Día de los Muertos: Chapter 2

Two

Tijuana, Mexico / November 1—5:20 P.M.

The lights strung in the trees made the plaza seem lush and Mediterranean and special that night. In the daylight it was strictly a border town plaza—very ugly and too big, full of bums and cripples. The plaza was the old Tijuana, something left of the desert town it had once been. A mariachi band was playing on the bandstand—the music traditional, a lot of bullfight music and rancheras. The celebration of the holiday had started in earnest now. The poor who could afford nothing else came to the plaza to celebrate with the free music and bottles of cheap aguardiente.

There was a group of milicias in the crowd, maybe ten or fifteen men. The PFN—Partido Fascista Nacional. The men wore cowboy hats and armbands with the party symbol: clustered arrows and a yoke. The letters PFN had sprung up on walls all over the city since the collapse of the peso. What had been an obscure party was growing. They were in the plaza looking for converts. The PFN hated foreigners, they blamed foreigners and Jews and gangsters like Calhoun for the collapse of the peso and everything else that was wrong with the country. They were the analog of the American militias. Calhoun made a point of walking by them on the way across the plaza. He stopped in front of the gang and lit a cigarette, then he smiled at them for the fun of it.

“How you fellows doing tonight?” Calhoun said. The men glared at him. “No chance I could join, is there?”

“Cabron,” one of them said and spit on the ground.

Dia Spacer

“How’d you do?” Calhoun asked over the music. Miguel Castro was a tall, well-built man in a bicycle racer’s uniform sitting at one of the roped-off sidewalk cafe tables at the Bar Escondido across from the plaza. The short brim of Castro’s racing cap was turned up rakishly. The bright colors of his racing uniform, yellow and red, were the colors of the police team. Castro had ridden that day in the annual Ensenada-Tijuana race, part of the holiday festivities.

“Fourth…fourth place.” Castro was drinking a Tecate. A waiter trotted up to the table. Calhoun was a regular at the Escondido and got good service because of it. He ordered a Bohemia. The bar’s terrace was full, the crowd much more elegant than the one in the plaza.

“There was wind all the fucking way past La Bufadora. I’m getting too old for racing,” Castro said. “The younger riders take more chances.”

“You came in fourth…that’s good. Are you going to the track with us?” Calhoun asked.

“No.” Calhoun saw El Moro inside the bar and nodded his head. The bullfighter motioned them to come in. “El Moro is drunk,” Castro said turning around and waving back. “I have a busy day for us tomorrow. Two crossings, maybe three. Slaughter’s Chinese in the morning…”

“That’s crazy,” Calhoun said. “Three crossings is too much.”

“Vincente, stop worrying.” Castro’s tone was insouciant. He was a captain in the judiciales and they were used to getting away with murder.

“It’s too much,” Calhoun said. “That’s too many crossings in one day.”

“It’s Day of the Dead tomorrow, amigo. The U.S. side will be busy with tourists. The U.S. Customs people will put more people up on the freeways,” Castro said. “We should do as much business as we can tomorrow.”

Calhoun’s beer came. The waiter nodded, put it down in front of him, said it was already paid for by someone inside. Calhoun poured the beer into his glass. The music across the plaza changed again to a Selena tune played over the loudspeakers; they had switched to recorded music.

“I love Selena,” Castro said. “I would have liked to have seen her live… Breen is in the bar, too,” Castro said. “He’s looking strange. He asked for you. I heard him ask the bartender if you had been around. He doesn’t act like a policeman.”

“He’s a homosexual,” Calhoun said. He didn’t know why he said it that way. He didn’t hold it against his partner. But he’d just found out and it had surprised him.

“In Mexico that’s like saying someone died,” Castro said.

“He’s a good partner,” Calhoun said. “A good policeman.”

“He isn’t crooked like you, though,” Castro said. He finished the rest of the beer. “I have a date…Miss Día de los Muertos.”

“There’s a Miss Day of the Dead?”

“Of course,” Castro said. “Her father owns every tortilleria in the city. I want to marry her.” Castro winked and got up. “Tomorrow morning then.”

“You got us too much for tomorrow, Miguel.” A chill went through Calhoun’s body from the fever. He smiled as it went through him.

“Stop worrying, amigo. You sound like an old lady. Hasta mañana.”

“What time?” Calhoun said.

“Six A.M. tomorrow, at the station.” He grabbed the seat of his bicycle, an expensive blue Cannondale, and steered it around their table. The click of the gears was pleasant sounding. “I’m riding to her house and changing there,” Castro said. “I want her to see my ass in these pants.” Calhoun laughed.

“It’s irresistible, I know,” Castro said. Castro picked up the bike and swung it onto the sidewalk, then onto the Avenida Revolucion. He pushed off into the traffic, his long legs making short work of it. Breen had been waiting for him to leave. Calhoun’s partner stepped out of the bar’s double doors and came over to the table on the sidewalk. “Who was that?”

“I don’t know. Some bicycle racer,” Calhoun lied. “He said he just won a race. They had some kind of race today.”

“You haven’t been in the office in two days. I can’t keep covering for you…I’m running out of excuses…”

“I’ve been sick,” Calhoun said. He drank the rest of his beer in a few swallows, hoping that Breen would get the message that he wasn’t interested in working or talking.

“Listen, Vincent, the DEA already has a bad reputation here. If we…”

“Max…I’ve been sick. And fuck the DEA, okay? We’re partners, right?”

“Right.”

“We’re working in a foreign country where half the government is selling drugs to the other half and no one gives a shit, right?”

“Right.”

“Well then, let’s take advantage of it. Nobody gives a shit what we do here,” he said, putting his hands on the table. “That includes Washington.”

“…I’m thinking of leaving…quitting,” Breen said. Calhoun looked at him, not really surprised. Breen was very thin. He was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and could have been a tourist. He looked straight. Nothing swishy about him. But there were temptations. Anyone would have succumbed here, in this town, of all places, Calhoun thought. It was sexually corrosive. You could buy anything for a dollar and a half three blocks from where they sat. Anything.

“Look, Max, the country is falling apart. Look…look at them. Everyone is broke. Everyone is getting drunk. I suggest we not take it too seriously. What you should do is consider this as a kind of vacation.”

“You didn’t hear what I said,” Breen said. Calhoun understood for the first time that Breen was an honest man, that he cared despite everything.

“Yes, I heard… You can’t leave because then I wouldn’t have a partner. They’ll give me some gung-ho kid with a crew cut and then what? I’d have to actually do something.”

Breen looked out at the crowds on the plaza. The music had changed again. There was something going on inside Breen. Calhoun watched him. You could tell when Breen was upset, his face got slightly pinched. He liked Breen, but they were too different to really understand each other. When Calhoun heard that he was a homosexual, he’d pulled away. They were friends still, but not pals now. Calhoun had a prejudice, he didn’t like it, but it was a fact. He’d been brought up that way. He’d been taught to think that homosexuals were dirty faggots, period, end of story.

“What’s happened to you?” Breen asked, looking at him. He had clear blue eyes. He was younger than Calhoun, only twenty-eight or so. He rolled a wet beer between his hands.

“Nothing’s happened to me,” Calhoun said. “Maybe I got smart.”

Breen looked away again. “It’s a dirty town… Everyone is dirty. I don’t like anything about it. I don’t like the food. I don’t like any of it. It makes me sick,” Breen said. Mira cómo ando me amor… Tu solo tu. The Selena tune broke through the noise of the crowds.

For a moment Calhoun said nothing. He looked away. The silence built. He wanted to make it clear that he couldn’t answer. He wanted it clear that Breen’s personal problems were of no interest to him. It was the only way he knew of doing it.

“Want to come to the track with us?” Calhoun asked finally.

“No, thanks.” Breen turned around and looked into the bright yellow lights of the Escondido. Calhoun’s friends were waiting for him. He stood up. Nothing was working between them, not even conversation now.

“I’ll see you later then,” Breen said.

“Yeah,” Calhoun answered. “Later.” He watched Breen work through the tables and called to him suddenly.

“Max.”

“Yeah,” Breen turned around.

“Max, for fuck sake, take it easy, will you?”

Dia Spacer

Calhoun’s party, all Mexicans except Calhoun, were on their way out to the dog races at Caliente. Nobody was feeling any pain. There were two bullfighters and two millionaires and Calhoun—a DEA agent and smuggler of human beings for money. All of them were gamblers.

The Escondido was one of their places and the men acted like they owned it. They spoke in loud voices; they had their orders for tapas and drinks filled quickly, the bill chalked on their table by the waiter. The men always got the same table, one of the best, closest to the door with a view of the plaza. Tourists who came in were ushered to the back by the restroom and got bad service or were ignored completely. In the evenings the front tables were reserved for the city’s high rollers: bullfighters, Mexican movie people, gangsters, and the business elite.

“Come here,” El Moro said to a girl.

El Moro told the Yaqui girl he wanted her to read Calhoun’s future. The young girl looked at the men and nodded, glad to get away from the tourists who were afraid of her because she wasn’t wearing shoes. El Moro pushed Calhoun toward her and made a joke about him needing to change his luck and soon. Calhoun bumped up against her. He could feel her strong girlness through her dress.

She wore what passed for glamorous among the poor in Tijuana—a black cotton beach dress with big white orchids. The dress was meant as a beach wrap for tourist girls. It was wrapped tight. She wasn’t wearing a bra and she had a good figure. Her eyes were big and dark and serious. Like most Yaqui girls, she was slender in the hips and wore her hair long; she wore no make-up and didn’t bathe, so that she smelled slightly of the day’s heat, which had been considerable. Her hair looked like a dark wet midnight in March. He imagined what she might look like without the beach dress. El Moro came up behind him and said something about how you hadn’t made love unless you’d done it with a Yaqui girl out in the desert. Calhoun could feel the bullfighter’s heavy brandy-smelling breath, his overbearingness, his friendship, his disorder, all of it. All the things that made him capable of throwing himself at the bull. Calhoun thought he was probably right. He looked at the girl’s bare feet. Unlike the tourists, he was intrigued.

“The gringo needs your help,” El Moro said. The girl asked Calhoun his name in Spanish.

“Vincent Calhoun,” he told her, saying it like he was a movie star and bowing slightly. There was laughter from the other men.

“Come on, tell us his fortune,” El Moro said.

The girl began to lay down her tarot cards. The men got quiet and you could hear the tarot cards go down one after another, with a plastic slap, one after the other on the dark, drink-wet table top. She put them down quickly and in a line. There was something about Mexico in the Escondido then, in the air itself that smelled of diesel and border scent. Something that went way back and was combustible and dangerous.

When she had fourteen cards out the girl looked at Calhoun. She reached for the first card and began to turn it over. El Moro nudged Calhoun. “Sólo toros y mujers y espadas,” he said in his deep voice. “Sólo toros y mujeres y espadas,” he said again, only bulls and women and swords, as if that were the answer to all men’s problems.

The girl reached for the first card. No one said a word because the first card, the Mexicans say, is the most important. It is your destiny card. The first card came up and stopped her. It was the death card. Even for a street girl, she seemed surprised. His companions hooted because they loved the death card. El Moro slapped Calhoun on the back as if he’d won a prize. It was the macho card, and for bullfighters good luck…but Calhoun wasn’t a bullfighter.

The girl crossed herself twice quickly. Calhoun laughed, spilling some of his drink on his T-shirt as he did. He felt the alcohol on his skin. He looked at the girl again, then at the card.

El Moro told the girl that was enough. One of the millionaires took out a ten thousand peso note and laid it over the card. Then someone else did the same and another and another. It was customary when the death card came up to hide it with cash money. In a moment the men had covered all the cards in dirty peso notes until you couldn’t see them any more. Then El Moro took a switchblade out and planted it an inch into the table through the pile of cards and money, and they left.

 

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