Part 5 can be read HERE
If Cerralvo had not been exactly what I had expected, neither was the Ramos compound.
In place of the gleaming gaudiness on display at some of the other narco-castles we had passed on our drive, a cold functionality ruled behind the Hammer's walls. A neat gravel parking area encompassed the section immediately past the gate. I saw about a dozen vehicles, all clean and in good shape but none of which that would have impressed the casual onlooker. The main house was beyond that, a simple one-story box of perhaps 2500 square feet. Aside from the elaborate solar array that covered every square inch of rooftop space, this could have been any house in town. About a hundred feet from this was an open pavilion under which sat seven washing machines. Large oak trees were trimmed so that an incredible array of clotheslines could be strung around this point. Enough garments to clothe an army were hanging on these, my first clue as to just how many people depended upon the Hammer for their wellbeing. The south wall of the perimeter was made up of businesses which opened up on the main thoroughfare to the rest of town, and included a tortilleria, a carpenter's shop, an electrician's shop and parts supply warehouse, an auto repair shop, and on the corner, yet another of the ubiquitous depositos. The various portions of the family that operated each store lived in homes built on top of each showroom, each of which was draped in its own extensive solar array. A much larger tractor-trailer repair shop occupied the entire northern wall, though I could not see this from where we had parked. All told, the perimeter wall enclosed a rectangular space of perhaps 500 by 700 meters.
Most of that interior was parkland, which was fed by a system of hoses leading to yet another windmill/well array; only this one was supplemented by an automatic pump for days when the wind was playing hooky. The Ramos clan kept geese, ducks, dogs, cats, and a cantankerous potbellied pig poignantly named Vicente Fox Quesada in a barn on the east side of the complex. The geese were particularly mean bastards, I was soon to learn, though we would all have our revenge for nipped-at-ankles when we ate them at Christmas time.
An immense pavilion was the tallest structure in sight, which served as a communal eating location for the entire family. It was to this building that Mr. Ramos directed me after parking his truck. Two immense wooden picnic tables there served as the nexus of family life, and already two-dozen people were gathered around them, talking, laughing, and eating. Six of these were adult men who did not look to be part of the family, and it was to them that the Hammer spoke when we reached the pavilion. I didn't see El Smiley anywhere, but I guessed that these men constituted his posse. I must admit, at first glance, they did not impress.
Most of the rest of the crowd made polite comments to me when I was introduced. I suspected that some version of my legend had been told to them prior to my arrival, but none of them seemed terribly interested in questioning the real reason for my presence in Mexico. Papa Ramos compartmentalized everything and I was just another tiny piece of a hidden portion of his life to nearly everyone seated around the tables. Given what he did for a living, I am certain that not asking questions was seen as a great virtue. Only the Hammer's wife stared at me continuously, her gaze the very definition of calculating. She was not what I had expected, at all. Rather than the traditional trophy wife, Don Gelo had chosen a broad brute of a woman as his official partner. I could tell by her glare that she had taken an instantaneous disliking to me. I wasn't wrong, as it would turn out. The Senora Esperanza took an instantaneous disliking towards everything. If human beings came with subtitles, hers would have read, “I’m not on your side, whatever side you’re on.” Even amongst her family, it was joked (behind her immense back, of course) that there had never been a human being so inappropriately named.
Beyond the termagant presence of the Queen of the compound, the only person who took and a real interest in me was one of the Hammer's sons, Edgar, who managed to get a double-dose of the elephant ear gene. Fate, it seems, was kind to the lad, because it made it up to him by otherwise making him astoundingly handsome. It would come as no surprise to me to learn shortly that even at the tender age of 17, he had broken more hearts in Cerralvo than coronary thrombosis. Neither did it surprise me, come to think of it, that he had inherited his father‘s predilection towards fucking first and asking questions never. The really extraordinary thing about Edgar was that he seemed totally unaware of the fact that he had hit the genetic lottery; in two years, I cannot recall a single instance where he paid himself a compliment or elevated himself above anyone. Embracing the impossible-to-ignore presence of his auricular appendages, he had taken to styling himself as "El Raton," a comment usually followed up in the presence of certain laughing females by asking them if they would like to see his "tail." It was hard not to like Edgar.
The meal consisted of the Mexicanized version of the hamburger, which, to my surprise, took no lessons from its better-known cousins to the north. One-upping those gringos who prefer their burgers with only one type of meat, the Mexican hamburger always comes with a slab of actual ham atop the cow meat. Loaded above this cholesterol H-bomb was a thick slab of avocado and a hefty dose of mayonnaise. Jesus, I thought. No wonder everyone's face is so round down here. All of this tasted a bit odd to me on that first day, but humans can pretty much adapt to any situation which doesn‘t kill them, and I would become so accustomed to the saber of the Mexican burger that were I to ever eat an Americanized version again; it wouldn't taste right.
The division of labor at the Ramos compound ran along traditional lines. An uncle or cousin or brother (I was never entirely able to map out the convoluted Ramos family tree, even after it was explained to me) manned an immense grill, while the women prepared the rest of the food. Soon after we sat down, a small army of cousins set down plates laden with hamburgers, french fries, and cups filled with an odd but delicious peach-flavored soda. I wondered if all of this Americana was for my benefit, but when
I raised an eyebrow at Don Gelo he merely mimed that I should eat. I had left my dictionary back at the ranch, and was trying to work out how to properly ask for someone to pass me the ketchup, when Edgar looked up from his plate and followed the direction of my gaze. He began to reach for the bottle but I stayed his hand.
"No...um...como se dice..." I began to traipse horribly through the garden of the Spanish language with metal-tipped cleats, and eventually Edgar realized that I was asking more for a language lesson than the actual bottle. He leaned in close and whispered a phrase in my ear. Alarm bells should have started pinging at this point, but I was embarrassed by my lack of speech and...well...he just seemed so darned nice. I admit, I completely missed the tiny gleam in his eyes, an exceedingly important item to note when dealing with a Mexican Eddie Haskell.
I cleared my throat. "Ehm, por favor...prestame la verga de ketchup."
If a record had been playing, it would have screeched to a stop, along with all of the conversation. Thirty sets of eyes swiveled to take me in, and several mouths dropped open. I was about to clear my throat again when three things happened in rapid succession: first, Edgar snickered, a tiny hiccup of air escaping from the confines of his lips. At the same time, the Hammer started chuckling, a low, ominous sort of thing, and began to shake his head. Finally - and I mean half a second after all of this started - the Senora Esperanza reared back and swung her entire body into a roundhouse haymaker that connected with Edgar's shoulder and lifted him clear off of the bench and deposited him in the dirt. He popped up, yelling at her and rubbing on his upper arm comically. I wasn't able to catch but a tiny bit of the word stream that passed between them, but "puta madre" featured largely and repeatedly. The novelty of a mother complaining about her son's "bitch mother" seemed lost on everyone, who instantly went back to their own conversations. I mostly sat there staring at them, transfixed by this random and apparently commonplace violence. Papa Ramos was still chuckling, smiling broadly at his son, who happily plopped down on my left, interposing his mother and me. I looked askance at her to see if I was next, thinking that as hard as my head was, it would make a pretty sorry shield. Though she was still mumbling under her breath, the Senora had already begun digging back into her food. I gathered that cursing her progeny was an unremarkable event for Esperanza, and not likely to be remembered by the time plates were cleared. No wonder he sleeps around, I recall thinking.
It was at this point that the little bastard on my left informed me that the proper word for bottle was, of course, botella, and that he had substituted it for a slang term describing a portion of the male anatomy. I nearly knocked him off of the bench myself, but it was actually kind of humorous. I was feeling extremely out of place, and perhaps it was my uneasiness, which caused me to let this pass, and to drop my defenses again.
I recall reasoning that I had learned an important lesson about el Raton, and had done so at a very cheap price. Fool me once, shame on you ....
He called for his tray, which I reached over and grabbed. As he prepared to eat, he retrieved a stone bowl of tiny, globe- shaped green peppers. He offered some to me, but I passed. He shook his head vehemently.
"Mira, Rudy. Esos...son...chilis del monte. Son muy sabrosos." He was speaking slowly to me, as if I were a child or slow. "No son muy picosos.” If I didn‘t know what "picoso" meant, but he mimed eating them and shook his head, as if they were not hot at all. I must have looked skeptical, because he proceeded to grab 5 or 6 of the chilis and tossed them down before biting into his hamburger. He made the appropriate noises of ecstasy before pushing the bowl towards me. Hell, I thought, when in Rome. I reached for the bowl, snagged five chilis, and began chewing on them with a bite of hamburger.
...Fool me twice, shame on me. "Chili del monte" – better known as chili piquin - rate;somewhere between the jabanero and the sun on the capsaicin scale. As volcanic detonations started tenderizing the soft tissue of my mouth, my eyes flicked over to Edgar, in time to see all but one of the chilis he had supposedly tossed back roll out of his hand. Both he and his father were watching me closely, so I clamped down on my desire to toss myself headlong into the well and instead put a thoughtful look on my face as I chewed. My eyes had to be watering noticeably, so I doubt that I pulled off anything approximating nonchalance, but at least I didn't spit the food out. I wasn't really sure about the polite rules of table decorum in Mexico – apparently punching people wasn't frowned at - but I assumed that violently expelling bites of hamburger and fragments of my obliterated mouth would be seen as a touch unmannerly.
"Hmm...si...de verdad son muy sabrosoif I took a (small) sip of soda, before reaching for the bowl again. Taking eight or ten chilis in my hand, I turned to the Hammer. "Tell me, how does one say 'revenge is a dish best served cold'?"
One corner of his lip went up, and he quickly translated for me. As he did so, I made a show of slowly depositing pepper after pepper in my mouth, palming them all, as he had done. I slowly started to chew on nothing, before smiling at Edgar.
"Gracias para el...lesson?...leccion en espanol." I reached over and patted his shoulder before squeezing down on the spot where his mother had smacked him. He winced and pulled away from me at the same time as his father erupted in laughter, a much louder and more genuine sort of mirth than when he had directed it at Edgar.
Wiping a tear from his eye, he remarked "He no understand these about the revenge, but he understand that!"
"What didn't he understand about revenge?"
The Hammers eyes swiveled back to me, the laughter dying in them as if a breaker had been flipped.
"Cold revenge...thees is a norteamericano thing. Down here, we do the revenge hot."
I mulled this over while I finished my lunch. Nothing in my life had prepared me for anything like the present situation. I am used to feeling out of place. I've been searching for the part of the board where my jagged puzzle piece is supposed to fit since I was old enough to see myself reflected in another's eyes and realized that I was not welcome there. But I was accustomed to feeling awkward in ways completely different from this. Less alien. Less foreign. In my desperation~ I had allowed the pleasant domesticity of the scene to lull me into a sense of safety. Leave it to the Hammer to remind me that the meadow I was so casually strolling through was really a minefield. My weariness flooded back into me, and I began to shut down again, returning to my safe place. You can’t hurt the watcher, I knew, because the watcher isn't alive. There's nothing left to take.
There was a family dynamic at work here that was completely foreign to me. These people truly enjoyed each other. You could tell that they actually wanted to be here, together. There were no masks of polished but nonetheless feigned interest, no attempts to buy affection instead of attempting the real thing, no need to start elaborate stories whose sole purpose was to waste just enough time to reach the pre-planned and much awaited point on the clock where it would be seen as acceptable to leave. Most importantly, there was no contest here, no expectations, no snide judgments carefully gift wrapped in the guise of polite inquiry, designed to surgically flay your skin back and expose your heart to ruthless probing and ridicule. There was genuine love here. It made me feel small and external, an interloper who had stumbled in from the cold and would soon be asked to leave.
I must have lost myself in the fog of my musings, because when I came around I found myself sitting alone at the table. My place had been cleared, save for my cup. The sky was very clear, a remarkable cerulean free from the slightest taint of smog. Some children were playing soccer, trying to kick the ball past a very large, hulking man who protected a small space between two of the oak trees. After several failed attempts, the younger generation mutinied and began to attack themselves to the legs of the goalie. After six or seven of them had piled on, the adult feigned a loss of balance and gracefully and carefully fell into the grass. While the screaming pack held him down and shouted encouragements, a small girl with pigtails lined the ball up with excruciating care and scored the winning goal.
I looked away, somehow unable to view this scene any longer I knew how it would all turn out, how the adult would pretend to be enraged at his defeat, and would make much of the strength and prowess of the young ones. In another life, I had been that guy. I don't know how he got away from me. It all happened so slowly, the evolution too gradual to notice unless one took a step back. I did not think it possible to hate myself any more than I already did, but I kept finding new ways to get there.
I noticed after a few moments that the Hammer was talking on a cell phone near the back entrance to his house. He eventually saw me watching him, and began walking towards me. By the time he had reached the pavilion, he had returned the cell phone to his pocket. I felt embarrassed by my mental departure, but didn't know what to say. Seeing me watching him closely, he sat down opposite of me at the table. We both just existed there for a small eternity, neither looking at the other. I didn't know why he had brought me here. It seemed reckless, but he wasn’t a rash man so I knew he had a reason for all of this. I couldn't see it and it infuriated me. He wanted something from me, and
I knew this couldn't be a good thing. His silence - a weapon that I had always presumed to be my own - now carved into me. It became so unbearable I felt like screaming just to shut it out.
Instead, I sighed deeply. "I don't know what I am doing here. I'm feeling lost. Totally adrift."
He merely looked at me for a time.
"You theenk ees deeferent for anyone else? Thees ees what it ees to leeve, to feel lost. All of life ees a game. a deestraction from thees feeling." He paused. as if trying to find the right words in English. "Look, I do no know why you are here. Ees obvio que you have done sometheeng en el otro lado. I no care what thees ees. The laws of you country no me interesa. I leev there durante los setentas, when the soda was first become popular. I take eet from sellers in the Miami to Orlando and sometimes up to Cheecago."
I thought it funny the way he said Cheeeecago, but didn't feel this was the moment for laughter. "So, you were what, Scarface?"
"No, no. en realidad thees movie never get nothing right.
It no was so messy. We were make so much money that at first there was enough para todas. I sometime make teen thousand dollar a day, and I was no beeg compare to others. Steel, eventually people I know do sometheen stupid and I have to do the ugly theengs. After enough of thees. I no can stay, or go back. Whatever you do, I have the worse cases waiting for me if I ever go back."
He stopped for a moment, looking off at the children. I wondered if this was the end of the story, but eventually he roused himself and continued.
"Do I regret the keeling? Si. Few people enjoy thees. And I no am eegnorant of the people who abuse what I sell. The quality we send, ees too high for the crack, so eet mostly go to rich people. But I know sometime it do damage. If the people there een Miami play fair. I would no have done so much wrong. I come back here and start the familee, buy all thees," he waved expansively with his hand. "Sometime in the night, I used to have, como se dice? The bad dream. Thees place, I buy it theenking I buy the clear conscience; teep the scale the other way. It no work like this. Steel, look around. You see the business there? Onlee one of theem make a profit. Si, they make a leetlc money, enough to buy the clothes or maybe some food. But to leev? Shaw, I pay for them to leev. I no have the time for bad dream, you see? My pain no feed they stomach. The electrician, hees name is Marcelo. He ees nephew to me. He make a small profit. Ees good man. Eef the uneeverse fair, he would have everyting. You see leetle Lucia?" He pointed to the girl with the pigtails who had scored the goals. She had left the other kids and was playing with a cat in the tall weeds by the barn. "Marcelo y Irma, they try for yeers to have keeds. Yeers y yeers. When notheeng come, I pay for the process for her. I no know how to say een English. Eet cost more than one hoondred thousand dollar. But theer is Lucia. She ees so smart, Rudy. She weel be doctor or lawyer, will change thees place. She is better than I weel ever be, but she no be at all wecthout me. You see? Nhat I tell you ees things are difficult now for you. You need the time to have deestance from eet all. All thees hurt, you do it to yourself. Moraleety ees for the peeple weeth sometheeng to lose. Yes?"
“You are saying it is 'always darkest before the dawn'? That's your great advice and wisdom for me? I suddenly feel like I can conquer the world. Thanks."
He actually smiled at my self-pity, which is a good thing because I had been way out of line with my comment.
"Yes. Rudy, he tell me you have the tongue. But no, what I say to you ees thees: demons; they no are defeeted, only confronted. And not knowing what you feel no ees the same as feeling notheeng."
I shook my head, trying to shrug off the direct hit. How the hell had he gotten that close to the mark?
"What do you want from me, Gelo?"
"We talk about thees later. When you get you head back. For now, you come see how I confront my demons, yes
He stood, and I followed him northward. The taller on this side of the property was immense, a huge metal building designed to swallow up tractor-trailers for repair. There were none of these in View inside, but instead I saw a large red Ford F-350
Dually pick-up truck, which had been lifted up on an oversized industrial rack. The six men that I had seen at lunch were at work underneath this, scurrying about in an orgy of dissection. They reminded me of ants tearing apart a cricket; such was their focus. The Hammer slid the shed's door closed behind us, and proceeded to give me my first lesson about how to smuggle kilos of illegal narcotics across the borderlands.
To Be Continued…
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