The strange first moments of a dream had just started, again, when the police officers pulled me from bed. Their hands hovered above the pistol on their hips. They screamed at me in spit-laden Spanish. The remaining cloud of uncertainty between whether I was still dreaming or living in reality wisped away when I could see their neck veins bulging like cage fighters ready to bludgeon and bloody my soft parts. But, they looked like grown children to me. The skin of their faces pulled taut across fully-formed adult bones to hide the child inside who still mimed a pistol with fingers and said, “Bang, bang you’re dead!” to their playmates cast as heroes or villains. This game, the adult one, could result in actual death; not the play death of children’s games. Of laying quietly on the ground, eyes closed and limbs bent in death rigor mimicry, while a hand covered the heart just for a reminder that it still beat vibrantly and death was merely for the moment; for the sake of the game’s narrative and after it was all over, when the game resolved to its ending, either the heroes prevailing or the villains getting away, the children ran home to the safety of a favorite pillow, where their strange dreams allowed for scenes of more heroes and villains; while the hand over the heart remained just in case.
As I lay on the floor, the officers argued. I gathered that they disagreed on what was to be done with me. Division among the children. The loudest one repeated the same word. Another one said “no” repeatedly, though not so loud. I heard an agreement when the argument was over. The sound made when heads nod. I had a sense of their collective fear like an open circuit of electricity. A cut wire buzzing voltage around the room. They were not afraid of me, of course, but of their own deaths. Immediate or eventual. The hand that hovers over the pistol and the heart of us all, I suppose.
The only one who spoke English had empathetic eyes. Eyes like a grandparent; reflective like the sheen off a glacial lake. He convinced his boss to let him go back to my little apartment and get my calling card. I had to, at least, call someone in the States for help. He explained to that same boss, with a perfectly trimmed neckline and side burns from which beads of sweat hung like bull testicles, that I denied any knowledge of whatever crime I was accused. I was honest. I had been in the little apartment above the bar for three weeks, or so, banging away on an old typewriter with a broken L and semicolon button and it was bothersome because I liked L words and rambling sentences.
I didn’t know how to explain to them the causations for my sudden arrival and stay within their little town. My years compiling on top of themselves. How could I detail to them the daily movements of my existence amounted to habits nonetheless worthless of meaning; merely habits for habits’ sake and the comfortableness in normalcy? I lived there. In the comfort of waking every day to repeat the same day. With the same people. And tasks. And methods of intoxication. Yet, withal a yearning desire to have or be or something, anything more. They’d probably laugh hysterically at me and say; “That is just life, gringo. You desire more, because you live in the States. More is available and plentiful for you, maybe. If all you see is more, more is all you will want.”
It was an odd thing, I suppose. A States guy arriving in their little dusty town one day with a worn leather weekender duffel and a pale blue plastic typewriter. States guys typically tore ass through the town on 4×4 runs for gas and a bottle of beer or two. I paid cash to the guy with a thin green circle beneath the gold watch on his chubby wrist who showed up when I called the number on the Se Aquilar sign in the yellowed window above the bar where I stopped to get drunk after spending a night on a bus from the border. The landlord counted and flipped the corners of the dollars like a pimp satisfied with the take and asked me with a finger first rubbing his chin then pointing at me; “You got a job? Why you stay here?”
“Nothing like that,” I said. “I’m just here to get drunk and write a novel with this thing.” I raised the typewriter I held. I was feigning confidence.
“Ah.” He said distantly. “You a writer, eh? Well,” he said as he tapped the fan of cash against my chest, “this gets you two months. After that, I don’t know, maybe you write me, tell me how you can pay.”
He laughed with a wide raspy heave, I watched his chest flare and rattle beneath a tight buttoned shirt, then he walked off in a slow kind of strut and said hello to people with a confidence of having money in the pocket that I only faked and that was the last time I saw him alive before he was stabbed in about the same spot as I stood. They said it was a States guy. He looked like me. Some combination of weeks without a shave and brown, unsteady eyes. A forearm tattoo of a woman. A blue ball cap like mine. I just wore it to make it appear I was from somewhere hip. Years of that lie caught up to me.
Before that, the locals laughed with back of the throat grunts when I opened the window and the sounds of my fingers smashing buttons like a crazed rock sculptor going at little stones with a pin hammer somehow echoed over the noise of pickups with rusted exhausts and dirty brake pads; the bar’s empty beer bottles clinking and cracking inside garbage bags; a crackling, Nortena-filled jukebox; the male whistles and the females’ rapid censuring responses. The ring of the typewriter’s recoil chimed in with a new idea; a new thought that must be laid waste on paper. It was much more pure inside the mind, though. I supposed they wanted to be done with me. Up there. Maybe I was typing satanic curses, maybe a manifesto of absurd, dangerous beliefs that threatened their way of life.
With the calling card, I called my father in the States.
“Where have you been?” He asked. His voice graveled and harried like a mother’s would be after weeks of no communication, yet calm as a father knowing that every once in a while a man just needs to get gone.
“Oh nowhere,” I lied.
“Why hadn’t you called?” It was common for us to communicate weekly, if not daily. My mother passed rather quickly from breast cancer when I was a teenager and its effect left us with just one another; grievous in our shock and loneliness. We were simply father and son before she died, but after it was something more of a codependency of remembrance.
“Just been busy,” I lied again.
“Grandpop passed. I need you to come home. The funeral will be in a couple days. You’re gonna be a pallbearer.”
“Alright. I’ll be home tomorrow.” I determined then, after my lies to him that I would lie again to the officers and that would be it.
I felt that admitting to the crime was a suitable way out. The best opportunity available to me at the time. Thousands of motivational quotes and books include words of recognizing and seizing opportunities; I was merely heeding their direction.
I let my father talk, knowing the minutes on the calling card would soon expire.
“The night before he passed, I went over there and shaved him. You know what that’s like? Shaving your old man? Like life come full circle. When I was a baby, I shit my diapers thousands of times and he and mom were there to clean it up and put me in new diapers, because, hell, I couldn’t do it. You know? Now, just like when I was a baby and needed him to help me do the thing that I couldn’t, he needed me to do it for him. Just doesn’t seem like enough, you know? I’d need to shave him thousands of more times to make up for it. And we didn’t say a word to one another during. Not a word. I tell ya, I’ve never paid more attention to a thing in all my life. I didn’t want to go too hard or too fast. I wonder if that’s how it felt to be a great creator of something. You know? A sculptor, a wood worker maybe. If that attention to detail was what is required to be great. Complete focus. I don’t know, son. But when I finished and toweled off his face and picked him up to carry him to bed, he just smiled at me. That stupid grin when his teeth aren’t in. What is the word you use to describe it?”
“Yeah, his pulpy smile. And I was looking at him and I was still thinking how it wasn’t enough to tell him thank you, it would never be enough, and as I laid him in bed, he said to me, “That was enough son. You’re welcome.”
I could hear the tears well inside of his eyes. The inflection of his voice when the crying began. He had been free of it for years; that bit of masculinity that refused to let him cry. My mother’s death, grief counseling and the struggles of my late teenage years made sure of that. I cried too. He always made me do it. Without asking. Thousands of miles of telephone wire to convey decades of emotion from father to son and father to son again.
“Well, at least you didn’t have to clean up his shit.” I said and he laughed, and I laughed and we exchanged our tears for something in between.
“You got that right,” he said through a sniffle and a laugh. “So when are you-” The line died. Silent as a vacuum. Words left suspended in the line, trapped forever between there and here. A fossil in a tube to be buried down beneath the soil for thousands of years until it is excavated by some future Earthling, tapped open and the question finished, finally, with an exhausted voice “-coming home?”
“I am not.” I said into the vacuum of the line, but that would never be heard.
It would be far easier to lie to them, than explain my life. How would I detail the years spent squandering away opportunities at the sake of getting by? A life story of existence in a suspended ennui. I often thought of myself as a marionette that moved in a repeated pattern around the stage, forever stuck in the second act. A puppet play? What a frivolous joke, they’d say. The officers could care less. The locals too. It was either did or did not with them. Life stories were paltry. A dime a dozen. The real worth was the story of the one who overcomes circumstance, rather than succumbs. It was the same to them as it was to anyone, anywhere. The stories of Kings and Queens, yes, but also those who rise from nothing to become King or Queen; those who go out and take on life like a bull rider perhaps or a matador most likely. I had no such story like that for them. They would sooner wave me away with the back of their hand like an annoying horsefly buzzing above their sidewalk table than to listen to my story.
Many nights, I prayed for a reversal of choices. To be transplanted back at a certain crux of time in my life with the knowledge of how it would turn out. And the voice I prayed to asked, like a genie about to bestow a wish, “Well which moment shall it be?” I could not answer. Maybe the moment at seventeen when I told my father to fuck off and I hoped he died so I could sell his plot for cash and burn him into ashes, so I could then spread him as far away from my mother. And his spirit would forever wander among the living looking for her. That was the dumbest thing I think I ever said. Maybe the choice of college; the big damn state university where I joined a fraternity and competed with a class of people above my means, thinking the perception of their wealth would one day rub off on me. Where I drank excessively to fit in, met a girl beyond my capabilities of keeping happy and knocked her up for six weeks to boot, only to have her dad pay to put an end to it. All of it. And then maybe the job I took to pay down debt and hang around just long enough in that college town to become a part of the college town. A local. A townie. A dirty, bedraggled servant of the prestigious college kids excessing away in their stone mansions, with ancient letters falsely defining character, all-the-while making fun of the local piss ant I’d become. But no, it was the decisions in those following years, declining more credit hours in favor of paid hours, spending the free days and nights in bars and on couches and in bedrooms as if I were still a frivolous student with a secure future ahead and not the failed student very much in a future without much security. Living life under the false belief I was a strutting, swaggering Midwestern Lothario. The lead role in a Johnny Cougar song. Maybe it was the moment I told myself cocaine was the key to happiness. Or that I loved nothing more than Jim Beam’s whiskey. Or that settling down with a woman was the death of me and of my free will. Simple, stupid declarations. Worse still to have them tattooed like the symbols of a party-man creed. The Jim Beam logo. A razor blade and a rolled one hundred dollar bill. Some sort of a poorly drawn skull attached to a ball and chain. I put them on my lower leg, at least, because I wasn’t thoroughly committed to the beliefs. I just wanted people to think so. My mother’s portrait on my right forearm was about as well drawn as anything. I used a different tattoo artist. It was so good, in fact, I had to stop masturbating with my right hand. Sexually, I may not have recovered. How absurd, really. My story was fit more for a cartoon or skit show than any epic or tragedy.
I explained all of this to the guard who slid a tin plate of refried beans and stale corn tortillas to me. As he squat down and watched me rip the tortillas apart and slop them around the mush of refried beans like a child running a toy car through mud. He smiled at me with a look in his eyes that he couldn’t give more of a fuck about what I was saying. Especially if it were about my life. He pointed at his crotch repeatedly, while in a squat, his knees wide, I could see it smashed up behind his pants. And then he pointed at my plate. He made another movement, a mime that he had wildly pissed all over it.
“You?” I asked. “You pissed on my food?” The language barrier crumbled in that moment as he realized I understood and the look of delight in face was as if he had received the most joyous news ever in his life. Lottery winner. Wife back to her marriage age and weight. Jesus alive, sitting on his couch in his living room. As he stood, I vomited into my plate. He laughed as another guard arrived with two bottles of beer and they exchanged a conversation, I assumed, about how I just realized he pissed on my food before serving it to me. Then, the guards clinked their beer bottles, chugged their beers in short time, pulled their little red peckers from out of the zipper hole of their trousers and pissed on me and my plate of food again as it lay near the cage door and I on the ground like a street beggar or the whore who had just been humiliated. They picked up the beer bottles before leaving and shook the suds out at me through the bars of the cell for good measure. They left in an echo of curses and laughter.
The man I had admitted to stabbing to death, my landlord, I was told by the only one who spoke English, the officer with the empathetic eyes, was once a police officer in town, but recently had been in ‘private work’ and was also very well respected and very well-friended. He was often waved to on the street, shook hands with all, was asked to attend birthday parties, Christenings, quinceañeras, and the like. While he wasn’t quite the boss, if you will, of the town, he was quite close to it.
“Well,” I said, “he shouldn’ta looked at me that way.”
“No, gringo,” he said to me, “why do you lie?”
“Fuck. Who said anything about lying? I stabbed the sonofabitch, and that’s it.”
“Why you deny it at first? Why you say you were sleeping?”
“Why doesn’t anyone admit to anything at first, uh?”
“Where you stab him?”
“Right there in front of the bar, dummy. Stabbed him right there.”
“No gringo. Where on him? Where did you stab him?”
I had no idea where the man about town had been stabbed. Somewhere fatal, I assumed. I gambled.
“In the neck.” I stuck my thumb out and made a stab motion to the side of my own neck. “Right there where it bleeds.”
Empathetic Eyes laughed and shook his head. “No, no gringo. He was stabbed here.” He pointed to just below his own ribcage and up. “And here too.” Same place, but on the other side. “These were smart cuts, gringo. How you say? Practice.”
“Well, fuck,” I said flippantly. “Wasn’t the first time. Hell, is that where I got him? Couldn’t quite remember. But if you say that’s where I stuck him, then that’s where I stuck him.”
“Gringo,” he lowered his gaze at me and said, “They are going to kill you. They will drag you from here and make you disappear. That man had friends. Friends you have never seen as bad as this. They will make cuts to remove parts of you while you are still alive. Your stomach will be pulled from you and feed to the rats. Your balls to the dogs. They cut the eyelids from your gringo face so you watch it all before they cut your head and throw it away like trash.”
I stared at him as he tried to let my future desecration sink in.
“You watch too many movies.” I said.
While I was in college, I had a roommate, a genius kid from California, who spent most of his time developing an algorithm for the prediction of an individual’s life path with basic information supplied. Parents and DNA traits, hometown, religion, etcetera. He said, over time, the algorithm would learn from data and develop more pointed possibilities of the course of one’s life. Lives could be predicted while kids were still in the single digits of their years.
“Lives will be laid out for them.” He said, as we sat in his darkened room and the computer screen illuminated his face like the electricity pulses into something being brought alive. “We will be able to provide a near exact date of expected death. Potential diseases and causes of death. Income earned. Offspring expected. Life laid out by mathematics and probabilities. It will be glorious.”
“I think it will be sinister.”
He shrugged his shoulders ineffectually, as if he were content that his idea’s implementation would be of evil consequence.
“Life is random,” I argued. “Hell, just the other day I heard a lone seagull squawking aloud. And we’re a thousand miles from the ocean. That seagull charted a course for the water and ended up on land. Same thing happens to people.”
“Yes, but we’re only five hundred miles from a great lake, so mathematically, the odds are not off balance. Let me run you. You will be our first subject.”
I shrugged with the same effort as he did before. Unconcerned what the results would say.
“Well,” I said, “if I’m going to be your first test, let me name it. I decree thee Voltar.”
Voltar predicted I would drop out of college after a few more years of dwindling grades and courses, work jobs that never paid more than forty grand a year, cycle a habit of smoking and trying to quit smoking, become a father in my thirties, spend time in jail for misdemeanors and die from inner organ failure by sixty. I never actually saw these results on a computer screen. Like a ticket from the movie’s magical automated fortune teller of its namesake. The genius roommate simply told them to me. And I believed him. And ever since, I had charted my life in a back-of-the-mind accordance with that prediction. Aside from the kid and the inner organ failure, most had come true.
At a homecoming gathering, where I had mustered enough courage to attend; and lied about living out of town, somewhere neat, Bozeman, Montana, someone mentioned the California genius roommate and how he was well on his way toward becoming a billionaire. His company, Zoltar Planning, had just been offered as an IPO and was set to hit the market with a big open. I piped up, rather drunkenly, that he would not be anywhere without my help. I was met with blank stares and later someone else remarked that wasn’t I working at the Ale House on the Avenue and not, as I had been telling everyone, living in Bozeman and working as a cattle trader. I started a fight with him, in front of his attractive wife, and all others and their attractive wives, but at least I made him yell at me to “Stop it” and “get off me” like he was my pipsqueak little brother. I never saw any of them again.
And so, for the lack of a better story – one that the men at the table with the back of the throat laughs and the pissing all over me guards would want to hear, perhaps a tale of mistaken identity and rescue – I could say the officer with the empathetic eyes planned a daring escape for me from the little jail cell in the little town and quickened me to the border to meet my father and I forever lived on as the puto gringo who stabbed his landlord to death, that well-friended man about town, and gotten away with it. Alas, this is not that story. The actual murderer was caught on the country’s border. He was a gringo, but of the Eastern European kind; bushy eyebrows like mine, a tattoo of a ray of light encircled Saint Angelina on his right forearm, but the knuckles calloused, the muscles of his body more precise, the spit in the face of his arresters more meaningful. He had been hired by a rival and then caught, admitted to nothing, and disappeared in a matter of days. The officer did help me, though. At my writing desk, under a tequila bottle I filled with the dirt of the little town, I kept a stack of daily dispatches of my current state of life. Replete with date and time, (at least, what I believed to be the date and time), in which I began each self-indulgent entry. On the night in question, I wrote thus:
I was awakened by the remnants of a bar fight down below. Someone got stabbed in the street I think. Might be dead. The spinning lights spin my eyes around the room and I’ve been vomiting ever since. I drank too much tequila again. I started at sunrise today. Yesterday? With Hector. The old man across the hall. I wonder what he thinks when I wake him to share pulls from a bottle of tequila. Sitting in his kitchen while the buzz and rattle of the old refrigerator fills in for the silence between us over a chessboard that uses a salt shaker for the White Queen and a dud bullet for a white pawn. I am always white. I can never check him, at least I don’t ever remember if I do. I wonder how he can just knock off the day with an idiot American like me. Puto gringo he calls me. The ‘pu’ and ‘gree’ sounds comes from out his mouth and over his lips in a wet pronouncement like a priest’s reading of God’s sulfuring of the plain. He repeats it over each move I make and swig I offer. I wonder what he may do otherwise, had I not arrived. Maybe the same, just with someone else. I tried to go back to sleep once the police left and the noise quieted down, a good many people were there. A woman wailed for hours. Men argued through it all. The victim must’ve been well liked. I couldn’t sleep, again, so I jerked off into the sink while looking at a Polaroid of Hector’s daughter I took off of his rattling fridge. At least, I think it’s his daughter. Could be his wife at a nuptial age. I don’t know. I don’t think I will give it back to him. Or if he even knows it’s gone. Whoever she is, I am sure she was gone long ago, anyway.