shoes—of course it wasn’t.
The sidekick pushed his shades up onto his head. “We’ve got an inside man,” he said. Juanmi smiled slightly. “You’re looking very pretty by the way, Miss Turner.” Cliterature blushed. Again she glanced at Buht. Her eyes flitted just once to the boys, then dropped to the paving stones. Toro for his part was now staring at her, nakedly. “Let’s go,” stuttered Chloe at last. Juanmi laughed. Buht raged. Inside he ordered a large black coffee, which he dumped, minus two unhappy sips, into the sink of the boys bathroom back at school.
And when later that morning Buht entered room 204, as supervisor of session 2 of the student WTO, who should be presiding behind the Russia placard, flanked by Jorge Luca and Carlos Rioseco, but fucking Juan Miguel Toro. They sat smugly in a row at the table under the window. It appeared that during session 1, Russia had won the forgiveness of Georgia and the unprecedented alliance of Brazil—represented, of course, by these same swaggering classmates. A chalked note on the board had been changed to read “10 Minutes: Open Cock-us.” The delegate of Portugal, a shy Korean junior, had been told no, Brazil wouldn’t be lifting its subsidy on cork, her exports could kiss their trade bloc’s ass—and she’d been called the delegate of China. The biology teacher whom Buht was relieving only shrugged as he slipped out.