Along with the rain El NIño showed up with a few of his friends, El Viento, El Frio and Jack Frost. Our only defense here on the ranch is a big kettle of pozole simmering over an open fire. Buen provecho!
What do you do when there is no tech available to service your computer? Here in Tecate we have two choices. Throw it off a cliff or call in the brujo Yes! Witchcraft is the only sensible answer. I’ve had this spook in here before. He does essentially the same smoke and candle show but I’ve got to admit he did what the tecnico couldn’t do.($830.) The brujo explained to me that the Dell is emotionally disturbed. This explanation makes as much sense to me as the mumbo jumbo I get from the tecnico. If this gets posted – I’m a believer!
In preparation for Dia de los Muertos, 2 november, I thought I would bring my readers the opening scene of the novel LOVE POTION.
The Estrada family filed into dinner into what they called the “big dining room” and seldom put into service. Don Plutarco, patriarch and undisputed monarch of the family, was already in place. He stood ceremoniously behind the massive chair at the head of the table. Olga, the servant girl, a timid little titmouse pale as a bowl of oatmeal, handed Don Plutarco a dusty bottle of Burgundy.
The master of the house curled his upper lip like a Doberman with some serious rage- control issues. “I said white,” he hissed. Don Plutarco Estrada was not accustomed to being contradicted by anyone, much less a servant girl.
The oatmeal face flushed red, the little mouse squeaked in a tiny voice. “But Señora Paloma always prefers Burg__” The Doberman quickly crimped his lips to restrain speech and accepted the bottle.
The refectory was a cold and cavernous chamber, heavy with familial cobwebs left behind by four preceding generations. The room held perennial smells of aromatic woods, heavy carpet and musty ancestors. Delicate gilt chairs covered in a fine brocade encircled the massive table like a garland of Damson plums. The ostentatious chandelier would not have been out of place in the National Opera House. Tiny flame-shaped bulbs and prisms dangling like diamond earrings flickered over the white damask cloth. Sulking at one on of the room stood a temperamental walk-in fireplace that could acomodate a California Redwood. The roaring fire made a valiant albeit vain effort to warm the room. On the massive sideboard candle flames wiggled, reflecting little sparks in the gold foil of the gifts for Mamá Paloma.
Don Plutarco, who lived in a romantic Mexico of the past, held his pose until everyone was seated. On his left was his mother, Mamá Paloma’s customary place, followed by his older daughter Carmela and her husband Victor. On his right were his wife Marta, and their youngest daughter, twenty-two year-old Paloma, named after her grandmother.
Grandmother Paloma did not care a feather if it was right or wrong. She liked Burgundy with her meals with total disregard for what was being served. And Burgundy she would have! Don Plutarco would have preferred a fine Sauvignon Blanc, but out of respect for his old mother’s whims, he popped the cork of the Burgundy with extravagant ceremony. Her attentive son filled her glass with a flourish. “I get the first waltz.” He always said this when he poured wine for his mother. It was a standard part of the annual dinner that never varied. He worked his way around the table.
From the large tureen Doña Marta served Mamá Paloma first, heaping her plate with her favorite dish, paella a la Barcelona. “I hope it turned out as good as yours.” This was Doña Marta’s usual disclaimer whenever she got up the courage to make paella for her mother-in-law. Everyone passed their dinner plate, lavender blue with a graceful paloma outlined in gold, and Doña Marta ladled out steaming paella. Don Plutarco raised his glass. “To our venerable Mamá Paloma with all our love!”
“To grandmother! Con todo cariño,” everyone answered.
Mamá Paloma did not acknowledge the tribute her family offered with so much love. Her glass of imperative Burgundy remained full, the fragrant paella steamed deliciously on her plate untouched. Grandmother sat stiff and prim, her back perfectly straight, her bony hands resting on the table. She wore an elaborate dress, an exquisite Jacquard in dark purple with swirls of turquoise and gold saved for special occasions and today was her day. From under a black mantilla of hand-made bobbin lace her white skull grinned pleasantly at all the family gathered around the table. The empty black eye sockets gave Mamá Paloma an expression of amusement. Grandmother Paloma was dead. She’d died six years ago at sixty-nine. Only her spirit occupied her chair this evening. Today was the second of November, Dia de los Muertos. The full skeleton, crafted of paper maché was brought down from the attic every year, dressed for the occasion, and returned to the attic until next year as though it were a Christmas tree. Mamá Paloma’s place was decorated with pungent ropes of the traditional orange marigolds, her favorite strand of pearls draped over a paper maché skull.
Paloma went to the sideboard and came back with pan de muerto, a round sweet bread in various tones of brown, beige and tan. An egg varnish gave the loaf the appearance of glazed pottery. The “bones” described with white icing divided the loaf into six equal segments. Paloma cut Grandmother’s wedge first and put it on her bread plate, suffusing the entire room with the rich aroma of vanilla.
Carmela couldn’t wait to dip her fork into the paella. She watched Victor lower the level of his tumbler of brandy her father had put in his hands earlier. It was his third, she observed, Carmela was counting but she wasn’t complaining. She at least knew where he was, he had on his party manners, and it was a night out just the two of them. The two monsters were safely in their cage at home with Cristi the nursemaid. Carmela had plans for him when they got home tonight.
Everyone ate with appetite. Dinner chatter began at once. The Day of the Dead was not a wake, but a celebration of life. The meal was gay and convivial. Paloma always felt closer to her grandmother on the second of November. Mamá Paloma would have had them all spellbound by now had she really been there. The old matriarch lived in her own reality among the spirits of the Other World, the unexplained, and thus a fund of fantastic stories about ghosts, witchcraft, magic spells, charms and secret potions. She was on intimate terms with the few remaining Kumiai descendants who still live in the deep folds of Kuchumá among the departed spirits of their ancestors.
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.”
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.