Friday, October 30, 2009


By Manuel Ramos, copyright ©2009

The only suit I owned, a dark blue pin-striped job with out-of-date, too-big lapels, was warm and itchy. There were many people at Artie’s funeral who were not dressed in suits or sport coats, not even ties. But I wasn’t like that. I believed that death deserved respect and the best way I knew to give respect was to dress like the occasion mattered. Apparently, there were others in Artie’s circle of friends and acquaintances who felt the same way since I wasn’t the only one sitting and kneeling in the pews under too many layers of clothes.

Judging from the mourners in the old Catholic church, Artie circulated among a wide and varied crowd. There were guys like me – blasts from his past and his wild youth. We wore the funeral look, stressed and worried, that said, “How much time do I have left if Artie’s gone already?” Then there was the money crowd – realtors, lawyers, a few bankers and developers. These men and women dressed neat and professional, nothing out-of-date about their outfits, but stress and worry played on their faces, too. Deep down, under the uniforms and costumes, we all harbored the same fears.

After the services, Linda Cisneros Baca, the widow, hugged her children and accepted the condolences of the crowd outside the church. An older woman in a faded black dress huddled near Linda and the children – Artie’s mother, I assumed.

The hearse had been loaded with Artie’s body and the procession to the cemetery waited for Linda, the children, and the mother. When I got the chance I walked up to her and extended my hand.

“I’m very sorry, Linda. If there’s anything …”

She pushed away my hand and gave me a quick hug.

“Gus Corral. It’s been forever. Thank you for coming. I know you and Artie were good friends, back in the day.” Then she moved on to the next person in line.

Linda appeared to be holding up well. She was a tall woman. In high heels and a simple black dress she appeared to tower over many of the people who commiserated with her. A few strands of gray punctuated her dark auburn hair. Almost indiscernible wrinkles floated around her mouth. She looked worried, of course, but I couldn’t help but notice that she projected health and vigor. She stood straight, no slouching, and her legs were sinewy and toned – a runner’s legs.

Her daughter and son stood behind her; the boy seemed angry, the daughter cried quietly but insistently.

I started to say something to the older woman standing next to Linda but she frowned and then whispered, “Gracias.” Her eyes were bloodshot and occasional sobs escaped her throat. I moved on to my car.

I followed along in the funeral procession to the cemetery where the mother completely fell apart. Her anguish came out in loud curses and threats, in Spanish, against God and whoever was responsible for her son’s death. She draped herself across the coffin as it was about to be lowered in the ground. Two men gently dragged her away but her hollering filled the background and cascaded across the dark green lawn. Linda drew her children closer and waited with them until Artie’s coffin had disappeared. She led the son and daughter back to their car, her arms wrapped around their shoulders. The girl kept looking back at the burial site; Linda and the boy stared straight ahead.

I admit that I was affected. My throat tightened and a deep, swirling uneasiness took root in my gut. It’s not like I had any special reason to feel sorry about Artie. His surprise visit had been the first time I had seen him in years, and the only motive he had for talking with me was to try to rope me into his scheme to get rid of his blackmailer. Other than that, Artie Baca hadn’t any use for me since we had been arrested together, hundreds of summer nights before. But the hysterical mother and the grieving children and the essential waste of Artie’s life could not be ignored.

I joined the crowd at the Baca home, a nice place near Sloan’s Lake about twenty minutes from the cemetery. The Southwestern architecture was complimented by Southwestern furniture, Indian pottery, and bright wall colors. An amazing picture window took up most of the space of the front wall of the house. The Baca family had a great view of the lake, picnickers and boaters. I imagined that at night it was equally as impressive, especially with the city lights reflected in the murky water of the lake.

Jealousy got the better of me as I strolled through Artie’s house with a paper plate of blue corn chips and artichoke dip in my hand. We had been the same age, we graduated from the same high school, neither one of us had gone to college. He lived in one of the nicest houses in a very nice neighborhood; I camped out, literally, in the back of a second-hand store. Men and women with money and influence were upset at his death and their grief looked genuine; I couldn’t get a half-hearted “good morning” from my ex-wife. Artie enjoyed the good life with a beautiful wife and handsome kids and enough money to afford paintings or sculptures or jewelry from the latest Santa Fe favorite; I had no kids, I drove a used and noisy Subaru, and any extra cash I managed to hold onto at the end of the week went for a few beers at the Holiday or another dive just as bad.

Then I remembered that I was still alive, eating Artie’s food in Artie’s house while lucky Artie had just been laid to rest in the warm earth minus critical parts of his skull and brain. My jealousy pang turned into a greasy burp and I felt better.

I settled in on the back patio sitting with a group of people who had attended North High when Artie and I had both been students. I didn’t recognize most of them but two were familiar: running partners from those years when who you ran with was one of the most important decisions you could make.

“Yo, Gus, how the hell are you, old man?” That was Pato or Shoe, depending on the mood of the evening. Tony Vega, somewhat of a basketball star on a team that couldn’t win more than two games a season.

“Shoe, good to see you.”

“Too bad it’s under these circumstances, eh? Real sorry about Artie. What a trip, eh?”

“You mean that he was murdered and the cops don’t know shit about what happened?” That was Ice (every mob had an Ice back then) Zamarippa, legendary music man – he could sing, play the guitar, and dance like Astaire smothered in green chile, smooth but spicy. I had always liked Ice, even though he was an Oakland Raiders fan – I never understood that – but he had left town to find fame and money in the music business. I had heard that he had returned and worked for the City and County of Denver, taking care of parks in the summer and driving a snow plow in winter.

“The cops will nail someone for this,” Shoe said. “He’s a player now. Look at this house, man. They can’t let his murder go without an arrest. Now if it was you, Ice, or Gus there, well …”

“Or you, pal,” added Ice. “Far as I heard, you ain’t shit either.”

“Whoa, man. I got it going, you ain’t been told?”

“No, I ain’t,” Ice laughed. “How about you, Gus? How you been? We never see you anymore.”

“I don’t get out much. Can’t afford it. In case you haven’t noticed, the economy sucks.”

They both nodded and their faces got all serious for a sec.

“Somebody told me you work for Sylvia. How’s that going?” Shoe asked and he must have thought he was sly, but a smile crept into his words. Tony Vega had dated Sylvia before she settled for me. I had assumed he had taken her out after our divorce; hell, maybe before, for all I knew. He had to be wise to all the dope about Sylvia and me and our current arrangement. One thing I did know was that there was plenty I didn’t know about Sylvia and the breakup of our marriage.

“It’s all good. Meaning I don’t have to see Sylvia that much. I manage her shop, supervise sales, keep the books, handle the marketing, take on extra help when we need it. I keep busy, that’s most important to me.” Okay, I got a little carried away but isn’t that what we all do when we get around the old crowd? Tell me you never did that.

Shoe and Ice glanced at each other and it was obvious we all knew I was full of it. But these guys were my homies – they didn’t say anything. They had been through their own hard times, and one thing we didn’t do was kick a brother when he was down, unless it involved a woman, of course. That goes without saying.

I changed the subject.

“What do you think happened? I mean, for Artie to get shot like that and then dumped like he was a sack of garbage? That’s hard core. Someone really had it in for him.”

“Artie was into stuff, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Ice said.

“Yeah, the guy screwed people,” Tony added. “I don’t want to speak bad about the dead, so I won’t. And this isn’t the time or place. I’ll just say I’m not surprised either. You remember what Artie was like in school. Add a dozen years to that, a lot more money, and a lot more ambition, and you can see why someone might have wanted to blow his brains out.”

Shoe stopped and looked around in case someone other than Ice or I heard him. This time Ice rolled his eyes at me. “That’s harsh,” I said. We let it drop.

We talked for a few minutes more. I let them know that a pair of policemen had visited me about Artie, and they were surprised but not too much. “That’s what cops do,” Ice said. We asked about classmates, predicted great things for the Rockies and Broncos and Nuggets, except Ice, and when I said I had to leave, they also decided to go. Shoe and Ice agreed to call me so that we could hang out in lighter circumstances.

I looked for Linda to say goodbye but I didn’t see her. Many people had stopped by to honor Artie Baca and the house had taken on an awkward party atmosphere. I thought Artie would have liked that, especially the fact that he had a good crowd turn out for him.

I did see the mother, who sat in a recliner with a wet towel wrapped around her forehead and temples. She mumbled to herself. I steeled myself and approached. I should tell her goodbye, I thought; say something before I took off.

She was praying. She opened her eyes. I extended my hand; I didn’t know what else to do.

“Hijo,” she screamed.

I jumped backwards and tripped against a coffee table. I lost my footing on the waxed hardwood floor and fell directly on my back, knocking the breath out of my lungs. The mother stood over me, crying and praying. “Hijo,” she screamed again.

Linda appeared at her side. “Carlota, cálmate. That’s not Artie. Artie’s gone. Calm down. Go to your room and rest. Take a nap.”

Linda’s son grabbed the old woman’s hand. “Grandma, let’s go. Come with me; it will be all right.” The grandmother quieted. She hugged her grandson and let him lead her away. I struggled to my feet, breathing again.

“I’m sorry, Gus. Carlota thinks she sees Artie everywhere. Any man the same age – any Mexican-looking man. She’s having a hard time. Artie was her favorite.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I just wanted to say goodbye. I was leaving.”

“Let me walk you to your car. We haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“Sure.” I was a bit surprised but I figured she was being overly polite because of Carlota’s antics.

“And we should talk, Gus. About Artie, of course. There are some things I want to ask you.”

“Whatever I can do, Linda.”

We walked across her precisely xeriscaped yard: neat bushes, flowering cactus, clumps of grasses with hints of red and yellow, a path made of blue and charcoal concrete pavers that zigged and zagged around flowers, plants, and insects.

“I hadn’t seen Artie for a while, you know.” I thought I should clear that up at the jump.

“That’s what I assumed. Then the police told me they found a check on Artie made out to you. That’s one of my questions.”

She stopped in the middle of her front yard. Bees darted in and out of brilliant purple sage. A hummingbird flitted around a feeder. The day had become hot and oppressive. “Why was Artie going to give you a thousand dollars, Gus?”

That damn check. Money I didn’t want; payment for a job I quit before I started. More trouble than it was worth; a thousand dollars of questions and suspicions from cops and a widow.

“Artie stopped by Sylvia’s shop a few days before he, uh, he was …”

“He did? To see you?”

“Yeah. He wanted me to do some work for him. I said yes, but then later I changed my mind. “

“He hired you? Doing what? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been any good. We both know he wasn’t a boy scout. I hope he didn’t drag you into one of his schemes. You changed your mind?”

“Yes. I decided I didn’t like what he asked me to do. So I was going to tell him he should get someone else. But I never got the chance.” Then I lied. “I didn’t know he had already written a check for the job. Not until the cops told me.”

She looked at me hard, doubting, not believing. Too many details didn’t sit right. First Artie Baca hired Gus Corral – unlikely. Second, I had second thoughts about the deal after I had agreed to do it for a thousand dollars – even more unlikely. Third, she didn’t know anything about the arrangement – did Artie let her in on all of his plans?

“What was it, Gus? What did Artie want with you?”

“Ah, Linda, I don’t feel good about this. I don’t want to cause any trouble. Artie’s gone, can’t we just leave it there?”

A bee buzzed near my ear and I jerked away. Linda swayed backwards in reaction to my sudden move. I grabbed her and supported her until she found her balance. She shook but under my touch her strength was obvious.

“Tell me, Gus. Don’t I have a right to know? The police are looking at you. They think there might be a connection between that check and Artie’s killing. I know that’s nonsense. I told them that. But they won’t let it go. You may be in trouble. I can help, if you need it. I just want to know what Artie was up to. I’m his wife, you have to tell me.”

Her voice had gradually reached a higher pitch. She bit her bottom lip and then chewed on the fingernail of her left little finger. Tears filled her eyes.

“All right, all right.” I gave in. “But remember I had decided not to do the job. I couldn’t go through with it.”

She waited in the sun for my explanation. And then I lied again.

“Artie wanted me to spy on you. He wanted me to watch you for a few days, without you knowing. He wanted me to learn if you were having an affair. I guess he thought you were seeing someone else.”

She puckered her lips. She coughed into her fist. The cough turned into a snort, then a laugh. She laughed quietly, but she didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t stop laughing but the laughter was silent, kept within herself. I turned away and then I heard a loud and harsh laugh coming from her. And for the second time in a few days a woman laughed at me as I walked away.


That's it from sunny Southern California, where in one week I: visited East L.A. College where I watched a free screening of The Chicano Wave, a PBS movie about Chicano music that featured everyone from Flaco Jiménez to Cannibal and the Headhunters; at the same movie I listened to a great set of music by the legendary Chicano band Tierra; checked out Los Fabulocos at a casino in Commerce that had no slot machines; visited the tiendita at Plaza de la Raza; tried to find Lucha Corpi's new book at the Plaza Mexico Librería Martínez (Death at Solstice not in yet); bought Chicano Soul at Cultura Latina bookstore (proudly still displaying a cover of Gods Go Begging signed by Alfredo Véa back in 1999); and last night I was entertained and enlightened by R. Crumb. And this during a "cold spell." A guy could get used to this.



Anonymous said...

AND THEN WHAT HAPPENS? Just read your excerpt from your next novel, Desperado. Please hurry and finish. I WANT TO READ IT. Does Louie Montez come in to the story?

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you - Desperado is not a Montez novel, so far -- it's not improbable that he could show up since Gus and Luis live in the same neighborhood, even know some of the same people. Desperado has surprises, that I am enjoying, so anything can happen. A ver ...

Anonymous said...

I can't believe it. Because I am the wife, ipso facto, I am also Manuel's biggest fan. One of the privileges of being the wife/biggest fan is getting to read his new work before he presents it to the "general public." Well, with his posting of this excerpt of Desperado on La Bloga, the natural order has been upset (and that's not the only thing thats been upset)'cause this time the general public got to see his work before I did. Luckily it was good even without my spot-on editing and snippy remarks. Enjoy - I sure did. - Flo

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Ramos--it was a delight. But, like Flo said, what gives?
Did your 3rd childhood make you do it?
Was it that warm Calif. coast wind?
Or has your great age provided you new wisdom that perhaps you should share with us common vato/as?