Monthly Archives: May 2010

New Mexico Noir: Mr. Spade or Mr. Darcy?

I sank under the weight of the hamburger and fries in my gut. I wasn’t a soda drinker, but I could understand that a sugary and caffeinated beverage provided a necessary boost after such a meal. Normally, I would have washed it down with an unsweetened iced tea and lemon wedge. Walt didn’t know that, of course, and had ordered me a diet Coke.

I took one sip and nearly gagged on the poisonous taste of the beverage. I could not understand how anybody thought that stuff tasted all right. I set it aside and drank another cup of black coffee. It was time to get back to work, lethargic as I felt.

Anthony was taciturn all afternoon, my very own low-class Spanish Mr. Darcy, who spent the rest of the day sitting at his desk and writing himself notes, or hiding in his bedroom, where all his mysterious boxes sat in stacks.

Walt, on the other hand, had no Jane Austen character equivalent. He was more of a Sancho Panza. He wandered off never to be seen again, ostensibly on foot, rather than on an ass.

The silence of the house mixed with the drone of the swamp cooler was delicious. I filed the rest of the folders away until dizziness set in and my leg muscles cramped. At some point, I noticed, Anthony had placed a black telephone with answering machine on the desk, and I could see the various wires snaking across the floor. I could see where they were plugged in the wall, even though they appeared lifeless.

I looked at the phone time and again before I finally rose and lifted the receiver. It was dead, no dial tone, nothing.

I walked down the hallway and knocked on Anthony’s bedroom door and pushed it open without waiting for a response. The room was in complete disorder. It looked as if Anthony had frantically opened any and every box without regard to the labels he’d written on them as guides. Books and photographs fanned out across the floor.

“Are you going to get phone service any time soon?” I asked him.

“You can use my cell phone if you need to.”

“I need to.”

He dutifully handed it to me, and I carted it away so I could speak privately to my brother. I sat in the swivel chair set at Anthony’s desk, and I felt satisfied with myself. Surely, I, as the secretary, must have the only available desk.
I fully expected to leave a message on my brother’s voice mail. He surprised me by answering.

“Hey, Matthew. I need to stay at your place.”

“What? Why? What phone are you calling from?”

“This is my work number.”

“That’s great, I’ll add it to my contacts. You can’t stay here, Ella.”

His voice had a familiar distant ring to it. It was the ring I’d heard often when he was married to his ex. “I don’t understand. Just the other day you told me I could stay with you and help you watch Caitlyn.”

“Shania and I are trying to work things out, and it never works with you around. You hate Shania.”

What was he saying? Shania was his ex-wife. Wasn’t it a little too late to work things out? It was always like this with my brother, though. Shania did it to him. “I don’t hate her, exactly. I don’t like the way she cheated on you and lied to you, but other than that, we had so much in common. Like, for example, we both have older brothers who are idiots. How can you get back together with a woman you divorced?”

A long silence filled the space from phone to cell tower to phone.

“Mateo? Are you still there?”

“I’m here. We never signed the divorce papers. I thought it would be better for Caitlyn if we didn’t divorce. I knew Shania would eventually come back.”

I closed my eyes and tried to collect my thoughts. There was no use in telling him that her mother’s games weren’t good for Caitlyn either. There was no use, particularly because Caitlyn would always be subjected to her mother’s games, as long as Shania had partial custody.

I did the only thing I could; I changed the subject. “Do you have a key to mom and dad’s house?”

“No. Why?”

“I need to get something I left over there. And they’re impossible to get a hold of. Does anybody have a key?”

“I don’t know. Why would they tell me if they’d given somebody a key? They didn’t tell you, did they? And you’re their favorite.”

I let out a sigh of exasperation. “Whatever, bro. I’ll talk to you some other time. I hope things work out for you and Shania.”

I slammed the phone shut.


I looked up, startled, to see Anthony standing about two feet away from me: damned gumshoe on carpeting, or whatever had made it possible for him to creep silently into the living room and eavesdrop on my conversation.

I handed him his phone. “Do you know how to break into houses?”

“That depends on why you’re asking me.”

“I need to break into my parents’ house and look for something. You don’t have to worry about them pressing charges. They wouldn’t do that to me, and, really, it’s my house, too. My bedroom is still there, with a lot of my stuff from high school that my mom refused to get rid of. So, it wouldn’t really be breaking in at all.”

“I’ve got a set of lock pick tools I can teach you to use, if you promise to only use them for the purpose you just mentioned.”

“On my honor.”

The vision of Anthony as my Spanish Mr. Darcy faded as suddenly as it had sprung up. Mr. Darcy would never have known how to pick locks. My life seldom reflected the literature that I loved, the books I’d read for my degrees in Spanish and English literature.

My jobs rarely reflected my education, either, unless my pulp paperback noir mysteries counted as part of a different sort of education altogether. I looked at Anthony, who was checking the messages on his phone.

A nervous thrill ran down my spine. It should have sent warnings signals to the rest of my body, but the only messages I received were yes, yes, yes.


Y las mariposas

Folk songs tell stories in a microcosm. Traditionally, they record stories of history, which do not always or often end happily. This is a song by Pancho Barraza that, several years ago, I listened to repetitively for its melancholic sound (many people have done this song, so I can’t say who is the original artist). I appreciate it for its simplicity, and for the way it tells a story in very few words.

I’m not going to translate it for you, but will give you the gist: it’s a love story between two young people, a girl of 15 and a boy of 17. They fall in love in a spring wheat field, where there are butterflies flying from flower to flower and all around them. Then it is winter, and they are older. It’s a time without flowers. She’s a housewife, and he’s a poet (obviously, as the song is from his perspective, and only a poet could write a line like cuando hasta el alma se encuentra en flores).

The song tells a story with a lingering sadness, perhaps from nostalgia. It doesn’t tell the whole story, however, and that is why it lingers in the mind. Did they stay together? Are they happy? It’s winter for them now, but that doesn’t mean they are unhappy, especially since they can hold onto their love by imagining the butterflies that they encountered in that afternoon so long ago.

Yes, but who can really hold onto butterflies without crushing them? It’s a delicate business, for sure.

Era una tarde de primavera
cuando hasta el alma se encuentra en flores
yo 17, tu quinceañera
tu colegiala y yo soñador

Y en aquel trigal
el sol cayó primero
despues un pantalón vaquero
y una falda escolar

Y las mariposas
volaban alrededor
y nos enteramos por primera vez
lo que es el amor

Y las mariposas
y las mariposas
y las mariposas
volaban de flor en flor
y nos enteramos por primera vez
lo que es el amor

Era una tarde de primavera
hoy es invierno y ya no hay flores
el tiempo pasa quien lo dijera
tu ama de casa y yo trovador

En aquel trigal
el sol cayó primero
despues un pantalón vaquero
y una falda escolar

Y las mariposas
volaban alrededor
y nos enteramos por primera vez
lo que es el amor.


New Mexico Noir: The Cranes

I looked up from my spot on the floor to see Walt and Anthony lounging against the antique desk they’d moved into the living room. Apparently, their one big effort of dragging it in here was enough to justify doing nothing.

I admit that they’d had to play at contortionist tricks to fit it through the doorway, and then maneuver it through the crooked hallway, but now they were the ones acting like antique fixtures. For heaven’s sake, they weren’t talking or anything. All I could hear was the whine of cicadas that drifted in through the open windows.

For my part, I was filing away folder after folder and finding nothing from the famous year, 2008, or the alcoholic year, 2009. My blood sugar had dropped to a dangerous level hours before. Plus, the heat made me feel prickly with annoyance. Sweat dripped down my back and past the waistband of my slacks.
I bent over to pull the last stack of files from what now seemed a cavernous box.

“Ay, nalgacitas!” Walt said.

The idiot could speak. I pushed myself up and stood and glared at them: Walt with his blank face, as if he’d not said something inappropriate, and Anthony with his amused smile. When literary characters stare daggers into people, it must be highly satisfying for them.

“It’s too damned hot in here,” I said. “And I could use a lunch break, if you don’t mind.”

“Hey, Walt,” said Anthony.

Walt continued to stare blankly at a spot on the wall behind my head.

“Walt, come back from Mars and go hook up the swamp cooler.”

Walt’s blank eyes rolled up to the ceiling. “I’m afraid of heights.”

“Fine, I’ll do it. You go buy some burritos from the burrito lady. Ella, you can take a break.”

“Why thank you, Anthony,” I sweetly said. Not that I needed his permission. I knew my rights as an employee, W4 or no.

Anthony put his hands on my shoulders. “Relax.” He squeezed hard and stared at me intently for a moment before letting go.

Obviously, he was the one who needed to relax. The combination of his intense gaze and his painfully short and hard massage were enough to make me want to collapse in fear.

Moments later, I heard his heavy footsteps clanging up a ladder and clomping over the rooftop. I stepped down into the kitchen to see if I could find the necessary supplies for making coffee. Happily, I plugged in an old coffee pot to discover that it still worked. I also found an old can of store brand coffee. It wasn’t Starbucks, but it would do.

I was just sipping a fresh hot cup of coffee when the swamp cooler magically blew moistened air on me. At the same time, Walt and Anthony banged in the door, Walt carrying several Blake’s Lotaburger bags that smelled of hot burgers and fries.

While Walt and I scarfed food with the relish of a skinny girl and a fat man respectively, Anthony ate about three fries before his bat ears pricked up to the sounds outside. He found a pair of binoculars in a kitchen cupboard and took up post at the kitchen window.

“What’s he doing?” I asked with my mouth full of burger.

“Sabrina’s over at Mrs. Garcia’s,” Walt said and wiped ketchup from his hands and face. “Give me the binocs, Tony. I want to see what’s going on.”

“I’m investigating, all right?” Anthony held the binoculars out of reach of his short primo, just as a child would do.

With my naked eye, I could see a petite, dark-haired girl in silhouette with low-cut jeans and white half-shirt which was a bare covering for her small, perky breasts. Irritated with Anthony’s voyeurism, I snatched the binoculars from him. Not only was I almost as tall as he was, unlike Walt, but he wasn’t expecting my assault.

“What are we looking for?” I asked.

The girl hugged Mrs. Garcia’s shoulders with her thin butterscotch-colored arms. It wasn’t exactly damning behavior.

“You aren’t looking for anything,” said Anthony, and snatched the binoculars back from me.

“Voyeur,” I muttered. Sugary skin-tone notwithstanding, the girl was not yet out of high school.

“What? You think I want to check out sixteen-year-old tramps? My daughter’s sixteen.”

I felt justifiably defensive for the girl. “How do you know she’s a tramp?”

Walt snorted with laughter. “Everybody knows that.”

“Logical fallacy number one,” I said.

“She’s wearing red lipstick, hoop earrings, and a tummy-less shirt,” said Anthony. “I wouldn’t let my daughter leave the house like that.”

“Yes, but why do you care?”

It seemed an obvious question to me. Even trampy girls need time with the local neighborhood grandma. Herman rounded the corner from the backyard, so it seemed that grown men also needed time with Mrs. Garcia. As soon as she saw Herman, Sabrina stalked off to the house, letting the screen door slam as she disappeared from view.

“I don’t trust her,” said Anthony. “That’s all there is to it. She didn’t have any time for her Grandma before now, so what’s she up to?”

“Maybe her family life is bad,” I suggested, which warranted no response. “Maybe you should just go over there and find out what she’s doing. In any case, I can’t see how you’re going to learn something by watching her through binoculars, unless, of course, you really are a voyeur.”

Anthony set the binoculars on the windowsill and resumed eating. In Mrs. Garcia’s yard, Herman was demonstrating his Tai Chi crane posture. Mrs. Garcia watched him for a minute and then tried the posture herself. I hated to say it, but neither looked as if they would be flying gracefully away any time soon.

And Anthony only seemed to care about the graceful girl who’d hidden herself away in the adobe house across the street. To me, Herman with his grand bigote was far more fascinating.


Whole Foods Sting

Otto, in his wide-brimmed hat, was not used to doing business in this neighborhood.  Still, he’d had a genuine referral for the sale, and, if nothing else, he felt it was his duty to help the world by bringing his product to everybody.  He was even willing to give it away.  His product sold itself, so it wasn’t a waste of the good stuff, the snowy white, cream-of-the-crop stuff.  After the first time, his customers were always hooked.

He thought of himself as a savior, in a way: a savior who could turn lives around even in this Whole Foods, tofu-eating neighborhood.

He lurked in the shadows out back of the Whole Foods grocery, inhaling the reek of the dumpster.  Where he lived, he’d smelled a lot worse.  Rotting vegetables and shit were usual there.  If he could bring his operation to this upscale neighborhood, he’d never have to worry about addicts who couldn’t pay.  These people had money, and God knew it took a lot of the green stuff to keep his business afloat.

When he saw a man wearing an expensive business suit circle around to the back of the building, he stiffened.  A suit wasn’t necessarily a tip-off, but it wasn’t what he was used to his customers wearing.  Well, he would give the guy a chance.  He really was a savior, helping desperate mothers and businessmen alike.

The man stepped into the shadows and turned up his nose at the smell. “You Otto?”

“That’s me.”

“You got the product?”

“It’s in my truck.  You got the cash?”

“Sure, I got your money, but I want to see the stuff first.  Is it clean?  That’s all I want to know—that I’m buying quality product.”

Otto gave the man a discerning look.  He was sweating, and his hands were fidgeting.  He didn’t look too healthy, either, and he smelled of fast food and acrid body odor.  Otto wasn’t certain whether he trusted him.  More than anything, Otto smelled fear.

“Hey, no money today.  I’m ready to give you a free sample.”

“What for?”

“Technically, I don’t sell anything.  I like to bring neighborhoods into a kind of co-op, if you know what I mean.  Everybody is part owner and buys shares.”

“I don’t know about that.   I’m just looking for a steady dealer.  My last one was sent up to state.”

Otto, normally mild-mannered, was suddenly furious.  “You have anything to do with that?  If you’re talking about Conrad, he was one of my men.”

The man backed up, his hands raised as though he was afraid Otto would bust his nose.  “I didn’t do anything, I swear.”

Otto willed himself to remain calm.  “Come with me, and I’ll show you what I got.”

<“That’s cool.”

Otto studied him again.  There was something about the man that was wrong.  He could feel it, if not smell it.  But the referral was genuine, he reminded himself.  Jane had given it, and she was one of his best customers.  She would never double-cross him.

With trepidation, Otto stepped from the shadows and led him to the truck.  What happened to Conrad could not happen to him.  For a start, Otto was careful and always had been.  Conrad was a risk-taker.

Once there, he unlocked the passenger door and retrieved a small container from the cooler.  “Take a sample and make sure it’s pure.  I don’t mind.”

The man sniffed at it, nodded, and then tasted it.  “Oh, yeah, this is the best there is.  Can I have some more?  I need it to last me a few days.”

“Sure.  I’m in a giving mood today.”

“Here, take some money.  I can’t have it for free, can I?”

Otto pushed the money back at the man.  “No, I don’t want your money.  Not today.  We’ll discuss that part of the arrangement later.”

“Think of it as a donation.”  He pressed the bills into Otto’s palm.

Otto shrugged.  “I guess a donation’s all right.”  As soon as he said it, he knew he’d made a mistake.

The man’s body went rigid, and he yanked a taser from inside his suit jacket.  “Put your hands up where I can see them!” he shouted.

“I never carry weapons with me; I’m a conscientious objector.”

Obviously, Otto’s peace-loving stance didn’t impress the man, because he found himself in shock, literally, the taser pressed into his side.  His body jolted back against his truck, knocking out the cooler and all its contents with an enormous crash.  After the black-suited thug let up, Otto was able to focus again and could see that the parking lot had rapidly filled with more black-suited thugs, who evacuated their black vehicles and trained guns at him.

Otto complied with them.  He would have liked to be the savior of health for this neighborhood, but his finest supply of creamy, raw milk ran in rivulets over the grease-stained parking lot of the Whole Foods.

How had he convinced himself he wasn’t a risk-taker?  Conrad’s situation should have been a lesson to him.  Just like Conrad, he’d left the farm for greener pastures, and now he’d have to trade in his shady hat and black overalls for a pair of orange coveralls.

Otto didn’t like the color orange.  He preferred black pants and white milk and his own green pastures.  Sadly, he allowed himself to be cuffed and shoved into the back of an unmarked vehicle.  He thought of his wife and seven children, and all of the other children who would have to live without his milk.

In the back of his mind, though, he knew he would go back into business as soon as he got out.  And when he did, he would leave this tofu-loving neighborhood—his childhood neighborhood, actually—to their Whole Foods grocery, where they could only buy heavily pasteurized and homogenized sludge.

A prophet, he remembered, was never welcome in his own home town.


Poetry Tuesday: La Musa Que Inspira Sonetos or The Muse that Inspires Sonnets

There is danger in writing poetry. There is danger in venturing into the world, armed with verse. There is danger in displaying the poetry of the heart to the world. In that regard, Sor Juana was a hero and a warrior.

For my part, I view Sor Juana as either my muse, or the bearer of the muse that in turn inspires me. Were the sonnets to flow in perfection from my fingers as they did from her ink-dipped quill, I would be trembling with delight. Instead, I’m still waiting, holding my breath–holding that inspiration inside until it pours out.

Below is one of her sonnets that is all about risk. Sometimes, analyzing risk is paralyzing. I will post her sonnet, and then a translation by Margaret Sayers Peden*. Translations are tricky, and I often find that remaining true to the syllabic and rhyme may cause a loss of meaning. Sayers Peden’s translation is not at all bad, and you will understand the gist of the poem.

Soneto 149

Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte

Si los riesgos del mar considerara,
ninguno se embarcara; si antes viera
bien su peligro, nadie se atreviera
ni al bravo toro osado provocara.

Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera
quien con discreta mano lo enfrenara.

Pero si hubiera alguno tan osado
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiese gobernar con atrevida

mano el rápido carro en luz bañado,
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado que ha de ser toda la vida.

Sonnet 149

Spiritedly, She Considers the Choice of a State Enduring Unto Death

Were the perils of the ocean fully weighed,
no man would voyage, or, could he but read
the hidden dangers, knowingly proceed
or dare to bait the bull to frenzied rage.

Were prudent rider overly dismayed,
should he contemplate the fury of his steed
or ponder where its headlong course might lead,
there’d be no reining hand to be obeyed.

But were there one so daring, one so bold
that, heedless of the danger, he might place,
upon Apollo’s reins, emboldened hand

to guide the fleeting chariot bathed in gold,
the diversity of life he would embrace
and never choose a state to last his span.

If you would like to learn more about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the great Mexican poet and nun, click here.

Tomorrow night, I will actually post a new flash fiction story by. . . me!

*Both poems I copied out from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Poems, Protest, and a Dream, published by Penguins Classics, 1997.