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

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