Location: marengo, il, United States

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Taco Flat

It’s just past three in the afternoon, and I am sweating from exertion. I coast the bike to a stop near the entrance, and while parking it out of the way, a young woman comes out and holds the front door open.

After securing a lock and chain to one wheel, I stand up and wait to go in -- her attention is focused on two small children dawdling inside the foyer. She scolds both of them with what sounds to me like impatient Spanish -- I assume to hurry the little tyke and his sister along. I silently cheer for the mother. Inside, the restaurant looks idle and almost unoccupied at this hour.

Elias sees me from his station behind the counter when I walk by. Trying to appear busy, he nods as I slip into a back booth, so I wave back. Outside a large window to my right, a cabbage palm blocks a view of the main highway. A waitress comes over carrying a menu and a pot of coffee, and she smiles as she pours.

Being almost broke, I disregard the menu.

“Is Danny around?”

“No, hon. But he should be along any minute now.”

I add some sugar, stir my cup and wait.

The manager arrives shortly, before the evening rush begins, and he goes right to the register. While he totals up receipts from the morning, Elias goes over, and the two talk briefly. Danny finishes his counting, closes the drawer, and then he comes back to say hello. I tell him all about my recent misadventures; he listens and laughs, and then Danny does a most amazing thing -- he graciously offers me my job back -- and I can start today, if I want.

I gratefully accept, for now there is no need to pay for this coffee, or any more future meals.

But for the next few nights, I have to plan on secretly camping in the shrubbery out behind the restaurant. During the cool evenings I’ll spend looking around town for a cheap place to rent.

Elias looks on cheerfully as I tie a pair of apron strings. Suddenly, it feels great to be back in Corpus again.

Luis is one of several regulars here. He comes in to escape the sunlight, kill time and drink coffee while forever smiling at the mad world in which he lives. A retired insurance salesman, the happy-faced customer lets it slip out that he owns a boardinghouse, and the next thing I know, he hands me a business card and invites me to stop by and check out his place. Located not far from here, the suggestion gets my attention. The price he quotes sounds fair enough also, so after my shift, I bike over to see.

Highway traffic flows sparse late in the day, and I pedal the distance easily. Numbers painted on a silver mailbox tell me I have the right address. There I dismount and steer the bike across a sand driveway that follows beside a weed-choked fence. Then as I arrive at a metal gate, I get a close look at the two-story, un-painted gothic.

Large trees stand watch in a large, unkempt yard, flanking all sides of the antiquated building. Up under one edge of the roof, a rain gutter protrudes from the house, swung a foot away and perilously supported by a lone rusted downspout. Several of the steep roof’s wood shingles have come loose and seem ready to fall. One pane of glass on a lower floor window is absent, and so are a few of the window screens. The only other things missing from the scene are proper claps of thunder with attending flashes of lightning.

But there is no breeze to be felt, nor are there any disturbing noises about, other than the singular squeal of a kickstand.

I follow a short path leading to the front door, dodging several creeper vines that hang from overgrown bushes. After knocking twice, I wait. An ornate oak door before me is decorated with elaborate but weathered carvings, along with an admirable stained glass window. I hear shuffling sounds from the other side just before the door swings open and a chubby face peers out. There stands Luis, wearing a loose tie, and he greets me with his beaming smile.

“You found us! Come in. Come in.”

I glance up to see a fancy chandelier hanging overhead while he closes the door, shutting out the bright sun. Then, going from the dim-lit hallway, we enter into a darkened, larger room. Curtains on a far wall are drawn shut. This parlor we are in, crowded with an assortment of furniture, looks worn but unused. A small television on a brass rail table sets gray and silent. Luis shuffles on through the room, heading for an open doorway, so I follow close behind.

He speaks with an accent, and he acts apologetic as he flicks on a light switch.

“This is our kitchen in here.”

He waves a hand and laughs uneasily.

“The guys, they no ever clean up.”

The stove is covered with stacked pots and dirty dishes. A flat, cast-iron skillet sits alone on one burner, with a single spatula for company. The rest of the clutter piled throughout the entire room amazes me.

“Come. I show you the bathrooms.”

We pass by walls where large sections of brown wallpaper are ripped and missing, exposing a pale blue print underneath.

At the end of the hall, Luis steps back so I can inspect a small lavatory. The shower stall inside is lined with dark-green tiles. Some close to the cement floor are covered with black mold. Luis maintains his fixed smile as I turn one of the squeaking faucet handles mounted on a stained wash basin.

“The sink, she no work yet. We use the one in the kitchen for now.”

Next to the toilet rests a green five-gallon bucket, half-filled with clear water.

Luis smiles and shrugs his shoulders as I jiggle the useless handle.

“There is two more baths up the stairs.”

I step out into the hallway, and he switches the light off as we leave.

He leads the way, but we trudge slowly up the steps. We have to stop and rest on the landing so he can take a minute to catch his breath. But by the time we reach the top, he has told me all the details of how he ended up with the huge house after his wife finally left him, plus all of his many plans to remodel the place. The evidence of modernization lays heaped on the floor in front of us.

We pause at the head of the staircase for a moment to look around a great central room. Two unfinished stud walls stand as future dividers between the top of the stairs and an existing wall farther on -- in the center of the room lays a large stack of lumber. Next to that are various tools spread in a tangle, piled atop dusty sheetrock. Against one far wall, a row of cardboard boxes go almost to the ceiling, and I recognize a pair of water skis among additional debris that leans in one corner.

“Now I show you the other two bathrooms.”

I look in the first one. A new shower stall holds a number of small boxes of tiles.

“That shower no work, not yet. But it's going to be nice, no?”

The commode is missing off its base.

“I have a man who comes to to fix.”

I turn both hot and cold handles at the sink. Sweat appears on his cheeks, but his smile stays.

“See? That one, she work okay, huh?”

We go into the next bath. An old claw foot tub contains a thick layer of reddish dust, along with tubes of caulk and several sacks of rusted nails. I don’t bother to ask. But I do find the flush handle is loose and inoperable. The bowl itself contains less than a cup of foul-looking water.

“You can use the bucket from downstairs, if you need. This one toilet, she still works pretty good.”

Only the cold water faucet for the sink operates.

Luis looks surprised and smiles proudly at that discovery.

“Let me show you all our sleeping rooms now.”

“Everybody still at work,” He explains, pushing a door part-way open. Inside on the floor I catch a glimpse of an old mattress, along with a crumpled blanket strewn among piles of clothes and other litter. He pulls the door shut, but acts eager to show off each of his guest rooms, three of which already have a tenant. The last one waits for us empty.

“Go ahead -- you go on in and look around.”

I swing the door open. Half of a new strap latch hangs from the inside of the door jam. The other section I see bolted securely to the door. I walk inside the room to investigate.

Bright sunlight streams in through a bank of windows. Their gauzy curtains hang limply in the air. A hook rug covers the wooden floor next to a double bed, and the bed itself is matched by a single dresser and a night stand. This room looks surprisingly neat.

I try opening the drawers, all of which are empty and clean. I test the windows next. Each one opens and closes fine, although a screen for one is gone -- the others have some rips and a few small holes. I turn to look around the room with a grim expression fixed on my face. It will certainly beat sleeping outdoors among cabbage palms, I think.

“How much is it again?”

I pay my beaming host with cash from the paycheck I had been waiting on for so long, open up all the windows to let in fresh air, and then hurry down the stairs to collect my belongings from the bike. After emptying out the backpack and arranging my things, I spread my bedroll across the bare mattress. Then, and for the first time in a long time, I stretch out across my very own bed, and there I drift off, comfortable and content.

A noise wakes me up. My eyes open to a much dimmer room, so I lay still and listen.

There it is again. A muffled shout from somewhere, but then nothing more.

I sit up and slip on my shoes, and after softly closing the door I walk down the staircase.

Passing through the dark parlor, I head toward voices and a light that shines from under the kitchen door. A tempting smell of tortillas float in the air as I ease the door part-way open. I notice three things right away: the spatula lays in a different spot on the pan amid all the same clutter, a small pan half-filled with a mixture of refried beans sets close by, and a drunk talks loudly somewhere beyond my view. Then I see my host.

Luis sits leaning back in a metal folding chair near another doorway, and he is trying to steady his portly frame by grasping the edge of a near-by counter with an outstretched arm. He still wears his smile and the same loosened tie, and he holds a can of beer on one knee with the other hand.

At a table in the center of the kitchen sits a young Mexican man, hunched over and busy eating.

Across the room stands another Mexican who is leaning against a second counter. He is in the act of guzzling a beer, and his head is tilted far back.

Luis brings his chair down when he sees me, and for an introduction he holds his can with an outstretched arm and points to the man seated at the table.

“That’s Juan.”

Juan turns briefly and waves a fork.

“And him over there…that’s Johnny.”

The other Mexican weaves as he looks across the room at me, and he stares at me darkly. Then he takes another long drink, kills the beer and crumples the can nosily. He tosses the thing across the room to a trash can close to Luis. It lands on a pile of others, but bounces out and clatters on the floor.

Luis begins to rock back and forth in his seat, smiling complacently.

Johnny then glares across the room at his host.

“What I say is the damn truth, old man, and I don’t care if you believe it or not.”

Luis keeps rocking, and he chuckles and nods his head.

“I believe you, Johnny. I believe you. Go and get another beer.”

With this, Johnny’s apparent irritation turns to sudden joy.

“That’s the first good idea you had tonight!”

And at that, he stumbles happily across the room toward a refrigerator that stands next to me. He takes out one beer as he leans hard on the opened door for support, and then he turns his head to look me up and down.

“Say, gringo. You want a cold one?”

Johnny is about my age, but muscular and twice my size. I take the can from a huge fist, and then he reaches inside and grabs two more. He flashes me a toothsome smirk and tells me,

“I don’t want to have to make the same trip two times.”

He swaggers back to his original spot. Luis tilts his chair again and watches him as he goes. The younger Johnny shoves aside some of the clutter on the counter and places one beer near the edge before he opens the other, and then he takes a long drink from the can.

After he stops, he looks across at me again, and he furrows up his brow.

“Hey, gringo. Do I know you?”

Luis speaks softly while he holds onto the counter and balances his chair.

“He just moved here today, Johnny. Why don’t you listen sometimes?”

Johnny shrugs, spreads his hands apart and his face becomes as dark as a thunderstorm.

“Well, I didn’t recognize him, so forgive me for asking, old man.”

I am able to speak for myself, so I do.

“My name is Harry.”

Johnny continues ogling me with his sinister but puzzled stare, and then his face lights up suddenly.


I take a sip of my drink.

“Yup. That’s me.”

The swarthy-hued man stumbles forward a step, and while trying to maintain balance, he puffs up his chest and sticks a thumb up to his work shirt.

“And my name is John-NEE.”

His thumb jabs at the embroidered name over his shirt pocket.

“Johnny McGraw.”

Luis giggles and his chair slams to the floor.

Johnny takes another drink, wipes his moustache with a sleeve, and then announces to the room in an authoritative voice,

“McGraw is Irish.”

Luis begins to rock.

Juan gets up from the table and carries his plate over to the sink. It goes onto the growing pile, and he turns around then and leaves the room without a word. Johnny raises his can up in a jeering salute before focusing his attention back on me.

“I bet you never meet an Irish Mexican before.”

Johnny laughs at his own statement. Luis laughs too, and stops his back-and-forth rocking long enough to take another sip while Johnny gulps down his second beer. Another toss, another miss, and the full can gets popped opened.

The three of us continue on into the night for a time; me nursing my drink along while Luis gently rocks in his folding chair, and Johnny, trying his best to stand upright, loudly proclaiming an Irish heritage to a small but confined audience.

Safe in my bed afterwards, I drift off to sleep wondering how long I might survive this new place.

Next: A Fork and a Bullet


Blogger Gone Away said...

Fascinating, Harry. The pace is excellent, you involve us completely. And you have such an eye for character - with so few words you paint the colorful characters that people your pages. Wonderful.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thanks, Gone. I'm a lot more pleased my own self with this, what...37th re-write.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Ned said...

Harry, as always, you are amazing.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

What's amazing is being here, Ned.

3:29 PM  
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