The boy had gone to live in the south of Mexico after his parents had died. There he stayed in a large, walled house with a muchacha and an old man people called el Patroncito. Those same people thought the old man was the boy's grandfather.
During his first year at the Academy in the small city in which el Patroncito lived, the boy struggled. He had played futbol in chain-linked fields outside of Washington DC and Chicago, but didn't like it much. He spoke some Spanish, but with an accent that made his classmates laugh. And he hated punching, so he was beaten every day. Once, until he urinated in his uniform shorts and socks.
He hadn't been able to bring anything with him from either of his old houses or rooms. That's not the truth. He had brought his cell phone, but the battery had died a long time ago, and he hadn't been able to get it to work in Mexico anyway. In his new room in el Patroncito's dark house, he tried to occupy himself with learning new things.
Some of the new things he had discovered in el Patroncito's house were quite old. There was a deep red cabinet of books that stretched the entire length of the upper hall. It was lit from the inside by flickering orange lamps that showed the dust on the windows and warmed the little worms that coated the book tops and made their homes in the yellowing pages. All of the blood red leather books looked alike, from their swirled green-gold insides, their flimsy transparent pages covering pictures, the thick black and white drawings, and the edges cut even and covered in gold.
In a drawer he had found a gigantic pair of chrome scissors and a thin paperback in a box. It had been the only book in the cabinets in English. "From Sun to Sound". The box contained bits of wire, several diodes, a small black plate, and a twisted wire earphone the color of artificial limbs. The book contained a course in the concept of electricity. It hadn't required a soldering gun, though he wished it had. And after he read the instruction book it took only an hour to finish the kit. It was much later that he heard the sounds of the sun.
The boy had never had a grandfather, but el Patroncito was not his grandfather.
"If I were, you wouldn't be in this situation."
He had no relatives. El Patroncito was the only human who had treated him kindly since that day. When he arrived at the house, el Patron had patted his shoulder.
"You've been through a lot. Put your bags away and we'll eat something that Rosalia has cooked us. It won't be good, but in your state I don't think you'll care."
Rosalia had hurried him up the iron railed staircase, past the cabinet of books, to his dark room then returned to her tasks. He opened the heavy door to his room to find split logs crackling white in the small fireplace. The wooden bed shifted with his weight. He left his bags on the flat blanket. How badly he had wanted to sleep or to hide. El Patroncito yelled loudly from the front of the house. Why had he not come back immediately? Why had he not listened? Newness and fear overtook his loneliness.
From the first day, he felt that el Patroncito wanted to be rid of him. Had he ruined everything from the start by not listening? But he had been tired! Surely the old man hadn't expected him to run back down the stairs? He would never know. When he arrived at the thick wooden table, el Patroncito's eyes did not meet his. Rosalia laughed in her cocina. They ate stringy stewed pork and cold tortillas in silence broken only by the old man's knife grinding into his wooden plate. They didn't speak again until late next day.
During the first few months, the boy began to settle in to his new life and felt that he had been wrong about el Patroncito. It seemed the old man had begun to enjoy his company. He seemed to like teaching the boy. They went on walks--short walks around the square--by the sleeping indios and their blankets and wool-wrapped dolls. He told the boy what the city used to look like when he was young. He told the boy about how los indios used to have respect for ladinos who owned land like him.
"Where is your land, Patroncito?"
"Not so far in an automobile."
"Why don't you live there, Patroncito?"
"Don't call me that. Not in front of los indios."
The Indians gave their buenas tardes and tight-cheeked smiles to the old man, but they kept their black eyes on the boy. He couldn't tell precisely if they were smiling or if they hated him. Maybe in this place, no one could tell the difference.
When they got in el Patroncito’s car outside the house in San Cristobál, they both pretended that they were just going for another ride. Rosalia pretended too as she quietly packed his things and put them into the car's gaping trunk and just as quietly closed the trunk. All three of them pretended that they were going to see each other in the morning like always. They would be at the table in the morning. But then Rosalia lied. She said tomorrow she would make him enchiladas with mole rojo and a fried egg on top. She said he would have chocolate and el Patroncito would drink his jugo de toronja perfectado. Tasajo, Rosalia would grill thin strips of beef on the charcoal of the comal. She knew he loved meat that tasted like bacon. Rosalia smiled weakly at el Patroncito who laughed at her womanly weaknesses as they pulled away.
As they passed things in the old car he listened to the names el Patroncito gave them. Milpas were little backyard cornfields where people could get food. He could see them through the thinning jungle as the old man wound around the dizzying roads. Altares, though it sounded like the name of a star, were roadside collections of things with crosses and dolls. A regalito was the word for a thing. It was a general word. The old man called anything he gave to the boy un regalito. It meant he could keep it. Everything was either a regalito or a mio, and after a short time living with the old man he could tell one from the other without asking or being told.
He was tired, but the newness kept him awake. The newness he felt now made all other new things pitiful and trashy.
The old car had white leather seats and deep within its seams held the smell of the old man. Below the radio in the ashtray he kept a pack of Mexican Juicy Fruit. Sweet and yellow. Probably the car had air conditioning, but el Patroncito liked to ride in the wind as if he were riding a horse at 70 MPH. There were times that in a tight turn he heard the old man urge the car uphill with a "Hup" and a jab to the accelerator. The tires bit into the rough grained asphalt and the drumming engine grunted "Hum hum hump hummp" like a horse would.
In the twilight, the old man asked, "Are you hungry? We have hours more."
"What a good boy you are."
He felt sick inside. He knew he wasn't a good boy. He moved his head toward the window for air. People throw up when riding in a car. Something about riding around in a circle up a mountain and then down a mountain, over and over, never in a straight line, always curving, leaning, pushing against the force of the car, something made people sick. Did he feel sick or was it the badness coming up in his throat?
By now both he and el Patroncito knew that the ride had gone much further than a ride would go. They were clearly on a trip and all the more reason for Rosalia to have shut his things up in the trunk. El Patroncito called him a good boy like someone calls to a growling dog "good dog, easy boy". While all the time in your head you are thinking, "Don't bite me. Keep your teeth out of me. Stop trying to threaten me. Go to Hell."
He had become more interested in school. He had learned--for the most part--how to avoid the naive, inflammatory spiral that lead to a beating. He made awkward attempts to learn the way local children spoke.
After classes on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the School Director, Maestra Carla, studied with him in her oficina. There were grey rings below her eyes, from smoking he thought, and further he thought how much of a dinosaur she must be still to smoke. In her tutoring she used many words he hadn't yet learned, and when they were words he did know, she used them in phrases he didn't understand. Maestra. At home he thought of her as "My Esther" and eventually as "MyEsthra" with the lisp he had been taught in his Chicago school. The thoughts came as words out of his mouth like drool as he playacted in Spanish. The world was a tremendous sleepy fiction and he practiced to blend better into the dream. He remembered that his father never liked his Spanish teacher in Chicago. Señora Wel-ton.
"We don't learn Spanish to go to freaking Spain. We learn it to speak with Americans. I don't want to hear you lisp just because some tongue-lame king of Spain once did."
At school he had taken pride in the clarity of his American Spanish, even though it had meant lower marks from Señora Wel-ton. It would serve him well in Mexico.
"Who spoke Spanish to you like this? This accent?"
The boy didn't know how he should understand the Maestra. She made him ashamed. He closed his book and thanked her for his lessons.
"You are a funny little man." She put her hand on top of his book, preventing him from packing it in his valise. His valise was from Guatemala. His father told him there had been a sad story about the valise, but had died before he could tell the boy the story.
He tried to pry the edge of the book up with his fingers. He was tired and when her smell came to him he began to cry. Smoke and sweat and a sour warmth hit him full force in the back of his nose. He wasn't prepared for how the memories would come back. Her perfume, dormant under her hair, stirred when she comforted him and it fell, in a heavy mist, like late cocktail party goodbyes on his neck and burning his eyes. He pushed against her chest and she locked her arm around the back of his head, turning his arms sideways away from her breasts but making him buck more wildly, slowly forcing him to give in to her comfort.
"No, no," was all she said. She kept him pressed against her warm throat, her jugular vein pulsing and writhing under her trim jaw. When she relaxed her hold, he struck hard enough to draw blood from her lip and nose. Her face froze as it watched his. She held up her hand to stop him and then slapped down across his nose and mouth. She pulled him close to her again. Her blood stuck to his hair. His lip throbbed thick. "No," she whispered to him. Her blood was like war paint on his cheekbones. They both took pride in the clarity of the symbol of blood. Playing in the park near his old home he and his friends used to practice dying. Blood made dying more real.
Sunlight reflected in the sky above them as el Patroncito's car circled the mountains like a coin in one of those parabolic coin collector experiments that some kids museums have. The old car poured its weak headlights orange on the road ahead of them, but el Patroncito seemed to know the road better than the lights did, swerving before they lit the tight curve of a turn. He settled into sleep. There was nothing new about darkness.
He dreamt of a woman with long black hair that fell in gently twisted strands across her face. It barely moved as she danced in front of a brick wall. The most movement came from her chin that she swung questioningly back and forth like a clock's pendulum--she kept her eyes fixed on him. She wore a white bra with narrow black straps under her thin robe. She looked at him as she danced and she broke into a laugh once she no longer could keep her seriousness. She laughed at him, but it was kind. She made him feel mean, but she was kind. She made him want to scream. He breathed hot on himself. His neck felt heavy; it was hard to hold up his head. Looking up from his down turned face, his eyes cramped. But he wanted to keep his eyes on her. She danced as if she were concerned the robe would fall. But she wasn't concerned. His breath was warm and her dances had a glitch in them as if her movements weren't well animated. Her plastic curves bounced in overemphatic jumps. She was indeed poorly drawn. Like something he had hatched when no one was watching. The detail given to her woman places made him ache. While there was little attention given to her back or to her knees, her inner thighs bowed and made a tight "y" around her pubic bone behind the robe.
"Why do you pretend you're asleep when you're awake?"
"What about school?" the boy said, his eyes now open but his head still horizontal on the padded leather.
"You are going to take some time off from school. You are going to spend some time with laabuelita. There are things she can teach you that they don't know in your spoiled school and its perverted Direktora."
"Who is laabuelita?" the Boy asked.
The morning blue hung thick in the tops of the trees that ringed the valley. The headlights did no good now, but to the old man they were necessary. He wouldn't turn them off for another hour; he liked to keep the interior dials lit.
The fog in the air and the chill of the Cadillac's seats unsettled the boy. He was disoriented from lack of sleep and the dizzying curves, but as he looked down the contour of the valley highway into San Juan Chamula he knew he would find comfort there.
"Who is laabuelita?" the Boy asked again, this time audibly.
"She is a very wise woman you can think of as your own grandma. She will take care of you until I come back."
"Where are you going?" The boy did not record the answer because he did not care what the answer would be.
With the pueblo in sight, it would take another hour to get to it. The boy didn't know this. To him it seemed as if at the next turn the road would finally take a decisive, business like cut down to the blue smoke chimneys and tall white steeple of the groggy town. He was groggy himself.
The boy's eyes shot open. The scream had felt like a sharp shovel against his spine. Had it been the old man? It had sounded more like a young woman. El Patroncito had his eyes focused on the road. He had not been startled at all. The boy's ears rang with the echoing metallic aftertaste of the scream.
"Tres balazos..." the old man sang to himself.
The words added to his vibrating head made him want to vomit.
"Close your eyes," he told himself as he cracked the electric passenger window.
He could feel the evidence of the scream--in the ball at the base of his neck. The vibrations came from there. His two shoulder blades pushed him away from his seat and toward the windshield. He took shallow breaths.
The wind howled like an out of control fighter plane I can't hold it, I'm going down, not responding, I'm going until the diving sound is flecked with British sirens. As this one drains away, sixteen other planes are going down. Then there is a bell or the thump of a mallet deep in a rusted ship's belly.
He felt powerful and powerless as if he were breaking his own back and unable to choose to stop. Suddenly it stopped on its own.
"How did you sleep?"
"Look up, we're here."
The pueblo of San Juan Chamula tilted in front of the car like a map. Had this been the destination the whole time? In the distance he saw a white church in the center of town outlined in green with torn colored paper emanating from its bells like fire or puke. The church was pure white and stood out from the surrounding concrete block homes. It had no spires, but he could make out its large wooden door from a distance of miles. It seemed to have a window above it. A window with the white shade half drawn.
The rest of the town swept gently up the hills toward them. The church pointed up from the lowest level of the town. Two paved roads angled around the church. For a moment he considered how the town must have appeared when the church was first built. The valley must have looked like a huge, signal receiving dish without its uneven concrete block structures confusing the slope. He could blink and see that.
The tops of the hills were covered in wispy evergreens, but only a few struggled up between the structures below. There was a basketball court, a real one, pavement painted red and its borders white. It was near a school.
The first person he saw from Chamula was an Asian girl wearing a ponytail on the front of her head and sideburns. He was surprised to see Asians living in Mexico. Maybe this place is like a camp where people change their lifestyles and live out their fantasies, he thought. She pushed her bike toward the top of the hill and stared as they passed.
By the time they wound around the big parking lot in front of the church, the sun had risen higher than the wall of the valley.
A sick dog ran along ahead of the car as the old man drove past an empty fountain. The dog seemed to be looking for something and it paused at slight bends in the road. The old man braked, but he would not sound his horn. The longer the dog lolled in the street, the more incensed the old man became. But no horn.
Finally he leaned out the window, pulling on the wooden steering wheel to balance him and hoarsely cried, "Pinche fucking bitch, move out of the road! Haaaaaaaaaa."
The old man fell back into his seat. The dog ignored the taunt, sniffing the air. Not even his ears betrayed him to el Patrón.
"No, not here. That's it. You'll see. This is like no other place in Mexico."
The road was not much more than a trail. El Patroncito's Cadillac crept forward, trying to squeeze past the dog. The boy heard the woody underbrush beat against its right side panels and scrape into the paint. The dog adjusted himself and sealed off the old man's escape. The tires slid to a stop in the gravel and the old man threw the lever into park. He pushed hard to open the long, heavy door and it bounced off the back of the hinge.
The old man scuffed his shoes in the red dust on the way to the dog, nearly covering it in a cloud. Still, the dog didn't move. El Patroncito crouched down. His jaw rippled as he spoke to the dog. The dog finally looked over his shoulder at the shuddering old man. His ears perked and his head cocked. From the underbrush a fat man emerged with a broad smile. He spoke to el Patroncito while shaking his head disappointedly at the dog. The old man opened up a stream of words on the man. When the stream ended el Patroncito returned, leaned into the car and told the boy to get out.
"You'll walk up to the house. Cocodrillo will take you and your things."
"Why don't we move the dog?"
"Cocodrillo!" The old man opened the trunk. He paid Cocodrillo and slammed the car into reverse, spinning the wheels backward away from the dog.
"Cuidado, Patroncito!" Cocodrillo laughed as the Cadillac was already out of earshot. The dog looked up and smiled, then trotted into the brush.
Cocodrillo pulled the wheeled luggage uphill toward little valleys from the last season of rain. His white trousers were wide and red-trimmed with the dust of the town. His feet were flat and padded. He turned back to see the boy hadn't moved.
"Come on, little man. Your grandma is waiting."
A cloud of red dust spread out after the Cadillac in the direction of the mountain pass.
"You don't want to keep lafuente waiting. You'll see. Let's go."
The hills were warm and gave off the pungent smell of guayaba fruit. Smoke rose from the only house he could see below, but the rest of the valley seemed hazy. He smelled burning corn husks.
A black bird sitting on a telephone wire flipped its long tail twice. A burro brayed in the empty town below them. The white church still drew his eyes. How long would it take for things to become familiar? When would he stop noticing things?
As they struggled upward through the sandy scrub, the boy kept his head down. This would be a good place to find scorpions. Cocodrillo stopped to hike his pants back up to his waist. The bottoms of his pants were unraveling.
"It was faster coming down the other side of the hill. Where is the road?"
What had been tall, hardy bushes now were casting shade on the troop as they walked, obscuring the hills. The ground beneath the bushes became deeper and deeper vees, roots protecting their earth from the constant erosion by either water or animal. The boy pushed uphill from one side of the vee to the other. The dust covered his calves and ringed the top of his socks.
It was cool in the shade. Cocodrillo stopped again and leaned the bags against the trunk of a sheltering, grey-green bush-tree. The low branches had been trained up to the main trunk, wrapped hundreds of times with long, fibrous grasses to hold them in place. It shot upward and out like a picnic umbrella. The ground below the bush had been flattened by footprints and dotted by the rounded pads of dogs.
That was the path Cocodrillo took to Laabuelita's house.
They were insulated from the bass drum beat of the Mexican sun.
Cocodrillo dragged the boy's case to the taut quiver of boughs and sat on a warm rock in the tree's shade.
"Is it so far away from here that you must stop? Aren't we close?"
"Of course, little guy, it's not too far at all. I've been up all night and I can hardly see I'm so tired. But it's not far. This way," Cocodrillo motioned uphill.
The boy felt some comfort in these words, and although he knew it would have put the tired man at ease, he couldn't bring himself to sit with the man.
"I have some food," the boy said embarrassed by the amount of food that the muchacha had packed for him. He didn't know the words for sharing or to make someone older feel welcome.
"Sure, I can smell it. La Fuente will give us something hot when we get there. Don't worry about me. I am like a dog to your abuela."
"She's..." the boy almost corrected. "Why does she treat you that way?"
"Sure, I help her any way I can--why not? She knows me since I was little, since my own grandma fell asleep and died. And she's like my teacher," Cocodrillo said as he lay his head against the umbrella tree and exhaled his eyes closed.
For a moment the boy watched Cocodrillo thinking he wasn't quite finished with what he was saying. The man was fat and the fat covered up most of the indian angles the boy was used to seeing in San Cristobál, leaving only his gently curved nose to relate him to pyramids, caracoles, and the ball courts the boy loved.
Cocodrillo gasped, then took in a series of stair step breaths until his tortoise shell belly rounded and held firm. He exhaled calmly, but there were no more words. Soon he was snoring.
The boy had eaten two cold tamales by the time the little fat man awoke. He had peeled the aluminum foil away from the tamales as he ate and dropped nearly nothing, but the smell had brought several dogs from the thick underbrush. He felt the dogs meant him no harm, but they nodded their heads tipping upwards in short jerks as if they were already eating. It was disconcerting. Earlier a clump of masa fell to the ground at the feet of one that looked like a racing dog. The boy had crushed the chunk into the dry dirt before the dog could reach it. Finally the man el Patroncito had called Cocodrillo woke up. The endless waiting, how much of his life was taken up with waiting? The boy crumpled the foil and squeezed it to make the man move more quickly.
Cocodrillo watched the boy fold his paper food bag, "And the dogs, little fellow. When do they see their share? You could have waited until we got to Laabuelitalafuente's house. Now you must participate."
He wasn't sure what the man meant. It must have been a joke. Why not? Cocodrillo was jovial, at least in appearance. He couldn't tell from the language when people were joking. It sounded funny. And it may have been funnier if it didn't mean he was going to have to wait to find out what he was saying.
"Let's go, shall we?" the boy laughed.
Cocodrillo didn't start up the hill until the boy had fed the dogs his prized tasajo, the only food he had left. He had been saving the precious strips of grilled steak for the night in case he didn't like Laabuelita's cooking.
Twenty minutes later as the pair struggled further up the hillside, the boy finally asked, "Were they wild, those dogs?"
"What those? Those were little babies. It's just protocol, little guy. You don't be afraid of those doggies."
"I wasn't afraid. I just...What's protocol?"
"Just what happens here in Mexico. Is that pack getting heavy for you?"
"A little bit," the boy admitted as much to acknowledge a rare kindness as the ridiculousness that he was dragging things he had forgotten were even in the Cadillac's trunk. Cocodrillo took his pack not waiting to hear the stalling response. He noticed the man's brown arms, solid and four times thicker than his own. He wondered where Mexicans split off from Americans in evolution and genetics. They didn't stink as much, that's for certain. Even in this heat.
They stopped next to a drainage ditch that dropped down from the hill they were climbing. The earth was moist in the vee of the ditch, but no water was flowing.
"Are we going to cross here?"
"Noooo. Never cross this water, little man. Never. It is the pure gift from the one who lives above."
"Who lives…? Dios?"
Cocodrillo laughed. "Hey, it's your granny who lives up there. We're getting close."
"She sends the water?"
"Yes, that is the water. That is the water from La Fuente that she gives to us for ourselves and for generations."
"Shouldn't she send more? It looks dry."
"No, she sends as much as we can use. She knows what is needed and what can be discarded. She knows when maíz can be lost and when it will grow to be fruitful. She has the protocol for that, too. Bless her for she blesses all of us."
The sharp edge of the ravine crumbled into the brown grasses along the top. The boy pulled back his foot. From the other side, a dog hung his tongue beneath a bush and looked up to the boy with round eyes.
"And the dogs?"
"Yes, Laabuelitalafuente loves the dogs. She blesses all of us. There is enough for us all."