An original short story set in Mexico
The passenger side headlight of the big green van shattered just as the gout of blood hit the windshield. The two animals, together, weighed about a 130 pounds but Sam felt only a slight bump. He slammed on the breaks, swerved slightly to the right and came to rest in a cloud of dust on the narrow shoulder of the road. He jumped out, ran around the rear of the truck to see what the hell had happened.
Goats. He had hit two goats. One was still alive, on its side, kicking and bleating. Sam began to say to himself the lie he would repeat until it became the truth “I didn’t see them, I didn’t see them, they just ran out in front of me — there was no warning, no way to move over, time to slow down.”
There was little time to react. An old red pickup was approaching on the narrow curve just as he saw the line of animals beginning to move toward the blacktop. His speed took most of his options away; his van held the road nicely as he rounded the curve at three times the speed limit. Several big signs between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas warned motorists “No es un carretera de alta velocidad” — “This is not a high-speed highway.”
The driver of the red pickup had seen the accident, pulled over. The driver and a passenger came walking back up the road. Before Sam or the other men reached the animals, the pickup passenger turned, walked back to the truck and was now returning carrying a machete. Sam and the driver stood over the dying goat for a moment — the other man dispatched the poor thing with one well-placed blow to the head, just behind the broken horns. More blood began to soak the sand in a broken circle as the animal breathed its last breath, kicking, scattering purple sand. The two Mexicans dragged the smaller dead goat, near the center of the road, to the shoulder where it came to rest next to the larger male. Two vehicles heading south slowed and almost came to a stop as they assessed the situation. The first was a big Day Dreamer motor home with Texas plates; he kept moving. The second was a big diesel truck pulling a fifth wheel travel trailer, Ontario, Canada plates. The big truck-trailer pulled over on the shoulder a safe distance from the accident, the driver walked back to investigate.
“What are they?” the driver said as he approached. The three other men stared at the new arrival but remained silent. “Oh, goats, a couple of goats. They’re all over the road. Almost hit one myself just north of Loreto.” The four men looked north as the sound of another vehicle preceded it around the curve in the road. It was a white Toyota pickup — the Policía.
The two policemen quickly assessed the situation. After talking briefly with Sam and the two guys in the red truck, they took Sam’s California driver’s license, told him to follow them, instructed the guys in the truck to pick up the goats.
There was a small floor fan in the police station front office. It was turned toward the young pimple-faced cop at a desk on the other side of the room. Sam was distracted from the heat, the sweat, the rank odor floating up from beneath his silk shirt by another unsolved problem — he pushed a loose tooth around with the tip of his tongue while he promised for the umpteenth time that he would seek the aid of anybody anywhere who had at least two Ds after their name before the sun went down this very day.
How long could this take? His papers were all in order. He had Mexican insurance, a current visa, customs receipts. He understood that he was now waiting for the Comandante. The police chief was in Santiago. The policemen used the truck radio, learned that the chief was expected shortly; it was only about 15 miles from Santiago to this little office in Miraflores. Sam had boned up on his Spanish over the last six months after he firmed up plans to market his stuff in La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. He’d been playing the Berlitz CDs on his road trips from San Francisco to San Diego and back. Sam hadn’t used much of his Spanish since college but it was coming back now, “Yo Vengo, Tu Vienes, El Viene.” There were only six or seven beachwear distributors in La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. At first he was uncomfortable dealing with distributors rather than retailers but in Mexico it didn’t pay, for this short line, to go through all the hassle of getting legal to sell to retailers.
Sam Corbin, tall, thin, showing most of his 41 years around the eyes, the forehead had other encounters with the police in Mexico. Tickets, extortion, bribes, small sums necessary for an American businessman to pay to travel back and forth from San Diego to Ensenada, Baja California. One was for speeding, one for a bad tail light, one for running a traffic light. He was never sure about the tail light but the other two had been patently bogus — he was going about 25 MPH in heavy traffic, along with the flow. The one with the light was ridiculous; they pulled him over and let the three Mexican cars behind him drive away after they went through the same light.
The salesman was silently practicing the little Spanish speech about “could I go sit in my truck, for the air, the air-conditioner?” when the radio began to squawk in the other room. The fat one got up, walked to the door of the inner room where the radio was, leaned heavily on the door frame, listened until the radio was again silent, then returned to the comfort of the fan. No “he’ll be right here, he’s on the way, just a few more minutes.” No expression. The cop put his feet up on the desk, leaned back to enjoy the breeze that was keeping his hair, face, and his pimples pleasantly cool and dry.
The detainee tried his cellphone again. No good. Well, he would E-mail Janet at Cabonet when he got there. He probably had a half dozen messages from her waiting for him in his mailbox. She worried every time he went south of the border. She had bought into the banditos stories. No matter how the day ended, he decided to leave this little travel chapter out of their conversation, electronic or otherwise. He would get the truck fixed in San Diego and she would never be the wiser. Right now he would be driving with only one headlight but he could get that fixed in Cabo. There didn’t seem to be any other damage to the truck except for the light and the grill damage. He hadn’t looked under the hood, hadn’t even taken the time to get the blood off the body, the fender, the windshield. Maybe the police wouldn’t have let him clean the thing up. What the hell kind of law could he have broken anyway?
He was about to find out. A white jeep marked Policia pulled into the dirt space in front of the office. The chief had a passenger, an old Mexican man in cowboy hat, jeans and boots. They walked in, dusting themselves. The chief talked to the fat cop for a minute. The cowboy took off his hat, glanced at Sam, took the chair next to him, put the hat on his lap, took a deep breath and stared at his dusty boots. Pimple boy had already filled out the report while Sam waited: KM 81, Carretera 1, B.C.S., Mexico, 1100 A.M., Martes, Junio 24, 1999. Two dead goats, one sorry gringo, etc.etc.
The Comandante’s big black boots announced that he was coming back into the front office of the station. Sam and the cowboy stood up at attention while the chief spoke. He introduced the Mexican cowboy. He was Señor Patricio Rojas, owner of the goats and a respected local ranchero. Since the goats were killed on an easement to ejido (Indian) land, the rancher was entitled to compensation from the party or parties that caused their untimely death.
Sam began to say “My insurance…..”
He was cut off. The Comandante looked him right in the baby blues and said “Necesita pagar ahora, por favor. Pesos o dolares, Señor.” Before Sam could form a retort, the chief turned to the cowboy and said “Cuánto vale, compadre?” The lawbreaker got it all: “pay now please” and to the cowboy “what’s the damage?” Before either man could say a word the young cop called for the chief, the radio was blaring out more urgent news. Both policemen grabbed radios, the chief said to the two men, “Esperan.” “Wait.” The two policemen ran to the jeep, jumped in and sped away moving most of the parking area gravel closer to the door of the station.
Whatever the emergency was it must have been dire because fat cop left the fan running. It was very effective at moving fresh, soothing coolness away from the two men and into the radio room.
Even Emergency Spanish for Travelers tapes would have failed Sam today as he began another partial trial run “Señor…” was all he got out.
The rancher interrupted, “I speak a little English. I lived in the U.S. and went to school in Chula Vista until I was sixteen. This is not your fault, it is not my fault and we cannot blame the goats. Ten years ago, the highway department put up the fences. Many times my goats find a way down to the highway and become trapped between the fences. As they wander back and forth trying to get to water, they are killed by cars and trucks on the road.”
With this fresh information from the goat owner, Sam Corbin thought he might try a little quarterback sneak. If he could start a little dialogue with this rustic fellow he might later avoid the pain of meetings with Official Goat Appraisers or Mexican Livestock Value Judges. While he made the proper eye contact he also made the All American mistake of putting his hand in his pocket.
” Señor, how much do you want for your goats?”
The rancher looked befuddled and said “Want, how much do I want?” The man with the hat in his lap continued, “When I come down from the mountain, into the villages I expect to encounter people who have common sense or at least a little humanity. I will never understand gringos. For the smaller goat I need 200 pesos, for the larger one I need 350 pesos.”
The gringo said “I can pay you now. I don’t need a receipt. If the police are busy with some serious accident on the highway they may not be back for some time. I could drive you back to your place and you could explain our agreement to them later, the next time you come to town.”
The rancher had a ready answer “The radio message was from Yadira, the wife of the Comandante. She told him two pigs were loose in his garden. He will not be long. We will wait.”
“Believe me, I wish your goats were still alive. I’ll face the consequences with the police if you like. I just thought we could come to some agreement while we wait, to save time,” the salesman preached.
Rancher, “You wish the animals were still alive. Wish? You wish?”
“Since the beginning, from the time we began to grow again after the Toltecs slaughtered more than eight million of us, we have never known the comfort of a wish. Indians and Mexicans know only need. We need to have food to fill our bellies. We need water, and corn and a little salt. When we get what we need, a few tortillas, sometimes, we want more. If we get what we want, more tortillas, we might wish we had chicken. We live in a world of need. We seldom get the luxury of a want and it is rare indeed that we can wish for anything. It is not your fault that you were born into a world where you have everything you need, but it blinds you to the way other people live.”
The rancher continued. “If you did not have the money to buy such a nice big truck, my goats would still be alive. Sin embargo, Señor, nevertheless, you will not have to pay me more than I would have in my pocket if I had sold the goats yesterday. The policia will not ask you to pay more than the fine for the violation of the law.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Hope, now that is something we Mexicans have a lot of……” As the jeep rounded a corner, turned into the parking area, came to a gravel-spray stop, Sam was thinking “this might signal an end to my Mexican Social Studies Lesson.”
The chief motioned for his friend Patricio to follow him into the other office. A subtle hand-gesture to Sam by the fat boy invited him to stay put. The salesman spent the few minutes alone alternately pushing his loose tooth around, watching his silk shirt stick to different parts of his upper body and straining to hear some Spanish words, coming from the other room, among the half-words, part-sentences adopted by a people who try to simplify and foreshorten everything in their lives, especially their language. He needn’t have bothered.
He heard the word cochi, pig, and cabrón, bastard, four or five times pass between the Comandante and the rancher as they walked, almost arm-in-arm, smiling, joking, back into the room. Pimple face laughed with them as he sat down behind his desk. He pulled some official looking forms from the desk drawer, put the appropriate number of copies in the ancient typewriter and began to two-finger his way through the documents looking back and forth from his accident report to the form in the machine, to the keyboard. The chief and the rancher walked outside, crossed the dirt street, headed in the general direction of a small store and a taco stand.
Now might be the time for the speech. Sam stood up, got the attention of the typist, pulled the sopping wet shirt from his belly and motioned toward his truck.
Sam said. “Por favor, trucke, para aire?” The young man motioned with his head that Sam could go out, sit in the truck.
As Sam walked the thirty feet to the truck, black clots and streaks on the grill, fender, wind shield stood out as glaring testimony to his culpability. Guilty but undaunted, the truck owner climbed in, started the big engine, turned on the air. The first blast was hot air. After a sweltering eternity, just as he was convinced the air was not working, the compressor kicked in, the air through the dash vents began to sing its cool song. Shirt unbuttoned, leaning way back in the front seat, eyes closed, Sam was being delivered to other times and places by an ancient Eagles CD competing quite nicely with the high fan noise when he was rudely jerked back to the hot and dusty here and now by fat cop tapping on the passenger side window.
Maybe the cowboy was right. Now back in the office and closer to the fan, the salesman was made to pay 550 pesos to the cowboy and another 1,200 pesos for the traffic violation, infracción (all told about $170 dollars). It was all very legal, businesslike and polite. They returned his driver’s license. He got a copy of the accident report with an official stamp and receipt on the reverse side for the 1,200 peso fine. He forgot to ask for a separate receipt from the old man. He drove away slowly and safely, glad to be back in the air conditioning, back on the road to reality, the road to Cabo San Lucas — cold drinks, lobster dinners, cool showers, clean sheets, no goats (or at least fewer goats).
On the way into Cabo Sam spotted a Chevy dealership. He pulled in, showed the mechanic the damage to the grill, the broken headlight. Since he could take a cab the few blocks to the downtown area, the hotels, the heart of town, he said he would leave the truck and come back to pick it up in the morning. The Mexican mechanic said it should be ready by 10 A.M. A short, stocky grey-haired gringo was at the counter paying his bill. He smiled at Sam and asked “cow, horse or burro?” Sam smiled and said “goat.”
The stranger said “I’m headed for the marina, you need a ride downtown?”
“Yeah” said Sam, “yeah, that would be great. Just give me a minute to get some of my stuff from the truck. Okay?”
The stranger’s truck was white, a 3/4 ton flatbed crewcab with Custom Plus Homes painted on the doors. A young Mexican guy in jeans and T shirt was leaning on the shady side of the truck. Sam joined the driver in the front, the Mexican guy got in the back seat.
The driver said “I’m Roger Newell. I build homes around here. This is Juan Jose, works for me. The best damn tile man in the Baja. He’s from Santiago.”
Roger continued as he pulled out onto the main drag and headed south “They put on some new amortiguadores. Sounds pretty, sounds like amor, sounds like love — shock absorbers, it’s the Spanish word for shocks. I was way overdue. Been pounding these old roads hard for over five years now. Coulda put ’em on myself, but they work so damn cheap here why should I bust my ass?” Sam just nodded.
“Did they make you pay? For the goats?” asked the stocky guy.
“Yeah, they did. I had to pay a fine too.”
“How much for the goats?”
“550 pesos for the two of them.” said the salesman.
“That sounds fair. We pay about $1 a kilo, on the hoof, for a nice fat goat when we need one for a barbecue, a fiesta, a grand opening.” said Roger.
Sam said “Well I guess the old man who owned the goats told me right. He gave me a little lecture about the price. His name is Rojas. Patricio Rojas.”
Laughter from the back seat. The young Mexican leaned over the seat behind the driver, whispered something in the driver’s ear.
Roger smiled, turned to Sam. “Juan says you been had. Rojas, the old man, they call him El Maestro. He’s not a rancher, he lives in a little shack behind the church in Santiago, he has no goats. Speaks some English, for years he was a teacher. His brother is with the police, just got promoted — he’s the new Comandante in Miraflores.”