You can read all previous parts of No Mercy for Dogs here.
The silence in the truck as Mr. Ramos drove me back to the ranch was beyond tangible, it felt like being slowly buried alive in concrete; that not only was speech forbidden, it had somehow become physically impossible. He didn’t seem to ever listen to music when he drove, so I attempted to distract myself by memorizing the terrain. A few landmarks from our earlier trip through Cerralvo jumped out at me, and I began to feel fairly confident that if push came to shove, I could find the Ramos compound again on my own. It might take me two hours to get there from the ranchita by foot, but it was do-able. This independence seemed a sort of salve to me, a tiny bit of breathing room amidst the rubble burying me alive.
My internal mapping program was interrupted when the Hammer made an unscheduled stop in the placita, pulling up to a small cart built on the obviously homemade frame of a large tricycle. The contraption was topped by an immense beach-style umbrella in red and white, bearing the logo of a country club near Monterrey. Somehow, I doubted that they had loaned it out to the vendor. As Gelo rolled down his window, the proprietor hustled over to the truck with a huge smile on his face and bathed us in a rapid-fire steam of campesino-Spanish. I didn’t understand a single word, not even the greeting. So much for progress, I thought glumly.
Mr. Ramos said something to him in response, and the man went immediately to work, opening up a large insulated chest welded to the front of his cart. He whipped out a large, curved blade from a sheath attached to his belt, and quickly cut a coconut down the middle. One portion of this he began to slice into small chunks, which were added to the other half, which acted as a bowl. On top of this he squeezed four or five cut limes, and sprinkled a red powder on top of everything. He did something else with his left hand inside the chest, before producing a black plastic spork. Mr. Ramos took the proffered coconut in one hand, while quickly slipping his old cell phone into the outstretched paw of the vendor. The transaction happened so quickly that I knew it would have been impossible for anyone outside of the truck to have seen the transfer. Papa Ramos produced a pre-folded bill from his shirt pocket, and handed the coconut to me without a word.
I thought it best not to ask any additional questions at this point, but I assumed that the old phone had been a burner, something to be used and then tossed aside. Whatever the fruit man was during the daytime, his night job seemed to include being the guy that did the official tossing. Maybe they clone the phones, and resell them, I mused? It seemed simpler just to toss the things into a bonfire or a vat of acid and be done with them, but I had to assume that there was a reason for what had just happened, even if I didn’t fully understand what that reason was. Interesting, I thought, which was also an apt description of the item I was nibbling on. The red stuff was obviously some form of chili powder, and the sweet-hot-sour combination of flavors was pretty unique, but also quite delicious. I held the coconut out for the Hammer, who grunted and waved me away. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about including me on today’s little foray into the world of illegal narcotics, and decided that from this point forward, perhaps I ought to at least pretend to be resigned to the fate he had set up for me. Nuance, I told myself, is not appeasement. I wondered how true that was, and whether or not a little appeasement might be called for.
I asked if we could stop on the way back to the ranch for some real food, and he detoured slightly to swing by a very odd taco stand (what else?), which seemed more of an organic growth than a piece of inanimate architecture. The original taco-stand-on-wheels had obviously proven to be profitable, because a concrete slab had been laid underneath it, and then added to four different occasions. Eventually the entire affair had been enclosed in metal mesh, and a tin roof added. To one side a large deposito had sprouted, eventually remodeled to include a drive-thru. The whole place seemed random and chaotic in the extreme, but I rather liked the charm. The owner was manning the grill, flipping carne asada to the rhythm of some norteno band. He apparently liked to eat his own wares, as he was quite rotund. Then again, one should never trust a skinny chef, so I gave him a pass. His name was George, and I wondered about Mexicans who took the American spelling of their names over the local version. Gelo spoke to him for a time as he cooked for me, and I took a seat at a plastic table. This one was labeled with La Indio beer, and I realized that I had not seen a single table in the entire country that wasn’t sporting the label of a beer company. It made me wish I liked the taste of the stuff.
As I waited, I watched a small black ant labor under the weight of a crumb of something bread-like. At times the little guy lifted, and at others it pulled, but somehow it managed to lift his dinner up the side of a concrete embankment. As it neared the top, the crumb slipped out of his grip and fell back to earth. This happened twice more as I sat there, and I do not know why I did not assist the little Sisyphus in its task. It now seems like such a simple thing to have done.
When we arrived at the ranch, Papa Ramos stayed only long enough to show me how to take the horses out to graze in the pasture leading to the ranch. The lines were to be affixed to the base of sturdy plants, and I was to allow each horse at least fifty feet of tether. I worried a bit about controlling the things, but he seemed to be in no mood for my doubts so I kept them to myself. I thought about asking if he was concerned that someone might come along and steal them, but instantly thought better of it. Of course no one is going to steal the Hammer’s bloody horses, idiot, I thought reproachfully. Who could possibly be that stupid?
After he left, I took my tacos and soda and headed out to the hammock under the windmill. The evening was setting in, the sun slowly fading behind the mountains. The beauty of the crimson sky seemed an odd counterpoint to the maelstrom in my head. Taking into consideration the historical cosmic panorama of human fuck-ups, this situation had to rate somewhere near the top of the list. Not knowing what you feel is not the same thing as feeling nothing, he had told me. I had definitely arrived at a place where emotions had no definite zones of transition; that was for sure. For all I knew, he had been right, but emotional overload had always caused the breaker switches in my head to flip off, the current grounding me into a hollow and weary place. Somewhere out there stood my Green Chapel, where my debt would be collected. I knew this now, but what seemed to plague me most wasn’t the actions I had actually committed but rather the too-easily-stolen memories of the things left undone, the moments inchoate. The Hammer had me in a vice, and he knew it. From the moment Rudy had handed me over to him, he had been fitting me into some scheme or another. I knew this now, and he knew that I knew. And that meant that he was going to be watching me very closely after today.
What infuriated me the most was the fact that my prison’s bars were intangible, made up entirely of ignorance and my own guilt. There was no solution to this mess north of the border that I could imagine, and I was totally incapable of forming one south of it. As I slowly chewed on my tacos - which were easily the best l had eaten thus far in my time in Mexico – I began to ruminate about why this was. I couldn’t escape my current position on the board because aside from this ranch and a few streets in Cerralvo, I knew nothing about my environment. I couldn’t learn about la Republica because I couldn’t make sense of even very basic Spanish, and with me stuck out in the boonies my progress was always going to be glacial in speed. Ah, I thought. So that is why he dumped me out here, instead of in town. It wasn’t for my anonymity; it was for my isolation. The more desperate I was for the Hammer’s protection, the more pliable I would be.
What I needed, I thought, was a school to teach me the language. Since I thought it unlikely that I could register for such a thing without alerting either Ramos or the police, the only alternative that came to mind was a library. Fortunately, Gelo had showed me where to find one. That was stupid of him, I thought, before realizing with a start that he hadn’t wanted to: he had only taken me through the Plaza Grande to show me where the police station was, so that I could avoid it. It had been I who had questioned him about the line of uniformed school children we had seen walking single file into the unlabeled doorway of the library, which happened to sit less than 50 meters from the front door of the station. I have always been the sort of person who cannot feel calm without a plan of action, and now that I could see the tiniest glimmer of a path forward taking shape, I started to feel better. For all of his power, the Hammer could still make mistakes. It was up to me to see if I could make him pay for it.
The sky had turned slightly on its pivot when I drifted up out of my reverie. When I turned to look back towards the ranch, I noticed that I was not alone: one of the cats had settled into the soft grass by the cabins and was watching me. This one I had never seen before, because I would have noticed anything this obscenely pregnant. I wondered where she had been hiding the last few weeks. We inspected each other for a time, until the last horses of my intellect crossed the finish line and I grasped that she wasn’t sharing a quaint moment with me, but rather was staring fixedly at the food in my lap. I tore one of the remaining tacos in half and walked to the edge of grass. The cat tensed up noticeably as I neared, but did not run. She stayed in that position until I moved backwards to the hammock; only then did she come forward to inspect my offering.
She must have been ravenous, because she decimated the meat, her little head tearing chunks of it off in rapid succession. She tensed again when I brought her the other half, but, I noticed, perhaps not quite as much as before.
I was seriously considering taking my luck in trying to pet her when Blackie loped around the edge of the cabins, back from the daily inspection of his territory. Naturally, the sight of someone other than him being fed energized him, and he charged on to the scene. The cat arched her back and lashed out at his snout, which caused him to veer sharply to the left. The cat, sensing the battle was lost, pranced off around the cabins. Blackie inhaled what was left of the taco, before beginning to do his customary little jig around me.
“You brute,” I mocked him affectionately, tossing him the last of the tacos, which disappeared in a flash of teeth and slobber. “Didn’t you ever hear that women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs had better get used to it?” I took his smacking noises to be a form of second-class commiseration, and retreated to the hammock.
When I had stretched back to watch the stars wink on, he came and planted that enormous rock of a head on my stomach, breathing noisily as I rubbed his ears. Antoine de Saint-Exupery supposedly said that, “once men are caught up in an event, they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men.” I had long claimed to believe this view, a position, which seemed like hubris to me now. Or maybe I am not the kind of man he was, I thought, because I know my danger and I am still afraid of it. Still, the idea that tomorrow I was going to be taking steps to better my admittedly poor position did buoy my spirits. Books had always been my escape from a life I didn’t seem to fit into. Tomorrow, I would see if they could also help me escape from the clutches of a nightmare of my own design.