Sunday, November 9, 2008

Flecha Caída

Oscar slumped in an armchair in a corner of the room. He watched the men looking awkward but eager in their stiff jeans, the women affecting bandannas around their necks and pert western hats on their way out to pose against the rails of the corral, he supposed—a few kids running around outside in leather chaps, just bought at the outfitters in town. It was swell. People came here from back east because they were sick. To pretend they were Gary Cooper, Dale Evans, maybe even Cochise or Geronimo—he didn’t know or care. He was here to do a job.

It had taken him precisely 203 hours to travel to this outpost in the American desert. Women boarding the bus, crying “Arroz y gallina!,” men with cases of patent medicines, even clowns doing their hackneyed routine for spare change. Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora. Leaving the ocean behind, the air grew so dry that he choked on it.

And maybe he was sick. He felt dull in the heat that descended from heaven and rose again with a great bounce. He’d let himself think he’d grow old on the coast of Jalisco. Might as well admit he’d imagined himself in Maria’s soft arms, fleshier now that they had the boy and the girl—it was a pathetic dream. He shoved it roughly aside.

His partner, Jones, had cabled him at the hotel where he’d holed up in Puerto Vallarta—BOY DEAD AT RANCH STOP CAN YOU TAKE CASE STOP And what else was there. Perhaps one death would erase another.

Mostly he wished he were anywhere but in the corner of this low-ceilinged, wood-beamed, white-plastered room with the leather chairs that were supposed to say something like “gaucho” when you sat in them. When you sat in them, you were waiting for something.

The manager of the Flecha Caída came up, rubbing his palms. The man was short, an eastern type, like a marshmallow. Could be he came out west himself to take a cure, found a demand for his bookkeeping skills, maybe not much to go back to in Des Moines or Scranton or wherever it was he came from. Oscar straightened up. The man’s eyes were sliding around the room. When he finally looked at Oscar it was only for a second, literally one second, and then they slipped south again, veered over to the entrance to the dining room, then went out the window. Oscar filed it away. The guy probably knew something.

He was bursting with nerves as he led Oscar up a worn path, prickly pear and teddy bear cholla and sage stretching toward the Catalinas. There in a clearing, hummingbirds buzzing around the saguaro, was a little cabin. Mr. Elmer knocked on the door like a man used to knocking on doors behind which something was going on that whoever was doing it didn’t want him knowing about. There was no answer. He pulled the correct key from his pocket and opened it. There was a narrow stairway just to the right. Mr. Elmer looked at those stairs like he was looking at a snake with an open mouth. He gestured to Oscar, go on up. Didn’t want to be seen from behind, maybe.

Oscar eased into a room under the eaves. That’s where it happened, and nobody knew why. A few 45s illuminated by a single bare bulb, a program from a high school play wedged between the floorboards, a paperback western in the closet behind two single mattresses, and a boy, not even sixteen years old, hanging from a frayed lariat.

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