Here's the cover for the new anthology, Border Noir: Hard Boiled Fiction From The Southwest.
Nice, huh? This collection is edited by Álvaro Rodríguez (Machete), published by VAO Publishing, and due in bookstores and digital downloads by the end of July. I know fellow bloguero Ernest Hogan is in the collection but that's all I know. Well, I'm in it, too. My short story is entitled When the Air Conditioner Quit. I can tell you that what happens ain't pretty when it's too hot, too dangerous, and there's no relief in sight.
Sorry, but at this point I don't know the name of the cover artist. The cover actually could be the image for my story, but I have a feeling that a pensive guy drinking in a bar might appear more than once in a collection of bleak stories from the heart of Aztlan.
In honor of the upcoming collection, I thought I would reintroduce a story I published back in 2006 in a collection called, coincidentally, Borderland Noir. This collection was edited by Craig MacDonald and appeared in the infamous but long gone e-zine, Hardluck Stories. The story begins in a bar ...
No hablo inglés
The lone ray of sunshine streaming through a crease in the dirt-stained window caught the corner of my eye and my head throbbed. A splinter of pain lodged itself in my eyeball. I sucked on a Tecate and a slice of lime whose rind had brown spots. I couldn’t remember the name of the joint in Juárez that had produced the hangover.
“So, what’s the deal, Manolo? Can you do any kind of lawyerin’, or is it like, you know, over for good?”
Nick knew I didn’t talk about my disbarment, but he asked crap all the time.
“Nick,” I answered, looking him straight in his blood-shot eyes, “can you still say Mass? Give communion with the watered-down tequila you serve?”
He said something like “fuck you” and turned his attention to wiping the far side of the bar with a gray, stiff rag.
I dropped two bucks and eased out of the clammy, musty-smelling air of Nick’s Cave and into the white glare and oven heat of another El Paso morning.
I hated the town, but that wasn’t El Paso’s fault. I hated myself and that meant I hated wherever I woke up. That summer it was El Paso.
I waited in the congestion and noise that led to the Santa Fe International Bridge, sweating through my shirt, as lost as if I had been abandoned naked in the desert. I lit up my last American Spirit and crossed the street when the traffic slowed for a minute.
The diner was busy and I hesitated at the door until a fat old Mexican wearing a packing-house hardhat pushed himself from his table, stuck a few dollars under his fork, and walked out with a toothpick hanging from his lip. I took his place before it had been cleared by the fat young Mexican busboy. He grimaced at me when he came to pick up the greasy plate and stained coffee cup but he didn’t say anything. He also didn’t wipe the crumbs off the tabletop.
I opened my notebook and stared at the pages of the great Chicano novel that I had decided I would write that summer, seeing as how I didn’t have much else to do. My words didn’t make sense. Some of the sentences trailed off the edge of the page. I must have been drunk when I wrote most of them.
The waitress cleared her throat and I realized that she stood next to me.
“What you want, Manolo?” she asked in Spanish.
I answered, in English, “Eggs and chorizo, coffee. One of those grilled jalapeños.”
She said, “Whatever,” in English, and appeared to run away from me.
What the hell, I thought. We used to be friends. At least one night not that long ago we were really good friends. Why she act like that?
The door opened and hot air rushed in. I smelled sweat and grease.
“You the lawyer?” The accent was thick but the words were clear.
She was small, pretty, dark, and afraid.
“No, I’m not a lawyer.”
“The man at the bar across the street.” Her eyes were wide and her lips trembled. “He said the lawyer came in here and that he would be wearing a white shirt. You’re the only man in here with a white shirt.”
I looked at the diner’s other customers and she was right.
“But that doesn’t make me a lawyer.”
Tears welled up in her eyes but nothing rolled down her cheeks. She backed out of the diner, looked up and down the street, then raced in the direction of Mexico.
The frayed cuffs of my shirt had a thin border of dirt. I fingered the empty space where a missing button belonged.
The waitress appeared with my coffee. I stubbed out what was left of my smoke and carefully placed it in my shirt pocket. I said, “This used to be a very good shirt. I wore it in court. I used to kick butt in this shirt.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“You are so full of shit, Manolo.” She hurried away again.
I pulled out my wallet and was relieved to see the twenty. For an instant I thought I might have left it all in Juárez. I had more back in my room, in the so-called safe, but I understood that it was running out. The dregs of what I had managed to salvage from the Colorado Supreme Court’s order to reimburse my former clients couldn’t last more than a few weeks.
I finished the breakfast, except for the chile, and drank several cups of coffee and finally left when the waitress stopped coming by. I crossed the street again and forced myself into Nick’s.
Two men sat at the bar, dressed in cowboy hats and shirts, jeans and boots. They talked loudly with the speeded-up rhythm of Mexicans who have been too long on the American side of the border. I sat in one of the booths, almost in darkness. My eyes took their time adjusting to the change in light and when Nick asked me what I wanted, I could barely make out his silhouette.
“Just a beer. Tecate.”
Nick had a CD player behind the bar and I thought I heard Chalino Sánchez. The slightly off-key, high-pitched voice of the martyred wannabe filled the bar with a lament about bad luck with young women. An accordion, a tinny cymbal, brass horns and drums emphasized the singer’s misery.
When Nick came back and set down the beer can, I grabbed his wrist.
“What did that woman want, Nick? Why did you send her to me?”
“The fuck I know? She said she was lookin’ for the Chicano lawyer. There’s only one asshole I know that fits that description. I told her you was across the street.” He jerked his arm free of my grip.
“There are plenty of Chicano lawyers in this town. Too many. What made you think she wanted me?”
He had turned away. He stopped, looked down at me. “She didn’t have any money.”
I rubbed my temples, took my time with the beer.
The two men at the bar stood up, arguing and shoving each other. Nick shouted at them to get the hell out but they ignored him. I squeezed myself into the corner of the booth and watched as one of the men pulled a knife from somewhere and slashed at the other man. Drops of blood appeared on the slashed man’s shirt. He slapped his chest with his left hand. Nick grabbed the man with the knife, knocked the weapon free, and wrestled him to the door. Curses and shouts filled the bar and whoever had followed Chalino Sánchez on Nick’s CD player was drowned out by the familiar sound of men fighting in a bar. The wounded man stumbled to the doorway just as Nick tossed out the knife-wielder.
The former friends stood about two feet apart, in the middle of the sidewalk. The cut man’s fingers gripped his chest and were covered with blood. The other man grinned. He finally laughed and walked away. His bloody companion slowly followed.
“Look at this floor,” Nick shouted. “Goddam blood spots. Now I got to get the bleach.” His face was red and a thin line of blood traced his jawline.
I stood up from the booth and walked to where Nick examined the floor.
“That woman, Nick? What was her problem?”
“You fuckin’ kiddin’ me? Why didn’t you ask her yourself? She said somethin’ about her sister. Usual shit. Christ.” He shook his head and disappeared into a closet. I heard him banging a bucket and shaking out a mop.
I made it back to my room and laid down on the bed. I sweated for an hour, listening to the traffic in the street below, smelling the traffic. I blotted out everything else about the room, the town, the day. When I decided to leave, I took off the white shirt and replaced it with a blue shirt that I had never worn in court.
I walked toward the border, to the bridge where anyone with a quarter can cross into Mexico unless the bridge is closed because of a bomb threat. There had been such a threat the day before and that had been my excuse to stay in Juárez longer than I had planned. That’s what I had told myself at dawn when I tripped on the American side of the bridge and had trouble getting up.
I finished the butt saved from breakfast and scanned the line of people walking into Mexico. I looked over the vendors with their trinkets and gewgaws, tried to recognize the face of the small, dark, pretty, and frightened woman who had wanted to talk to a North American lawyer about her sister.
“You ever been to the shrine of Santa Muerte?” The boy asking the question had straight, thick hair, like some kind of Indian, and the darkest eyes I had ever seen on a human being. One of the eyes was crooked and it distracted me so that when he spoke I thought he was talking to someone behind and to the left of me.
“Saint Death? I don’t think so. I don’t have time, and I don’t have any money.”
“Hey, pocho, I don’t want your money. I’m talking about La Santisima Muerte, the only real saint, the only one worth praying to anyway.” His English was good, better than my Spanish, so we talked in English. “She only promises what she will actually deliver, and she treats everyone the same — rich, poor, Mexican, gringo.”
The boy wasn’t going anywhere so I asked a question. “What kind of shrine is this?”
“A special place. A girl got killed there and when her mother found the body it was covered in roses that bloomed for weeks after. Now people go there to ask for help.”
“Why would I want to see this shrine?”
“You’re looking for something. Ain’t nothing she can’t help find, because everything and everyone all end up with her anyway.”
I used my handkerchief to wipe the sweat from the back of my neck. The monogrammed MT had faded from it’s original deep royal blue to a pallid gray. I stuffed the handkerchief back in my pocket.
“Tell me, boy. You think someone who is looking for a lost sister might go to the shrine?”
He smiled and exposed gaps in his teeth.
“She already has, pocho. About an hour ago. I took her myself.”
“Two American dollars.”
“You said you didn’t want money.”
“That was before you wanted something.”
I gave him the two bills and I thought how that could buy me a cold beer at Nick’s.
The boy veered from the bridge and we dashed across the street. He scrambled into an alley, then another, turned back and headed to the outskirts of the town. I sweated like I had a fever, and my breath came hard and fast before we ended up in the basement of a broken-down apartment building.
We walked along a narrow concrete hallway that smelled of copal and marigolds. Candles lit the way into a dark, damp corner of the basement. Hundreds of candles. The boy kept walking, didn’t look at me, didn’t say a word.
The statute of the saint of death standing on a makeshift altar looked like the grim reaper to me. Various offerings surrounded it — food, money, photographs, pieces of clothing. There were about a dozen people standing or kneeling around the altar and they mumbled prayers that I couldn’t understand. I walked around the small room and looked for the woman who had confronted me in the diner but the only light came from candles and the people kept their faces down and hidden behind mantillas and dusty hats. I didn’t see the woman.
I wanted to ask the boy to take me back but he was gone. Some in the crowd started to leave and I followed them down what I thought was the same candled hallway. They murmured to each other, stayed close and kept looking over their shoulders at me. They moved faster and I had to exert myself to keep up with them. They turned a corner but when I followed, they were gone. I was in another small room without candles, without any light. I heard Spanish words and phrases and the brassy, loud grating music of a Mexican band. Then I heard words in a language I did not recognize and music that I had never heard before.
I waited. A few minutes passed, then another group of people from the shrine entered the room and shifted sharply to my left, toward an opening that I had not seen.
I said, “Wait, show me the way. I’m lost.”
An old woman wearing a black shawl over her waist-long gray hair stopped. She looked at me and said, “No hablo inglés.”
I repeated my request in Spanish but she shrugged and trudged into the darkness. I followed the sounds of her footsteps. After a few minutes I heard nothing but I kept walking in the dark, sometimes feeling my way around corners, until I found myself in the stench and heat of a deserted El Paso alley.
An hour later I was back in Nick’s, drinking a beer.
“They’re on their way to lose their cherries, across the bridge.” Nick smirked at the boys at the end of the bar. I assumed he talked to me because the underage boys were the only other people in the bar and he must have figured that he would be less susceptible to being shut down if he avoided them, even though he served them shots of tequila.
I didn’t have a response.
“They found another one,” Nick said.
“Another what,” I asked, but I knew what he was talking about.
“A dead woman, out in the desert by the wire. Cut up like the others. Been missin’ for weeks.”
“How many’s that?”
“There’s no official count. Hundreds, thousands. Like that girl the woman was lookin’ for. Missin’ for weeks.”
“How do you know that?”
He frowned. “She told me, what do you think? Anyway, she’s lookin’ for her missin’ sister, in Juárez and El Paso. What the hell you think that means?”
I got up to leave. “Why would she want to talk to me about that? I can’t do anything about her missing sister.”
“Come on, Manolo. You can’t do anything about anybody’s problems. Remember? You screwed that up, as I heard you explain one night.”
“Yeah, yeah. I screwed it up. So why would she want to talk to me?”
He shrugged, twisted his bar rag. “She heard about the American lawyer. That means somethin’ to some people. She heard that the lawyer hung out in the bars. She tried to track you down. She thought you might be able to help, maybe you knew somebody, maybe you heard somethin’. She had nowhere else to go, no one else to talk to.” He tossed his rag under the bar. “Dammit, Manolo, I don’t know.”
He walked over to the boys and said, “How about another one for the road?” They laughed uneasily and moved away when he tried to put his arm around the shoulders of the shortest kid.
I left Nick and his dingy bar and his ugly reputation and swore that I was done with all of it. I had walked about two blocks when I saw her. She leaned against a brick wall, the side of a building that housed a mercado where every week tourists spent thousands of dollars on useless souvenirs and phony mementos.
She cringed when she saw me.
“I can’t help. I don’t know anything, anyone.” I used my hands to help my explanation.
She cocked her head. Her face was smudged with the tracks of the tears that had finally flowed.
She reached into her thin jacket and waved a small gun. I shook my head and put my hands in front of me but she pulled the trigger. The shot made me jump, then I fell to the ground. The pain in my shoulder wrenched my torso. I twisted on the grimy sidewalk.
I gurgled one word: “What?”
“No hablo inglés,” she said. She dropped the gun and walked away.
I sat up but dizziness bent me forward and I slumped to the sidewalk.
The hospital released me two days later. I left El Paso and returned to Denver.
When it snows my shoulder aches and I smell copal and marigolds.