UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Confessions of a Bedbug Hauler
I needed to get out of New York and I badly needed to make some money. I suppose I could have gotten a job picking fly shit out of pepper. But then I got a call from Roddy Joplin in Clear Lake. He was back from Mexico and he’d married again. His sixth? Seventh?
I suspected that Roddy’s offer of help was not entirely altruistic, that his newest marriage was already crumbling, that he’d soon be running again for Thorwaldsson, and that he envisioned the two of us on the road together, batting ideas back and forth like ping pong balls as we crossed the continent on eighteen wheels.
And that’s exactly what went down. Roddy and Maryann had a blowout—I guess my arrival in Clear Lake had something to do with it—and Roddy quit the Bookmobile job and went back to work for Thorwaldsson, and we began running together, mostly down to Laredo, Brownsville and Del Rio. Of course we went across the border to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros and especially to the Boystown at Ciudad Acuña, and our stays began to extend to two or three days or more in the cantinas with the girls.
Roddy Joplin was a bona fide latter day cowboy. As reckless as Roddy was about most things, he was meticulous when it came to his image. He wore embroidered western shirts, a $300 alligator belt with an engraved silver ranger buckle and a Stetson Powder River buffalo hat that had set him back 150 smackers. And Tony Lama reptile boots that must have cost a small fortune. With his craggy face and brooding gaze, he looked like a man who’d spent half his life branding longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.
All the way through Arizona and New Mexico, in the old days, when we ran together, we'd stop at every western clothing outlet and spend hours browsing while Roddy searched for a new belt buckle or for that special cowboy shirt. And whenever we’d park at a truck stop he’d carefully wipe his boots off with a red bandana before getting down from the cab. Roddy was a huge hit with the truck stop waitresses and with the girls in the cantinas, and even though I felt like a poor relation I was happy to ride along on his coattails. For me, it was like traveling with a celebrity.
Now that Roddy was back on the road he really cowboyed up—the red bandana, the ten-gallon hat and the embroidered shirts, just like the old days. And a brand new pair of hand tooled Lucchese caiman belly boots that set him back a grand. Roddy, in his finery, looked like he’d just stepped off the set of 3:10 to Yuma, and I was back to being the poor relation in my Long Haul t-shirt and my grimy Schneider National baseball cap.
The Boystown in Acuña was off by itself, an amazing whirligig of shooting lights that was almost a separate little pueblo at the end of a long dusty dirt road. You’d walk into a cantina like the Palacio de Oro, the Gold Palace, push through the swinging doors, and there they were, the whores, huddled in the booths, jabbering like schoolgirls, waiting patiently for their prince to come along. “Pasale, guero. No tenga verguenza!”
Boystown—especially the Boystown in Acuña—was to me the holy city, my Lhasa, my Maccu Picchu, my New Jerusalem, and a perfect place for Pinocchio and Lampwick to transform themselves into donkeys. The lurid neon signs, the sizzling taco pushcarts, the tiny Indios with their beads and Chiclets, the gaunt street dogs that patrolled like hyenas—it was a sordid world, raw and unadorned, but it was also a human world, human in a way that America is not and maybe never was. I adored the magnificent desolation of Boystown—the street-level communion, the bottom-of-the-bottle absolution, the ragged and desperate joy that can be known and shared only by those who have been factored out of the human equation. Boystown was an oasis in the American Desert, a place where a lonely man could find sex, comradeship—and even what the world calls love.
At the Durango Club there was Blanca, who stuffed my mouth with kisses. She was a real blonde and claimed to be from Argentina, but it’s more likely she was the half-American daughter of a whore. We spent hours in the booth, kissing, besitos, little kisses¬—peck, peck, peck—like two lovebirds. She would barely open her mouth. She’d allow me to feel her little chiches under her blouse but I couldn’t get her to go to the room.
In fact, I never saw Blanca go to the room, on nights I mean when she was sitting with other hombres, usually American truck drivers or soldiers. While the other girls at the Durango paraded to and from the cuartos in the rear with their jangling keys and their rolls of toilet paper, Blanca sat in her booth with her soldier of the moment or with me, chaste as a nun, dispensing affection in minute increments—besitos—little kisses—like penny candy.
Blanca’s compadre Ofelia claimed that Blanca was a lesbian, but I didn’t believe it. Ofelia was jealous, and besides Ofelia was a booze artist, a dedicated drunk who would have licked the spit off a dog’s lips if she thought there was a drop of alcohol in it.
“Maybe she’s a virgin,” I suggested.
“Claro. And I am Pope Pius the Twelfth.”
Ofelia had an American boyfriend, a Mayflower driver, a bedbug hauler, who showed up once in a while, and I’d sometimes help her write a letter to him in English. Then one night when the three of us were sitting in a booth Blanca confided that she too had a sweetheart in the US, an old soldier from Tyler, Texas, supposedly a survivor of the Bataan Death March. She was living for the day that he’d come to whisk her away to the US. She showed us his photo. He was old, all right. His tiny shrewd eyes were set in a seamy face that was creased and worn like an old catcher’s mitt.
“He looks like a rhinoceros,” Ofelia commented.
“Shut your mouth, you dirty pig!” Blanca snapped back
“What’s his name?” I ventured.
Papi! That was a good one! I had to laugh, because the girls in the cantinas call every man “Papi.” But Bianca was serious. She entirely believed in her dream, that someday Papi would come with all the pomp and grandeur of a great general entering a conquered city and carry her away to the land of milk and honey.
In any case, whenever I sat in the booth with Blanca I was careful to keep the drinks coming because she got 50 cents on each one and I figured she’d at least have the income from that, while she waited for Papi to rescue her. Plus I’d always leave a hefty tip at the end of our kissing session when I headed for one of the other cantinas and another girl—usually Marisa at the Adelita Club—whose dewy body would quench the fire so skillfully kindled by Blanca’s little kisses, her besitos.
One day Roddy and I went looking for a birria restaurant in the “nice” part of town. We walked up and down the main drag. It was all curio shops, farmacias and splashy tourist bars. Suddenly Roddy ducked into a shop and came out with a cowboy hat.
“Take this. I want you to have it. Go ahead, put it on!”
He snatched off my grungy Schneider National hat and replaced it with the cowboy hat.
“Get rid of that fucking thing!” he snapped. ”Cowboy up, brother!”
He handed my Schneider hat to a ragged callejero who accepted it without comment, then he led me to the window of a loncheria where we studied my reflection in the glass. Roddy seemed pleased with my new cowboy image.
“That’s it. You gotta nurture your inner cowboy, man!”
“Fuckin’ A,” I said, although I didn’t really mean it.
A few shops away, the homeless man, wearing my discarded Schneider hat, was admiring his reflection in a store window. He was happy as a clam. It was a banner day for him.
Marisa at the Adelita Club was my main squeeze in Ciudad Acuña. It was puppy love. She often took me to the room for free, por amor, as they say. Marisa had a friend, Evita, who, conveniently, was sweet on Roddy. We spent many nights with Marisa and Evita and sent them postcards from the road, from the magical, glamorous land of Los Estados Unidos, a world they would never see.
Coming back to Boystown was like coming home. We’d spend hours with our novias, sitting in the booths, mushing it up, playing the jukebox and copying out the words to popular songs in Spanish—the language of the heart—and English, as if we were children in grammar school. Evita was nearly a foot taller than Roddy. He was like a papoose in her hands. In order to keep the girls in a party mood, we’d put Los Angeles Turnarounds in their drinks. They’d stay up all night with us, swilling tequila and jabbering like monkeys.
We’d take our sweethearts to the movies and to dinner in the “nice” part of town. We had to pay the house a fee to ransom them out. It wasn’t much, maybe ten dollars for the evening. Then we’d come back to the Adelita Club and spend the night. When it came time to say goodbye, Marisa would often burst into tears.
“No te olvides de mi!”
“You don’t have to worry about that!”
I sent Marisa money from the road and wrote love letters to her in the truck stops. I had no dictionary and because Spanish wasn’t my language I was very often not quite sure what I was saying, and this was a joy.
Roddy and Maryann got back together, then they had another fight and Roddy went on a bender in Minneapolis. I started running solo, and I pressured Chubby to give me the Del Rio runs exclusively so I could spend time with Marisa.
Then Roddy and I made what turned out to be our last trip together down to Del Rio. We spent a bunch of our running money in Boystown, and stayed off the road way longer than we should have.
Roddy tried to smooth things over with Chubby on the phone, but Chubby was damn well pissed off. He knew exactly what we were up to. He threatened to fire us both but we knew perfectly well, as Chubby himself must have known, that he wouldn’t go through with it. Drivers were hard to find, and besides, anybody Chubby might dig up around Clear Lake was likely to be every bit as slipshod and irresponsible as Roddy and I were.
By way of a little comic relief, right after we arrived we got into a scrap with some livestock haulers at a dive called the Extranjero Club and I lost my cowboy hat. After that I breathed a little easier because, unlike Roddy, I never was all that comfortable with the cowboy image.
On that first night back in Ciudad Acuña Marisa and I had just gotten settled when I heard an agonized “Maiow!” It seemed to be coming from under the bed.
“It is the cat,” Marisa explained. “She arrived here last week. She is embarazado—big with the bebes. Me entiendes?”
We heard more plaintive cries.
“Yes,” I said. “I think she’s having them right now. En este momento!”
And sure enough. We peeked under the bed and there they were—six tiny blind kittens mewling and peeping like baby birds, and the mother cat was busy gulping down the placenta.
Easter was right around the corner and Blanca had recently gotten a letter from the old soldier from Tyler, Texas, her Papi. She showed me Papi’s letter and I translated it for her. Great news! It turned out that Papi was on his way to Boystown to fetch her. He was scheduled to arrive on Easter Day, in fact. Blanca was pissing her pants with excitement, and the girls at Durango Club began placing bets. Was Papi for real? Would he actually show up? Would he take Blanca away?
On Easter morning I went to Communion with Marisa, then we moseyed over to the Durango Club. I’d ransomed Marisa out of the Adelita Club for the whole Easter weekend, so there was no problem about that. Roddy and Evita were there, at the Durango Club, and Ofelia, and Blanca, of course. We all sat in a booth with beers and waited while Blanca endured the taunts of the girls, who were undoubtedly jealous.
“He won’t show!”
“He’s a liar and so are you!”
“Go fuck your mother!”
Dreams do come true! Papi’s arrival that Easter morning was like the coming of Christ, complete with palm leaves and glad hosannas, like the great god Bacchus returning to Rome from his conquest of India, drawn by tigers in a golden chariot. The old soldier pushed through the swinging doors of the Durango Club and stood there for a moment, blinking his tiny bright eyes. He was a Gran Señor, all right, truly majestic, a real charro in his embroidered jacket and fitted pants, black bow tie and wide-brimmed sombrero. His pencil line Clark Gable mustache was dyed black and his long white hair was tied in a ponytail. El Patrón! A mysterious figure, confident, savvy, complex, possibly dangerous, and certainly far more sophisticated than the bland Texas manner his letter had suggested. I had no trouble believing the bit about the Bataan Death March. This man had been to hell and back.
Blanca leaped to her feet and gawked delightedly at the old man, then she flew into his arms, nearly knocking him down.
After a tender embrace she led Papi to our booth and the old soldier sat down with us, his arm around Blanca, and I got a good look at this wrinkled, scaly relic. He was old, really old, gaunt, and the sharp, angular bones of his wrists were almost translucent. You felt on one hand that he might blow away on a breeze, but at the same time he seemed firmly rooted to the earth, like a serpent that sheds skin after skin and goes on living forever.
The bartender brought a bottle of Jose Cuervo and seven glasses. The old man poured, and you felt in that moment that he would never die, this Gran Señor from Tyler, Texas, but would simply get older and older, wiser and wiser, more wrinkled, more scaly and more majestic. After a few shots of tequila Papi began to talk, in a monotone, like a priest reciting a litany, and suddenly we were on the island of Saipan in a madhouse of noise—mortars, tracers and machine gun chatter—ducking for cover behind smoldering hulks of Japanese tanks. The sun broiling down, our canteens empty… Piles of Japanese bodies everywhere and still they charged, leaping over their fallen comrades. And on the final day, when the Americans had won, the Japanese civilians…it was extraordinary. The women carried their children to the edge of a cliff that dropped a thousand feet to jagged rocks and jumped, holding the kids in their arms, and young girls too, scores of them, some barely in their teens, were diving off that cliff. It was the Bushido code—death before dishonor…
When Papi got up to go to the excusados, Blanca who didn’t understand English, asked me what we’d been talking about.
“Oh, nothing… the war.”
“You see?” Ofelia snapped, smacking her glass down on the table. “Men! They love to play soldier! But it’s the women who suffer. They kill us, they rape us… They’ll cut the baby out of your womb! We lose our sons, we lose our brothers and our fathers. Goddamn men! They care only for their pricks and their guns and their wars! Pfui!”
Papi returned to the booth and he and Blanca went to the room. They didn’t come back, and they didn’t come back. We finished off the tequila.
“You don’t suppose he had a heart attack…” Roddy ventured.
“No,” Marisa said thoughtfully. “It probably takes him a while to get the damn thing up.”
Our last night in Boystown featured a bravura performance by Marisa’s friend Ofelia that filled me with respect for her. Ofelia’s trocero, the bedbug hauler, had thrown her over for a floozy who worked at the Gold Palace. Desolate and even drunker than usual, Ofelia hired the mariachis to play while she sang lead, emoting freely, pouring out her woe. Outside the open door of the cantina the menudo man trudged past with his wooden yolk and dangling kettles. You could hear roosters crowing. The bar was deserted except for a few whores snoring in their booths and the bartender polishing his eternal glass. If she’d been born in America, Ofelia would have been married by now, driving a Volvo, juggling a baby or two, shopping at the supermarket, but fate had decreed that she serve out her time in a whorehouse in Ciudad Acuña. Standing up to the music, she belted out song after song, pissing away her night’s earnings as dawn came up like a flaming circus and the silvery trumpets of the mariachis showered despair over it all.
I sent Marisa a postcard from Oke City.
“I miss you. Como está Evita? Roddy says hello to her. And to you. Como van los gatitos? How are the kittens?”
And then—“Yo te quiero…”
What the hell!
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