September 2017, St. Luke’s Hospital, Newburgh, NY
A nurse walks in and startles us from our memories. She has some pills and water, and she is dragging along her blood pressure machine. The young nurse calls Juan “Mr. Felipe,” and I look at Juan with wide eyes.
"You know,” I say, “I'd actually forgotten what your last name was. To me, you have always just been Juan Carlos, like one of those self-impressed celebrities who only go by their first name.” Juan offered me a weak laugh. "Juan,” I continue, “did you hear they redid the old ballpark? We need to get you fixed up so we can go down to the new one together.”
The nurse takes Juan’s blood pressure, refills his water jug, and adjusts his pillows. She smells nice, like fresh lilies and roses. My mind wanders to the flower shop and my girlfriend; I should really give her a call.
“The new Yankee Stadium, Juan,” I say as the nurse bustles out of the room, “I refused to go for two years after they tore the old ballpark down, but I finally went. It's nice. You’ll like it. They built some softball fields on the old grounds, and the kids can play on the old, hallowed dirt. It's good. They did right by the old stadium.” Juan coughs, grabbing his side, and I pour him some water. “You need to get better so we can go watch a ball game together. We’ll get some nosebleed seats and have a beer and a hotdog.” I hand the water to Juan. His eyes are yellow, and the skin around his mouth cracks as he takes a small sip. “This pretty young nurse, Juan Carlos, she’s a huge improvement over that ugly man who you had when you got in here.”
I sit back down in the chair beside his bed. Juan holds the water cup with shaking hands, his eyes staring into mine. He doesn’t need to say anything, but I know he’s asking me to continue.
The drive to the city was tense. Snow battered against the windshield, but the Mustang was a warm cocoon against the frozen air outside. As the sky grew dark, the inside of the car looked like night. I could barely make out Juan’s smug face in the soft glow of the dashboard lights. The car sucked in the snow, and Juan knew it. I kept waiting for his smart-ass comment, but he remained silent. So I threw out a remark about Poppy’s Chevy and how it couldn’t be much better.
“No,” replied Juan. “The Chevy is heavier. You can fill its huge trunk with bags of sand.” His voice was hollow, and I realized it wasn't about cars this time. Juan was feeling the loss of his father and his family. The shock of the past few days hadn’t worn off. To him, it was a dream, a waking nightmare. He experienced moments of heartbreak interlaced with moments of blind rage.
I recalled Poppy’s fine, big block Chevy. It wasn’t my Mustang, but it was a sexy ride. With no one left alive at his apartment, and no family around, I wondered what would happen to that car. I had a deep affection for good cars, fast cars, vintage bad-ass cars… Poppy’s Chevy was all of that.
Juan called it “The Pussy Magnet.” Poppy would smile, showing his remaining teeth near the front, top, and bottom. His upper and lower incisors were gone, the result of a punch or a shot to the mouth with a pipe. Depending on how drunk Poppy was when he told the story, the details would get more painful and colorful. I smiled to myself, remembering Poppy speak with his heavy accent. "The Pussy Magnet," he’d say with an ear to ear, toothless grin.
Poppy was a good man. He was one of the good men Unk spoke of and held in such high regard. Poppy saw life turning dangerous for his family in Columbia, so he packed up everyone and escaped. Both he and Juan told me stories of being smuggled across the Mexican border in a truck driven by "Coyotes.” They endured horrible conditions in the hands of men who treated them like cargo. Juan told me they realized too late that after the Coyotes were paid, it made no difference to them if the cargo arrived alive or dead. Alive was preferable only because they'd not have to deal with disposing of dead bodies. Yet in the deserts of South Texas, even that wasn't much of a concern.
Juan's mom was kind, sweet, and quiet. She carried the family on her shoulders, their weight never a burden, but a blessing. Her strength paid the bills and made sure the kids had food when Poppy drank up all the money. I don't know if I ever heard her laugh, though she smiled often. She was the rock, Juan's rock. He could talk about cars and pussy and get drunk with Poppy, but it was “Mommy” he leaned on for strength and guidance. Juan’s mother never complained. Instead, she got things done.
I was always amused by Juan's morality. Here was a guy who'd become the worst and most dreaded kind of criminal. A paid killer and a hit man, Juan still managed to juxtapose that with a strong sense of right and wrong. I think the scars from his mother’s strict Catholic upbringing contributed to that. She tried, with limited success, to hand down her faith to Juan. All of them told stories of fearing her smack with a ruler or a wooden spoon, the penalty for disobeying rules or cussing.
Juan called his mother “Mommy.” It fit her. I even started calling her that name. She had no problem hauling off a belting on me too if she felt I deserved it.
I often did.
These thoughts began to sour, burning at the edges as I was snapped back to reality. The reality was these people were dead, and we were going to find out who, how, and why. That was all that mattered at this point.
I looked at Juan's bald head in the seat next to me and mine in the mirror. They somehow fit who and what we'd become. Our shiny heads looked strange and out-of-place, as if we belonged in another time or crossed over into another world. I wondered out loud, expecting no reply, "Have we finally crossed that line we have always feared? We look insane!”
Juan said nothing and played with the radio until he found a Spanish music station.
"Spanish music, Celtic music, Polka music, it all sounds the fucking same,” I yelled. “That crap is an insult to your heritage. There are hundreds, thousands of talented Spanish musicians. This shit sounds like the background music of some bodega."
Juan ignored me and stared out the window, his breath causing fog to form against the cold glass.
I drove on. The roads were getting slicker. I tried to focus, but my mind kept coming back to Jacinda. I never decided how I felt about her. I never told her I had any feelings at all. Jacinda was fire, a constantly moving flame. Her life and her actions were driven by a ceaseless combustion in her soul. The chances of being burned were always very real. She had no allegiance to anyone, certainly no man. I’d never met anyone like her, and I could never tell what she was thinking. Even when I held her tight in my arms, I knew it wasn’t for long or for forever. I was a visitor, a passenger. The fact that I knew I could easily be replaced made me value my spot in her life. There was always a line of banditos lined up, waiting to take my place. I might have been the lone white guy in a long line of Hispanic studs, but I was always at the front of the line.
Now she was gone.
I reached over and turned down the radio. “Vinny or Aunt Rosa first?”
“Little Juan is fine,” said Juan. “Aunt Rosa hasn’t told him yet. That’s a man’s job, my job. Let’s go to Vinny first and find out what exactly the fuck is going on.”
I played with the radio and tuned it to some Christmas songs. Juan swore under his breath. He called me a pendejo, and I called him a dick. Dean Martin’s rendition of “Let it Snow!” played in the background as we turned onto the slushy, Brooklyn street.
This avenue, once so pretty, was even ugly in a snowstorm. Nothing is ugly in a snowstorm, but this street was. The frozen slush was strewn with garbage, wind-blown before it became trapped in the icy, gray mess covering the blacktop. Garbage cans were blown over, spilling their guts all over the sidewalk.
Most of the other streets we passed were decorated with bright lights, trees, elves, and reindeer. Not this one, Vinny would have none of that. Gray and cold were all the trimmings this place would allow.
We parked and looked down the desolate boulevard toward the store. The vibe of this dangerous little city lane was cold and cruel. A body could be frozen under the slush, and no one would bat an eye.
We walked into the store. It smelled the same. It looked the same. Mr. J. was at his station behind the register, shielding Vinny from the world. He let us pass, whispering his condolences.
Juan and I walked into the office; it was a wreck. Vinny looked like Hell, unshaven and dirty. I doubt he’d showered in days. The floor of the office was covered in Pizza boxes, take out wrappers, coffee cups, and beer bottles. He looked up when he saw us enter the room.
“Clear some shit off the couch and sit down,” said Vinny. “How are you two holding up?”
Juan and I shrugged. We looked like we were doing better than him.
“What’s with the hair, or lack of it?” asked Vinny. He lit a cigarette.
“Pussy Magnet!” said Juan, rubbing his head.
We all tried to laugh.
“Did you lose people?” I asked Vinny.
Vinny took a bottle of scotch, Johnny Walker Black, and 3 glasses from his desk. He poured us each a heavy shot and passed them to us. He made a salute motion, glass held over his head, and knocked his back. Juan and I did the same. The booze felt good. The alcohol helped set us back to something resembling normal.
Vinny began to speak. “My wife, my girlfriend, both at my house. My son…”
He choked back those words, and I put my head down, searching for something to say. He poured us all another shot.
“You’ll need another bottle when you hear this shit I’m about to tell you,” he said, his voice returning. “People I’ve been talking to say this prince asshole was instrumental in heroin and other opiate production and trafficking in the Mid-East. Huge with the cartels. Huge with the CIA drug trafficking and manufacturing. Huge with the coke and heroin business in South America. We have, my friends, stepped into a world of shit.”
I shook my head as Juan swore under his breath.
“What the fuck, Vinny?” I said.
“I vetted everyone – everyone. I knew what you two liked for breakfast and who you were fucking and your mama’s maiden names long before I contacted you,” Vinny said, shaking his head, throwing his hands in the air. “Those two guys, the guys you killed, Freddie and Stevie? They were fucking Feds, fucking federal agents.
“I fucked up. I fucked up big time, and I don’t know what else to say. We’ve all paid way too much for this mistake. And I’ll never be able to make this right. I don’t even know how to start to make this right. I want to go to war, but I don’t even know where to start or who to go after.”
I stood up.
“What the fuck, Vinny. What is this, spy shit?” I asked, pointing my finger at him. “Your family is dead. My family is dead. Juan’s family is dead. What the fuck are we wrapped up in here?”
I picked up my glass and slammed it into the wall. It shattered into a million pieces. Vinny ducked down as the glass shards flew by his face. He reached into his desk, grabbed another glass, and poured me another shot of scotch. I took it and slammed the bitter booze down my throat
“We are going to need a lot more booze,” he muttered
I looked over at Juan. He was sobbing, and his entire body was shaking. I motioned to Vinny with my glass, and he poured me one more shot. I knocked it back.
I reached over and grabbed Juan’s arm, “We’ve got to get out of here. We need to find his nephew.”
Vinny looked at both of us. We resembled a small army of broken, defeated soldiers. I was scared. Tough guys don’t phase me, but the CIA and any of that shit scares me. They have no rules, no code. I’d dealt with them briefly once in Boston, and they were terrifying bastards.
I went over to Juan, grabbed his arm, and pulled him off the floor. His body was cold and clammy, and he leaned on me with every step we took toward the door.
“Look, call me in a few hours,” said Vinny. “Call here. I’ll have some information for you two by then. I know we all want this asshole dead. He will be.”
We walked out of the office. Mr. J. glanced at us as we left, his eyes dark, his jaw set. I could feel his sadness.
Walking out the front door of the store together, I turned and looked back inside as if it could be the last time we’d ever be here. I knew Juan and I were in agreement that if we never saw this store or Vinny again, we’d be OK with that. We liked Vinny, we liked Vinny a lot, but nobody was in love with him. Maybe this mess wasn’t his fault, and maybe it was. It didn’t matter. All that matters now was finding who did this and killing him slowly.
As we stood on those icy steps, looking down the dirty, ugly, gray street, I said to Juan, “I’m going to cum when I kill this motherfucker.”
With that, we walked back to my Mustang and drove off to Aunt Rosa’s house up in the Bronx.
Rosa was a confusing woman. She looked like a leftover disco queen with jet black hair sporting a wild red and blonde streak. She never left the house without her rosary beads, a bible, and a hidden flask of Aguardiente in her purse. She was Juan’s mom’s younger sister and a cross between the stoic and purposeful “Mommy” and Juan’s wild sister Jacinda. I had a crush on Rosa since the day we met, and Juan knew it. He made it very clear that his sister was bad enough, but if I ever touched his aunt, they would never find my body.
I loved Rosa’s apartment: small and neat and clean. When it caught the late afternoon sun, the bright light made it look like a picture out of a catalog. In the summer, we’d sit out on the stoop and look across the concourse to the Bronx Courthouse or down the hill to Yankee Stadium. I would visit Aunt Rosa with the family often. Poppy would drive the Chevy down on the weekend and spend the visit looking out the window to check if his sexy Impala was safe on the Bronx street.
On summer nights, Juan and I would guard the car outside while drinking cold beer, smoking Kools, and listening to the game on the radio. You could hear the sounds from the ballpark, less than a quarter-mile away, live at the same moment as the radio. It was the best way to waste a hot summer night. Juan loved baseball as much as I did.
Tonight, two nights until Christmas, the street was dark and cold.
The memories of those summer days with the family felt faded as if they were from a different life. We walked up the narrow and dim hallway to Rosa’s apartment. Juan knocked. She opened the door; we could tell she’d been crying. We all hugged. Juan asked about Little Juan. He was in the back room, watching TV.
I asked Juan if he wanted me to come in with him. Juan said, “No. I need to talk to the boy alone. Stay close. He likes you. He needs to know you are here.”
I asked Aunt Rosa if I could use her phone.
I called Vinny again. He sounded worse than when we left him. “The guy that did the hit,” said Vinny, “he’s gone, and he’s with the CIA. Un-fucking-real. He’s out of the country now. That’s all I’ve got. I’m sorry, Richie. I wish we had more to go on. I want this fuck as much as you do.”
I stood holding the phone after Vinny disconnected. I couldn’t make a sound. This situation could never be fixed – how could we get revenge? I heard a scream from the back room. A loud, blood-curdling scream. Rosa looked at me, her face frozen in grief. We walked back to the room.
A narrow door opened to a small, windowless room. A TV, playing some kids show and a couch were all the meager furnishings. A few toys were scattered on the red, shag carpet. Little Juan ran to Rosa and hugged her waist, tears streaming down his soft face.
Juan leaned against the wall, his head in the crook of his left arm. A cigarette burned in his right hand. He was shaking again.
Little Juan looked at me through Aunt Rosa’s arms. He screamed at me in Spanish and English, his words muffled by Rosa’s embrace. All I could make out was “Mama.”
It was too much: the screams from Little Juan, Aunt Rosa sobbing, Juan’s heavy breathing, the laughter from the TV… This was Hell. I fell to my knees and hugged the boy too. Rosa reached out an arm toward the wall for Juan and pulled him in. We all held each other in a tortured, mournful embrace.
I touched the top of little Juan’s head and rubbed his hair. Straight and black like his uncle, there was a time when a future with him and his mother felt real. When Juan and I finished our wars, made our fortunes, I thought I’d come home and marry the tempest and temptress Jacinda. Little Juan would have been my son. Not anymore. That dream was gone.
Rosa looked at us and said, “We’re all that remains. We are all we have.” Our embrace softened, and a sudden need for air and space took me over. I broke away from the group as they went to sit on the little couch together.
I walked into the living room on my way to the kitchen. Turning, I saw a small, natural Christmas tree in the corner of the apartment by the window. It was beautiful, pure, and perfect. Unlike the tree at the farm, decorated with my dead aunt’s body, or that ungodly metal and plastic mess at my mother’s house, this tree seemed to possess the spirit of the holiday. I stared at it realizing its light was foreign to me now: another “normal” stolen from me by violence and death.
Shades drawn, the room was dim except for the lights on the tree. In the soft, colorful light, I saw an open bible and Rosa’s beads. I smiled, thinking of her unshakable faith and strength. I never put my faith in that book; my faith was in men like Juan and me. Maybe someday I’d learn to embrace another faith, but my life seemed to move too fast to be standing around waiting on an invisible spirit to fix things.
I went to the refrigerator and found some good, Spanish beer. I took two and went outside to sit on the frozen, wet stoop. Looking across at the courthouse now, I saw the ballyard deserted in the lightly falling snow. I opened the first of the beers and took a long drink.
My brain replayed the past few days in slow motion. Every horror was magnified in my mind, lingering on the deaths of my family and Juan’s. Then it stumbled back to the Korean night. That night, everything changed for Juan and me. The tone and color and fabric of our lives changed after those deaths. It became hardened like old, dry leather: inflexible, unappealing and easily torn apart.
It was Juan, me and nine other men, dead men. We ran into the woods, panicked and shocked. The glow and shine of this life came off, and we saw, smelled, and tasted our violence and cruelty.
Juan sat there in the dim and flickering light of the campfire. I watched his hands as his right thumbnail dug deep lines, almost to the point of bleeding, into the skin of his left palm.
He looked at me through the smoky darkness, and he said, "It was not supposed to go down that way."
I stared down at the ground. Dead, dried grass was beginning to smolder, twigs catching by my feet. I kicked little stones and dirt with my shoe to push the small flames away. I put my hands on the rocks that formed the small, stone fire-pit, to warm them. My hands were cut, but I could not tell whose blood was dried on my skin.
I shook my head, in disbelief. "It was carnage. Jesus, I can’t believe we made it out of there alive."
"Did we?” Juan Carlos looked at me. “I'm sorry, my friend, but our lives are forever changed. We are into something you can’t back away from."
I sat and looked at the blazing reds, oranges, and yellows dance off the logs. The rising wisps of smoke coiled in the air. I closed my eyes and weighed the words he'd spoken. I inhaled the smoke of the small inferno, pulled it deep into my lungs, and tried to purge my insides from the stench of that scene...
When the embers died, and the sun began to rise, we knew we had survived the night. It wasn’t a nightmare. The blood, the fire, the death, it was real. Juan said to the rising sun, "I don't think anyone else is alive."
That was a few years ago. That night, Juan Carlos and I became one guardian of interwoven secrets, secrets we would carry in silence to the grave.
Juan joined me on the frozen stoop. He brought with him four more beers. He handed me one, and we sat in silence for a long time, staring out at the rare and quiet night in the Bronx. I pointed with my finger at the upper deck of the empty ball field.
“Look, Row X!” I said, pointing to our usual, cheap spots. “Those our seats, Juan. Our asses would be cold up there tonight, boy! Colder than the early spring games when that wind comes in off the river.”
Juan forced a smile. “Little Juan is going to stay with Aunt Rosa. We agreed the business we need to do has no place for a little boy.” He took a long swig of the beer. “That Argentinian guy, Carlos, he and my aunt are getting tight. He may move in here after the holiday. I don’t mind him. He’s very good to both Little Juan and Rosa.” He finished the beer and took another. “I spoke to my cousin, back in Columbia. He has a gig for us. He asked if you were the real deal or just some big-mouthed American pussy. I told him you do have a big, fucking mouth, but you also have balls. He said he wants to meet you. Eddie G can come too if he wants.”
“What kind of work?” I asked. I took a drag of my Kool.
“Protection, drug trafficking. It’s big money and big risk, but it gets us into South America. That’s closer to the asshole than sitting here in the Bronx.” He raised his beer at me. “Ain’t no real money without no risk, right bitch?”
I knocked my drink against his, “Damn right! Let go.”
September 2017, St. Luke’s Hospital, Newburgh, NY
“I'm going to go home now, Juan. I'll come back tomorrow afternoon. It's Thursday; there will be an afternoon game on TV. We can watch the Yankees!"
He smiles at me and raises his middle finger. We both laugh.
As I leave the hospital, I realize I fear his death. I fear him dying before we can relive this life in detail one more time. I’m afraid of being the last man standing. This is a confessional for both of us. Juan knows this too. He listens to my every word, and I see it on his face. He smiles, he cries, and he remembers.
After I go home, he will ask his God for forgiveness for these crimes before I come back tomorrow to rip open the wound again.
Walking across the parking lot to my champagne colored Toyota, I understand the importance of this time we have together. Our crimes, so dark and interwoven, need this time. They demand it.
This is more than a confessional; it’s a reckoning.
September 2017, Newburgh, NY
I wake up before my alarm, the early rays of morning streaking through my blinds. My first thought is Juan. I text my girlfriend and tell her I won’t be coming to the flower shop that morning or the next. I tell her I need some space.
On the way to the hospital, I stop at a 7-11 store. Inside, I find what I’m looking for: two, dark blue, Yankee caps – one size fits all. I grab a cold, six-pack of Budweiser, some peanuts, and a bag of stale, dry, "butter flavored" popcorn. I look at the bag and wonder how much easier it would be to use real butter than make some chemically contrived, butter flavor.
I arrive at the hospital about thirty minutes before game time. Walking down the hallway to Juan's room, I run into Melanie, his wife. She looks in the bag, and her lips purse together in a grim smile.
“Beer, salted peanuts?" she asks.
"We are going to watch a ballgame!" I say. Melanie’s brow wrinkles. I laugh. “It’s probably not going to kill him. Trust me, I've tried."
"Richie,” she says, sighing, “you boys have fun. I'll stop back around five."
I stare at her. "Richie, wow, Richie.” I blink a few times, the weight of my name lingering in the air. “No one other than Juan has called me that in many years. “Richie.” I think Juan was the last person to call me that."
"I'm sorry,” says Melanie. “I didn't mean to offend you. Maybe that was too familiar. We've just met."
"No!" I reply. "It just took me back. It reminded me of who I used to be. I've been Jesse for so long that I've forgotten Richie. This time with Juan is stirring all this up. It’s cathartic for Juan… and me. They’re a lot of ghosts we need to put to rest."
Walking into his room I see Juan awake, looking weak and tired. He lifts his arm slowly and points to the chair by the bed. I reach up to the TV on the wall. I flip through the channels until I find the Yankees pre-game show.
Reaching into the bag, I pull out the two hats. Juan smiles. I put one on his head and crack a beer for both of us. I pull open the bag of peanuts and the butter flavored popcorn. Grabbing my beer, I take a long drink and shove a handful of popcorn in my mouth. I looked over at Juan; his eyes are on me, not the TV.
"Do you ever wonder what happened to Poppy's Chevy?" I ask.
Juan opens his mouth, takes a slow sip of the beer, and smiles. "Tijuana!" He lies his head back down on the pillow. The pre-game show is boring, so I begin to speak.
Early January 1979
We left Aunt Rosa's and drove back to my mother’s. We'd leave my Mustang there. We might be too hot to fly, the talk of the CIA and cartels a pressing weight. We didn't know who else was looking for us; it wasn’t safe to leave, and it wasn’t safe to stay. So, we hung around the bars for a bit. By New Year's Eve, the roads were clear from the heavy, Christmas snow, and we decided to take Poppy's Chevy south.
The plan was to cross over into Mexico at Tijuana. Juan had a few cousins living there, illegals too. They found a life in Mexico that suited them, and they saw no need to risk the coyotes to cross over into the U.S.
Once we were safely in Mexico, we could get a plane or steal a jeep and drive the Pan-American Highway into Columbia. We'd get set up with yet another cousin of Juan's and get to work finding the prince and the fucker who had killed our families.
The recurring thought that possessed me during the entire three-thousand-mile drive was the realization I’d lost some things very important to me. Of course, the loss of my family and Juan’s was never away from my thoughts, but there was something more, something even worse. I was losing the ability to feel, to connect to the subtle things that make a complete life. Small things, things that mattered, were lost to me: the satisfaction in doing something right; the feeling of that first cup of coffee; a crisp autumn morning after a stifling summer; the comfort in a flannel shirt and fresh blue-jeans; the intimate peace after fucking; the scent in the air when it stops raining on a hot summer day. All of these things felt as if they belonged to someone else.
I didn’t bother to ask Juan if he noticed these things. I did. I felt, daily it seemed, as if I was losing a bit of myself every hour. It wasn’t so much a matter of not recognizing my face in the mirror, it was more a feeling of being a shell, a casing of a former life. I was far too young to have lost so much. I thought back to the moment in Unk’s living room; a part of me was pissed the gun clicked instead of exploding.
I found moments to ponder this loss in the four-day, cross-country trip. It was four days of cocaine and booze, sailing across the south, midwest, and south-west. We left nameless hookers and countless bottles of Johnny Walker Black in our wake. The last two ladies decided to stick with us for a while. We really didn’t know why.
Crossing into Mexico at Tijuana was something of a relief. In my mind, at least, the damage we had caused back home was now behind us, left in another country.
Juan’s cousin lived in a small, faded, yellow and white, plaster apartment over a bodega on the corner of Veracruz and Sonora Streets. A huge, evergreen, ash tree cast a lone shadow over the plaster mess. A treacherous sidewalk, twisted by the heating and cooling of tens of thousands of desert sunrises, was the only way to the bodega. Its broken stone made you wish the concrete was gone and a simple dirt path was under your feet.
Walking down the short block with Juan, I said, “I wonder how many drunken banditos this has killed?”
Juan was silent, possibly nervous. Entering the bodega, we met his cousin. He was an evil looking fuck. Standing behind a counter of trinkets, cigarettes, and cheap knockoff American Zippo lighters, the man’s eyes were completely black, shielded by a thick, curling unibrow.
Juan walked to the cooler in the back and grabbed a couple of cool – not cold – Mexican beers. The floor was covered in grime from the street, and the store had a distinct scent very unlike Vinny’s store in NYC. It was a musty, burned tobacco scent, mixed with sweat, spilled beer, and rotting fruit.
Juan and I sat at a small table with thick, steel legs that supported its heavy, ceramic top. A mosaic of colorful tiles made intricate and confusing patterns along the surface. An AM radio played some music in the background. It reminded me of my music rant in the car a few weeks ago, but in this place, the fast, loud, Spanish music fit. That drive seemed a lifetime ago.
Samuel, his cousin, came to Juan. In silence, he reached out his large arms, and they embraced. A dialog in Spanish, far too fast for my limited knowledge of the language to comprehend, ensued. I heard the names Mommy, Poppy, and Jacinda. Samuel looked at me and said, half smiling but with raging eyes, “You have come with my cousin to find and kill these motherfuckers?”
I replied yes in English, choosing not to show my new world my limited vocabulary. What worked drunk, in the back seat of Poppy’s Chevy, would be of no use to me in this place.
A pretty girl, another cousin I assumed, brought two plates of tamales out to the table. I looked at Juan, and we both tried to remember the last time we ate. The trip into Mexico was lost in a haze of alcohol and drugs. I bit into the tamales; they were hot and delicious. I could smell the spices through the corn husks.
I looked at Juan. “We need to figure out what to do with those two hookers we brought with us. What the fuck were we thinking bringing them over the border?”
Juan glared at me. “You were in love, asshole!”
“That girl, Jenna,” I said, ignoring him, “I think she might be the only person I’ve ever met more broken than me.” Jenna was upstairs in the apartment with the other girl. She was on the run from something and a little too eager to join us on this open-ended adventure. “No, Jenna is cool. I actually talked to her.” I waved my tamale at Juan. “We’d talk all night in our room, while you were doing God knows what to Crystal.” I took another bite. “That’s a great hooker name, by the way. If I was a hooker, I’d be named Crystal.”
“You ugly fuck,” said Juan. “Nobody would ever pay to fuck you.”
Someone coughed, and I turned around. Jenna had joined us in the bodega. She yelled over to Samuel that she wanted a tamale too and sat down next to us at the table.
Jenna was tall and thin. Her hair touched her shoulders in long waves of rich auburn. In the right light, it appeared to be on fire. The color reminded me of my Mustang, and that may have been part of her appeal. Crystal, her friend, was just blonde; there was no other way to put it. She looked blonde, sounded blonde, and acted blonde. It wasn’t a negative observation; I respected Crystal. If you are going to be a truck driver, be a truck driver. If you are going to be a cop, be a cop. If you are going to be a killer, be a killer. Crystal committed to being a hooker by pouring a bottle of bleach on her hair every week. Truth be told, when we all first met, I was intrigued by Crystal. But Jenna was edgy with a danger about her that drew me in like a cold man is drawn to fire.
Crystal had an air about her that was reminiscent of the beautiful Marilyn Monroe: light, fun, and deeply sexual. Jenna had an air of dirtiness and evil. She was someone who could cut you as easily as fuck you. I had a feeling neither activity resonated deeply with her; it was just part of the commerce of the day.
Ignoring Juan’s comments, I continued, smiling at Jenna as she sat down with a beer. “I asked Jenna when she started fucking for money, and she asked me when I started killing for money. Then, she asked me, in the eyes of God, who is the bigger sinner or did sin even count anymore.”
Staring into her eyes, “I remember a preacher telling me that God’s law was unwavering and absolute. Sin was sin. Stealing a pencil was a sin, and killing someone was a sin. I’ve made a lot of money stealing big shit and killing people. So, I’ll leave pencil theft and the crimes of fucking to others. I’m going after the bigger prizes – if it’s all the same to God.”
Jenna joined in. “We are all hopelessly damaged. Maybe some of us are so low to the earth we are out of sight of God and free to roam unnoticed until someone guns us down – or chokes us while fucking.” Samuel handed her a tamale, and she took a large bite not bothering to chew with her mouth closed. “Have you ever been choked while fucking, Richie? It’s intense. It’s right at that edge, at the point where orgasm and consciousness converge. It makes plain, old, vanilla fucking seem boring and pedestrian.”
“Fucking you seems dangerous enough,” I said. “It’s all the edge I need right now. I get plenty of edginess just walking around and breathing, trust me. I’m not paying extra to have you choke me.”
“Fucking for money is such over-rated noise,” she shot back. “Let me ask you this: you take me to a dinner, spend a hundred bucks, buy me flowers, and then fuck me. I’m a nice, sweet girl that you’ll be happy to take home to mama. Now, cut out the middleman, hand me the $100 and fuck me, and I’m a whore. Forgive me if I don’t follow the logic.”
“It’s perception. That’s all,” I said.
“Perception?” Jenna grabbed my beer and chugged the rest of it. “My crimes are nothing compared to yours. No one dies from fucking me. People fuck with you and Juan though, and they die. All of us perform a service, and the same thing that’s broke in me is broke in you. The difference is, I can come back. Crystal can come back. We can go back home to Louisiana and say, ‘We used to be whores, but now we’ve found Jesus,’ and they’ll let us teach fucking Sunday school.” She pointed at Juan and me. “You two though? You two are killers. I’ve only taken time and money. You’ve taken life, and you can never say you used to be killers. There’s no ‘used to.’ That’s what you are. It’s all you are and all you’ll ever be.”
I looked at Juan. “You asked why I brought her. Well?”
Juan shook his head. “I hate to break up this little love fest, but where’s Crystal? Richie and I have some stuff to do, and you two can’t come along. We need to get your asses back into San Diego, and we need to head south. It’s been fun, but this really is the end of the line.”
Jenna got up, kissed my cheek, and smiled at Juan. “I’ll go get Crystal. Can you get us a ride back into the U.S.?”
Juan said he would. Jenna winked at him and walked out of the room. I sighed.
“What’s your problem?” asked Juan. “You look heartbroken.”
“It was pretty easy for her to go!” I muttered.
“Dude, what the fuck did you expect? What’s happened to you, Richie? Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
“Fuck this work, Juan. You heard what she said. She was right. This work is who we are. It’s all we are and all we will ever be. It’s changing us. It’s changed us. Every day, every move in this game, takes away a little more of who we were and leaves us with who we are now.”
“So you’re pissed because Jenna didn’t love you back? Please.” Juan got up and threw his plate and beer in the garbage.
“No, you fucking asshole,” I said. I got up too and walked over to him. “It wasn’t love. It was connecting to the last person who knew us as we are and accepted us. It was goodbye to us, Juan. Goodbye to Richie and Juan. You know where we’re headed. You know better than me what to expect. We’re walking into a war zone with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove. When we get back, if we come back, whatever and whoever we are when we get back, we will be different. Changed. Maybe dead.
“These guys, right here - you’d better take a good look at us, my friend – because today, leaving out of Tijuana Mexico is the last time you’ll ever see these two guys. They might as well dig a hole and bury us because the guys we were, the guys we wanted to be, they died here today in this dirty, fucking, dog-ass smelling bodega.”
I ended my rant. I didn’t notice my voice had raised. An old lady and some kids had walked into the store and were frozen by the counter, watching me.
“Go get the girls a ride,” I said, lowing my voice. “I’m going to go find us a cheap Jeep. You know why cheap? Because this is a one-way trip into Hell. We don’t get to come back from this.”
Juan nodded, clapped me on the shoulder, and got two more beers. They were heavy, warm, and good.
We walked out of the bodega and sat on two, twisted, folding web chairs: one red and white and one yellow and white. Each had at least one webbing broken. They sat as level as they could on the broken sidewalk. Juan sat and drank his beer. I could tell something was bothering him.
“Forget the Jeep, man,” he said. “We’re taking the Chevy.”
“Jes, da Chebby!” I said and raised my beer to his.
In that moment of fear and darkness, we laughed out loud, both of us fondly remembering Poppy: his unshaven face, his toothless, drunken smile.
“How did that man even drive?” I asked.
“Better than anyone I ever saw when he was drunk,” replied Juan. “The man was an amazingly skilled drunk driver.”
“He always had a quart of beer between his legs,” I said. “He was a good drunk, a happy drunk. Nothing made Poppy happier than hearing the paper seal crack on a bottle of cheap whiskey, followed by a cold, Carling Black Label beer. Poppy was a good dude.”
“That he was,” said Juan. He held his beer bottle, nearly empty, and poured the remainder on the dusty, broken, bodega sidewalk. “For Poppy…”
I reached out in front of me, my bottle in hand, and did the same. “For Poppy,” I said. “You’re right, my friend. We can’t leave his Chevy here.”
“Samuel could never appreciate that car the way we do. That car was Poppy’s love,” said Juan. He kicked at the wet dirt on the sidewalk, and we both walked back inside.
Juan went up to the apartment to grab our small bags of clothes and say goodbye to the girls. Samuel would pick them up later and drive them back to San Diego.
I walked a couple of city blocks on to where we’d parked the car. Safe and hidden next to the garage of one of Samuel’s friends, it sat behind some weeds, under a big, cypress tree.
I sat at the wheel and savored the moment alone. I soaked in the quiet and calm, not wanting to leave, not wanting to face the inevitable noise of the coming days, weeks, months, maybe years.
Then I pulled the fine Chevy from its hiding spot and onto the dusty road. I drove to the front of the bodega and waited.
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