Tuesday, February 5, 2013

No Mercy For Dogs Part 11

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 10 can be read here

By the time Pedro and I had finished his homework, Staci had returned to her usual cheery self. Too much of her, I decided, might give you diabetes. True to her word, she made us chocolate chip cookies for dessert. It's hard not to love someone that makes you cookies just a little, and not for the first time I wondered how she had ended up falling in love with a drug kingpin. She placed several of these in a wax paper sack for me to take home, and I knew without a doubt that I was going to be coming back to Pedro's house as often as I could. Even though I was exhausted from a full day of attempting to force-feed vocabulary into my weary brain, I decided not to accept Staci's offer to drive me back to the ranch. Doubtless, the Hammer was going to learn that I had spent all evening at his mistress' house. I didn't think it wise for him to be receiving reports that she had driven me home on top of that, especially when you consider that home was basically a place that he took women to in order to get away from his wife. I think that Staci understood immediately, as she seemed a bit relieved. I kept having to remind myself that she was a bit ditzy, but she was not stupid. Still, I did ask for directions to the small grocery store that she had mentioned She took a white paper napkin from the kitchen table and drew a surprisingly detailed map of the 5 or 6 block area surrounding La Curva. It was so good, I ended up keeping it for months. It showed not only the ranch and how it related to the town, but also the hospital, two depositos, and the road to the Placita. The desert was covered with cacti, including one with a tap in it, which was dripping a liquid directly into a drunken vaquero's mouth. Another had a label, which read "ouch" with a big arrow pointing to some of the spines. That part I had figured out on my own, but the thought was nice.

Next to a large "X" she had written "Tienda de Abarrotes La Juerguista," and I asked her about that.

"The first part means 'grocery store', mijo, and you will want to memorize it for the future, unless you plan to go on a very long diet. A 'juerguista' is a 'merrymaker' or a 'reveler', or something like that. Female tense, of course." She sighed. "The owner is Emilio, and he is a very curious man. You will see why if you spend much time with him. The store is not fancy, like those in the centro. Emilio has no money for non-essentials. But what they have is as fresh as anything you will find in town and much cheaper, especially this late at night."

The evenings in Cerralvo tended to cool off far more rapidly than they did in Houston, the winds flowing down from the mountains in the west making a mockery of my t-shirt. I settled into an easy lope to warm myself up. I had been running every night now for weeks, and my body was starting to become accustomed to the punishment. In the ten or twelve minutes it took me to reach Emilio`s place, my rate of breathing had barely increased, and I wasn't sweating at all.

I paused for a few minutes outside of the store, taking it all in. Staci had not been exaggerating when she said that the store sported no non-essentials. The place had all of the charm of a fallout shelter, and none of the strength. The only concession made to aesthetics or advertising was a 2-foot by 2-foot section of plaster applied to a section of the front wall to the right of the door. On this was painted a cartoonishly buxom female seen from behind. Tilted slightly to the left, she was looking back over her shoulder in a coquettish way, though her eyes looked to be a bit unfocused. Explaining part of this was a bottle of Corona in her right hand. Making somewhat less sense, she carried a bunch of bananas in her left. I'm not sure what sort of "merrymaking" one can do with a banana, but her look clearly implied that she knew things I could only guess at.

The interior of the store was divided into two sections. The area to the right contained a small grill and concrete bar. I had been eating tacos nearly non-stop now for more than a month, so I recognized the set-up immediately. The left half of the store contained metal shelves loaded with various comestibles. A few pieces of produce sat in small plastic baskets to my left, and it was to these that I initially headed. I couldn't see anyone from here, but someone was running a sink behind the grill's counter so I figured that I wasn't alone.

I would later learn that Emilio's wife bought produce from the Mexican equivalent of a farmer's market every morning, and what they had left at the end of the day was eaten by the family. By this point in the evening the place was pretty picked over. I ended up with the last six carrots, three small apples, and two oblong yellowish-orange fruits, which I thought to be mangos. From the freezer I selected a small bottle of milk and a carton of orange juice. A small television set rested at the end of the bar, which showed an aerial shot of the Parthenon in Greece. With a shock I realized that the 2004 Olympic games had begun, and I hadn't even known it. I had been aware that they were coming, of course, but somehow the entire month of July had melted away from me. As lost as I was in this confusion, I failed to notice the thin man to my right until the smoke from his cigarette engulfed me.

I must have jumped a little, and he showed me his teeth in response.

"Que onda, guero?"

This was a bit of a moment for me, the first time I can recall actually comprehending someone's greeting in all of its subtleties. What's up, white boy? Hell yes, I thought: I'm getting somewhere. My response was less graceful, and caused him to raise his left eyebrow, but he moved behind the counter nonetheless and picked up a small portable calculator. I nodded to the television. "How many medals do you think Mexico will win?"

"Me vale madres."

I must have looked confused, because he gave me his toothy, nicotine-laden grin again, before answering in broken English.

"I no geeve a fock. Me vale madres."

"Ah," I said, laughing. "Eh...gracias." My eyes strayed to the grill, where he had obviously been chopping up a huge slab of cow for the next day's tacos. Having recently learned the word for bones, I asked him what he did with them.

What followed was a hodgepodge of Spanglish and hand gestures, but eventually we made it to Boardwalk and he bagged a few of the still meaty bones in a small plastic sack. It took me another small eternity to haggle over the bill, but overall I was pleased: the progress was slow, but I was getting the hang of this. At least I now knew how to say that I didn't give a fock.

The ranch was a mile from the nearest power line, and as soon as I left the highway night enveloped me. I have had a fascination with the stars since I was old enough to lift my head upwards in wonder. My first and fastest friends came to me from the pages of Heinlein and Asimov and Harrison, Pohl and Brin and Bradbury. Later, when I was nine, I read Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy, to this day still my favorite book. In it, the young Myrddin Emrys looked up at the Empyrean and tried in vain to hear the music rumored to come from all of those tiny dots.

A year or so later, I read in an astronomy book that there are less than ten thousand stars visible to the naked eye from Earth, and only around 1,500 or so from any one point in the northern hemisphere. I know that this is probably true, but I will never believe it, because...sometimes the fantasy is too important to let go. I don't know how many times I snuck out at night onto the roof of my childhood home, hoping to hear the music of the stars.

The Milky Way was a cottony band stretching out above me, and for a time I stopped simply to stare. I have had people tell me that all of that empty space terrifies them, but I have never understood this. When I look at the night sky, I feel like I am home. Every atom in the human body was born in a star, so maybe this makes some sense.

The thing about dreamers is that while our heads are up in the heavens, our feet are still planted on the ground. Which, as it happens, is where hungry coyotes live. (The four-legged kind, I mean.) I first clued to the fact that I wasn't alone by the rustling of the tall weeds about 50 feet to my left. I had pretty much run into all manner of beasts on my nightly runs including coyotes. For the most part, they wanted nothing to do with me, and I would occasionally see their eyes flash in some stray beam of light before they scampered off. The one that was edging cautiously out of the brush before me didn't seem to be in any mood to run, however. Mostly it sniffed the air, and I realized that it was picking up on the bones I had bought for Blackie. Who, I remember thinking at the time, would be awfully useful in the present situation. The coyote soon advanced about
15 feet, and it was at this point that I flicked out my knife, still not expecting the thing to attack.

Attack it did not. Instead, it danced: frontwards and backwards, and then tilted its head down to the ground. Each time it did this, it emitted a small yelp. What the hell? I thought? Is it domesticated? Is it begging? The thing looked pathetic, silly, and almost... it was trying to hold my attention.

You are being hunted, you moron, a voice I only later recognized as my own chimed in, and I spun to my right. Sure enough, not 30 feet away were three more of the creatures, advancing slowly. Some genetic memory from my caveman ancestors must have kicked in at this point, because before I had really had a chance to think the situation out I was dipping my right hand to the ground and coming up with a stone. This went zinging towards the pack, missing the first but causing the rest to panic and turn tail. My second stone landed with an immensely satisfying yelp, and I laughed hysterically up at the sky. Anyone watching would have thought they were watching a man come unglued, the way I shouted and taunted and stomped my feet on the tall grass. Savaging four scrawny, starved coyotes is hardly a feat worthy of a war dance, and in retrospect I think I must have actually trying to dispel the memory of the last nine months. Looking back, the whole event feels like a discharge of something fundamental, something that was never going to stay buried. A small madness in a time of greater madness, perhaps. A tiny victory in a time of greater failures. Whatever you call it, it made me feel alive for the first time in years.

I strolled into the ranch like I owned the place, and set most of my goodies in the icebox. The milk I took to the back stall, where I left it in a bowl for the cats. Blackie was nowhere to be seen, but I left his bones heaped atop his bowl. I could only imagine the slobber and the noises of pleasure that were going to be produced upon his discovery of this treasure, and I hoped that I was here to witness it. For myself, I left out one of the I-think-its-a-mango for a post-run snack.

My après-battle euphoria had waned a bit, so I decided to change my circuit from the open desert to a slightly more civilized locale. After stretching, I headed towards the highway. Not wanting to be seen, I stayed a few hundred feet outside of the lights cast by the businesses that ran along it. Eventually a piece of macadam broke off of the main route and headed SSE. A sign on the highway soon read: Melchor Ocampo - 12km. That seemed like a good distance, so I started off and soon lost myself in the cool night air.

Small homesteads dotted the highway, but for the most part the space between Cerralvo and Melchor Ocampo was desolate. The road curved around large mesas and hillocks, though their exact topography was impossible to detect in the darkness. Several of these seemed like easy climbs, and I took advantage of a few of them to look out over the country. The town of Melchor Ocampo appeared to be far smaller than Cerralvo, little more than perhaps 150 homes, laid out in a small, neat grid. I never went into town that night, but from a nearly bluff I had an excellent view of the small park situated at the center of town. Being a Friday night, I could see people walking around the plaza, the "vuelta" of Cerralvo on a smaller, calmer scale.

After twenty minutes of this, I turned to my right to go but ended up freezing in half-step. Something down near the bottom of the slope had moved - or so I thought. For a moment I had a panicky thought that the damned coyotes had gone for reinforcements and were back to finish the job, but I quickly put this down. Eventually the breeze shifted and I saw it again: a tiny light. I would never have noted it, had it not been for the total and complete gloom that covered the rest of the terrain. I couldn‘t see any sort of driveway leading off of the main road that would indicate a home of some sort. It was this incongruous fact, I think, which caused me to walk down the hill in the direction of the light, rather than to the road.

Before long I found a small path, which gently curved down the incline. Large trees crowded the space - mesquites, perhaps, though it was impossible to tell in the darkness. At the center of the grove was a small rectangular building, totally devoid of windows. One solitary candle sat on a tiny pedestal to the right of the door. The place had a peaceful way about it, and I realized with a certainty that this had to be one of the country shrines that Papa Ramos had mentioned in passing. Pushing open the metal door, I was struck blind by heat and light, and my hand immediately went up to my face.

Inside stood a huge altar, which was draped all around by a heavy purple fabric strung from the ceiling to the floor. On every conceivable inch of space sat a candle - hundreds, thousands of them, each seemingly unique. I had never seen anything like it before. I was not a Catholic, but it seemed appropriate to cross myself as I entered. 15 or 20 figures made of plaster, plastic, and stone crowded about the altar, but two were obviously given priority of place: a balding monk with his hand raised in a position of blessing, and a female which I guessed to be la Virgin de Guadalupe. I wasn't sure if this person was the same as Mary the mother of Jesus, but I figured it had to be. The shadows made some of the figures seem like they were moving and blinking, and the overall effect was quite powerful.

I must have stood there for half an hour, trying to take it all in. I had grown up in the church, and had mostly been a believer in some version of Christianity my entire life. Even in the midst of my worst moments, I was praying to some god to stop me. Since December 10th, I had not really been able to face the god of my childhood in any honest way, the hypocrisy of the act too great even for me. I would eventually come to understand that the conflict between the Nazarene and the information presented to me by empirical observation had been fundamental to how I had allowed myself to have fallen so far, but that was a revelation for another time. In those moments, I was simply lost in the simple mess of faith and fear.

Many of the candles had gone out, for whatever reason. I eventually approached the altar with the idea of relighting some of them. A few steps from my destination, though, I stopped. I hadn't noticed it from my position by the door, but the room simply wasn't right. Instead I walked around the mass of candles and pulled back the veil on the left, only to stare at a blank wall. When I did the same on the right, however, I found a small door set into the partition. This was unlocked, but when I stepped through it I found myself in a space smaller than most closets. If I was shocked upon entering the shrine's front door, its back one caused an even greater reaction.

This chamber was totally unadorned, save for ten or twelve candles and a two-foot wooden plinth set against the back wall. Two figures stood upon this. The lesser of the two was a cowboy of some sort, broad sombrero hanging from his neck by a cord. Across his chest was a bandolier of shells, and he had a sword raised in his right hand. Stuck on the sword were pieces of paper – requests? prayers? - and his mouth was open in a shout of victory or pain. It was not this man that had inspired my knife to appear uncalled for in my hand, or which had caused all of the hair on my forearm to stand on end.

Atop the vaquero stood another figure, this one tall and thin, entirely covered in black robes. Nothing could be seen of this person, save for one skeletal hand that tightly gripped a scythe. Above the figure, in red capital letters, were the words: LA MUERTE INVICTO.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling of malice, of being in a place I ought not to be. In my time in Mexico, I would be attacked numerous times by dogs, coyotes, and people. I would stare down drug dealers and crooked police officers. In none of these situations would I feel the raw terror that assailed me inside the dark chapel. I had dropped into a sort of semi-crouch, my blade down in a defensive position, but the only clear message my beleaguered brain was able to process was: get the fuck out of here. And that is what I did. I don't even recall if I shut the door on my way out, and may the small gods of that place forgive me.

If you had bet money that any of the distance runners then competing in Athens could have run the 12kms back to Cerralvo faster than me, you would have lost. I doubt even the coyotes would have made a second attempt, had they seen me.

It was my first visit to a country shrine. It was also my last.

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

“Solitary 101”

Solitary Watch's “Solitary 101″ PowerPoint, developed for the recent Midwest Coalition for Human Rights conference on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, can be viewed HERE (printed version). The 60-slide PowerPoint includes sections on the history of solitary confinement, solitary as it is practiced in the United States today, and the growing movement against solitary confinement.

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