Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Orcs Don't Play Trumpets

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Mariachi

I fell out of sleep when the car stopped. The fluorescent glare of gas-station floodlights poured in, brewing muttered conversation and the acrid bite of tobacco smoke into a slurry of disorientation. The windows were down and even at four in the morning, the Texas air hung warm and dark and damp from our shoulders. The car emptied, three grown men unfolding themselves from the bench seat in the back. I had the foresight to call “shotgun” back in Houston. A battered passenger van sat alongside us at the pump; a dozen laborers milled about, crunching on bags of Doritos and speaking softly in Spanish. The curses, I understood.

* * *

Ten hours and a hundred dollars in bribes later, Eric’s dusty red Rav4 soldiered along beneath a 115-degree Sun. Shrubs, grasses and stunted trees hugged the ground around us—all shockingly green for a murderous Mexican August. The air conditioner fan roared, but it wasn’t near enough. Heat had long since pacified the conversation when the car swerved dramatically to the right. We flailed about and were pulled left again, correcting back to the center of the road as Eric cut loose with a stream of incredulous profanity. “The dogs,” he bellowed. “Dogs in the road!” And suddenly we were turning around, pulling a U-turn on the two-lane highway. “Horns?” asked Tim from the front, too distressed to recall his real name. “Look at this!” Eric insisted as we roared onward. The hazard came into view: three dogs in the center of the highway.

The one with the white-blonde coat was the biggest. She was dead in the road, the victim of a passing motorist. The others, black and brown, had discovered the body and were attempting to mate with it. The black one had summited the corpse and was working furiously. The last sat patiently in the median, intently focused on the proceedings. He was excited about the opportunity and didn’t seem to mind waiting. The asphalt’s heat rose around them in shimmering waves, and the iron-grey mountains of Monterrey lent a regal air to the proceedings. In the car, pot resin mingled with hours-old sweat. Brett insisted the little black dog was “lined up wrong.” I’ve chosen to believe him.

* * *

The house outside Cadereyta was all blinding white stucco and pastoral dreams. A fountain loomed by the front door, dry and spattered with road dust. Storm clouds had begun to churn in the distance. Our hosts came out, and we exchanged greetings in the withering heat. They introduced themselves with the names we knew; names attached to a lattice of ones and zeroes. This man was Modu; this one Plastico. We responded in kind, discarding the given names we’d used in the car. It was instantly comfortable. Snacks appeared in our hands: branded Mexican corn chips, all salt and chile and salt and lime and salt. There would be a mariachi band at dinner, they told us. When your World of Warcraft guild holds a retreat in Mexico, the focus is not on video games.

Twenty young men waited in the air-conditioned paradise past the iron doors, each sober and rowdy to his tastes. A few assembled a battery of computers against the wall; others napped on a flotilla of mattresses arrayed on the cool tile floor. We’d never met, but knew each other well. Someone pressed a cold Tecate into my hand and I sucked it down. A man from Singapore (by way of Malaysia, he explained, in a laser-etched English accent) introduced himself as Malicia. Not wanting to use a woman’s handle for the next week, I asked his real name. He wouldn’t tell me. Once, I said some intemperate things to Malicia. Feelings were hurt, so one man was my friend and the other my other awkward comrade. The second Tecate dripped from brown glass bottle to throat. I was feeling queasy.

Stepping out the back, I took in the expansive coral-painted deck. There was a pool, its bottom striated with dark blue tiles. Leaning against a tree, breathing deep to settle my stomach, I felt a hard wind pulling. A pair of threadbare ranch dogs sprinted past, nipping at each others’ flanks. The clouds had descended; tall trees with only a few penthouse leaves thrashed and screamed in the gale. I didn’t know the time of day. My stomach surrendered to the last sixteen hours of driving and heat and hunger, all of it capped off with two budget-priced beers. A peal of thunder sounded as I was on my hands and knees, and the dogs started yelping. The smell of rain was in the air and I stumbled inside. The mattresses were prepared to save my life.

* * *

Memo woke me up; a snaggletoothed young man with an easy smile and wide white eyes. Time to eat, pendejo. I stumbled after him towards the back door, peeling my eyelids back with fingertips to moisten my sandpaper contacts. The rain had come and gone, though giants stirred above us. Tables were set, with all the deck illuminated and coals smoldering in an enormous grill. The iron was raised with a hand crank, and Plastico rubbed it down with two halves of an onion. “It’s the best,” he declared. My guild was scattered between the tables, all adorned with bottles of tequila and more Tecate. ”Drinking Tecate is a must,” Plas explained. I said I’d already had some.

The guild leader—-a rich man, bankrolling this teenager's Valhalla—-stood up at the start of dinner to introduce the band. I am a Grinch when it comes to mariachi, all the noise noise NOISE. But with a gutload of corn and cheese to protect me, drinks kicked up with the music kicked. It was unlike any mariachi I’d heard before: soothing and busy, all jangling and buzzing strings beneath a brass-smooth tenor. The singer’s ululations bound up time like leaves of paper. Plas and Eric threw Memo in the pool about an hour later. The deck buzzed with light, and tiny insects cavorted overhead. The band played with barely a breath between songs, but never for a moment did they rush.

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