Twilight has ended. Only the faintest, blood-red glow lays low on the horizon, perceptible only by shifting one's gaze off to the side, and not at all distinguishable when looked at directly. All that above, and in a sweeping arc to infinity, looms black, shot through in a million places with eye-stinging points of starlight; the Milky Way itself, draped heavily abroad.
Countless soaring silhouettes...battalions of giant cacti...blot out the dazzling spectacle, mute, unwavering silhouettes, standing vigil among the shallow dunes. Silence is absolute. The air has cooled, which is to say, it is no longer stifling.
In the distance, flickering here, now there, a bright...something, glowing orange...slips across the field of view; a meteor, but not falling to earth, this thing creeps along the desert floor, in and out among the clusters of silent sentries. It moans a soft, almost inaudible grumbling. And now, sweeping around the long curve of pavement, its headlights blaze across the sand, momentarily blinding two startled, beady eyes.
The desert hare, frozen atop a warm outcropping of rock, sees the apparition growing, growing...hears the growl loudening to a roar, and if it could read the letters painted across the hood...just under the lighted orange hood ornament..it would know this is the Hustlin’ Hearse...long, sleek and black as the night through which it streaks. The ornament swishes by at ninety- five miles to the hour, pulling its charge behind.
The vehicle sports a louvered hood, under which eight oversized cylinders... all in a row... .thrum to their own delight. Inside, the overly chromed radio beseeches " go, go.... go, Johnny, go." The driver, half a bottle of Lone Star beer swinging loosely in his hand, sings in loud concurrence into the Texas night, " Johnny be good." An electrically operated glass divider separates him from the stretched-out rear compartment, replete with pop up jump seats and wrap-around deep pile rear benchseat. Behind that, and behind the loudspeakered shelf, is the luggage compartment, the trunk.
The hare is transfixed.... rigid, but for its beady-eyed head, which rotates robot like, right to left, as the thing zooms by, taillights receding, drawing together in the blackness. Dumb to everything neither edible nor enemy, the lop-eared rodent registers no connection between the speeding thing and the hot air 'whoomp' of back draft that fluffs its tawny fur. Stupid beady eyes blink, and the Hustlin' Hearse... that 1949 Chrysler Crown Imperial; that two hundred dollar, third-hand gas guzzler; that preposterous, lumbering, audacious, nine year old, ten passenger, used-up limousine, empty, save its vociferous commander... hurtles out of sight.
The scarlet glow has gone to black. Five million stars sizzle soundlessly. The troops stand their guard. "Silence!", roars the universe.
The time, if time exists, is 9:37 p.m., July 8, 1959.
His first view of 'Acuna’ is from the American side of the Rio Grande.
Dark outlines of shanties squat at the edge of the black river; dim yellow light strains to escape through dust-curtained windows. Wispy fog rises from the water...wafting over the town, brightening in a neon glow into reddish haze.
Sounds of guitars and string bass echo faintly to where he stands, background music to the boarder guards' interminable instructions. Yes, he will respect their traffic laws – in fact, he won’t drive at all once there. No, he won‘t bring back more than the allotted amounts of liquor or jewelry. Yes, he will return within three days (if he can just, by god, get there). "Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you, same to you." He pulls the gearshift lever down into "D" and crosses the bridge. He parks on a dirt side street, pockets what remains of a pint of Jose Cuervo, and walks to a nearby taxi stand. Can he remember any of those Spanish phrases, those hastily studied key words, which would express his sleazy expectations? "Hell with it." Flash a little green and go.
"Boys' Town?" The taxi driver grins up at him and leans to open the passenger side door. Coughing and rattling, the old Packard bounces along toward the far side of Acuna and within minutes he is standing in the middle of a slimy mud street, gazing in wonderment at this place he'd driven half the night to find.
There are vendors everywhere. A fat, aging merchant slouches against an old pushcart, its large iron-tired spoke wheels sinking three inches into the mud. On the cart is fastened a tin bowl filled with glowing coals, a bundle of mesquite twigs waiting alongside. What looks like a shelf from an old refrigerator, bent down at the corners, rests upon the rim of this makeshift grill. This is the restaurant. In New York City, vendors hawk frankfurters and sauerkraut from gaily-painted pushcarts. This is not New York City. Franks and kraut are unknown here. Here the fare consists of oversized, pithy-looking ears of field corn, more dried out than roasted, and something brown and black that might have been meat. Suspended from wire coat hangers are whiskey bottles filled with a salt solution that the chef periodically stoppers with a grimy thumb and sprinkles over the food. Jars of crushed chilies abound. Even the tequila he'd been drinking since leaving San Antonio fails to diminish his repulsion at this gastronomic insult.
He drifts on toward the cantinas, wondering if anybody ever really ate that stuff. He shudders, looking back over his shoulder. He can not imagine such things could ever have lived, on vine, stalk or hoof. "Lord", he whispers, "never let me be that hungry."
Turning again toward the saloons, he stops short. Something is coming at him – fast. He wants to escape but the huge man who'd run up to him skids to a stop and stands squarely between him and everything else. The giant wears a half dozen hats stacked one on top of another. At the bottom of the pile, black eyes glint. The gaunt brown face is multiply scarred. A few yellowed teeth show through grinning whiskers. The mustache moves. "You buy sombrero, senor? I haff good sombreros." Stinking breath fills the air, stopping his own.
"No, thank you very much, graci, thank you, thank you." He wants to be away from this hombre but the big Mexican, no longer smiling, black eyes shifting, steps closer, slipping a hand into a dusty brown jacket.
"O, Jesus." But the hand withdraws only a hinged wooden box, about the size of a large pocket novel, and when the lid is tipped open, a battery powered light bulb glares to reveal the glittering booty. The box contains several dozens of beautifully crafted silver and turquoise rings, the first of their kind he’d ever seen. He buys three, and before he can count the change, his low companion is melting into the shadows. Alone again, watching the big Mexican disappear, he withdraws the bottle from his hip pocket and drains its remains in a single, long pull, drops the empty into the mud and reels into the nearest saloon.
Inside, Cantina #2 is bathed in dim light. The floor is of wood planks, unvarnished, worn smooth under thousands of cowboy boots during thousands of cowboy nights, and polished with a formula of spilt liquor and greasy food droppings. The tables and chairs, also unvarnished, are oak and pine. A balcony, barely seven feet off the floor, runs across both sides and along the back wall. The bar, ponderous, of elbow worn red mahogany, is recessed below and occupies most of one wall. The barkeep, a burly dull looking white man, moves clumsily about, occasionally mopping face, neck and bar with the same ratty towel. To the left of the bar, across the dance floor, the back wall is bare but for a red door, and two others painted blue. A band plays without gusto in a dingy corner. Of the few patrons in the place, fewer still seem aware that the musicians are even there.
He orders a Carta Blanca and sits gazing through blue haze at the room around him. When the beer arrives, he stretches out in the creaking chair, lights up a Lucky Strike and languishes, bemused.
The red door bursts open. Through it staggers a very young, very drunk GI, and from behind, pushing and cajoling, is a girl. A child almost, as beautiful as she is young; brown, stout but sinewy, not heavy, but solid, with slender, graceful arms and tiny feet. She wears a lacy pale peasant blouse and green ankle length skirt with crinolines. She is barefoot. She stops and stands, hands on hips, feet apart, baby-face screwed into a haughty, peering scowl. She owns herself, and the world in which she dwells.
Turning, appraising the room, dark shining eyes flicking this way and that, she starts toward where he sprawls, legs straight out, crossed at the ankle. At the center of the room she stops, her hips swaying easily with the rhythm of the music. She yells an insult at the musicians and laughs. They laugh and shout back, and their playing becomes inspired. She dances, whirling until sweat runs in rivulets down her throat, dampening her blouse.
He is drunk, and watches it all through an alcoholic haze.
She dances, swaying here, twirling there, graceful, slender arms waving above her head, tiny feet beating rhythms on the floor, her hips swaying… graceful arms sweeping to embrace the milieu, tiny feet pounding, graceful arms swaying… whirling, swaying, and then at once, she is on him, her skirt hiked up around her hips, smooth taut thighs wrapped around his own. Her gaze invades him. Her eyes stare, sparkling, commanding. The thin golden skin around them crinkles into a smile. She fingers the neckline of her blouse and, in an instant, pulls it down to her midriff, and two perfect brown breasts jiggle free. Draping her arms lightly around his neck, she cocks her head and laughs. "You like teet, Joe?" Velvet black-tipped softness brushes his mouth. His head is spinning. She slips a hand down between his legs. "Dios mia!" Her eyes go wide. "You like!"
They rise together, she, pulling him to her as the mariaches start into a slow, rhythmic tune. The girl dances him around the floor swaying, teasing, pressing sweaty, naked flesh against him. She leads. He follows. She moves him toward a corner, then through the red door. Laughing, ricocheting off the walls, they make their way along the corridor to the blanketed doorway of her cubicle. Inside, she asks for two dollars, which he pays without argument. Her peasant blouse and ankle length skirt and crinolines disappear. She is on her back on her bed, long black hair spills across her pillow, framing her face. She is his to take. Or she is his to surrender to. She smiles. Graceful, slender arms encircle his shoulders. Delicate fingers caress his neck. Smooth, taut thighs enwrap him. She gazes at him, wide eyed. Black eyes sparkle. He can look no more. He presses his face into her damp, sweaty neck and he takes her. Or she takes him. He is having this woman... and this night will forever be his alone. Burned into his being, it will be oft recalled, but it will never be brought into conversation, embellished in the retelling… for there will be none; any attempt would serve only to reduce it, to diminish her. She is his. He will have this beauty and never speak of it.
When they are both exhausted, she asks for two more dollars because he stayed too long. He gives her the money. Then, because he loves her, he gives her the silver rings. Her name is Elena and he will always remember her ... just as surely as she, once the rings are sold, will forget him completely.
When he emerges from the red door, the band is gone, the place nearly empty. The dull bartender is draining the leavings of beer bottles into a pitcher and, from this, into other bottles. A hand operated capper stands nearby.
Outside, the sky is gray-before-dawn, the street deserted except for a few persistent vendors. He buys an ear of corn, sits on the steps of a liquor store and eats.
There are no taxis in sight. He stands and walks back through Acuna.
By the time he finds the Chrysler, his roughout Justin boots are caked with stinking mud, his white Levis stained with god-knows-what. His head throbs and his bladder screams for relief. He urinates on a tire and climbs into the driver's seat.
Within an hour he will pull off the road to puke on an outcropping of desert rock. Then, too ill to go on, he'll be forced to lie sleeping in his own sweat upon the gray velvet seat. But he doesn't know that now. Now he is spent, and tired. A grin creases his cheek. He cranks the car to life and heads back toward Del Rio.
He is seventeen.