A few weeks later the compadres were sitting around Pelon’s barbershop watching snips of El Flako’s black hair coming down to the floor like black snow. The unfortunate business venture was not forgotten but no longer a popular topic.
“You’re handsome as the day you got married,” Pelon said with the last click of his scissors. He withdrew the sheet and gave it a shake. “Who’s next?”
Clementino got in the chair. “Just a quick trim, Pelon, I have to get to Tijuana and pick up some lumber.”
“They won’t deliver?” a compadre asked.
“No, and I still don’t know how I’m going to get it back. It won’t fit in my car.”
“Will it fit in a pickup?” El Flako asked.
“Then take mine, compadre.” El Flako reached in his pocket and took out his keys. “It’s got a full tank of gas.”
“But I’ll be gone all day. I don’t expect to be back until late tonight. You won’t have your truck till tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, compa, what are compadres for? I’ll manage just fine.” El Flako pressed the keys into Clementino’s hand, said adios, and went out the door.
His name came into the conversation as soon as the door closed behind him. “You have to admit it,” Clementino said, “the man is sticky as hot tar, but underneath beats a heart of pure gold.”
“You speak the truth, compadre,” Abel answered. “He is not a dishonest man. He’s like a child who tells you what he wishes were true. Still, I don’t intend investing anything over a dime in another of his schemes.”
“No matter how good it looks!” Bartolo finished.
Some days later El Flako was driving south on Highway 3, the main artery to Ensenada and the remainder of the Baja peninsula. Actually, the word “highway” is, if not a misnomer, a plain lie. It is really a narrow strip of buckled asphalt and deep chuckholes where cattle gather to gossip and quench their thirst after a rain. Blind curves and steep grades add to the fun. There is very little shoulder. Most of the nine hundred miles is bordered with a sheer drop, where in fact many motorists often do.
El Flako had just made it to the top of the long climb at kilometer 10 when a terrifying clacking and the hiss of a geothermal geyser of live steam bursting skyward from under the hood gained his attention. The ever-vigilant Flako turned off the ignition, crested the summit, and coasted onto one of the rare shoulders we spoke of earlier.
This quick maneuver probably saved his life, as a semi truck and trailer that was tailgating assumed his place on the road while a car coming in the opposite direction zoomed past at the same moment. El Flako got out, opened the hood to aid the cooling process. In back of the seat he stored the standard equipment every prudent Mexican motorist carries. A spare tire, a jack, and two plastic milk jugs filled with water. He stepped out and sniffed the warm summer air scented with wild lupine and spicy sage. Golden breasted thrushes spoke to him in bright little notes and rolling trills. It was pleasant out here in the country. In half an hour he could pour water on the radiator and continue on his way. He would have to be sure to refill his milk bottles for the journey home.
Not far from where El Flako stood absorbing the bucolic scene, a fine-looking Duroc came snorting and rooting through a cornfield and toward the highway. There is little doubt that pigs appreciate a fine day as much as anyone, and having found a loose board in his shelter, this individual decided to take a walk. He may have noticed that many of his roommates were being removed and never came back.
El Flako caught sight of the fine-looking pig as the latter stopped to graze on some tender dandelions at the edge of the road. It is possible that at this moment the Duroc decided that the real meaning of Life lay on the other side of the road, and in prosecution of his objective, stepped onto the highway. We can suppose that what followed was simply the result of a bad call. The pig thought he had the right of way. The driver of a beer truck coming from the south thought he did.
Well, of course, the confrontation was unavoidable. The beer truck continued roaring toward Tecate while the pig landed not far from where El Flako’s pickup was still gasping for air. El Flako ran over to inspect the animal. There was little doubt that his soul had ascended.
“Tacos…ricos tacos de carnitas!”
“Delicious pork tacos over here!” El Flako sang out while he collected cash and made change as fast as he could. He had two girls preparing tacos, and they too were working as fast as their young hands could move. Cars were lined up two deep. They were only twelve years old but he knew that like all little Mexican girls they’d been doing a woman’s job since they were eight. And only a dollar a day. A hot wood fire burned in two steel drums, one for the kettle of pork meat, the other with a scrap of sheet metal over the top to heat tortillas. A row of clay bowls on the tailgate held chile salsa, diced onion, fresh cilantro, and guacamole dip. The customers helped themselves.
“Have you been by there?” Clementino asked the assembled at Pelon’s barbershop.
“No, and I’m not getting near there,” Abel, who was still smarting, was quick to reply.
“I can’t afford another business venture with that cabrón,” Bartolo grumbled.
“But you have to admit he has a knack for business,” Clementino insisted.
“He has a knack for getting into trouble,” Abel answered.
Clementino went on. “Of the hundreds of taco places in this town, they are all either beef, calf head, or fish. He knew pork tacos are a consumer demand waiting to be met. The man’s a genius.”
“Strange he didn’t approach any of us to get in on it,” Bartolo observed.
“Maybe he doesn’t need partners,” Clementino replied. “I was there. He did three hunderd on Saturday and four hundred on Sunday. I’ll confess I wouldn’t mind owning fifty percent of that deal.”
A dusky voice from out of nowhere entered the conversation. “I’m in the deal.” Dustano’s ragweed barely rustled when he spoke. “I own fifty percent of the carnitas business. I’ll collect my profits every Monday without doing a thing. I just put up two hundred and fifty dollars for another high quality pig.”
The Monday following his phenomenal success, El Flako headed south on Highway 3 every day in search of another 250-pound porker on the same terms. He was there every day. It was a bad week for roadkill. By Friday the only thing available was a couple of rabbits who probably suffered from night blindness, and a careless German shepherd. And he was on the small side. Twenty pounds tops. El Flako thought this would be an excellent time to head south to Guaymas and visit his relatives. Another failure! El Flako heard his own voice. Here was a chance to win the admiration of my compadres and Fate came and dumped on me. How am I going to face my friends? He gassed up his pickup at the Pemex station and set a course for Guaymas.
After three weeks of daily orgies of fresh shrimp, crab-meat burritos, giant lobsters cooked over coals, and all the beer he could drink, El Flako found himself low on funds and friends. He missed his compadres. It was time to head back. Everything should have cooled by now. They loved him and they knew he didn’t mean to be bad. He headed north.
He only got one flat and overheated twice on the desert. But he was rolling along fine at forty-five with a song in his heart. Up ahead he saw the extortionist’s booth at the town of Sonoita. He slowed down. Uniformed officers inspected cars and trucks to be sure no one was carrying anything of value to their families in the south. Radios, microwaves, clothing, all these things were officially forbidden merchandise for Mexicans. But with a couple of twenties you could bring in a nuclear warhead, no problem. This quaint expedient had its beginning shortly after the Spanish conquest and has never lost its popularity. The officers hadn’t bothered him on his way down. That trip, he wasn’t carrying anything more than a load of painful regrets.
As he slowed to a stop, the officer waved him through with a cordial smile, apparently not interested in northbound traffic. El Flako’s mind was greatly relieved, and now he realized he would like to offer his bladder the same benefit. A convenient shrub oak welcomed him at the side of the road for a moment of rest and comfort. He pulled over.
While enjoying the hospitality of the shrub oak a southbound station wagon pulled in beside him. He watched a man get out and walk around to the back.
“There is plenty of room here, amigo,” El Flako said cordially. “No need to expose yourself.”
“Gracias. I only stopped to rearrange my load before going through the checkpoint,” the traveler acknowledged the courtesy from a distance.
El Flako tucked everything back where it belonged and joined the stranger at the back of the station wagon. “They are very thorough, those cabrones. What are you taking down?”
“Just some old bedroom furniture. A fiver will get that through. That’s not my problem. I don’t know what to do with this sack full of bulbs.”
“Yes, daffodil bulbs. One thousand of them! My crazy compadre back home in Durango has this idea that he will plant them in pots and sell them for ten apiece next Mother’s Day.”
El Flako peered in the the big gunnysack. He didn’t know a daffodil bulb from a lightbulb. It looked like a bag of dirt clods to him, but the numbers were interesting. “You’re right, you’ll never get them across. They’ll think you’re transporting some kind of drug.”
“That’s exactly what I told my compadre.”
“And when you explain to those ignorant cabrones that they grow into flowers, they’ll never believe you. Then you won’t get any of this other stuff through.”
“I told my compadre that too.”
“Maybe I can solve your problem.”
“Look, throw them in the back of my pickup. I’ll give you a hundred dollars. At least a hundred dollars is something you can use in Durango.”
El Flako had been back from his Guaymas sojourn five days and still hadn’t paid a visit to Pelon’s barbershop and his compadres. The main reason for this was that he got home with a full head of steam and his pickup truck hemorrhaged in his driveway. The aging vehicle was now in Gordo’s Garage undergoing a delicate engine block transplant and a radiator bypass. Gordo found a donor in a Tijuana junkyard. In the meantime El Flako used his time wisely. He called on Blanco and Calimax, the two largest supermercados in Tecate. A week later he closed his deal and walked ten blocks to pick up his truck.
“The animal is good for another sixty-four trouble free miles. Guaranteed,” El Gordo teased his client.
“I haven’t been able to get to the bank. Here’s two, I’ll be back with the other three this afternoon.”
Strict tenets of Mexican etiquette prohibit the use of language that could imply distrust. Without uttering a syllable, Gordo began to kick at the dirt. This body language made it unnecessary to say, “You’re dreaming, you flake!” El Flako translated it accurately.
“I know you trust me as far as the bank. I don’t keep five hundred dollars in my sock!”
This was intended to fill Gordo with guilt and make him appear mean and petty to the world. The device never fails to succeed when everyone in Tecate follows the same script.
“Of course, sí, absolutamente! It’s perfectly all right. By the way, you know anybody who wants a Caterpillar D-4?”
“You have one?”
“I have one in perfect condition. El Yones just overhauled it.” He meant Jones, an American expert on heavy machinery who was in big demand in Tecate. “Those machines last forever, you know. They’re always working. And they charge fifty an hour.”
El Flako was well aware that a D-4 was a money machine. He didn’t need Gordo to tell him that. “How much?”
“Ten thousand American.”
The price was right. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll be back this afternoon with two thousand, you’ll have the balance in sixty days.” Gordo hesitated. El Flako saw a dark cloud of doubt cross his face. “If you can find a better deal, take it!” He knew exactly how to look life a fish that was about to get away. The answer came as no surprise.
They shook hands and El Flako headed for town.
“Buenos dias,” El Flako greeted his compadres at the barbershop. He carried a large plastic bag in his hand. He withdrew a gallon jug od his homemade Concord vinaigrette.
“Buenos dias,” they all replied in unison. No one was getting cropped. Pelon brought out jelly jars, El Flako filled them to the top. They all exchanged salud and prochevo and sipped the wine with appropriate comments from the panel of experts.
“The weather was beautiful in Guaymas,” El Flako offered.
No one wanted to reply directly for fear of involvement. Dustano began to discuss yesterday’s soccer game. “Gomez is probably the best player Guatemala has right now.”
“On the way back from Guaymas I came across a remarkable investment opportunity.”
“We play them next week. It’s going to be close.”
“It’s the best investment I’ve seen in a long time.”
“I don’t know, I think we look pretty strong.”
“It will pay a huge return on investment. Ten thousand American dollars in sixty days.”
They weren’t ignoring their compadre so much as they were trying to avoid getting sucked into another sticky deal.
“We proved formidable against Uruguay.”
El Flako pulled a paper from his pocket. “I have a signed purchase order from Calimax. Ten thousand dollars on delivery April twenty-fifth. Sixty days from now.”
The conversation stopped. The hum of the electric fan was the only sound in Pelon’s barbershop. All the compadres gathered around their flaky friend to examine the document. El Pelon, the shortest one in the crowd, climbed up on the barber chair to get a better look.
“This says you have to deliver one thousand potted daffodils fourteen business days prior to El Dia de la Madre on May tenth.”
“Where are you going to get one thousand potted flowers by Mother’s Day?”
“I already have them. I brought them back from Guaymas.” El Flako reached into the shopping bag and brought out a red plastic six-inch pot with a little green spear poking up through the soil. “I have one thousand of these tokens of love that will fill every mother’s heart with joy in my back garden. They will be in full flower, ready to exchange for ten thousand dollars in sixty days.”
The next afternoon El Flako walked into Gordo’s Garage loaded with cash. All his compadres wanted in on the deal. He paid his repair bill and put two thousand down on the Caterpillar. El Flako was on top of the world. He spent most of his life looking for the right opportunity to be successful like his compadres and now he had it. No more schemes, no more deals. No more digging a hole in order to fill in another. He would never have to run from embarassment again. The Caterpillar would earn him two or three hundred a day and dignidad!
El Flako had no trouble finding work for his Caterpillar. He did one or two jobs and just by word of mouth people came to his house seeking his service. He charged fifty an hour and he always put in four to six hours a day. It cost him fifty to have the machine loaded on a low truck and transported to the job site. He visited the barbershop less frequently now, but when he walked in he could feel the respect of his compadres in the air as tangible as the witch hazel. No one avoided him now. Everyone was eager to sit down and have a drink with him. El Flako began to feel good about himself. He was an equal at last. Look out world—El Flako is on a roll!
Time passed swiftly for El Flako. He had a heavy schedule and he worked every day. He was doing a job for the presidente this morning. The mayor wanted to enlarge the ranch house, and he hired El Flako to level the adjacent area needed for the addition. El Flako was pouring diesel fuel into his machine when the rancher from across the highway walked over to him.
“Buenos dias. Are you available when you get through here? I need to clear some land. My ranch is just over the road.”
It was always like this. He would never run out of work. He would never run out of money. The Caterpillar was the best investment he ever made—it was like printing money!
“Sí, of course. I should be through here close to noon. Is that your gate with the wagon wheels?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I finish here.”
El Flako fired up his D-4 and got to work. It was hard ground with some solid granite rock just under the surface. He lowered the big rippers in the rear then came back with the blade. Like a tank, the powerful machine clattered on its steel tracks, pushing tons of dirt like a child making a sand pile on a beach. Enormous granite boulders rolled before it like pebbles.
He hadn’t seen a soul all morning. There was a Jeep parked near the garage, but the house itself looked quiet, shades drawn, not a sign of life. There was no need to see the presidente. He would finish here and present his bill later.
He probably should have been paying closer attention to what he was doing. As he made what he thought would be his last pass, the blade nicked the wall of the house. Ooopa! El Flako was expecting to see a few chips of stucco fly off. He was not expecting the entire wall to collapse. Nor was he expecting to see El Señor Presidente del Municipio de Tecate straddling his pretty secretary in an obvious attempt to conceive a child. He could hear her screams over the rattle of the steel tracks as he gave the machine full throttle and zoomed away as fast as a Caterpillar D-4 could zoom.
This looked like a good time to head across the highway and get started on the other job. It would take el presidente a while to get some clothes on. They could settle up later. He came to the edge of the highway, looked in both directions. What luck! No traffic. He clattered out. El Flako did not look behind him so he didn’t see the huge chunks of asphalt his steel tracks were chopping out of the pavement in an interesting design. He also didn’t see a Judicial Federal in a black and white squad car that was just coming to the highway out of a dirt road. In his haste to put some distance between himself and the recent disaster, he may have thought it was a large holstein.
God, these Federales are quick, he thought. He just got across the street when the holstein was right next to him flashing red and blue lights. An ugly face in a mismatched uniform was walking toward him.
“Buenos dias.” He gave the cop the high beams.
“Save it. Turn off the machine, I’m impounding it. Get in the car, I’m arresting you.”
How ungracious these Federales could be! he thought. Didn’t even have the manners to return my buenos dias. “And the charge?”
“Look at the highway behind you.”
“I have barrels of tar at home. I could repair this in a matter of a few minutes. And it’s high-quality tar, too, not that cheap stuff they put down. I’ll have it looking better than ever by the time—”
“Get in the car.”
El Flako avoided jail by slipping the judicial a gift of a thousand American dollars,but the Caterpillar was impounded.
Without his yellow Caterpillar money machine, El Flako had no option other than two stay home and out of sight. He began to make accounts. It didn’t balance out well at all. On the twenty-fifth of April he would deliver one thousand bright expressions of love to Mamá and collect the full ten thousand dollars. On the darker side of the ledger he owed Gordo eight thousand on the Caterpillar, which he couldn’t return because it now belonged to the federal government, the presidente was suing him for five thousand, and he owed a fine of five thouseand. Oh, and his compadres were now demanding restitution of twenty five hundred. There was no way he could make ten thousand dollars stretch into twenty.
El Flako sat in hiding at a small table near the swinging kitchen door at La Fonda. Maybe this would be a good time to visit his family in Guaymas. He held a tequila shooter. He shot it down without benefit of lime or a lick of salt. He asked for another. He wanted to get drunk. But he knew he wouldn’t. He didn’t have enough money. Once more he was humiliated in front of his compadres. He fought back the tears. To make matters worse, today was his birthday. “I’m a failure at thirty-five,” he thought. He saw the front door open and his heart threw in an extra beat. The list of people who wanted their kilo of flesh was getting longer. He shot down his tequila. He was relieved to see it was only his compadres. He like his compadres. He would make it up to them. He really, really, would.
Abel took the empty chair at his table. Bartolo and Clementino dragged some chairs over. Dustano preferred to stand.
“A little early, no?” Bartolo said.
“It is my birthday, muchachos.”
El Flako wasn’t at all sure what happened next. It all happened so fast. He went to the men’s room, his compadres followed. Then, without preface, he was wearing someone’s raincoat and they all left La Fonda. Together they walked across the street to the plaza. The sun was just going down. They all went up into the kiosk. When his compadres took back the raincoat and departed, he was stark naked on the bandstand in the middle of the plaza.
And it was his birthday.