SALSA AND CHIPS
EL FLAKO AND THE TIE THAT BINDS
One of the first questions my visitors to Tecate ask is, where is the entertainment? There is, of course, Rocco’s Disco for those physical fitness devotees who prefer the cha-cha-cha and merengué as their cardiovascular discipline. There’s always La Fonda for dinner and the gay sound of mariachis. The Diana is popular for a spirited game of backgammon and an honest pour. If, however, it is your intention to have a drink with someone you shouldn’t, perhaps in pursuit of some exciting new conquest, I would have to suggest the Cantina Los Cuernos as the only practical venue. The code of ethics at Los Cuernos, though unwritten, forbids clients from mentioning who might have been seen sipping in your company, and the rule has never been violated in the history of Tecate. For my money, however, no one can top the daily entertainment at El Peine de Oro. El Peine de Oro is not a place I could suggest for dinner nor anywhere you would go to enjoy the perfect margarita made with fresh limes. And it really isn’t properly set up for dancing. El Peine de Oro, the Golden Comb, is a barbershop across from the plaza on Avenida Juarez. Pelón Garcia, prop.
Some of the most fascinating stories have come to me from this source. The best one I’ve heard in a long time, and am about to share with you here, deals with a group of compadres. You don’t have that term on the Other Side so perhaps I should explain it. You become a compadre, or comadre, if you’re a woman, when someone has selected you to be a godparent. You acquire compadres when you have done the selecting. The compadre relationship is similar to your American old-boy network. But we needn’t let a detail like this delay our story.
I first met this colorful group of compadres at El Peine de Oro. In those days they assembled at the tonsorial parlor on a daily basis whether any of them needed a haircut or not. Let me introduce the principal four first because you may have a hard time telling them apart. Their handsome brown faces are as similar as tortillas. In truth, if it weren’t for their individual mustaches, it would be impossible to distinguish one from the other. In alphabetical order, they are, from left to right: Abel, Bartolo, Clementino, and Dustano. Abel cultivated a narrow row of black bristles closely resembling an Oral-B toothbrush (soft) on his upper lip. Bartolo was vain about his black walrus tusks. Clementino waxed his long bigotes thin as a wire all the way to the ends. This, he claimed when inquiry was made, allowed him to estimate the width of an open door before entering. Dustano simply grew an undisciplined clump of black ragweed that covered his entire mouth from view. Sometime it was hard to tell where the voice was coming from.
Now, the introduction of the protagonist compadre requires a little additional explanation. We can assume he was given a name on the day of his baptism at the Church of Our Lady thirty-four years ago. But I have never learned his name nor have I met anyone who could remember it—including his wife. (I know his mother, I’ll ask her next time I see her.) He’s known to his compadres by any number of descriptive sobriquets such as El Chapopote, La Melaza, La Brea, El Chicle, and several other names alluding to his viscosity. It was common knowledge around Tecate that you could get smeared just by walking near enough to him to say buenos dias. None of these affectionate nicknames is really translatable without losing some of the color, and we are a very colorful people. For the sake of this story we’re obliged to find an English equivalent. Now that the NAFTA treaty has been duly signed, it is a simple matter to import duty free an American neologism that describes this compadre to an American T. In a word, a flake. By this I don’t mean “a small, thin mass,” as Webster’s New World Dictionary tells us, but in the new sense of the nineties. In short, El Flako.
You would recognize him instantly if you saw him walking across the plaza. His face is as plain as a clay tile, no lines, no ridges, no mustache. He keeps his curly black hair short so that it looks like cut pile. When you first look into his face you might think the poor man has just been goosed with a lemon Popsicle. A reasonable but erroneous conclusion. It was the vast emptiness of the upper lip and the immense ovoid Little Orphan Annie eyes that combined to give him that look of sudden surprise. But when the man smiled at you with all thirty-two teeth, you could be momentarily blinded by the high beams.
I should add that while El Flako’s compadres were all successful men of business and commerce, he, alas, was not. El Flako’s problems probably began the very day he was born, September thirteenth. A day without an assigned saint. A Friday. He achieved failure early in life. He didn’t pass the entrance examination to high school and immediately launched into a long and distinguished career of odd jobs and slippery deals. He was a Virgo by fate, and maybe there was something wrong with his empathetic Earth sign. He didn’t have lucky days like the rest of us or lucky numbers or lucky anything, for that matter. And his Nostradamus factor was weak. He couldn’t see twenty minutes into the future. And where was his guardian angel? We all have one, right? All Mexicans need a guardian angel. I know in my own case, if I’m about to enter into something that looks like really high entertainment, I can count on the fluttering of golden wings descending to dissuade me from my intention and spoil the fun. But for all these disadvantages inherited at birth, El Flako was a loyal friend. He would give you his blood, his organs (with one exception), or the shirt off his back.
It almost doesn’t matter where you begin to relate one of El Flako’s adventures. His escapades run in a long concentric spiral. There is no beginning and no end. To get his story underway, a thing editors seem obsessed about, we might as well begin the day Abel’s wife was nagging him daily about painting the kitchen. Abel was grumbling about it to his compadres at the barbershop when El Flako glady volunteered to do it for him.
This simple act of kindness from one compadre to another gains in significance when, only a few days after Abel’s wife was humming in her yellow kitchen with sky-blue cupboards and punk countertops, El Flako sucked Abel into a deal. A week before El Flako began to apply paint, he had been visiting a nearby farm for the purpose of buying a few kilos of acidulated Concord grapes which he intended to press and process into a passable table vinegar which he offered to his friends as wine. In an old decaying barn filled with discarded equipment, El Flako spotted an aging surrey. It was black with yellow wheels. Or I should say, it had been. It had a black leather top and matching seats where pack rats had been living the good life for several generations.
“Why do you keep all this stuff?” he asked. “This old buggy is just going to fall apart.”
The farmer shrugged. “What am I going to do, drive it?”
But El Flako knew exactly what he wanted it for. “I’ll buy it from you.” Then quickly added, “If you don’t want too much for piece of useless junk.”
“Hundred dollars. Includes four families of pet mice. For another hundred you get the harness.”
El Flako got the thing home in his pickup truck and spent several days sanding and painting. He mended the seats. He washed and polished the harness. Then he brought Abel over to see it.
“It looks brand new, cabrón, where did you find it? And what are you going to do with it?”Abel wanted to bite his tongue, but it was too late. He had just walked into another of El Flako’s sticky webs.
“You are looking at a gold mine, compadre. And I’m taking you in as my partner.”
“How can you make money with this thing?” Abel’s second question was directed at himself: When am I going to learn to keep my mouth shut?
“Think of it, compadre, we will offer elegant horse and carriage service for weddings, birthdays, all festive occasions.” He brought out a small notebook. “Look, I already have bookings. The Hernandez wedding, Pablo’s quince celebration for Carolina, and a baptismal. Three hundred dollars for a short ride. We’ll made a fortune!”
One of the dangerous things about El Flako was that his pictures of golden fleeced ovines were flecked with truth. The bookings were a fact. It started to make sense to Abel, and this gave him cause for concern. “You’ll need a horse. You don’t have a horse.”
“That is exactly why I’m taking you in. I need four hundred for a trained driving horse. Once we get started, we’ll be doing two or three fiestas a week at three hundred dollars a pop. When did you ever see so much money! You and I split fifty-fifty.”
Abel thought about it. Not about the deal he was being offered, but about an effective means of escape without offense. He owed this man a favor. He did paint his kitchen, after all. He was his compadre. And how could he claim he didn’t have four hundred? That would be like admitting impotence. It is important to understand that Abel’s neural organization of instinctive responses was highly developed. It may have been that the left lobe of his brain was on a short break this morning. Or would it be his right? In any case, he ignored all the strong signals his gut was sending up. Abel reached into his pocket.
A few days later El Flako slipped into Los Cuernos for a nightcap. If I failed to mention it before, I should explain now that the name above the door of the cantina was not Los Cuernos. It simply read, CANTINA TECATE. In our colorful way with language, we say of a husband who fools around that he is putting the horns, or los cuernos, on his wife. That is how the establishment earned its name. With that brief footnote out of the way we can follow El Flako through the double doors.
“A Centenario, please.” While the bartender poured, El Flako looked around and found his compadre Bartolo with a curvaceous new challenge in the process of being conquered. She was sitting on his lap. “Compadre!” He flashed the high beams. “I didn’t see you there. Bartender! Another round for my compadre and his guest!”
“Gracias, compadre,” Bartolo answered. No introduction was offered and none expected. “What’s new?” Bartolo wanted to bite his tongue off. There was no such thing as a rhetorical question when it was directed at El Flako.
“Interesting you should ask. I have invested a large amount of money in a champion driving horse and elegant carriage that I intend to offer for fiestas. I already have bookings.”
“Wonderful.” It’s a hard word to say without sounding sincere. Bartolo hoped he did not.
“I’m short only four hundred to get the project rolling. I’m cutting you in for half. Yes, half, you own fifty percent of the venture.”
Bartolo knew from long experience the trap had snapped shut. The implication was that he was loaded with money, and he couldn’t dismiss the compromising position of the ripe little mango who presently occupied most of his lap. He could squirm and wiggle and demean himself in front of his prospective conquest of he could look like a high roller, if I can borrow another Americansim. Bartolo slipped into the quicksand when he slipped a hand in his pocket. And he knew it.
A few days later Abel sat in the barbershop with some of his compadres. This is one time Abel was actually boasting about his new business venture with El Flako. Much to everyone’s surprise, the enterprise was a huge success. Another even bigger surprise came when Abel and Bartolo learned they both owned fifty percent of the deal.
“I never thought I would live to see the day when one of El Flako’s business ventures would meet with success,” Clementino remarked from the barber’s chair where Pelon was trimming up his sideburns. “Maybe he would sell me another fifty percent.”
“Should I trim the mustache?”
“Not if you want to live long enough to hear the rest of the story.”
Abel continued. “We already have something like thirty reservations with deposits on the books. And next Saturday we have the big wedding for the comandante’s daughter’s wedding.”
“We’ll split fifty-fifty, partner, then lynch the cabrón!” Bartolo said. “This is one time we’re going to see some real profits.”
“Then it is your turn to buy the wine!” Dustano’s voice came from somewhere behind the ragweed.
Saturday morning awoke with sunshine and birdsong. It was the perfect day for a wedding. At ten o’clock El Flako sat in his surrey holding the reins of an elegant sorrel gelding in the comandante’s driveway. The buggy top was fringed with crepe paper roses of lavender and white. White bows adorned the noble animal’s luxurious mane. A huge lavender bow held the French braid on the flaxen tail. The front door opened and the glowing bride stepped out in frothy white with her attendants in lavender taffeta. The bride’s parents, who were already dressed for the occasion, came out too. The comandante helped his daughter into the backseat, with the maid of honor next to her. He sat up front. El Flako picked up the reins, chirped to the steed, and they stepped out smartly and delivered them to the Church of Our Lady de Guadalupe to the rhythm of clip-clopping hooves sprayed with gold lacquer.
Eventually the front doors of the church opened and the bride and groom stood smiling under a blizzard of rice. There was a brief melee of hugs and kisses. They posed for pictures. Then, after another flurry of fizzy embraces, the bride and groom stepped into the carriage for the short three-block ride to La Fonda for the reception.
A young man with a video camera ran up to the buggy and called to El Flako. “Hold it right there for a couple more shots.” Quickly the cinematographer turned director. “Bridesmaids here by the front of the horse. Best man over here, ushers fill in over there. Beautiful!” He changed angles. “Now a shot of the bride and groom. Smile. That’s nice. Now, give me a wave. A little more enthusiasm.” The big sorrel must have been experiencing a minor gastrointestinal discomfort. He lifted his braided tail ever so slightly and, as discreetly as he could manage it, expelled a vast quantity of gas. Both the pretty bride and the handsome groom were furiously waving away the pungent gas with both hands in their effort to save themselves from asphyxiation. “That’s more like it. Yes! Great wave. That’s a take!” The director seemed pleased.
Relieved of his discomfort, the horse cocked a hind leg and dozed while everyone posed for pictures. It’s hard to say just what goes through the equine mind at a moment like this. The noble beast may have been daydreaming about marriage and commitment. Maybe he didn’t have time to finish his breakfast that morning. We may never have the answer. But for lack of anything else to do, the restless animal decided to sniff at the maid of honor’s corsage of matching lavender roses. Maybe a tiny nibble was all he intended. But as everyone knows, little things always go wrong at weddings. In one big munch he ripped off the corsage and a portion of the young lady’s dress.
The maid of honor lost her equanimity. She screamed. The bride followed with a shrill scream of her own. The crowd screamed. Then came another chilling scream when the maid of honor, who apparently felt the cool air on her bare skin, realized she was topless.
Well, of course, these things happen so fast it is almost impossible to know what happened next and in what order. And it probably doesn’t matter to the main thrust of the story. The poor horse, frightened by all the screaming, reared up, El Flako reprimanded him with the whip, the animal bolted forward, El Flako fell backward, lost the reins, and there was a runaway horse with a mouthful of roses and a large part of a lavender taffeta gown in his teeth dragging a carriage with screaming passengers through the streets of Tecate. With no one to guide him, the terrified horse ran half a block and made an illegal left into Carranza. He may not have seen the sign reading ONE WAY. In making the sharp turn, the surrey sideswiped a slow-moving car, snapped the shafts, and the horse was now headed for home at a full gallop without his passengers.
With the sudden loss of horsepower, the carriage came to a full stop, teetered in slow motion, fell on its side, and dumped the bride and groom on their nalgas. But the only damage was to their pride.
Understandably, Abel and Bartolo, equal partners in a total loss, were somewhat resentful about the whole business. In point of fact they went directly to Los Cuernos and took a solemn tequila oath never to put another centavo into one of El Flako’s schemes again. They would have avoided him altogether, but that’s not easy in a little pueblo like Tecate.