by Roberto Perezdíaz
|A compulsion gripped me. After I accepted I had to get there. In spite of all the premonitions that I would be going against the current, against history itself into another dimension where communication with universal forces would be slightly distorted by weariness. The entire ordeal would become a mindless compulsive experience. At least once in a lifetime one must go to Mecca. My time to make this trip had arrived.
I liked the symbolism, the religious irony, of a traveling merchant, like the Aztec Pochtecas, traveling to a holy place to make a buck. I would make the trip alone to sell Maria's pottery at the Crafts Fair. She had worked her hands to the bone to make enough of her food ware for two craft shows, had taken our big van with all the kids to San Diego to sell her pottery, and let the grandparents take the kids to the zoo. With all the religious mumbo jumbo in our lives I remembered my friend Jesús José María, a whole trinity in one name, an impossible burden for anyone. Why go all the way to the Middle East to risk getting blown up, Belén was right up the road, Santa Fé a little further up the river right here in New México.
Tío Chencho had said that the timing was right for a trip if I wanted to do it. He'd take care of all the details I just had to get there. What the hell, I thought, and told him it was a go. Those arts and crafts festivals were perfect cover; I had told him about it several years back when I noticed that we never were searched. Hundreds of vans loaded with merchandise going to those crafts shows, he seemed very interested. How was I to know?
I took the bus to work in the morning and he said another van would be at the house in the afternoon ready to go. I left work early in order to be on the road with enough time to do everything right and feel as relaxed as I have always felt driving. The agents at the checkpoints are keen at detecting nervousness. I took the bus home from the office and got there in time to load the van with the pottery and the booth and fill it with gas. I don't know what entered my mind to take the parakeet over to the neighbor's, if the run worked out as planned I would be back and the bird would be fine. A clear lack of faith. I tipped Mary off to my trip unnecessarily. Second mistake.
At five-thirty everything was ready for departure with a half-hour head start. It started to sprinkle as I pulled out of the driveway. It crossed my mind that I wouldn't have to water the lawn. At the auto parts store I removed both wiper arms and took them in to let the employees take off the old dry rubber parts and install the new ones. I showed the young man behind the counter what I needed and told him that I would buy new ones if he could change them for me. He asked another young man who was standing nearby just waiting for closing time if he knew where the pliers were.
–Right here, he answered. What's the matter you can't change those without the pliers?
–If you're so smart you change'em. He handed the kid the pliers and the wiper arms and said he was going to close out one of the cash registers.
The red and white shirt had Barney embroidered above the left breast pocket. When I called him Barney he said that wasn't his name. Barney had been fired for stealing right after the shirts had been ordered. If he didn't mind being called Barney he could use the shirts and wouldn't have to buy his own. Besides the company said they couldn't put Gumersindo on the shirt unless they charged him more money. He thought Gumer, which would fit, sounded worse than Barney. But all his buddies at the store called him Seendo. He squeezed and pulled at the wipers but couldn't get them to come off. I asked him to let me try it. As he handed me the pliers and the wiper blade he apologized that he couldn't remove them.
–I didn't want to break it because then we have to replace what we break, then they take it out of my pay.
–Give it to me, said an older man. He took the wiper blade with an air of authority; he squeezed and pulled just right and the rubber filler part of the wiper blade slid off. –What kind of car is this off of? Probably a Chrysler product, he answered himself. I nodded that he was right and pointed to the van that was visible through the windows. –Yeah, Chrysler likes to make things a little different, not any better, just different. It has two parts and if you take this part off first, then the other slides right off just like all the other cars. There you have it. Here, I'll put the other one on for you and you're on your way.
I paid him and went out to snap the wiper blades. They worked. It hadn't rained for weeks and now that I have to make this trip it starts to rain. I checked the headlights. Only the cockeyed one on the right was working. It was raining harder.
The broomstick held open the hood as water poured down my back from the overhang. Although they were closing I went up to the closed door with the headlight in my hand and hollered at them to sell me one. I pushed on the door, it was not locked. So I walked in and pleaded with them to sell me a headlight.
The manager said the computer took about ten minutes to warm up.
–That's fine, thank you, I dread the thought of having to drive all the way downtown to Pep Boys.
–Well, no problem, and we sure don't want you to go to Pep Boys either. Ain't that right boys? Seendo rolled his eyes, nodded and squeaked out a yeah. They handed me the headlight and said that I could put it on while the cash register logged on. The rain had let up. I checked the light in the connection before installing it. It worked and then I installed it and checked the reflection in the window of the store to see if both lights and the turn signals worked correctly. I checked the taillights and rear turn signals. The license plate light was also working. Now they won't have probable cause to stop me. I reviewed the details of the van in my head as I finally got on the Interstate toward Las Cruces. I crossed my heart, out of habit, and was on my way.
With a deep breath I tried to relax and let the feel of the van on I-10 settle me into a long drive. The radio worked and the norteño sound that came from Ciudad Juárez perked me up. I opened the window and sang out loud the few words that I knew to each song. Then I gave a long loud grito and took a deep breath of the humid warm air with the smell of wet creosote that drifts in after a desert rain. I wondered why the Gringos hadn't called it governess from the Spanish gobernadora. Then I wondered why the Spaniard had called it gobernadora, go figure. I calculated when I would get to Albuquerque; Santa Fe just a little further up the American Jordan River. That would still leave a little time to sleep before my estimated time of arrival.
The air was cool, the rain raised the odor of moist desert, it was almost cold with the wet tee-shirt I still had on. I pushed against the steering wheel until I felt my back crack. I could focus on the task of driving while I began my mental exercise. Driving was always a beautiful opportunity for abstract thinking, especially alone. I like alone. Alone I let my brain switch into a magnificent free flow mode worthy of the ultimate computer receptive of constant continuous stimuli, even as it monitors the mundane and prosaic operation of the van while I reflect upon the meaning of the trip within the time and space of our cosmic journey.
There's La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution it looks like a religious building. The beautiful white walls and spires glistening in the rays of sunset filtering through the gray and white clouds rise up out of the unusually green grounds with the dark Franklin mountains in the background. The entire horizon is clear after the rain. In a couple of more miles and I'll finally be out of Texas and in New Mexico. La Tuna fulfills a role in the scheme of things a place for social punishment, for social redemption, a place where you can find God. I can't help thinking about all the men that have found God in the pen; there is a direct path from cantina to pinta. It seems that both God and the Devil arm-wrestle each other for souls in those two places. By the time they go before the judge to be sentenced many exercise their right to address the judge acknowledging that Jesus is in there. But when the Gringos said they had found Jesus the Mexicans would laugh. Every one of them was called Jesus. Mexicans found God they never said Jesús. Jesús would repeat this story with a straight face and irony looking around to see who would crack a smile. That was his way of sounding out who was an ex-con. I was glad that the night he got busted I just kept walking as if I had nothing to do with that robbery. But Chuy, as his home boys called him, couldn't ignore a challenge that was an insult to his Mexican ego. When the owner was arriving we were already clear of the store and walking away when Chuy heard him yell something about fuckin Mexicans. I went to his sentencing and heard the defendants mouth the laments and apologies, all the lessons learned, swearing that they would never do it again, because they had found Jesus in jail. Chuy was the last of the eight men and two women that day. He was embarrassed to repeat the same crap, as he succinctly put it, so all he said was, "Your Honor, all I can tell you is that when they say that Jesus is in the county jail, it's true." The judge smiled wryly and said, –I believe it, most of the people that appear before this court tell me the same thing, that they have met him over in the jail. And I don't have the heart to separate them from Him. Then he sentenced Chuy to thirty six months of prison. I'm glad he's in there right now or I would have a hell of a time telling him I didn't want him to come along with me.
–You're going to the Holy Land, carnal, he said during the last visit, just like the prophet Mohamed, you're going on a pilgrimage, to Santa Fé. There're a lot of Black Muslims in here, you know. They do some heavy teaching. On this road many Chicanos never get past the correctional institutions, our purgatories.
Maria always got on my case to stay away from my old barrio buddies. She reasoned that the fact that they were always in and out of jail was proof enough that they're no good, –One of these days they're going to do something while you're with them and you're going to get arrested too. I kind of liked hearing their stories. It made me feel a little tougher when they shared their adventures with me. They made fun of me occasionally when they noticed how scared I became when I realized they had done something illegal while I was with them. After all the years with Maria and having the kids I had become very responsible a good husband a loving father. But for me I felt I had become boring even to myself.
Maybe if I go and say a prayer and give a donation God will give me a sign that He will put some excitement in my life.
I wish the speedometer worked; I don't want to go too much past sixty. There goes that ammeter needle again. The temperature is holding steady below the halfway mark between cold and hot. The oil pressure is OK for such an old van. I can't quite read the speedometer on those cars as I pass them. Here comes another one of those big eighteen wheelers on my tail. I can't go by their speed, they go too fast. In this thing I'm pressing my luck to try to go sixty.
Vado, New Mexico. Any low water crossing is a vado and in México it's simply a dip in the road. Here it has the stature of a town. It's really just not much more than a trailer park. They probably discovered some tax break or receive some state money if they are a town instead of just a trailer park. The important thing is that I've made it this far. I can relax a little more the music is still loud and clear and I don't feel as cold anymore. After Las Cruces I will consider myself in weightlessness. Las Cruces that's where they crucified Jesus. Gotta get past them.
At last, there is the highway sign that says Albuquerque for the first time, Interstate 25, keep to the right lane. I'm almost to Las Cruces. Hmmm! It seems to be running a little hotter now. Maybe I'm going up a steeper hill. Unless the Río Grande changes direction after all these years it is uphill all the way to my destination. I hope it comes back down to where it was before, it should not have gotten hotter so suddenly. The oil pressure is still holding up, however. I have been driving a little faster but the weather is still cool. Well, there goes the first Las Cruces exit. The temperature is still holding steady although it has not come down to what it was a while ago. There comes the second exit. I don't see any service stations nearby. Mierda, it is getting hotter; the needle just took another jump! Well, there goes the second exit. I gambled and lost, I should have taken it even if I didn't see any service stations. I would at least be off the freeway and out of the line of fire. Try to make it to the next one. There is a laundromat down there where I can get water or make a phone call if I need to. Just past the overpass the shoulder is a little wider to pull over. I won't make to the next exit two miles away. I can smell the steam and antifreeze; I won't get there. If it only needs water I have that five gallon can behind the rear seat. The laundromat will probable let me have water.
Nothing in the world makes such a forlorn sound as the sound of those big trucks racing by when your stranded along a freeway. As they fly by they make your car sway with the pressure of the swirling air to remind you that you have broken down.
The sunset was beautiful as I reached for the stick to hold the hood up. It seemed heavier now than it was in front of the auto parts store. A lot of steam poured out of the engine compartment. By the time I go get some water it will cool down. Don't lock the keys in the van!
It was a beautiful morning, but I'm glad I didn't go out and run my three miles. Now that I have to go find water, it was a good decision, in retrospect so many good decisions were pure dumb luck, I will get some unexpected and unwanted exercise. The brush and stickers don't look too bad here, but I'll have to jump the chain-link fence. It's going to be harder coming back.
I managed to get down into the canal-like causeway and up the other side. After the five gallon jug was full of water it was very heavy. I carried it all the way back across the burrs, stickers, chain link and up the steep slope up to the highway. It was definitely not the moment to be wearing shorts. Shorts seemed like such a good idea this morning.
As I continued up the last few feet of dirt, weeds and sand to the chain-link fence where I had jumped over, I noticed that a steady little stream of water was flowing out the bottom.
Remembering the pile of newspapers, I grabbed one to cover the radiator cap to remove it. I didn't want to burn my hand with the steam. The cap came off without releasing much steam and I interpreted that to be a good sign. The engine had cooled off. However, some steam and bubbling noises gushed out as I began to pour water into the radiator. Naturally by the time I was able to get enough water into the radiator to cause steam, I had doused the engine, splashed all over my tee-shirt and soaked my shorts. I could see and hear steam blowing out below the radiator; I jumped inside and tried the key. It barely turned over. It was still too hot, but it turned over, it didn't freeze up, just overheated. I jumped out and went back to the front of the van. I poured in some more water. A little more steam came out but there was no bubbling noise, I kept pouring; as much water seemed to be flowing over the back and front of the radiator as went inside. I could hear the water splash on the pavement and I could feel it splash on my feet. With enough water in it I could drive it to a service station.
The five gallon can was soon half empty, it was still heavy enough to make my arms ache. Although the engine was considerably cooler some hissing and the smell of steam mixed with anti-freeze and oil permeated the air. After I stopped pouring water into the radiator, water was still pouring out on the pavement. It had to be water pump or radiator hose. The best insurance against road trouble is to invest in a one hundred dollar flashlight. I turned on the cheap and only one I had, the beam varied in intensity from not very bright to not quite off depending upon how it was tapped. I laid on my back on the pavement. The dripping water was very warm, almost hot, as it dripped on my face neck and chest, as it ran down my forearm, as it splashed on my glasses and on the flashlight. The flow of water sparkled through the beam of light. There it is! A steady stream of water pouring out of the lower bolt hole of the water pump. It pours out as quickly as I pour it in. The bolt is completely gone! I forced myself to take a deep relaxing breath there on the wet warm pavement.
I had a vision of a big eighteen wheeler rear-ending the truck while I relaxed under the van-- a sure road-kill death. I pulled myself out from under the van, remembering that I had seen a cork in the glove box. With a little saliva I forced it into the bolt hole to at least slow down the leak. I lifted the can up and carefully poured water into the radiator till it was full; I left the radiator cap off so it wouldn't build up pressure. There was still a little trickle but it would hold me until I got off the highway.
It is obvious that the bolt was loosened when they installed the new alternator. That same bolt also anchors the fan-belt adjustment strut and whoever put in the alternator simply forgot to retighten it. With the vibration of the engine it worked itself loose until it started leaking water; as the engine lost water it heated up and built up pressure. As the last few threads of the bolt cleared the engine block the steam blew the bolt out like a bullet and the remaining water ran out. That's why it heated up suddenly, started slowing down and seized up. I'll wait a while until it cools off enough to start and move where I can park it. Then, call tío Chencho to tell him the good news.
I looked out over the western horizon, over the city of Las Cruces. The big eighteen wheelers roared by and made the van sway from side to side; as they headed north the roar became a high pitched whine and the exhaust a staccato that pierced my soul. A little twinge of self-pity crept into my mind; with a deliberate deep breath I cleared my lungs with another deep breath and resigned myself to deal with this adventure of my own creation.
It cranked over very slowly a few grunts then started with a roar. I sighed, pulled the lever to the D and started driving up to the next exit. There was no gas station to be seen, I followed the road around under the overpass and saw the Golden Arches' bright friendly yellow light, the rest of the mall was dark. I pulled into the parking lot, away but not too far, from the McDonalds. I made sure I was between the lines and crossed my fingers as I turned off the engine.
The kids were sweeping the outside and inside, wiping the counter, cleaning and laughing at everything. They're closing it down and are Friday night happy because they're going to party. Just in time to use the phone take a piss, buy coffee, call tio Chencho.
–Hello, he answered in English, what's the matter? Qué pasó?
–I got as far as Las Cruces; it overheated; a bolt fell out of the water pump and all the water ran out.
–I thought for sure that van wouldn't give you any trouble.
–I'm sure. It kicks over, so it didn't freeze up.
–I can't understand it; but now we have to figure out how to get you back on the road. I still have the station wagon. Let me get a pencil and write down where your are. OK, where are you?
–It's easy, stay on Highway 25 until you get to the Lohman Exit, take it to Lohman and turn left under the freeway, keep on Lohman until you see the McDonalds it's a mall I'm parked near the McDonalds you'll see the van on your left. I'll just stay here with the van until you get here. How long do you think it'll take you to get here?
–I'll go get Pepe to drive the station wagon and leave right now. I guess that'll take me about ten minutes; over Trans-Mountain then I-10 to where you are. It's going to be another forty to fifty, maybe an hour at least. Do you think it'll all fit?
–It probably will with careful packing.
–Where are you going to be? You'd better stay with the van, right?
–I'll be here with the van; gracias for thinking about me first. First I'm going to wash up a little, get some coffee, try and rest maybe; I'll write a corrido and sing to myself about my crooked uncle, it rhymes in Spanish. El tío Chencho chueco.
–OK, OK, I'll be there in a little bit; I'm sorry about the bad car, adiós.
–Yeh, sí, adiós.
After a good scrubbing of my face and hands, I wet my thinning hair, felt much better. The kids were excited about closing up and hardly paid any attention to me as I entered and came out of the bathroom then asked for a large coffee. I put three packets of sugar and a couple of creamers then walked out into the lonely parking lot catching snippets of their conversations. If I were home would I be watching television? I reaffirmed myself that my proposed pilgrimage was more exciting, certainly more demanding. potentially more dangerous than wasting away before the tube. Should I chicken out in the face of adversity or continue obstinately in the face of reality, premonitions and oracles. If I knew for sure that I was on my way to my own death would I quit? Would it make any difference isn't life sweeter when death is eminent?
As I made my way back to the side of the van, lights from the highway, the streets and the businesses gave everything an eerie orange glow. I remembered on other occasions when that glow gave the night the feeling of a B-movie. It postponed the night, it wasn't really night at all just a filter over the lens, it postponed the darkness, it made everything otherworldly, and I fantasized that I was not alone. In my fantasy I was accompanied by friendly strangers who did not share my secret irreverence for historical holy places, a historical place that has drawn Homo Sapiens from primitive existence into the creation of the awareness of guilt as codified in the story of the Garden of Evil. All were walking irreversibly up to the Holy Mountain, uphill to Santa Fé; uphill all the way along the edge of the Rio Grande. Alone? Alone is just an abstract concept. Although many vehicles were roaring past also going north on Highway 25 a shudder went through my body while I waited.
Tio Chencho arrived, suddenly pulling into the parking lot in his big black Ford pickup. He was towing an old blue station wagon. Would anyone else stop? After I got past the brightness of the headlights I could see his face through the windshield. His face bobbed up and down as he opened the window.
–It starts, I said to him, I started it up just a minute ago. What happened to Pepe?
He was very upset, ignoring my question about Pepe, –I don't understand. I checked everything out myself, he scowled, I'm sorry this happened. This is a police magnet. Especially when you don't want them, they show up to help. If we lose this load we're screwed.
I wanted to attack him verbally and physically but my upbringing in a Mexican family where you respect your elder relatives made me repress my hostility. But as a manager of this business, I thought of the stupidity of moving valuable material in such shitty vehicles. Penny wise pound foolish, went through my mind as I assured him that I was not upset with him, –It was a loose bolt. You had no way of knowing it. I added, –I'm sure you would not have used this van if you had any doubt, there is a lot at stake here.
–I hope you can get everything in the station wagon.
–I think everything will fit; I'm good with spatial relationships I scored really high on all those IQ tests with cubes and pulleys at Berkeley.
–Yeah, we'll see if all that IQ can get you up and back as well as all those guys that only seem to have balls to rely on.
–I can get all the boxes and boards inside; it will be tight, but it'll fit. Tio Chencho was proud of being a Mexican style bootstrapper. He felt that people with college were overrated.
–I was so sure that you would not have any problem at all; I drove it back and forth between here and Tucson three times with no problem at all. The only thing was the speedometer didn't work. I just put in the new battery and the alternator to be sure because I noticed that the needle kept jumping around.
–It was still jumping around tonight while I was driving it. I was hoping that the electrical system wouldn't burn out or anything like that. You forgot to tighten the bolt that holds the water pump. I almost started on him but left it at that.
–This car runs good. I decided to tow it because Pepe wasn't home and it's better that fewer people know anything. Less messy. I'll just tow the van back to El Paso. Buena suerte, this car will get you there and back.
–That's what you said about the van.
He pulled up in front of the van and backed up to hook up the tow-bar while I started transferring everything into the station wagon. For a while there was a big pile of boxes out in the open until I organized it all. Only two of the boxes would not go in as I planned. My briefcase slipped in there very nicely. I was proud of my efficiency. I got everything in without having to tie anything. I have flunked knot tying all my life. If our scout master, the good old preacher who liked to touch us when we were too young and dumb to know what he was up to, had not cheated for us, we would have never made it to Tenderfoot. With the tiredness and the caffeine I felt like I was on speed. Like cramming for finals.
I rationalized my actions; I'm glad I don't have any kids with me; it allows me to think more clearly about my chances without jeopardizing them. Can you imagine breaking down along the road with all this merchandise and a kid to worry about? It's out of the question, I would never put them in this risk. The truth is our old cars had broken down many times on those long drives between Texas and California. I always took my tool box. We were making it, but barely, on my salary and Maria's pottery sales, with so many kids it cost a fortune just to take the whole family to McDonalds. A new car was out of the question. I'd rather take my chances alone.
Anytime was a good time to start a journey. I didn't need Jupiter rising to begin one. No time was a good time to start a journey. The stars and the planets my ass! What is the difference between the first, the last, or the second to the last journey? Papa would take us on a journey across several states just to pick carrots. By the time we got home from school everything was loaded in the pickup and mama would have the taquitos made, with a good-bye to all the family lined up and crying, away we went on an another adventure. Does it really matter whether all those journeys are separated by commas or semi-colons?
–Bertalinda, guess what? Yes, I'm still in Las Cruces! I decided to call you because by the time I get started, again, ... I'm really just starting, again, ... I don't know what time I'll go by your pueblo. I'll stop on the way back, I won't have time on the way up now. OK. OK. I'll catch you on the way back, will probably be Sunday night late.
I hung up; hugged tio Chencho and said adios. I started it up while he stood by the open window. I turned on the lights. My tio must have seen the expression with a twitch of fear on my face.
–Don't worry about the gauges, it has a short someplace it runs fine and everything works. It's just a little short in the sending unit.
Everything so far augured an ill-fated trip, the oracle was shouting that Medusa was waiting on the Mountain licking her chops and that I was not Perseus. I controlled my panic. I nodded feebly. I almost told him that I wouldn't take the fall for him. Instead, I thanked him and drove off toward the highway taking the turn north. I would force myself not to glance at the gauges on the instrument panel.
They taunted me, they screamed peek-a-boo! Just like my cousin when we were in junior high. That summer when I went to stay at his house he told me that his neighbor used to take baths, leave the window open and not pull down the shade. He knew when she took her baths and he would jump the fence and peek in the window and watch her, –You can see everything, you really can! I remember the excitement in his face and voice.
I was too scared and knew that it was wrong, a sin, immoral and that I would be struck dumb if I submitted to that temptation. When the moment came, he said, –Let's go, she's taking her bath I just saw the light go on in the bathroom.
I got excited, I had never seen a grown woman naked before. In our small one room shacks that we lived in during the picking season, I would close my eyes very tight in order not to ever see my mother or my sisters without any clothes. I knew that it had to be a terrible sin to do that. I made so much noise going over the fence that my cousin panicked and ran back in the house while I decided to go for it. I was amazed more at my temerity than what I saw. She was not attractive to me and the brutality of her nakedness shocked me. I could have made a moral statement at that moment when my cousin said let's go, but instead, I went over the fence.
I was remembering the Bible lesson of the Garden of Evil and original sin. The original cover up. That's when they made God into a cop and now we have a whole world wide system of self proclaimed Cops for God, God Soldiers, with their battle hymn, Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. They don't have the faith that God himself can handle our spiritual deficiencies in his own way, these creeps would even take over the government to impose their justice and tell Him to butt out. After my cousin ran back in the house, because he thought he would get in trouble, he asked me if I had seen her. I told him that I had seen it all.
I could see the Bible waving back and forth in the right hand of the hellfire and brimstone preacher Mexican style in the Mexican Baptist Church in the worst barrio in San José, Sal Si Puedes. That Bible waved back and forth like the needles of the instruments tempting me to look and get paranoid about all my sins. Music was the antidote the delicious sensual sinful sounds música from Radio Tropical. Shear abandon into everything that the Baptists said was sinful, and everything that was pleasurable was sinful, music was the elixir that erased the beckoning of the instrument panel.
Las Cruces! Holy Cow! All these religious signs along the highway to heaven, hope that this is not my calvario while I'm still so far from Santa Fé and from Dios I might add, so near to Estados Unidos. Hello God! I felt silly and laughed aloud at the sound of my own voice. It is therapeutic to pray out loud, God willing, I'll get to deliver my cargo to Santa Fé; even though I've been trying for years, I can't shake all the religious baggage. I thought Berkeley had done it. But back in the canneries of San José my support group was gone. The big difference was, with or without, the behavior was the same both places, but in Berkeley, la Raza sinned without believing in God, in San José, with. Like humping Margarita, con o sin sal..., that's how I judge my Margaritas by their disposition. The music erupted loud and clear, I unloaded with a long wailing lung and soul cleansing grito into the cool desert night. I reaffirmed my existence and I felt much better.
As I-25 merged into the flow of my mind, the hum of the wheels flowed into the grip on the steering wheel it was a steady even hum into higher alpha level thought. The familiar lights along the Rio Grande were on the left, the driver's side. I could put my driving instincts on one channel while I watched the video that drifted steadily into my imagination going into flow on another. It would be a long journey while the repressed premonitions tugged at the foreboding spin of Mexican Russian roulette.
That trail between El Paso at the pass and Las Cruces on up has been much traveled since Don Quixote and his partner Caliban first trekked across this desert, I was following their signs, going through the motion of moving along that timeless path. Enchantment is the synonym for the hypnosis necessary for entering into the dimension of invisible relativity. Following the gauges, lighted batons waving in the dark, with their prosaic measurements like watches, speedometers, ammeters, oil pressure lights and needles, crying for attention before the inexorable onslaught on the way to eternity as the pavement slides endlessly in the night, accented by the broken divider line that the stars read like the bar code of your fate. The road to Damnation is often paved just like I-10 and I-25 as it takes you to the Holy Land, it also takes you by La Tuna Federal Cloister where the reticent miscreants renew their vows of acceptable social behavior. A biosystem behaves in an irrational manner according to its own whim and timing. Could some omnicognizant database be recording our movements like a spy in the sky counting the dotted lines I have traveled to or through Las Cruces? I was gliding on a smooth plane I was lifting off. The last thing I wanted or needed was for the mechanical and mundane business of driving to interfere with my contemplative euphoria.
Childhood images phased themselves in and my sister Esther and I took turns playing God with God's most successful species. We would take turns watching the ants until we decided to kill them. I would watch until I zeroed in on one particular ant; I would draw a line in the dirt and wait until that particular ant crossed it. If I was in a benevolent moment I spared it. If not, I killed it. Esther would watch for a while and then she'd wipe them all out. I deplored this lack of finesse. I tended to become a pantheist reflecting upon how God killed us. There had to be one that killed us one at a time, another that wiped out thousands with volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, famines and such Acts of God. Or He was a schizo. When I criticized her style she would remind me that when I was God she let me run things my way. I wondered, as I drove the clunky old station-wagon out of Las Cruces, when I would cross my arbitrary line drawn by some celestial barcoder, I wondered if I would even have a hint, if I got a hint would I be wise enough to recognize when some force would stomp out my life. Game Over! Like that needle swaying back and forth in a hurricane, from game to computer, childhood jumped into my mind's memory monitor, multitasking, multimode moments that pervaded my odyssey, from primordial prepyramidal primate to God behind the wheel. The beginning of my life flashing before my monitor.
When your life begins that ultimate rerun, simply refuse to watch the movie, change the channel. Mind over death, it's a tough system to beat, but I have never been one to dwell upon morbidity or mind discipline, so until something more visionary came along, it was a good time to erase by concentrating on the task of driving and send all the omens into a delete file. I was doing everything to keep from looking at the gas gauge needle swaying like a palm tree in the Devils Triangle. As much as I love my sister, I think it's best at this moment not to think about her. Is that it, the answer? The challenge rests in creation of experience, spontaneous generation, releasing energy out of inanimate objects. I was in a time crawl machine traveling at less than the speed of history.
The little station wagon was quite heavy; it sat very low on the springs but the V8 engine seemed to pull the load effortlessly. Most of the swaying was gone. The only serious glitch was the expired Idaho license plates. You'd think that merchandise as valuable as the one I'm carrying would merit a vehicle that wouldn't draw the attention of a cop or the Border Patrol. They should provide me with a Mercedes Benz station wagon. If a Border Patrolman sees me I've had it. I was a living participant in the human drama equivalent to that of the baby sea turtles scrambling toward the sea to survive or lemmings rushing to the sea to drown. If they suspect that I am carrying aliens they might make me unload all my boxes under the pretext of satisfying for themselves that I'm not transporting undocumented aliens. Just to be sure, I'd only speak English when I got to the Check Point north of Consecuencias. Given all the omens, I should have asked these guys to buy me a biorhythm machine, this is not the trip to be cute with my Spanish to a Border Patrol agent.
I drove out of the lights and into the darkness. Suddenly the illusion vanished that I was surrounded by civilization, by people, the illusion from the lights of Las Cruces, from the lights of other vehicles that intermittently illuminated my face and glasses. I had turned off the instrument panel lights because it hid the needle and reduced the glare reflecting back into the car. With the bright headlights I could look far ahead into the night. I would occasionally lean forward over the steering wheel and look upward into the starlit sky, it was still a beautiful black night with very bright stars. Only the light reflecting from the oncoming traffic produced a glow. On a couple of occasions as I glanced up into the rearview mirror a very strange preying mantis image popped into it. The outline, a double outline of my large glasses was clearly visible in the mirror, the imperceptible outline of my face produced a strange triangular object that my imagination even attributed to it a greenish tint. I felt that in this night of symbols, of magic and omens, a pre-Columbian metamorphosis was overpowering me. I hope it passes by the time I drive through the Check Point or have to get gas. During the dark of night anything can happen for there are no witnesses only feelings, sounds, sensations; nature's way of giving us the opportunity to revive all the senses, allow the symbiosis of daylight images in the nooks and crannies of the brain to emerge, merge and evoke the loneliness of the journey passing before my eyes. A preying mantis driving to a Halloween party. The mantis and the crickets engaged in a life and death struggle analogous to the game of baseball with a touch of musical irony. The crickets are always at bat, but they get eaten by the mantis when they're caught in midair, as they choose to either run or jump from base to base. Not all things are weighed in favor of the mantis as it seems. The music of the crickets seems to paralyze the mantis slowing it down as long as it continues singing but the minute it stops singing the mantis bites off its head. The cricket has to balance its chances between using its legs to sing or to escape. What a beautiful Zen moment. What would I rather be the cricket or the mantis, always in the outfield never getting to bat, or being a super athlete at bat with a home run record, kind of like Hank Aaron did it. Hit a homer and go around the bases uneaten. I can really get into this mode of reality but the darkness, the glare, the nagging reality of the oscillating gas gauge impedes my total immersion, my baptism, into the faith.
The miles and the dark curves roll by gently, smoothly, occasionally I give it gas to hear the engine, it is abnormally quiet. I hear only the same quiet drone that should inspire confidence, maybe the worst is behind me, but I can never assume that because the adventure will be over the magic will disappear the steady secretion of testosterone will wither and wilt. I will never again see the Llorona hitchhiking, I must stay alert and count the revolutions of the crankshaft, the wheels, the bearings, rolling in slow-motion between the tires, rims, axles and the differential housing. A complex organism, complicated mechanism, rolling along as an anthropomorphic extension of our phallic ego as a Homo Erectus on wheels. The surface of the tires tirelessly examining the surface of the roadway thumping and humming along the dark miles of asphalt alternating with segments of cement.
I like the 60 miles per hour speed, that is very close to an even 100 kilometers per hour and that is also easy to compute. At 60 mph every minute and every mile go by harmoniously. At 100 kph every hour gives up a smooth 100 k's I can feel the flow. The compulsive achiever gives up the thrill of the journey for the gratification of arrival. My own awareness now oscillates between the reality of driving and the fantasy of the trip. Just like the wand in the gas gauge. It is tuned in, to my mind and eye-sight. I catch it off guard a few times but if I concentrate too long on the motion of the needle I sacrifice staying on the highway. That needle does not move unless I glance at it. When I accept the fact that there are few lights, fewer cities, and equally scarce gas stations, I have to look at the gas gauge needle with more respect. It finally gets its revenge as it waves slowly back and forth between the F and some place not quite all the way over to the E. My mind now has to switch out of auto-pilot and into the primary level of physical involvement with the car.
I resist, I don't want to do this, the cumulative experience of a life-time of dealing with less-than-new, pre-owned cars triggers the flag of an impending default application of Murphy's Law. The needle of the gas gauge is the omen; I will run out of gas before I get to Consecuencias. Sure, with all the premonitions I have already lost, I'm back down to the level of groveling and worrying about my fate over such undignified prosaic details. The truth is, when I run out of gas I will suffer the consequences. I take a deep breath, it is the first one since the van broke down. Before I let total panic overtake me I reason with myself. I have not yet reached the point where internal dialogue becomes blabber, but I tell myself that after all this time on the road the tank should still be about half full, half empty. In a city the size of Consecuencias, Nuevo México there are several all-night gas stations, the decision will be only about which one to choose.
As I came off the semi-cloverleaf exit I noticed for the first time that not only had it been raining but that it was cold and windy. I pulled up in front of the gas pumps at a small store that was a 7-11 wannabe. I stepped out into the cold night and began to fill the tank. I heard some shouts of an indistinguishable name, then a couple walked around from behind a stone wall. She was crying he was trying to console her. As they walked over to the recreational vehicle with the New Jersey plates I figured out that either their dog or one of their children had run off into the Truth or Consequences night and was not going to return. While I was filling the tank a pickup with Montana plates drove up to the store and the burly occupants went inside and quickly came out with cups of coffee.
It was very wet and it must have been raining a lot around there because the four wheel drive pickup was covered with thick mud. As the tank filled the nozzle clicked off in my hand I noticed that I had used only about five gallons. The act of taking out the nozzle and putting the gas cap on the tank made me feel vulnerable again. The reason for stopping was about to end; even cold neon lights felt friendly. I would soon be back on the road by myself in the machine. If it were a real live horse maybe I wouldn't feel so lonely, When I was a kid and I went hunting along the Salinas River, I felt comfort from my single-shot 22 rifle as it got dark, but my dog Tapón always was a live companion an extension of my own senses into the darkness.
Walking into the store I thought about how much colder I felt although a minute ago it seemed warmer; it was clear that it had rained here but the sky here was clear and it was very windy. I asked if I could use the restroom.
The blond lady answered, –Yes, it's right over there in the corner behind the microwave.
I urinated, washed my hands and face and walked out into the store. –Do you have any coffee? I asked.
She smiled, –Let me make you a fresh pot.
–Thank you. I questioned my stereotypes my own racial profiling about what a real Gringa was doing working at a place like this at this hour. I thought only we would do this kind of work. I thought about when we lived in Soledad, the Havermills our next-door neighbors and the only Gringos in the barrio. We spoke no English, they spoke no Spanish we played together like dirt poor friends.
–You're welcome, it'll just take a minute and it'll taste much better.
–Do you know a man by the name of Félix Bernal?
–Félix. He works for the city, I think he reads some kind of meters, gas or water. He said if I was ever in T or C to ask anybody in town who he was or where he lived and they could tell me.
–Yeah! He works with my husband, yeah, Feelicks Burrnal. He's a good man. Are you going to give him a call? I can give you his number.
–No, I didn't tell him I was coming by, it's too early, or too late. I just remembered that he once told me that anybody in town could tell me where he lived and I thought I'd try it, to see if it was true; it is! I'm going to need a receipt for the gas please; you know, makes everything look legit.
–Sure, let me find a piece of paper, there is no paper in the cash register; I can't find my receipt book either. Your coffee is almost ready, here take a big cup, it's free. Want me to write your name on the receipt?
–Why, thank you. I didn't expect it was free, I can pay. But if you insist I will accept with pleasure. But on the receipt no need to put my name on it, just the amount, you know, for the tax man.
–If you want, why don't you write Feelicks a little note and I'll ask my husband to give it to him at work on Monday. Next time you come by you can drop in and visit a little.
–Thank you but he probably won't remember me anyway. What's the next town up the road where I will find some gas?
–Socorro, that's it until you get to Albuquerque.
–Thank you, I have to go, I'm running very late, it's one of those trips, you know when you tell yourself as you're plunging into the sea, I paid a million dollars to ride this Space Shuttle.
–Well, good luck.
As I got back into the car I wondered if that "good luck" was a kiss of death. It started right up beautifully and I drove back to the highway. Feeling refreshed and relaxed, I allowed the preying mantis to emerge and take me on several light-year vacations. It was so smooth I ignored the blinking CAUTION lights and DIM LIGHTS, PREPARE TO STOP signs that precede the STOP sign in front of the office. As I approached a few big drops of rain began to hit the windshield. Suddenly it began to pour so hard that I couldn't see. The big red light next to the STOP was just a beautiful blur while I remained stopped there long after the Border Patrol person had waved me through without even stepping out from under the doorway. She waved her flashlight and moved her mouth to exaggerate the pronunciation. I rolled on slowly at first, I smiled at the irony and stormed past as fast as I dared to go with zero visibility. I wondered to myself if she had ever been kissed by a preying mantis.
It rained and rained and rained. The smile was gone; driving was now just hard work. I hovered over the steering wheel peering constantly into the night through the futile sweeps of the windshield wiper blades. The road was a winding one now, with more steep climbs and descents, I crept along at about twenty-five mph. After about fifteen minutes I estimated that I would never reach my destination at this pace. Since I had not seen another vehicle of any type on the road I decided to go faster than conditions allowed. But my conditions are much more favorable and urgent. I have a valuable cargo to deliver to someone I have never seen. It is raining like hell, I can't see the road, and in my present preying mantis state, bugs don't live that long, every omen presages that this might be the night that I die. I can't roll over and play dead before my time, I will experience every sensation that I can until the last moment. I will try and average at least fifty flying blind and when it clears I will adjust my speed accordingly.
I made the right decision, as I approach another lost cow out on a night like this crawling along in the right-hand lane the taillights were two delightful candied apples deliciously glowing in the foggy glass until I passed them up. I continued to hug the left edge of the left lane while the staccato of the rain on the windshield evoked the sound and exhilaration of an uncontrolled downhill run on a giant inner tube. I allowed myself to feel the thumping of the wheels across the seams of the cement freeway. It was a comforting couple of quick thuds, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, because it confirmed that the heavily laden station wagon was in solid contact with the road. After about an hour of this grueling drive it stopped raining and there was a beautiful clear patch of sky and stars above.
The road was very wet and the shallow puddles left on the surface of the road swished as I drove through them at sixty. I was elated over my most recent triumph in my night of rites of passage. If it remains clear maybe I'll get there early enough to sleep an hour or two in the car. I must still be an hour away from Los Lunas. I am cruising along very nicely now, sixty-five to seventy, it sure does sound nice to hear those little thuds thudding along a little faster. Maybe, just maybe, I can make up some of the lost time.
Although the sky was clear I would get an occasional bit of rain that encouraged me to slow down to about fifty still intent on making the best possible time, but not suicidal. The curves were gentle enough to create some g's and keep me in tune to the task of driving. The concentration required all my attention and it seemed that the creative level of thought was not going to intervene into the task of driving. To the contrary, I was feeling a nervous tightening of my body, a fine tuning of my nervous system, like pulling a wire taut, an ordinary old wire, pulling it so tight it begins to make music. The music of an old wire fence forgotten out in the desert, an abandoned old harp that sings in harmony with the wind and the sand. The stretched wires in the car creak and sing also accompanied by the increasing frequency of the thuds shuddering through the car as the tires danced along the road. It was the only music I had, the radio would not pick up anything. On a night like this not a creature is stirring on the Conquistador trail to the Holy Land.
With the imperceptible rhythmic vibrations to keep me company I decided to allow myself another mental game. I could see longer distances as the rolling highway undulated with slick wetness as the high beams of the headlight reached far ahead as I sped downward and I could see a car ahead already climbing up the mountain. The white light of its headlights followed by the red of the taillights became an imaginary link between our vehicles. A great long train pulled along by all the cars in front and all of them by an ideal invisible locomotive while I rode in the comfortable caboose following ineluctably along.
From outer space I could see the whole trail of moving lights the entire distance between Juarez City, El Paso and Santa Fe a planet strung out with fixed ant tracks along which millions of little ants with flashlights bumped along to and fro some empty and some like me carrying a load bigger than themselves. This game was fun and it delayed almost perpetually playing the serious ungame of guessing what the needle of the gasoline gauge was up to. I imagined two cars in the night sliding along the glistening shining surface of the roadway like a roller coaster. I released the steering wheel and held my hands above my head and let out a long loud howl that would make a mariachi proud. I liked the idea, the plasticity of being part of a train that elongates or shortens itself as I in the caboose closed in on the car in front like the caterpillar effect of a slinky somersaulting along the road to the Holyland. But when I passed the first car it took place at the crest of a hill beginning the downward rush, Wow! What a train! I thought. The caboose and the locomotive can change positions while going in the same direction. However, sheer intellectual brilliance, a truly spontaneous association of physical forces on the level of the Newtonian apple, or Einstein's E=mc². Of course, I'm showing my age, my low tech Tequila origins. I was born at home before it was a Yuppie natural childbirth status symbol. My mother was afraid of doctors she couldn't understand. I've been thinking trains, roller coasters, mechanical old tech stuff, even the slinky is more high tech, no wheels. The slinky idea was fun a whole magnetic path attracting and repelling with alternating current, I was a quark accelerating in a cyclotron a slinky atom with lots of windows that whirl around while your seat kind of gallops along. Maybe an electronic centipede why not!, hell I'm already a preying mantis all I need now is to disappear into a video game where God for a quarter matches wits with a printed circuit and Intel inside. Now I feel myself in zero gravity and I'm riding in the Challenger again. Come on gas gauge give me your best shot!
With the dignity of a Wagnerian opera under the direction of virtuoso composer and conductor Chavez before the Mexican National Symphony it inscribed a delible hypnotic invisible pattern. A worthy baton in the hand of Xavier and the San Francisco Symphony. Back and forth with him from our Quixote class at UC Berkeley to the women's dorms to play corridos, atonal etudes in his apartment, big band dancing at the Oakland Rainbow Ballroom, I followed back and forth, back and forth to the windup metronome. How low tech can you get. There is that needle again and my paranoia over the gas gauge needle didn't let me see that there is a relationship between the movement of the needle and the lights of the instrument panel. The lights are going on and off. Is it spreading?
Empirical evidence I had not seen before, therefore, it wasn't happening, or I wasn't seeing it. But now I'm seeing it. I separated the physical from the philosophical, just plain old cause and effect, the presence of gas in the gas tank, and the gas gauge on the instrument panel. If I had thought it about earlier it might have saved me considerable anxiety. I personally filled the tank in Consecuencias. I have been slinking along this road a little less than two hours, I've got plenty of gas!
The little magic wand begins its sway to the right, toward FULL, it stays there for a couple of seconds and waves around like a blind man with a stick trying to hit the piñata, then it begins to swing toward the left back to EMPTY. It turns on the panel lights and begins to run back toward the FULL, repeating this little routine over and over until I switch off the ignition or the entire car explodes. Hijo! That piñata thing has great possibilities. The needle should move a little faster, the slowness exasperates me. It isn't relaxing like watching goldfish swim under a light; it's like watching an aquarium in a dark room trying to imagine fish swimming in the dark. If it were a faster motion that included a little syncopation between the lights, the rapid thuds and shuddering of the tires on the road it would convey mysterious digital coded messages. Vibrations are universal they obey natural and physical laws. Like the vibrations of the car speeding over the seams between the countless cement slabs laid end to end all the way to the Santa Fé.
The new piñata paradigm! I got to call my carnal in El Chuco and run it by him he's going to love it, the men only piñata party.
I allowed my mind and body to receive the vibrations of the road, the sympathetic vibrations of the car responding to the road. The needle in the gauge, the lights, the ta-ta, ta-ta, of the wheels and the occasional gust of wind all combined themselves into a blend of sensations of motion. The physical link was transmitted by the contact of the wheels with the road, through my hands on the steering wheel and my ass on the seat, as I found myself concentrating on the vibrations trying to isolate them from the other senses. If I concentrate hard enough I can even detect a little extra rhythm. I became a precision seismograph capable of distinguishing the moment that each of the four tires crossed the seams in the highway. Although I tried, I could not detect four discreet thumps, but I could detect three thumps. As the miles rolled by, I detected a third little ta besides the prominent ta-ta, ta-ta of the front, then back tires, crossing each joint in the road. While I was trying to establish its sequence in the rhythm, I noticed that it was easier to feel it than to hear it. Clearly identifiable, I realized that it was a ta-ta-ta, then a ta-ta-ta-ta-ta; it was growing. There was now a very distinct syncopation and the extra little ta didn't necessarily occur only when the tires hit the joints between the slabs. I was witnessing the birth of a new vibration maybe the birth of a new galaxy. It wasn't long before the neonate was shaking the shit out of the car.
It was the drive shaft, I was sure of it. I've had a couple of them go out on me before. Is it the rear one? If it breaks off, it will drag, flop around and pull away from the transmission. The front one breaks and all hell will break loose. The load was too heavy after all. I began to slow down but the shaking became worse. I slowed to a crawl. I was in denial. Just praying. I looked for holes that could cause the violent bouncing. I'm too far from El Paso now. I sped up a bit; the vibrations were like hanging on to a jackhammer. No one will fix a drive shaft at this hour even if I find a place open. A universal joint for an American Motors station wagon. I could walk into a parts store in Detroit and not find one. I wonder how far I will get like this.
I limped along at about five mph until I saw the exit sign for San Antonio. I will try and make it all the way into town and see what's available. Then, with a little luck I will find someone to fix the car and get to my destination to beg, grovel and explain. As the shaking became stronger all forward motion could grind to a halt at any second. I made it to the exit road. Two street lights, a Chevron gas pump, a Coors neon sign, a rusty Texaco sign slept. Although everything was closed I chose the Chevron, parked and waited.
I can check the drive shaft to see if there's a lot of play. With the door open the cold wind swirled around my legs. The lonely town stretched out as far as the eye could see. Two, maybe three blocks in any direction. The trees swayed majestically whistling ghost stories under the street lights, everything was still wet from the rains that played tag with me most of the way. Hanging on to the steering wheel my head hung down to peer under the car to see what the damage was. It was too dark to see anything under the car. Stepping out, stretching and walking around the car solved the problem. It wasn't the drive shaft.
There was an enormous bulge on the rear passenger side tire. The bulge was touching and had been rubbing the fender. It had started tearing away the Bondo and fiberglass used to repair it. I was happy while I was cautious. I remembered when my brother's lawyer had said we have room for cautious optimism. Fortunately, they dropped the charges on my carnal, we had a wild party and he almost got arrested again. Fixing a tire in the morning was going to be easier than fixing a drive shaft. From the looks of San Antonio I'm not going to find more than radiator hoses and used tires in this little pueblito. But, hell, I'll take a used tire. The question now is where to park until morning. The Chevron pump was the logical choice. It was a store, appropriately enough the sign read La Tienda, United States Post Office, a public telephone, home made tortillas and tamales, no Coors neon sign in that window but there was an air hose.
With eyes closed the experiences of the night flashed through my mind. The tightness of my body was not easy to ignore. After five minutes with eyes closed the thought of a possible spare tire hiding in the station wagon rolled into my cluttered mind. Just might be one back there, I thought.
Skepticism well on its way to cynicism inauspiciously encroached upon my mechanical search for the spare tire. The evidence of the night's events stuck in my mind. Whereas occasional car trouble is not rare for me and my long list of used and abused pre-owned vehicles, this night has become a gauntlet to test my resolve or idiocy. One by one, during the life cycle of a car, each one of the thirty thousand parts in the average vehicle will take its turn rebelling against its designed function. When you keep a vehicle as long as I have kept my own Ford van, eventually I will have rebuilt the entire thing.
The only favorable human element intervening in tonight's statistical probability lottery was tio Chencho replacing the first vehicle with this one. That was the good news? These erudite thoughts presaged the impending descent of my morale. My hands fumbled with the keys. I unlocked the rear hatch. It's got to be under this round plastic thing and there aren't that many things I have to pull out to get to it. The screwdriver came in handy to remove a fastener and there it was, one of those shrunken tires that conserve space.
It would only lift out about half way and then something jammed and locked it all up. It would go back down into the circular well designed to hold it but it would not come all the way out. The jack, it seemed, was locking up in the well, binding against the protruding piece of metal anchored to the wall of the car where the bolt that secures the wheel should go. The jack had simply been dropped in, now it was wedged in, unless it could be un-wedged the spare tire would never come out. With the left hand reaching in through the large hole in the center of the rim I felt the jack; with the right hand grabbing the edge of the rim and the tire I tried to lift both up and out. It was tricky and it did not work. After many futile attempts a new tactic was necessary, the jack must be turned around inside its space in the center of the rim. After many attempts, scratches, bruises and a steady stream of puras madres, the revised vocabulary did the trick and the tire lifted out.
The tire, deflated by design, one of Detroit's incredible solutions to the flat tire, looked unused but very dusty. The jack was soon under the side of the car. The lug wrench was also the tool to raise and lower the jack and the car was soon raised. Too bad that nowhere to be found was the container of canned air to inflate the spare flat tire. I picked the perfect place to park right next to the telephone booth and the air hose. I tried the hose but no air, it was turned off.
Everything was left up in the air. Nothing to do but try to sleep, hope that La Tienda opened early, run in and buy a can of air, fill up the spare tire, replace the old flat with the new unflat, continue the long night's journey into day, and do my best explaining when I arrived. I have to invent something very convincing because nobody will believe the truth. I closed my eyes, for the second time that night in San Antonio, I tried to sleep.
I dozed off in spite of my tired and tense body. After five minutes or so a little idea popped open my eyelids. Try and find a twenty-four hour towing service! They will probably have compressed air. There just might be one listed in the phone book. The comic book size of the local directory hanging by the telephone listed three all-night towing services in nearby Socorro.
The first number that I called was no longer in service. I saved a quarter. The second number rang and rang until a sleepy voice answered.
–I have a flat tire, I'm in San Antonio in front of La Tienda, all I need is air, the spare is flat.
–You have two flats? He laughed, –Andas salado.
–I have one of those little spare tires that are flat and you put air in it from a can but I don't have the can of air. I sounded stupid and felt he suspected it was a prank call.
He responded with less sleepiness and sarcastically said, –They all need air before they work. I have air in my garage but not on my truck. The best I can do is tow you to my garage, fix your tire or sell you another one. I only accept cash. No checks. No VISA. Forty five bucks, no, fifty cash.
I knew better than to ask about American Express although I was beginning to feel like being a wise guy. That was always a sure way to get me sent to the dean's office in high school.
–Try so-and-so, he might take VISA but he'll charge you a lot more...
As the three of them drove by slowly staring at me I decided that I should remain calm. It was the first vehicle of any type that had come down the main street of San Antonio since I parked in front of La Tienda. To remain calm I decided to call my brother in El Paso and tell him about my new piñata theory. I fumbled to push the numbers and find the coins while I tried to decide whether to call collect or pay as the old Chevy pickup slowed down. The three men in the cab continued to stare at me. Suddenly, after it got to the only intersection in sight, it turned around and began approaching. It stopped within a couple of feet from the pay-phone the headlights were very bright and I felt very naked and insecure again hoping my brother wouldn't give me any shit and answer his phone.
The three of them got out of the pickup and walked up to within arms distance.
& & & & & They overheard my last few words with the tow-truck guy. I tried to get more information about other available towing services. Would they come out? Could they fix it here? He finally got fed up with my questions, –How should I know? Give them a call. He hung up.
I measured the distance to the station-wagon; the driver's door wide open, the rear wheel jacked up in the air, my briefcase with my cash within easy reach, I, in my shorts, tee-shirt and sneakers, felt outmaneuvered.
While I was sizing up the situation the three young men moved in closer. They were teenagers maybe early twenties, dressed in baggy tee-shirts and very baggy pants. The oldest looking one had a tattoo on his upper arm of a long-haired Lupe, a teardrop on the corner of his right eye and a wicked little cross on his right hand between his thumb and forefinger. None of them smiled while they looked at me pretending that they were waiting for me to get off the phone. I looked back at them, hoping for a glimmer of recognition, asking myself whether it was a good time to be calling my brother to explain the new piñata ritual that just a few moments ago seemed like such a clever thing to do to my brother. It was ringing a long time and I thought about how pissed off he'd be if I hung up before he answered in order to let these guys use the phone and go away. When he answered would it be better to tell him I had to hang up and call him right back, or that I was about to be mugged? I didn't want to hang up and give them the phone because they might take that as an act of fear and groveling, an invitation para que me chingaran. I could possibly still make it without the cash, but losing the merchandise would be totally unacceptable unpardonable. What could I do if they didn't kill me, call the police? It's better to think positive thoughts.
Hell! Maybe they really just want to use the phone. I'm getting all paranoid for nothing.
While the phone rang and rang I looked at them and made a gesture with my hands and shoulders indicating that it wasn't my fault. The oldest one was el Torito, after hearing the littlest guy say it, I looked for and saw the vestiges and mannerisms that would justify being nicknamed a young bull, maybe even a cocky fearless fighting bull. The kid pointed to the tires one on the ground and the other up in the air. I was straining for more clues in their demeanor for my fight or flight reaction while I pretended to be nonchalant waiting for somebody to answer the damn phone.
–Hey bro, soy yo, tu carnal. I stuck here in San Antonio. I know, I know I sound like a fuckin Mexican. San Antonio Nuevo México. Not Texas. Cálmala, cálmala! A new piñata paradigm! His first reaction was annoyance, well, pissed off.
A new ritual, style, modo, manera. You know how the piñata thing works, right? They hang the piñata they blindfold the batterup, they give 'em the palo, spin 'em around three times and they swing around trying to find the piñata, right? Así es, that's the way it's always done, right? He was more awake, said that this had better be good, real good. Bueno, are you ready for the men only piñata? Simón. She's only for los hombres, not the kids and las mujeres. Sólo para hombres, una piñata sólo para hombres. Adult piñata party. He was suddenly very awake. So were the dudes who were waiting for me to get off the phone. They were looking at each other and occasionally glancing at me with big shit eating grins on their faces. Te vendan los ojos, te dan las tres vueltas, pero después la piñata te busca el palo. No tiene pierde! Qué te parece? Simón. We'll have one made in Juárez. Simón, life size. Can you believe it? You don't have to put the bat to the piñata, the piñata moves in and grabs your bat. Hell, any piñata factory will make it. They'll make anything or anyone you want. But you won't know who or what is inside. You want to do it at the next bachelor party? So you're not mad then that I woke you up. Gotta go, estos vatos want to use the phone.
El Torito, the guy that was in charge walked to the telephone, I backed away a few feet over toward the car, before he begins to dial he tells the other two to keep an eye out in case somebody comes by. The young one, couldn't be over sixteen, asked me why the car was still jacked up. After I told him it was flat and the air hose was turned off, he said he thought he had a bottle of air at his house. Although Torito's instructions carried an ominous tone, I became obsessed with the tidbit of information about a bottle of air maybe nearby. I decided to sacrifice caution in order to verify and even get this kid to get, give or sell me some air.
–Did you say something about a bottle of air?
–Yeah, I was working on my motorcycle today and fixed the tire I think I have quite a bit of air left.
–If you have enough air for me to fill that flat tire, I would sure appreciate it. I hesitated, I really didn't want to let them know how badly and willing to pay money to get the tire fixed I was, but my bargaining position was weak, –It's worth money to me, I got to get out of here.
–Wait till he's off the phone and I'll ask him if he'll take me to get the air.
I heard a lot of mothers coming from El Torito's mouth. Then he hung up and told his buddies, –No, he's not home. But he's looking for me.
Some guy in a white Impala was out looking for the guy that just got off the phone, is what I managed to deduce from the cryptic exchange and the serious aggressive looks that changed their faces.
–Take me by my house so that I can pick up the air and help this dude with the flat tire. It won't take long and you know he'll come by here if he's looking for you.
El Torito said OK and they all got into the pickup and drove away. I wondered about my luck. I was now pretty sure these guys weren't out to mug me. But if they were going to return and then wait for somebody else, would that be any better? Well, until I fixed the flat, I didn't have many options. Would they return? I decided that they would. I would not even try to call the other towing service.
My back was sore. The street dark, only one street light at the only corner in sight, it was the only street light in town. I sat down in the driver's seat and watched the moths flutter about. Then I noticed the bats swooping in among them. I imagined myself now in a real-life film noire, Alfred Hitchcock was directing and I was going to be the unplanned victim in some local vendetta. Had I become the sacrificial lamb delivered to these local cultists to satisfy some blood ritual? I was trying to concentrate, to rid myself of these thoughts and return to my preying mantis mode.
They returned within fifteen maybe twenty minutes. I tried not to jump up-and-down. The way things were going I should wait until I see if the beautiful round little round tank contained enough air to fill up the flat with enough pressure to get me out of here. With the sound of the whistling and hissing of the air flowing through the ragged little air hose I was hearing another beautiful symphonic composition by Javier. I was euphoric just like the first time I heard Javier play twelve-tone music that sounded Mexican. It was as beautiful as watching my wife grow and grow with the pregnancy of our first child. That little tire unfolded itself and blossomed into a firm and almost full-size tire. I checked the valve stem for leaks with a little saliva. I rolled it one full turn with my ear close to the tire to listen for the disheartening sound of a slow leak. Nada! When it came time to begin to remove the bad tire from the airborne car I became nervous with excitement. Humming La Cucaracha with renewed vigor and faith in my fellow human beings, with absolute praise for these manitos, I began to loosen and remove the lugnuts.
The oldest of the three, El Torito, the one that was driving, the one that had used the phone, approached me, bending over he motioned me aside and took hold of the tire iron. Can you beat that! I thought to myself, these vatos are beautiful, absolutely beautiful, they are even going to change the tire for me. I was so struck by this gesture that I stammered and tried to insist that they had already done more than enough having brought the air. He wouldn't take no for an answer. I noticed the smell of beer on his breath. He seemed impatient and careless, whereas he wanted to help, I didn't want to be ungrateful. As I looked down at the tire I saw that the tire iron had slipped off the lug I was loosening when he took over, he didn't seem to be concentrating on changing the tire, he kept looking up over the car up and down the street. He grabbed the tire as if to pull it off the lugs but he had not yet taken the lugnuts off. I kept staring at him thinking that something was wrong with him, he was not paying attention to changing the tire, he stood up but remained bent, semi crouching, peeking over the roof of the station-wagon towards a car, a white Chevy Impala that was approaching very slowly.
With the tire iron clasped in his right hand, it dangled alongside his leg. In a loud whisper to his buddies he said, –Si saca el cuete voy a darle en la madre con esto.
Oh shit! I thought things were going too good. If the guy in the Impala pulls out a gun he's going to hit him with my lug wrench. I suddenly realized that this pilgrim might not make it to the Promised Land in this world, it was looking more like my Wailing Wall.
–Anda pedo, said the little guy as he stepped forward a little so that he could be clearly seen.
As the white Impala approached the body language of my three Samaritans told me that the possibility of getting the tire changed was becoming more remote.
–Give me the tire iron so I can finish changing the tire, I said with a firm unquavering voice. –If he wants to know why you had the tire iron in your hand tell him you were helping me change the tire. I realized that my words, meant to avoid conflict, had just made me an accomplice.
The white car came to a slow stop behind me. Torito slid toward the car using my station wagon as a shield. I boldly grabbed the tire iron as he made the jump over to the open window of the Impala. He was a lot stronger than I thought and strengthened his hold on the wrench and yanked it out my hand. With only a slight glance in my direction he was now right up next to the Impala keeping a careful eye on the driver's hands as they were draped over the steering wheel, he switched the tire iron to his left hand.
Instead of hitting the ground and waiting for the shots to fly, I returned hurriedly to try and change the tire. I rummaged through the dark and dirty spare wheel well and like an answer to a prayer there was another tire iron, a star lug wrench, under a piece of oil soaked cardboard. My hands trembled uncontrollably as I tried to keep my whole body from shaking. As fast as I could my hands were all over the lug nuts as I loosened them. I concentrated all my energy in getting the tire changed as quickly as possible.
–I know that she loves you. The speech was slurred.
Oh shit, It's over a woman. The flat tire finally came off, I leaned it up against the car's back bumper. It might stop a bullet. I picked up the little spare tire and fumbled to fit it over the lugs and turn the lugnuts one by one hand tight.
–I know that she loves you, dude, she loves you, he repeated.
–No, vato, she loves you she told me she had gone out with you. I know that she was with you tonight.
I cringed and worked faster until all the lugs were tight. It is incredible how many motions you can waste when you're in a hurry trying to do several things simultaneously. Then came the exasperating mechanical features of a fuckin bumper jack. Do you move the little lever up or down? You crank up and down but it seems like it won't go down more than a few clicks, then it won't go up more than a few clicks. I was already trying to plan a fast getaway even before I had put away the flat tire and closed the hatchback. I didn't want to make any fast or overtly jerky movements in order not to precipitate something between them. With a hard right and a fast forward I might clear the pickup; the white car blocked my rearward travel. The flat tire, the full-size wheel doesn't fit in the wheel well designed for the little factory one. I pushed on the boxes and moved them around trying to get the tire to fit. The only place it fit was right up in front alongside of me on the front seat. I looked down at the little spare tire and it seemed to be holding up its weight.
I stood there looking about, sizing up my next move and escape. It was a beautiful moist warm night, the wind had stopped. Perfect for the shorts I was wearing, now covered with dirt and grease. I could hear the conversation between El Torito and the guy in the Impala. There was a lot more tension in their voices. It just doesn't happen among us that a woman can slither from one man to another where they all know each other and not expect serious consequences, this is the stuff that makes corridos. Corridos often end with only one winner walking away. But there was no music not even corridos in that San Antonio night. The street light, the moths, the bats, the Coors neon sign, the three cars, like a real filming where the sound track will be added after all the editing.
They were going on and on about what a beautiful wonderful woman this chick was. I started to make my move toward the door of my car as the guy in the white car followed my movements with his eyes, in a voice above a whisper but not quite loud nodding, I said gracias por todo, before that the two rivals had not taken their eyes off one another for a second, he said with a smile on his face, –I don't blame you for being sad bro, she's good... really good...
I figured this was the declaration of war but all it took was that little distraction looking in my direction to give El Torito the chance to lay my tire iron on him. It was a bad angle to get a good solid hit. Before I could get in my car I heard the first shot and felt something warm splatter on my neck and hand. As I sat down slamming the door and starting the engine I heard more shots, clanks and other sounds of bullets hitting soft and hard things. I thought I was hit; it surprised me that my body was still working to get away. I think I nicked one of the cars as I spun around across the street. El Torito was on the ground motionless next to the white and blood smeared Impala, the driver's face was covered with blood as he stared in my direction intently. The little guy, I wanted to thank and tip for the air, was curled up on the ground motionless below the payphone, and I caught a glimpse of the other guy running into the black backyard of the La Tienda.
In the rearview mirror I saw the brake lights of the Chevy Impala go on for a second then off, it didn't move, it didn't come after me. I know those little tires aren't designed to go fast maybe fifty or fifty-five but, I hit the pedal.
I had a headache and I was afraid I was wounded in the neck. The warm ooze crawled down my back until I had to touch my wound. My fingers were covered with blood and I could swear I was going to die. But I didn't become dizzy or sleepy. I would just have to wait until I could reach a bathroom and a mirror to see where I was hit.
Socorro was about ten miles up the road, a steady pace not too fast, I could see the lights, bright lights, friendly lights with messages like Texaco, Exxon, Chevron, Shell. The first service station was a beautiful Texaco that was open. I pulled up near the front of the bays and got out then reached in and struggled to pull out the tire. The young man of about twenty came out of the station to greet me. He stared with a worried and serious frown, –Jesus, did someone beat the crap out of you?
–No, no, just a flat and I hurt my hand and cut myself trying to change the tire. Do I look that bad?
–You got blood and dirt all over yourself go get cleaned up in the restroom but don't leave it all dirty I just cleaned them. What do you need?
–If you got a good used tire put one on this wheel, I'm going to gas up and check the oil too.
He rolled the flat into the garage and I went into the restroom. One look in the mirror and I realized that I had become the grasshopper that by some miracle had escaped the deadly clutches of the campamocha. I always envisioned that as a grasshopper I would have green blood. When my sister and I would squeeze them a green bile would ooze out of their mouths. As I stared in the mirror, for just a second the blood turned green, I snapped out of it as the cold water hit my face. I don't know how long I was in there, but I even took off my shirt and shorts to try and wash out the blood; most of it came out of the clothes and I completely washed away my mortal wound from my neck. This is how the rumors of miracles get started. In the warm night air it would probably dry before I got to Santa Fé.
He had moved the car filled it with gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the oil, water, the air pressure in all the tires, installed the good tire and told me that the spare wouldn't fit unless he took the air out of it.
–Naw, don't let the air out, just put it up in the front seat it's going to be my co-pilot. No, I'll do it myself, you've already done enough. You didn't have to do all that.
–It's all right, I figured you'd had a rough night. It's sixteen dollars for the tire and the balancing; but your rim has a defect and it leaked so I had to put an inner tube; but I didn't have any used ones and the new one costs twelve dollars and fifty cents; three fifty for the gas; you owe me thirty-one fifty. There's some fresh coffee in the office. Want a receipt?
–Thanks, here's a couple of twenties, keep the change, no receipt. I think I will have some coffee. I went in and got a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup. It wasn't very good but the sugar and the warmth felt good going down. I didn't feel like talking but Regimento, who said that everybody called him Reggie, said that he had a girl friend but because nobody wanted to work on Friday nights he got paid extra to work Friday nights. He closed so late that he hardly ever got to see his girlfriend on Friday nights. Their special night was Saturday night. He likes her very much but sometimes he thought she went out on him on Fridays. She said it was with her girlfriends but he wasn't sure. It made him angry to think about her with another guy. Very angry.
I asked if they sold any inflation canisters for those tires, I nodded toward the car. He said no.
–With my luck I can't afford to deflate it. It would ride up front with me, shotgun, as my kids would say as they fought to ride up front with me when we went someplace. I didn't want to waste too much time there but Regimento, his father probably gave him that name because he was in the Mexican Revolution, wanted to talk and explain how hard he had worked to fix my tire.
–When I saw the bubbles coming out, you know, when I put the soapy water on the bead of the tire to make it slip on easier, I knew it was leaking air. Then I could see that the rim was dinged and the air came out making bubbles. So I knew I had to put a tube in it. That's when I really had trouble, you don't see too many tires any more with tubes, it's not the same. You know? But in Mexico they still have to use inner tubes so I knew how fix your tire.
I interrupted him, –I know its hard to change a tire, so keep the change.
–The police came by and I said you were in the restroom and he said he didn't feel like making a report and went away. But he looked in the car and all around then he went away. I didn't tell him you were all covered with blood.
I thanked him again and repeated that he could keep the change. Like the time that has passed since my start time at birth, by daybreak I would be further from my point of origin and still at the mercy of fate. Optimism reared its ugly head in the face of reality. Failure is relative too, Einstein, it's merely a question of definition, it's a question of taking of taking advantage of new facts and circumstances. As the miles rolled by the steady thumping returned blending into the familiar oscillation of the gas gauge needle and the intermittent panel lights. The radio wouldn't pick up any Mexican music so it remained silent. Would it be better to take the hemlock or abort the mission while I was still alive? Would I be in Los Lunas, a wild assumption, in time to catch the cartoons with Rigo and Bertalinda's kids? Isn't a friendship worth more than a compulsion? How long can I postpone giving an account for my failure to show up at the agreed place, would I have to explain to God why I didn't keep my promise? Is breaking a promise like telling a lie?
That decision was still in the future and not falling asleep was the present priority. Daylight will take away the sleepiness. I have already gone further than any sane person, but it won't do any good unless I go all the way. Is it cowardly to modify my objectives? When I committed to making this trip was it to myself? Was it just a macho thing, a money thing? Am I going through a midwife crisis? Why am I even still on the road, on the road and alive after so many close calls, is luck another name for a guardian angel? Is this what happens when you get too much education? You learn to rationalize everything until you sound like a lawyer. The people that just do it seem to live happier. What ever happened to giving your word and sticking to it no matter what even if you saw it was going to be detrimental to yourself.
I think about Miguel Miramón in Mexican history; like Benito Juárez, he too was Indian, he was also captured at the Battle of Querétaro with Maximiliano when they were defeated by the Armies of Juárez. Because he was Indian, an Indian shouldn't have been fighting with the French against México anyway, they told him they would allow him to escape so he wouldn't get executed with big Max. But he refused, saying, –I gave Max my word that I would be loyal to him to the death, and an Indian always keeps his word. So on June 19, 1867 at 7:05 in the morning they shot his ass along with big Max. One Indian shot another, but he saved México from the French, but now where's the Indian who's going to save México from the Gringos, or from themselves?
Shit, who's going to save me from myself? When it seemed like this visit to this special shrine, to Old Faithful, was going to be a piece of cake, it was an easy promise to make to myself, se me hizo fácil. All the extra cash was an undeniable incentive. It was a special historical and personal journey and after nearly twelve hours, two automobiles, two flat tires, frayed electrical and nervous systems, I am not quite half-way there. My thumb is on the abort button. No time for Los Lunas now, there goes another good intention. Take it one exit at a time.
There's no looking back now, going through Albuquerque the traffic is much heavier. Now that I want a McDonalds near the freeway there are no Golden Arches anywhere to be seen. Hotcakes with a lot of syrup and a big cup of coffee would be quick and ideal. All that sugar would perk me back up and make feel good, would put me into my daylight fantasy maybe a precocious blue bellied lizard that learned how to drive in a Headstart program.
If and when I get to my destination on the way back I will look back, my cargo will be gone and I will be able to look back out the rear window. The inside of my mouth tastes like the inside of an old percolator, maybe that's how the inside of a lizard's mouth tastes. Something has to break soon, bad choice of words, suerte, there has to be a break in my suerte, the pendulum has to swing back. All these recreational vehicles, also on the way to Delphi, are good signs.
So far nothing more has gone wrong with the car, it is just a matter of time. When I filled it up way back in Socorro it took so little gas, three bucks maybe, this car must be much more economical than I thought. I sure had suerte with that cop coming by. That could have been the end of the road. I'm not going to worry about the condition of this heap any more. If it breaks again it will be at the worst possible place. This is the only road to my destination, because it's the road I'm on.
Almost there, up ahead the Cerrillos exit, then closer to that very special place, the specific place where Enchantment is strongest and brings out the best and the worst. The scene and source where our loftiest aspirations were tainted with our human touch. A place to pay tribute. Is this my sacred spiritual experience happening?
I'm in town at last, after that long downhill run into town, it looks just like a California faux Mission colony. I bet it makes the real Indians sick. Too yuppie for my tastes, who'd want a BMW station wagon? Maybe that's the lady that's going to buy my merchandise. I hope she brought her own Mexicans to help her load it up. I'm getting excited in spite of myself, I see the signs all over the place.
There's the Chevron station, it's a little after eight, all the signs and footnotes point in the right direction sacred scriptures on the walls put there by God's taggers, I bet He gives them a high-five, they are the prophets.
I pulled in among all the vans, pickups, station wagons and I knew I had indeed, finally, arrived. A friendly bearded person said that there was a table near the building where they would tell me my booth number and location. It was fifteen minutes before the deadline to stop setting up the booths. I got my location and drove over to a spot nearby. I parked behind the Museum where I shouldn't, as crafts people do everywhere they go.
After everything, all the boxes and the stands for the booth, were unloaded I moved the car to the designated area for the day. Even before the booth was set up I was selling pottery as quickly as I could unwrap it and put it on the shelves.
About ten I finally had a lull in the rush and went to wash my face and change my clothes. Outside, a few steps away from the bathroom a good looking lady, blond, with a Doberman on a leash walked up to me and asked me what time it was and was I selling pottery. This was my contact, tio Chencho said someone would ask me this, I tried hard not to stare at her breasts, but she was muy buena. After she said that she only bought wholesale she said that she would give me cash for all my unpacked merchandise. She was driving a BMW station wagon and I smiled as her two Mexicans took the boxes from the booth to her car. She gave me a blue fanny pack that she was wearing pointing to the zipper locked with a tiny padlock. I put it on then covered it with my white guayabera. As she drove away she said it was a pleasure doing business with me. I nodded and mumbled to myself I wished it was.
After going back to the booth to check it out I told the guy selling photographs in the booth next to mine that I wasn't feeling very good that I would be back in a while and to keep an eye on my booth. He said sure and that he hoped it wasn't anything serious. I said I didn't think it was anything but a sudden bowel attack. He smiled and said, –Good luck, I hope everything comes out OK.
I drove the car to a nearby auto detailing place and said I wanted it thoroughly cleaned inside and out, steamed, waxed and washed. I paid in advance, gave them a ten dollar tip and told them that if I didn't get back before closing to leave it on the street with the keys inside, that I had an extra key. They smiled and said, SI SEÑOR!, in capital letters.
On the way back as I walked past the organizer's table I grabbed a couple of donuts and another cup of coffee. Not too far away, the booth that sells taquitos al carbón was firing up the grill and the smell made me very hungry. Better save the donuts for dessert. Back at the booth I concentrated on controlling the weariness that followed. A little before noon a potter that knows Maria came over and asked how Maria was and how was I selling.
–Maria is fine, she's out in California in San Diego, yeh, selling at a crafts fair, and her stuff is really selling here today.
–When did you get in, she asked.
–Just this morning after an all night ordeal. I started out from El Paso around five in the afternoon yesterday, I blurted, feeling sorry for myself and seeking solace, –But I'm selling so much that I'm glad I didn't give up. I should do even better tomorrow, I continued.
–There is no tomorrow, you know. You know this is a one day show.
I stopped talking to her and pretended that I had to spruce up the booth a little and she went away. She was right, it says so right here in the information packet. I'm supposed to read it and know these details and stay here all day like all the other crafts people. Then take down the booth and pack up after the official closing time at six, I could show some excitement because my sales are great. It was always a good feeling to drive back with an empty van knowing you sold everything.
I relaxed a lot knowing that the merchandise was delivered, I had the money, and the car was being sanitized. For the moment, before the drive back in that old heap, the hardest thing was playing booth keeper until closing time. Maybe I could even walk over to the Cathedral and take care of my spiritual insurance. I watched the booth for the photographer while he took a break in mid afternoon. When he got back I asked him to reciprocate while I went and paid for a prayer at the Cathedral.
I walked the couple of blocks, went in, crossed my heart, dropped a ten dollar bill in the offering box and kneeled like the others. I thanked the Virgen de Guadalupe next to Jesus, –Say hello to your mom and thanks. On the way back I picked up a couple of taquitos al carbón and a big cup of horchata with very little ice. It was just an hour before closing and I started organizing the empty boxes and counting my pottery sales. The car was ready and I drove it back to the parking place where I unloaded to be near at closing time. The guy next door was beginning to pack up his photographs and he commented upon my empty boxes that I must have had a real good day. I smiled and said I sure did, but I still have to get all the way home. He said he had a so-so day but was glad it was over. He told me there was going to be a party at the motel where he was staying and I was invited, several crafts people were staying there. I told him thanks but that I had to get back to El Paso and it was a long drive.
The car was more perky and energetic without all the weight, it felt like dancing. I filled it up again, checked the oil, and looked carefully at all the tires, I asked the attendant to check the air pressure on them all. Now there was room to throw the little extra wheel in the back I left it inflated, just in case.
Traffic along the uphill drive out of Santa Fé toward Albuquerque was moving at a nice speed. I felt relaxed for the first time the entire drive. Then, I thought about the needle, I had forgotten all about it, against my better judgment, I looked. It wasn't moving, it was steady and holding on full. Maybe it had all been imagined. Silently I thanked the Virgen of Guadalupe.
When nearing the top, where the rest area is, I saw brake lights starting to trickle backward towards me. I slowed down zigzagging between lanes trying to see what had happened. The cause was too far away to tell but traffic was crawling along at a slow but steady pace. The guy in the car behind me almost ran into me and hit the horn. I ignored him. It was still daylight and the headlights were turned off. I better try them because if something goes wrong I can still stop in Albuquerque and try and find a shop. Within a few hundred feet more I could see the yellow plastic cones, police emergency lights, officers on the freeway waving some cars on and some over to the side for some kind of inspection. I pulled on the button for the headlights at the same time that I swerved over to the shoulder to get a view and an instant of panic twitched through my body.
The guy in the car behind me tried to pass me but I pulled back into the lane and he hit the horn again.
Dogs! Sure enough, as I got closer to the officer, he looked up and down at my car and waved me over to the inspection lane. He was waving some cars on but it seemed that older big cars, station wagons and a couple of RVs were already being inspected. I saw an officer all dressed in black come out of an RV with his dog, a big German Shepherd. The dog was excited, nervous, kept barking, his handler jerked at the leash to keep him under control.
I hope they did a good job cleaning the car, I said to myself, and tried to remain as calm as if I really had nothing to be worried about. I even said that out loud to myself, –You have nothing, nothing at all, to be worried about.
As the dog and his officer approached I even managed to smile. He came up close to me and told me he was going to run him around my car and watched my reaction carefully.
–I hope he doesn't piss on my tires. I said with what I thought was levity in my voice.
–Why do you have your headlights on?, he asked me curtly.
–Oh, I forgot they were on, I think there is something wrong with the wiring. I had forgotten I had turned them on. But as I stared at the gauge I saw that it was starting to move. The sun was still too bright to see the dashboard lights. I knew the routine and it brought me down like a rock; my million dollar ride in the space shuttle was about to hit the water.
–What was that you said when I first walked up, he inquired without frivolity in his attitude.
–Nothing, it was nothing, I was joking around, I said I hope he doesn't piss on my tires; I mean your dog. I was letting that little needle get to me.
The guy in the white car behind me hit the horn again.
–You'd better hope that's all he does, he retorted without acknowledging my attempt at humor. –After you I gotta go see what that son of a bitch behind you is honking about. He's not going any place soon, that's for sure.
I shrugged my shoulders and turned on the radio to have something to fiddle with to try and take my mind off the needle while he took the damn barking dog around my car. He hesitated, sniffing something at the rear tire. He asked me if he could open the hatchback and I said yeah go ahead. The dog jumped in, kept barking and sniffed around in a circle then jumped back out. The officer closed the rear hatch and continued all around the car until he was back at my window.
I took a deep breath, slowly, and said, –Did I pass?
He looked like he meant business and said, –You ain't got no dope. Pull up to that officer up front, out of the way, so that you can explain those two bullet holes in your rear end. They look new, no rust around the periphery.
–Shit! Bullet holes, San Antonio! I have to take several deep relaxing breaths and prepare for a crash landing.
I knew the routine, as the other cop came up to me, when the needle reaches empty the lights go on; when the needle reaches full the lights go out. I remembered the words of Maria's potter friend. There's no tomorrow.
–Sir, do you have a tire iron in your car?
–Yes sir, I sure do, back there somewhere. They found the tire iron with the blood on it and they are looking for a car like mine that's missing a tire iron. Take a deep breath.
Bullet holes! He had completely forgotten about them, the flat, the shooting. The tire iron! He sensed his body tension crank up a notch and took a deep breath to fight it. He had to come up with something quickly.
–Would you mind stepping our and showing it to me?
–No sir, not at all. The star lug wrench was still back there, if the kids at the car wash hadn't taken it. By some miracle of concentration and breathing I'll give a flawless performance, open the hatchback; I'll reach down into the spare tire well, pull out the lug wrench for the officer to see.
The officer nodded and motioned to close the hatchback as he made some notes in a binder.
I was getting back into the car when the officer asked, –How did you get those holes? They look like bullet holes.
–Bullet holes? I was about to say that I had no idea, they couldn't be.
The officer suddenly looked toward the car that was behind me and saw that the canine officer was in the driver's window to his waist. He reached for his gun and started running to help.
–Move, get out of here!, he hollered, reaching for his handgun he started running to help the other officer.
I decided it was time to get out of the line of fire and get the hell out of there. Driving cautiously I merged into the traffic of I-25 South toward Albuquerque. The evening sunset was to my right now. My hands hurt as I loosened my grip on the steering wheel.
What a trip! I have literally been dodging bullets this entire trip. There has to be a lesson here somewhere. I'm shaking so hard I don't dare let go of the steering wheel. Wow, this is it, my real spiritual experience. This wasn't just a trip, it was a true test, going to the mountain in the desert. I thought I was riding in the Challenger plunging into the sea. Instead, I was the quark in the atom speeding into the collision that was to set me free. I crashed, resurrected as an insignificant subatomic little particle. In the big picture, I'm merely the tip of the match in Maria's hand that she strikes to light the candle to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Next time, maybe I won't be so cavalier with my offering and prayer at the Santa Fé Cathedral.