By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
To read Part 14, click here
My quest for new accommodations started out very poorly indeed. On the morning after my little narco-field trip to Aldama, it seemed a simple proposition, even considering the still significant language barrier. My main problem, I quickly realized, was the rather shallow pool of acquaintances I felt comfortable discussing the matter with. Version 1.0 of my plan was to spend some more time in the library, and then casually bring up the subject with Rosa, the librarian. She seemed very connected to the social life of Cerralvo - and "connected" in a very different, more normal sense of the word than virtually everyone else in my social circle.
I rose early, set about completing my chores, and took a cold shower that was fast seeming normal. In what I was beginning to understand was one of his great skills, Edgar showed up before I could leave the ranchita and foiled my plans. He had "found" (his word) a brand new Rockford Fosgate amplifier and wanted my help installing it in his truck. I sighed and spent the next three hours untangling the somewhat less-than-professional wiring job that the previous owner of the truck had left behind. I'm no stranger to this sort of work, but I couldn't make heads or tails of what the original intention had been. I think I actually removed about 70 feet of very high-grade wiring before it was all said and done. Edgar said that I could keep this, so I tucked it away and later sold it for fifty bucks, a substantial sum of money for me during that time.
Edgar may have already been well on his way to becoming a grade-A Lothario, but he didn't exactly excel in the art of subtlety. I didn't miss his attempts to discern where his father had disappeared to the day before, and why he had taken me. I felt bad lying to him, and even worse about the fact that he might have been seeing me as some sort of competition for his father's affections, but I didn't want to create any further "misunderstandings" about what I was doing down there. In any case, if the Hammer kept his word, Edgar would be introduced to that life before he knew it. I politely deflected his feeble interrogation mostly by getting him to talk about girls, a subject he was very keen on.
The amplifier had apparently not been damaged when it fell off the back of some tractor-trailer, and before long Edgar had something else to distract him. A pair of boxed twelves that had previously been power-deprived now bounced around happily in the passenger cab of the truck. These sat only a foot or two from the heads of the people sitting in the front seat, so riding around with Edgar soon became something of a dire emergency for one's inner ears. For my free labor, I had Edgar drive me to the library. I arrived with a distinct ringing in my ears and second thoughts about the entire project. I could still hear his bass thumping away as he turned down Avenida Alvaro Obregon towards the placita, two blocks away.
I didn't have much luck with Rosa, the librarian. She had always been kind to me during my visits to her temple of knowledge, but she seemed a little cold to me when I broached the subject of real estate. In fact, her abrupt change in demeanor startled me a little, and I think we were both relieved when I returned to my book. Despite the frigid caress of the air conditioning, I began to feel unwelcome in the library, the first time I had felt anything other than safety there. I left and walked across the Plaza Grande to a grilled chicken joint I had noticed in the past.
The grill was housed in one of the ancient adobe buildings that ringed the central portion of the town. The walls must have been four feet thick, the ceiling so low that I could touch it without stretching. The owner of the place laughed about the way that I kept looking up at the ceiling, and commented that "no te pegas en el coco," an expression that made me smile. Whatever the odd dimensions of the place, the food was excellent, and I sat there for some time mulling over my next move. Out of simple curiosity I asked the proprietor if he knew of anyone renting rooms, and it was as if a barely discernable barrier of shadow rose between us. He apologized, addressing me this time with usted, saying that his only business was "that of the chickens" and that he knew nothing about any houses or apartments. I thanked him and left. It was already hot as blazes, and I crossed the street and entered a Benevides pharmacy, mostly to get out of the sun. While there I asked the clerk if perhaps they had a printed real estate circular for Cerralvo. I think I got the idea across, but either the teller was simply bored with my queries or simply bored with everything, and she was of no assistance.
Over the course of the next hour I frequented several of the businesses around the plaza and got precisely the same result. Everyone was friendly, but none of them knew anything about rental properties and I suspected that as long as it was me who was asking, they never would. The lady at the Michoacana juice bar actually said that: nobody here knows anything about any houses. Given the paucity of my options, I actually bit the bullet and walked the four blocks to Don Antonio's barbershop. The man was there, quietly reading a book while he lounged in one of his colossal chairs. When I put the question to him he simply asked why I didn't ask my father about finding me a place. It was impossible to miss that he had loaded the "father" part with a massive quantity of loathing, and I remember Don Julian suggesting to me that I withhold from Gelo details of our contact. I didn't know what enmity existed between this group and the Hammer's, but it was obvious and extensive. When I asked where Julian was, Antonio told me simply that his friend travelled often, and wouldn't be back for several weeks. The dismissal was just as obvious as his feelings for my ersatz father. Obvious, too, was the fact that Don Ramos had marked me as his, and nobody was going to get into any dealings with me out of respect for his means and out of fear of what I might represent.
Defeated, I slunk back to the library, where I hid in the stacks with a book. My plan had been to wait for Pedro's arrival, but I began to notice that Rosa was looking in on me just a little too often to be explicable, so I returned my book to its place and left. I had nowhere else to go, so 1 began walking back to the ranch, feeling very much like a caged animal.
I was just about to cross the highway that marked a clear and abrupt divide between the town and the desert when fate, or what passes for fate to the damned, intervened. From somewhere off to my right I heard a loud clanging noise followed by a long and extremely energetic compilation of curse words. I had learned to identify (and deploy, sadly) most of these by this point, but seldom had I heard so many of them bunched into so tight a grouping. A few seconds later a thin man exited one of the dilapidated businesses that lined the highway, still cursing and dragging a box laden with what appeared to be random pieces of metal. These he began to toss angrily into the bed of an old Ford truck, before then pivoting and kicking an empty Corona bottle into the wall. It smashed in what he perceived to be a satisfactory manner, and then turned towards me, finally noticing that he had an audience.
"Fucker won't do that again," he said in Spanish, and I smiled, both from the silliness of the comment but probably more because I had actually understood him. I had not recognized him in his hat, but once he spoke I remembered him from the little grocery store that looked like a bomb shelter.
"Emilio, right?" I asked, heading in his direction. He replied with what I think meant "If I'm not, I'm a cabron for doing his job." He could tell that I didn't catch all of this, and waved his mood away with his left hand.
"Que hubole, gringo perdido?" He asked, extending his right hand, which I clasped in the Mexican manner. When we separated, I took a moment to survey the scene. Though it had obviously not been in operation for some years, the business Emilio was attempting to clean out had once been an automobile repair shop, or what they call a taller down south. There were worn-out tires piled up all over the place, a deep pit laid into the concrete over which a vehicle could be positioned so the undercarriage could be worked on, and one of those machines that helps you stretch a tire around a rim. Everything was stained with grease and oil, and a thick layer of desert grime covered the windows to the point that you couldn't see through them.
The conversation that followed was one of those mixtures of Spanglish and gestures that would continue to sustain my existence for the next few months. Emilio needed help loading the last piles of junk from the taller into his truck and a hand in cleaning out "a few spiders," and I needed to eat lunch and dinner. It seemed like a fair trade, since what I wanted more than anything else was to stay away from the ranch for a while.
It came out during our half-formed conversations that Emilio had purchased the building some years before, when the previous owner had moved to Monterrey. He knew next to nothing about auto repair, and instead thought that he could convert the space into a workshop for his side business, which entailed the repairing of damaged or blown speakers. Three years later he still hadn't gotten the ball rolling on this idea, and neither had he been able to find a tenant wanting to rent the space. This didn't surprise me because the location was awful and there were already nearly as many tallers in Cerralvo as depositos.
When Emilio first mentioned the failed search for a renter, I admit to having felt a surge of hope that perhaps serendipity was smiling upon me. This idea faded immediately as soon as I stepped inside. The place was a fricking wreck. Years of grime, grease, and oil had built up a sort of strata on the floors thick enough to actually grip one's shoes when you walked over it. The walls had once featured a thin layer of cosmetic concrete applied over the rough surface of the cinderblock supports, but this had calved off over the years; most of the fragments now lay piled up in tiny heaps on the floor. The tin roof had lines of little holes than ran in perfect patterns across the entire expanse of the ceiling/which let in tiny shafts of sunlight. It took me a moment to figure out that the tin roof had once been attached to another building, and these were the nail holes that had originally secured it to the ceiling supports. They looked sort of like stars suspended in a metal sky, if you didn't look at them too closely. Of all of the deficits attributable to the place, by far the worst were the "few spiders" that Emilio wanted evicted. He may have owned the shop legally, but it was the spiders who were the true lords of the castle. I couldn't have counted the little buggers if I had wanted to. The whole ceiling shimmered in webs, and there was a constant movement everywhere you looked. The whole time we spent ridding the building of rubble I could feel their creepy multi-faceted eyes watching me, waiting, planning. After a few hours I was slapping at my skin every time a bead of sweat ran down it.
The taller consisted of three rooms. The largest was meant to be a sales floor, and covered perhaps 400 square feet. Immediately behind this was a long, narrow space originally designed to be an office and storeroom. The final room was an internal workshop. This last had already been cleaned out and didn't look too wretched.
I started to think that maybe I had been too hasty about writing the place off. During our lunch break at his tienda, I asked him if he would consider renting me the tiny office. His look was one that I was to encounter for the rest of my time in Mexico, a sort of bemused skepticism that some uppity gringo would choose to live like - or worse than - one of them.
Emilio seemed to be one of the few people in town who either didn't know who my "father" was or didn't care. Given the relative strength of the concept of family in Mexico, it was natural that he asked me why I didn't live with my own kin. I thought about it for a moment and told him I was tired of my relatives using me: ya me canse de que mis parientes me estén apergollando. He raised an eyebrow and then shrugged.
When we returned to the taller Emilio stood for a few moments in the doorway to the office, apparently calculating the place's worth. I began the work of igniting the arachnid holocaust, a task that I never really completed in all of the time that I lived in the backroom. If spiders ever evolve intelligence and write a definitive history of their early apocalypse myths, I'm pretty sure that I earned at least a few pages in the section on atrocities. Did you know that there are species of spiders that actually hiss? Me neither.
Emilio interrupted the slaughter at one point. He began ticking off points on his fingers, which I soon realized were reasons I shouldn't want to live there. First, and so obvious that I had completely missed it, was the fact that the taller had no restroom.
Instead, the building shared an outhouse with several other businesses and residences. This he took me outside to see for myself. I was expecting a hole in the ground, but the thing wasn't so bad, really. The outhouse was basically a bathroom with no house, consisting of maybe 40 square feet of space. There was a toilet with running water and a shower that gave the term "combo" a new meaning: the shower nozzle came out of the concrete wall directly above the toilet. I guess this saved on space, and the need to buy a cleaning utensil for the toilet. Something like thirty people shared this convenience, though I hardly ever saw any of them. I never understood exactly why, but the people living along la curva guarded their privacy in a way not found in the center of town.
Returning to the shop, Emilio continued to point out the reasons not to attempt to live there: the electricity in this part of town was iffy at best, the place leaked like a sieve, it smelled like a refinery, etc... I couldn't explain to him how much I preferred having to clear spider webs from my ears than to be caught in the Hammer's web, so I just shrugged and told him I'd lived in worse places.
"You escape from hell, cuate?" He asked, laughing. I paused for a moment, thinking he wasn't too far off the mark. He must have seen something in my eyes because his grin faded a little. I tried to dispel this with my own joke.
"Worse," I told him. "Vengo de Detroit." He didn't get it, but the moment passed. We spent the next three hours cleaning the rest of the rubble out and scraping the oily gunk off of the floors. Finally he came to a decision about my proposal.
"Bueno, pienso que tienes la chiluca vacia, pero..." he paused, pretending to think hard, before continuing in an English far more rotten than my Spanish. "I give you for tousand doolar cada mes."
Now it was my turn to curse him, which I did to the best of my ability. A thousand dollars a month was outrageous and he knew it. I think he just wanted to see if I got his sense of humor, so I obliged. By the time my tirade came to a close he had a goofy grin on his face and we got down to actually bargaining for the room. He started with a demand of 100 bucks a month, to which I responded that he ought to pay me that much just for thinking about living in such a dump. We finally settled on 40 dollars plus half of the electric bill. He ended up screwing me on the latter part of the deal, since I discovered after a few weeks that he was stealing the electricity from the taqueria and tortilleria complex next door. Once I worked this out - the live wires running out of the wall were a huge clue – we all had a good laugh and I stopped paying, too. Emilio was a crook, but he had a gazillion kids and I understood why he had bilked me. He was hard to dislike.
It was late afternoon when I bid Emilio farewell and set off across the desert to the ranchita. I was exhausted but content.
I still had to find some furniture for my little nook, but how hard could that be? I'd seen several mueblerias in town, and I was certain I could arrange a delivery of some items. I was in such a good mood by the time I reached the ranch that I decided to take a short nap. This was not my normal custom, and I can't help but wonder how the rest of the evening might have gone had I remained awake.
I awoke to the sounds of tires crunching gravel. Evening was setting in, and I spent a few minutes climbing back up to the realms of complete consciousness. Still weary, I stuck my head out of my stable to see who had arrived. One of Gelo's trucks was parked by the front gate, and when I walked to the front of the cabin area I saw him leading one of the horses to the back pasture. I didn't really want to talk to him, so the half of me wanting to go back to sleep won out. I lay back down and was soon out like a light.
An angry yell tore me off of my cot, and I nearly tripped over my sneakers in those first confusing seconds. Night had fallen on the ranch, and for a brief moment I could not figure out why I was standing up in the middle of my room, suddenly breathing hard and bathed in sweat. Then I heard it again: an enraged shout, a hint of violent movement, and then silence. Blackie was nowhere to be found, the second time in as many weeks where his presence might have been particularly useful. Not knowing what else to do, I slipped my shoes on and crept outside.
A livid conversation guided me towards the back end of the complex of buildings. As I approached, I saw that the entire back patio area was flooded with the headlights of a vehicle parked to my right, outside of my line of sight. When I peeked around the corner this nearly blinded me, but not before I witnessed a disaster in progress.
The Hammer lay face down on the ground. He was barely moving. Three large men stood in a circle around him, while a fourth stood by a primer-gray Dodge truck. This last brandished a tire iron, but the other three didn't appear to be armed. Not that this seemed to matter to the supposedly invincible narco-lord, who had obviously been caught off guard and flattened. As I watched, one of the men took out a rough expanse of rope and began tying Gelo's hands behind his back. I hadn't heard it over the sound of the blood rushing through my ears, but now I noticed that the men were talking down to the prone man, some laughing; at least one, a fat man in a red cap, was screaming. It was difficult to understand his staccato speech, but I was able to pick "wife" out of the stream, and the rest fell quickly into place; my pseudo-father hadn't been caught by the competition, merely a cuckolded husband. This beating was probably deserved, but such thoughts didn't enter into my mind until much later.
Humans like to pretend that in moments of great stress they rise to the occasion. This has not been my experience. Mostly I think we sink to the level of our training. A cop or a Marine might have known what to do in this situation, but the only think I could think about was the pistol the Hammer kept in the dresser in the first cabin. On some level I must have calculated that there was no way I was going to beat up four large and highly motivated men, even ones mostly bereft of weapons. I also must have realized that if the Hammer got murdered while I was sleeping 70 feet away, I was toast down here. I was not conscious of these thoughts, but they must have been there because I found myself quickly creeping back from the corner and then sprinting to the front of the ranch. It took me a moment to find the weapon. The cabin was pitch black but my fingers told me that the clip was full, so I pulled the slide back and then ran outside.
As soon as I stepped outside my whole world spun. That was my recollection then as well as now, though I don’t really know how to explain it. I think it was a combination of more than half a year of extreme stress and fear, plus the weight of once again trying to solve my problems with a gun, all jumbled together without any discernable zones of transition. I shook my head as if it was a kaleidoscope and I was trying to set everything into a different pattern. More angry shouting snapped me back to reality. I moved to the corner, took one last look, and then walked out into the light.
The Hammer was in an upright position on his knees, slouched, with his hands tied behind his back. The man with the crowbar was still near the hood of the truck, but two of the three that had knocked Gelo to the ground were now lounging around one of the picnic tables. The last man stood in front of Ramos, gesticulating and yelling. He didn't see me at first, but the reactions of his compadres to the pistol were immediate and he quickly spun around.
"Move," I told him, centering the pistol on his upper chest. "Now." The Hammer later told me that I had added, "I won't ask twice" somewhere in there, but I have zero remembrance of this. I should have noted how the presence of a gun didn't seem to scare the man it was aimed at, but I missed this. He merely shrugged and moved towards the others by the table.
"Can you get up?" I asked the Hammer, my eyes still on the trio. When I didn't hear a response I flicked my eyes back to him, thinking that maybe he had been gagged and I simply hadn't noticed. Instead I found him smiling.
There are a thousand ways to smile at someone, but I don't think I'd ever seen one quite like this before. It was the grin of the predator just before the killing blow. Mixed with this was genuine amusement coupled with pride. Then his hands came free from behind his back, and he stood up easily. I don't know what the four men read in my face, but it must have been very funny because within seconds they were guffawing, one of them slapping the palm of his meaty hand on the wooden table. The man with the crowbar turned, and in my zombie-state my aim changed to target him. He didn't care either, continuing his movement until he reached the bed of the truck, where he hefted up a small cooler.
My noetic horse still hadn't crossed the finish line. I was just too wired up on adrenaline to see the obvious. The popping of beer cans finally drove the point home. My body sagged a little, and slowly I lowered the pistol to point it at the ground at my feet. I didn't want to look at any of these men, so I hung my head.
My thoughts whirled. A test. It was all some sort of fucked up test. The Hammer must have been concerned by my apparent lack of initiative while we were at Aldama, and he wanted to see if I actually had a spine. On some level I understood this – or I would later, at any rate - but the only thing I could think of at the time was that this exam of his might have caused me to shoot someone. What if I had just come out blasting? He couldn’t have known that I wouldn't. It took me another few seconds to realize that Ramos never would have allowed this, and I finally looked up to find him slouching against the table, watching the gears turn in my head. His smile was still present, and this more than anything else catalyzed my actions.
I brought the weapon up and quickly aimed it at the massive PAN sign that Gelo's men had stolen from the side of the highway during the last election cycle. It was immense, made of the same reflective coated metal material used in signs in the US. I knew that I couldn't miss it even if I tried. I truly expected the pistol to merely click dry in my hands; instead it roared when I pulled the trigger, and the men again broke into riotous laughter
One of them even raised his beer to me. Still somewhat in a fog, I searched the face of the sign for an entry mark. Finding none, my rational mind arrived at the concept of a blank round. My emotional side wasn't quite there, so I again aimed the pistol, this time at the windshield of the gray truck. Twice more I pulled the trigger, and twice more the gun roared. The glass should have shattered inward, but instead I saw no sign of damage. This really caused the chorus to cheer, except for the man who had been holding the tire iron. He scowled instead, and I guessed that the truck was his.
Everything finally fell together for me, and when I looked back towards the Hammer the look on my face caused the men to abruptly quit laughing. I held their stare, turned around and walked away. I must have for a moment and then set the pistol down somewhere, though I have no idea where that might have been. The rest of that night is a blur to me now. I remember walking through the desert, and lying down in the middle of the soccer pitch; I had nowhere else to go, no desire to be anywhere but erased. At some point in the early morning hours I remembered the key Emilio had given me to the taller, so I returned there. I had no furniture, so I ended up lying down on the workbench
Emilio used to work on his speakers.
I don't think I really slept. I don't know what one would call the half-state I drifted into; it was a liminal place, like being conscious in a dream kingdom. What had been thrust upon me became more and more real as the distance between then and now grew, and I began to wonder what I would have done had this evening not been a game. I was running from murder, a horror I had unleashed, yet I had never actually done the act of murder. In order to evade responsibility and insanity I had been pretending to myself that I probably couldn't have ever actually killed anyone, that I could think of the act and even help others commit it, but I wasn't brave enough to pull the trigger myself. That pretty illusion now lay in shatters at my feet. I had grabbed a gun, and had those men charged me, I'd have shot them all. How could I not have? It seemed obvious. I was truly as bad as
I pretended I wasn't.
I finally drifted off for a few hours, before the sound of roosters crowing in the distance woke me. I hadn't gotten used to this phenomenon even after all of these months, and the sound usually woke me up with a smile. That morning, it felt like I would never smile again, like all joy had been sandblasted from my life forever.
The sun was still at least 45 minutes from making an appearance I had no idea what my next move would be, or should be. I felt like I could never return to the ranch. I had probably -maybe- passed the Hammer's test, but it was also possible that I had disappointed him by walking away from him, by showing him my back. Some disappointments honor those that inspire them, but try telling that to a man with a private army. In the end, I surveiled the ranch for a while to ensure that no one was around, and then quickly packed all of my gear. I spent a few minutes collecting the cash that I had hid in buried coffee cans at certain points around the ranch. In a fit of pique I ended up stealing the Hammer's military cot. He had beds to take his whores to and so didn't need it, and Emilio's bench was nice but not exactly designed for lumbar support.
Once I returned to the taller with my things, I set the cot up in my office. The absurdity in my position was hard to miss. The message to runrunrun that had been parading through my head all morning had not abated with the change of residence, probably because what possible difference could a geographic move of less than a kilometer make in the disaster that was my life? I was still stuck in the Hammer's vice, still alone. Still me.
Cerralvo was just too small. It was both my shield as well as my trap, but at that moment its protective aura seemed far too weak to help me. Visions of Monterrey's immensity kept calling to me. Surely such a sprawl was beyond Don Ramos's eyes and ears? I had no real plan. I was winging it and doing so in a very desperate way. I packed my satchel with one change of clothes and a few hundred dollars; the rest of my money I hid in the rafters of the taller. Before the sun had really established itself in the eastern sky, I had purchased a ticket to Monterrey. Half an hour later, I was gone.
To be continued...
Education Update from Thomas:
It’s been awhile since I wrote about my progress in dirtying up the ivory tower. For those of you who are new to the site, I am currently working my way very slowly through a Master of Arts in the Humanities degree offered through California State University. Here is a copy of my most recent transcript A B. You will notice that I was unable to take a class during the summer semester. This was not by design. My regular readers will remember that the state threw up all manner of barriers for me to hurdle as I was working on my BA. Well, they upped their game recently and started denying my textbooks using rather spurious justifications. This tactic was sprung on me several weeks before classes began in May, which pretty much scuttled the semester. I have taken new measures and everything looks good for the fall, however. These classes are already paid for. Unfortunately, the last year has seen most of my financial support evaporate for a variety of reasons, and I only have a few hundred dollars squirreled away for the spring. This program requires continual enrollment in the Spring and Fall semesters, so this is a real problem. As you can see from my bill for the last semester, $320 isn't going to even get my foot in the door. If I have ever written anything that caused you to pause, to think, to change your mind, or even just amused you; if educating prisoners is something you believe in; if my life is something you deem to have value, please consider helping me by sending me $20 or any other amount you can manage. Every penny will go directly to my education fund, and I will never actually touch any of it. Donations can be made via Paypal, JPAY, or by sending a check to this address:
Minutes Before Six - TBW
2784 Homestead Road #301
Santa Clara, CA 95051
I have on a few occasions attempted to raise funds like this in the past, and the results have been practically non-existent. I think that most of you assume that someone else will take care of my needs, but this seldom happens. Please help. I truly appreciate you considering this, as I know budgets are tight and you have your own worries. I simply can’t do this without you.
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker 999522
3872FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351