SONG ON A BLUE GUITAR
WHEN AN OTHERWISE RATIONAL man turns knight-errant and crosses the path of another questing fellow of singular purpose and volatile disposition, it follows that a few windmills may find themselves fair game. An adventure is almost assured when their paths cross in a certain village as flammable as the knight who lives there.
That village has a name, but to protect the innocent, and the not so, it shall be known only as La Mancha. Its ragged western edge straggles faintheartedly toward the river and peters out in a poor barrio known locally as Tuceros—a name commonly given to prairie dog colonies.
At the farthest fringe of Tuceros lived Victorio Duran—quixotic of temperament, charming of manner, cunning of mind, and as stubborn as the burro who grazed among his apple trees. Toro lived out where the road frays into dirt paths, where small boys drive their goats each morning and evening and the land widens down toward the river. Around Toro’s house weeds and sacatone grass elbow each other democratically and a few tough hollyhocks, left from the days when Toro’s wife lived and tended her little plot, still push blowsily around the doorway like aging whores. His apple trees scent the air and barn swallows nest beneath the vigas.
Through the years Toro’s house had settled comfortably into age. He made no payments, paid no rent, and what he owned was his—which was more, he liked to say, than most of the ricos who called him poor could claim.
It was Toro’s custom each evening to pull on his red boots, mount his ancient pickup, and roar clattering to the cantina. Through spring winds and summer torpor he bumped his nightly way, through autumn’s nostalgia and winter’s icy dark. Inside the cantina was warmth and friendship and light. Inside abided faith, hope, and cold cerveza. His amigos. Los cuates. This nightly junta could almost be called a religion, except that religion always tries to sell its isms. At the cantina you could ride the horse or leave it in the corral.
On this August night Toro Duran was, as usual, preparing to join his amigos. But this night he had a purpose. This night held more than conviviality: the very destiny of Tuceros was involved. This night Toro girded to fight for justice, to vanquish the evil that had come into their midst.
And from the other end of La Mancha, his Stetson cocked a bit roguishly to one side, strode the lonely, lanky figure of Joe Steele. He had claimed a no-show’s motel room, grabbed a quick beer and a pizza, and set out on foot to find the cantina. Walking was easier than negotiating the Olds through the crowds around the plaza. He needed to stretch his legs, and most reaches of La Mancha were within walking distance.
The day was sighing toward late-summer dusk and the piney scent of evening rode above the dusty day. The mist had rolled through the town quickly and hung over the dark mesa beyond the river, half veiling the near-gone sun. It was the hour of the afterglow, betwixt the end of day and the red dawn of neon beer signs. It was that time when tomcats stretch lazily, test their claws, and begin to anticipate the night’s amours, not unlike their human counterparts beginning to emerge for their evening’s antics.
La Mancha—and by its extension Tuceros—is a fascinating and frustrating village. It is an attitude, a tradition, a transcendence, a pulse or an impulse. It is tonic or toxic, a playing ground or a praying place, a spot to rest or roister, where causes breed like jackrabbits, and most are as soon forgotten.
From fall through spring it is a self-contained village that feeds (often noisily) on its own affairs, happily unconcerned with life beyond its own watershed. But in summer the village swells like a pregnant mouse. The chemical balance of La Mancha in August is roughly eighty percent tourists and forty percent artists, with trace elements of indigenous residents. This mathematical inaccuracy is explainable when one reflects that in late summer the tourists double in mass and money and the artists in importance, while the townsmen crawl back behind their doors like children sent early to bed who peek giggling until the funny grown-up party is over.
Tourists and tradesmen people the village, ski bums and sculptors, mystics, midwives, and musicians, preachers and panhandlers, potters, pawnbrokers and pimps, saddlemakers and social workers, bartenders and booksellers, woodcarvers, weavers, and welfare workers, horsebreeders and whores.
It is a village unique of soul. That is not to say that its individuality has gone unchallenged. But, like a small desert turtle, Joe had once remarked, it plods its own slow path through the fast lane, gobbles the fruits of the new age, and retreats into its medieval shell without so much as a thank you.
One shopkeeper, a true La Manchan of inspired method, ran his business from two cigar boxes. One held the previous day’s profits, and from it he paid the present day’s expenditures. Into the other went that day’s take. If by closing time (which might be day’s end or whenever he thought the trout might be biting) the second box held more than the first, he marked it a good day. If not, he shrugged and waited for the next.
His youngest son, on vacation from the university, walked into the shop one morning. Glad to see him showing some interest in the business, the old man began to explain its complexities. Then came the cigar boxes. The boy looked amazed. Appalled. He gaped and then he took the floor. He lectured long on the gospel of proper accounting. He grew eloquent on double-entry bookkeeping and orderly filing and the necessity for duplicate copies of all transactions. He cited government mandates and the IRS. His father listened with patient and tolerant heart.
“Dad—for a man who can read Homer in Greek and do calculus with one eye shut, surely simple business arithmetic—”
His father shrugged.
“You just can’t run a business this way, Dad. It won’t work. I mean—cigar boxes?”
The old man tipped his chair back on two legs and looked thoughtfully up at his offspring. “You’re right, son,” he said softly. “I’m impressed. Nothing beats solid, state-of-the-art education.” A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “But you know—these cigar boxes paid for your education.”
Besides the tourist shops and art galleries, La Mancha boasts a sewage plant, a weekly newspaper, a post office, a dentist, and three banks. Even these latter sometimes abandon their traditional sobriety. A pert young teller named Lisa was once approached by a new arrival with a beer belly and a golf-course tan. He needed to exchange his American currency for pesos, he told her.
She looked at him blankly.
He tried again. “You take A-meri-can dol-lar?”
She stared back.
“American money for your pesos.”
Lisa smiled enchantingly. “No hablo inglés, Señor.” It was the only Spanish she knew, so she said it again. “No hablo inglés.”
He took a deep breath and tried again, louder. People began to look his way amused. Lisa smiled sweetly, shrugged eloquently, and looked stupid. So did the next teller, and the next, each repeating the litany. “No hablo inglés.” Customers joined in. “Hey Billy, you hablo inglés?” “Hell no, no comprendo.”
A portly bank officer stepped through his door.
“All I want,” said the frustrated tourist, “is some of your currency. Could you direct this young woman—?”
The officer shook his head. “No, señor,” he answered. “I no hablo inglés either!”
La Mancha is shaped roughly like a hand, with the plaza centered in the palm, surrounded by shops and restaurants and galleries. Beyond this small but bustling hub fan the more sedate businesses, museums, and homes that nestle in small enclaves screened by cottonwood copses, making La Mancha a patchwork of contrasting communities, each moving to its own heartbeat.
Angling roughly toward the river spread the fingers of the hand, and it was along one of these that Joe Steele was walking this August evening, down a crooked lane where, if he followed the Indian’s directions, he would find the cantina. And Toro. He smiled again at the absurdity. For forty years he hadn’t known—or particularly cared, if he examined the truth of it—whether Toro still lived. He had let the thing between them lie like a spent ember until suddenly it flamed into a compulsion. A mission: he must find Toro Duran.
He passed the plaza, through the greasy smells of fast-food joints and the red-chile aromas of enchiladas, and the loud canned music that rushed through doors as they opened, and he had thought in passing how even this little village had been hit by the vulgarization of America, the Madison Avenue hype that had ground once-proud communities into cogs in a network of interchangeable parts. He watched the crowds pushing in and out of the doors and he thought how much alike so many faces looked, all fed by the same government agencies, the same television shows and doctored news and brand names and politically correct causes, so that they too grew standardized and interchangeable.
The stereotyped face of a politico smiled charmingly at Joe from a poster on a telephone pole, a leftover from a past election, like the epitaph on a weathered tombstone. Joe grinned remembering his own brief stint in the state legislature. Persuaded by some fellow ranchers, he had run and won, suffered through a single term in Santa Fé, and refused to run again. He got enough hot wind at High Lonesome, he said, the difference being that the wind on the ranch pumped something useful.
A short distance past the plaza Joe crossed an irrigation ditch, the acequia that marks the beginning of Tuceros. Although the barrio is part of the greater whole that is La Mancha—and a poor section at that—it enjoys a greater part of La Mancha’s political process than its rather seedy condition might indicate. The politicians court Tuceros during election years, and try to keep it happy in between, for Tuceros votes as a solid bloc, as witnessed by the year-after-year reelection of their own Tuceros locals as sheriff and magistrate judge for all La Mancha—namely, Chico and Rico.
Tuceros perches like a ragged mustache over the lip of the river. In its bristles the cantina burrows like a flea. And like the flea the cantina is the source of many an irritation. For it is here that its congregation spin many a puckish plot. Here centers the political life of Tuceros. Here is its social and philosophical home. Here all significant ideas generate, all important decisions, all major plans for the barrio and its citizenry.
Though only a ditch separates Tuceros from the rest of La Mancha, the separation marks a change less in scene than in character, subtle but distinct. For beyond the acequia lies the happy insouciant soul of those who have little, covet less, and live exactly as they please, unfettered by social dictates, material trappings, financial obligations, or the world’s opinion. The rest of the world can tend to its business. Tuceros minds its own.
Past the ditch Joe turned into an adobe-lined alley, which gave onto a narrow lane winding through a stretch of ground-hugging earthen houses with squat chimneys like fat complacent matrons. It was an area of red geraniums and patchy grass like the hair of a mangy terrier. The air smelled of piñons and dust and manure and baking bread—on the outside much like the rest of La Mancha. The difference lay in personality.
Lupe and Epifanio Cataño lived in one of the houses Joe passed. It was an old house, and small, and they could have afforded a better one, especially after Epifanio won five thousand dollars in a contest by naming a new brand of extra-sour pickles. (His winning name was “Mother-in-Law.”)
The social worker—a skinny pop-eyed lady of many smugnesses named Mrs. Muddler—kept telling Lupe she needed a new place. She had even found a modest house for her. But Lupe wouldn’t move. Sí, the pipes they kept freezing every winter; and sí, when the snow it begin to melt in the spring her flat roof leaked; and sí, one wall had a long wide crack going all the way through it. But she and Epifanio had grown old here. The house was part of them. And besides, she couldn’t leave her mother.
Her mother? An acquisitive glint lit Mrs. Muddler’s eyes. She hadn’t heard there was a mother too.
Sí. Her mother she was buried in the yard.
The lady’s eyes bugged and she gave a yelp. In the yard? Buried? In the yard?
Sí. Next to the bird bath.
Mrs. Muddler forgot to ask where Lupe’s father might be. Or maybe she didn’t want to know.
Near most of the houses Joe saw jacals or corrals housing a burro or so, and remembered how Toro had always nursed a special fondness for the big-eared little beasts. One stabled a good looking horse, a sturdy pinto. Beth liked pintos. She was one helluva good horsewoman too, he thought smiling.
Tuceros is untidy. Yards are cluttered with pickup seats whose stuffing oozes out. Sprawled across one was a boy engrossed in plucking a guitar. He grinned at Joe’s two-fingered salute and kept on making chords. Orange marigolds and purple petunias blossomed brightly in old toilet bowls. A plastic Virgin surrounded by artificial flowers stood enshrined in an upended bathtub in one yard. Another held masses of car parts marked by a hand-lettered sign reading “Pedro’s Garage—you bend we mend.” Children played shrill-voiced and burros brayed and dogs barked.
Houses grew fewer, empty spaces larger. A big money-green sign marked one empty stretch of sand as the property of the JD Emmenthaler Realty and Development Company. Joe wondered again who in hell’s outhouse this Emmenthaler might be who seemed to have invaded La Mancha. The white letters shone arrogantly in the late light. But three holes pierced Emmenthaler’s name. Someone, it seemed, had been having a little target practice.
A few paces beyond he saw the cantina.
It was a long low building, flat roofed, some of the adobes crumbling, with a single window from which a neon Coors sign glowed redly. A faded blue door beckoned the thirsty.
The cantina had stood so long it was again almost fashionable—or might have been with a different clientele. But then it would not have been the cantina. Inside Joe would see a singer on a high stool at the end of a long bar. A guitarristo. The cantina had a juke box, but it had been broken for years. No one missed it, though, not with such a fine singer. He came every night to enrich their lives with myth and music. A Cervantes awaiting a Quixote, a Homer seeking a Troy.
He would not have long to wait. Toro Duran would soon chug noisily up the lane in the name of justice, to plot darkly with his cohorts against the threat that now hung over Tuceros.
And outside, though none inside knew it, stood Joe Steele. He paused a moment, straightened his Stetson, hitched his jeans, and stepped toward the blue door.