Día de los Muertos: Chapter 27

Twenty-Seven

Base of the Tecate Range / 11:45 P.M.

T

he full moon hung west of them like a headlight itself. Calhoun had taken a jeep track that ran east toward the Tecate range. The desert had opened to a flat pan that was free of even cactus. He was able to get the jeep up to a good speed, seventy miles an hour. He’d moved Celeste into the passenger seat next to him and put Castro on Vasco, afraid she would try something.

“You don’t love him,” Vasco said. “Look at him. He’s getting old. Look at him. He’s finished. I’m young.” Celeste turned around and looked at her. She did look young and strong, like nothing could stop her. Calhoun watched her for a moment, afraid to take his eyes off the track too long at those speeds.

“Slow down,” Castro said. “It’s too fast. We hit a rock and we’re fucked.” Calhoun had turned off his head and taillights so they could run undetected by the rat patrols that were more frequent near the Tecates. He slowed down, caught Vasco looking at him.

“Coward,” Vasco said. “You’re a coward… you’re going to get us all killed.”

“Who is this bitch that does all the talking?” Guzman said. Calhoun had almost forgotten the fat man was with them.

“It’s Mary Magdalene,” Calhoun said. The jeep sailed off a dune and then landed. Guzman groaned. Vasco hung onto the strap at her side, her eyes bright with hate in the moonlight. The jeep’s speed seemed to be animating her.

“He’s sick. I’ve watched him… Do you want a sick man? An old, sick man.” She reached over and touched Celeste’s shoulder.

“Don’t touch her,” Calhoun said. He heard Vasco spit. She’d spit on him, on the back of his neck.

“Jesus Christ,” Castro said. “She spit on you. She just spit on the back of your head.” Calhoun felt Celeste’s hand clean the back of his neck, wipe the spit off.

“Why won’t you talk to me, Celeste… querida? You’re mine. I’m not sick and I’m not old, and we have money now,” Vasco said, leaning with both hands on the strap now, like she wanted to tear it off.

“Stop it,” Celeste said. “Just stop it. I’m not what you want.” Vasco nearly tore the strap off. She picked herself off the seat. The black T-shirt she’d worn for the robbery sprung to life around her biceps. They were as big as a man’s.

“I’m going to kill you,” she screamed. “I’ll kill you both.”

“Woman, I’ll pay you five thousand dollars to shut up,” Guzman said. He put his hand on the back of the seat, tried to lift himself, enough to see who the girl was, but they were airborne again and the jeep slammed and glissaded to the left. They plowed through two barrel cactuses. The mirror on Calhoun’s side was torn off, left hanging. There was silence for a moment as Calhoun fought for control of the jeep. They were on the edge, and he brought it back before they plowed into more cactus.

“…I have to turn the lights on,” he said.

“You mean we’ve had no lights?” Guzman said. “Mother of God.” Castro laughed. Then he reach over and slapped Calhoun on the back and they both started to laugh. Celeste looked into the back at Castro and the smile on his face.

“I’m going to kill you all,” Vasco said.

“Hey, Jesus, don’t you have a sense of humor? What’s wrong with you?” Castro said. “That was funny. I don’t like people without a sense of humor. You can’t trust them,” Castro said.

“Fuck you,” Vasco said. She let go of the strap. They started laughing again, Castro and Calhoun.

“Hey, amigo, I think this is the best ride we’ve ever had. Don’t you think? I mean, you have managed to fill the jeep up with arguing lesbians and a billionaire, a renegade Mexican cop, driven by a lunatic. This is better than Stagecoach,” he said.

“I liked the movie,” Guzman said quietly. “I liked the picture very much. I like John Wayne very much.”

“It’s a classic,” Castro said. “Of course you like it.”

“You know, fat man, you’re all right,” Calhoun said. “I mean for a billionaire. You’re okay.” He looked up into the mirror and saw Vasco.

“I think so, too,” Castro said. “I like him. Es simpático.” The headlights appeared then for just a moment about a mile behind them. They’d hit the same patch of cactus and for the same reasons had been forced to turn on their lights. Miguel saw it in the mirror.

“Vincente, did you see that?”

“Yes.”

“How far do you think they are?”

“Four miles, maybe less,” Calhoun said.

“I think you better turn off the headlights,” Miguel said. The barrel cactus were thick here, and Calhoun knew it was too dangerous to run without light. He waited a moment, looked at Celeste. She was scared. He cared now whether he lived or died. His fingers tightened down on the steering wheel. Love had changed him. It made him calculate.

“It’s a gamble… bet black, it might come up red,” Calhoun said.

“No choice now,” Castro said. Calhoun’s fingers moved from the steering wheel and depressed the light button. The way in front of him went dark and then slowly, too slowly, the moonlight came back. He hit something and panicked but it was just a rock kicked up against the undercarriage with two loud bumps.

“Who are they?” Guzman said.

“You could say they’re businessmen. Like you,” Castro said.

“What do they want?” Guzman said.

“Shut up,” Calhoun said “What the fuck do you think they want?”

“Give me my gun back,” Vasco said. Calhoun looked at Miguel in the mirror. He slowed down, looked at his watch. The luminescent dial said eleven-forty five. If they could get up into the Tecates, he could lose them.

“Give her the gun back,” Calhoun said.

“Amigo?”

“I said give her the gun.” He heard Castro laugh.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. I thought you said give her the gun back so she could shoot you.”

“I said give her the gun,” Calhoun said.

“That’s a very nice idea, but I’m afraid she’ll shoot us.”

“She might. But I don’t think so. Listen to me.” Calhoun downshifted. The jeep slowed so the cactus that had been indistinguishable suddenly looked larger and you could see how thick they were, could make out the white fuzz they had near the needles.

“If you kill us, those men behind us will kill you both. But not right away. Do you understand me? And if you think you can drive out of here, you can’t. You’ll get lost. Now if you love her, you’ll do as I say,” he said.

“Give me my gun,” Vasco said again. Miguel pulled the automatic he’d taken from her and handed it back. She dropped the clip out and examined it, then reinserted it. She put the barrel at the back of Calhoun’s neck. He felt it immediately, cold and heavy.

“Now listen to me, you piece of shit.” Vasco leaned over the seat, close to his ear. “The girl is mine. You get us out of here and I will let you live.” Then she picked the gun up. Calhoun speeded up again, the cactus starting to blur and darken, the Tecate range closer now in front of them, steel blue in the moonlight.

“I told you,” Castro said. “People without a sense of humor, don’t trust them.” He turned around and looked behind them. He saw the headlights again. Then a second pair. “Anyone for ammunition?”

“What’s going on?” Guzman said. “Give me a gun, too.”

“My hat. I lost my hat,” Calhoun said. He tried to remember where he’d left it and couldn’t.

 

Calhoun looked out at the desert; he knew then but he didn’t want to think it. He looked at his watch. Five to twelve. He down-shifted and gunned the engine. There was nothing now but to try to make it into the Tecates, he told himself. He looked out at the mountains. Twenty minutes away, he thought, only twenty minutes away. The Tecates had a thick chaparral they could hide in. The sand was changing here. He felt the added strain on the engine suddenly. He was afraid to look into the mirror now but forced himself to. There were two pairs of headlights now. Two jeeps. They didn’t care about trying to play it coy. They kept their headlights on. It was a race, now.

He looked for any kind of canyon, any depression where he might be able to hide, throw them off. There was nothing, just flat plain endless desert. He tried again, searching to his left, turning his head. Twice he almost hit patches of barrel cactus. Then he saw something, a low spot, to his right. Calhoun slammed on the brakes; the jeep skidded through a long slide to the right like a boat in water.

“We’re going to die,” Guzman said.

“Shut up, don’t say that,” Calhoun said. He up-shifted. “No one is going to die,” he said. “You understand? No one is going to die.” The jeep torqued through the sand and sped up again. Calhoun could feel the frame twisting, the flexing of steel against sand.

Calhoun headed for the depression three hundred yards away. It was a narrow canyon. They were lucky, he’d almost missed it. The jeep sped down the slope into the canyon. Calhoun heard the reassuring sound of water slapping the jeep’s undercarriage. Ribbons of liquid silver spun off the tires.

“It’s okay,” he said, “they won’t see us.” The walls of the canyon started to grow to six feet, then higher.

“It could dead-end,” Castro said calmly from the back. The water started to pool up deeper. They could hear the splashing of it against the frame.

“You should turn up, go west again,” Castro said. Calhoun looked for a break in the canyon, the water was getting deeper. He went to the right to ride the sand bank. The creek was quickly turning to something else. He looked at the speedometer-67 miles per hour. He began to slow, not wanting to, too afraid of what he would see behind them. Afraid that he would hear their engines.

 

Calhoun made a run across the creek, heading for a jeep track that ran up the canyon wall on the other side of a narrow beach. He’d seen it quickly out of the corner of his eye and drove for it instinctively. The engine screamed, torquing out. There was not enough power to pull them forward. Silica sand, Calhoun thought. The back tires were still in the creek, the front tires deep in the silica sand in front. It was as if they’d suddenly lost all traction. He down-shifted quickly, let the weight of the jeep carry them backwards into the water. Then stepped on it, the engine roaring again. “Fuck! Fuck!”

“What’s wrong?” Vasco said.

“Shut up.”

Calhoun looked at Miguel. He saw a look on his friend’s face he’d never seen before, a distant look, as if for a moment he wasn’t there.

“Roll back again. Get in the water. Try again,” Castro said. Calhoun put the jeep in reverse, hoping he could back away. They rolled back a foot. He took his foot off the gas for a moment, then stepped on it again. There was a terrible sound of water and mud but no traction either way.

“Fuck…”

“What’s wrong, Vince?” Celeste asked. Calhoun looked at her.

“Nothing. We have to get out and push, that’s all,” Calhoun said.

He looked at Castro again. They were both afraid to say it. So neither one did. “You get behind the wheel. Me and Vasco will push.” Miguel nodded and slid out of the seat. Calhoun opened the door and stepped down into the sand. He looked at Celeste. She held out her hand and he took it. Their eyes met and he tried to look confident, then let go and walked quickly up the beach. He could feel his shoes sinking in the slick sand. He turned, saw two sets of headlights going past above them on the desert. They’d missed the ravine. He got across the beach and saw the track start up into the mountains. It was only twenty-five or thirty yards away across the beach. Get across the beach. That’s all we have to do, he thought. He turned around and looked to his left. It was a box canyon. The creek slipped into a cave. He could see the moon on the canyon wall fifty feet in front of them. They were trapped. They had to cross the beach. He jogged back to the jeep. Miguel was behind the wheel, pale.

“We can try,” Calhoun said. “There’s a track, just cross the beach.”

“All right, we’ll try,” Castro said.

“Just ease it over, whatever you do. You can’t stop once you get going,” Calhoun said.

“I know.”

“We’ll jump in while you’re going. Just don’t stop if we get you going.” Castro nodded, looking back up the canyon.

Vasco dropped out of the car. She’d been listening. “What’s wrong?”

“What the fuck do you think is wrong? We’re stuck. You have to help me push,” Calhoun said.

“What about her?” Vasco said, nodding towards Celeste.

“What about her?” Calhoun said. “Come on.” He walked back into the creek. He could hear Vasco behind him. He faced the creek and got his hands on the bumper, told Vasco to do the same. They were both facing out towards the water. “Use your legs on three. Push up. All right?”

“Fuck you,” Vasco said. She knelt into position.

“Miguel!”

“On three.” Calhoun counted then… “one… two… three!” Calhoun felt the tires suddenly spinning, water was thrown across the creek in two rooster tails. He lifted with his legs with every bit of strength he had. Nothing. He heard Vasco grunting just like a man.

“Stop it… Stop it!” Calhoun yelled. Calhoun stumbled to Miguel’s window.

“It’s the fat man,” he said. “Too much weight.” Castro looked at him. There were lights in the canyon now. Headlights a mile or two back. They’d found them.

“We could stand and fight,” Castro said.

“No.” Calhoun looked at Celeste. “No. The fat man goes.” Calhoun went to the back and pushed Vasco away. She fell into the water backwards. He pulled up the back door. Guzman looked at him horrified.

“I’m sorry,” Calhoun said.

“No… Please!” Calhoun grabbed Guzman by the shirt and rolled him out like you would a sack of flour. He fell into the water face down. Calhoun bent down and rolled him out into the creek face up and pushed him out of the way. He looked down into the fat man’s face, dirt and water on it and moon light.

“I don’t want to die,” Guzman said. Calhoun let go. The fat man started to float away. He ran back to the rear of the jeep and pulled down the hatch. He heard Guzman yelling and ignored it.

“Again. Come on.” Vasco was swearing, hunched down. He heard the sound of engines now. Saw the rat patrols’ headlights on the canyon walls. “If you want her to live you’d better fucking push!” he said, then counted. The rooster tails sprung out from each tire again. He heard the grinding water sound. This time the jeep started to move.

“Don’t stop pushing,” he yelled. They were both back-pedalling out of the water. The big tires were moving now, grabbing the silica sand. He looked at Vasco, told her to turn and keep pushing. They fell backwards, both of them, then crawled together toward the moving rear of the jeep, got a hold and started pushing again, sand thrown out at them by the tires. They kept crawling and pushing, the sound of the engine drowning everything else out.

Calhoun felt the blow on the side of his head. He fell face first into the sand. Castro had seen Vasco stand up in the rearview mirror and tried to warn him but he hadn’t heard. Vasco hit him again with the shovel. Calhoun rolled, saw the spade smack the sand where his head had been. He saw her above him in the moonlight. Vasco had the shovel raised again behind her. The look in her eyes was cold murder and moonlight. Calhoun threw a handful of sand into her eyes and rolled. He heard the shovel come down. Vasco was rubbing her eyes, lifting the spade again, looking for him. He stood up. She turned, wiping her eyes, spitting. Calhoun hit her in the face and she crumpled. He took the shovel out of her hand. She was spitting now, blood and teeth and sand. The jeep kept moving down the beach.

“I can’t see,” Vasco screamed. She tried to crawl toward the water. He swung once and hit her in the back of the head, smacking her face into the sand. Vasco dropped like she’d been shot. He turned around and ran for the jeep and pushed. It was still struggling. Miguel waved his hand for him to get in. Calhoun heard the engines in the canyon behind him. He saw their headlights a hundred yards away, saw the tops of the jeeps in the moonlight. They had turned on their big search lights and were flooding the canyon with light. He kept pushing.

“Get in,” Miguel yelled. “Get in, for god sakes.” Calhoun kept pushing, watching the tires roll, the sand shooting out. The rat patrols were nearly on them, their spotlights making a kind of daylight on the beach. Calhoun trotted along to Miguel’s side of the car and jumped on the running board. Calhoun looked at the two of them.

“Amigo, what are you doing?” Castro said.

“I want you to keep driving. You can’t stop.”

“Vincent, get in!” Celeste was reaching for him.

“Miguel… You can’t stop.”

“Hang on!” Castro said.

“I can’t. Give me your gun.” Miguel handed him his gun, trying to get the speed up so that they wouldn’t stall. Calhoun dropped off the running board. He started pushing, trotting alongside them.

“Vincent!” Celeste was screaming now. “Vincent, please get in!”

“I’ll try… the other door. Miguel. You know you can’t stop for me.”

“Amigo… I…” Castro nodded. He understood that Calhoun had no intention of trying to get in, now.

“Miguel, please don’t stop,” Calhoun said. He was pushing the jeep, looking up at them, trotting alongside. They were only a few yards from the track.

“You’re always asking me favors,” Miguel said. It was his way of saying good-bye.

“You have to get up in the Tecates. Fifteen minutes and you’ll be there.” He looked at Celeste. She was trying to get out of the car. Calhoun reached inside and locked the doors automatically. He was trotting more quickly now. Miguel started to speed up.

Calhoun ran along. He wanted to see her face for the last time. Suddenly the jeep was free of the sand. He tried to keep up but couldn’t. He saw Miguel looking into the mirror. Calhoun fell on his knees. He followed the jeep up the track. He saw Celeste’s face looking back at him. Then they were gone.

Calhoun stood up. He saw the fat man floating in the moonlight. He trotted down toward the water, walked out into the middle of the creek and watched the headlights grow. He heard the roar of two engines. He pulled the hammer back on his automatics and waited. For a moment, he thought he saw the Yaqui girl next to him. And then he was blinded by the spotlights.

 

In the morning a buzzard walked across the beach and then another and another. The first picked at the head of the dead girl and then flew slowly over the creek and landed on the hood of a jeep and paused for a moment and sat. There was a big white man in the water face up, two men next to him. There was another jeep abandoned in the sand with bodies inside it. Calhoun had stood in the night and killed many of them. It was late in the afternoon now of the following day, and the canyon was quiet. There was only the sound of the water lapping against the dead and, above all of it, the sky went on clean and blue. Under it, somewhere to the south, a bus pushed on to Mexico City.

Dia Spacer

 

FORWARD AND BACKWARD

BY JAMES CRUMLEY

Like many a south Texas boy, when I turned fourteen, I went in front of a judge to swear that I lived in the country, some nine miles from town. Then I was allowed to take my driver’s license test. I had one thing on my mind as I knocked over the front and back poles of the parking test – to this day, I can’t parallel park with a damn – then I did my turns and all the other stuff I could do, but when I did my emergency stop test, because my father’s ’51 Ford had a set of earliest power brakes, I dumped the highway patrolman to the floorboard under the dash. I always suspected that he gave me my driver’s license just to get rid of me.

And he probably knew exactly what was on my mind: Mexico, the border town whorehouses.

That night, I disconnected the odometer of my mother’s ’50 Chevy, then headed directly toward Nuevo Laredo. I wasn’t exactly looking for a commercial transaction with a woman. That had happened a couple of summers before on a dirty cotton sack, brief sex with a sixteen-year-old Mexican girl cotton picker in exchange for a can of Vienna sausages. And I wasn’t looking for a beer. I’d been buying beer in a Mexican joint in Orange Grove since I was twelve. I was looking for freedom, freedom from the prejudice, hypocrisy, and false religion. Something about crossing that steel bridge over the Rio Grande made me free of all the crap they tried to use to stifle my youth, to make me behave as if I were going to be some white-shoe, tie-wearing snot. Whatever I was going to be, and believe me it still a terrible question, I wasn’t going to be one of those people.

Even after I stopped border town whoring when I got married the first time, I would still drive down to Nuevo Laredo from college at Kingsville to have a drink or two and watch the girls come to work at Papagayo’s or The Rumba Casino, where they looked like high school girls until they came out in their night clothes. I’d buy drinks for the girls, practice my playground Spanish, and imagine different lives for all of us. Quite frankly, sometimes my imagination got away from me- too much tequila and too large a sense of freedom- so I had the occasional conversation with various police officers in several border towns. Nothing serious, nothing the little bite, la mordida, couldn’t fix. And nothing but fond memories.

But what’s the point of being young if you can’t give way to romantic fancies? The hard and terrible truths of border-town life, shorn of romance, are much more exactly revealed in Kent Harrington’s novel, Día de los Muertos. That is what it’s really like.

A young man, Vincent Calhoun, while practicing his student teaching, makes the mistake of falling in love with one of his students. Caught en flagrante delicto con plumas by his love’s chicken-farmer father, Vincent’s life is ruined. His father’s job is forfeit, and Vincent is given the choice of jail or the Marine Corps at a time when Vietnam was a given for young Marines. Whatever hopes, dreams, and sense of morality he might have developed are destroyed by the mean-spirited hypocrisy of the anti-sex middle class.

He ends up as a DEA agent mired in the amazingly murky world of corruption in the worst of the border towns, Tijuana, a city that mirrors the most horrid elements of the American corruption just across the border. The images in the mirrors are grotesque, twisted versions of capitalism, corrupt notions of loyalty, filled with heartbreak as crooked and deep as the barrancas filled with the helpless poor who surround the city. Only the rich and corrupt live in peace, semi-secure behind razor wire and hired gunmen.

For his part, Vincent has fallen into the world of degenerate gambler, where hope is a whore’s lick in your ear, luck as worthless as her affection, and none of the races go to the swift. They go to the wicked. To support his addiction, he smuggles Chinese girls, Mexican gangsters, and anybody else with the price of a ticket into the glorious US of A. Even his body has betrayed him. He’s picked up a case of hemorrhagic fever. He’s about to start leaking blood from every orifice. His live couldn’t be in worse shape. Until he runs into the love of his early life, recently released from prison. The real trouble starts.

It seems that every thug, criminal, and gambler in Tijuana is after Vincent’s life, and all he wants is to get his love safely across the border and out of the clutches of the toughest lesbian in all of literature. Then, of course, there’s a fat gangster who has to be moved to his jeep on a dolly through the insane Day of the Dead celebrants. It weren’t so sad, it would be funny.

Or perhaps it is a comedy that goes on and on, something like life. Only laughter has meaning, and only love lasts, if you’re willing to suffer for it.

The novel is rich with the details of life in Tijuana, full of the moments of despair that always accompany corruption like warts on a toad, and rife with a cast of characters you’ll never forget. It’s a terrific read from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, from scene to scene. And it ends with a moment of sacrifice that wipes Vincent Calhoun’s slate clean.

Día de los Muertos is unforgettable and prophetic. It the world isn’t careful and continues to refuse to share its wealth among all its people, we’re all going to be living in some version of Tijuana.

— James Crumley

 

Greenback Fever

By Kent Harrington

 

Dear Reader,

It’s unlikely we’ll ever meet; unfortunately that’s the way it is between the novelist and his readers. We do have a marvelous and profound connection, though, however distant. You might be reading this even a hundred years from now, but we’ll connect on these pages for a moment, and time and place won’t really matter. I like to think of all the places I’ll travel in spirit, if not in the flesh.

The novel you are holding is set in Tijuana, Mexico. I first passed through that city in the late 1960s, as a child of seven. I was traveling by car with my mother’s Guatemalan family—an aunt and two uncles—on our way to Central America. That morning, it seemed to me a sleepy town.

The Tijuana I saw as a child had come, by the 1960s, to personify (for Americans) not only a corrupt and Godless Mexico, but a corrupt Latin America. No small feat for a down-at-the-heels border town. The city’s blighted reputation was based on the fact that it was where Californians went to indulge themselves in ways they couldn’t back home, at least not legally. Both gambling and prostitution were legal enterprises in the city, and prostitution still is. (Remember, this started before Las Vegas.)

Illicit sex, I think, was the real meat of Tijuana’s mythology. The legendary sex shows were probably apocryphal. Real or not, they existed in the salivating imagination of sexually repressed American males in the pre-Playboy world. Where did the Latin Lover idea spring from? Was it that Catholics were viewed as more licentious? Why not a German lover? But for a lot of young American men in pre-World War II California, the word was out: Sodom and Gomorrah existed, buddy, and you could drive there.

It turns out that all this weekend sin was on offer to these bright-eyed, well-scrubbed boys and girls by—lo and behold—their fellow Americans! “The Jockey Club, Tivoli Bar, the Foreign Club, the Sunset Inn and Agua Caliente Casino were all owned by Anglo-Americans and employed mostly American workers.” 1.

In fact, the Yankees had arrived as early as 1885 and stayed to control the tourist industry until the Mexican government ran them out in the 1940s.

So it was not those Mexicans—the Mexicans who had treated Davy Crockett so shabbily at the Alamo, the Hollywood Mexicans who so memorably didn’t “need no stinking badges’—but Americans who created the myth of Tijuana, City of Sin. On the contrary, the Mexican government put an end to all that good old fun. I’ve heard that the Cardenas administration actually turned some American-owned casinos into schools. This transformation should have put an end to the town’s sinful reputation. When I saw it, unfortunately, the city was only resting up for a bigger show.

Tijuana finally surpassed its own colossal reputation by the 1990s, when it was arguably one of the most violent and corrupt cities on the planet. Both the country and the city had by the nineties changed profoundly, and not for the better. The Mexican government formed in the Revolution of 1917, which had once been responsible for cleaning up Tijuana and building a modern, relatively prosperous Mexico, was finally undone by the illegal drugs trade. Political corruption was the order of the day, and hell was visited on Tijuana, now a border megalopolis. Like so much in our modern world, even crime had industrialized. This is the city I write about here. It’s a frightening place.

When you first cross the border from the United States into Tijuana, you’ll see a heavy, old-fashioned metal turnstile used by pedestrians to enter the city. If you ever go, you should enter that way, on foot. Someday they will turn that old-fashioned gate into something modern, something slick, that marks nothing. But I hope you see that turnstile-cage. It probably dates from the 1930s or 1940s. There is something final about pushing through that gate, hearing it creak, feeling its weight, and seeing a foreign world waiting behind those gray bars. Beyond that turnstile is the fascinating, surreal, shocking welcoming committee of the city’s begging children and mean-looking taxi drivers. No computer-turnstile could ever give you that moment.

I started going to Tijuana as an adult because I liked to go to the bullfights. All the big-time matadors come to Tijuana in the summer. I love the music they play at the bullfight. A small band sits way above the arena in the sun, trumpets glaring. The musicians are usually older men who look like they could use a meal. When they start to play, it’s to punctuate some drama below: perhaps the bull, confused, bloody, is standing in the shade waiting for that last assault. Or the sweating young matador, his black slippers in the gold sand, finally exposes the killing sword before he rushes toward the bull. Something dramatic, anyway, spurs the musicians to play.

The bullring in the old downtown was the best one. (There’s a new one, by the sea.) The old ring is beautiful and intimate, and for some reason I think of it as Baroque, although it really isn’t.

I used to go alone to Tijuana in those days because most people I knew then found the place a bore, or hated the bullfights, or both. At that time I was working in Oakland, where feuding gangsters shot at me almost every day. So the idea of sudden death was very real to me. I could relate completely to the bull and to the bullfighter. Now I can’t watch the end of a bullfight, because it’s cruel and I know it’s cruel. (Is an anonymous death in some dark porcelain slaughterhouse any better? I know what I’d choose.)

Sometimes I’d take the girl who would become my wife. I remember her looking so sexy, with her tight white pants and her long black hair. I remember the way the fights both repelled and fascinated her. I remember her buying French perfume at the fancy shop on Avenida Revolution after the bullfights. I will always remember her surrounded by other young Mexican women at the counter, all of them so intent on the shopping and all of them looking so beautiful and perfect in the late afternoon light, which in summer hits the disheveled and raucous Tijuana streets and makes them oddly sorrowful, golden and dirty-beautiful.

Sometimes I would drive down from the Bay Area with very little money, as I was trying to become a novelist and was living hand to mouth, which sounds romantic but isn’t. I would have just enough money for a bullfight and a decent hotel (the Hotel Arizona), and gas money home, and that was it. Sometimes I went when I really shouldn’t have, as I didn’t have any money at all to spare. I’ve never regretted that. To be any kind of artist, I suppose, is to be madly myopic.

I was alone in Tijuana when I first started Día de los Muertos. I’d like to think that I saw Vincent Calhoun, the protagonist, in the restaurant of the Hotel Arizona, near the bullring. The Hotel Arizona had a good lunch, and served it by the pool. All kinds of people came to eat lunch there before the bullfights: gangsters, movie people from LA, young Marines, and just ordinary day trippers like me. I’m sure I saw someone like Vincent there because that’s where the book starts for me, by the pool, with the lunch being served by waiters in starched white coats, and everyone looking forward to the bullfight.

What about the novel? For me, it’s about this man Vincent Calhoun, who stands suddenly at the entrance to a very dark alley—which, if you want, we’ll call human consciousness—and, hearing the band strike up, walks on toward something both important and frightening. In this battle between his humanity and his past, he hopes to prevail. Don’t we all? I always found his story hopeful, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

— Kent Harrington
April 2003, San Rafael

 

1 San Diego State University web site: azatlan.sdsu.edu (San Diego Mexican & Chicano history.)

 

Thank you for reading.

Please be sure to visit KentHarrington.com.