Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Veterans Day Story:Unlikely Espontaneo

Daniel Cano


     The next day, the Mexican newspaper, El Diario, reported that the man had been drunk and out trying to impress his rich friends, just like thousands of other tourists who made fools of themselves each weekend in border towns from Reynosa to Tijuana. But this time, one of them had gone too far, and he, unfortunately, had to pay the price.
     That was the gist of the story El Diario’s reporter filed, more-or-less. One Baja publication, Accion de la Frontera, a more investigative magazine, learned that the subject in question was a Vietnam veteran, and its reporter blamed the tragedy on out of control PTSD, as well as the fact that the U.S. entered wars, sent young men to fight them and didn’t provide the psychological support they needed when they returned. In the U.S., most newspapers hadn’t even covered the tragic event, except for man’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, whose short account could be summarized something like: American tourist gravely injured in Tijuana bullfight mishap.    However, for those present that day, nobody really understood what had happened, and among them, their versions varied.
     The crowd had been restless from the boredom and unnecessary suffering of the first two bulls. The bullfighters seemed to be playing it safe. Who wants to die in a border town? The true aficionados began to stomp their feet and holler just as the third animal rushed into the arena, kicking up a cloud of dust and hooking its horns wildly at the hot afternoon air. With nothing solid to attack, the animal retreated to the toril, the red wooden gate from which it entered.
     A slight movement captured its attention, a gray shadow at the other side of the ring. In seconds, the beast homed in on the lone figure entering its territory. The man heard the applause. He also heard jeers and whistles, but none of it mattered. He moved forward, perhaps a bit irrationally, but determined of his every step.
     The monosabios swooped in to prevent a tragedy. They scampered through the callejon between the barrera and the bleachers, cursing the well-dressed intruder who stood inside the arena just beyond their reach. A hefty security guard entered the ring and carefully moved towards the man. But before the guard could reach him, the man moved closer to the bull, away from the safety of the barrera, the red barrier surrounding the ring. He stood barely 20 feet from the animal.
     The crowd quieted. The security guard stopped. The bull turned to face the man. Everything slowed. The security guard retreated, slipping through the opening in the barrera and took his place where the police, bullfighters and a recently arrived doctor waited, peering at the man before them.
     Nobody knew what to make of the man. An espontaneo, a spectator who suddenly leaps into the arena without warning during a bullfight was usually a raggedly dressed local teenager seeking instant glory and a chance to impress an agent or impresario. Usually, the monosabios would grapple with the espontaneo, and the police would cart him off to jail; or worse, a bull would drive a horn into him. But for a poor Mexican kid, what did it matter? It’s either that or head illegally across the border to pick fruit, work the gardens of the rich, or wash dishes in a dank L.A. restaurant. Still, it’s a chance, a bleak opportunity at fame; and hadn’t the great Manolete started as an espontaneo?
     But what of this older man, Raul Armenta? He sported brown Ralph Lauren chinos and a baby blue John Ashford polo shirt. He wore top of the line Rockports. His year-old Range Rover was parked right across the border in a 24-hour San Ysidro parking lot. He hadn’t planned on jumping into the arena. Oh, he had often dreamed of it in his youth, and even strategized how he would do it. The obsession with the bulls had come early in his life and remained deep in his subconscious, taking residence there among his other obsessions and psychological pathologies, those he chose to bury among the tangled mess in his brain. Some years earlier, the Veterans Administration had approved his claim for PTSD, 30% disability. He didn’t need the money. He just wanted the truth recorded in his military record, exposure to Agent Orange and too many firefights and atrocities to remember, especially those few months patrolling the Song Ve River Valley as a paratrooper and recon ranger.
     At 54, Raul had once again begun to obsess over his year in Vietnam. He’d never felt guilty, not really. In fact, it was just the opposite. He’d always been proud of his military service, saving the Vietnamese citizenry from the throes of Communism, keeping the country safe for Catholicism, the religion of his people. He also believed that if the U.S. didn’t have the heart to fight wars, it shouldn’t start them.
     Raul had managed for many years to control what he once told his psychologist were “urges of the psyche.” His notions about the whole Southeast Asian affair had begun to change. He had come to feel he deserved to be recognized as a PTSD survivor, even though it took him long enough to admit it to himself. PTSD…. Who knew? One day he might need the benefits the claim afforded him.
     He had done and seen a lot of shit, he told his shrink. If some guys in his platoon had self-destructed and taken innocent Vietnamese lives, he had stayed true to himself. When they executed the farmer’s son, Raul had fought to protect the kid, that is, until his friends threatened to “blow him away,” and tell everyone he was a traitor if he didn’t turn the kid over.
     But now, at this moment, that was all far behind him, and he could barely fathom the reasons for walking towards a bull in front of 4,000 strangers in the bullring known as El Toreo de Tijuana or what American aficionados called the Downtown Bullring. The thing about Raul Armenta was that when he set his mind to accomplish something, he usually succeeded, and here, today, one good pass with the capote was all he wanted.
     It had all been easy. First, he bought a $50 ticket in the shady section, first row and took his seat among Tijuana’s elite. When the third bull of the afternoon came roaring out of the toril, Armenta dropped from his concrete seat into the callejon. No one really noticed the disturbance until he stood in the ring. A short cry came from the fans closest to him.
     Instantly, he moved to where a bullfighter had draped a capote over the barrera. He swiped the cape from the red wall, turned, and walked toward the center of the ring before anybody could react.
     A sick feeling entered Raul’s stomach when he noted the weight of the stiff canvas in his hands. He moved to unfurl the cape in front of his body, but the thick material wouldn’t cooperate, and instead what should have been the movement of a ballet dancer filled with grace and beauty became an awkward movement of an amateur tripping over a heavy piece of magenta and gold-colored material.
     The beast put its snout to the ground and stayed close to the toril.
     Raul studied the animal, and thought--a manzo. He remembered Hemingway’s description in Death in the Afternoon. A manzo was the most dangerous kind of animal. A manzo was cowardly, unpredictable, and edgy. Bullfighters hated fighting manzos and usually dispatched them after a few ceremonial passes to temper the fans who demanded excitement.
     The ring attendants, monosabios (wise monkeys), stood anxiously around the barrera and looked for the right moment to rush into the ring, tackle Raul, drag him from the arena and take him to jail, where they would learn he was a university vice-president whose salary exceeded $100,000 a year.
     As the absurd spectacle unfolded, the fans sensed danger, possibly death. Their whistles and jeers ceased, except for a group of college-aged drunk Americans, shirtless and tanned, in the Sunny Section, upper level, where they raised their extra-large cups of Corona in a mock salute. They cheered Raul, encouraging him forward. One way or another they wanted blood. They had paid for it and felt they deserved it.
     The bull raised its head. Raul balked, his stomach turning at the reek of hay, feces, and urine. He saw a trickle of blood running from the bull’s shoulder to its front leg, soiling the sand at its hoof. The animal let out a cry, like the sound of a cheap bugle.
     “Ho!” Raul grunted, beckoning the animal forward.
     Raul stood about six feet tall, nearly 170 pounds and not much fat. He still moved well for an older man. Every Saturday he played basketball with seven or eight friends, educators, all Vietnam vets he’d met working at nearby colleges and universities. After two or three games, they’d head for a local bar where they’d drink a few pitchers of beer before heading home for lawn-cutting, weeding, painting, and the research projects some of them still attempted. They'd begun a support group at the local VA administration complex in West Los Angeles.
     Imagine if his friends could see him now? They’d think him mad--and what would they say when learning he’d spent the night in Tijuana? Fine, go visit for a day, have a meal, do some shopping, maybe even go out to Rio Azul, where the rich Mexicans shopped. But don’t spend the night in Tijuana; that’s just not cool, and forget about saying he had been to a strip club, no less. Christ! That was high school out-of-control testosterone stuff (and only after being good and drunk). But the newer clubs were upscale, state-of-the-art, not like the old border dives. Tijuana had gained a lot of style these past few years--cartel money.
     But was this really Raul, the master organizer, the Raul who sat in senior staff and board meetings giving concise updates on the workings of his division? The cool one who had learned to stretch the facts, smother the negatives, and say what the brass wanted to hear, how his budget, millions of dollars, had been well spent down to the last penny? What questionable accounts? The president’s contractor friends? Sleight-of-hand audits? No such thing.
     Raul had been to a public policy institute in New Haven and learned to move accounts around like one of those street magicians sliding a pebble under walnut shells. The auditors, though, had started putting the screws to him, and he knew it would be just a matter of time before the piper would come calling, just like the military CID captain, who'd visited him in 1985, asking about the incidents in the Song Ve, which Raul said he'd forgotten. The captain had used the word "atrocities".
     The monosabio called to him, "Put down the cape slowly, move backwards, and you will be safe." Raul heard but ignored him. Instead, he moved forward, calling to the beast, "Just one pass, my friend. Just one pass."
     When the animal rushed toward him, Raul planted his feet, held out the capote, and, along with everyone else, he waited. His adversary's eyes reminded him of other eyes he'd seen so many years ago, in another time and place.

This excerpted from a novel, a work-in-progress