Día de los Muertos: Chapter 4

Four

Sunrise / Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, Calhoun told himself. So what. Calhoun unwrapped the traditional holiday candy he’d bought the night before at the race track. A black licorice figure with its skeleton superimposed in white. He threw the candy into his mouth and bit it in two. So what, he thought. Another day, another peso.

It had rained hard the night before. The violence of the storm had been translated into frustrated, noisy sex at a place in the city he didn’t want to remember. All the time he was fucking, he relived his night at the track: heard the noises as he kissed a tit, saw the people in the stands as he stripped. He saw the bright lights when she turned over in the dark, heard the dithyramb of cheers for the dogs and their chase as they started screwing. The girl’s face under him when he stopped, finally broken, had the look of a dog at the end of a race it had lost. “Tormenta,” she said looking up at him, round-faced, and only then had he heard the thundering rain.

The storm had blown up from Mazatlan and had vanished by sunrise. Only a strange wet tension and few bits of scud were left behind now. The air was slightly electric, muggy and close-fitting. Typical of the desert, Calhoun thought. A few hours of downpour and then it’s gone. The rain, he knew, would make their work more difficult. Some of the jeep tracks they used would be flooded and impassable. He looked out on the Plaza Tijuana from his table at the cafe. It had been swept clean by the storm. The brilliant stone pavers glistened bone white. Dark puddles, shallow lagoons of watery tension, gave faultless reflections of the breaking dawn sky.

Calhoun knocked down one of the two Tio Pepes he’d ordered. The cold sherry was mouth cleansing, alcoholic. He was careful to wipe his mouth after the first. He waited for the liquor-calm. He knew the rest of the day would be dangerous, hot and unpredictable.

Three pigeons burst from under a parked taxi, spooked by a passerby. He let the candy and alcohol burn his lips as he watched the race. The inside of his mouth held the juicy mixture, mixing it with his own saliva that was squirting: alcohol, burn, saliva, sugar, lips smacking slightly. He finally allowed himself to say it. Lost everything. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, to his suerte. He was mystified by his bad luck. His eyes followed the pigeons until they disappeared, like his money, into the big nothingness of the city. He’d lost everything he had. Not even enough now to take up Cienfuegos on his sure thing.

The glass in Calhoun’s hand suddenly burst. For a moment there was no blood, only the shard imbedded in his wet palm just below his thumb. He stared at the sliver of thick glass protruding from his hand. The blood began to ooze out around the glass, the red liquid soapy looking. It dripped onto the metal table. He touched the edge of the green, thin wedge of glass. The pain raced across him, a wonderful relief from the tension, like a cool hand on his forehead. The Mexican businessmen at the adjacent table had stopped eating and were looking at him. It wasn’t everyday they saw a man squeeze a glass to death. Calhoun looked up, saw them staring at him with the big faces of the wealthy. He smiled at them. It was a smile that none of the men looking at him thought they’d ever seen before.

“I guess they don’t make ’em like they used to,” Calhoun said to them fatuously. He pulled the bent sliver out of his skin. He took out his handkerchief and wrapped it around his palm, threw four greasy thousand peso notes on the table and went into the bar.

“I need the jeep this morning. It’s in the parking lot of the Arizona.” The bartender nodded and called the kid they kept around the place for errands. The bartender put a cognac in front of Calhoun and told the kid when he came in the bar to go get Don Calhoun’s jeep at the Hotel Arizona. The bartender threw the boy the keys.

The boy, only fourteen or so, nodded hello to Calhoun. The kid was one of the dark little street urchins that wear plastic shoes and look like they could eat for a week; the city had hundreds of them, maybe thousands. The waiters at the Escondido had adopted this one. The kid had woken up one day to find his family had moved on across the wire without him. Calhoun motioned the kid closer to the bar and handed him a twenty dollar bill. The bartender noticed the tip and rolled his eyes, walked away shaking his head. Twenty dollars in Tijuana was a big deal.

“Don’t spend it in one place, compadre,” Calhoun said, turning back around.

“Gracias, compadre. I wash, too?” The kid touched Calhoun on the back.

“No, no time to wash,” Calhoun said, not looking at him. There was something filial in the way the boy had touched him. “I have to go to work.” He felt the kid staring at his back but wouldn’t turn around. The kid left at a trot for the hotel a few blocks away.

“He can barely reach the pedals,” Calhoun said turning to the bartender, an older Mexican, who looked like he’d been behind the bar his whole life. The bartender wore a red jacket with gold epaulets and a spotless white shirt. The uniform, old-fashioned in the states, was still de rigueur in Mexico’s classy bars. “How did he learn to drive?” Calhoun asked.

“Mexicans never learn how to drive,” the bartender said. They both laughed. “We’re born to it,” the bartender said.

“He’s a good kid… Why would his folks leave him?”

“Many are left behind at the wire,” the bartender answered. “His parents caught the fever.”

“What fever?”

“Greenback fever,” the bartender said.

“That’s not funny.” Calhoun said.

“I wasn’t joking, Greenback Fever. What else do you think makes people risk so much?”

 

It was still very early and there was nothing for him to do but watch the traffic on the square and smoke. The sun started to splash against the trees. They would all be under the power of the sun soon, he knew, sweating like pigs, breathing the bad air. He put the cigarette out and looked at his watch.

The bus from the prison at Rio Sangre stopped in front of the plaza, as it did every morning to let out the newly released prisoners. Like the others at the bar, Calhoun watched the prisoners get out. It was their first act as free men and women and it was always interesting to Calhoun to see what they did with freedom. How they acted, where they went. Who picked them up. The kisses exchanged with loved ones, the ones with no one. The way some would wait in the plaza sometimes for hours wondering what to do next, like lost dogs, like human tablets dissolving in the sunshine.

Calhoun watched the driver open the bus doors. An armed guard led each prisoner down to the sidewalk, their plastic handcuffs were cut, and a paper signed. Calhoun wondered what the paper said. The state of Baja California releases you and wishes you luck, please come again.

He was about to ask the bartender where the hell the kid was when he saw her. At first he wasn’t sure. Calhoun watched the girl as the driver brought her down then went back for her things. She was older of course, thinner, but it was her. He was sure of it, Celeste Stone.

She had the white plastic handcuffs in front of her and was bending her elbows up looking around, her red hair unkempt and long, her denims dirty, her skin porcelain white, a blue prison issue shirt with Propiedad de Cárcel stenciled on the back of it when she turned around. The girl looked toward the cafe as the guard sawed off her plastic manacle. Calhoun saw the look on her face—indifferent, phlegmatic. Her hands suddenly free, she brought them to her sides, then rubbed her wrists. The bartender looked too, as did most of the men sitting at the bar now.

“Well, son of a bitch,” Calhoun said out loud.

“You can say that again,” the executive next to him said. “Look at the ass on that broad.”

Calhoun called to the bartender and ordered two espressos, ignoring the man’s remark.

“Dos? Señor Vincente?”

“Yeah. One for me and one for the young lady.” He put his cigarette in the glass ashtray, crushed it and looked again. Stone was signing her release paper. She dropped the pen into the guard’s hand. Calhoun looked for a boyfriend or family, but there was no one waiting for her. The guard came back out of the bus with a backpack and put it down at her feet. Calhoun noticed she was wearing tattered, filthy, blue espadrilles, which were pathetic looking.

“When pretty young girls are in prison, it goes very badly for them,” the bartender said in Spanish. He looked across the street over his shoulder while he spoke, the coffee machine hissing; he knocked the grounds out with a violent bang.

“I heard about the American girl. She was there without money. I heard from one of the jailers who lives near me,” the bartender said. The machine started to sputter out coffee. The bartender poured the coffee with his back to Calhoun. “The guards took advantage at first because she didn’t have any money. Then there was another girl…” But Calhoun wasn’t listening now, he was looking at her very carefully, the way you might a gem you just bought.

“Then the warden took her over, as they say. He would go into the prison, you know, the courtyard at Rio Sangre. He would have her there in her cell.” The bartender turned around, put the coffees down in front of Calhoun. Calhoun turned and looked back out the spotless window at Stone, remembering so many things at once.

“What was she there for? I mean in prison. Do you know?” Calhoun asked. He took a sip of the bitter coffee and looked at her. She bent over and picked up her backpack. He saw her heart-shaped ass and swallowed.

The waiter shrugged his shoulders, giving Calhoun the standard Latin shrug that was used to explain everything from hysterical dictators to bad water in Latin countries. “¿Quién sabe?” he said.

Calhoun had been at the prison once. He’d seen the courtyard at noon, the masses of men and women lining up at the big tubs of food put out like swill in red plastic garbage cans. The sun, the noise, the chaos. The filthy sheen of people’s faces from the greasy food. The sound of the corrugated metal roof that thundered when it rained, a frantic watery hysteria as he sat in the warden’s office. The colonnade where gangs of men in dirty T-shirts stared out at the courtyard, where wives cooked for their husbands. The prisons in Mexico were so different from back in the states. The prisons in Mexico were more like little towns. Calhoun got up from the bar and walked out into the street. She hadn’t moved from the spot. The bus was pulling away. Stone was looking at the clock on the plaza, her possessions at her feet.

“That clock is always wrong, Celeste,” Calhoun said. “As long as I’ve been here.” He felt a chill go through him. He wasn’t sure if it was seeing her again or the illness, but a big one went through him as he stood there looking at her.

The American girl, about twenty-five, looked up at him. She gave him an indifferent look, not recognizing him at first because of his hat and the sunglasses. Her face was red from the sun. She looked dirty but beautiful at the same time, efflorescent. The long torso and legs he remembered. Her eyes, bits of sapphirine crystal—those hadn’t changed. That was what you always remembered about her, those bright eyes in that exotic Irish-girl face. A face with a mouth that was very full and terribly sexual. There was something in her eyes that you had to contend with, something supremely feminine and powerful that grabbed you. It was a kind of super femininity—the ultimate yin, the passivity in her eyes like exotic blue flowers constantly blooming sexuality. Calhoun found it, the yin, immediately attractive, compelling, despite everything that had happened between them.

“It’s me,” he said. “Vince…” He took his sunglasses and havelock off.

“Vince?” Calhoun nodded. The girl shook her head for a moment in disbelief, the red curls moving on the blue tattered prison shirt.

“I see you’ve just left the hospitality of the State of Baja California,” Calhoun said, trying to make a joke of it.

She scratched her arm and looked at him carefully now. He could see there were flea bites from the bus ride on her pretty, thin arms.

“I can’t believe it’s you. How did you know?”

“I didn’t. I was sitting in the place across the street.” She looked across the street. He noticed the cup of her breast, the narrow waist, the push of her skin against the jeans, and felt the pull of her. He rubbed his face and realized he hadn’t shaved. It seemed as if the space between them was being reduced, as if he were sliding into her, like a planet sucked into an orbit.

“My lucky day,” she said, the tone of her voice deeper than you would have expected

“I thought you could use some coffee. I’ve ordered you some.” He nodded back toward the bar. “Why don’t you join me?” Stone pulled her hair back from her face. She stared at him for a moment, gave him a fey look.

“You’re kidding?” she said.

“No.”

“You must be a fucking angel.”

“I guess so,” he said. He put his sunglasses back on. She dropped behind the yellow tint of his Vuarnets.

“You haven’t changed much,” he said. She smiled at him. It was a dreary, secret smile, things-maybe-you-didn’t-want-to-know moving across her face, a string of unsaid things/events/acts turned into lips moving slightly, considering her response.

“You have,” she said finally. “Which way’s the border?” She picked up her bundle and swung the backpack onto one shoulder. “Maybe another time. When I’m not so busy.

“About four blocks that way,” Calhoun pointed north. He was disappointed and didn’t want her to go away. He wanted her to come to the bar with him. He wanted to talk to her, to sit next to her.

A new Ford sedan pulled up to the curb behind them, with a gold State of Baja California insignia on the white door. A man in his fifties, dark-skinned, with patches of white in his jet black hair, got out of the back seat. He said something to the driver who was in uniform. The man who got out was very dark and low to the ground. He walked up to them.

“Come with me,” the man said to her, ignoring Calhoun. Calhoun recognized the warden, Zamora, from his visit to the prison when he and Breen had interviewed an informant in the warden’s office. The warden glanced at Calhoun but didn’t recognize him.

“Move on, amigo.” Zamora said it rudely and angrily. His jacket was open and he was strapped. A big automatic swung under his arm.

“Celeste, I want you to come back with me…” Zamora said turning back toward her. “Please. I have a place for you here in Tijuana.” Zamora reached for her cardboard box. She stood there looking at the men. Zamora snatched the parcel out of her hand. Calhoun waited for her to do something but she didn’t.

“Please, Celeste. Por favor. I love you…por favor,” Zamora said. She looked at Zamora. It was a look Calhoun had never seen before: ambivalence taken to some kind of new level. Zamora turned and looked at Calhoun, thinking he might be responsible for her not obeying. Calhoun put his arm around the warden’s shoulder. The warden looked into his eyes.

“You remember me now, don’t you?” Calhoun said. He was holding his DEA credential out away from the girl. Zamora glanced at it. Calhoun felt him physically change.

“Yes.” Calhoun walked him back towards his car.

“She’s ours,” Calhoun said when they’d gotten a few steps away from her. “If you don’t leave her the fuck alone, we will assume you have something to do with the trouble she’s in.” The warden looked back at the girl. He thought for a moment whether she was worth having the DEA on his ass and decided his obsession with American girls had its limits. He got back in the car and they drove off.

Calhoun turned around and walked back to her. She’d always been trouble, even back then in Palmdale, he warned himself. The only thing that had changed, from what he could see, was that she’d gotten prettier and the trouble was nastier.

“He’ll leave you alone,” Calhoun said. He wanted to get closer but didn’t. She was looking at him the same way she’d looked at the warden.

“Thanks.”

“How about that coffee?”

“No, I think I’ll just go.” She picked up her things. “Thanks, Vince. He’s been a real drag.” They looked at each other. She smiled. “I mean, he owns that place…” He watched her pick up the box.

“Well, good luck then,” Calhoun said.

 

“He’s in love,” the bartender said when Calhoun came back. “Did you see the way he looked at her? Have you ever seen anything so pathetic in your life?” Calhoun was going to say that he had, once, a long time ago. But he kept his mouth shut. They all watched her walk out across the plaza alone.

“She’s going the wrong way,” Calhoun said.

The kid pulled up to the front of the Escondido. The jeep had been washed. Calhoun got up and went out on the street. It wasn’t six o’clock yet.

“Did you check the gas?” The kid nodded. “Where you going to spend that twenty bucks?” Calhoun asked him in Spanish, climbing into the jeep.

“I’m going into business, compadre,” the kid said.

“Yeah?” Calhoun said.

“Si, I’m going into business. Condones.” He showed a box of twenty-five French balloons he’d bought with the money Calhoun had given him.

“Good,” Calhoun said.

“I’m going to be rich some day, compadre,” the kid said, looking at him. “Like you, big car, beautiful girls, just like you,” the kid said. “Where you go today, compadre?”

“Up the line, compadre, up the line,” Calhoun said.

“When you come back?”

“When God is finished with me,” Calhoun said. Calhoun found the new auxiliary gauge for a back-up gas tank he’d had installed. Both gauges read full. Pleased, he started the engine and pulled out into the traffic. Celeste was standing waiting for him at the first stop light. She walked out into the traffic to his window, not sure of herself.

He was surprised. He hadn’t expected to see her again. “The asshole took my passport. I don’t know what to do. They won’t let me cross, will they?” She tried a smile. It worked. It was the complete opposite of the face she’d given the warden. She did her “beautiful girl” face and it worked.

“What do I do, Vince?”

“I don’t know,” Calhoun said. “You could probably cross without anything. They’ll ask you if you’re an American, that’s all. Clean up maybe. You look kind of rough,” he said, relishing the remark.

Stone shifted the backpack to her other shoulder. There must have not been anything in it, the way it was hanging. Calhoun couldn’t keep his eyes off her. They looked at each other again. She was waiting for him to say something. He understood better than anyone why Zamora had fallen in love. Her bust pressed against the dirty prison shirt. She was at that exact age when women have it all going for them, every sexual nuance spine-tingling. She was right there at that moment now, standing in the middle of the street in Tijuana. Dazzling sexuality. You could almost smell it.

Stone put her hand against the door. “I’m broke, Vince…on empty.”

“Yeah,” Calhoun said. “You better get in.”
Dia Spacer
They’d caught them on a Saturday night. Her father caught them in her room. Her father and his girlfriend had forgotten their tickets to a Padres game and come back to the ranch. They were doing it, nothing really kinky, but she was down on him when they came into the room. The old man ran for his gun and held it on Calhoun (never saying a word) until the sheriff came and took him straight to jail.

There was a picture in the paper the next morning of him in an orange jumpsuit. The reporter, whom he’d grown up with, had no mercy at all. None. Never even made it clear that they’d been going out for a year already.

It was a brutal headline: STUDENT TEACHER ACCUSED OF RAPE OF LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL GIRL. Nobody ever lives that down. It was over then, everything he’d worked for. He’d wanted to be a teacher and it was gone. Just like that. No questions. No chance to explain. Nothing. Just gone. Everything he worked for blown off the table because he couldn’t stay out of Stone’s pants. The judge had offered the Marine Corps, and he’d taken it. Every day he asked himself if it had been worth it. He’d seen bad things as a result, war and death. Every day since, he’d told himself yes, even that night in Panama when men were screaming for their mamas, he thought it was worth it. Every last goddamn red cunt hair he’d spit on the floor of that room was worth it.

 

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