Leather and Lizard
Edward “Fortune” Smith stopped and looked down at his new boots that had cost him a week and a half’s pay at the postal sorting center where he’d been working in the five months since his release. He walked another twenty steps, stopped and renewed his gaze downwards; confirming his initial thought that something was wrong. The late afternoon heat was pressing down on his back like a sticky moist hand, but the boots, made of mulatto brown leather with shiny green and graduated grey lizard inserts, consumed every bit of his awareness.
Eddie Fortune, as most people knew him, was waiting for his new western style boots with square toes to speak to him and tell him what to do to make themselves right. He wanted to love them in the worst way, but now he wanted some love back. He squished his toes and squirmed his feet to relocate the fit, but he wasn’t satisfied. He contemplated this latest unhappiness in his life while deliberately raising his head skyward, drifting deep into boot-fitting thoughts, when a quick movement and the feel of a gathering urgency distracted him.
Two men in suits with matching ties were running his way, jackets flapping this way and that as they loped from side to side gaining momentum. They were, in fact, looking directly at Eddie, focused on him like a locomotive headlight coming out of a dark tunnel. His mind blank for a moment, Eddie felt his body in motion slightly before his brain told him this was a potentially harmful situation and that he probably should remove himself from the vicinity. Pronto.
Eddie darted into motion, down an alley to his right and after a short sprint and a hard body lean into another tight right, brought him down a narrow passageway that opened into a small circular brick-floored dusty plaza. To his side and angled slightly away from the sun-drenched plaza, behind a half-height retaining wall, Eddie stopped to rest his wheezing body in a nondescript, recessed doorway perhaps a dozen paces toward the west, and the slowly departing afternoon sun. The ground below his uncomfortable new boots radiated the heat up in agonizing waves that enveloped his entire being. He was considering the unpleasantness of this when he heard the men run past the alley into the small, tucked-away plaza to his left. Eddie was sweating bullets, hoping his nickname “Fortune” still held some say in his future.
The air was filled with tiny airborne motes, floating upwards from the closeness of the men in suits rushing past only a moment before. The penetrating hotness of another windless day in west Texas made even breathing a chore. Eddie was spent. His tired brain mused on the endless cycle of the sun: it heats up the cool morning earth, and the earth then gives it back later, hot and humid, as if it was on temporary loan. “Here sun, here’s your warmth back, I’m done with it for now. See you tomorrow, okay?”
Eddie heard the knocking sound first and saw the middle knuckles on his own right hand rapping on the door an instant later. He regarded the sound of his open-mouthed panting, caught his breath and thought to himself, I should get myself into better shape.
The adrenaline was subsiding and Eddie started to feel heavy, like a sack of gravel, and tired as he’d ever been, but he recognized where he was, and that in itself was a welcome relief. Here he was at a small illegal cantina, that he had frequented on occasion in the past, although his unfocused mind could not pinpoint exactly why. It was about the size of two average living rooms put together end-to-end, with a bar and stools and chairs and a short wide jukebox filled with mariachi music and surf rock.
The door opened, startling Eddie for second. He leaned forward, ducked under the low overhead beam and entered. Before his eyes accustomed to the comparative dimness of the tight indoor space, his gaze was captured by the twinkling eyes of an attractive dark-haired woman. Her worn but elegant black dress had silver thread running rings around the lower half lingering at her smooth shapely calves. The dress bloomed at the waist. How comfortable that must be in this heat, Eddie thought.
“Buenos días, Eddie,” the woman said, moving in a familiar way toward him. She had a smile on her face and her hips moved with exaggeration.
The brown leather, green and grey lizard boots for some reason, came back into Eddie’s mind. He looked down, checking them, first one then the other. They didn’t feel so ill-fitted now. Maybe they just needed a little break-in time, he thought. Eddie looked up at the approaching woman who was now close enough to touch. She smelled of jasmine.
“Hello Rosalinda,” he said.
A high, tight table with a pair of wooden three-legged chairs with flat board backs, tucked into the farthest corner at the other end of the room-length bar, was unoccupied. Eddie and Rosalinda, glancing around the room, saw this location simultaneously and without words glided quietly together across the rough wooden floor littered with sawdust and crushed peanut shells leaving serpentine scrawl designs in their wake. A few shadowy customers at the bar took sideways glances at the pair, turned back to their drinks and nodded knowingly to each other with a smirk. Eddie took notice of these other patrons for the first time but paid them no attention. He and Rosalinda had not spoken since they had first greeted each other at the door. He hadn’t decided on his opening gambit.
The ceiling was uneven and gradually became lower towards the back end of the cantina, where anyone above average height would have to crouch to avoid scraping their heads on the rough stucco ceiling. This was Cisco’s Place, a private neighborhood dive, and it would not have been surprising to discover tufts of scalp and hair on the more jagged pieces of the ceiling.
Eddie pulled a chair away from the high pedestal table next to the mustard-colored wall, dragging two of its three legs, and farming a pair of furrows through the sawdust. A pattern of dancing, dark-umber sombreros with small furry balls, attached with thin strings along the rim of each hat, were stenciled every five inches in a repeating pattern just above table height along the wall. Not surprisingly, this visual chaos had caused the first owner, Cisco, to constantly field complaints from customers. They often claimed to him that this wall design made people uncomfortable, dizzy even, and most said this while totally discounting the fact that they had usually consumed copious amounts of tequila before voicing their complaints. Eddie had an opinion on the subject and he could easily understand the customer’s side. He viewed the gaudy pattern as unnecessary and hideous, but it did give Cisco’s Place its charm, such that it was.
“Good to see you again, Rosalinda, you are looking fine as ever,” Eddie paused with his hand softly caressing the back of her chair. He hoped he wasn’t being too forward too fast.
“Si, yes very much, Eddie,” Rosalinda cooed back.
Eddie looked at her and then to the chair he had pulled out from under the tall table, directing her to it with his eyes. Rosalinda smoothly hovered over and slowly descended onto the worn-smooth seat like a hummingbird landing in the sweet nectar of a beautiful flower.
She twisted slightly to the side and held up two slim fingers which prompted the bartender to nod back at her and pick up two rickey glasses which he plunged into a deep slate-grey metal tub of crushed ice. She turned back around to see Eddie taking the seat opposite her, he was as handsome as ever, she thought. She disregarded the sweat stains on his teal and midnight blue shirt with a snappy short round matching collar, which she didn’t like at all. He had shiny damp, black, oiled hair which was thrown from right to left up over his generous and broad head. She liked the way his hair hung long and low in the back, hiding that fashionably short round collar from a rear view. His eyebrows were placed low on his face, hooding his dark eyes, giving him an exotic look but at the same time, exposing an acre of forehead. Still, she thought him sweet beyond candy, seeing only what she wanted. Rosalinda was, is, and always has been, in love with Eddie, although this realization only recently came to her. She had always kept her distance, a relationship with him could have complications, and for this reason she never returned any of Eddie’s advances.
“Muy buena, Eddie, it is so good to see you. Thank you for coming. I am much indebted to you. Muchas gracias.” Rosalinda was making small movements from side to side, adjusting her posture on the tall chair.
Slightly flushed and feeling a bit humid from his recent adventure outside, Eddie turned his gaze from the room towards Rosalinda and those miraculously crystal-clear, deeply pooled, slate-green eyes that seemed to connect straight to the softly segmented parts of her inner self, like looking into her soul with a kaleidoscope. He fought to keep his composure.
“You knew I would. All you had to do was ask.” He looked at her face for a reaction, but dared not linger and stare. Truth was, her beauty intimidated him. “And, you know I didn’t bring RuhMoan with me. I left him back in the woods. He’s messed up, Rosa, I’m sorry to say.”
The ancient three-bladed fan behind him, mounted head high on the wall sans a protective safety cage, sent rhythmic puffs of air towards her, tossing the tips of her shoulder length black hair back and forth one way, then the other as it mechanically rotated on its axis, catching at each end of its travel with an unsettling grinding noise before starting out on the opposite sweep. Her hair responding to the wisps of intermittent breezes, he thought, was marvelous to watch and sensuous in a way only a man who has dreamed of being intimately involved with a woman could know. The general direction of the fan prevented him from taking in that highly personal jasmine smell of her soft caramel brown skin, particularly concentrated at the nape of her slender neck. A memory he recalled vividly and loved so thoroughly, and missed it with a longing ache much like an amputee misses a newly severed limb. The table immediately down wind was so enthralled by this surprisingly exotic scent, however, the men there felt compelled to remark whenever the fan broadcast the scent their way, irritating Eddie.
Of course, one tends to remember only the good things on occasions such as this, but the not-so-good things were now starting to creep back into Eddie’s memory. Past episodes of love, he remembered, did not always go so well; there’s that still-sensitive scar on the side of his neck that the barber still finds with his electric clippers everytime without fail. The knee he twisted that time he was stupid with drink and she helped him down the long, winding stairs with a high kick to the small of his back. The knockdown, drag-out, verbal battles over trivial matters such as the way Eddie would look at his neighbor’s shapely wife, which always escalated into either blood or passion. Maybe he just loved too hard, too much, like a drunk loves his hooch and was powerless to stop even though he knew, and everyone else around him knew, that it was killing him. And like an addiction, whenever love presented itself, he could never turn her down.
Cisco’s Place was starting to fill with an assortment of customers now that it was late afternoon and people needed to wash away the dust and heat of the day’s activities, be it work or leisure. Cisco’s was illegal in that Pedro had no license to operate a cantina or serve drinks, never mind the card game in back behind the heavy ceiling-to-floor purple velour curtains just behind and to the other side of the bar, where Palo Pedro had won this place from Cisco on a disputed game of high-stakes deadman’s poker with the infamous hand of aces and eights. That story was just for public consumption, however, as it never went down that way, not even close. Only a few people knew the truth, they were there when it happened, and it wasn’t in their best interest to have the truth see its way clear into the light of day.
Note: Cisco’s was an illegal enterprise only in the eyes of the law here in Amarillo, Texas, for arrangements have been made, you see, with the right people in the right places. Often, these arrangements included various sums of money, whatever amounts their protectors thought they could press for, other times transactions between the parties might include certain commodities, as it were, narcotics, jewelry, companionship, etc. Consequently, Cisco’s Place operated with impunity.
Palo Pedro was a happy man, always smiling, greeting everyone who entered with a grin, eagerly pointing to empty places for them to settle into when they would arrive. His face, although jovial, often times much too jovial, made him appear not as friendly as you might imagine, but rather simple, like he was touched in the head, like a rubber-room resident at the local loco lounge. Those who knew him knew not to push Palo Pedro, certainly not like Cisco did. That was the legend that protected Palo Pedro. Most here in the cantina knew the story, and pity to those who didn’t, for this was valuable, even vital, some say critical, information to have. As the old folks are fond of saying, Palo Pedro’s reputation preceded him.
Only Rosalinda knew the true story between Cisco and Palo Pedro, and she certainly wasn’t letting that cat out of the bag. She would prefer people think what they wanted, all those wild stories about high-stakes card games and deadman’s poker hands, it was far better for her that they didn’t know the real facts. Even Palo Pedro, in all his ego-driven superiority, did not know all the details of that fateful night, and he was there! The truth to Rosalinda, in this case, was truly worth the risk.
Eddie looked up. Palo Pedro himself was grinning his way across the floor, two rickey glasses filled to the brim with amber rum, a squeezed lime wedged into a splash of orange juice poured over crushed ice with a twist of fresh mint leaf. The drinks were on a small circular tray held high above his head. Here he came, twisting sideways through the patrons who were gathering in groups, headed directly to their table tucked away in the corner, to serve them the drinks Rosalinda had ordered.
A brief tremor of terror rippled through his body. Brace yourself, Eddie reminded his increasingly nervous brain, stay calm, be confident. Palo Pedro was closing fast, smiling like the cheshire cat. Eddie scolded himself. Steady now, act like you don’t give a rat’s ass about that thing that happened. That unresolved incident between he and Pedro that occurred some time ago, down in Corpus Christi. That thing they never did get straightened out.
“Well, hello my long lost friend!” Palo Pedro smiled crookedly at Eddie handing both drinks to Rosalinda. “What brings you out of your hole?”
Pedro did not wait for a response, instead turned his back to face Rosalinda, “A cooling drink of refreshment for my beautiful and loyal companion.” Then he added, “You are still working tonight, yes?” His grin so wide his eyes were forced into thin slits from the pressure of his rising cheeks.
Eddie was trying to keep up, not privy to any new relationship between them. He hoped the introductions and pleasantries would soon die altogether and Palo Pedro would leave them alone. He wanted to enjoy Rosalinda’s company, and the soothing coolness of the fan, but mostly it was Rosalinda he wanted. To his great disappointment, that was not to be.
“Of course,” Rosalinda responded, “I am working. Am I not always available to you?” Her eyes were cast downward and didn’t appear to embrace either Palo Pedro or the tilt of the conversation. She smoothed her dress, folded her hands and placed them on her lap, like a schoolgirl waiting for the nuns to leave. She did not look up at Pedro, but straight at Eddie with a look he interpreted as pleading. Don’t just sit there, do something! Chase this ogre! Save me, my noble prince! He imagined her begging for salvation.
The trio of people, a rosary of personalities, separate but connected each to the other. Pedro looking at Rosalinda, she looking at Eddie and he looking inward, feeling the pressure to speak, confront Palo Pedro and save the precious Rosalinda, the woman with the romantic green eyes and jasmine scent that he could not smell but knew that scent he longed to breath deeply was lingering all around her. This was a woman with whom he had history, but none of it recent. This last fact made Eddie feel like he was treading on some dangerously unknown and unsteady ground.
Nonetheless, he pulled a hand through his straight dark hair, reestablishing the right-to-left swooping wave, and said, “I have not been in a hole, Pedro.” This he said flatly and immediately wished he had said something more worthwhile, more heroic.
Slowly, Palo Pedro swiveled to face him, “We must talk. Alone. Soon. Finish your drink, I’ll wait at the bar.” This was said with the tone of a school principal not wanting to alarm the children, said in such a way that all the adults would know that this is an extremely important matter that needed attention, like the stormtroopers were approaching the outer gates and the time, long known to be coming and greatly feared, has now arrived. Palo Pedro leaned over and placed both hands, balled into fists, on the table like he was preparing to perform a marine pushup. He looked at Eddie, moved to within six inches of his face to make his point, widened his eyes slightly, and tilted his head as if to say, You got that, Ace! Palo Pedro then turned without repositioning his fists punched into the table like twin-sculpted, knurled mushroom balls and smiled graciously at Rosalinda.
Palo Pedro slowly pulled one fist at a time from the table, letting the first come to a rest at his side before dragging off the second. He looked not unlike a Neanderthal man, posing at the natural history museum, while young children filed past and snickered. He looked back at Eddie and reconfirmed, “I’ll be at the bar. Don’t keep me waiting.” Palo Pedro stood up, straightened himself to his full height, readjusted the top button on his shirt, spun and paused, showing his back like a tango dancer and departed> His demeanor left no doubt who was in charge. His unseen grin widened with every step.
They both watched him make his grand departure. After a moment, still looking at Palo Pedro as he neared the far side of the room, Eddie said, “Do they always serve drinks like that here?” He looked back at Rosalinda. “So over the top in my opinion. Way too dramatic, don’t you think?” He forced a smile. Rosalinda turned to look at him, shifting her weight on the chair, and frowned.
“Okay, I’m kidding, I’ll go talk to him. I swear, I’ll get this all squared away,” he hastily said when his attempt at humor fell faster than a lead zeppelin. The frown on her face did not change. Eddie added, “Although I have no idea what this is all about,” he lied. That frown of hers was serious, like a mad clown holding a banana upside down against his mouth. “Maybe you could enlighten me a little?” he inquired. Damn, that’s the mother of all frowns, he thought, it was plastered up there, unmoving, it was Mount Rushmore, for chrissakes! He whispered across the table to Rosalinda, “You were supposed to smooth this over with them, no?”
He reached across the table and pulled his drink over from in front of Rosalinda where Palo Pedro had placed it, leaving a wet trail along the tabletop and raised the glass to his mouth. Eddie turned it a few times to find a place on the rim without mint leaves blocking his way and took a small sip. He waited for her to say something. Anything.
“Oh Eddie, why must it always be this way with me? I mean, we can never be without something hanging over your head?” she said, mixing her pronouns. “You know how hard I try, but I do not understand men at all, not even my darling son, RuhMoan, who constantly disappoints me, even as you do, Eddie?”
Her grammar is so much better than it used to be, thought Eddie absently, and she still looks good for her age, doesn’t she? Always kept herself firm. Curves in place. She is not too old for me, although I am about the same age as her son... I wonder if she would hold that against me. Enter fantasyland... Maybe we, the two of us, could get out of here and…
His brain was processing the words she had spoken on some sub-level, when it came to one particular word, that name, the one that caused an involuntary jerking spasm to race up his spine. An internal alarm was initiated that quickly ramped up to a raging siren, saturating his brain, muddling his thoughts.
The mention of her son, RuhMoan! That name shocked him out of his fantasy drift, jarred him back to the present, like metal banging on metal. Alert! Alert! The memories flooded back in quickly, like a monsoon soaked current, overpowering, bursting the damn of resentment that he had painstakingly built over the years. That damn kid. That damn, worthless kid! His mood and expression dropped like a nautilus grade submarine on emergency dive maneuvers. Surely this is not about RuhMoan! Not Again! Eddie, dazed, raised his rum drink and gulped a bouquet of pointy mint leaves down his rapidly constricting throat. C’mon now! This was NOT the plan!
The Moment of Change
Lying on her back, the ground hard and uncomfortable beneath her, the adobe mud walls were still cool from the night air and radiated a sharp chill back throughout the small, one room hut. Rosalinda leaned over to pull the thin blanket tighter around her infant baby lying beside her. Staring up at the peeling ceiling boards, she silently said to herself, “No more of this life, not for me and not for my new son.”
Her mother, Adalina, lay beside her on a thin straw mat motionless with exhaustive sleep. She had deep furrows in her face and hands, her fingers were cracked at the knuckles. Life was a daily struggle, a constant hard time, it was all they had ever known.
As Rosalinda lie awake on this morning, her mother’s words of advice echoed in her mind. Words that were spoken to her often during her childhood years, given as much for guidance as they were to head off any awkward questions, “You do whatever you have to do,” Adalina would always say, “it is not that hard my cherished daughter. Many times you have no choice in the matter anyway. Such is life.”
Similar words were said whenever they would wake together in yet another strange house, or a dilapidated barn, or a field with high dry, brittle tan grass shielding them from the dusty brown, rural dirt road. Mothers are capable of reading their daughter’s eyes and Rosalinda’s would awaken filled with questions about the day ahead, the night before, the loud men her mother went off with repeatedly.
Sometimes, on that rare occasion when things were going good, her mother would say to her, “In life, there is a rhythm you must find. You will know it when you do, for God smiles and you can feel His warmth no matter which way you turn, no matter which decision you make.”
Her mother’s many pieces of advice were, for her, weighty concepts to ponder, but not for today. She understood what she believed to be her mother’s meaning, the central intent of the words given her, and she appreciated that her mother cared to say them, but her full concentration was now required for this new turn in her life, she would have to reflect more fully on them at another time. For now, yet another of life’s many decisions, made only this very morning, indeed only a few minutes ago, was her new ruler. She was committed totally and would not be persuaded otherwise.
Alone in the starry cool night, carrying her baby tightly, she imagined herself crossing the Big River into a new life. The closer she came to the border, the more often she heard the same story from the old women, “Bring your baby into the States, tell them he was born there, that’s it, he will become a citizen and you are home free. It is so easy.” No more struggle, no more fear for the next dark night, the next strange man, the next unforeseen calamity waiting to appear. She had made up her mind, firmly, and she was sure now.
Her son would have opportunity, a chance to become someone, a person of dignity, not the kind of opportunity available to him here. That is the kind that leads to trouble more often than not, the path being chosen for him before he would even reach maturity. He would surely learn the ways of the street, acting like a furtive creature, wary and suspicious with no respect for himself or others. The thought of this happening to her sweet boy made her weep with sorrow and despair.
She turned onto her side, away from her mother, to hold her baby close to her, to smell deeply his infant innocence. “We will travel to the north today little one, to our freedom, to all things good, fair and just,” she whispered into his little ear. “A place where little boys can grow into strong, proud men, unafraid and confident.”
Rosalinda watched the little boy’s eyes roll under his delicate pale lids as if he understood the words being poured into his subconsciousness, even as he slept, and she hoped with all her being that these words were true.