When he was little, Javier Echeverria claimed to have a disease that made it impossible for him to hold it, so he would take it out and urinate whenever he had the urge. In the street, on someone’s porch, in the middle of a park, it happened everywhere. He may have been making up the disease part, but he stuck by his act. We thought it was hilarious when adults caught him peeing on their steps or their walls or their bushes—and went nuts. The little waterboy. He even got a nickname out of it: Regasón. Eventually, he got cured somehow, or decided to give the whole thing up on his own, supposing that it was all just an act. Either way, the name stuck. Even when he was in his forties we still called him Rega.
Rega’s grandfather had been a cacique in a little village just north of Jalpa, you know, down in México. Rich, cruel, and wily—according to what Regasón told us—he came to own several plantations spread over a wide area that had once been cattle country. His laborers were treated little better than slaves, and when the revolution of 1910 broke out they had their revenge. His house and crops were burned, and he and his family were forced to flee. He eventually ended up in the United States, where he ran a dry goods store that failed shortly before he died. After the grandfather’s death, Rega’s father found work in a cotton ginning plant as a laborer, and sold off the remaining merchandise from the store to a couple of Lebanese brothers who were just getting started in the mercantile trade. Rega’s father, Don Ulises, the humble laborer, was a fanatical admirer of Franco and Salazar, and supported sinarquismo in México with small but regular contributions. There were rumors that he had been questioned by the FBI during the war on suspicion of being a German sympathizer. His resentment of the Mexican revolution and the effect it had had on the family’s fortunes ran deep. He never made much money, and Rega was forced to leave school at the age of fifteen. He went to work for the railroad.
I really didn’t see Rega much when he was still working, but word got around that he made good money as a cop for Southern Pacific during those years. He had an accident, and went on disability, but by that time he owned his own house and had four sons. When he started coming around again he was a fat, balding little man—no taller than five-foot-three—roughly my age, that is, in his mid-forties. He was dark as any Indian, but would claim to be pure Vasco. He certainly had the oversized square head which I had come to associate with Vascos, and his grandmother’s maiden name was Ugarte. Of course, many people are ashamed to admit that they are even part Indian, so the truth of his blood was known only to him.
He’d come around the old neighborhood mostly to see Coques, who’d been his best friend when we were kids. Sometimes he would go and see Florencio as well. He was Coques’ older brother. Florencio had married when he was just sixteen. By the time Rega, Coques and I were in our mid-forties, Florencio—we called him Flor—was a full-fledged wino. He used to hang out with some other winos, sitting in the shade of a wall across from the Quality Food Mart, yelling, “Hey Leandro,” at every guy who walked past. All of the winos thought it was funny that Flor called the guys Leandro. He had delicate features and small hands, and his skin was like a baby’s even after years of hard drinking and roaming around in the sun. And then with that girly name—well, I was always expecting that when he finally drank himself to death, or got hit by a bus, we would all be in for a surprise. You know, like the surprise at the end of Grande Sertão: Veredas, which I have to admit I read in Spanish because I don’t know Portuguese, and the Spanish translation is supposed to be the best. Some people just start dressing up their girl and treating her like a boy for kicks, or vice-versa, and it sticks. Maybe they have their reasons.
Our neighborhood—the one that Rega had grown up in, and the one that he had left for a new house on the far Eastside that was poorly built but very affordable—was still my home, and the home of a lot of the guys that we grew up with, Rega and I. That neighborhood, rows of red brick bungalows shaded by Chinese elms that nobody bothered to water or trim, neglected lawns overgrown with feral vines and stubborn weeds, existed on the edge of a faded downtown that the city had outgrown. It was slowly being encroached upon by the spillover of disreputable commercial enterprises. There were plenty of offices without any outward sign of what was going on inside of them, and shady warehouses used to store merchandise of less than legitimate provenance. Ours was the neighborhood that you went to if you needed fake immigration papers or cigarettes without tax stamps. There were also some parasitic social service agencies, always flush with money, but they didn’t actually provide services to anyone but their own staff. Everybody had a con, it seemed to me.
Anyway, Rega would come around, and I’d see him standing out there with Coques, talking to Flor, who would be sitting in his wino spot with his hands shading his eyes, like an effeminate monkey, looking at them, his quart tucked between his legs, and every once in a while yelling, “Hey Leandro,” at some guy walking by. I’d wander over to visit with them, taking a break from my writing, and listen to Rega tell us about his family history or his neighbors on the Eastside or the things he saw when he was working for the railroad. Rega had all kinds of stories about his family, especially his grandfather. He had been Someone, that grandfather, a kind of legendary monster in his salad days—the brother of Pedro Páramo, if you know what I mean. Nothing like my grandfather, a Welsh immigrant who settled in Pachuca and built a cottage and worked for the coal mines. That Regasón, he came from people who could wrestle with the devil!
On one occasion he was showing Coques and Flor something. He had taken it out of his pocket just before I joined them, and at first I thought it was a knife. When he let me have a closer look at it I saw that it was a little flute or whistle made out of a hollow piece of bone. It was yellow and looked just like a segment of turkey leg bone. I was turning it over in my hands, feeling its clean smoothness and the little reed and finger holes that had been carefully carved into it, when Rega said to me with an air of importance, “It was made from a human bone.”
“Ay, ay,” Coques said dismissively.
“Hey, I’m not making this up.”
Flor raised the quart of malt liquor he had been drinking out of a paper bag and saluted a young man who was passing by. “Hey Leandro,” he yelled.
“¡Cálmate, mamón!” Coques said to him.
It was hot standing out there, even in the shade of the wall. It belonged to a warehouse that was being used to store counterfeit Sesame Street toys that some Korean guys were selling wholesale. They left the winos alone, so as not to draw attention to their operation.
I handed the bone flute back to Rega. He put it in his pocket.
One of the winos was opening a new quart. He held it out to me. “Bautizalo,” he mumbled, wheezing. I took a swig and handed it back to him.
“Okay,” I said to Rega. “¿Qué ’s el cuento?”
Rega was ready. A born storyteller, that one.
“My father, you know, he was born when my grandfather was already in his fifties, so he only heard about what happened. He didn’t actually witness it himself. My grandfather had come way down in the world, so he used to love telling about the days when he was so important that he could be a total bastard and nobody could say anything.
“They’re calling him to breakfast, even though the sun is barely peeking over the soft, scrubby hills. He just got back from being out all night drinking with friends. He walks toward the door of the house, past the dusty cypress and two planets of foliage—the sapodillas—wondering what they have prepared for him. He used to eat fragrant strawberries when he was a student, learning arithmetic and reading in Guadalajara, but now it’s beef liver and tortillas and rice. Maybe he could get the cook to grow some melons, or someone could bring him peaches. He has his golden key out (carrying it makes him look like St. Peter), but no, the door is open, the heavy wooden door of this sturdy brick house in the campo, with the huge veranda, just outside what could be called the proper precincts of the village.
“He nods to the young man guarding the door with a rifle and breezes into the warm, stale air of the sala, and on to the dining room where four places are set. His wife is seated at one of them: a soft, exotic beauty— my grandmother—looking more Moorish than Vasco, with dark skin and black eyes. He takes off his gray felt hat, which matches his gray suit nicely, and leans over to embrace her, a chaste embrace. She is younger than he is, though he is by no means old. His thick mustache is still black, his hair is full, and though he is portly he gives an impression of strength. As he seats himself an old woman, one of their most trusted servants, pours his coffee from a pewter service. No sugar, no cream. If he wasn’t so tired he might ask for a little whiskey. In a small basket full of ripe zapotes that sits on the table is a single pear—rare, fleshy, firm, blushing like a fig; he takes it, cuts it in half with a knife and hands a piece of it to his wife. She takes a small dish and places it carefully in the middle. The servant takes the other half and places it on a plate for him. He cuts away the core, like a surgeon, and divides it into several parts that he proceeds to eat with a fork.
“Little son-of-a-bitch, he’s sitting there eating his pear, with his beautiful young wife, when two of his men bring in an old man, worn black by years of laboring in the fields. He is hatless, with a thick mat of white hair, and his gnarled hands are tied with a tough rope. The old man’s clothes are soiled, and there is a deep gash across his forehead.
“He doesn’t speak until he finishes his pear. Then he looks straight at the old man, and asks him, ‘Are you the father of Cipriano Ortiz?’
“The old man just stands there, saying nothing.”
“Hey Leandro,” Flor yelled at a kid with a shaved head.
The kid raised his arms, and yelled, “¿Qué, puto?” back at him.
“Pinche Leandro,” Flor mumbled to himself.
Rega looked annoyed at the interruption. After a moment, he took up the story where he had left it.
“He looks at his men. One of them nods.
“‘You know what to do,’ he says as he reaches for his coffee.
“After they finish him, they bury him in a pit of cal. That way only the bones will be left.
“Almost a year later, and he’s sitting on the veranda of his house, in a nice wooden rocker painted sky blue, smoking a fat cigar and watching the crows gather in the sapodillas. Wiping his fat, sweaty face with an embroidered handkerchief, he wonders when the rains will return. Drought lies over the land, and the streams and waterholes have dried up all the way to Guadalupe Victoria. He hears the sound of horses. There are twenty armed men watching the place, especially the clay hills to the north where volcanic bombs lie strewn about. He’ll have to hire at least thirty more soon. The number of bandits is growing; he doesn’t know how many of his own workers have joined them—defections are increasing every day. The sun is high in the sky, but the roof of the veranda throws enough of a shadow to cover the brick wall that the chair is leaning against. It’s early afternoon, and he’s just had a chicken smothered in gravy, and white rice and frijoles en olla, and he’s letting it all sit for a bit before going back to work. He’s chewing some Black Jack in addition to the cigar. Somewhere, inside of him, the son-of-a-bitch is vaguely aware that he’s developing a toothache in one of his molars. He’s too fond of sweets, and loves a cup of chocolate, no wonder he’s getting fat. What’s he to do? He has to live. And that thick gravy, who can get enough of that?
“He sees two horses ridden by soldiers in uniform. One of them is leading a mule with a tether. A young man, dressed in white cotton trousers and a collarless red shirt, in chains, his head bowed, is mounted on the mule. They are riding toward the house. He smiles.
“As they rein up in front of the veranda, in a cloud of yellow dust, the soldier with a captain’s insignia hails him. Both soldiers dismount, and the corporal helps the young man in chains down from the mule. He shuffles his bare feet as the soldiers pull him by his arms toward the man sitting in a rocking chair. The young man stands there, in front of the delicately carved posts of the wooden veranda, his bare head bowed. He looks like a starved bird.
“The son-of-a-bitch stands up to face the young man—who is still being held under his arms by the soldiers standing on either side of him—and gestures with his cigar.
“‘You look like hell, Cipriano Ortiz. If I were you, I’d at least get someone to cut my hair and give me a shave. When was the last time you washed your face? You must be tired of eating snakes and lizards. What’s wrong? Your men couldn’t drive off a steer from one of the ranches? You weren’t expecting us to be ready for you, but we’ve known what you were up to ever since you shot Don Felipe. We knew you’d come to ground eventually. There’s no water in the north, until you get to the barrancas. There are old Indian settlements, but I don’t know how they survive. I guess that they’re a lot smarter than you are. But you already know that. All that matters is that now you’re waiting for the firing squad. I asked them to bring you up here today because I wanted to see for myself the man who was making all the trouble. Can I offer you a cigarette?’
“Without taking his eyes off Cipriano, he takes a cigarette case out of his coat pocket. He’s still wearing the gray suit. The case is gold-colored and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, something his wife picked up for him in Zacatecas. He extracts a fragrant American cigarette and puts it in Cipriano’s mouth. Cipriano spits it out.
“‘Well, I see you don’t want to smoke. Suit yourself. Let me at least offer you all something to drink. And then you can water the animals over there.’ He gestures toward the corrals, and crushes the cigar out on the slatted wooden floor of the veranda with his boot.
“Then, before turning toward the door to call the maid, he adds, ‘Hey, Cipriano, I met your father a while back. He said you played the chirimía. I thought that you might be needing one to play while you wait for your date with the angels—or maybe it’s the Other Guy you’ll be meeting soon. I hope you like it, the chirimía, I mean. I had it made especially for you. Your father may be hobbling around in hell because of it, but I’m sure he doesn’t mind. After all, it was he who raised such a clever boy.’”
A guy was sitting in a black Trans-Am in the parking lot of the Quality Food Mart playing the radio. Chico Che’s “Tons Que Mami,” blaring through the neighborhood. Hah! Just the other day Josie was complaining that nobody listens to that kind of music anymore. She was saying that everybody just wants Norteñas, which she derisively calls “that tuba music.” Flor had fallen asleep, and was lying on the pavement with his arms outspread and his mouth wide open, snoring loudly. His four wino companions, sitting in a line against the wall like prisoners, were almost there as well.
“No, Rega,” I said to him, shaking my head, already turning back toward my house. “I just can’t believe it. It’s just too much. Like that disease you supposedly had when you were a kid. No, man. I don’t buy it. Take your flute and your story with you back to the Eastside. It’s just too weird.”
Rega put his hand on my shoulder.
“Think about it, bro. Cipriano is sitting in some little jail, watched over by the soldiers. I think he’s playing the chirimía that my grandfather gave him. He’s playing his father’s favorite song, the one that welcomes San Sebastian’s festival. On the day he is finally brought before the firing squad, he tells the captain to take the flute back to the son-of-a-bitch since he won’t be needing it anymore. My grandfather keeps it, so he can brag about what he did to Cipriano and his father. But Cipriano, he doesn’t care. He plays that little flute in spite of what my grandfather has done. He knows he’ll have the last laugh. My grandfather, his house is burned to the ground by Cipriano’s men. He flees México, and never sees his village again.”
Flor, crucified on the pavement, stuck out his tongue and moaned. He seemed to wake for a moment and looked around confusedly. I was still skeptical, but shook Rega’s hand in a friendly way. I nodded to Coques, with an ironic expression on my face, but before I was able to take my leave, Flor managed to say something.
“Hey Leandro,” he whispered in a voice of infinite weariness, before sinking back into blackness.