Día de los Muertos: Chapter 1

And whoever walks a mile full of false sympathy walks to the funeral of the human race.
– D.H. Lawrence

Volver Volver (Mexican folk song)

Éste amor apasionado
anda todo alborotado
por volver

Voy camino a la locura
y aunque todo me tortura
sé querer

Nos dejamos hace tiempo
pero se llego el momento de perder

Tú tenías mucho razón
me hago caso al corazón
y me muero por volver

One

Tijuana, Mexico / November 1—2:00 P.M.

It was Tijuana’s knack at getting back at you that worried Calhoun. Looking like a sun-savvy reptile in his chic, wraparound dark glasses, Vincent Calhoun stepped off the curb into the traffic that circled the central plaza; immediately, car horns began to blare and brakes slammed. Calhoun shot his hands up, signaling halt. The drivers saw a big American in a foreign legion-style hat and white summer suit. Calhoun crossed in front of them, ignoring the barrage of ugly looks from the drivers. Somehow, the drivers knew they didn’t want to fuck with him. There were people in Tijuana you just didn’t want to fool with. The ones who looked like Calhoun—the players, the reptiles from the desert—you stayed away from.

Once inside the cool ring of shade that bordered the plaza, Calhoun heard the offers for the city’s most popular products from its front line businessmen. “Pussy, pot or pills… Got some young pussy, brother… She’ll suck your dick till you think you’re dead,” a kid sitting on a bench, the shade darkening his face, said to him. Calhoun left the offer behind him, crossing into the open stretch of plaza, the no-man’s land of pavers and sunlight. The heat was penetrating, alive, walking next to him like a madman. It radiated off the stark white concrete. He could feel it through his shoes, as if he were barefoot on a beach. He realized for the first time that there was something absolutely cruel and quintessentially Indian about the plaza, the sheer enormity of the space cut from the heart of the city, ceremonial. It conjured up human sacrifice. Maybe the city was really still Toltec, he thought. Workmen were hanging bunting and lights on the plaza’s bandstand in preparation for the upcoming holiday.

At the other side of the plaza Calhoun stopped at a kiosk on the corner and bought the Diario de la Sierra, which gave race schedules and odds at Caliente. The paper’s front page shouted Police Search City for Frank Guzman in a banner headline.

“When were you born?” Calhoun asked the newspaper vendor, peering at him inside the messy interior of the kiosk. The man looked at him from his shell of clapboard, the only bit of shade on the noisy street. The vendor saw the big white man looking at him. A spotless white cotton suit. The ball of sun caught in the yellow tint of his dark glasses.

“¿Como…?” The man’s face was framed by girlie magazines, girls in short shorts with big asses. A municipal bus roared by the kiosk, leaving the street behind it showered with black exhaust.

“Amigo… what day were you born?” Calhoun repeated the question over the grinding of the bus engine. He tried to smile but it was hard. “I need a lucky number,” he explained. “For the races.”

“On the day they ripped Jesus Christ down from his cross to get at his wallet,” the man said and laughed. He pounded the counter for emphasis, thinking it was funny.

Calhoun made his way down the sidewalk toward the Playa Azul. He knew suddenly that Tijuana had won. That nothing he could do would restore his luck. He’d exhausted his suerte—his good fortune. It was obvious. It was over. Everyone gets so much suerte and that’s it. His was finished, used up. In the restaurant Playa Azul he took a clean handkerchief out of his suit pocket and wiped down his face. Today the heavy canvas havelock he wore hadn’t been enough protection from the heat. Even through the clean starched handkerchief his face felt wet and dirty. He pulled it away. It was soaked and he was worried. Nothing wrong, he told himself. Nothing wrong at all. No past, only future.

Dia Spacer
“It’s time to pay up.” Slaughter smiled at him in a friendly way. The young Englishman had a Stars and Bars do-rag tied around his head like an already-dated grunge band singer. He pushed his hair off his unctuous face. There was something in the Englishman’s countenance that was evil, the cold, psychotic variety of evil that is shockingly pedestrian in Tijuana.

The restaurant was crowded. The air conditioning made it almost cold. Brightly colored gallardetes, paper pennants, hung in rows from the ceiling. You could hear them rustling, blown by the air conditioning. Calhoun had chosen the Playa Azul because it was the only restaurant that he could stand to be in during the heat. It was like a refrigerator. Calhoun kept his sunglasses on and everything was tinted yellow by his Vuarnets—the Englishman’s face, the blue linoleum floor, the murals of idyllic jalapas on a beach painted on the wall. The restaurant was full of tradespeople, no tourists, just businessmen, talking against the white, clean walls.

“I want a steak and French-fried potatoes. Can you do that for me, dear? No cilantro,” Slaughter told the waitress. The rich golden tones of his middle class English voice were commanding and superior. He’d been to Oxford.

“It’s a fish place,” Calhoun said. He didn’t know why he’d said it. Slaughter turned to look at him, pushed the do-rag higher on his forehead. He wore a soiled yellow guayabera shirt. Without realizing it, Slaughter had gone to seed. All the money he was making in the rackets didn’t seem to matter—it was as if Tijuana was infecting him and he couldn’t stop it. He’d gone completely native in that peculiar English way.

“Is it really?” Slaughter said. “There’s no such thing in Mexico. It’s either frijoles and meat or frijoles and chicken.” He laughed at his own joke. Like most of the foreigners in the city who had gone native, he relished hating things Mexican. “And for you, Señor?” the waitress asked. Calhoun looked at the assorted bottles of condiments on the table. He saw there was a fly in the sugar container. For a moment, with the fever, he seemed to see every conceivable detail: the thickness of the glass, the particles of sugar, the colors of the dead fly. He wondered how the fly could have possibly managed to get inside the jar. He picked it up and handed it to the girl.

“A mineral water,” Calhoun said.

“How much money?” Calhoun asked. Slaughter dragged out his Day Planner, lifted the cover and thumbed through its well-worn pages. Calhoun picked up the glass of ice water and put it to his forehead. There was the sweet smell of tortillas and hot grease in the air. Slaughter stopped, found the page he was looking for and stabbed it with his index finger.

“Two hundred twenty-eight thousand pesos. I want it by tomorrow,” Slaughter said. He closed the book.

“How about next week?” Calhoun touched the sweating glass to his cheeks, first one, then the other. It felt wonderful. The waitress came back with his mineral water. She put it down and, with it, a fresh sugar dispenser.

“I don’t know how they get in the bottles,” the girl said in Spanish apologetically. “We do everything we can and they still get in.” Calhoun nodded.

“Forget it,” Calhoun said. “Olvidalo.”

“I have an offer… a job offer,” Slaughter said when she left. “Do it and I will cancel your debt. The whole thing.”

Calhoun lifted the mineral water and drank, emptying it in several swallows. Some of it ran down his chin. With the fever, no amount of liquid seemed to be enough. Calhoun put down the empty bottle and wiped his face with a paper napkin. He tried to act like there was nothing wrong. That he wasn’t sick.

“What did you say…?” Calhoun looked at the Englishman. He was suddenly seeing two faces, two do-rags, two sets of blue eyes, two sets of girlish Jagger-style lips. Someone fed the jukebox behind them. Volver, Volver came on loud, adding another layer to the cacophony and hubbub in the room. Calhoun glanced at the street outside. The world looked cockeyed, as if it were bent.

“Say that again,” Calhoun said. He tried to get control of himself.

“I said I will forgive your debt, old boy,” Slaughter said. Calhoun put one of his big hands on the table and forced himself to focus.

“Why would you do that? You’re an asshole.”

“Because there’s something I want you to do for me.” Slaughter ignored the insult.

“What? Tell your mother what an asshole you are?”

“I want you to cross Frank Guzman. He’s in Tijuana and he needs to get across the wire. I think you are the only coyote that can do it,” Slaughter said. Calhoun was gaining on the spinning world, it was slowing. He laid another palm on the table and it all suddenly stopped.

“Frank Guzman? You want me to kill Frank Guzman?” Calhoun said.

“No…cross Guzman.”

Cross Frank Guzman? You are an asshole.”

“If you do that, you can forget what you owe me,” Slaughter said. Calhoun smiled. “I thought you would like that.” Slaughter reached over and slapped Calhoun on the shoulder. He hit the forty-five under Calhoun’s jacket.

“That’s suicide,” Calhoun said. “Only a prick would ask someone to do that.”

“That’s the deal. As you Yanks put it, take it or leave it.”

“That’s like the deal you guys gave the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.”

“What?”

“The Fuzzy-Wuzzies, you stupid prick,” Calhoun said. He saluted in the English manner palm out. “The battle of Omdurman?… Kitchener?… Suicide, asshole!” He was in control again. That was the way the fever attacked, suddenly, and then left you just as suddenly.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Slaughter asked. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Calhoun ignored him.

“Anyway…no problem about the money. I’ll have it all for you tomorrow,” Calhoun said. It was a bald-faced lie and he enjoyed it. If you’re going to lie, tell big ones, he thought. Calhoun stood up. “Enjoy the steak. But you should have ordered fish here.”

“Just get me the bloody money by tomorrow then,” Slaughter said.

Calhoun walked to the back of the restaurant and closed the thin door to the men’s room. He looked at himself in the mirror. It was warmer here. He took his havelock off and wet his face in the dirty sink, then the back of his neck. He let the water drip down under his collar. When he looked up there was a bathroom attendant, a man his age, sitting on a bench in the back staring at him. Calhoun smiled. It was something about Mexico he never got used to: bathroom attendants.

“He thinks I’m a fucking Zulu,” Calhoun said looking into the mirror, his face dripping wet. The attendant stared back at him and then smiled, thinking Calhoun was drunk. Calhoun dropped ten pesos in the box and left.

 

On the way out Calhoun heard his name called. He looked across the restaurant. A Mexican was waving to him from one of the tables, Miguel Cienfuegos, a dog trainer he knew from Caliente. Calhoun went to his table and sat down. Cienfuegos was a short brown bullet of a man, very dark. He always seemed to be hiding from someone, or at least looked that way. Even when he was eating.

“I have something for you,” Miguel said. “I told you I’d have something for you one day. I’ve been looking for you.” Calhoun nodded. “Today is your lucky day, amigo,” the trainer said. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Tomorrow at Caliente. Everything you can get your hands on. I want you to put it on 99 in the second race. Vincente—99 cannot lose, I promise you.”

“You’re sure?”

“Vincente. I owe you a favor. I wouldn’t fuck with you.” Calhoun started to laugh. In part it was the fever that had him a little off and in part it was the sudden rush of excitement. “What’s so funny?” Miguel said. He looked closely at the big white man with the havelock and dark sunglasses, his spotless white Tommy Hilfiger suit, just a white T-shirt underneath. He didn’t seem well. The way he was laughing, there was something wrong with it. Calhoun’s handsome face glistened with sweat and water.

“I thought I’d run out of luck,” Calhoun said, trying to explain. He stopped laughing and leaned in across the table, pushing beer bottles out of his way. Cienfuegos thought how big he was then. Huge. “But you see, every time I think that…every goddamn time—I’m always wrong. Now that’s good fucking suerte,” Calhoun said.

Dia Spacer
The theater’s new marquee advertised Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Calhoun thought it was a good joke because both were so lacking in Tijuana. The truth was it didn’t matter to Calhoun what was playing. (He’d told the taxi driver to find the closest movie theater with air conditioning.) In fact, the most banal Mexican movies were sometimes the best, the most relaxing. Calhoun simply hated the city’s endless stifling afternoons. Once he was seated in the dark of the theater, things became oddly quiet despite the noise of “entertainment.” It was a perfect place to hide. The perfect place for surcease. The perfect place to be still and let darkness rescue him. He could hear his heartbeat, or at least feel it. Feel the ignorant life in him—beat after beat. I’m alive…I’m alive…I’m alive.

Calhoun watched the English countryside unfold on the screen, watched Emma Thompson’s huge pleasing face and bosomy decolletage. His uncomfortable sense of being too alive was gradually forgotten and finally swept away by the well-metered voices of the actors who had never smelled Mexico or broken the law or fired a shot in anger.

An hour into the movie Calhoun’s cell phone rang and, reluctantly, he took the call in the dark. He listened to the voice on the other end. He agreed to meet the caller later at the Escondido and hung up. For a few minutes he was actually happy and emotionally empty. Happy because he knew that, outside, what he dreaded the most, the raw afternoon, was being killed off, its energy drained. He knew that when he returned to the streets it would be safe. It was as if the afternoon was a Titan monster walking the streets looking just for him.

At 5 P.M. Calhoun left the theater. He was pleased with the movie’s unreal ending. The familiar Austen claptrap went down well. Like everyone else, he wanted to believe in miracles and beautiful endings. The air in the new shopping mall was cold and artificially clean. It smelled slightly of Lysol and popcorn. Middle class Mexican families seemed happy with their Kmart purchases and their frozen yogurts, their brief vacation from the grim streets. Calhoun pushed open the double doors of the ersatz America and joined the countless people on the sidewalk.

On the Avenida Dolores, the air was dirty and warm, and Calhoun felt as if a filthy rag had been thrown in his face. An ugly crepuscular light turned everyone on the street into either a devil or moron. The red light seemed to capture everything miserable and missed the human. Disappointed, Calhoun realized that the afternoon wasn’t dead. It hung on. Like an old man, it kept breathing, grasping at the corners of buildings, on roof tops, afraid to let go and die.

The peso had crashed two months before. Money and wealth had been vaporized. All the cities along the border were hysterical and on the verge of bankruptcy. It was that very male hysteria that nations and middle managers get in crisis. They get very quiet and brutish just before they explode with testosterone and blood, and mindless things happen, none of them good. But that afternoon it was still quiet on the eve of the holiday, Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s second biggest and the most celebrated of its pagan holidays. A day when everything Spanish and everything Indian fight for control one more time.

At the corner of Benito Juarez and Revolucion, Calhoun stopped in front of a shop window. There was a Frida Kahlo print he’d admired for days, a cheap reproduction of Henry Ford Hospital. Even behind warm dirty glass it was startling, no matter how many times he’d seen it; a self-portrait with medical tubes. Like the woman in the painting, Calhoun felt as if he, too, had tubes and rubber hoses coming out of him. Tubes taking his humanity and exchanging it for something else, pumping diesel exhaust and cold blood back into him.

Inside the shop tourists glided by the painting, pausing for a moment on the verge of trying to understand Kahlo, then giving up and moving on. His shorts-wearing countrymen, Calhoun knew, had a taste for simpler mementos: the awful German helmets made of plaster, black with “cool” little hand-painted white swastikas. (What was it they liked exactly—the Nazis or their regalia?) The helmets were popular. On the spur of the moment, Calhoun went into the shop and bought the poster. He had no proper place to hang it. No one to send it to. He had had no wife or children, no real friends. (Perhaps they could have cured his fear of afternoons. But he knew without consciously thinking it, that his days for that kind of friendship were over. He was in too much trouble, after all.) Once it was wrapped and tied, Calhoun took the poster back out onto the busy street.

Calhoun walked on toward the plaza Tijuana, the light changing every moment, a dismantling of daylight. He reached inside his jacket and checked his shoulder harness, lifting it for a moment off his shoulders as he walked, feeling the weight of the forty-five, and the wetness it made on his T-shirt. His illness was making him sweat and the harness felt uncomfortable and tight-fitting. He stopped and tried to adjust it. Music poured out from a bar. You wanted it all, You wanted it all… And there’s nothing at all… Nothing at all. He looked at himself caught in the reflection of the window for a moment—we aren’t what we tell ourselves, he thought, looking, then went on.

After going to the moon and producing Adolph Hitler and the drive-in liquor store, the Smart Bomb, Infomercials and the Hollywood Freeway, the Working Poor, Infibulation, and her final masterpiece, the Folksy Billionaire, the Twentieth Century was tired. She found a city that was equally exhausted, equally worn out and tired of promises of any kind. Home of the desperate and the weak. This was it: the end of the line. The US-Mexican border. The great scrabble of progress was ending here, Calhoun thought, despite himself. He caught a glimpse of the plaza below: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, my ass. It was finally getting dark. He was thankful for that at least.

 

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