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Friday, February 1, 2013

No Mercy for Dogs Part 10

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 9 can be read here

If there was a recurring motif to my first few weeks in Mexico, it was this: nothing was what I expected it to be. People uncertain about their abilities tend to make a study out of forecasting events: what subjects are likely to come up on any given day, what requirements are likely to be demanded, and, of course, what could be the myriad ways in which one could fail at the day’s tasks. Attempts at prognostication become something of a salve, a way of making sense of a confused, failed mess. Besides that, the theory rests on a comfortable if clearly illusory equation: the more unknowns that you can map out in advance, the better the prediction. It's a way to avoid feeling like a total and complete failure: if one could just learn a little more data, be a little more perfect...and self-acceptance sneaks by with an alias and is out the door forever.

I had expected Esperanza to be some sort of a Mexican version of the Stepford wives, and had instead found the biological equivalent of an M1 Abrams Battle Tank. Staring at the bright pink facade of Pedro's home, I tried to also imagine what sort of woman a man like the Hammer chose for a mistress. I anticipated someone suitably peroxided and medicated and silicone-enhanced; a sleazy Mexicanized Barbie doll for the appropriate Latin weltan-schauung. This was, I think, the last time I bothered with attempting to predict the future, at least when it came to the subject of personality types.

You generally don't think of northeastern Mexico as a gathering place for hippies, and there are solid reasons for this. Staci apparently didn't get the memo. In fact, that was pretty much the overriding impression I formed about her within the first few minutes of my visit: that she had missed a whole mess of memos.

I could hear what sounded like The Doors smashing against the closed windows at the front of the house as Pedro fished his key out of his pocket. He winced a little as the door cracked open and the deluge washed against us. "I hate Morrison," he mumbled as he pushed our way into a very cool vestibule. An inordinate amount of metal-on-metal clankery was emanating from what I supposed to be the kitchen, and I set my satchel down next to the door as Pedro sought out the source of the racket.

The room I was standing in was an all-out visual assault on the eyes, and it took me several minutes before my attention had a chance to take it all in. I doubt that the men who had laid the foundation and the block walls would recognize their work by this point. The walls were hung with everything from vibrant tapestries obviously handmade by the local equivalent of an "Indian" to posters of Frida Kahlo's paintings. Diego Rivera's "Agrarian Leader Zapata" stared angrily at me from its perch above an extensive green leather sectional. The revolutionary's sickle somehow seemed at odds with so much color and life, and, I noted, in particular with the dog-eared copy of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which sat atop a small end table to the right of the sofa. Nearly every inch of shelf space in the room was occupied with either a framed photograph or a piece of folk art. The vast majority of these were fantastically-colored and appendaged animals, which I later came to know were from the state of Oaxaca and which are called "alebrijes." One in particular caught my attention, a sort of rainbow-hued octopus- looking-creature. Next to it, I saw photographs of Pedro at a school event and what I assumed to be Staci at the beach, a long line of whitewashed buildings stretched out behind her. None of the photographs showed Papa Ramos. The icing on the cake was the doormat, which I had somehow missed when I had first stepped over it. In what I suppose you could call a "graffiti-relief" style, a sullen looking desperado could be seen smoking a cigarette, one hand tucked into the two leather bandoliers laden with bullets, which crisscrossed his chest. In his other hand, pointed center-left, was a cocked...banana. The effect was so ludicrous that I had to choke down a laugh. It was awesome, and I sort of instantly wanted one just like it.

The music's volume lowered eventually, and the lady of the house exited the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. Her smile was broad and generous, and didn't seem forced to me at the time.  It was the sort of smile that one would have to be a real curmudgeon not to mirror.

"Ah! Yes! I had hoped to see you at some point, ever since Gelo mentioned that you had come! " She cried, before grabbing the outsides of each of my biceps and kissing me on the right cheek. I must have looked stunned because she laughed delightedly.

"First time you've been greeted like that? Get used to it, it's a tradition down here. Only it is supposed to be the man who kisses the woman's cheek..." Her look was coquettish as she trailed off, which morphed quickly into amusement as I tried to think of how to escape having to kiss a drug lord`s mistress.

"Come, come, we're having pizza tonight, and there is plenty for everyone."

"Um...pizza?"

"Yes, we aren't all addicted to tacos de trompo and caldo de res down here. Some of us like to experiment."

"Yes...I can see that."

Laughing at my inability to figure her out - an event which I am certain was normal for her - she quickly returned to her previous task of kneading some cayenne pepper into a huge slab of dough. It is a good thing that I am not a huge talker, because during the conversation that followed our greeting, I seldom had an opportunity to speak. At some point I realized that all of this appeared to be for my benefit, and her effort at ensuring my ease touched me deeply.

Staci was, in a word, unique. Born in Texas, she spent her youth mostly being ferried from El Paso to her father's family in San Luis Potosi and to her mother‘s in Tijuana. I later learned that she had met the Hammer after her first husband had been arrested moving major weight in Illinois. I was having a difficult time seeing how these two clicked, but I guess his attraction was understandable as she really was a very fine-looking woman; what she saw in him could, I supposed, be perfectly explainable by the dual argument of desperation and financial security. Her cheeriness was fairly contagious, and one tended to at least pretend to know what she was so happy about, the equivalent of the silent bond formed by a mutually understood private joke.

She seemed to place great significance in my arrival on this exact date, though I hadn't a clue as to why. I was starting to realize that she had the type of mind that placed a great deal of significance in everything. It was a difficult juxtaposition to manage, seeing Staci as gangster's plaything as well as gullible kook. In less than ten minutes, she had already somehow wormed astrology and brujeria into the conversation, and I was sure that I was going to be hearing about the spiritual powers of crystals at some point, given that she had a rather large collection of these dangling from her neck, ears and wrists. Some people believe in anything they can. Some would believe in everything if they could only fit it in their minds. But such people didn't usually end up hanging out with killers. For all of her attempts to wear her heart on her sleeve, she was a difficult person to peg, and I should have been paying more attention to her eyes.

Dinner was also odd, but strange in a delicious way and certainly far better fare than I would have found on my own. I noticed that Pedro said little during the meal, and it didn't take a PhD in clinical psychology to figure out how he had ended up such a serious young man. In a house like this, someone had to be. Staci seemed thrilled that I was available to help her son with his algebra, having - surprise, surprise - little love for left-brain activities. As dinner was winding down, she rubbed her hand through his hair and told him to go get his books ready for "math time." I don't think that any of us missed the message

I didn't have long to wait tor it. After setting the dishes in the sink, Staci turned and stared at me.

"Why are you here?"

"I already told you: I met your son at the library and...”

She cut me off with a chop of her hand, a curiously violent gesture considering that she had spent the last ten minutes laughing at having recently played the part of Fricka in a mostly-gay comedic version of Gotterdammerung in Monterrey, where, instead of slaying him, Hagan and Siegfried ran off to a techno club on Ibiza.

"I heard that already, and you know I am asking something else."

Ah, I thought. Goodbye, hippie-chick, hello, Hammer's girl. I looked off to my right, stalling for time, eventually resting my eyes on the window leading to the back yard. How do I answer this? I don't even know the answer myself, really. I could lie to her easily, tell her anything. That seemed safest. Instead, I turned to her and leaned back in my chair.
"I don't really have anywhere else to go. Gelo has me built into this legend as his son, which I can't imagine anyone believes. I haven‘t met anyone besides your son who can teach me what I need to know as fast as I need to know it. I probably really can help him with his math, but I am here for selfish reasons and I might as well admit that..." I trailed off, wondering if perhaps she had meant the question in the larger sense, about why I was south of the border to begin with.

She stared at me intensely tor a moment, before going on.

"You are not here to hurt my son."

It sounded like a question, and I held up my hands to stop her.

"Staci, I am not here to hurt your son. I am not here to hurt you, or anyone else. I think I've reached my quota tor that in this life. I give you my word. If that isn't good enough, I will get up and leave and never come back."

She leaned back slightly against the sink, and for the first time I realized that her high-energy routine of earlier had been because she was terrified. I stood up, and pulled my shirt up over the waistband of my jeans, and turned all the way around.

The fact that I was not armed seemed to cause her to collapse.

"Well, then...good. Good, good, good. I never know when he is playing games. He`s put people in my life before to test me," she sighed. "But don't be so sure that no one will believe the story about your being his son. No one has said anything to you about that yet?"

After thinking about this for a moment, I said, "I think the Sra Castillo said something, but I didn‘t catch it all. Something about our noses being similar."

She snickered at this. "Ah, the Maria Isabella, so you have met her. We feel it each time she shifts on her couch, even clear across the town...people will look at you two and swear they see the resemblance in your eyes, your mouth, even your ears. They will say that you are carbon copies of each other. They will do this because that is the power that some people have in this country. They will believe because it is the safest thing to do."

"The Emperor's new clothes are very stylish."

"Exactamente. Play the game, Rudy, whatever it is. We all have to play the game."

I nodded to her wisdom, thinking: fine, but only until I learn the rules. Then I play my own game.

"So, I have your permission to use your son as my tutor?"
"Yes, yes...it will be good for him to have someone help him through these times. He is nothing like me, and he needs a modern man to tell him things that Gelo cannot. He will know you have come here. You know this, yes?"

It didn't take a genius to know which "he" she was referring to.

"Nothing I can do about that. This all happened innocently enough."

"Yes, to be sure," she remarked. "You are really not with him, are you?" This last was said as it she had just come to terms with this realization.

"No... sort of. I'm with him for now, because he's left me no choice." I didn't know why I was being so honest with her, me, who hadn't been honest with anyone in years. Fear makes strange bedfellows, I suppose.

"And does he know this?"

"I think he is starting to."

"Then I say you had better learn your way down here as fast as you can. You have been walking everywhere?"

"Yes."

"You saw the white Jeep outside? It is my old car, and I seldom use it. You are welcome to borrow it, but you will have to stay within the city. It's importation tags are not legal, and if you get out on the highway Gelo's protection may not help you."

I didn't know what she meant with this "tags" business, but it didn't matter anyways. "Thank you, Staci, really. But I couldn‘t afford the gas that inline-6 would eat up. Still...you wouldn't know where I could buy a bicycle, would you?"

"A bicycle? Ah...there are no stores tor that here. But every Sunday the mercado comes to Cerralvo, in the Placita. If they don`t have any, you can put in an order and they will bring you one the next week."

"Really? Ok, that works...what about groceries? I can't keep buying trash at depositos. And I'm going to need a haircut at some point."

"There is a small store near where you live that sells fresh produce. I will drive you home later and show you where it is. And most of the young men go to Don Ricardo's to get their hair cut. It is very popular there, only .... "

She broke off, staring pensively at me for a moment.

"Do you know where the Pemex station is near the big plaza? Yes? Good. The road that connects the station to the plaza also heads out towards the ranch...if you follow it a little ways, on the corner with Carlos Camacho street you will see a small barber shop. It is owned by Don Antonio Baranda Perez. I think it would be a good idea if you stopped off there in the late morning on Sunday, after you go to the mercado."

Whatever the content of her message, the importance of it was coming across clearly. I wasn‘t sure if she was setting me up for something, but she swam in far deeper waters than I had initially given her credit for.

"I can see why he loves you."

"Who? Pedro?"

"No, el Martillo."

She smiled at the mention of his nickname, which she must not hear often. "He told you that he loved me?"

"Ah...well...subtextually."

This cracked her up. While she was laughing, I decided to try something....

"Can you tell me where he got that nickname?"

“He hasn't told you? No, he wouldn't, would he? It's more ominous that way, I guess. He comes from nothing, you know? His family was very poor. Before his father killed himself with drink, he was the man who used a sledgehammer to stun the cows so that they could be slaughtered. At 9, Gelo had to take his job to feed his mother and sisters. It's the reason he is the way he is: he only knows how to live by charging forward..."
Her voice dropped at this, tinged with sadness, before shaking her head. "Well, we have come to an understanding between us, I think. Now, you must go help Pedro come to the same. I could help him once, but he is too smart for me now...all those letters and symbols make no sense to me."

"You just have to keep track of all of the variables....” I began, before coming face to face with the broken formula of my entire life.

Staci didn't notice. "Well, Variable Man, you get to work. I will have some cookies ready in an hour or so."

The spell broken by the universal panacea of cookies, I smiled crookedly at her. "You know, it you keep feeding me like this, I will have no vested interest in making sure Pedro's grades improve any time soon."

She shooed me out of the kitchen at this, and soon Pedro and I were knee deep in quadratic equations. It was the first time I had felt safe in weeks, and this feeling wasn`t entirely due to the cold, objective comfort of the math. If Ramos had wanted me bottled up at the ranch until he revealed his plan for me then all things considered, the day was mine.

The problem was: he could lose a few days, from time to time. I most definitely could not.



Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
USA

 
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