Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chapter 1 -- Bootleg


The first novel ends with Deak distraught and heartbroken and drinking with the hobos on the bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans.  His infant son is recently dead and buried, and his young wife, Podi, having caught Deak cheating on her, has left him for one of his bandmates.  And that is the situation as The Second Book Of Deak begins.

Chapter One
Bootleg

The afternoon evolved into twilight, which quickly declined into night.  Still, I sat there beside the footstone, sobbing and suffering.  Everything was gone—my Podi and our Isaac…my whole family—and suddenly I was alone…miserable, wretched and pining…an abject pauper in spirit….. 
It was the dark night of a new moon.  The few stars visible through the black shroud were quickly obscured by swirling storm clouds, which were like an impenetrable shroud of death.  It covered me like a blanket, clung to me like a second skin, smothered me with terror, and suffocated me with fear.  I dreaded what it portended.
I experienced the revelation that I had reached a crossroad in my life.  Since the path I most desired, to backtrack and change the past, did not appear, I became angry with the Fates, and violently cursed them.  That ineffable moment was simply bizarre, and when confronted with the choice between left into the light and right into the night, I trembled and went wrong.  I got to my knees, crawled across the ground, and with my hands pressed into the fresh dirt covering the coffin of my precious Isaac, I leaned forward and kissed his tiny marker, and broke into sobs over him one last time.  In that same instant the death clouds above burst and pelted me with bullets of acid rain.  I jumped to my feet, shook my fists skyward at the confusion, and unleashed a primal scream.   With the determined resolve born of passion I walked over to my guitar and calmly stomped it into splinters.  Then, without turning my head (though stifling sniffles and tears), I walked out of the cemetery and into a bar, where I took a glass of vodka, then another, and another, and another…until I was sitting on a stool in Cosimo’s, where I bumped into Arthur, my old friend who had formerly managed a number of Bourbon Street bands (see chapter 34).  And just as we had that night we hung out shortly after Isaac’s birth, we filled a couple of bags with beer, food and tobacco and went to hang out with the homeless drunks by the riverside.  But unlike that first night, this time when Arthur left at sunrise, I did not accompany him, but stayed there boozing with my new friends.
We were many and varied—the denizens of the riverbank—and came and went daily, but we all had one thing in common:  we had been seduced by the mesmerizing spell of alcohol.  Whether by addiction, escape or passion, we were a brotherhood in the bottle.  And we were in New Orleans, where every moment was an open spigot pouring party.
During the weeks that I lived at the water’s edge I met veterans of war and has-been musicians; broken-hearted losers and lovable bums.  I met all manner of man who for one reason or another succumbs to the false charms of liquor.  And not only was I among their number, I became one of their leaders. 
The first guy there I truly befriended was Shank the fisherman.  When Arthur had first brought me there, and then again the time I stayed, Shank was sitting on a stump at water’s edge with a fishing pole propped between his legs, a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
So at the break of the day following Isaac’s memorial, I staggered over to him with a spilling bottle of vodka and plopped myself beside.  “Sooo….” I slurred.  “Who are you?”
He turned to me with friendly smile and extended hand, and said:  “I’m Shank.  Who are you?”
“My name is Deacon, but my friends just call me Deak,” I answered.
“You’re Deak!” he cried.  “All right!  I knew I recognized you!”
He whipped out a harmonica, and tooted and sang, Down By The Riverside.

“I'm gonna lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside…
Down by the riverside…
Down by the riverside…
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load,
Down by the riverside.

I ain't gonna study war no more
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my travelin' shoes
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my gun and belt
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna put on my long white robe
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna put on my starry crown
Down by the riverside….”

Just as he was fading out I picked up, and sang:  “I’m gonna leave all my sorrows here, down by the riverside…Don’t want to spend my tomorrows here, down by the riverside…down by the riverside….”
Our rendition of the standard was beautiful, and the friendship sealed with a handshake.  Then Shank said:  “So, what troubles lead you into the fold?”
I had been waiting all night for someone to open that gate of my mouth, and darted through with a lightning tongue.  I berated him with my babble about Podi and Isaac for fifteen of his patient minutes before I suddenly halted my egocentric self and inquired about him.  “And what brought you here?” I asked.
“No troubles,” he nonchalantly replied.  “I’m just waiting to catch a particular catfish, and I’m not going to leave here until I do.”  He sipped whiskey from a filthy brown bottle, which he then handed to me.  “Well, maybe I want a wife, family and house, like you had…but I haven’t found my woman yet, and there’s a certain catfish I need to land first.”
“Moby Dick?” I facetiously asked.
“No, I just call it Fat Cat.  It’s a hundred pound channel cat I saw with my eyes right here six months ago, and I’m going to sit here pinning mudsuckers and nightcrawlers to my hook until she bites, then I am going to eat her, and share her with my friends.  Peace, my brother.”
He slapped my hand, cast his line back into the water and sipped a beer.  I went to meet some of the others. 
There was Chuck Barry—not THE Chuck Berry—but a carefree white fiddle player from San Antonio.  There were O’Malley and Liffey, the wandering Scots, and Abdul O’Doul, one the world’s few muslim Irishman.  There was Riley the sailor.  There were Jack, Barney and Woodman, who had run out of money on a road trip and were mingling with the locals till they had enough jack to refuel their van and go.  There was Callahan, who sang the Dada Song, and Big L, who had ostensibly been driven mad by his computer.
But with the high times came dry times, and so it was that after a full fortnight fat on the hog we crashed and burned, and for whatever mysterious reason, went a couple of days without food nor drink, and without the slightest motivation to walk the two blocks into the city.  It was the middle of August, and the broiling humidity was oppressive.  It was all we could do to haul ourselves into the water and then back out to flop onto the bank.  Night fell heavily.  The moon was full, but obscured by thick clouds, and six of us—myself, Shank, Callahan and Woodman laid there dreaming aloud of drinks and crawdads.  We had just resigned ourselves to a night without either and achieved a peaceable reverie when a gaunt man, all shadow and bone, appeared behind us.  I couldn’t tell if he was real or a craving induced hallucination, but he inspired a shiver that iced my blood.  He was a madman.  He leaped around menacingly, and taunted us with his sinister song.

When your booze is gone
And you’re all alone,
Watch out for Monkey Jones.
All shadow and bones,
You’ll shiver when he moans…
Here comes Monkey Jones.

The queer figure jigged about my head incessantly repeating those lyrics in a strange and sinister melody.  Suddenly the clouds overhead parted, revealing the full moon.  At the same moment fog rolled in off the river.  Then I heard a low, gravelly voice command:  “Monkey Jones, be gone!  Get out of here now, d’ya hear?”
I looked up and saw a strange figure approaching.  He was of diminutive stature, with a heavy beard and a thick head of long hair.  He had a pronounced limp in his right leg, and below that same knee I could see dazzling jewels sparkling in the moonlight.  His right calf seemed three times the size of the left.
Shank sat up and triumphantly said:  “All right!  Bootleg is here!  Monkey Jones is history, and we’re all set!”
“Bootleg?  Who’s that?” I asked.
“Him,” Shank whispered, pointing to the approaching man.  “Watch this.”
There followed a surreal confrontation.  Monkey Jones cowered.  Bootleg stalked and towered, waving the pinky and index finger of his left hand in Monkey Jones’ face, jabbing the air and growling:  “Bafongol to the bogey man!  Take the onus, take it and go!”

Monkey Jones meekly yelped once and melted into the shadows whence he had emerged.  Bootleg then hobbled over to us, seated himself on a rock by the embers of what had been our fire, and flipped a silver latch on the side of his knee.  His hollow wooden leg popped open, and he removed a magnum bottle of a clear liquid that splintered the moonlight like a prism.  I was mesmerized with curiosity and desire.  He got up and spread a few fresh pieces of wood on the coals, and splashed them with several drops of the liquid, which brought the fire blazing back to life.    Then he tipped the bottle and took a draught before passing it to me.
I was both bold and timid.  I seized the bottle, then hesitated to drink.  “What is it?” I asked. 
“Grapa,” he answered.  “Go ahead, I made it myself.  It’s an Italian drink, fermented from what’s left of the grapes when they’ve finished making the wine.”
I filled my mouth, swished it around, then eased it down my gullet.  It was a strong liquor, and a warm glow radiated throughout my body, to the tips of my fingers and toes, and to the very follicles in my scalp.  I gazed at the moon while my body embraced the spirit.  Then Shank took the bottle, swigged and passed it, and in moments we were gathered around the fire chatting and drinking, with spirits greatly raised.
Bootleg was quite the character.  He had the gift of gab, and kept us entertained with both his stories and jokes, and his witty repartee.  As we jabbered I studied his prosthetic by the light of the fire and the moon.  It was more a magnificent sculpture than a replacement leg.  It was made of teak, and burnished to reveal the very essence and soul of the wood.  There were dozens of pearls, garnets, rubies and emeralds inlaid with silver and gold.  There was fur trim around the top, a huge diamond in the tip, and a glinting silver spur.  It was a more beautiful a boot than I had ever imagined could exist, and my hypnotized eyes were riveted to its glory. 
The bottle quickly emptied into our bellies, and upon its conclusion, Duppy, Joop, Callahan and Shank drifted into contented drunken slumbers.  But Bootleg and I were not yet satisfied, and sat staring at each other and the fire, with the others snoring around us.  Our eyes locked, burning not only with the grapa, but with a bond we knew had been forged a million years before, and that had finally brought us together in that moment.
Then Bootleg said:  “Hey buddy, you still thirsty?”
All I wanted was another drink, and all I could do was to nod my head.
“I got a little something else—my special reserve,” he said.  He opened his boot again, pulled out a little glass and put in the empty grapa bottle.  He then buckled the boot back up, held the glass down by the heel, and opened the spur. It was also a tiny tap.  A thin stream of golden liqueur filled the little glass.  He offered it to me.  I sipped half then handed it back.  The feeling that suffused my flesh transcended drunkenness--it was intoxicatingly divine.  I had never experienced such euphoria in my life.  “What is that?” I finally asked.  I had never tasted anything like it, and was completely perplexed and befuddled.
“Church wine,” he answered.  “I’m friends with a priest, and he gives it to me.  He’s a compassionate man, and he knows it kills my pain like nothing else in this world, and so he smuggles me out about a pint a month.  It’s what they drink as the blood of Christ when taking communion.”
“You’re still in pain?” I stupidly asked.
“It’s called phantom pain, Louie,” he replied, “and it haunts me every moment of every day.  It’s like the leg is always there yet constantly being torn away.”
Emboldened by the drink, I decided to push him.  “How did you lose it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t mind,” he replied.  He refilled the glass from the spur, grimaced, swallowed his mouthful and handed it to me.  “The Crippler stole it.”
I drank my half greedily, and responded to him as if speaking from a dream.  “The Crippler?  Who is that?”
“Polio,” he replied.  “You probably don’t know much about it because you were born after Salk discovered the vaccine which spared you.  It’s a degenerating muscular disease, and for decades it ravaged the country, maiming and killing like a mad tornado.   I got it drinking from a mud puddle when I was two.  I probably passed the bug along to all my friends.  We the afflicted spent our childhoods in iron lungs and on crutches, and as outcasts from the untouched.  I—“  He caught himself, and then got lost in a mournful thought.  Then he tapped the hollow boot with a knuckle, and said:  “But knock wood, one friend lost both legs, another lost both arms, and four died, so I could be worse.”
I suddenly felt guilty that I had always taken my perfect health for granted, and apologized.  “No need to apologize, buddy,” he continued.  “God said two things about me:  that he made me ‘in his own image,’ and that ‘I am what I am.’  So notwithstanding the missing kicker, I still am whole.  But we have a bigger problem right now.”
“What’s that?” I dumbly asked.
“The leg is empty and I’m still thirsty.  How much money you got?” he bluntly replied.

I was off guard and totally unprepared for such a response, and stupidly answered, “Uh, none.  Not a nickel.”
“Then you’d better start limbering up your fingers, cuz we’re gonna have to play some blues for booze.”
“I don’t get you,” I slurred.
He stood up, hobbled over to me, grasped one side of my head with his left hand and lightly slapped the other with his right.  “We’re going to play a few songs for the tourists and partiers, pass the hat, and as soon as we have a handful of rags, we’ll go somewhere for a few more drinks.  I know where we can get a hold of a guitar and a bass.  Come on now.”
He grasped my hand and yanked me to my feet.  I came to life like a sinner at the resurrection.  I suddenly no longer craved liquor, but only to play the guitar again.  We were just about to set out for the French Quarter—I walking and Bootleg hobbling--when the faint music of a harmonica drifted out of the dusky morning mists and into our ears.  We both turned and saw Shank lightly puffing on his harp. 
Then he said, “I heard every word, and y’all ain’t going anywhere without me.”
He set aside his fishing pole, came over to us, threw one arm around me, the other around Bootleg, squeezed us to his heart, and The Nightcrawlers were born.
We three wandered up the six blocks to Bourbon Street.  Bootleg seemed to know everyone we passed along the way.  He acknowledged a greeting or shook a hand at every step, and stopped to have a dozen conversations.  At last he brought us to a bar called Tropical Joe’s, where he knew just about everyone, including Joe the owner, who immediately treated us to cocktails. 
After a few minutes of chit chat Tropical Joe looked at us expectantly and said:  “Well?”
“Well what?” we replied.
“The first round was on the house, but you’ve got to sing for the rest, so get to it!”
The house band’s instruments were there onstage, so I strapped into the guitar, Bootleg had to mount a little stool so he could reach the neck of the double bass, Shank lubed up his harp and we showered Bourbon Street with a short set of simple blues standards.  Though we generated a certain chemistry playing together, we were far from tight—booze and blues don’t always mix.  Nonetheless, we brought in a few patrons for Tropical Joe, earned enough in the hat to drink a river of margaritas, and, most importantly, The Nightcrawlers were able to say they’d had a successful debut.
During the months of my bender I tried several times to sober up, but found that none of the pains in my heart had yet relented, and so always proceeded to get even drunker than before.  While before and since alcohol generally accentuated my happy nature, during those dark days it largely transformed me into a mean, nasty monster.  And the beast it unleashed knew nothing of love and loyalty to friends, nor of kindness and courtesy toward strangers, it only knew Deak slaking his insatiable thirst.
And my descent into the abyss of perpetual inebriation resulted in my frequently finding cuts and bruises on myself, with no recollection of how I’d acquired them.  On numerous occasions I woke up in strange places and strange beds, on and under benches, and once in a pile of leaves.  Twice I came to wearing clothing I didn’t recognize, and once thirty miles away in Metarie, across Lake Pontchartrain.  And at some point almost every day I’d feel as if someone had sawed off the top of my skull, basted my brain with iodine, then secured it back in place with fifty wood screws.
Throughout the bender I did manage to maintain playing with The Nightcrawlers a couple nights a week.  Our repertoire consisted almost solely of standards—“Built For Comfort,” “I Got a Woman,” “Kansas City,” “Money,” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” among many more.  We also worked up one trademark original, Bootleg’s ranting “Monkey Jones.”
I really don’t recall many specific details of those Bourbon Street performances—until the last couple.  My hasty downward spiral into the bottom of the pit began one morning when I awoke on a park bench in a rum fog so dense that I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake.  Oddly, it turned out to be a little of both.  The dream was that The Nightcrawlers and I were performing “Monkey Jones” on Bourbon Street.  The reality was that a recording of the song was actually pouring from a nearby radio.  I shook my head to confirm that I was awake—or rather, that I had crossed that threshold from drunkenness to hangover—then tracked the song to its source.  The sound quality was excellent, but I couldn’t understand where a recording of “Monkey Jones” had come from.  Then, when the song ended and I heard applause, I recognized it as one of our Bourbon Street performances.  I was mystified by the song’s existence as a recording, but had only been pondering that for a moment when the deejay announced the next song, the latest release from The Belle Blossoms, a surefire hit called “Adios, Loser.”  It was Podi’s musical stab into my rent heart, and it stung like Cleopatra’s asp. 


Adios, Loser

In the beginning, I’ll admit, you were winning,
When you had me on your arm,
The world was your pearl when I was your girl,
When I was your sweet lucky charm.

But now it’s all over,
You’ve plucked not one…not two…not three…
But all four leaves from the clover,
And instead of singing “Hola lover,”
I’m screaming “Adios, loser!”

Adios, loser!  Adios, loser!
Adios, adios, adios, loser!
Now you’re the beggar, while I’m the chooser.
I’m the shining star, and you the wretched boozer.
You had a princess, but you misused her,
And changed your prince’s robe for a pauper’s rags,
Adios, loser!

And as if predetermined by Fate, the moment the song finished playing I espied Ricky and Podi across the street, walking together with their fingers interlocked.  My heart sank and burned, and from that instant events unfolded in rapid succession to the explosive culmination that same evening on Bourbon Street.  First I guzzled a pint of vodka and got a good buzz working.  Then a quick stroll around the French Quarter revealed to me that a bootleg tape of one of The Nightcrawlers shows had been pressed and released and was selling like proverbial hotcakes.  My anger, compounded, escalated.  I spent the day pissed off at Ricky for his betrayal, furious with the scoundrel who’d had the audacity to record and release a Nightcrawlers show without my authority, mad at life and the world for nothing but reasons of my own making, all the while chugging the booze that was fueling the bomb.
However, there was a calm before the storm.  Just after sunset I stumbled down to the riverside, where Shank, Bootleg and some of the others were sitting around a campfire passing a couple of bottles.  I had barely slurred ‘hello’ to everyone when Shank’s fishing line snapped taut and the pole flew into the water.  “That’s her!” he cried as he dove in after it.    “I’ve got her!” 
We jumped in to help, but he waved us off, saying that it was a fight he needed to wage alone; and after a momentous, two hour struggle that left him sweaty and exhausted, with palms striped with string burns and lacerations, he had successfully landed the approximately one hundred pound channel catfish that he’d so aptly nicknamed Fat Cat.  I was happy for him, but while our comrades cheered and congratulated and raised toasts to his conquest, I sat sullenly in the background, slowly sipping myself into an oblivious stupor.
The great fish was greatly admired, and through Shank’s impassioned recounting of the struggle to land it, apotheosized into legend.  Then there was a brief discussion as to what next, whether to take it to a taxidermist or to simply eat it, which determination was made by Shank when he plainly said:  “Well, since I’ve got no use for trophies, much less a place to display them….”
And so the fish was gutted and filleted, marinated in some wine, wrapped in some seaweed and an old blanket and thrust into the embers, and at midnight the legendary fish became a mere feast for ten drunks with the munchies.  I had a couple of nibbles out of respect for Shank, but my anger at Ricky and Podi, and the rogue who’d pirated a Nightcrawlers show, had festered to a height that killed all appetite, leaving only the unquenchable thirst for the liquor that was fueling my rage.
After everyone had stuffed themselves with catfish and laid belly up for an hour or so, Bootleg suggested we go up to Bourbon Street and kick out a few tunes.  I was incoherent verging on blackout, but recall thinking a jam might help to sublimate my anger, and so staggered along with them.  The next thing I remember was standing at Tropical Joe’s looking at the instruments.  Then the strangest thing happened, an occurrence that set the chain of events in motion.  Bootleg had left the room without my noticing, just a moment before I excused myself from Shank to go to the bathroom.  When I came out of the john I heard some strange noises in the hallway behind the stage.  I stuck my head around the corner, discreetly peered through a gap in some slats, and saw Bootleg loading two microphones and a recorder into the hollow of his prosthesis.  I was infuriated around the moon and back, and almost confronted him on the spot, but for some reason refrained and went back to Shank to await Bootleg’s return so we could begin the jam session.  He came out a few moments later, and we set up and started the performance.  That night may have been the worst guitar I’ve ever played.  Between my extreme intoxication, and my intentionally not wanting to produce quality music for Bootleg’s bootleg, I stunk up the joint.  The people that didn’t boo or hiss gave me funny looks as they walked on by.  Then I noticed Podi and Ricky in the distance, arm in arm, pointing at me and sniggering.  I proceeded to scramble the tuning nuts and to ferociously pound the guitar—discordant would have sounded ordered compared to the noise that I produced.  Then Bootleg tapped my shoulder and said:  “What the hell’s the matter with you tonight?”
While his tone was one of genuine concern, I heard only what I wanted, which was a pissed off and antagonistic someone confronting me.  “What’s the matter?” I slurred.  “What the matter?  I’ll show you what’s the matter!”
I unstrapped the guitar, grasped the neck with both hands, cranked it behind my back and swung it with all my might.  The solid body guitar crashed squarely into his wooden leg—the guitar cracked in half and his leg splintered into fifty pieces.  The tape recorder and microphones spilled onto the sidewalk a moment before Bootleg landed up them with a crunching thud.  
“That’ll teach you to steal my music!” I screeched at the top of my lungs.
I had not disabled him, however; I had enraged him, much like throwing mud on a hen, water on a cat, or wagging a dog.  After letting out a blood chilling howl of anguish, he hoisted himself up onto his good leg, hopped three steps towards me, and in one motion clamped my throat, thrust me backwards and landed on my chest, knocking me windless.  His eyes were two blazing infernos of rage, and I could see that I’d fractured the tip of the small piece of fibia that remained extended below his kneecap.  He yelled—not screamed—at me, and his words were punctuated with the droplets of spittle that speckled my face.
“You arrogant, egotistical, reeking piece of crap!  The music is ours, not yours; and the money from the tape is going to help some of my less fortunate friends with polio, since our government thinks it’s more important to know the effects of outer space on pregnant vermin than to care for a cripple here on earth.  I didn’t realize you needed the money on top of your millions…next time I’ll be more considerate!”
The last thing I remember through the haze is his fist rapidly growing large before crushing my face.

Chapter 1 -- Bootleg
Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp
Chapter 3 -- Sands
Chapter 4 -- Forgiven Not Forgotten
Chapter 5 -- Revenge
Chapter 6 -- The Flying Lightning Shows





Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp


Chapter 2
Bootcamp

When I awoke my head thudded like it was being beaten against an anvil.  It was the morning after, and I was lying in the dirt beside the river.  I opened my eyes but only could see out one—the right was swollen shut.  Shank was sitting nearby chewing a blade of grass and minding his fishing line in the water.  Upon seeing that I had awakened, he looked at me sympathetically and said:  “You look like you’re probably not feeling too well.”
“Go deduce how to catch fish, Sherlock,” I muttered in response.  I tried to sit up, but blacked out again.  For the next several hours I laid there drifting in and out of painful consciousness.  Finally the agony subsided enough that I was able to sit up and remain awake.  Hours had passed.  Shank hadn’t moved.
“Here,” he said, offering me a canteen.
“What is it?” I asked warily.  The thought of more liquor set my guts heaving.
“Water.  You need it, and you might want to splash some on that eye, or wash it off in the river,” he suggested.
I took a swig, spit a little in my palm and gently wiped my bruised eye.  I shook out the cobwebs, shook his hand, then rose unsteadily and said:  “Thanks for watching out for me, amigo.  It’s been real and all, but it’s time for me to go.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To enlist in the army.  I’ve got to sober up.  If the drinking itself doesn’t kill me, the trouble it gets me into will.”
“Cool, count me in,” he said.
I stopped in my tracks and incredulously replied, “What?”
“I’m going to enlist with you,” Shank announced.  “I’ve been considering it for some time now.  I’ve been bumming around for years, and I need some discipline; the only thing that was keeping me around here was my obsession with the channel cat. She’s eaten and gone, so it’s time to move along.”
He stood up and started leading the way.  “Uh, okay,” I replied, following.  It was an odd and sudden situation, but as we walked toward the recruiting center, and as I gave it more thought, the more I liked the idea of having someone to go in with.  It wasn’t that I was getting cold in the feet, but that the idea of having a companion or sidekick seemed as it proved to be—a good one—at first.
When we actually reached the recruiting office, and were faced with the large poster of Uncle Sam informing that HE WANTED US, I shuddered with slight trepidation.  But Shank, ever cool as the proverbial cucumber—whatever that means—kept his composure and forged the way in. 
The office was one small room.  There were a couple of racks of literature, and a virtual wallpaper of posters, some with the smiling cartoon mug of our beckoning uncle, and other propaganda glamorizing the military life.  The uniformed man behind the desk stood up came around and greeted us with warm handshakes.  “I am Recruiting Station Commander Everett.  What can I do for you boys?” he asked.
“We’re here to enlist,” Shank said.  “We are ready, and want to be soldiers.”
“Wonderful.  We’re on the constant lookout for talent.  What kind of soldiers do you envision yourselves?  Do you have wanderlust and dreams of world travel?  Do you want to become trained killing machines?”
“Uh, what do you mean?” I asked in reply.
“Do you want to be infantrymen?  Do you want to drive tanks?  Do you aspire to be officers, or even higher ranks?  Do you want be clerical?  Do you want to be on the front lines killing, or do you want to work in the kitchens?”
“I love food,” Shank responded.  “And I’ve always felt particularly comfortable, and safe, in kitchens.”
I considered the options he’d offered, and said, “I do too.”
The lieutenant was clearly pleased with our responses.  “Let me give you the ASVAB test, and we’ll take it from there.”
“What’s that?” Shank asked.
“The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.  It’s a career exploration exam that determines which vocation you’re best suited for in the army.”
He pulled two copies of the test out of the file drawer, picked up two pencils, and led us to a small table in the back of the room and sat us down with the ASVAB.  The test consisted of a wide variety of questions, all multiple choice.  We looked them over, and I said to Shank, “Do you want to kill people?”
“Not really,” he replied.
“Me neither.”
“Let’s go for KP,” he suggested.
“I agree.”
The first question was: water is an example of A: crystal, B: solid, C: gas, and D: liquid.   In the margin beside I wrote, refreshment in the desert.  In his margin Shank wrote, seventy five percent of the earth.
The next question was:  Twenty-five percent of all household burglaries can be attributed to unlocked windows or doors.  Crime is the result of opportunity plus desire.  To prevent crime, it is each individual’s responsibility to:  A. provide the desire; B. provide the opportunity; C. prevent the desire; and D. prevent the opportunity.  In the margin I wrote, ‘to make a thin crust spinach, feta and black olive pizza.’  In his margin, Shank wrote, ‘calamari and northern white bean stew.’ 
And so we went on.  The questions ranged from making a home livable to the definition of ‘rudimentary.’   And our answers ranged from stuffed lobster to creamed corn to chateaubriand.  An hour later we turned our exams in to Lieutenant Everett.
He looked them over, and said, “This is ridiculous, a mockery.  Neither of you have filled in a single blank.  For example, in answer to this question about what effects a solar eclipse you wrote ‘marinated tuna steak in fresh garlic and virgin olive oil, lightly roasted over hickory.’”
“Well, couldn’t you go for a plate right now?” Shank asked.
“It does sound scrumptious, and it is nearing dinnertime, but that’s not the point,” Recruiting Station Commander Everett answered.
“Is that so?” Shank said.  He dropped to the floor and did twenty one-handed pushups on his right knuckles, then twenty on the left.  He hopped right up and challenged the Recruiting Station Commander.  “If you want to put on the gloves and step outside I can knock you out in eleven seconds--including the ten count.”
The Recruiting Station Commander was clearly impressed by Shank’s display, looked us up and down, and said, “If you want kitchen, you’re in.”
He laid out all the paperwork, and we signed.
“Be at the MEPS on Tuesday—that’s the Military Entrance Processing Station—at oh-four hundred hours for your physical and in-processing.  If you check out there, you’ll ship on Wednesday with the next cycle.
We arrived on time, nervous to say the least--but the sight of dozens of other fresh recruits did somewhat to put us at ease.  We passed the battery of tests, physical and written, and by the end of the long day were approved privates.  We were dismissed with orders to return at oh eight hundred in the morning to ship out.  We arrived on time, and found several hundred men milling around and waiting to be herded into the transport trucks.  That was done in conjunction with roll call, after which we were driven two hundred miles to the training base. 
There were four barracks that housed about one hundred soldiers each, and Shank and I were fortunately assigned to the same one.  As everyone was getting acquainted and unpacking their bags a superior officer came and quietly took me aside saying:  “The Battalion Commander would like a word with you.”
I was surprised, and followed the officer to an office behind the barrack.  He escorted me in and an older gentlemen wearing a much decorated uniform removed his hat and shook my hand warmly.  “My name is Bernard Benyers.  I’m the Battalion Commander.  The pleasure is mine.”
“I assure you, it’s mine,” I replied, “unless I’ve already done something wrong.”
“Not at all,” he hastened to reply.  “I understand you’re a bit of a celebrity, so I wanted to take a moment to get to know you, and to get a feel for how best to handle you around here.”
“If I may be perfectly honest, I want to be treated no differently than any other man.  Here I’m Private Downes, and nothing more,” I answered.
“And that you shall be, I assure you,” he replied.  “But I’ve got to be honest with you, my granddaughter is a big fan of yours, and asked me to try and get you to autograph this album for her.”
He produced one of my albums from the top drawer of his desk, and a marker.  I thought nothing and autographed the album to his granddaughter, whose name was Alyssa.  He smiled, then said:  “And please let this be between us, as some could construe it as potential preferential treatment; but if you do have any problems or concerns while you’re here, feel free to bring them straight to me.”
It had just occurred to me, so I uttered it.  “I enlisted with a friend named Private Shank.  We both volunteered to work kitchen, and it would be greatly appreciated if we could be kept together.”
“Not only can that be arranged,” he answered, “consider it done.  You and Private Shank are now known as ‘battle buddies,’ the army equivalent of blood brothers.  On behalf of my granddaughter I thank you kindly for the autograph, and for myself, it was a pleasure.”
That night Shank and I were quietly assigned adjacent bunks.  In the morning after mess Shank and I were brought to be introduced to Drill Sergeant Duval.  He was an impeccably neat, flat-top, square-jawed, furrowed brow, gnarly, sneering, downright mean-looking mother.
“What have we here?” he growled.  “A couple green apples who reckon themselves cut from kakhi bolt?”
For whatever reason (and for one of the only times in my life) I was terrified in someone’s presence, and rendered speechless with fear.  But Shank calmly answered:  “I would suppose that’s why we’re here.”
“You suppose?” Duval repeated in a menacing, guttural whisper.  He stood up, snapped his heels together (they clicked like a gunshot), brought his hand to his forehead in salute and bellowed, “ATEN-HUT!”  We were so shocked and dumbfounded by such an unforeseen response, that we neither knew how to react.  “A soldier always salutes his superior officer, do you hear me?  DO YOU HEAR ME?”
Shank and I glanced at each other, and mindful that it might be a trick, with measured hesitance feebly raised our hands to our foreheads.
We were right that it was a trick, for he snapped his off and shouted:  “I said ‘soldiers,’ not snotrags barely enlisted.”
I made bold to speak up.  “Look, man, what’s all this hassle?  We’re here to sign up, we’re on your side.”
“’Look, man?’” he repeated.  “That’s ‘Sir’ to you, punk.”
I turned to Shank and said:  “Maybe we should go to a different recruiting center.”
“I knew it!” he proudly crowed.    “I knew you were a couple of chickencrap cowards.  I was testing your mettle, and you failed.  Good soldiers are cut from tough stuff—you two look like you were snipped from your mamas’ hankies.”
Emboldened by the taunt, I raised my voice to a shout.  “That’s it!  Where do I sign?”
He glared at me, sneered at Shank, and growled, “I don’t think you have the balls between you.  He pushed an enlistment form and pen at me, and one at Shank.  “Sign on the line, and provided you pass physical, you’re mine.”
I hesitated for the briefest instant, then answered his challenge.  He read my signature, pondered a moment, then slowly gazed up at me with recognition.  “That’s why you look so familiar.  Well, Deak, I’m definitely going to have some fun with you!”
“Why do you say that?” I cautiously asked.
“Because I don’t like you,” he answered.  “I didn’t like you when you walked in here and I didn’t know who you were, and I didn’t like you before that when I did know who you are, mister famous rock and roll star.”
“But why?  What did I ever do to you?”
“I just don’t like liberal, left wing, long-haired, hippy dippy pretty boys.  But mostly it’s because I think you’re music is rubbish.  Men like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, they made music.  That noise you pump into the air should be outlawed.”  He was clearly satisfied with his position and how well he’d articulated it.  He turned to Shank.  “What about you, punk?  You got the gonads to sign on too?”
Shank casually rolled his thumb over the balls of his fingers, and replied, “I already did, while you were pontificating.”
Sergeant Duval glanced down at Shank’s signature and grumbled, “So you did.  Very well; finish filling out the forms, produce valid identifications, then report here Monday at seven, and pending physicals you’ll ship out with the new recruiting class to bootcamp.”
He then turned his attention from us to the telephone, which I could discern he was pretending to dial and talk into while keeping us under his watchful eye.  His spirit made mine feel very uneasy—he impressed me as malicious and almost diabolical—and my intuition indeed proved to be true, as that was not the end of our acquaintance with Sergeant Duval, but only the very beginning.

We settled into the regiment of army life.  Shank and I agreed that KP was far preferable to training to kill.  Our days were very routine, from wake up, breakfast, training, lunch, more training, dinner then bed.  Shank and I worked together in the kitchen, and established a routine.  Shank smoked cigarettes, and every evening he contrived to hide a couple bags of trash behind the mess hall, we could use hauling them to the dumpster as an excuse to kill a few more minutes while he smoked before retiring to the boredom of the barracks for the night.  One night, about a week after our arrival, we approached the massive dumpsters on one of Shank’s smoke breaks and heard two men whispering in a foreign language.
We stepped back into a shadow, and Shank softly told me:  “They’re speaking Russian.”
“Russian?” I incredulously replied.  “How do you know Russian?”
“Shh, I’m fluent,” he replied.  “Let me hear what they say then I’ll tell you everything.”
As he keenly listened to every word, I quietly set my bag of trash on the ground and stealthily crept behind the dumpster and recognized one of the two men: it was Drill Seargent Duval.  He and the other man, who I did not recognize, were speaking in perfect Russian.  I did not comprehend a single word.  I was terrified of being discovered and held perfectly still.  Duval and the other man spoke for five minutes or so, then parted ways.  Shank and I put the trash into the dumpster then he explained all.  “You’re not going to believe what I just heard.”
“First of all, how do you know fluent Russian?” I asked with undisguised surprise.
“I was born here, but then my father, who is Russian, took us to Moscow for business when I was three, and we lived there till I was fifteen.  That’s how I know it.  But wait till you hear what I just heard!”
“Consider me shut up,” I answered.
“From what I can gather, they’re concocting a very bizarre plot.  The man talking with Sergeant Duval was a colonel.  They’ve made up some phony documents they plan to claim are military secrets being given to the Russians by one of Duval’s immediate higher ups.  They’ve got copies in English and Russian.  Their idea is to blame the lieutenant next in line to Duval, to get him demoted or discharged, so that the slot will be open for Duval to be promoted into.”
“All that for a possible promotion?” I remarked.  “There must be something more.  That’s just strange, unless the secrets are actually real and they are pretending that they’re fake.”
“There is more,” Shank explained.  “Duval is throwing a two thousand dollar cash bribe into the bargain.  Come on, let’s get back to the barracks before anyone gets suspicious.”
We hurried back, and as we jogged I caught sight of Duval watching us from a shadow at the edge of the courtyard.
Two mornings later, our platoon was divided in half—one group to go on a long hike to the east, and the other to go on a long hike to the west.  Duval took great pleasure in taking Shank and I aside and informing us that despite being battle buddies we were going to be in separate groups.  “It’s no big deal,” Duval explained.  “The hikes are mostly single file, so you wouldn’t be able to hold hands even if you were together.”
So we went off on our separate hikes, six hours through the woods in full gear.  I was exhausted.  Upon return, when the rest of the guys were dropping their packs and sacking out in their bunks, I was summoned to the Battalion Commander’s office.  I entered, and immediately discerned the heavy air, and the severity of his face.
“Deak,” he said slowly “please have a seat.”  I did so warily.  He continued: “I hate to do this more than anything, but it is my duty to inform you of the death of your friend and battle buddy Private Shank.”
I was utterly shocked, like only the night Isaac died, and was speechless.  I finally said:  “What happened?  How?”
“Are you familiar with the military term ‘friendly fire’?” he asked.
“Of course I know what friendly fire is.  That’s when an army accidentally offs one of its own.  Are you saying that’s how he was killed?” I demanded.  I was verging on outrage.
“There was a small brigade engaged in firing exercises two miles from where Private Shank’s group was hiking.  A bullet went astray from that exercise and entered his back.  The speculation is that it ricocheted off a rock or some piece of metal on the shooting range.  It was a freak accident.”
“My friend is dead and you call it a freak accident?” was my aghast reply.
“These things happen; it’s an unavoidable consequence of having a military,” Battalion Commander Benyers explained.
I was still in shock, and shaking my head in my palms.
“So what would you like to do?” he asked at length.
“Am I being given a choice?” I asked.  “Because if you’re asking me to choose between waiting around every day to possibly be sent into the line of fire while all the time paranoid that a stray bullet from one of my own comrades is going to take me out of this world or leaving, then I’d like to go home.”
“That will be arranged,” he replied, picking up the phone.  He turned away from me, had a brief conversation, then turned back, hung up the phone and said:  “Someone is gathering your things right now, and there will be a car here to return you to New Orleans in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s perfectly fine with me,” I said.
“I know this may not be the most appropriate time to ask you this,” he slowly said, “but I’ve been wanting to ask you and may never see you again.  Is there any way I could get you to write a military march song?  Something to uplift and energize the troops?”
“You tell me you accidentally killed my friend, then three minutes later ask me to write you a song?  How about a story song? GI Joe accidentally kills Army Pete,” I sarcastically suggested.
“No, of course not right now,” He apologetically replied.  “I was thinking if you ever did someday get so inspired, you could send me a recording or the sheet music,” he answered.
I noticed headlights through the window and asked: “Is that my car?”
He looked out the window to confirm, and said that it was.  I quickly got up and went to the door, shook his hand only because he offered it, then entered the back of the car through the door that was held for me by the driver, who informed me that my things were in the trunk.  There was a thick pane of black glass between the front and back, so the long ride was in silence.  It was about four AM when we pulled into the French Quarter, and the driver unceremoniously deposited me and my bag there on a street corner and drove away.
To this day I have wondered if Shank and I didn’t accidentally stumble onto a real plot and that he was taken out for what he overheard, and to this day his ultimate fate remains one of the great mysteries of my life.Chapter 1 -- Bootleg
Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp
Chapter 3 -- Sands
Chapter 4 -- Forgiven Not Forgotten
Chapter 5 -- Revenge
Chapter 6 -- The Flying Lightning Shows

Monday, November 5, 2012

Chapter 3 -- Sands


Chapter 3
Sands

I was dropped off in the middle of the night.  My nerves were so rattled that I went straightway to an obscure dive bar and resorted to the bottle.  I met a strange woman there who enticed me back to her hotel room, but when I passed through that door it was into blackness, and I awoke curled up in an alley beneath a shredded box.  My face was swollen and tender I knew not why; I had to stop drinking.  I went down to the river and threw myself in.  Then I went home and packed a pup tent and some scant camping gear on my back, and with about a hundred dollars set out with no destination; my only priority was to leave New Orleans. 
I sought out the wilderness, and my consolation in desolation.    I did feel myself drawn west, and meandered a path toward the setting sun.  For several months I shunned civilization, and purposely avoided it.  I moved from the tree to tree, bridge to bridge, and open place to open place; I slept in the camouflage of brush and undergrowth, and under the canopy of the stars.  I foraged all my food.  Yet every step I took was with two thoughts in mind: to avoid all possible human contact while making my way west.
While I panged and longed for Podi and Isaac, and there was seemingly no assuage, nor the least moment of relief, the inevitable healing balm of time was slowly setting in and taking hold.  Several months had passed by when my ever changing environs became dusky desert; and before long I recognized a landmark: a Desert Willow tree.  I was back in Cognito.
It was the first time I had returned there since my boyhood, and I had decided that it would be a perfect place to reflect on my life:  lived, and going forward.  While sifting through the lifetimes of experience that had been crammed into my twenty two years, I dwelled on the good—which was much--while identifying whatever I had done that might have been inspired of evil, that I might remember, and recall it to mind before acting out similar impulses similarly in the future.  For one thing, I vowed unto myself that I would (try) to never cheat on a girlfriend again.  That path led only to excruciating agony. 
I stayed in Cognito for several weeks, during which time I resolved several things.  When I returned to society I planned do so anonymously.  I would use the name Gitch, and would not live off my wealth, but work for my living.  And there would be no more music until my heart was fully healed.  I wanted it to be a joyous occasion, which required feeling truly joyful. 
As I revisited my old stomping grounds, I kept my eyes ever watchful for the wolves.  They never appeared.  At length I though maybe they’d moved to a new home, and it was time I did the same.
It was a full moon, and the desert was bright when on a whim I decided to leave one night. Minutes later I was packed up and walking.  I took slow steps, looking one last time in every direction for any sign of wolves.  After hiking a couple miles I started to give up of seeing them again, and picked up my pace.  Suddenly I heard a harrowing roar behind me, and turned to see the running bear bearing down on me.  I panicked and turned to flee when the pack of wolves appeared in the dark and attacked the bear, chasing it off.  They looked at me briefly then vanished.
A few minutes later, right about midnight, I heard a wolf bay, and another.  Another joined, then I stopped in my tracks and lent them my throat and we shared a long hello and goodbye.
I hiked a few miles then pitched a small camp and laid down till just after sunrise, when I packed up and headed southwest.  I was hungry and thirsty, and kept my eyes peeled for anything that might sate me.  Just after noon I came onto a road.  I followed it for several miles until it intersected at a four way crossing.  A couple of cars had passed me, and I could see a couple of buildings in the distance, so I knew I was near civilization.  I noticed a truck park at far corner of the intersection.  It was a large, food service truck, and I could read the word CANTINA printed on the back.  I walked over to it, and saw the window that had been opened and propped up into an awning.  There were two men inside, and I warily approached them.
As I got closer I recognized that they were Mexicanos, and were vending tacos and tamales and other native comestibles from the back of the truck.  I was famished, and so anxiously fingered my cash as I accosted them.
One was sitting on a small chair inside the truck with a sombrero laid over his face, and the other had his back turned, and was startled when he first noticed my presence, and cried:  “Ay Dios mio!”
The other man quickly sat up and looked, and both stared at me in wide eyed awe. I looked down at myself and quickly understood their expressions.  My clothing hung upon me like tatters.  My hair was long, tangled and matted; and my beard and moustache a full bush upon my chin.  Even the hair on my arms had thickened.
“Es el hombre lobo loco!” the man cried.  Both men’s eyes were bulging and fixed on me in amazement.
I had picked up a decent knowledge of Spanish in my world travels, and understood them.  “No, no, I’m not a crazy wolfman!  I’m just an ordinary guy from New Orleans named Gitch.  I haven’t eaten much for the last week, and I’m half starved.  Do you have enchiladas left?”
“Si, plenty enchiladas,” one of the men said.
“I’ll take three, and a coke,” Deak replied.
The men watched me warily as they prepared my order.  And when I sat down at the rickety collapsible table behind the truck to eat, they stared at me.  Noticing that, I motioned to the two empty chairs beside and said:  “Sit.  Join me.”
The two men spoke softly to each other, then quietly climbed down from the truck and hesitantly approached.  They looked like brothers, though one was several inches taller than the other.  The tall one looked at me and said:  “How do you like our enchiladas?”
“Muy delicioso,” I replied.
“My name is Manolo,” the tall man said, “and this is my brother Juanito.”
“Por favor, sentarse ustedes,” I said, motioning to the two empty chairs.  Manolo spoke to Juanito in Spanish and they both sat down.  “We’re actually half brothers,” Manolo said.  “We have the same mother, but my father was an American soldier and Juanito’s father a Mexican farmer.  Because of my father I speak very good English; because of his Juanito speaks very little.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied.  “I know a bit of Spanish.  And just call me Gitch.”
“What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” Manolo asked.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I answered.  “I’m just wandering around.  What are you doing?”
“Juanito and I are just trying to make a living selling food out of our truck.”
“Why are you in such a remote place?” I asked.  “You should be in a more populated area.  The more people around, the more potential customers.”
“Believe it or not, we’ve tried dozens of spots for hundreds of miles in every direction, and this has been the most profitable,” he answered.  “We get a small local lunch crowd, and occasional cars stop throughout the afternoon.”
Juanito was staring hard at me.  I was starting to get a bit unsettled.  “I still can’t imagine you’re making very much money,” I observed.
“Actually, as soon as we make another fifty dollars or so, we’ll have enough to turn south and go back to Mexico.  We came from a beautiful beach there, our American dream hasn’t come true, and we’re ready to go home.”
With his eyes still fixed hard on me, Juanito tugged on Manolo’s arm, then excitedly said:  “Estoy seguro que el es hombre lobo loco.  Mi esposa fue mordida por ahuizhotl vampiro, y ella esta bajo un hechizo, encantado en el cuerpo de una mujer gorda y barbuda!  La sola cosa que puede cambiarle a normal es la besita del hombre lobo loco!”
Manolo translated.  “He said that his wife was bit by a vampire ahuizhotl, which transformed her into a fat bearded woman, and the only thing that can break the spell and change her back is the kiss of the crazy wolfman, and he is convinced that you are the crazy wolfman.”
I started laughing…and laughing…and laughing.  I hadn’t laughed that hard since I could remember, and it felt great.  I fell off the chair and onto the ground and rolled around cackling and giggling until my eyes were full of tears.  My outburst was infectious, and soon Manolo and Juanito had chimed in on the hysterics.  After several minutes we regained our composure, during which time a seed of thought sprouted in my mind.
“You say come from a beach in Mexico?” I asked.
“A very beautiful one,” Manolo replied.
“Es playa preciosa,” Juanito added.
“It’s like paradise, and we’ve been second guessing why we ever left almost since the moment we did,” Manolo explained.
“Could a guy like me get by there?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Manolo answered with confidence.  “My father owns a restaurant right on the beach, and you could help him out in exchange for food, and sleep in a hammock anywhere.  You could even build a palapa in a couple of days if you wanted your own room.”
I pondered things for a moment, then withdrew my money from my pocket, held it up and said:  “I’ve got a little more than fifty dollars right here; it’s yours if you take me with you.”
Manolo explained my offer to Juanito, who excitedly agreed that the idea was a fantastic one.  “Juanito says that if you kiss Rosalita, his fat bearded wife in Mazatlan, hopefully you will restore her to him in all her former beauty.”
I cringed inside, but politely answered that if such seemed necessary, I would be willing to do it.  “So, are you absolutely certain you want to go through with this?” Manolo asked; “drive with us to Mexico, that is.”
“One hundred percent positive,” I replied through a mouthful of enchilada.  I laid the cash on the table, and Manolo quickly picked it up, then he and Juanito both hurried back inside the canteen truck and started shutting it down and preparing it for a road trip.  It was surprisingly spacious once the cooking equipment and counters had been folded up and packed into the wall.  There were a couple of cushion chairs, a small table, and a sizable refrigerator filled with food and drink.  I made myself comfortable and settled in for the long drive.  Juanito was so excited by the hope of possibly seeing his beautiful wife again that he took the wheel and at times reached speeds exceeding one hundred miles an hour.  In the meantime Manolo and I sat in the back and chatted.
Our destination was the city of Mazatlan, Manolo and Juanito’s hometown, which was roughly four days drive.  With plenty of time to get acquainted, Manolo explained that he was the elder of the half brothers.  His father was an American servicemen who met their mother while on vacation in Acapulco.  He had spent six years helping her raise Manolo, but then was called back into service.  He fought the order but the military refused to budge.  He reported for duty, was deployed, and a few months later killed in combat overseas.  But one of the few gifts he had retained from his few years with his father was his fluency in English.
After his father was killed, his mother began receiving attention from several local men, including Filipe, the corn farmer who was Juanito’s father and his stepfather.  He was still alive, and lived with their mother on a farm about 100 kilometers inland.  Juanito spoke very little English, expressed no interest in learning it from his brother, and was intimidated when trying to speak the little he did know.
They stayed at a family house in Mazatlan that was empty most of the year, which was where they were heading.  “And what about you?” Manolo asked.
For months I had been rehearsing my story in my mind, and the moment for the first telling had arrived.  “My name is Gitch; I’m from New Orleans.  I’m a man of many hats; a plumber and a painter and a carpenter; what we call a jack of all trades.  I have a twin brother who is the black sheep of our family.  About six months ago he got caught kiting checks, and shortly after that, red handed robbing a bank.  He had a long rap sheet of petty criminal activity, but now the magnitude of his crimes was escalating.  One night the police picked me up in a case of mistaken identity, and detained me overnight while subjecting me to hours of intensive questioning.  Upon release I started giving some serious thought to the potential that I could one day wrongly serve hard time for one of my brother’s crimes.  Having nothing particular to keep me in New Orleans, I decided that before any of my brother’s activities could catch up to me and wrongly imprison me again, it would be best if I left the state.  And that was why Manolo and Juanito found me in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, and why I was willing to accompany them to Mazatlan.
Juanito insisted on doing the lion’s share of driving, and at the highest speeds possible, all the while singing about his Rosalita being restored to her beautiful former self.  I couldn’t fully comprehend the situation, and it flamed my imagination, the thought of having to kiss a fat bearded woman; and over what was likely a meaningless curse; and while I was willing to go through with it if it were indeed necessary, I cringed at the thought, and each kilometer closer to Mazatlan only increased my dread of the unknown situation I was entering.  Then I began to wonder about this mythical creature that had transmogrified Juanito’s wife, and after I’d envisioned a twelve foot monster with swords for claws and drooling blood, I asked Manolo about the ahuizhotl.  Manolo explained that it the ahuizhotl resembled a small dog with a long tail and raccoon paws; and that they live near water and have slippery skin and attack anyone who happens to approach its underwater caverns.  He also explained that there were purportedly verified legends of rare cases of vampire ahuizhotl which transformed their victims into a variety of bizarre creatures with their bite.  The description only intensified my dread of the possible kiss.
We had traveled a couple hundred miles before I noticed the two guitar cases tucked beneath the bench that was at the back of the truck.  I pointed them out and brought them up to Manolo.  Manolo immediately grabbed one and removed it from its case and started tuning it.  “Juanito and I play in mariachi bands,” he explained.  “There’s also a flute and a tambourine.  Do you play?” Manolo asked, holding the guitar out toward me.
I longed to grasp it in my hands, to feel its power, and to make it sing; but I refrained in deference to my vow.  “No, not well enough to play for anyone else,” I hesitantly answered.
Manolo started strumming, and joined on vocals by Juanito, they performed a couple of traditional Mexican songs.  I engaged in a great self struggle to control my hands, which trembled with the overpowering desire to seize a guitar and play.  Instead I folded them into my lap and squeezed my thighs tight.  After a few songs Manolo returned the guitar to its case and stowed it back under the rear bench.  Greatly relieved to have it out of my sight, I was slowly able to relax again.
As we traveled we periodically stopped for bathroom breaks and to eat and to rest.  The food was not an issue, as the truck had been designed as a mobile kitchen; but it only slept two, and so a third, always Juanito, reposed in a hammock hung between the truck and whatever tree or pole happened to be near where we parked.  In this manner we made our way into Mexico.
I had brought my passport, and was forced to present it at the border crossing between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.  And I did so furtively, so that Manolo and Juanito could not see it; and also with a prayer, that the customs official would not recognize me.  The officer scrutinized me closely, but most likely on account of the thick facial hair that was present on my body but absent in the photo.  After a long, hard look he mechanically stamped my passport and let me pass.
For two days we drove southwest into Mexico.  We passed through numerous small cities and towns along the way, and a luscious orange grove, where we gorged ourselves on so much of the fresh fruit that we had to hang the hammock and nap for hours.  We also drove seemingly endless miles of wilderness and desert until at last we reached a highway sign which read: BIENVENIDO A MAZATLAN.
A slight shudder of trepidation made shiver.  The unknown was about to become real, as drew closer the possible moment I might have to kiss la mujer Barbuda.  But then I allowed the strange, new surroundings to distract me, and began to watch all the people and cars and buildings of the city whizzing by my window.
After a bumpy ride along the outskirts of Mazatlan we arrived at our destination: Manolo’s father’s (Juanito’s stepfather) restaurant on the beach.  It was called Mariscoes (which translated means, ‘seafood’).  Their family lived in a house behind the restaurant, and even though it was a late hour, their father came out to greet them when he recognized the sound of their truck.  He was a wizened old man with a gruff demeanor and a mean streak that was almost immediately apparent.  Rather than showing joy at his sons’ return home, he berated them for what he presumed to be their failed venture. 
“Y quien es este?” the father concluded, indicating me.
Manolo explained that I was someone they had befriend along the way, that I wanted to live for a while on a Mexican beach, and that they’d offered him to let me spend some time at their place.  He then introduced me to their father Filipe.
“Parece como hombre lobo,” Filipe observed.
I rolled my eyes at being told I resembled a wolfman again, but politely swallowed any response with silence.
Manolo further explained to their father that he had told me I might be able to help out around the restaurant in exchange for board and a place to hang a hammock.  Filipe eyed me harshly, then said that he supposed I could empty the bathroom buckets and remove trash and other menial jobs that no Mexican wanted to do.  On that note, he told his sons that they knew where the food was if we were hungry, and that he was retiring and would see us in the morning.
Manolo and Juanito led me into the back of the restaurant, where they fired up the grill and removed some fresh fish and vegetables from the refrigerator.  Then they gave me a nighttime tour of the place.  It was a good sized open air palapa made of bamboo posts and palm frond thatch.  The floor was sand, and there were about ten tables inside, and another six outside shaded by parasols.  There was also a large outdoor horseshoe bar with swing seats instead of stools.  Juanito whipped us up a most delicious meal, and after we had sat down and started eating, said to me:  “Manana you kiss mujer Barbuda, okay?”
I was most reluctant, and my mind raced.  I wanted to better assess the situation before agreeing to kiss anyone.  After flipping through a thousand thoughts at lightning speed I came upon an excuse, and suggested, “Wouldn’t it be better if we waited for a full moon?  Wolves are much more powerful on that night, and if the ahuizhotl bite were potent enough to transform your beautiful Rosalita into a…big boned bearded woman, wouldn’t it be wisest to wait until the wolfman kiss is at its most powerful?”
After Manolo translated my suggestion to Juanito, and while he pondered it, I added:  “The moon is waxing, and will be full in just a couple days.”
After some thought Juanito consented to wait for the full moon, but begged me, through Manolo, not to delay it one day longer.  After settling that, and finishing our dinner, they showed me to a hammock strung between two coconut trees and went to bed themselves. 
They awoke me early the following morning, and after a casual breakfast on the beach under the early sun, they explained to me what my duties around the restaurant would be.  The bathroom detail was disgusting.  There was no plumbing, just potty seats over buckets; and since it was a busy time of year for the tourist trade, the buckets had to be emptied several times a day, which consisted of hauling them into the trees and pouring them into a cenote, a hole in the earth over an underground stream.  After I had done all the cleaning, they sent me into the ocean for a cleansing swim then set me up in the kitchen peeling and chopping vegetables. 
After lunch Manolo and Juanito suggested we go into town for a look about, and to say hello to some old friends, and to see if perhaps we might get a look at Rosalita.  I was reluctant, and would have preferred to clean the toilets again, but I could make no excuse to avoid it.  We went round to some of Manolo and Juanito’s old friends.  We drank some espresso, shared some laughs, and Manolo and Juanito described, in great detail, a greatly embellished version of their adventure in America.  The last of the friends we visited was one of their old schoolmates, a guy named Orlando.  He lived next door to Rosalita’s mother, which was where she had gone into seclusion immediately after suffering the bite of the vampire ahuizhotl.  She spent her afternoons sunning herself in the enclosed courtyard behind the house, visible from the roof of Orlando’s. 
Along with Orlando, we climbed up onto the roof and surreptitiously hid ourselves behind the palm tree that was grown up beside the house.  Looking across the property, we could indeed see Rosalita laying out on a chaise lounge sunning herself; and I could see that she was sumptuously proportioned and heavily bearded.  My gulp was almost audibly.  Juanito’s eyes welled up with tears, and he sighed a great lamentation: “Solamente quiero mi esposa bella revuelto.”
“He just wants his beautiful wife back,” Manolo translated. 
Juanito’s watery eyes tugged at my heart; he was sincerely a man torn.
We left her there and returned to Mariscoes, where we made dinner, cleaned up the restaurant after it had closed, then went to bed.  I thought about pitching my tent near the ocean, but decided to spend another night in the hammock instead.
Early the next morning we all had breakfast with Filipe before the restaurant opened.  He was satisfied enough with my efforts and work ethic to let me stay around indefinitely.  That decided, Manolo and Juanito asked if they could erect a palapa near the trees so that I could have my own space.  Initially Filipe balked at the notion; but then he realized that after I moved out he would have another room to rent, another source of revenue, and gave the project his blessing.
After the morning chores around Mariscoes were completed, we set about to building me a cabana.  We cut and buried four posts of wood in the sand, then securely attached crossbars of bamboo to support both hammocks and the roof.  They then taught me how to make thatch of palm fronds, and with two days work I had my own little cabana there on the beach.
The full moon was Friday night; we constructed my cabana on Wednesday and Thursday.  While we were building, Juanito had a sudden inspiration.  He excitedly explained it to his brother, in Spanish too rapid for me to comprehend, and Manolo translated.  “Every thirty days the people of Mazatlan take to the streets and celebrate the fiesta of La Luna Llena—the full moon.  It’s a great big public party of drinking and music that sometimes goes all night and into the next morning.  Rosalita loves the fiesta of la luna llena, and every month has too much tequila and returns to her house and passes out in her lounge chair in the courtyard.  You can set your watch to midnight by the moment of her passing out.  Juanito suggested that would be the best moment for you to touch your lips to hers.”
Those last words made me shudder violently, and a pit formed in my stomach.  Nevertheless, Juanito and Manolo had done much for me already, and I was unspokenly obligated to reciprocate in that way. 
When Friday night arrived, the three went out on the town.  Juanito and Manolo started drinking tequila sunrises.  I hadn’t touched a drop of booze since that last night with Bootleg in New Orleans, and while I considered taking a couple of cocktails to bolster my courage should the midnight kiss of the bearded woman actually come to pass, I decided to try and enjoy the party, and to go through with the unthinkable, without the assistance of alcohol. 
The citywide party raged wildly, and the dreaded hour approached with unstoppable haste.  About thirty minutes before midnight we met up with Orlando in particular cantina as planned, and after a quick drink with him there we went to his house, which was nearby, to climb to the roof and see if Rosalita was indeed passed out in the chaise lounge in the courtyard behind her house.   We climbed up as quietly as possible, snuck behind the cover of the palm tree, and saw by the light of the moon that she was indeed passed out there, and snoring loudly. 
“El tiempo is ahora, amigo,” Juanito said.  “I am ready to have my wife again.”
I took a deep breath, looked into his teary eyes, sighed profoundly, and replied: “Then let’s go.”
We returned to the street from Orlando’s roof, and quietly crossed to Rosalita’s house.  There was a door on the side wall of the courtyard that was usually unlocked, and was; we entered and tiptoed toward the sound of her guttural emanations.  I emboldened with a deep breath, but it was not enough to overcome the stench of sweat and boozed that reeked from her body when I was within arm’s length; for that I had to summon the final necessary courage from within.  I looked over again at Juanito, who clasped his hands and said:  “Please…my beautiful wife.”
I pinched my nostrils and slowly, reluctantly, painstakingly lowered my face toward hers.  The moment I’d pressed my lips against hers, and squeamishly felt her flesh, I saw several flashes of light in different directions.  After looking around at Manolo, Juanito and Orlando, I discerned that each was holding an instamatic camera in one hand and a developing photograph in the other.  Meanwhile Rosalita had stirred at my presence, and belched at the very moment of the kiss, so that immediately after understanding what had happened, I knelt beside a palm tree and began to heave and wretch.
While Manolo, Juanito and Orlando laughed with unrestrained hysterics, Rosalita instantly came wide awake, and began screaming about intruders and calling for the police.  Manolo, Juanito and Orlando lit out like their feet were afire, and seeing them flee, I quickly outran them.  We sprinted back to Orlando’s house, and gathered there to catch our breath. 
While Manolo, Juanito and Orlando continued to split their bellies laughing, I was not a little upset, and very confused, and demanded know exactly what had just happened.  Manolo explained that Rosalita had never been kissed, and that Juanito had a long standing bet for five hundred pesos with another friend Alberto.  The two year time statute of limitations was coming up, and Juanito had invented the story about her being enchanted by the bite of an ahuizhotl on the spot upon meeting me.  She was not Juanito’s wife—neither had actually ever been married.
While my three Mexican companions continued laughing uncontrollably, I refused to join in their mirth.  Once everything settled, and the truth sunk into my mind, I was infuriated, and burst out:  “You two dragged me eight hundred miles from my country to trick me into winning you a bet?  That’s despicable!  Rue the day I stopped at your tamale stand, and I don’t ever want to see you two again!”
I stormed off toward the beach where I planned to gather my things and leave.  Manolo, Juanito and Orlando came running after.   They placed themselves in my path, halting me in my tracks.  “Gitch!  Gitch!  Please don’t leave,” Manolo begged.  “We’ve come to love you as a friend.  We’re sorry we didn’t let you in on it, but then it might never have come off.  It was a wise man who said that if you can be the butt of a joke, then you should shower those around you with the joy of laughter.  Please, go back to your cabana and sleep on it, remembering that if you can forgive us this our friendship will only become stronger.”
I exhaled a deep billow of rage, and calmed down somewhat.  “Very well,” at length I consented.  “I’ll spend the night in the hammock thinking things over before I leave first thing in the morning.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Manolo, Juanito and Orlando said, with high fives, hugs and handshakes.
I departed from their company and went alone to the beach.  I jumped in the ocean and scrubbed my face with sand and salt water, took a long walk up the coast, scrubbed my mouth several more times, then took Manolo’s advice and retired to my cabana to think over my immediate future.

Chapter 1 -- Bootleg
Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp
Chapter 3 -- Sands
Chapter 4 -- Forgiven Not Forgotten
Chapter 5 -- Revenge
Chapter 6 -- The Flying Lightning Shows