Friday, July 27, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 4

by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 3 can be read HERE

In an essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett wrote that habit substitutes the boredom of living for the suffering of being. That statement ranks pretty high on the list of things I know to be demonstrably true about being human, but is also somewhat incomplete. Under normal circumstances, mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings or leaving for work at exactly 8:15 might take some of the edge off a creeping sensation of pointlessness or abject failure, but no amount of routine can ever completely cover up the misery of having become something that you cannot explain. It is easy to dismiss greeting card metaphors for the heart as being merely collections of trite nonsense, but I was discovering that the heart really can hurt in physical terms as well as emotional ones. Pushed hard enough, it really can break.

Deprived of any direction or guidance, my life fell into a steady routine, beginning sometime around daybreak when the chickens began to flutter about. I still didn't know which of them was "the King," and the royal court didn't seem inclined towards spilling the secret. Aside from the frenzied excitement, which greeted my dumping of dried corn on the ground, they didn't seem overly interested in paying me much mind. The three horses eventually started to grace me with their presence, and I discovered quickly that this was solely because their trough was empty. Filling it was a hassle, as the hose from the well only reached about 1/10th of the way to the trough. As I fumed about bad estate logistics, I filled painters bucket after bucket and lugged them 100 yards into the back section of the ranch. I distracted myself by calculating the weight of each trip: a gallon of water equals 8 pounds, times 6 gallons per bucket, times 29 trips... Once I had satisfied them, they went back to ignoring me. The army of cats never stopped disregarding me, being cats. Only Blackie paid me any attention, and he did so to a degree that seemed to indicate he was attempting to make up for the inhospitality of his fellow animals.

This was both reassuring and humorous, but also a little annoying. After my frigid morning shower, he was waiting for me outside the cabin door. When I started mixing concrete, he was trying to bite the water as it rushed out of the hose. When I set my plumb lines, he bit them and ran off with them; when I laid a new line of block, he would try to climb on top of them. Actually, I was coming to understand that Blackie had a sort of pathological compulsion about climbing on top of things, and this included the wall surrounding the well. When I saw him stumbling around on top of it, one slip from a very long and fatal drop, I stopped working on the cabins and added about two feet of height to the partition. He didn't look pleased by this development. Those of us not born with great intelligence seldom notice or appreciate the things other people do for us.

While I worked, I memorized my dictionary. Everything I touched, I looked up: mortar, mezcla; hose, manguera. At night, I would make lists of important words by candlelight, to use the next day: Buenas tardes, me llamo es .... Before long, I was forcing myself to think in Spanish and not say anything out loud unless I could also say it in both languages. Never before or since have I felt so incompetent, so weak and impotent. You don't realize just how monstrously complex a thing language is until you lose it.

After making my lists, I roamed the desert, trying to ignore the increasingly violent hunger pangs radiating out from my belly. I didn't know how long I was to be ignored by Mr. Ramos, but the tacos he left me only lasted for three days before they started to smell off. Each night it became increasingly difficult not to roam closer and closer to the distant glow of lights that was Cerralvo. I began to reason that perhaps it might be a good idea to do a little reconnaissance, just in case. Yes, recon, and I'd better take some money with me, just in case. I slapped these thoughts down as soon as they popped up, but before long they started to make progressively more sense. Reason is a fine thing when you are ensconced in a leather chair in your study, perusing a work on Kant or Gettier. In the desert, the sand can wear it away, just like everything else.

On one such excursion, I located a soccer field maintained by the city. There was no grass, no markings, just dirt, two goals, and a set of aluminum bleachers covered by a rusting metal awning. Before I realized that a decision had been made, my legs were moving, and I was circling the field in laps. Blackie joined me for a time, then lost interest and wandered off to meet one of his girlfriends. I had always enjoyed running, but this was something else, a desperate, ugly thing: an obvious desire to obliterate the last vestiges of consciousness. My memory of that night is hazy. I know that I ran for hours, past the cramps in my side and pains in my knee. I know that I vomited at least twice, never stopping. I know that at some point I passed out, and didn't wake up until the sun backlit the mountains in the distance. My legs were on fire, and I quickly discovered that this was because they were covered in large red ants. The last thing I remember is that I did the exact same thing every night for nearly four months (minus the ants).

By my fifth day in Mexico, the tacos were a distant memory, and I was down to my last 5 or so ounces of water. I couldn't remember how long a person could go without eating, but knew it wasn't long without water. It wasn't helping matters that I had an entire well of the stuff right in front of me, and yet couldn't touch any of it without running the risk of microbe-induced misery. By mid-afternoon, I realized that the dull ache in my head was probably caused by serious dehydration and that I had simply run out of options. It was time for a drink. I remembered that the Love Shack had a small collection of five or six cups, so I went and retrieved one. I filled it with surprisingly clean, ice-cold water, and toasted Blackie before downing it. It may have been filled to the brim with tiny monsters soon to blitzkrieg my immune system, but it tasted better going down than any Chateau Petrus. I suspected that it would taste markedly worse making the return trip.

I also resolved that I was going into town that night, if I could be pried away from the toilet. I didn't know what the chances were that someone might recognize my face from a news story seen on the internet, but I knew that they had to be significantly less than the odds of me dying from hunger in the near future, which were starting to trend towards one hundred percent. By nightfall, my stomach was still situated inside my body, and I put on a clean t-shirt and a hat and started off towards town. I only took ten dollars, because I knew it was never a good idea to go shopping for food when you are hungry, and I was on a budget. I was uneasy during the hike, and more than a little angry. Angry at myself for being here, at the bloody Hammer for dumping me in the boonies, and at my stomach for shredding my willpower. All day, my eyes had been finding words in my dictionary dealing with food, which probably had not helped matters any. The road leading to the Ramos' ranch exited onto the main highway near an area known as "la curva," a notorious example of bad highway engineering that caused at least several drunken accidents each weekend, as the highway took an irrational and apparently unexpected curve eastward for no reason whatsoever. I paused at the edge of the macadam, surveying my options. From this vantage, I could see three depositos within walking distance, bright Carta Blanca and Corona signs blazing in the dark. None of them looked particularly busy, but I decided to walk to the second one because it looked the least prosperous, which I reasoned equated to less well traveled.

Depositos come in all shapes and sizes. Many are large enough to drive through (like this one owned by "associates" of Mr. Ramos).

Image by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

All of them have names, and the one I had chosen went by the identifier of "Las Lomas," or, the hills. The establishment was very modest, consisting of a single large room divided by a large partition. The wares were displayed along two walls, and consisted entirely in mass-market comfort food. A large soda cooler dominated the far wall, and made an unnatural wheezing noise that sounded roughly like someone with tuberculosis. As I took the scene in, I noticed that the concrete behind the shelving units was stained, and I could follow these tracks up the ceiling. There was so much water damage that I figured the place must look like a stream after a good rain. I couldn't see anyone from the front door, and wasn't really sure how to proceed. I decided it seemed proper to identify myself, lest someone think I was trying to steal something.

"Ah, buenas noches?"

The wheezing ceased and I realized with a start that it wasn't the soda cooler making the noise, but rather something alive on the other side of the partition. Something massive, by the sounds it was making, which reminded me of the squeaking noise my grandfather used to make when he pried himself out of his leather chair, times a million. An enormously fat woman in her mid-40's soon squeezed through the partition, attempting to set a pair of bifocals on her nose. Perhaps "fat" is not the correct adjective here, but my mind cannot summon a word corpulent enough to describe the Senora Castillo. She was continental, planetary, and I am still amazed to this day that a mass that large didn't possess its own gravity well heavy enough to suck the bags of chips and pastries off the wall and put them into orbit. Still, for all that, her face lit up in the most guileless, genuine smile I had seen in years, and she launched into a rapid-fire sequence of Spanish that I tried to snatch out of the air and inspect.

I didn't understand more than one word in seven or eight, but I definitely managed to comprehend "Don Gelo's American son,” which complicated things a bit. It was obvious that the Hammer had expected my arrival here and had prepared a legend of sorts, but hadn't bothered to include me in those he told it to. I didn't know how to play this, so I mostly smiled and nodded like a buffoon. Secretly I had hoped that I would find someone that evening to converse with, because for all of his energy, Blackie wasn't much of a talker. The Senora didn't seem troubled by the fact that I obviously wasn't participating in the platica, but in truth her demeanor was so positive I instantly felt better merely being around her. She wasted no time grabbing a plastic sack and began filling it with food. She didn't seem to consider that I might have likes or dislikes, but by that point I probably would have eaten her shoe so I said nothing. When I tried to pay, she refused to take my money, and said that my "father" had pre-paid. I insisted, and she merely pushed my cash off the counter onto the floor, and blew a jet of air out her nose, as if dismissing it. I looked down at my feet, and back at her, before thanking her and walking off. I returned to that deposito many times over the next months, and she always made me feel welcome. Hardly anyone ever stood up to her, so my refusal to pick up my money somehow endeared me to her. Within a year, I would have resealed her concrete roof, and she would try to marry me off to three of her daughters.

I finished the southern wall of cabin one two days later. There was still a large hole needing to be filled with a window, but now the block went all of the way up to where the roofline would one day be, and I was pleased. As I took a break to appreciate my handiwork, I noticed that Blackie was standing up facing the city, and had his ears cocked at a curious angle. I couldn't see or hear anything at first, but within a few seconds I began to detect a faint bass line approaching. Thinking that perhaps El Smiley might be returning to pick me up, I retrieved my knife from where I had secured it under my cot and slid it into my back pocket.

By the time I had returned to the front of the ranch, a discernible dust cloud had developed on the prairie, and within seconds a silver late model BMW 3-Series coupe slid to a stop in front of the gate. The windows were down, and I couldn't see how the driver still had intact eardrums given the decibel level of the music pouring out of them. The car was parked at such an angle that the sun was reflecting off of the glass windshield, so I couldn't tell how many passengers were inside. Whoever it was, they seemed content to merely watch me for a time. Having no other options, I returned the gaze.

After perhaps two minutes of this, the music clicked off, and a short man with a neat beard stepped out. He was wearing a suit of all things, an expensive double-vented three-button affair sans a tie. His boots were what drew your attention, some sort of pointy-toed cowboy affair, done up in electric blue ostrich skin. They were stupendous, the sort of thing a Mexican rock star might wear. He approached the gate at a comfortable pace, and vaulted the fence with such ease that I could tell this was a man very much aware of his physical abilities. His smile was broad, his teeth white. Still, there was something just slightly off about him, like seeing a very good counterfeit copy of the Mona Lisa; you couldn't tell exactly what was wrong, but you knew that something was out of place. As he approached, his eyes flicked over to the now completed wall of the cabin.

"The fuck you fixing this shithole up for? The old man tell you to do that? You know he's gonna turn this into a whorehouse? Fucker thinks he's still 18."

I was expecting something else, anything else, in Spanish. It took me a moment to switch gears back into English mode. Even then, I wasn't really sure how to respond. Finally I just sighed and shrugged. "It seemed like it needed to be done."

"So, that's you, then? Mr. Tough Guy, who can ‘get things done.” That your deal?"

Again, I didn't really know how to take this character so I just stared at him.

"Yeah, yeah, easy, Tough Guy. I'm just messin’ with you. The name's Chespy." He paused. "And you are?"

I scratched my nose and looked off over his shoulder for a second. "Well, Chespy, to be honest with you, that seems to be something of an unsettled matter at present."

"See, there you are wrong. Your name is Rogelio "Rudy" Ramos, Jr. Your mother was some American whore that your pops fucked back in Orlando in the early 70s, which is pretty much what he did to every broad in the state. You just discovered your dad was a Mexican, and had to fucking 'figure yourself out' or some such whiny Americano sensitive bullshit. Here's your identity back."

He slipped a manila folder from his back pocket with a royal flourish and tossed it to me. Inside was a Texas driver’s license and birth certificate, both with my photo attached to someone else's name. I looked close, but couldn't see any flaws. If these were forgeries, they were the best I'd ever seen. I would learn later that they were most certainly not fakes, but genuine documents.

"Those are temporaries. We will invent a new you in a few months, get you the whole deal: federal driver's license, IFE card, military service card, passport, everything. We might get you a second set of Canadian papers just to play it safe."

"You can do that?"

His faced changed - somehow. I cannot explain it. Maybe his facial muscles relaxed or tightened, or perhaps the muscle under his right eye twitched, or something. I can only say that something shifted, something nearly nameless and unspeakable but very much real, and the temperature level in the air around him dropped out of the basement. It was at this moment that I first realized that Blackie was nowhere to be seen.

"We can do anything."

I swallowed and was suddenly very happy that I had my sunglasses on and that he couldn't see my eyes. I flailed about for something to say.

"Nice car."

His faced changed again - back to normal. “Ah, she's fucking beautiful, isn't she? I have to take her to Monterrey this weekend to sell her."

"That's a pity."

"Yes, it is always rough when I see her drive off."

Something about the way he said this sounded wrong, and I cycled it through a few times before responding. "You've sold it more than once?

He nodded. "Oh yes, this will be the 17th time."

I closed my eyes for a moment. "I don't suppose you ever remember to tell the potential buyers about the onboard GPS unit, then?"

He feigned ditziness. "You know, I always seem to forget to mention that little selling point. Or that I have a spare set of keys I'm not turning over. How careless of me. But hey, I always let them have at least one weekend with it."

"You're a saint, clearly."

"Fuck yes, that is what I keep trying to tell everyone."

Chespy stayed for about an hour. Blackie never returned. Later I would realize that he never allowed me to get close to him. It wasn't obvious, he just always managed to shift around so that he had about 20 feet between us. I guessed that El Smiley had told him about my knife, and he was keeping enough space between us to be able to pull a pistol from his waistband if I got frisky. I eventually figured out why he had come to see me.

"Look, Chespy, let's cut to the chase. You are here to read my jacket, and I'm fine with that. I've played along with you, answered your questions freely. Make your report, your decisions, do whatever you need to do. But this situation has got to change. If Ramos doesn't want me here, give me the papers we agreed to at the border and I'm gone. If not, you have to at least clue me in to the story, because I'm a risk to everyone when you keep me in the dark like this."

He stared at me for a moment before nodding. "Fair enough. You will get your answer soon enough."

With that he bid me a good day and departed. It would be more than a year before I came to fully understand just how much danger I had been in, that Chespy was not a car thief or a coyote or even a drug dealer, but rather a serial killer in the prime of his career for the cartels. When the military caught up with him in June of 2005 in Piedras Negras, he mowed down 8 soldiers with some sort of automatic cannon he had propped up on his balcony's railing. When commandos stormed his condo, he detonated enough Semtex 2 to send a portion of his building's roof into the swimming pool of a building two blocks away. It made all of the news programs in the nation for at a few days.

The next day Papa Ramos, my new father, apparently, graced me with his presence. I couldn't read anything in his expression, and I was coming to understand he did not speak often. Instead of trying to engage him, I dove into the silence and lost myself in its stream for a bit, before he pulled me back up.

"I think eez time we take a ride."

I nodded, suddenly extremely tired. I didn't know what "take a ride meant," but I was about done with trying to swallow down all of this fear. Wherever we were headed, it had to be better than here. I was officially throwing in the towel, if it came to that. I half expected him to point the truck further into the desert. Instead, we drove into town, to meet the rest of my new family.

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