POOR EL FLAKO. MAY HE REST IN PEACE.
He would not let himself cry. He would show these cabrónes he was a survivor. He was quick to grasp the fact that a naked man traipsing across the plaza would almost certainly attract attention. The first thing he would do was buy a poncho when the zarape man came by. No money. All right, he would borrow a poncho. But the zarape man was nowhere in sight. From behind the heavy pillar he surveyed the plaza. It wasn’t going to be as hard as he first thought. He saw exactly what he needed. On the street between the plaza and the Cantina Los Cuernos stood an open Dumpster. Once in there, he would be safe. Anybody coming out of Los Cuernos would be somebody he knew. They would bring him something to wear. Perfect plan.
Now, how to get there without risking immediate arrest? He would have to make a run for the big bushy conifer by the fountain. From there, an easy sprint to the monument honoring Lazaro Cardenas. The only risky part was the final leg from the monument to the Dumpster. He scanned the area for something—anything—that would cover that part of him that was illegal. Nothing.
Then he saw the answer. Would it work? It would have to work. The balloon man was just entering the plaza. He held hundreds of balloons in every shape and size. There was Meeky Mouse, El Snoopy, and Porky Peeg. There were balloons in the shape of rockets with fiery red nose cones. Some were shaped like giant sausages, and the man also carried round ones of every size and color. He would cover himself with a few of these for the first leg of his escape from the kiosk to the conifer waiting to conceal him with its dense foliage. Terrific plan. It required money.
El Flako stood concealed behind the pillar of the bandstand, and because he was standing a good six feet above ground level, he could get a pretty good overview of the activity. Darkness was coming, traffic was light at this hour. That was one advantage. On the other hand, he needed some means of getting his hands on some money. And, above all, he needed the balloon man for his plan to work.
He watched the progress of an old man shuffling toward the bandstand. He carried a long pole festooned with colored paper. Multicolored garlands hung on both arms. He was selling tickets for the Loteria Nacional. He would be loaded with money. The old man came to the edge of the bandstand with the intention of rearranging his burden. He leaned his long pole against the wall. El Flako’s bare feet stood inches away from the old man’s head.
While El Flako had no saint he could call his very own, his fervor for hagiolatry was undiminished. He invoked the assistance of a stand-in, and San Lorenzo took the call. You can always count on San Lorenzo when the tortilla chips are down. A lean ranchero in Viva Zapata mustache and ten-gallon hat presented himself.
“Give me a strip of ten tickets,” he said.
“Sí, señor, choose your lucky numbers, señor.”
General Zapata chose his numbers and handed the man a fifty-peso note. The lottery man pulled out an old blue sock stuffed with money. He withdrew a roll of money and spread some ones and fives on the floor of the bandstand in order to make change. Neither Emiliano Zapata nor the lottery man was aware that a naked fugitive lurked just behind the pillar where they were conducting business.
The ticket seller handed the man his proper change, stuffed the remainder of his money back in his sock, and trundled off to troll the sidewalk café across the plaza. He never missed the fiver.
“God forgive me,” El Flako whispered.
El Flako thought his luck was holding. The balloon man was taking another turn around the kiosk.
“Pssssst, over here!”
The balloon man hesitated. But seeing no one in the immediate vicinity, attributed the hiss to the playful wind and continued on his way.
The startled balloon man looked toward the direction of the onomatopoeic summons only to see a bare hand sticking out through the wrought-iron grille waving a cinco. He approached it with the same caution he would employ if he were sneaking up on a snake. The voice seemed to come from behind the pillar.
“The balloons! How much?”
The balloon man still could not see the source of the request, so he spoke to the hand waving the cinco. “I have many balloons, many prices. Choose the one you fancy, señor.”
“I can’t see them. Just give me five pesos worth of balloons,” the phantom hand answered.
A naked man with a blazing rocket in front and Porky Peeg hanging on his back dashed out of the kiosk and disappeared into the waiting conifer. He caught his breath. In a few minutes he resumed normal respiratory function. He waited patiently for what I believe you call a window of opportunity to make a quick run over to President Cardenas memorial.
A young mother and her obstreperous four-year-old walked perilously close. He could hear the little monster whining for cotton candy. He must have seen the front end of the rocket poking through the bushes.
“Mamá, look!” the kid screamed at the top of his lungs, and pointed a sticky finger at the only thing between El Flako and a night in jail.
His mother didn’t even turn around. She took his hand and gave him a yank. “Stop that! You want everything you see.”
El Flako was grateful for a mother who was not intimidated by petulant behavior even if age-appropriate. He wanted to congratulate her but he didn’t think it was a good idea. He buried himself deeper into the foliage to prevent a reoccurrence. It felt prickly.
Porky Peeg was dead. He would have to forget the intermediate stop at Lazaro Cardenas and run straight for the Dumpster.
Darkness was closing in on the plaza now. The lights hadn’t come on yet. The perfect conditions. All he had to do now was wait. Eventually there would come a moment when there would be no one between his bush and the Dumpster.
He studied the traffic pattern from within the bush. Most of the people were gathered at the other end of the plaza where the food carts were lined up. He waited for some teenagers to pass, an old woman with a string shopping bag in each hand, and a brown dog. Everybody got out of the way with the exception of the brown dog. The inquisitive Airedale, who closely resembled Sandy, sniffed the bush vigorously. He said “Guau!” (Spanish for arf) and left a short message for Little Orphan Annie and trotted on his way. It was now or never.
With only the rocket to preserve some decency, he streaked to the edge of the plaza and made a flying leap into the Dumpster. Safe!
About an hour later the door of Los Cuernos swung open and two men came out into the dark street. Both were bound to a wife by a holy covenant sworn in the presence of a Catholic priest. Love, honor, and the forsaking of all others was an important clause in the agreement. But this contract rarely impeded their quest for new adventures.
“We could have taken the girls with us if you’d had a little more finesse,” one of the men grumbled.
“Yours was beautiful.”
“And so was yours.”
“Yes, but I don’t think she liked me.”
“Can you blame her?”
“I didn’t mean to spill my drink down the front of her dress.”
“It wasn’t that.”
“When you pressed your ear to her in order to listen to her heart.”
“She didn’t seem to mind that.”
“Until you nipped her!”
“I don’t feel too good.”
“I don’t doubt it, chasing tequila shooters with a beer.”
“Where is the car?”
“Right here, cabrón.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Not in my car!”
In desperation, the man who had been complaining of queasiness ran a few feet, leaned over the Dumpster and began to scream out Mexican street names like a bus driver… “CHEE-WA-WA!…WAH-HAWCA!…KWA-WEE-LA!”
When El Flako didn’t drop in to Pelon’s barbershop the next day, his compadres figured he was still smarting from the ribald prank. But when he didn’t put in an appearance on the second day, remorse began to seep into their souls. They decided to call on him at home, take him out for dinner and drinks, and the debt that now burdened their hearts would melt in the heat of much laughter and big abrazos. When they arrived, they found no trace of their compadre and the house was locked up tight. Then they saw the indictment hanging above the door. The black flag of mourning accused them in deadly silence. Four compadres made the cross. They had gone too far.
It was now three o’clock in the afternoon and the barroom at La Fonda was nearly deserted. Nearly deserted. Treenie Contreras was closing a deal with a beautiful young woman interested in meeting an American Prince Charming. Four compadres sat around a table, each dipping his mustache in the tequila double in front of him in an effort to drive out the specter of guilt that haunted the chamber where conscience dwells. The compadres were on their third round.
Abel lifted his glass. “To El Flako.”
“El Flako!” echoed all at table.
“A true friend in times of sweetcakes or the days of onions.”
“Rest in peace.”
Four compadres picked up their glasses, put them to their lips, and emptied the liquid lightning in one burning gulp. And the big bad machos burst into tears.
“He was both friend and compadre,” Abel sobbed.
“He didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Bartolo managed to say between painful sighs. “A gentle lamb of generous heart and pure soul.”
“And now El Señor has called His lamb home.”
“And we killed him!” Dustano cried out in pain. His nose was bubbling. He wiped the ragweed mustache with his sleeve. “Bartender—another round of doubles for the murderers!” He yielded to a flood of bitter tears.
“No, no, no.” Abel put his arm around his compadre in an attempt to comfort him. “It was an accident. Tragic, yes, but nobody’s fault.”
“And what a horrible place to die,” Dustano cried as though his heart would break. “A man is supposed to die in his wife’s arms, surrounded by his children. But no, El Flako, who never hurt anyone in his life, has—has to—to die like a poisoned rat in a Dumpster filled with garbage!”
“Dear God, dear God, forgive us. Bring Your comfort to our wretched souls—if we have a soul!” Bartolo decanted a torrent of tears. He could not be consoled. Then he took his grief out on the bartender. “Bartender, are you deaf, cabrón!”
“When is the funeral?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to see Flores Negras at the mortuary and get all the details. Does anybody know his proper name? I don’t want to call him Black Flowers.”
“I think he is Flores-Negrete, but he’s been Flores Negras since I can remember.”
“Who will go with me?”
“We will all go!”
The bartender rushed to the table and put another Centenario double in front of each of them. There was nothing wrong with his hearing.
“So young for a heart attack.”
“At least he went fast.”
“I’m not so sure. He had time to write a note.”
“Who found him and the note?”
“Probably the garbage collectors.”
“Ay, ay, ay, por Dios!” Bartolo wailed and all four compadres were again drowning in tears.
Dustano was the first to regain some measure of control. “How did the note get to Father Reben?” he sniffed.
Abel took a long ragged breath in an effort to regulate his shaky voice. “Father Ruben told me a servant delivered it to him in the rectory.” From his pocket he pulled out a dirty envelope imprinted with the Serfin Bank logo. It was creased and smeared with tire marks. “Father Ruben said we should keep it.”
Clementino took the envelope. “It smells kind of bad.”
Dustano took it from him impatiently and pulled out the paper inside. “Look, poor thing, he scribbled it on a cocktail napkin from the Diana. Pobrecito!”
“Read it again.”
Dustano’s eyes spilled over. “I can’t.”
Clementino took the cocktail napkin in his hand, and with eyes dim with tears, read. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”
Four big bad macho compadres broke down in tears. They drained their tequila doubles, set the empty glass down with a bang, and Bartolo burst out, “I’ll beat up any cabrón in the bar!”
“Sssh, sssh, now, compadre. Take it easy. There’s nobody here.” They managed to find the door, groped their way to somebody’s car, and headed for the mortuary.
Tecate’s only mortuary is located on a back street wedged between Las Quince Letras—The Fifteen Letters—a small home-style restaurant, and Celeste’s Estudio de Ballet. The small room, formerly a piñata shop, had to serve as showroom, office, and chapel. There were a half-dozen caskets on display, a desk in the corner, and a dozen folding metal chairs (courtesy of Tecate Brewery) facing a wooden crate covered in maroon carpet to match the drapes.
Señor Flores-Negrete or Flores Negras, depending on your disposition, came out from behind his desk. He had an unforgettable countenance. Put white sideburns on an eggplant and you pretty much have the idea. He wore a grief-stricken black suit and a dolorous tie dyed in burgundy. “Señores, mis condolencias. Please sit down, señores. I stand at your service.” He spoke in a low monotonous moan free of all inflection. On an optical sound track his voice would have been a straight line. The eggplant smiled to the gums. It was intended to convey equal parts of courage and comfort. He shook hands with each in alphabetical order, as that is how they had entered. “Can I be of service? Just tell me how.” The breathy adverb caused the four compadres to retreat a step. Flores Negras reeked of dirty ashtrays and Old Spice.
“We came to see about our compadre,” Abel answered.
“Sí, I know.”
“We are his best friends.”
“We have decided as his best friends to cover the expenses of our dear departed compadre.”
“His widow could never afford it.”
“We tried to contact her, but she’s not at home. The house is locked up tight.”
“You señores are the epitome of the meaning of the word compadre,” Flores Negras moaned.
“And I for one don’t care what it costs,” Dustano said through the ragweed. His big black eyes filled and once again his nose bubbled.
“Neither do I!” three voices said as one.
“Well, let us see,” Flores Negras answered in basso profundo. “I have been preparing some figures.”
The pleasant fragrance of browning onions and enchilada sauce seeped into the funeral parlor from Las Quince Letras next door. Somebody’s stomach was growling. The sweeping melody of Swan Lake could be heard through the back wall along with some heavy thuds as aspiring cygnets at the ballet school made a hard landing.
Señor Flores Negras continued in larghetto. “It comes to only three thousand. I speak in dollars, of course, and this is with a casket económico.”
“Never! We want nothing económico for our compadre.”
“We want the best.”
“And only the best!”
“Let me show you, then, the best casket we have.” He led the group of compadres to an ornate casket. “Solid mahogany, bronze handles. Fit for a king.” He opened the cover. “Pure imported silk interior where he can sleep in everlasting peace.”
“We’ll take it!”
“It is a wonderful acta noble you do, señores. The total is only $5,200.”
“You speak in dollars.”
Four compadres made payment of $1,300 each and headed back to La Fonda for another round of comfort.
Emilio Figueroa de Alvarado sat sipping a tall piña colada in the dining room of the luxurious oceanfront Hotel Olas Altas in Acapulco. His table faced the window, providing an unobstructed view of the glistening Pacific. He watched long curls of emerald waves roll up on the pink beach, then recede, leaving doilies of white foam. Pretty girls frolicked with breasts unveiled like the bronzed nymphs in Greek myths.
Mauricio, maître d’hôtel, materialized at his side with an obsequious bow practiced and perfected for the benefit of heavy tippers.
“Are you ready to order lunch, señor?”
“Mauricio, what would you recommend today?”
“Permit me to bring Alexandro out to you.” A subtle movement of the eyebrows, imperceptible to all but the keenest observer, brought the chef de cuisine to the table.
The chef appeared in bridal white and fluffy marshmallow hat. “Buenas tardes, señor. Let me suggest my special chicken Acapulco, succulent breast of chicken stuffed with soft cheese, pasilla chiles, and baby shrimp. I add a touch of tarragon to give it personality. Just a pinch, you know. Any more would be precocious.”
“Bring it on!”
“Sí, señor.” Alexandro bowed, as taught by Mauricio, and withdrew in the direction of his domain.
“Another piña colada, señor?” the maître d’hôtel inquired.
“An excellent suggestion, Mauricio. By the way, who plays in the Flamingo Room tonight?”
“The Sonora Los Guajiros, señor. Direct from Havana. They are magnífico. Shall I reserve your table again for tonight? You appeared to enjoy yourself immensely last night. If I may be so bold as to make the observation, señor, you displayed a virtuosity on the dance floor not often seen. You dominated the moves of the cha-cha-cha. The agility of the matador is in your blood, señor. Of course you had many beautiful partners, no?”
“Sí. By all means, Mauricio, reserve my table. I intend to dislocate some nalgas tonight.”
“Very good, señor.”
“And after lunch send me something to drink out at my ramada on the beach. I will be selecting dance partners for the merengué.”
“I would suggest our popular coco loco, señor, a fresh coconut filled with natural tropical fruit juices skillfully blended with volatile spirits. A libation that restores the passion for life.”
“You mean it will perk me up?”
“A turbocharger for body and soul, señor. Two of our coco locos would have Don Porfirio Dias dancing salsa in the plaza, and he’s cast of solid bronze.”
“I’ll take one.”
“A prudent decision. Will that be all, señor?”
Emilio Figueroa de Alvarado said it would. He attacked his chicken Acapulco like the legendary Chupacabras preys on a goat under a full moon. Through the window he watched an intrepid tourist soaring high above the beach strapped to a paraglider towed by a small motorboat. Copper plated young boys were diving off eighty-foot cliffs for tips.
Emilio withdrew from the festal board and relocated to the pink beach under the shade of his ramada. He was studying the moves of a pretty young thing in a red two-piece misdemeanor when the waiter, dressed in white pants and a shirt sprayed with yellow hibiscus, delivered the infamous coco loco.
“And bring me a teléfono, sí?”
“Right away, señor.”
Emilio sipped his postprandial cocktail through a straw. Life became more beautiful with each sip. In minutes the waiter returned with a telephone. He dialed a number in Los Angeles.
He recognized the voice at once. “Hola, mi amor, how is everything up there? Good. I’m sorry I had to leave in such a hurry. Important business, you know. No, I’m not sure when I’ll get back. But you stay as long as you like.”
“My mother thinks it was wonderful of you to give me the money to stay up here for a couple of weeks.”
“Anything for my family.”
“You got a strange phone call from Flores Negras before I left. He said he wanted to thank you for your generosity. What was he talking about?”
Emilio answered with congenial laughter. “I gave him five hundred dollars for special services rendered. Have a good time in Los Angeles, mi amor. Give your mother my love.”
Emilio Figueroa de Alvarado put the phone down and, with full stomach and happy heart, wandered off into a pleasant dream state. He was cavorting in foamy surf in the company of a gaggle of sea nymphs, daughters of Oceanus, and naked as flounders. They were splashing and teasing him mischievously as these playful little sprites are in the habit of doing. He attributed the happy hallucination to the coco loco. He thought he heard the sweet strumming of a guitar in the warm tropical air.
“A song, señor? Fifteen pesos, two dollars, any song.”
Emilio looked up. The frisky little fairies of the sea disappeared and a barefoot musician cradling a guitar in his arms assumed their place.
“I have songs to help you remember the woman you lost, songs to help you forget the woman you won.”
Emilio thought about it. “Something romantic would be nice.”
“Sí, señor. What would you like to hear… ‘Vals Triste’ or something even more romantic, like ‘God Never Dies’?”
“I was thinking of another old song.”
“ ‘El Flako Never Dies.’”
“I don’t think I know that one.”