By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Part 11 can be read here
The Sunday after my unintended visit to the Dark Chapel, this country bumpkin came down from el monte and went to market. I had intended to spend Saturday night making a list of the items that I needed to pick up, but the Hammer showed up shortly after 9:30pm with one of his whores. The girl couldn't have been any older than I was and seemed to be thrilled to be there, looking at everything as if she had just arrived at Disney World. When I came out of my darkened stall she shrieked a little, and then whispered something to Gelo, which caused them both to begin laughing uproariously. I stared at Ramos for a moment, waiting to see if he was going to mention the time that I had spent with his mistress and son, but he said nothing. Instead, I whistled for Blackie, who quickly fell into his normal position at my right side and followed me out of the gate. I took some commiseration from the fact that while he could evict me at will from my residence, I had effectively stolen his dog. Neener, neener, thug.
My run was shorter that evening than the one before, and Papa Ramos had not left by the time I returned. Instead of tempting fate, Blackie and I picked out a spot on a nearby elevation, which overlooked the ranch. The beast plopped down next to me and dumped his immense head in my lap, and I couldn't help but notice that he had been particularly loyal that evening. I'm sure the reason was the bones that I had brought him the night before. He had startled me awake shortly before dawn when he returned home and discovered the meaty mess piled up in his bowl; the rumble in his throat sounded oddly like the trucks on the highway downshifting He had spent the better part of the day pulverizing the pile into dust, which was a good thing because the pregnant cat had finally delivered her kittens, and I didn't know what the nut job in my lap would do if he saw them. I reasoned that this couldn't have been her first litter, and that if she had had problems with Blackie and her progeny in the past, she would have gone somewhere other than two stalls down from where he lived to give birth. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it isn’t stupid. Besides, I had no idea what to do with four newborn kittens, aside from putting more milk in a bowl for the mother and tossing a taco or two her way. She would have to deal with the monster herself.
Around 11pm Mr. Ramos's truck fired up and pulled out of the ranch, but the evening was so nice I didn't return home. This was a good thing because half an hour later Edgar’s brown Toyota truck pulled into the ranch, and he and some girl stumbled into the same cabin his father had just vacated. I sighed and settled back against the stone. For the first time, I gave some serious thought to changing my residence. And why not? I had made no deals or treaties with the Hammer, especially not ones that involved me living in their damned bordello. As far as I was concerned, I was living on his altruism, and beyond my appreciation I owed him nothing. I was confident that I was now capable of speaking the language well enough to arrange room and board. I decided that I would bring this up with Staci at some point, to see if she had any advice.
Maybe it was all of the pseudo-love in the air, but I found my hands removing the thin leather cord I wore around my neck. Shortly before crossing the border, I had removed the plain silver ring that I had worn-on my right hand for the better part of the last six years, and strung it through the cord. Unable to part with it and unworthy to wear it, this seemed to be the only option available. Sometimes I would take it out and run my fingers around its edge, but I never put it on, my last piece of Her.
She had been the first and only person I had ever met who had really noticed me, who saw through my attempts at deflection and distraction, and had made me feel like there was something beyond disappointment to be found in the sphere of human relationships
We were oil and water, but we kept finding each other in the dark, time after time after time. That had meant something. Not enough in the end, and not for the first time I wondered how I had allowed myself to fall so far, to lose so much control. I felt like a man just awaking from a long sleep, only to realize that the nightmare was very much real. Thinking about Her made my temples hurt, and I quickly put the cord back around my neck and tucked the ring under my shirt.
Once, when we had driven down to New Orleans for the weekend, She dragged me to a fortuneteller in the French Quarter, and begged me to suspend my disbelief for a few minutes. The gypsy looked at me sadly and said, “You shall come to know love.” Walking away, She put on her fake-pouty face and poked my ribs. “Why don't you know that already, you?” I smiled, pulling her close, and gave my usual speech about the credible idiots that believed in that sort of thing. It didn't occur to me until that night looking down at the ranch that what the old woman might have actually said was: “You shall come to no love.” All prophecies are self-fulfilling ones, but some of us are easier to peg.
Somewhere in the midst of these thoughts I fell asleep. When I awoke, Edgar's truck had gone, so I stretched and began to descend from the butte. A few seconds later I heard the crunch of tires on gravel, and Blackie and I froze. The Hammer's white Chevy truck soon came back into sight and I realized that it must have been this noise that had stirred me. I watched him drive through the gate and pull up beneath the mesquite tree near the well. He was obviously not trying to hide, so I continued down the hill and hopped the fence several hundred feet from the gate.
I found Ramos puttering about in the back pasture, probably imagining another one of his projects that he would never start. I came to within 30 feet of him and stopped, waiting for him to notice me. He eventually turned around, but didn't see me until he nearly bumped into my chest. He instantly shouted and jumped back in a manner I couldn't help but feel pleased about.
"Pinche puta madre! Me diste un susto de padre y Senor mio!
I smiled, enjoying immensely the reversal of our normal state of affairs. He had all of the power in our relationship, but if he believed that I could melt away into the shadows like some sort of ghost, fine.
"You have yourself a good time tonight, Gelo?"
"Ah, si. La culera esa, she ees always fun. She think you cute, if you want to..."
The ring burned against my chest, and I cut him off. “You came back to see if I wanted some company? Ah, see, I knew you cared.” I could see his teeth flash in the moonlight, and not for the first time thanked the stars that he seemed to enjoy a smart tongue. “What makes you think I can't get my own girl? Or that I haven't already?” As soon as I said it, I regretted it. I couldn't see him clearly, but he definitely wasn't smiling anymore, and the tension in the air jumped up a few notches.
“Yes, I know you go to spend the time with Pedro,” he grunted a moment later. “Just remember bien who built the nest, pajarito me entiendes?”
I said nothing, having already allowed my stupid mouth to run wild once. He came to my side and gently put his hand on my arm, angling me back towards the ranch. "It weel be good for the two of you to spend the time together. I am...old."
"Your little tart didn't seem to mind."
He snickered at this. "She would say I was Hercules reborn eef I pay her enough. No, Pedro...he ees special. Special mostly because I keep my deestance from heem, let hees mother make heem into something I would only do daño to. You know he want to be un architecto? What can I teech heem about thees? I only know how to destroy theengs."
Gelo was like that sometimes. You got comfortable fitting him into one box or another, and then this other side came swinging in at high velocity and knocked all of your preconceptions to the ground. He clearly realized that a father could be tonic or toxin to his progeny, and chose the path that he believed best for his son. It was a hard truth, and one that clearly cost him more than I had appreciated. It's a terrible thing to be the enemy of the things you love. It would he so much simpler, I recall thinking, if evil was just evil, free from variations and shades of gray. And 2 plus 2 being equal to five is not without its comforts, as well.
I couldn't think of anything to say in response, so I simply mumbled that Pedro was, in fact, a good kid.
"Leesten, Rudy...een two week, I want you to be ready to take a treep with me. I have no asked you to do notheeng seence you come here, but it ees time for you to show me I no make a meestake in breeng you here."
"Gelo, why did you allow me to come? Why would you take that risk?"
"What reesk? Look around you, Rudy. There ees no reesk. Thees place, she ees mine, ves? Rudy - the reel Rudy, I meen- he tell me you heestory, and I know this…"
"Wait, what history?"
I got the impression from his silence that the way I had asked that question had unnerved him, with all of its obvious intonations of there not being any history to speak of.
"He say you do the work for hees peeple in Houston."
That son of a bitch… I felt a moment of sheer panic, not wanting to let this man know that he had been sold counterfeit goods, quite possibly the only thing keeping me safe. I realized half a second later that the real Rudy would have known this would come out, and was...what? Counting on his father to clean up his lie? I considered getting up from the table and running, but how far could I really get? In the end, the only way forward seemed to be the truth, or at least one version of it. Maybe I could turn this, though…
"How much did you pay your son for me? He wanted something from you. He had to, or he wouldn't have brought me here."
He began walking towards one of the picnic tables arrayed under the mesquite trees and sat down. "He...no work for me. He work for heemself, mostly. But he ees always wanting merca or connection from me. I agree to geeve heem the tables for the
Reynosa and McAllen crossing for two week. You know what these ees?" Seeing me shake my head, he went on. "Thees tables, they leest the name of the corrupt officer that work the crosseeng, and geeve you the codes and times they work. Ees a free pass for two week, so he no have to pay no one out hees pocket."
I took a deep breath. "Gelo, you got lied to. Cancel the deal, if it isn't too late. I don't know what you meant by me having done "work" in Houston, but whatever that means, I didn't do it. I...fucked up very badly, and the law is surely going to be looking for me, but I'm not going to be of any use to you." He took this news in silence, a stillness that quietly expanded to fill the grotto. I knew that he couldn't see me any better than I could see him, but the unanimous, anonymous night suddenly felt somehow less...secure that it ever had.
"My son, thees hijo de la chingada...he no work for my people because he ees a liar, and a user tambien. I would no have believe heem on thees day except...you...you have thees look, like you see into my head. You geeve the Smiley a terrible feeling, and I theenk, most gringos is panochudos, but the crazy ones, they ees really useful .... "
I couldn't help it. Just like I did on the first day we met, I started laughing. It didn't seem possible for things to get this screwed up without very careful planning and foresight, but here we were. I had never been certain that he had believed my tough-guy routine, but apparently I had given a better performance than even I had realized. Still chuckling. I sat down at the table across from him. I had learned a very long time ago that it was wise never to correct the mistakes that others make about you, but something about this man-some sense of him being that rarest of oxymorons, the honest crook - made me speak the truth.
In decisions like this, sometimes the coin never lands; it just stays up in the air, spinning forever.
"Mr. Hammer, that wasn't confidence you were seeing. That was terror. That was me about to crack into a million pieces. That is all I am at this point: tiny little shards held together with pieces of duct tape. If you want me gone from here, I can disappear in a day. You won't even know I was here."
This time the silence stretched out even longer. Finally, he seemed to sigh. "No, no, you stay for now. I steel want you to come weeth us when we go to Aldama. Thees look you have...you breeng it weeth yon. Even the Mata Amigos, he believe you ees a leetle off en the head. Eef you can fool heem, you can fool the rest of them."
"Who was that name you said?"
"The man you know as Chespy. Hees nickname for the last few year is el Mata Amigos, the friend-killer."
"I don't suppose I need to hear another one of your long-but-untold stories to figure that one out."
"No…you just be ready to leeve here at 6 in the morning two Saturday from now."
"Gelo…if it is ok to tell me this, who do you work for? I'm trying to get a clearer picture of what I'm supposed to do here."
He threw his hands up in the air, and answered with more anger than I had expected. "Carajo, sometime I do no even know thees. For the moment, we of the old ways steel work for ourselves. Under Cardenas Guillen, we pay the tax and we do what we pleese.
But he is in hees cell now in la Palma, organizing hees stupeed huge festival he call 'Children's Day' to try to wash hees name cleen. And before he get caught, he let the aneemals out of they cages."
I didn't know what he was talking about at the time, but he was referring to the internal dispute within the Gulf Cartel that would see Los Zetas eventually unchained, an event that would cost tens of thousands of Mexicans their lives over the next few years. The fact that he had admitted his relative powerlessness so quickly after telling me that he felt no risk in harboring me seemed to deflate him in that way that internalized contradictions always seem to. After thanking me for continuing to work on the walls of the ranch's various buildings, he quickly departed. It was the first time that I began to suspect that the Hammer felt far less secure in his position than he had originally let on.
The next day I awoke at dawn, and took the horses out to the pasture. We were all chummy now, me and the herd, since I had brought them the carrots the night before.
By 8 o'clock I was on my way into town, my satchel slung over my shoulder and resting on my back. I didn't know what I would be able to find at the market, but I had a long mental list and I hoped to be able to scratch at least a few items off of it. Having never experienced a mercado before, I didn't realize that I could find…well, everything.
They used to call such marketplaces "black" or "gray markets,” places whose economic impact was obscure or even intentionally stealthy. Economists stopped using such terminology when they finally figured out that more than 10 trillion dollars in goods are sold annually in such places - the second largest economy on the planet, behind the United States, if you combine them all globally. Roughly half of the world's workers are employed in sealth marketplaces, a figure which has only grown during the global recession, and which is projected to reach 2/3 by 2020. The new term for the gray market is "l'economie de la debrouillardise," a French term using the word for someone who is self-reliant or ingenious. System D economies are the purest form of capitalism: unfettered, unregulated, untaxed; the only barometer of success being whether an item sells or not. If you want it, they will find it. If you don't, the item disappears off the shelves far quicker than any corporate business model could manage. This is the DIY economy, and it delivers for more people in more ways than any legal economy ever could.
The Placita had always struck me as being a trifle seedy, a world of beer and short skirts and unnecessary machismo, a place of almost-hopes becoming almost true. When I stepped around the corner of Don Michel's grotesque hacienda, however, the square had become virtually unrecognizable.
The first thing one sees is the tarps, huge expanses of red and green and yellow and, by far the most common color, blue. Some of these were immense, stretched out from poles to streetlights to trucks to wires, covering all four streets that bordered the Placita and much of its interior. The largest of these, I was to discover, all bore the stamp of FEMA, and I found this immensely amusing for some reason. The overall effect of stepping into the market was that of walking into a rainbow, the sun's rays now filtered through every color you can imagine.
Everywhere you looked were trucks: big ones, little ones, ones which had undergone so much custom conversion work that they were more stores with wheels than proper vehicles. I saw at least 15 decomissioned military troop carriers, now converted into grills, clothing stores, bars, and music shops. The ingenuity of the engineering was impressive, with all manner of panels flipping down to reveal shelves or televisions or, on one occasion, a series of birdcages filled with macaus and parrots. Everywhere you looked, advertisements assaulted you: here one’s for TelMex and the Loteria Nacional, there government propaganda shouting "Con Mexico Adelante!" There were travel agencies and signs for Pollo Loco, and, far more than anything else, beer, beer, beer. So many different things tried to arrest your attention that you could come to feel a bit dizzy at times.
It would be impossible to say how much business was done here on any given Sunday, but at least 15 or 20 thousand people would filter through the market during the course of the day - nearly everyone in town plus all of the people visiting for the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had to have been spent. I realized with a shock that I had never seen a single clothing store in this city of more than 10 thousand normal residents - and this was why. The market was a mall on wheels. I had yet to visit the mercados in Monterrey, several of which are easily hundreds of times larger than the one that comes to Cerralvo (one of which takes up more than 20 city blocks), so the whole thing seemed exciting and mysterious. For reasons that I have only recently come to understand, the only crowds I am ever comfortable in are the ones made up of people who are unknown to me. Despite the swell of humanity, in the marketplace one can come to feel completely alone, lost in a grinning orgasm of capitalism and greed, always moving, never arriving. One feels that one could stop in the midst of everyone and begin screaming at the top of one's lungs and no one would even notice.
Many of the products were obvious attempts to pour old wine into new bottles, everything from gently used clothing items to electronics. Even vehicles were available, with photos of cars and vans and trucks held securely in placards taped to long boards. That many of these products were probably stolen north of the border didn't seem to trouble anyone. And why should they? Such things were problems for the gringos to deal with. The police in Cerralvo - who were present - seemed far more interested in the girls than in establishing the provenance of the goods on sale. Many of the products were brand new, though, and I began to understand that corporations were clearly aware of the economic potential of such places, and were selling directly to these entrepreneurs. Telcel seemed to have recognized the value of Street vendors more than anyone else, because everywhere you looked you could see massive Telcel beach umbrellas, under which were sold pre-paid phone cards, regular monthly cell contracts not existing in la Republica at this time. .
After sizing the place up for a moment. I dove right in, the smells of a hundred different foods wrapping themselves around me. Within an hour or two I had found several slightly used pairs of work pants, a straight razor and whetstone, a new pack of gray Hanes t-shirts, a Gerber multi-tool, and a collapsible slim-jim, just in case things didn't go well here in Cerralvo and I had to skedaddle. For a time I stopped in one of the many music stores, which offered thousands of titles - all of which were pirated. Life-sized cutouts of Alejandro Fernandez and Julieta Venegas watched over me as I flipped through the stacks. I had a first-generation iPod back at the ranch, but I hadn't touched it in weeks since I had no way of recharging it. Neither did I have any way to load anything new on it, so I reluctantly left the $l.50 CD’s behind. It‘s hard to walk away from the world of music when you haven't had any contact with it in a month.
The only bicycles I saw were those made for children, but I was eventually directed to a man named Jesus who agreed to pick me up something in Monterrey for the next weekend. We haggled a bit over the price (oh, the joy of being able to communicate) but I eventually gave him 25 dollars as a down payment, on the expectation that he would try to find something in the 100 dollar range. He seemed a decent guy, and I didn't see him skipping out on me for a lousy 25 bucks, when he made 100 times that every weekend here in town.
Perhaps my most important discovery of the day was a small bookstore. I picked up a biography of Alexander the Great for about a dollar, and a few travel books on northeastern Mexico, hoping to reduce my ignorance a little about my new homeland.
As I flipped through the titles, I noticed that the shelves on the other side of the tent were far more popular, with 4 or 5 young men talking excitedly over a series of what appeared to be comic books. Never having been a fan of comics, I ignored them at first.
Only when I was leaving with my purchases did I pay any attention to what they youngsters had been so engrossed in. I was not aware of it at the time, but the cartels were heavily engaged in the process of using mass culture to inject their value system into the mainstream. Narcocorridos – narrative ballads - transmitted the legends of men like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, and many other infamous sicarios. One, which I still recall to this day is sung by the BuKnas de Culiacan, and is a tribute to Manuel Torres Felix:
Con cuernos de chivo (With an AK-47)
y basura en la nuca (fucked up on drugs)
volando cabezas al que (blowing heads off those)
se atraviesa. (that cross us.)
Somos sanguinarios locos, (We are bloodthirsty crazies,)
bien ondeados. (very high.)
Nos gusta matar (We like to kill,)
pa dar levantotes. (to kidnap.)
Somos los mejores, (We are the best,)
siempre en caravana. (always travelling by caravan.)
Eventually, "El Movimiento Alterado" would expand beyond songs to incorporate a very identifiable manner of dressing, and the movement would sweep into the mainstream. The comics before me were one small portion of this attempt to topple the state, the heroes all being narcotraficantes and killers. The initial narco-comics were banned by the state, claiming that they might "fatally injure the proper moral development of Mexico's youth." Coming from a government whose only major priority seems to be stealing tax revenues from the populace, one wonders if this is in fact the right party to intervene in these matters. In any case, the cartels bought their own presses, and sold the comics in the marketplace by the thousands, demonstrating that Mexico's youth were quite keen on the idea of fatally injuring their own proper moral development. Legends were thus formed, as well as an entire subculture.
In military circles, such tactics are known as "force multipliers" and it has always puzzled me that those most responsible for the War On Drugs have not yet figured out that they are not battling a substance or an organization, but rather an entire culture. One trip to any market in Mexico would show them that money is not the primary reason the vast majority of peddlers get into the business. The real reason is that life has no meaning for the youth of Mexico. Minus any chance at living a life beyond that of their parents, minus any ideology that promotes humanitarianism or the common good, many gravitate to anything that at least gives them a sense of purpose, camaraderie, and excitement. The cost of drugs on the street has little to do with the quality or availability of the product, but rather reflects the risk of selling in the first place. The narcos aren't so much selling drugs, but - like insurance carriers - they are trading in risk. Until someone gives a serious look at supplying the young with a real reason to treat life seriously, many of Mexico's youth are going to be attracted to the way of the gun.
For some reason, looking at page after page of bodies lying in pools of blood and decapitated bodies hanging from overpasses made me very tired. I purchased a bottle of water at one of the makeshift restaurants and leaned against the counter for a moment, gathering my thoughts. I really wanted to head back to the ranch, but Staci had been very specific about me going by Don Antonio Baranda Perez's barbershop on Sunday morning. For a few hours, I had allowed myself to be seduced by the marketplace, but my position here was always at risk and it was going to take far more than a slim-jim and some pliers to keep me safe.
It didn't take me long to locate the shop. A small place, it had its metal door propped open by a small block of wood. I never go into a building unless I know the way out again, so I spent a few minutes looking everything over. It was a totally unremarkable sort of place, which made me somehow trust it less. As it turns out, my radar was hitting on something true after all.
Low on options, I shouldered my bag and walked across the street into what I would soon come to understand was the largest den of Vipers in the entire town.
To be continued….
Thomas Whitaker 999522
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351