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Saturday, April 28, 2012

No Mercy For Dogs Part 2

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 1 can be read HERE

What people believe to be real is real in its consequences. This was the axiom that I kept repeating to myself, as the Hammer led his son and I out to the parking lot. Somewhere deep inside, fault lines were buckling, continents shifting. I had been mostly somnambulating my way from day to day for the last six months, avoiding all the mirrors I could manage, especially the human variety. Somewhere beneath this dense layer of numbing grayness, klaxons were going off in my hypothalamus, danger signals attempting to overthrow my inanition and push up through the fog to warn me of my peril. This internal tug-of-war was causing me to lurch from states of extreme lethargy and fatalism to ones of severe anxiety, the lack of stability itself an aggravating factor contributing to my disorientation. I knew very well that I had dumped myself directly into the lion‘s den, and not for the last time would I wonder how Rudy had managed to convince me to take this mad journey.

A (large) part of me felt that getting torn to pieces was precisely what I deserved, while another attempted to motivate me to look for some exit strategy that did not involve a shallow grave hastily dug in the anonymous desert. The best I could hope for, I recall thinking, was to try to act dangerous - even crazy - and hope that the act was convincing. Batesian mimicry is a sorry defense when the predator in the equation is a serious player in a vertically integrated poly-drug operation, but I had been running for so long on an empty tank that it was all I could manage. The Hammer’s eyes were like hard autobiographies, and he had not blinked a single time during our meeting, classic Alpha-male behavior. Unfocusing one’s eyes in order to stare out at the middle-distance is an old trick that I knew well, and even in my crumbling state I felt I could pull it off. The result is that not only do you not blink, your eyes go kind of flat and dead inside, like those of a fish. I wouldn’t know just how unnerved I had made the Hammer for many weeks.

In the parking lot, I was introduced to Senior’s driver, a 350lb slab of a man called Smiley. People carting around adjectives instead of proper names always managed to annoy me a little bit, but I decided that we could debate trends in nomenclature at a later time. Like, say, when I had a howitzer handy. Rudy popped the trunk of his car, and removed my pack.

“Ok, mira, El Smiley is going to take you along some back roads, ones used by los coyotes to smuggle immigrants. No one will question you there, ok? I will go with my father and we will meet tonight in Cerralvo, ok?”

I scanned the situation, not liking it much. But this was the proverbial middle ground between rocks and hard places, and if it came down to me facing death at the hands of a misnamed Neanderthal in the middle of nowhere, I would fight it, but would never argue that it was less than I deserved.

“Why is he called ‘Smiley’?” I asked, stalling for time. The man looked singularly incapable of pulling off any facial expression beyond a menacing glower, of which he appeared to have a varied and expansive selection. Hearing his name, the behemoth squinted his eyes at me. They looked like snuffed out candles.

“Because,” answered Papa Ramos, in heavily accented English, a language he was not supposed to speak, “when he coots the troats the hole look like a green from the ear to ear.”

Staring at him, the totality of the scene overwhelmed me. How had my life come to this? The pressures of 24 years of a life lived poorly and without reason compressed, and I felt all at once that the tenuous, fingernails-dug-in grasp on sanity that had sustained me since December 10th had begun to slip. I am not wired to be a crier; the last time I shed tears for myself had probably happened when I was 4 or 5 years old. My death-spiraling mind did the next best thing, instead.

I started laughing.

No part of this situation was humorous in the least, but I couldn’t help myself. Despair, hope, and a desire for salvation collided violently in my core, and I was nauseated by the absurdity of the context, by this pint-sized kingpin and his comically over-juiced and apparently murderous bodyguard; by the idiot son so obviously desperate to be a babushka doll of the same series as his father, to obtain the affections of a man seemingly incapable of such; and the fact that somehow - inexplicably, it seemed to me at the time- I was the hub around which all of these twisted spokes spun. Finally, finally, I understood what Camus’ character Meursault meant when he concluded L‘etranger with the words: Pour que tout soit consomme, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait a souhaiter qu’il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon execution et qu’ils m’accueillent avec des cris de haine (So that all will be consumed, for that I feel less alone, I had a wish that there were a lot of spectators on the day of my execution and they welcomed me with cries of hatred).

Some part of me had to have known that the others were staring at me, and when I blinked the tears out of my eyes, Rudy’s mouth was agape and he was looking at me like he had never seen me before (in truth, he hadn’t). This fact amused me even more, and I could feel another chain of laughter bubbling up from inside of my chest. Ah well, fuck it, I thought. Mors certa, vita incerta. I clapped Rudy on the shoulder, and picked up my satchel and pack, slinging them over my shoulder. Still chuckling, I nodded to the Hammer and shouted one of the few Spanish commands I knew at Smiley: “Vamanos!” As I stowed my pack in the bed of the mid- 80’s Ford F-350 that was to be my conveyance, I caught Smiley looking from me to Papa Ramos, and back again. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that the gorilla looked…worried.

The moment passed as soon as I shut the passenger door of the truck, some treasonous switch flipping into the off position. I felt drained, like I was descending back into myself from a great distance. I tried to take some deep breaths, focusing on the rotting derelict of a half-finished structure in the distance. It looked as sandblasted as I felt, and I wiped the tears off my face before Smiley could open the driver‘s door. The truck lurched to the left as he heaved himself into the cockpit, his gut brushing the steering wheel as he attempted to get comfortable. To his credit, he didn’t waste any time attempting to figure me out. I was to learn that all of Papa’s men were like that, totally devoted to their function.

The highway (if it can charitably be called that) leading towards the mountains was in a wretched state of disrepair. On several occasions, we passed around several potholes large enough to have swallowed an 18-wheeler. I kept checking my watch, trying to divine the events unfolding in Houston, will competing against memory, one pushing me forward, the other pulling me backwards. Only in retrospect do I realize how close I was to completely losing my mind. If there was anything that saved me, grounded me, it was the scenery, which began to open up around us as we left the city behind. The macadam and bitumen quickly converted to gravel, and this again transformed into dirt when we pulled off the main thoroughfare for what looked like a goat‘s path. There had been hundreds - if not thousands - of these pathways leading off like capillaries for the past half an hour, and I have no idea how El Smiley knew which one to take. We soon passed an immense herd of several hundred white and brown goats, and Smiley waved and shouted at an old man who was tending to them. He did not respond.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Nobel Prize winning essayist and poet Octavio Paz described his countrymen as remote, reticent, and defensive. While I would eventually come to disagree with this assessment, he seemed spot on in regards to Smiley, who appeared to feel little desire to engage in chitchat. That was fine with me, and I concentrated on the scenery. Before long, the foothills began to turn into real mountains, the pathways getting a bit more perilous. At one point, my chauffeur began to reach under the dashboard, and I tensed up, my right hand quickly moving to my left wrist, where my Oxford’s sleeve covered my blade. He sensed this and froze, his hand going up into the universally understood position of “hold on.” He slowed the truck, and eventually came to a stop. I watched him carefully, and he held up his hand in front of his face, pretending to talk into a radio. I pointed to the dashboard, questioning. He nodded, and I signaled that he could proceed. What he removed was, in fact, a radio, but one unlike anything I had ever seen before. The truck we were riding in was only a few years younger than me, but this thing was brand new, with a digital screen, flat black matte finish, and a very oddly shaped antenna of considerable thickness. He flipped it on, and a reddish display lit up, the words “Access Code” flashing across in a military-looking font. Smiley quickly typed in: -273.150, and I laughed, this time a less insane and perhaps more genuine version of my previous outburst.

“Zero, right?” My mind flailed about for a moment, searching for the right term. “Eh…el cero absoluto, no?”

The beast actually smiled, a curiously disarming thing in all truthfulness, and nodded. He then pointed a question at my left wrist. I thought about it for a second, and quickly flipped out the Halo, its black blade flicking out like silent death.

“Ah la verga!” He shouted, admiringly. “Esta con madre, esa jalecito.” I didn’t entirely understand the words, but I got the gist of his meaning.

After our brief if psychotic bonding experience, Smiley continued on. At several points in the journey, he would type in a certain frequency on the radio, which would respond with a long chain of hexadecimal notation, finally reading “synchronizing” on the screen. After a blue light flashed on, he would say a few words, and wait for the “transmitting” icon to disappear. Within 30 seconds, a response would come. Each time it did, another line of hex code would scroll across the screen, eventually changing to read “new spectrum localized.” After seeing this for the first time, l knew exactly what I was looking at: a frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio. Only the military is supposed to have these things, and I suspected that - on the spreadsheets, at least - only the military still did.

On one such occasion, the response from whoever was out there was lengthier than usual, and Smiley quickly gunned the truck, sending gravel flying out behind. After a few minutes of fate-tempting hairpin turns, we sped past a tiny gate and parked next to a cinder-block ranch house. Smiley nodded to me, and we got out of the truck, moving past the building to a path which eventually led to a sheer cliff face. The valley below us spread out for kilometers, one unending vista of a million shades of brown, interrupted only by clumps of mesquite trees. I couldn’t tell why Smiley was so intent on the view, until he grunted and pointed. 4 or 5 kilometers distant, a dust trail was emerging from a large valley. To create such a pall, I knew many vehicles would be needed, maybe as many as 15 or 20. When I looked inquisitively at my guide, he mimed doing a military march, his rifle slung up to his shoulder. He finished this improv performance with a snappy salute.

“Army?”

“Si, el pinche ejercito.” Something clearly derogatory was added to this comment, because he concluded his speech by grabbing his crotch and spitting in their general direction.

This episode gave me plenty to think about. These people dressed like peasants. They drove ancient, though functional, vehicles. And yet, they had access to mil-spec equipment, and had an entire portion of northeastern Mexico populated with observers to the point of being able to track and evade random military patrols. Strength usually depends on the weakness of other people, but I began to suspect that this maxim did not apply to the Hammer or his people.

After a 20-minute wait, we headed back to the truck and resumed the voyage. It took us about 4 hours to reach another highway, which quickly led us to the city of Cerralvo, Nuevo Leon. We skirted the city, and once again headed up into the mountains. Eventually, Smiley pulled up to a large chain-link fence, and nodded towards a gray structure in the distance.

“You. Home.”

I nodded to him, and got out of the truck. Slinging my pack over the edge of the bed, I took a look around me. Smiley wasted no time in speeding away, leaving me a cloud of dust in place of a farewell. The evening had set in, and my new place of residence was bathed in an enervated sort of light, producing more shadows than definition. The only structure appeared to be some sort of barn, an observation confirmed by the smell of farm animals wafting in on the breeze. I knew even less about animals than I did about the Spanish language, but there really wasn’t anything for it but to press forward. Re-settling my bag over my shoulder, I climbed the fence, and dropped into shadow.

…to be continued…

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