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Friday, June 8, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 3

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 2 can be read HERE

The Greeks believed that the realm of Tartarus held five rivers. The first, the river of Hate, is more commonly known as the Styx. I had paid the ferryman his due on December 10th, and from that point forward was officially a citizen of the chthonian realms. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I vaulted Mr. Ramos’s steel fence I was also leaping across the Acheron, the river of woe. In Mexico, nearly every street can be the Acheron, if you aren’t careful.

There are about 1,650 species of cactus worldwide, and most of these can be found in Mexico. As it so happens, a significant portion of this subset could also be found precisely where I landed when I hopped the fence. In the beginning was the word, and the word was holyfuckingshit! I don’t suppose that I have ever been especially graceful, but that moment counts as one of the most markedly inelegant of my entire life. After disentangling myself from nature’s cruel and pointy embrace, I dropped my pack in the dirt and picked a few spines from various sensitive portions of my anatomy. As I did this, I also surveyed my new kingdom. Immediately to my right was a large mesquite tree, its boughs teeming with yellowish seedpods that I would eventually learn to chew on for sustenance. Just beyond this was a long line of bamboo shoots that reached 30 or 40 feet into the air, which had been laid down following the fence line. This green wall extended for perhaps 100 feet or so, and made an odd creaking noise in the breeze. It was the shadows from the bamboo fence and mesquite tree which had conspired with the twilight to give cover to my murderous cactus, and I could only shake my head at my own stupidity for having picked this portion of the enclosure to cross.

Immediately beyond the mesquite tree was a metal tower crowned with a windmill. I walked up to this first, as I did not recall having ever seen one in person. The frame extended perhaps 60 feet into the air, and was set into a cinderblock base that prevented anyone from falling headlong into the well. I picked up a small stone and let it drop, and a few seconds later I was rewarded with a small splash. The air coming from the well felt wondrously cool. A hammock was strung out nearby from what I believed were two laurel trees. My gaze shifted to the large barn-like structure in the distance, and almost immediately a dark form detached itself from the shadows pooling about its base.

Some part of my weary brain must have detected the gait of a large dog, because I quickly removed my jacket and began wrapping it around my arm, in case it became necessary. It didn’t. Almost immediately I recognized the signs of a creature immensely pleased with my arrival: the helicopter tail  flapping about with a violence that took its entire backside along for the ride, a carefree pace totally lacking in wariness, and a tongue that lolled about goofily. I held out my hand, fingers tucked in, and it gave my fist a quick lick before it started dancing around me crazily. I dropped down on my haunches and began rubbing the beast on the head and ears, while it gave me a good sniffing.

He - I checked - seemed to be a black Labrador, though one crossed with something much larger, like a mastiff or an elephant. I had grown up with labs, and knew their temperament as well as any animal, including human beings. Actually, Labradors pretty much constituted all of the experience I had with animals of the wild, so I considered this a very lucky break. Had he been a Rottweiler, I probably would have re-initiated my romance with the cactus.

It didn’t look like he got a lot of attention, because almost instantly he fell on his side and exposed his tummy, which I dutifully scratched. As I did, the rest of the ranch slowly came to life. I didn’t know if my arrival had caused my fellow denizens of Chez Benzoylmethylecgonine to silence themselves, or if I were simply waking up to signs that had first eluded me. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I began to see cats stalking around everywhere. I would eventually find seven of them, which Mr. Ramos dubbed his anti-snake security system. In the distance I could hear what I took to be horses clomping about, though Rudy’s story of his father’s tame bull suddenly flashed through my mind. Needless to say, I proceeded with caution. The building, which I had taken to be some sort of barn, was actually two rows of small rooms, lined up in parallel rows. On the left side were five compartments, which were obviously stables of some sort. In the dim light I could make out names painted in white on the cinder block walls: El Blanca, Blackie, El Marrano, El Rey de los Pollos, and El Bastardo. I reached into my pack for my dictionary, and translated these: White One, Blackie, the Pig, and the King of Chickens.

I hardly needed to look up the last.

“You must be Blackie, right?” The lab was still happily bounding about in my wake, so I took this as an affirmative. The other row of rooms was larger, and consisted of four domiciles. The first three of these were only partially completed, and two lacked even a roof. The final cabin had windows and a metal door. I took my lighter out of my pocket and flicked it to life as I stepped inside. A queen-sized bed sat in one corner of the room, which was perhaps 225 sq. ft. Next to the bed was a set of drawers and a large igloo cooler, which was empty. On the wall to my right was a light switch, which stubbornly ignored my attempts to summon Prometheus’ gift. However, I did notice an old-fashioned oil lamp sitting on the top of a bedside table, which I lit before continuing my inspection. In the drawers I found a large assortment of lotions, aromatherapy candles, essential oils, a set of fuzzy pink handcuffs, and a steel blue .380 pistol. Under the bed I located a military style cot folded in on itself, which I decided to use. Whatever went on in this room, I wanted no part of it.

Around the back of the complex was a park with wooden tables and around twenty mesquite trees. Underneath several of these, I found masses of construction equipment covered in blue tarps. I also found a small cottage, which was stacked with saddles and ropes of a bewildering variety. Leaning against one corner of the cabin was a massive, 15 by 10 foot metal sign, which reflected the light of my lantern fiercely. I reached out and ran my fingers over the surface, which appeared to be similar to that of highway signs in the US. I retrieved my dictionary again, and slowly translated the text. It read: Vote PRI! We’re the Safest Choice! I paused for a moment, trying to imagine the nature of a political party that would choose an election slogan more appropriate to that of a brand of condoms. As to why this obviously costly behemoth was hidden behind an equipment shed high in the Sierra Madre Occidental, I hadn’t a clue.

Neither did I have a clue as to the whereabouts of the men who could provide me with answers to these riddles. Rudy and his father had clearly been waylaid, but I didn’t have nearly enough information at hand to know whether I should be concerned about this fact. I was hundreds of miles from any landmark I could identify, in a country whose tongue was foreign to me, and my only guides were a lamp that was ancient when Darwin was aboard the Beagle and a dog that seemed to have Red Bull for blood. There are many synonyms for lost and I was one with all of them.

The final river in Hades is the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. In the Aeneid, Anchises shows Aeneas and the Sibyl how souls purified of sin and error would congregate on its shores, and drink of its waters. This act wiped their memories clean, and they would then ascend into the bright world above to be reborn. I knew nothing of this at the time but I was desperately in need of these waters, to have a mind free from contemplation and reflection and the cancer of reminiscence. Having nothing else to do, I moved the cot into Blackie’s stable and set about reorganizing the room. As always, Blackie seemed tickled pink by this, at least until I produced a broom and began sweeping out the dust. Upon sight of this instrument, he vanished, tail between his legs. When I stuck my head out the door to see where he had gone, I saw him huddled against the wall, his head down. His look was so forlorn that it nearly broke through the wall of ice that I needed to separate myself from the emotions of what I had done and how I had ended up here. I put the broom down and began to rub on him again, and he licked my palm a few times.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I told him. “I won’t hit you with anything, so long as you don’t leave me alone here, ok?”

He kept licking my hand, which I took to be the doggy equivalent of a handshake. Of course he didn’t understand my words; but in almost two years down there he never broke our deal. Neither did I.

Neither Mr. Ramos nor Rudy showed up that night. Tormented by visions of the potential permutations of the events unfolding in Houston, visions of Her, sleep was nowhere on my radar. I ended up taking my tennis shoes out of my pack, and placed my Ferragamo loafers in the bottom dresser drawer in the Love Shack. Aside from a few events like weddings and quinceneras, I would never touch them again, just one of many items from my old life that mattered until they didn’t anymore.

The desert sprawled out around the ranch, battling for territorial dominance with the mountains. I wandered through it in ever-widening circles until well past 3 AM, guided only by the light of the Milky Way sprawled out above me. I was a city boy through and through, more comfortable with forays into the deep end of a wine list than an alien wasteland filled with all manner of clever and painful ways to die. I didn‘t know it, but these were the first messy steps on a long journey that would eventually see me become a true creature of the desert.

After hours of trying to run from myself, Blackie and I returned to the ranch. My new friend had a curious habit, which I was to discover after I had laid down. He would plant his huge stone of a head down on my chest, sometimes completely sideways. At first I thought he simply wanted his ears scratched, but after a few nights I realized that it was something else, something deeper. In fact, Blackie could not get sleepy until he had done this ritual for at least a few minutes, after which he would sprawl out beside the cot and fall instantly into dreamland. Growing up, my family had purchased a black lab puppy from a close friend of mine. She was the runt of the litter, which for some reason was important to me. I had wanted to name her Shadow, but was voted down by my brother’s choice, Susie.

When we first brought Susie home, she whined and yelped piteously for hours on end. A neighbor recommended that we take an old analog clock, wrap it in a blanket, and set it beside her in her house. It worked like a charm, the steady cadence of the clock reminiscent of her mother’s heart. I didn’t know it that first night, but the both of us were searching in the dark for some trace of my own heart, a shriveled and wounded creature long ago listed on the endangered species list. No vestige of it had been seen for years, and few signs of it would be found for many months yet. I eventually fell asleep with my hand hanging off the side of the cot, resting on the gentle tide of Blackie’s stomach.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of chickens scrabbling around in the dirt outside my door. I must have only slept for a few hours, but once I realized where I was I couldn’t rest. The land around the ranch was somehow more fearsome in the full light of day, the craggy peaks more forbidding. I decided to take a shower, and soon discovered that, in addition to a distinct lack of electricity, Papa Ramos’s ranch was devoid of a water heater. As unpleasant as this fact was, my primary concern was ensuring that I didn’t swallow any of the water. The last thing I needed was for Montezuma to get his revenge while I was still effectively clueless as to what the afternoon might bring.

Afterwards, I explored the ranch again, and found the horses in the back pasture. They didn’t seem terribly interested in getting to know me, and this relieved me a bit. The cats managed to simultaneously glare at and ignore me, in that manner that cats have. By midday, I had started to grow hungry. I had found bags of dog and cat food, and oats for the horses, but nothing remotely resembling people food. I recalled that there were several depositos back at the edge of town, but I didn’t think it a good idea to expose myself to the natives just yet. After wandering around in circles for hours, I had become in dire need of some amnesiac activities. In my youth, I had worked summers for my family’s masonry business, lugging mortar up scaffolds, laying brick and block, and installing thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of wall ties. It was obvious from the wreckage that no one had even contemplated finishing the work on the other cabins in years. Exploring the materials I found under the tarps, I realized that there were no gaps in my knowledge that would prevent me from working on this.

I had never had to mix concrete by hand, and it took me some time to work out the best way to manage this with one arm still smarting from a 9-millimeter hollow point injection. Perhaps my largest problem was that Blackie seemed incapable of staying out of the mortar. Each time he buried his snout in it, or pranced on top of it, or laid down in it to cool himself off, I had to drag him to the windmill, where a spigot pumped up ice-cold water through a hose. By the time Papa Ramos eventually showed up - alone - I had added three layers of Cinder block to one wall, and was in the process of trying to clean concrete off of 120lbs of wriggling dog. What he must have thought of his idiot dog and even more idiotic illegal alien ward I cannot say, because we did not speak. By the time I had washed Blackie off the Hammer had departed again. In the finished cabin I found a small plastic bag with several orders of tacos and a few bottles of water. Not knowing how long I would have to make these last, I ate two tacos and set the rest in the igloo. It is a good thing that I did, because I wouldn’t see him again for another 8 days.

To be continued…


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