The writer Jorge Hernandez is probably the most fascinating man I recently met. Our first encounter was at the Guadalajara book fair, and at the end of that day, while spirits were high, I asked him: “Wait, when will we meet again?” He is amusing, generous, familiar with every author from Vargas Llosa and García Márquez to the last unknown madman, he read books of all disciplines, he is an incredible impersonator and aware of the subtleties of every passing moment, he might come off as a man of masks, but in the core of his personality is an unshakable faith in human beings. This story somewhat resembles The Great Gatsby, if in one aspect alone: the moment in which our protagonist whips out the photo of Bill Burton, brings to mind the scene in which Gatsby shows Nick, who doesn’t believe a single word of his, the war decoration and a photo of the quad in Oxford University. In both cases the mystery is: who is this man? And the details revealed do not help us untangle it, but on the contrary, they only complicate it further.
The story is written with talent, with flare, with irony, without superfluous explanations, and unfolds the history of the protagonist who spent his entire life sheltered by the faith that his best friend is Bill Burton. No one but him sees Burton (although there is evidence of his existence, in the photo, at the university in the empty chair at the graduation ceremony, in the newspaper interview): he does not show up at any event in the protagonist’s life, and yet the protagonist does not doubt their friendship. There are those who yearn to merge their view of the world with the gaze of another, to have someone else fear their fears, bizarre as they may be, as much as they fear them. The desire for symbiosis, two who become (at least for some moments) one. However, sometimes this doesn’t happen, and then? Well, if the world does not grant you what you need, there is no other option but to create a different world.
Is it possible to lose control in a world that you allegedly created out of your own wild imagination, as happened to the protagonist of Stephen King’s “The Dark Half”? While reading Hernandez’s refined story I kept wondering: does an experience that happened in a dream have less impact on the soul than an experience that took place while awake? Is it possible that only the fabricated Burton can be that very wonderful friend whom the protagonist needs? Is it possible to know anything for certain in this story?
Translated by: Jorge F. Hernández and Anita Sagástegui
“You may still think true friendship is a lie. But then, you’ve never met Bill Burton,” was a phrase often repeated by Samuel Weinstein. Indeed, you could consider it his motto. He would often use it with his wife as a justification for some forgotten thing, and with his coworkers he tossed it around more than once as an excuse for falling behind. Most everyone knows that Weinstein began glorifying this “unconditional” friendship with Burton back when he was still living under his parents’ roof, a mere high school boy. His sister Rachel always doubted the sincerity of his declaration, and in fact she was the only one ever to question Burton’s very existence; for her, the supposed loyalty Sam displayed toward this enigmatic Bill Burton was nothing more than an ingenuous—and quickly hackneyed cunning—created to avoid all kinds of responsibility on Sam’s part. Whether Samuel arrived home late for dinner, or whether he decided to skip shul, or maybe he just happened to be busy that Saturday morning…everything had an explanation via Bill: that Bill had invited him to a baseball game and they lost track of time, or that it was Saturday and they had decided to study for an exam, concentrating so hard that Sam managed to forget that he had promised to wash the car or run an errand, or that Bill Burton himself had asked Sam to miss shul in order to accompany him to New Jersey to collect some money owed his mother.
Truth be told, Sam Weinstein’s life is as normal as any and his biography–Plain and Simple—takes place within the confines of convention, except for the recurring occasions involving Bill Burton, notably all those times Sam tripped over his tongue trying to justify the significant and constant absence of his beloved friend, always calling upon his motto, “You may still think true friendship is a lie. But then, you’ve never met Bill Burton.”
Samuel Weinstein was born in New York, in October 1926, to a Jewish family, second generation Lithuanian-Albanian immigrants, their small fortune due to his parents’ hard-work and tenacity, rather than to a comfortable inheritance or fiduciary abuse that afforded other friends and family such economic security. Sam was the first-born son of Baruj Weinstein and Sarah Elbasan, both of whom passed through Ellis Island along with their respective families at almost the same time, Sarah still a babe in her mother’s arms, while Baruj had already started walking by the time he got off the boat, according to some old sepia photographs.
Perhaps a psychoanalyst would peg the source of Samuel Weinstein’s exaggerated devotion to his invisible friend on a traumatic event that happened at the tender age of four. Sam got lost among the vegetable crates and fish scraps somewhere along the dark and sordid alleys of the Bowery, having let go of his mother’s hand for only a few seconds. Long enough for the stout Albanian to scream a lament at the top of her voice, quickly amassing an improvised rescue team: four orthodox Jews, six Chinese loaders, a gang of Irish stevedores, three semi-inebriated Germans and a few policemen dressed à la Keystone Cops all turned to the task of combing every filthy inch of the area, until finally a little Polish dressmaker found young Sam Weinstein, huddled between trash cans, muttering what seemed like a lullaby to the dingy tatters of what at one time was likely a stuffed teddy bear.
When Sam was five years old his family welcomed his little sister Rachel, who would become the focus of his adoration and complete affection until he was well into his teen years. In fact, his adolescence coincides with the first instances of his coming home to exalt the exploits of the wondrous Bill Burton, a true friend and that’s no lie. Let it be known that from the very start of his obsession with Burton both Sam’s mother and father and even other family members suggested inviting the cherished friend home, urging Sam not to feel shame in his roots or in his creed, but for some reason or another the opportunity to introduce Bill to the Weinstein clan never came up.
As Sam’s life unfolds, so too do the episodes with Burton, though not with exaggerated frequency. His parents, sister, and other family members begin accepting as truth the many anecdotes boosting Bill’s stature and on more than one occasion—perhaps after some long spell of Burton-less stories—they themselves inquired as to what was new with Burton, asking Sam for any updates, or maybe that he invite his friend over for dinner. The summer before his freshman year at Wesleyan University (where, but of course, his dear friend Burton had also accepted) Samuel chose to skip his annual family vacation to the beach, preferring instead to accept an invitation from Bill and the entire Burton clan to their cabin in the mountains of Vermont. It is at this point that the story takes a transcendental turn, for Sam came home not only with more Burton exploits to boast of, but with a photograph in which the two friends are seen smiling at the edge of an exquisite lake resembling an oil painting. The photograph, avidly passed from one curious Weinstein hand to another, affirmed Bill Burton to be the ideal American golden boy on par with film stars: over six feet tall (towering over the smallish Sam), with a blonde mane that topped his perfect facial features, inscrutable blue eyes and a half smile barely revealing enviable, perfectly-aligned white teeth. Though Bill appears sheathed in a sweater with a huge W sewn on the front, all of us who have seen the photograph can tell he is nothing less than an athlete, proud of his pecs and perfectly sculpted arm muscles. The way Weinstein would tell it, those days in Vermont had been the best vacation of his life: Bill’s family was not only one of the richest and most well-bred, but lavish in hospitality and affection; Bill’s sister was of an indescribable beauty, and furthermore, had brought along her best friend—a certain Jane Scheller—who managed to enamor and enthrall Bill Burton. Weinstein confided to his father and the other men of the family—once the women had gotten busy in the kitchen—that simply by witnessing the manner and form with which Burton succeeded to court Jane Scheller, there among Vermont’s breathtaking landscape, he, Sam, now felt prepared to find himself a girlfriend.
Still, it took him awhile, and it wasn’t until his junior year at Wesleyan University that Samuel Weinstein returned home to Manhattan with the news (and photographs to confirm it) of his new girlfriend Nancy Lubisch, with whom he was totally in love, and who would one day become his wife. Only two months after having shown her off in photos, Weinstein introduced Nancy in person, live and in full color, to the entire Weinstein clan. It’s worth mentioning that Rachel provoked an enormous bout of laughter after dinner when she observed, with sarcasm in her penetrating gaze but obvious envy in her tone, that if Nancy also studied at Wesleyan, “then surely you have had the honor of meeting the famous Bill Burton.” Nancy, perplexed perhaps for not being in on the enduring family joke, answered between chuckles, “the funniest thing is that any time we go to Bill’s dorm or any time Sam wants the three of us to go out—or the four of us, whenever Bill’s got a girl—someone or something always gets in our way, and in the ten months Sam and I have been together, I’ve never met Bill in person.” She said she had seen photos of him tacked outside the cafeteria, as well as a brief interview apparently published by the school newspaper regarding an economics essay that only increased his notoriety among classmates. “But I sometimes feel like Sam’s talking about a ghost.”
When the Weinstein clan took the train into Connecticut, to the very doors of Wesleyan University to witness with pride Samuel’s graduation, they were confronted by the awful news that Bill Burton’s father had passed away the day before. Absolutely everyone—old Baruj, the stout Albanian Sarah and even the incredulous Rachel—all felt a sincere sadness at the loss, although their sorrow also lay in the once again thwarted opportunity to finally meet Bill Burton in person. At this point there is another significant footnote: during the graduation ceremony, the rector of the university read aloud the name William Jefferson Burton. Among the graduates was an empty chair, next to Sam Weinstein, and on it the students had solemnly placed a cap and gown. Furthermore, many said that it was Weinstein himself, along with no small number of devoted classmates, who proposed lowering to half-mast the red, white and black colors of their Alma Mater’s flag as a sign of mourning and commemoration. This is considerable, for in the nearly two hundred years since the founding of the distinguished Wesleyan University, never had such a tribute of mass solidarity been paid to any of its other esteemed graduates.
So fine, moving right along, what kind of life awaited the recent graduate Samuel Weinstein, at the onset of summer 1951? Easy…easy, as well as obvious: first he announced his engagement to Nancy, next he was hired as an assistant editor for a distinguished literary magazine in Manhattan (from which he would retire forty years later) and meanwhile he continued to recite his mantra, You may still think true friendship is a lie. But then, you’ve never met Bill Burton.
On the few but significant occasions that he was late in editing the magazine, Sam justified his errors before his boss Smithers by blaming Bill Burton. Maybe Bill had called him from Grand Central Station, with just enough time to share a drink at the Oyster Bar, since he was leaving on the first train to Philly on some complex business involving the Rockefellers; or maybe they had bumped into each other on the corner of Lexington and 51st, and unable to persuade Bill to stray from his path, Sam couldn’t help but accompany him. The same would happen at home: Nancy came to loathe Sam’s absence at dinnertime, usually punctuated by a call from him in some phone booth somewhere letting her know that he had run into Bill and that they couldn’t waste a damn good night out on the town. One would think Nancy would be used to it by now—just as her stout Albanian mother-in-law was, or old Baruj Weinstein, who died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by loved ones, though not without mentioning that he was leaving this world never having met his son’s best friend. Indeed, it would be careless to leave out the matter of Sam and Nancy’s wedding day, an event for which the presence of Bill Burton seemed assured, especially since he was Sam’s best man. Not only was the ceremony delayed for over forty minutes, but the longed-for ghost, Sam’s unconditional friend, never arrived. Instead the temple doors opened to a firefighter, in full uniform, coming to let Weinstein know that Bill Burton was wounded in a subway accident and that, before being taken to the hospital by ambulance, insisted that someone kindly inform his best friend Sam and his lovely bride. However, the firefighter wasn’t able to say what hospital Burton had been taken to, nor what his condition was. For a few seconds Sam considered postponing the wedding, and now, several years later, Nancy still couldn’t tolerate or accept the recurring pretext or excuse spawned by Bill Burton’s appearance —as if right out of the blue, to Sam and no one else—just as she had finished preparing a special meal, or right as she was about to suggest going to the movies, or when they had both agreed on inviting over their friends the Mertzes that evening, or the newlyweds that lived on the floor below.
Over time, but of course, Weinstein made other friends. With Nancy and their friends the Mertzes they made an unbeatable foursome at any Manhattan bowling alley. Many would swear that the friendships he established with his magazine colleagues, until the very day of his retirement, were of an intimate camaraderie, and yet, some evenings, right before falling asleep, or possibly on the taxi ride home from a pleasant night out with his other friends, he would turn to Nancy and utter—perhaps a little more slowly than before—his old motto, You may still think true friendship is a lie. But then, you’ve never met Bill Burton.
To make a long story short: Bill Burton, a convenient invention of Sam Weinstein (and often cited not only by him but now by all those who were part of Sam’s life) became a conventional and predictable myth. Anyone who had anything to do with Weinstein already knew that Burton was likely the best friend that ever was, but impossible to meet in person. Anytime he passed through New York it was in a hurry, always with barely enough time to meet up with Weinstein. A fleeting beer at the edge of a barstool, a quick cup of coffee at cafés for people on the go, never enough time to accompany Sam home, to finally meet his family, his wife, or even little Baruj, who was born in 1956 and whose bris the Weinstein clan insisted Bill Burton attend, though everyone already knew not to count on the appearance of the most famous, mysterious, true friend of mine.
In reality the story ends where it started. Samuel Weinstein became editor of Manhattan Letters and would have awaited his approaching retirement with resigned serenity and some satisfaction had it not been for an event that some would consider an epiphany: on the evening of September 27th, 1996, a man entered Weinstein’s office: he was of athletic build, tall enough for his head to brush the door frame, impeccably dressed in an immaculate blazer. He sat in the green leather armchair, the one angled towards the window to make most of the magnificent Manhattan cityscape. The man lit a cigarette and, through the first puff of smoke said almost in a whisper, “I’m Bill Burton”.
After a momentary silence, Weinstein began to sweat and stutter “…Who let you in?… What are you doing here?… Who are you?.. This just can’t be… Why is your name Bill Burton?” And the man, crossing his right leg, brought his gaze from the window and, looking directly into Weinstein’s eyes, answered, “You tell me.”
*Jorge F. Hernández, “The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction” (Dalkey Archive Press-UNAM, 2009)
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