Page 21

"Enough is enough, " I told him.

Something under my dirty laundry in the closet said:

"Row."

Then the phone rang.

I must have sounded like a man who’d just gotten shot at and spurned by his pet, because Ralph Arguello paused for a second before responding: "Mother of God, vato. What cavron spit in your huevos this morning?"

Behind him, the sounds of the Blanco Cafe were all much louder than they had been that morning—more shouting waitresses, more customers talking, more blaring conjunto from the jukebox.

"I’ve had a great day, Ralph," I said. "Somebody just drilled me a skylight in the VW with a .45."

There were a lot of ways somebody could respond to that. For Ralph there was only one choice: he laughed long and hard.

"You need a beer and a shot of real tequila," he suggested. "Come out with me tonight."

"Maybe another time, Ralphas."

I could almost hear his Cheshire cat grin over the phone.

"Even to a little cantina where your lady friend was on Sunday night?" he said.

Silence.

"What time?" I asked.

27

Ralph’s maroon Lincoln slid down South St. Mary’s like a leather-upholstered U-boat.

" ’Scuse me if I hit a few pedestrians," he said. He laughed. I didn’t. With the black window tinting, the moonless night, and the haze of bay rum and mota smoke in the car, I couldn’t see a damn thing out the front windshield. And I didn’t wear prescription glasses. Ralph just smiled and took another hit off his cigar-sized joint.

We turned down Durango and cruised through a neighborhood of neon-colored clapboards. Their front  yards, not much bigger than Ralph’s backseat, were decorated with cola caps in the trees, statues of saints in the painted gravel, plastic milk jugs filled with colored water along the sidewalks. An old lady in a worn-out muumuu stood in the orange square of porch light on her front steps, slicing potatoes and watching us as we passed by.

Ralph sighed like a man in love. "Home again."

I stared at him. "You were raised North Side, Ralphas. You went to Alamo Heights, for Christ’s sake."

His smile didn’t waver. "All that means is my momma cleaned for a better class of folk, vato," he said. "Doesn’t mean shit about where your home is at."

On the corner of Durango and Buena Vista we pulled into a gravel lot outside the world’s smallest outdoor cantina. Three green picnic tables squatted on a red concrete slab. In the back, a stack of fruit crates and an old Coca-Cola cooler passed for the bar. The whole place was ringed by a low cinder-block wall and covered by sagging corrugated tin, strung with the obligatory Christmas lights. Nobody had bothered to put up a sign for the cantina. It just naturally radiated conjunto music and the promise of cold beer.

Ralph put down the mota and picked up a S & W Magnum, almost invisible in the dark. It disappeared under the linen folds of his olive-green extra-large guayabera. He smiled at me.

"Subt1e," I said.

"Last offer," he said. "You want a piece, I got that nice little Delta in the glove compartment?

I shook my head.

"More trouble than it’s worth," I said. "That shit causes bad karma."

He laughed. “Somebody going to spill your karma right out the back of your head, my friend, you think like that."

Lydia Mendoza’s voice, badly recorded fifty years earlier and still sexy as hell, drifted across the patio with the smells of tobacco and cumin. All three tables were crowded with men in dirty blue work shirts with their names embroidered on the pockets. Their brown faces were worn and hardened like pieces of driftwood. They sat and smoked, watching us as we walked to the bar.

"Que pasa," Ralph said, totally unfazed by their stares. One of the men smiled like a jackal, lifted his beer bottle very slightly, then turned back to his friends. Someone else laughed. Then they ignored us.

Ralph dragged two green metal stools up to the fruit crates and nodded to the bartender.

"Tito," he said. "Dos Budweisers."

For a minute I was convinced Tito was a work of taxidermy. Nothing moved—his thick frown, his eyes, his huge frog-shaped body. Tattooed arms hung limp at his sides. Under the yellow silk shirt his chest didn’t move. I was tempted to borrow Ralph’s coke spoon and hold it under Tito’s nose just to see if he was really breathing. Finally, very slowly, Tito’s eyes drifted over to me and fixed there. Somewhere in his chest he made a sound like a motor boat engine getting stuck in mud.

"De donde sacaste el gringo?" he said.

Ralph drank his beer, then looked at me like he’d never seen me before.

"Who," he said, “this guy? Wants to break into the pawn business, man. Teaching him everything I know."

Tito didn’t exactly react, but he let his eyes slide off me like bird shit off a windshield. Behind us, one of the drinkers finished a joke about a gringo lawyer and a donkey. His friends laughed.

"So," Ralph said. "I heard about that white woman last Sunday."

Tito had solidified again. He gave no response at all, just stared at Ralph blankly;

"Your friend is making me nervous, Ralphas," I said in English. "Could you tell him to calm down?"

A tattooed cobra on Tito’s forearm twitched almost imperceptibly.

"No se, man," Tito told Ralph. "I just open the beers."

Ralph took his glasses off and cleaned them on his shirt. When he did, he let Tito see the .357 clearly. Then he smiled.

"Man," he said, "how long we known each other? What was that loan I did you, anyway? Three grand?"

Tito stayed blank, but the cobra twitched again. I looked back at the other customers. Three of the tougher ones at the end of the nearest table were paying more attention to us now. They sat slightly apart from the others, not quite as weathered-looking, not laughing at the jokes. The only grease on these three was carefully applied to their hair. Their work shirts were open over striped tank tops, stretched tight over their pects.

When I glanced at Ralph, he was already looking at me. His slight nod told me he knew about the competition. Meanwhile Tito wasn’t talking. He produced two more beers. He turned up the knob on Lydia Mendoza. Then he played taxidermy.

"Well," said Ralph, "that’s a real pisser, Tito. A1ady with some class walks into this shithole and you don’t even want to remember it, man. That’s bad."

"Huh," said Tito. He looked about as intimidated as a stoned mule.

Then a dirty gray rag appeared in his hand. He started making lazy circles across the top of the counter. Maybe he thought he was cleaning it. Ralph looked over at me and started talking loud enough to be heard at the tables.

"So this friend of mine was here last night, like I said. And he tells me a couple of the regulars here were talking about this lady that came in Sunday. It was a big joke over a couple of beers, he says. But you know, vato, these hotos can’t keep anything in their heads longer than a few minutes unless it’s somebody else’s pendejo. I guess we’re shit out of luck."

"Ralphas," I said. I was wondering if he’d laced his joint with something more potent. His will to live, and for me to live, seemed pretty damn weak at the I moment. He just held up his fingers to placate me and kept talking.

"Yeah," he said. "Tito, man, you ought to think about cattle for this place. Eat and drink less than these cavrons but more intelligent, and you could at least make barbacoa when you got tired of them."

It got very quiet. Then one of the tough guys started to get up. He was chewing on something, maybe a stick. When he smiled his front two teeth flashed silver. His two compadres kept their seats, but they turned around to stare at us. Tito’s other patrons had frozen like mice under a cat’s paw.

Ralph stayed calm, a little too calm for my tastes. He gave the guy with the silver teeth a smile like they were long—lost friends.

"So, Tito," Ralph said, not looking at the bartender. "How you feeling, man? You want to tell me anything? Like is this the guy she was with?"

Tito still didn’t look like he wanted to chat with us. He shrugged very slightly.

"Eh, chingado," Silver-teeth said. "Maybe we should do you up some barbacoa, huh? Maybe you got enough fat to fry."

Ralph spread his hands in a friendly gesture. “A man can only try, my friend. Or maybe if you got a story for me, we can hear that. Then we can all have another beer. "

"You want a beer?" Silver-teeth leaned over and broke his bottle on the cinder—block wall. Then he held up the jagged neck and smiled.

"Shit, man," said Ralph. He was already holding his revolver, eight inches of black steel that reflected the colored Christmas lights beautifully. "You want to play with me you got to get better toys."

Then he fired twice, which from a .357 is only slightly less impressive than a cannon barrage. Beer bottles exploded on the table, sending glass fragments and brown foam into the faces of Silver-teeth’s pals. There was one yelp of pain, then silence. Silver-teeth almost fell back over the edge of the wall. The rest of the bar patrons stayed very very still.

"That’s how you break glass," Ralph told them.

"Now, who wants to tell me something?"

I wouldn’t have believed that Tito could move so fast. He had the double-barrel half out of the Coca-Cola cooler and was turning toward Ralph when I slammed the metal seat of my stool into his face. Crude but effective. Tito’s nose flattened like a paper tent and he went down.

Ralph whistled. "They teach you that in kung fu c1ass?"

I shrugged.

Then I stepped back around the bar and unloaded the shotgun. Tito was making his motor boat sound again, blowing red bubbles against the red cement.

"Hijo, " said Silver-teeth.

Ralph smiled and turned the gun on him. "So what’s your name, vato?"

"Carlos, man."

"You got a bedtime story for us, my friend Carlos?"

Carlos’s dark face drained out until it was the color of heavily creamed coffee. He dropped his broken bottle-neck and held up his empty palms. He said: "You’re looking for Eddie, man. He ain’t here tonight. And I swear to God, I just heard about it. "

Carlos’s two friends were getting up now, wiping the blood and foam out of their faces. One had an inch-long fragment of beer glass sticking from his forehead like a rhino horn. I don’t think he even felt it, but he was pissed as hell.

"Jaime," Carlos murmured. "Cool it, man."

But Jaime wasn’t interested. He came at Ralph fast and stupid. Fortunately for him, Ralph was in a good mood now. Instead of putting a bullet in his face, Ralph just implanted the tip of his boot in Jaime’s gut. In slow motion, the wounded man curled up at Ralph’s feet like a faithful old dog.

Ralph turned back to Carlos. "Okay. Let’s try that again."

Carlos swallowed.

"Eddie Moraga," he said. "I heard he was in here a few nights ago with this lady. He’s a friend of Tito’s, man, a regular here."

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