- The Last King of Texas
We listened to the ventilator. The accordion pump went up and down in its clear plastic tube, filling George's lungs and deflating them with dispassionate efficiency.
"I want to bolt out of this room," Kelly whispered. "Do you feel like that?"
She'd changed into jeans and a man's white button-down, probably Uncle Ralph's. The sleeves were rolled up and I caught the mixed scents of Ralph's bay rum on the linen and chlorine from Kelly's skin and hair. I imagined she'd made time this evening to visit the Alamo Heights pool, done a few hundred laps. Her hair was tied back in a pony tail and the roots were still slightly damp. She looked at me, her eyes soft and brown and gently pulling as Gulf Coast surf.
"Put on a brave face," I said. "Sound happy. Tell George he's looking good."
"He looks terrible, Tres. It's like he isn't even in there."
"He's not a corpse."
"I know. It's just... Sorry. I'm talking like a wimp."
I stared at a photo someone had put on George's bedstand — a silver-framed picture of Berton, perhaps ten years younger, and a pretty woman that I decided was his wife Melissa. They were standing on a curve of granite overlooking the hill country — probably the summit of Enchanted Rock. I'm sure the photo was meant as a nice "get well" gesture for George, but somehow the smile of that woman murdered so many years ago, the image of her with her arms around George, made me uneasy.
When I looked again at Kelly, she was staring at my chin — maybe tracing the network of tiny cuts there I'd received from my tumble into the drainage ditch last night.
"What are you thinking?" I asked.
She gave me a small, sad smile. "It's nothing."
"Look, if you really want to leave—"
"No, no. I'm staying with Tio Ralph overnight. I should be glad to be out of the apartment. He's in a pretty black mood."
"Oh — some woman."
She waited for a response. I didn't give her one.
"I was hoping Ralph had done himself a favor and forgotten this lady. Apparently they ran into each other today. You wouldn't think a woman could affect Ralph very much, would you?"
"I wouldn't know."
The monitor lights continued blinking green. I found myself watching the digital numbers of George's heart rate wavering between 51 and 52. Occasionally the beat faltered and the numbers blinked off completely, then came back on. After a few minutes of watching this, I had to look away. Kelly took something out of her pocket. "Before I forget. Maybe this is nothing. We found it when we were sorting George's files."
She handed me a carbon copy of a While-you-were-out message from Erainya's phone record book, written in George Berton's immaculate cursive, dated Wednesday. The note said, Poco Mas. Brandon. Mami called back. "Make any sense to you?" Kelly asked.
"No, but I'll follow up."
Kelly nodded. With what was obviously great force of will, she leaned toward the bed and touched George's forearm in the free space between the hospital wristband and his IV plug.
She blinked, then withdrew her fingers, apparently satisfied that Berton was really there.
"You think all George's friends balance out?" she asked me.
"Melissa. I was thinking about something Jenny told me — how different George was before he lost his wife. You didn't know him back then?"
"Apparently not many people did. Jenny made him sound like a completely different person — tender with Melissa but arrogant with everybody else. Very few friends. Heavy drinker. A hell-raiser. According to Jenny, George used to act like this air force hotshot and a lot of people hated him. Can you imagine?"
I admitted that it didn't sound like the George I knew.
"Then he lost Melissa and it just — made him gentle. Charity work. New friends. Always time for anybody. Most thoughtful guy you'd ever—" Kelly stopped, exhaled a shaky breath. "So do you think it balanced out, Tres? You think the friends ever made up for losing that one person?"
"I'd guess it doesn't work that way."
"Kind of scary that one person can count for so much. I hear about a couple like George and Melissa and I don't know. Maybe I'm jealous, or maybe I'm scared as hell and thankful that I don't have somebody that important. Does that make sense?"
I didn't answer.
She smiled sadly, examined my face some more, then reached up and rubbed her thumb against my lower lip, along the side of my mouth.
Her thumb came away tinted red from Ana DeLeon's lipstick. Kelly wiped the color off on her jeans.
We stayed next to George until two of his friends from the Big Brother program came to relieve us.
The Poco Mas Cantina was a different place on Saturday morning. Only one battered pickup truck sat in the front lot, and the music coming from inside the bar was subdued, a soft instrumental corrido. In the daylight the bar's facade showed its age. Pastel stucco walls were bleached and cracked like a grandmother's makeup; the air-conditioner units whined asthmatically as they dripped condensation onto the gravel.
Inside, one customer, a muscle-bound Latino man in T-shirt and shorts, was sleeping at the center pink Formica table amid wadded-up dollar bills and empty beer bottles. The old bartender with the silver grease-mark hair was placing last night's dirty glasses into a washer rack. A younger assistant stood at the liquor display with a clipboard, doing inventory. At the back booth, where I'd encountered Mary and the armed locos three nights before, a chubby, fiftyish Latina woman was counting money into a cash box. She was one of the women I'd seen Wednesday evening, lap-hopping at the bookies' tables. She still wore the same uniform — tight red dress, red hose, smeared peach makeup, hair like a blowtorch.
Neither of the bartenders looked thrilled to see me. The older man reminded me about the new management, then told me the bar was closed.
"I'm looking for Mami," I told him.
His right eye developed a tic. He glanced nervously over at his assistant, then back at me. "Closed. Eh?"
"Closed all day."
I slid one of my Erainya Manos Agency cards across the bar. "When you see Mami, tell her I'm a friend of the man she talked to earlier in the week — the man with the Panama hat. Tell her I need to talk."
The old man gave no sign of comprehension. He scooped his hand toward the door, like he was bailing water, then told me a few more times how new the management was and how closed the bar was.
I stepped outside into the graveled lot. Across the street, two women in sack dresses trudged down the sidewalk, lugging plastic La Feria bags. A man in a filthy butcher's apron smoked a cigarette in front of a little meat market. Down on the end of the block, the yellow-capped towers of Our Lady of the Mount rose up against the gray sky. The clouds moved just fast enough so that the iron Jesus seemed to be pushing through the gray like the masthead of a ship. I crossed the street and walked toward the church.
At the steps of the main sanctuary, I looked back. The old bartender was a tiny figure in the cantina doorway. He was looking in my direction.
I walked inside the church entry hall, past marble columns, oil portraits of archbishops, and polished oak tables neatly stacked with bilingual Catholic newsletters.
Beyond the lacquered interior doors, the sanctuary opened up into a cavern of gilt and air. Angels laced the domed ceiling. Candlelight glittered in every recess, and far up ahead the altar was bedecked for Sunday service.
I walked up several pews and sat down, my eyes fixed on the distant central crucifix.
I didn't know why I wanted to be in a Catholic church after an absence of over fifteen years. Maybe it was my visit to George Berton's bedside the night before. Maybe it was just something Kelly Arguello had said.
In the pew rack was a Bible, a folded program adorned with doodles by some bored child. A broken pencil. A single rosary bead.
I closed my eyes and the sanctuary doors sighed open behind me. Steps clicked down the aisle — two sets. The pew across from mine creaked.
I looked over and saw the old bartender, kneeling stiffly. He crossed himself with a bony hand. Five rows back, the woman from the bar was settling into a pew. Her face was blotchy from new crying. She frowned straight ahead, then forced her eyes shut and started mumbling a silent prayer.
I looked at the bartender.
His smudges of hair glowed like candle glass. He had leathery skin, deeply wrinkled. He looked frail — probably no more than a hundred pounds. His green slacks and black-striped shirt reminded me of something George Berton would wear.
"You are Catholic?" he asked me.
The broken English was gone, replaced by beautiful Castilian Spanish, the kind you rarely hear in Texas.
"I used to be," I answered, also in Spanish. "I suppose I still am."
He slid back from his knees onto the pew cushion. The effort made his leathery face tighten. He laced his hands over his belly as if holding in an appendix pain. "That red car on the street. The man you mentioned... he was driving it Wednesday night."
"You've got a good memory."
"It's a nice car. His name was Berton, si?"
"Did you speak to him?"
The old bartender gestured toward the woman behind us. "I didn't say anything. He spoke with Mami."
I looked back at the middle-aged woman in red. She was still praying in a long, continuous whisper, her eyes and hands squeezed tight. The way the old bartender had spoken her name...
"You two are married?" I asked.
The bartender gave me a slight smile, like he was used to hearing that question, spoken with the same amount of disbelief. "Ten years."
"What did Mami tell my friend George?"
The bartender winced. "Mami is foolish enough to sit on the porch most afternoons — at the house, there behind the bar. She was an easy victim for conversation."
He probed his belly gently with his fingers, trying to relocate the source of the pain. "She wants to know if your friend is all right, you see. She heard he was shot, and she had told him things that might get him into that kind of trouble. She has a big heart, and is foolish about talking."
Mami's plum-meat-colored lips kept moving to the Ave Maria.
"What things did she tell Mr. Berton?" I asked again.
"About the man Hector Mara met in the bar — two weeks ago. Rey Feo."
Rey Feo, the "ugly king," was a title for one of the rulers of San Antonio's fiesta week, but I had a feeling that wasn't what the old man meant.
"A nickname," he explained. "I don't know the man's real name. He only came to the bar that once. I asked Mr. Mara about him — Rey Feo is what he said."
"A heavyset Anglo," I guessed. "Dark-haired."
The old man shrugged. "I only tell you all this because Mami already made the mistake of talking. Mami's got a big heart. There isn't much lying in her."
"Did she tell my friend anything else?"
The bartender stared at the crucifix over the altar. The gilded-wood Christ looked centuries old, his face as stoic and emaciated as the Mission Indian who had probably carved him.
"Do you understand how this could be bad, me talking to you?"