By George Ayres
The bald man behind me tapped my shin with his cane: “Hurry up,” he said. “I don’t have much time.”
It was past midnight and the store was empty.
“We’re moving along, sir. Take it easy, please.” The cashier had to address the situation. Her badge read
Maria and she knew a thing or two about crowd control.
The man smacked his dentures and murmured under his breath. Lazy, disfigured, archaic words. Something about hellfire and damnation.
Maria pulled my roll of paper towels across the scanner and dropped them in a plastic bag.
“I really don’t have much time!” the man shouted.
“Cálmate!” Maria wasn’t cut out for pulling products across scanners, smiling at strangers, bagging. Most of the time, Have a Nice Day could suck it.
“As we live and breathe, I will smite you!” The bald man raised his cane like a striking warrior and fell over onto the hard floor, taking the candy rack with him.
Maria slumped her shoulders in frustration.
“Otra vez. I can’t believe it. That’s the second one this week. You gotta help me move him to the back. Por favor.”
Her brown eyes were set perfectly into the canvas of her terra-cotta-colored skin; short, dark hair framed her adorable face.
“Of course.” I stammered.
We dragged the man by his ankles down aisle seven past the cereal and breakfast bars and into the back storage room. Two hours later at a bar called The Fat Frog, Maria was loaded with cheap tequila. Her red blouse creased under her precious collarbone and turned out, awarding me a clean shot of smooth skin. With every syllable of her misspoken English, my spirits lifted. This could be the conquering moment of my existence but my vision was at an impasse. Pay attention and look at her face! Be a gentleman and look at her face! Sometimes the screaming started and wouldn’t stop.
She toyed with the stub of a Menthol Lite in a tin ashtray. Gold lettering inside read: Go Crazy in Key West.
The bar was crowded with beer drinking slobs. Facial hair and hoarse voices.
The bar was crowded with beer drinking slobs. Facial hair and hoarse voices.
Maria ordered more Tequila and put down a twenty. The tattooed bartender picked up the bill and planted it against Maria’s forehead.
“I ain’t servin’ you nothin’ else.”
I tried to focus on the bartender’s bicep tattoo. A knight with a rose in his teeth? A serpent with a red head? Maria said something.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“You said something but I couldn’t make it out.”
“You want to make out? Is that what you said?”
These opportunities never happened for me.
“You need another drink?” I asked.
“Yes, but the painted lady won’t serve me. Let’s go measure constellations with our fingertips.”
This would be a challenge since I knew nothing about astrology. She slid off her stool, brushed a strand of black hair out of her face and fell backwards into the crowd.
“Where do the bodies go?” I asked. “After Philipo gets them, what does he do with them?”
We were enjoying an evening of fine dining at Mr. Gatti’s and the time had come. I needed to know.
Maria plunged her knife into a tired-looking salad swimming in oil and vinegar.
“It’s about science,” she said. “Something about money for body parts.”
At 2 a.m., she was asleep on the sofa, drunk on sangria and reality TV. Even though Maria got a few bills with those “money for body parts” deals, it didn’t seem fair. The arrangement had me thinking … I leaned back in my chair and pulled on my pipe. While that sounds like I was pleasuring myself, I swear I was not. I was actually smoking a pipe. Smoking was an act banned in this country some 25 years ago.
Maria had been instructed by Philipo to leave the bodies in the back room and, being illegal, she did as she was told. She didn’t want to ruffle feathers, draw attention, be strip-searched. The deal was this: between hits and deliveries and drop offs and the occasional geezer that fell over in the checkout line, Philipo would locate surviving relatives, deliver bodies, say a few words in salesman-like, broken Italian, and put out his hand. The part that involved merchandising anatomy was a puzzle to Maria. It was underground. It was darkness. It was lucrative. At least for Philipo.
The next day Maria sashayed into the grocery store manager’s office and quit. When she came out, I was on aisle four cramming Doritos into my backpack while a toddler, hanging on the edge of her shopping cart, glared at me.
“Vato!” That’s what Maria called me. “Vamanos!”
She waved her final paycheck over her head like she’d won the lottery and stamped her wooden-heeled shoes. Maria and I high-tailed it to the nearest liquor store.
Within a week we moved into a garage apartment. Our gig was cleaning houses and it paid the rent.
On Saturday we cleaned a run-down place that some slumlord wanted to put on the market. It was in terrible shape – broken sheet rock, buckled floors, cracked paint – all the niceties that scream eviction or tear down. The kind of place where a 95-year-old woman took care of a dozen stray cats and dogs, and slept in the closet on a pile of newspapers.
So we’re filling bags of trash and end up in a bedroom with a stained mattress on the floor. Maria tosses down her broom, wiggles out of her jeans and yells: “Take me, vato!”
I’ve never said no so I go at it, full bore, and am dreaming about cream-filled doughnuts, sunshine on the beach and nickel beer night at The Fat Frog. All the while, I’m having a one-on-one in my head with the Dalai Lama.
My nerves popped, rang like a pinball machine. I tingled, my fingers vibrated against her velvet skin. Parts of me expanded and contracted. I was one slow, undulating wave, as close to natural as something could be.
And wouldn’t you know it, just when I’m having my special “me” time, someone bangs on the front door.
And I mean bangs on the door.
Maria jumps up, all skin and sweat, and pulls back what’s left of a tattered curtain.
“Hijo de la chingada. It’s that pendejo Philipo.”
“What the hell’s he want?”
“What money? We don’t owe him money.”
Her misguided, dark eyes tell me she doesn’t understand the American dream, the one that’s prosperous when deception and unethical behavior are not involved.
“We owe him money?! Maria?!”
“Hush and get dressed, vato.”
We’re throwing on our clothes when troublesome Philipo smashes down the door and bounds inside searching for green bills and violence. My shirt flailed, my pants unbuckled; Maria with no shirt but pants and brown bare feet.
We scramble through the house of trash, jumping broken furniture and sliding past tarnished walls. High
volume strings from Mozart play frenetically in my pounding head. She screams as she searches for a back door. I save my breath for an ugly hand-to-hand battle or the final breaths of my life. Philipo carries something evil: A Louisville Slugger? A tire iron? A pizza box?
Philipo wildly swings, missing this and that, shouting for justice. Maria sprints and bounds like a gazelle, jumps on an ottoman here, climbs over a kitchen counter there, crosses herself like a Catholic schoolgirl. He swings at her again and misses. My adrenalin shoots like a rapid. The moment is electric: Aphrodite and Ares in the same room, aroused beyond belief, while Zeus looks on and laughs.
I come around from the bathroom where visible pipes spring from the floor like Medussa’s hair. I’m unannounced and frantic, like a party crasher on acid, set on a permanent end to this madness.
I land on Philipo’s back like a pouncing cheetah. He twirls and curses, delivers a flawless performance at the height of his reign of terror.
Maria spits. I pull hair, deliver a kidney punch and Philipo throws me to the floor. He grits his teeth and swings. I duck, just low and outside of the strike zone.
His bat lands a solid blow to a doorjamb and wall. Instantly, the wall buckles and flattens him. Live animation at its finest. Everything stops, silence prevails. Covered in dust and blood, the look on Philipo’s dead face is priceless.
Maria and I laugh and can’t stop. Seems like we laugh for an hour until we drag that bastard Philipo through the rubble of the crap house, cleaning the dirty floor with his lifeless body. We drag him to the backyard and bury him. At that moment, consequences didn’t matter.
We cleaned the house until our fingers bled, until sweat dripped from our pores, until our tired souls begged for a rest.