Ralph showed his teeth. "Maybe I could ask around. Sunday night not too many white girls are strolling around the West Side, vato. If it was really her that dropped it, could be somebody saw her."
The cold from the Big Red bottle was going into my fingers now, spreading up my arm toward my chest. I was trying to imagine Lillian on Zarzamora late at night, or other ways her wallet could have traveled there without her. I thought about the sudden trip to Laredo that Beau had told me about, the unused car in the driveway, the half-wrecked house.
"I can’t pay you anything, Ralphas," I said.
He grinned, tapping Lillian’s Visa card against the Formica. "Maybe I’ll just put it on the lady’s tab if you find her, eh? Now tell me what’s going on."
“I wish I knew."
But he waited, and twenty minutes and two Big Reds later I had told him everything that had happened my first week in town.
Talking to Ralph was like talking to a priest. He knew how to listen. He’d heard the sins of man so many times nothing could shock him. His grin never changed. With the priest, whatever you said went straight to God. With Ralph, it went straight into public domain. Therein lay the absolution. At least I figured the rest of the town would listen. With God I wasn’t so sure.
"Hard to go to Laredo for three days without your wallet," Ralph said when I’d finished. “Hard to disappear anywhere, unless somebody makes you disappear. "
I couldn’t even nod.
Ralph studied Lillian’s Visa card. He said: "Your friend Detective Rivas was in El Matador night before last. He mentioned about your dad’s death. Said you wanted to kick up some very old dust in a lot of people’s faces."
"Rivas is full of shit."
"Vato," Ralph said, "you think about putting two and two together, eh?"
When he said what I’d been thinking, it made it seem less outrageous. That made me want to shut out the idea even more.
“Why would somebody take Lillian to get at me? What the hell for?"
Ralph spread his hands. "You think about your papa’s enemies—Mr. White’s familia, one; the whole city council, two; half the SAPD, three. Some paranoid people with things to lose, man. If you scared somebody bad enough—"
“How?" I interrupted, a little louder than I meant to. "I don’t have shit on anybody, Ralphas."
For a moment the talking at the counter died down. One of the waitresses glanced over, frowning. Ralph just sat back lazily and shrugged.
"Maybe somebody doesn’t see it that way, vato. The question is, what now? You play good boy? Wait around for orders?"
I wanted to hit something. Instead I just stared at Ralph’s black floating eyes.
"He was my father, Ralphas. What was I supposed to do?"
Ralph nodded. "Eh, vato, you don’t have to tell me—"
Then his voice trailed off.
An older Mexican man had come into the cafe and was walking toward our table. His balding forehead was shiny with sweat. He was a large man, probably used to people getting out of his way, but he shuffled toward Ralph like there was a heavy collar around his neck. Ralph didn’t offer him a chair. He just grinned. The man looked at me uncertainly; Ralph waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
"Don’t worry about him," he told the man in Spanish, then to me: “Only speakie Inglés, eh, compadre?"
I shrugged my shoulders and tried to look lost. It wasn’t hard.
I half listened while the man told Ralph about his money problems. He needed to pay the mortgage; he’d been sick and unable to work. Ralph listened patiently, then pulled out a straight razor and set it on the able. Almost absently, he unfolded the polished blade from its well-worn black leather sheath and stroked it with his little finger. Still in Spanish, he said, "She’s your wife. If I hear about you getting drunk again, or yelling, or threatening her boys, I will slice your fingers off and make you eat them." He said it calmly.
Then Ralph laid out ten fifty-dollar bills on the table next to the razor. The man tried to keep his hands from shaking as he scooped up the money. He didn’t succeed. When he’d left, Ralph looked at me.
“My newest stepfather." He smiled. "Like I was saying, you don’t have to tell me about dead fathers, vato. I been the man in my family since I was twelve."
Then he put away his razor.
As I left the Blanco Cafe, the whole West Side was coming to life. More working men poured in for migas and coffee. Old Mexican grandmothers, each one as large as my VW and twice as loud, lumbered down the street from market to market, haggling as they went. And Ralph sat at his table in the middle of it all, grinning.
"I got twelve pawnshops to check on before noon, vato," he called after me. "Not bad for a poor boy, eh?"
I drove away thinking about twelve-year-olds with razor blades, about white women alone on Zarzamora Street in the middle of the night, about a hole in a brown Stetson hat.
Conjunto music was crying on every car radio up and down Blanco.
After an hour of tai chi and a shower, my thoughts weren’t exactly clearer, but I’d regained my balance somewhat. Tai chi is good that way. It teaches you to yield before you advance. You let events push you around for a while, you keep your footing, then you push back. And I was pretty sure now where to start pushing.
By noon I was back in La Villita, standing on the porch of Hecho a Mano Gallery and trying to work my Discover card across the sidebolt. I’ve never been very good with the trick, but this time the old oak door gave up almost immediately. It swung open with the same relieved "Arrrr” that Robert Johnson makes in the sandbox.
I closed the door behind me. A sign had fallen off the windowsill that read: "Out to Lunch—B. "
Never a truer word, I thought.
The lights were off in the main room, but huge blocks of sun came in from the craftsman windows. It was enough to see that the place was a disaster. Podiums had been turned over. Skeleton statues lay in colorful pieces on the stone floor, hip bones not connected to the thigh bones. The drawers were upside down on top of Lillian’s big oak desk.
I checked the framing room and the rest room. Both trashed. A twenty-pound wooden milagro-studded cross from Guadalajara was sticking out of the shattered computer monitor. Photographic prints of cowboys had been ripped out of their frames. Even the toilet paper dispenser had been kicked open.
I picked up a black spiral binder from a mount of papers fluttering around under the ceiling fan. Lillian’s datebook. I moved into the shadows of the bathroom and started reading.
Inside, on the July page, one note indicated the day I was coming into town. It was starred and circled. Under Sunday night, the last time I’d seen her, Lillian had written "Dinner 8." Not surprisingly, there was no mention of a trip to Laredo for Monday morning. In fact, no other dates at all.
I flipped back over the last few months. March and April were full of “Dan” messages, especially around Fiesta Week. Then they stopped. Lillian’s last date with Dan, at least the last one she’d recorded, was for the River Parade in late April. My number in San Francisco was written a few spaces after that. Maybe I should’ve been flattered, but something about the timing bothered me.
I flipped ahead. Lillian had scribbled random phone numbers and reminders on the memoranda page at the back of last year, but that was it. None of the information jumped out at me. I ripped out the page anyway. I went back into the framing room and dug around in the ruined prints. Somebody had bashed open a locked storage closet in the corner and strewn its contents around. About the only thing interesting was a canvas portfolio, three by three, with the initials “B.K." on it. The laminated leaves were bent and torn. One had a rather large shoe print on it--no grooves, pointed toe, a boot.
The portfolio made for sad reading. On the first page, ArtNews and Dallas Herald articles from 1968 announced Beau’s arrival on the photographic scene: "New Visions of the West," “Fresh Perspectives on Ancient Vistas," “Dallas Native Follows Dream." The last one took a rags-to-riches angle: the tragic death of Beau’s father, Beau’s childhood with at well-meaning but alcoholic mother, his determination to work his way through community college in Fort Worth, buying film for his photography classes instead of food when he had to. The interviewer seemed to think it was charming that Beau had actually been on welfare. In the middle of the articles Beau’s picture stared back at me—young, dressed in black, his Nikon slung over his shoulder, and the beginnings of smugness on his face.
I flipped through several more pages of his photos--abandoned ranch houses, steers, dew on barbed wire. The announcements for new shows and the glowing reviews got fewer and further between. The last two articles Beau had clipped were from the Austin American-Statesman in 1976. The first, a lukewarm gallery review, commented sadly that "the refreshingly energetic, naive quality of Karnau’s earlier work has all but disappeared? The second, Beau’s letter to the editor, detailed exactly what the reviewer could do with her comments.
Beau’s more recent photographs, from his days as an assistant art professor at A & M to the present, looked like they could have been taken by Ansel Adams if Ansel Adams had downed enough tequila and dropped his camera enough times. More abandoned ranch houses, more steers, more dew on barbed wire. Finally, on the last portfolio page, was a glitzy-looking flier for "The Authentic Cowboy: A Retrospective by B. Karnau." A weathered cowboy peered out at me, trying to look authentic.
The opening was scheduled for July 31 at Blue Star, this Saturday. The list of underwriters showed how much Beau had relied on Lillian’s social connections: Crockett, her father’s bank; Sheff Construction; half a dozen other blue-blooded businesses and foundations. I folded up the flier and pocketed it.
I was just about to put aside the portfolio when I noticed the way the front cover felt between my fingers—a little bit thicker than the back cover, a slight bulge on the inside of the canvas. I found an Xacto knife on the floor and delivered by cesarean two eight-by-tens sandwiched between squares of cardboard. The photos were identical-—an outdoor shot, taken at night. Three people were standing in knee-high grass in front of an old Ford truck, its doors open and headlights on. One of the people was a tall skinny man with his face turned away from the camera. His slicked-back blond hair and his white shirt almost glowed in the headlights.
The other two people, whoever they were, had been carefully cut out of the picture with a razor blade. Nothing was left of them but vaguely human-shaped holes, side by side, slightly apart from the blond man.
From the angle of the shot, and a huge out-of-focus tree branch in one corner of the photo, it looked like the photographer had been uphill from the scene and fairly far away, using a telescopic lens.
The quality of the prints wasn’t bad, but the texture of the paper was wrong for photographs. Looking closely, you could tell they had been laser printed rather than developed. On the back of both photos someone had written “7/31" in black pen.
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