Below, you will find two excerpts—the first, a letter from McSweeney’s Issue 46, and the next, a portion of an essay from the brand-new Believer Music Issue. This one-two McSweeney’s-Believer punch is just a taste of what it’s like to take part in the Combo Subscription deal. As a McSweeney’s-Believer Combo subscriber, you’ll receive a year’s worth of McSweeney’s (starting with Issue 47, which comes in the form of ten separate booklets and includes writing from all-stars like Shirley Jackson, Mona Simpson, and Bob Odenkirk) and a year’s worth of our nonfiction pride-and-joy, the Believer —all this at the low-low price of $90, which saves you nearly half off the cover price! What are you waiting for? Sign up right here (and be sure to follow the directions in bold to nab the discount). Enjoy!
A letter from McSweeney’s Issue 46.
Let’s Kill Carlo is a game we used to play at the dinner table when I was young. We’d be there making fun of each other and drinking, the adults with their wine, us kids with our agua fresca—there was a strict no-alcohol policy for anyone under twelve—when someone would say, “There was an earthquake in Oaxaca last week.” Or, “Did you hear about the plane crash in Colombia?” Or, “Apparently some reactor exploded in Russia.” Immediately, the rest of us would chime in, “Let’s kill Carlo!” That’s how the game would start. Now, Carlo, in case you were wondering, was my brother.
Let’s back up a bit here.
In 1973, my mom—I’ll call her Maria, since that’s actually her name—graduated from high school in Mexico City and enrolled in college. She had three months of vacation before her and also some savings, so she signed up for an Italian summer course in Perugia. One day, while she was there, she walked into a grocery store and instantly fell in love with the man handling the fruit. A few weeks later, she had moved in with the fruttivendolo, Elio, who happened to be a medical student. She would end up spending half a decade in Italy.
Maria also decided to go ahead with the degree she had intended to pursue back in Mexico. She’d study by herself all semester long, and then fly home to take her exams and see her family. Every time she went home, her grandmother would make the same scene. It played out like a telenovela:
Abuela: Stop living in sin! I’ll pay for the wedding!
Maria: I already told you, Elio can’t leave the country!
Abuela: Why is that, again?
Maria: Because military service is mandatory for all men in Italy. Unless you’re studying medicine; then you’re exempt, but they won’t give you a passport.
Abuela: Right… But can’t we have the wedding anyway? At my house?
And that, McSweeney’s, is exactly what they did. Maria and Elio got married at grandma’s house by proxy. My mom’s uncle stood in for the groom, holding a letter of attorney signed by Elio, who celebrated all by himself back in Perugia. Years later, a picture of that wedding still hung on our wall. It didn’t bother my father or me—after all, it’s just my mom in a pretty dress, holding a bunch of flowers.
The trouble was that medical students were only exempt from military service while they were students. Upon graduation they were still expected to put in a year, usually stationed far from home. Unless you were a capofamiglia, “a head of the family.” When Elio’s last semester rolled around, he and Maria started panicking. A year apart was out of the question. But so was having a baby. They couldn’t even afford new winter coats, and whatever extra money they made went toward airfare to Mexico. Elio was in his finals when Maria had to leave for yet another round of her own exams.
Now, you may not know this, McSweeney’s, but because we Mexicans are not really used to laws being enforced, we tend to view them as negotiable. This begins to explain why, upon returning to Mexico, Maria asked to borrow a baby. It was Carlos, the newborn boy of the señora who took care of her grandma. “Take him to the park,” said the señora, assuming that my mother wanted to get some practice caring for a newborn. But of course, Maria never made it to the park. Instead, she pushed the stroller right over to the registro civil. Too nervous to come up with a name, she just Italianized “Carlos” and attached her husband’s surname to the end of it. And that’s how, without ever being born, my half-brother Carlo Moretti came into existence.
By dinnertime, the baby was home and Maria was on a plane to Perugia—a mother in name only. The fake birth certificate worked like a charm, and Elio got a permanent exemption from service. Carlos with an s never knew about this ingenious, utterly illegal exploitation of his weeks-old self, and neither did his mom. In fact, after Elio and Maria split up five years later and Maria moved back to Mexico, no one gave Carlo Moretti another thought. At least not until the day Elio phoned our place. He and Maria had kept in touch; to me, he was like a distant uncle who calls on birthdays. But this time he had shocking news: Carlo had come of age, and now he was being called up for military service.
That morning eighteen years earlier, Maria had been worried only about her immediate future. It never crossed her mind that she could—that indeed she should—have made Carlo a Carla. But now it was too late, and the army was inquiring about Carlo’s whereabouts. First letters, then calls, then visits. All Elio could say was that he had no idea. But they weren’t buying it; people have been known to try all sorts of things to avoid service, and having your father lie for you was about as common as saying you had flat feet. Elio then tried arguing that, for all he knew, Carlo might be dead. “In that case,” they said, “where’s the death certificate?”
It was in a collaborative effort to answer this very question, McSweeney’s, that we played Let’s Kill Carlo for the first time. Rather seriously. We were brainstorming plausible deaths so that Elio, without having to produce a cadaver, could have a solid story to tell the soldiers at his door. I was seven years old, and I proposed a scuba-diving accident—body never found. People clapped. I was awfully good at Let’s Kill Carlo. And it really was a special game. It felt purposeful and inclusive. Visitors, it turned out, were always eager to point out the potential ways a person could disappear off the face of the Earth. I remember how one time my cousin’s new girlfriend suggested spontaneous combustion. This idea was quickly dismissed, but we were smitten with her. Let’s Kill Carlo became something of a litmus test: if a guest was too proper to play, we knew they’d never be one of us.
When I was nine, my mom and I went to Italy. It was my first trip to Europe, and alongside postcard memories of tiny Fiats, gelato, and couples petrified mid-embrace in volcanic ash, one image stands out. We’re in a bleak office. My feet dangle from a chair while Maria and Elio explain the Carlo predicament to two lawyers. The avvocati leap out of their chairs, deploying an impressive range of gestures. “_Porca madonna! Il santo esercito!_” they yell.
I don’t remember what followed this choreography of disapproval, but I know that after a couple of years of paperwork, the avvocati managed to conjure up what Elio needed: a death certificate. That’s why we haven’t played Let’s Kill Carlo lately—there’s no use for it anymore. Anyway, I’m not sure we could enjoy it these days. It would be all too easy to come up with possibilities in Mexico, where tens of thousands have disappeared in the past few years. It would be too macabre even for us, especially considering that the families of the disappeared often receive nothing from the authorities: no investigation, and definitely not a death certificate.
Laia Jufresa is a Mexican writer based in Madrid, Spain. She just finished writing her first novel, Umami.
From the 2014 Music Issue of the Believer.
Jacmel is only fifty miles from the capital, but the drive on winding roads and through steep peaks can take hours. Our Haitian pilot eased his trusty Ilyushin over the mountains’ palm-fringed southern slope, and, bumping aground on a sunbaked airstrip, whirred to a stop by Jacmel’s little terminal.
Inside, tattooed roadies lugged duffel bags past Scott Rodger, the band’s manager. His presence here (Rodger also manages Paul McCartney and Pharrell; he doesn’t travel to shows unless they’re special) signaled this trip’s importance to the band of smiling Montrealers with cooler-than-average haircuts who watched three Haitian men playing guitars in the cement-block air terminal. The trio’s twoubadou rendition of “Haiti Chérie” sounded a lot like Cuban son, from just across the sea. Régine, dressed in something typically stylish and bright, swayed along—she much prefers dancing to talking, one quickly learns—while Win, wearing black high-tops and as tall and broad as Régine is small, did what I quickly learned he prefers: engaging everyone, all the time.
There are some people whose physiognomy matches how they traverse the world. Arcade Fire’s frontman, a six-foot-five sponge whose will to fill each space he’s in is constant, is one such person. “Thanks so much for being here,” he welcomed us warmly. Hugging a photographer he knew and introducing himself to those he didn’t, Win briefed us on the status of this complex operation (the LA-based film crew they were flying in to shoot tonight’s show was stranded in Philadelphia on account of snow) and urged us to eat, pointing to aluminum-trays laden with food (“Try the spicy coleslaw; amazing”). The welcome trio stopped playing. Win led the applause. And our hosts and minders for the weekend—a crew of delightful students and recent grads from the Ciné Institute, a local film school the band supports—proclaimed how happy they were to have Arcade Fire here to play a concert, which would take place that night, and whose name was printed on their shirts Kreyol, the French-derived lingua franca of Haiti’s streets: JAKMEL JOURBAR’N (roughly: “Jacmel till the break of dawn”).
— Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, from “Reflections of Jacmel,” the Believer magazine, July/August 2014