Tampico

[ Fiction ]

Tampico

A Novel

By Toby Olson

Four old men embark on the journey of a lifetime.

James A. Michener Fiction Series , James Magnuson, editor

2008

$24.95$16.72

33% website discount price

Hardcover

6 x 9 | 232 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71827-2

Four old men—John, Gino, Larry, and Frank—have been warehoused at "the Manor," a long-eroded home for the forgotten. The men take turns telling stories, stalling death as they relive pivotal parts of their pasts. Outside, the cliff crumbles and a lighthouse slips toward the sea.

John, in particular, enthralls the others with his tale of Tampico, Mexico, where he met an Indian woman named Chepa who owned a house at the edge of a mountain wilderness. She was his first love—and his first lesson in the dangers of foreign intrigue. But his is not the only memory haunted by mysteries born in Mexico. Sick of waiting for death, stirred by the shifting ground beneath their feet, the Manor's residents finally resolve to quit that place and head out for Tampico.

With inexorable pull, and exquisite scenes that could only come from Toby Olson, Tampico celebrates a sublime band of calaveras, "those skeleton messengers of mortality," who seek self-discovery even as their lives are ending.

  • Book One: The Manor
    • John
    • Frank
    • Kelly
    • Carlos
    • Peter
    • Carlos
    • Larry
    • Kelly
  • Book Two: Philadelphia
    • Peter
    • Carlos
    • Gino
    • Kelly
  • Book Three: Tampico
    • The House
    • The Foothills
    • The Mountains
    • The Village
  • Epilogues
    • Kelly
    • Peter

Chepa colored the dogs by dipping them in iron cauldrons out back. Estrella was a struggler and almost as large as she was, and Chepa's arms would be flooding pink fans from the elbows when she lifted her out. Then it was Don Lupe, the spaniel dyed grassy green, and yellow for the chihuahua, Rata, the only true Mexican of the three.

There was a time when the cauldrons had been used for the scalding of chickens that were fed to the troops, but that was when General Corzo had owned the house, one of many, and before he lost it to Chepa in a game of cards at the Louisian. Chepa had wagered servitude, and it was a good thing for General Corzo that she had won.

The cauldrons rested in a row on the ground below the crude porch, beyond them and Chepa's small vegetable garden and the oak sapling she'd planted at the garden's edge the foothills rising above the dusty plains of the state of Tamaulipas, becoming those lush and mysterious mountains from which she had descended, that even from the sky were lost to sight under cloud cover and perpetual mist.

Those perfect circles were my beacon, their colors blinking through drifts of smoke from oil and gas fires, and I'd let the de Havilland take the mountains' updrafts, bring her into a stall as I banked over the house. Then I could see the derricks and camps off in the distance, a few thin fingers of flame, and the matrix of pipelines, vectors disappearing in the direction of Tampico and the Gulf. I'd dip my wings, and below would be the small figure of Chepa, those bright colorful dots that were the dogs bouncing at her heels as she brought them across the baked clay of the front yard to the edge of our crude landing strip, then paused and looked up to find me.

Maybe a bowl of chili, tamales steaming in corn husks, a cool bottle of sweet Mexican beer. I'd step down from my cockpit, steam rising from the block of ice in the forward one, and Rata in fresh yellow would run and jump at my knee. I could see breeze in Estrella's long hair, hear it in the clack of chimes hanging from the porch eaves once the engine had coughed and died, then Chepa's laughter and the soft clicks in her Indian talk in the dogs' yapping as she lifted the meal in its stoneware vessel, grinning and cocking her head boldly and not stopping until she was pressing me against the fuselage with her hip and the scent of her cooking was in my nose. It was 1923. Obregón had exempted U.S. oil interests from Article 27 of the constitution. I was twenty years old and Chepa, my Huasteca, was thirty-five.

I hadn't gone south leaving a dark story behind me, like so many others. I was too young for that. But I had flown the Gulf Coast for Texas Oil all the way from Corpus to Galveston and inland to Hearne and Seguin. It was mail mostly, occasionally executives and small parts, and when Obregón made his move they decided to move me. I had a first week in the city, going over aerial maps of Tamaulipas and Vera Cruz to the south. It was two words then, Vera Cruz, and the maps marked the camps with names‑‑Columbus, Álvara, Aguascalientes‑‑as if they were towns and not just clusters of oil rigs, crescents of barracks and mess halls and a few rooms for bosses and company visitors from the States.

From my hotel window on the second floor I could see down the narrow street into the city's central square, the corroding church they called a cathedral, public buildings to either side of it, and the flapping awnings and cloth skirts of the various vending carts that lined the perimeters every day. Women leaned over wooden boxes of fruits and vegetables, men in cowboy hats lifted small tools and examined them, a few dusty peons, and away from the shopping, around the bubbling fountain at the square's center, oilmen in clean shoes bargained and told extended stories. Everything seemed benign in its activity there, but when I held the fan-blown curtains back and followed the drops of sweat falling from my nose to the street below I saw a seamier and more exciting side of things. At least it was that in the eyes of the twenty-year-old I was then.

The Louisian was just across from me, and in the evenings under the gas flares I'd watch women flirting with men in sombreros, some wearing sidearms, on the boardwalk in front of the Café Bolivar a few doors down. It had rained for a solid week before my arrival, and though the street was still mud and I'd watch men dancing across it on narrow boards, the heat was back and the mosquitoes too. The men would slap at them and the women would brush them away, gestures that seemed often in time to the faint strains of Cuban danzón coming from the Lluvia del Ora, the bar Joaquin had told me about, out of sight beyond the Bolivar at the turn.

Joaquin was a Mexican born in Tampico, but he'd been raised up north in McAllen across the border from Reynosa. He had both English and Spanish perfectly and in his early thirties had been hired by Texas Oil. He'd been a kind of advance man, preparing the way for leases and later for payoffs to the various generals and their small armies that provided protection for rig sites. To the south, the aftermath of revolution continued in assassination and uprising, but in Tampico there was yet another enemy, one from the north, and revolution took its form in tribute, a kind of people's taxes. Joaquin had greeted me at the airport, holding a basket of fruit and smoked fish. It was his job to help me get settled in with the maps and to fly with me until I was oriented, and in the evenings of my first days he took me out into the life of the city streets and to the bars, and one evening had occasion to lean against me and say the following.

"I am told that if holy water falls on her it boils."

He spoke in a damp whisper, and I could smell the anise on his breath. We were sitting beside each other at the bar overlooking the tables and the small dance floor at the Lluvia del Ora. The French band had finished its set, and people had risen not for dancing now but for drinks and conversation. We'd been talking about the day's rough landing at a camp called Cerro Azul. The runway had been sabotaged with rocks, and I'd had to make a second pass, then hug the edge. Joaquin had figured it was a warning only. The camp boss had paid the general, but Alcazar hadn't liked his attitude. Joaquin had spoken to him a few days before, something about a lack of seating for his men and inappropriate dress.

I'd been watching a gathering near the dance floor's edge as we spoke, three men and a woman sitting across a table from them, and another woman, standing, with hands on her hips, her face in profile, and Joaquin had followed my look, then said those words. It was that profile that had drawn me, something I'd seen in museums.

The men were looking up at her. The one in the middle had a faint smile on his lips. He was leaning back in his chair, medals hanging from his leather vest, hands at rest in his lap. He wore a carefully clipped mustache that drooped at the edges of his mouth, and his hair was thickly oiled and glowed with a dull sheen in the dim bar light. The ones to either side of him wore their hats, fine-looking Stetsons, and though they were watching the woman they glanced to the man in the middle from time to time as if for cues. The woman sitting across from them was weeping. I could see it in the shake of her shoulders and the backs of her arms. Her wrists tapped at the table's edge, and her head moved from the men to the standing woman. She seemed to be saying something through her sobs.

"The older one in the center is General Corzo," Joaquin said. "And the woman standing, the one you are interested in, she's pure Indian and not to be trifled with. She and the other one weeping, they work this place. It's not Corzo who seems to be the problem for them. It's the one on his right, Calaca. They call him that because he's so thin. He's a sneaky bad customer."

And now the standing woman was talking to him. Her hands had moved from her hips and she was gesturing. Calaca had tipped his hat back and was looking up at her, grinning, his face a skull's face, weathered skin like parchment stretched over bone. General Corzo had turned a little in his chair and crossed his legs and raised his palm to the one sitting on his left. That one had seemed to be rising, but then settled back. The woman had stepped forward now and raised a finger and was waving it in Calaca's face. She was short and just a little stocky, but her hips swelled out from a delicately thin waist, and I'd been watching the backs of her beautiful legs, her calves, as the black spiked heels she wore pushed them into definition through her red stockings. Her dress too was black, a clinging silk worn off the shoulder, and I could see the tendons lifting her scapulas, the beginning of her straight and stationary spine as she gestured, the bounce of her coal black hair.

Calaca was laughing now, watching her finger, and just as he leaned forward and opened his mouth as if to bite it, she hit him, her fist flattening his nose and two arcs of blood squirting out to either side of her knuckles.

General Corzo looked down, curious, as Calaca lurched back and fell over in the chair, his head hitting the wood floor with a dull thud, hat bouncing away. He rolled and tried to rise but she was on him, hitting him in the cheek this time, then sitting astride him, one hand gripping the greasy hair on the top of his head as she pounded him in the face one last time. General Corzo watched patiently until she was finished, and the woman across from him had risen and leaned over the table for a better view.

And so it was, only four days after my arrival in Tampico, that I met Chepa and fell in love with her. She was a mother to me and a sister and a perfect lover for a young man of little experience such as I. My mother had died when I was just fifteen. I'd had no father that I knew of, and I'd been on my own since then, a roustabout, and finally with the help of a fatherly man from Texas Oil I'd become a pilot. Then he too had died. I'd had no social life to speak of, a few cool prostitutes and rum and Coke across the border in Matamoros and once an older woman who had taken me under the stars on Padre Island for her brief pleasure. It had all been thoroughly mechanical, until Chepa, and though ours isn't the story I set out to tell, I'm going to tell some of it anyway.

At first it was clearly the money and that I was a young and innocent man. I went back to the Lluvia del Ora, bought her the grenadine syrup and water she drank to stay sober there. I asked her about Calaca and why the general didn't intervene. She seemed both charmed and annoyed by the question but wouldn't answer it. We spent the night together at my hotel, and the next morning Chepa insisted on showing me the sights of the city, though they were few. Bars and offices had invaded historic public buildings and old haciendas, and refinery pollution had eaten away at façades and outdoor statuary. But there were a museum and a few churches, lagunas and parks, and places where the shores of the Panuco were unsullied by terminals and tank farms. We spent the day together, and in the evening we ate dinner together at the Louisian. And the next night, after a day of fishing the Panuco for tarpon, we dined at the Ciudad de Pekin, my first taste of Chinese food. Then I slept in her arms in my hotel room, our bodies glued together in sweat under white sheets through which occasional mosquitoes stimulated us.

Then it was Monday, and I was off with Joaquin on our reconnaissance flights. We flew each of the camps, both north and south, and Joaquin waved his arm in the open cockpit in front of me, pointing down at the Texas Oil flags waving from the highest derricks. There were buzzards too, descending in slow and symmetrical spirals, then rising up from the smell and movement in the living flesh below, then trying it once again.

I had the maps and the places they represented, which from the sky were very much like the maps, and in only a few days Joaquin was grinning and shaking my hand vigorously and I was on my own, carrying mail, valves and other replacement parts, north through the oil fields of Tamaulipas and south through Vera Cruz.

I never found out how Chepa came by the hand roller, a fifty-gallon oil drum filled with cement. She would hitchhike from her house to the city, but only after a walk of five miles to the main road, which out there was no more than a dirt track. Wednesday, when I returned to the hotel in the late afternoon, she was sitting at the foot of the bed, my open and neatly packed suitcase resting on the coverlet behind her.

"Dónde?" I said. I had this little bit of Spanish and she a good, though often crude, English she had learned from oilmen. I hasten to say she was no prostitute, though she drank grenadine syrup and water and sat with men for money at the Lluvia del Ora. Some there were, but she told me she made her own choices and they didn't include that.

"A mi casa," she said, pointing over her shoulder to the open suitcase on the bed behind her. "Joo close now?"

She was smiling, but her broad brow and cheeks were expressionless, her face still as a face carved in a block of dark wood. A small and smoothly hooked nose, lips full and cut straight across below it, and above, her large eyes, pupils black as her hair and penetrating. Often she held two expressions, mouth saying one thing, eyes another, the latter both intimate and impenetrable. Her words were as much an order as a request, and I'd been taking pleasure in her aggressiveness so I did what I was told.

Later, in the de Havilland, it was Chepa and not Joaquin who was pointing down, and as I banked low over her house I saw the oil drum at the edge of the new landing strip she'd rolled. The strip was narrow and short and at the end of it she'd positioned two huge potted plants to either side as warning beacons. She turned around in her seat and grinned at me as I brought the plane down, rocking the wings to make sure of the wind.

The house was elevated a few feet off the ground on pilings, and Don Lupe liked to take the shade at the edge under it, Estrella, with her thicker coat, back behind him deep in shadow. But Rata had no care for the heat and she danced near my ankle, head high and sniffing, as I crossed the clay yard and climbed the steps to the veranda, Chepa slightly behind me, lugging my suitcase.

The house held one large room, an iron stove and an icebox and a sink with a hand pump at the rear, a few crude chairs, and tables with kerosene lamps and candles in onyx holders resting upon them near the walls. There was an open closet in a corner, just a wooden pole upon which were hung the dark and colorful clothing Chepa wore. I saw the black silk dress I remembered there, on a wire hanger beside others. And carved into the boards of the wall beside a window was evidence of the previous residents: VIVA VILLA and ZAPATA. Pencil-thin shafts of light came up through bullet holes in the floor, and in one corner there was a large faint stain that I imagined was blood. The bed was brass and double, its head against the room's left wall, and at its foot, defining its space as separate, was a beautiful silk screen.

"China Boys," Chepa said, as I studied the road, the bridge, and the elegant figures caught in their various gestures moving from top to bottom. Most cooks at the camps were Chinese, and there were some who had set up stalls in the square.

"So this is why," I said, "at the bar, the general didn't interfere?"

"No," she said, moving up behind me and pressing her hands against the small of my back. "This house means nothing to him. He has many. It was Ana, the weeping woman, and that Calaca, a business between them I had arranged. The general had no part in it. It was a matter of honor."

And I suppose it was honor too that kept the rhythm of our relationship so consonant. I was white as a criollo, but no Spaniard, and she was no mestizo, but pure Indian. And though I was a product of the oppressor, I was a child to her and to myself, though becoming a man through her. Neither of us was part of the franchise, though we were both making our livelihood from it.

I had money to burn, and I bought Chepa jewelry and clothing in the square. I bought small pieces of furniture, pottery, pictures for the walls and ice for the beer and wine, strapping it all into the de Havilland's forward cockpit before I commandeered the plane each evening. Some noons I would ferry Chepa back to Tampico for grocery shopping. Then we would fly out together as the sun was setting. Though the city was hot and malarial, wind blew down from the foothills in a steady stream to cool our house. "It's coming from where my people are," she said. Her well was a deep one, and the water was cold and sweet on the tongue.

In the night, after dinner and brandy and cigars, Chepa would light many candles and move the screen away from the foot of the bed. We'd undress in the shadows, then pull the coverlet away and lie down beside each other on the cool white sheets. The pink Estrella would sit in a chair across from us, grinning, her red tongue lolling over her lip, Don Lupe curled like a healthy pine bough on the floor below her. Only Rata would be moving, a small piece of yellow fruit visible occasionally in candle‑ and starlight as she sniffed at the rugs and in the corners of the room, looking for something she could never seem to find. Then Chepa would turn to me, her hair and lips brushing my shoulder and the soft flesh on the inside of her thigh crossing my knee. I'd feel her breath on my cheek, the whisper of her words so close to my ear it was as though my head was a tabernacle and her voice was inside it, disembodied, and as intimate as my own thoughts might be, were I thinking. She'd be singing, those soft, guttural Indian songs, then telling any number of stories as if they were all part of the same one.

***

A society woman on the streets of the Zona Rosa in Mexico City. She's come from New York and her husband, a businessman, has given her the day for shopping. She's done that, eaten a light lunch, and now she's bored. The clothing and the pieces of fine jewelry she's bought as souvenirs for friends make but a small bundle and a light one and she has only a broad shoulder purse and a sturdy shopping bag for toting. So she sets off into the back streets of the Zona, down into those byways where only Mexicans live.

The streets are empty, it's siesta, and deep in a shadowy alley between a bookstore and an artist's studio, she glimpses a sliver of movement as she passes. She stops, pauses, then returns to the alley's mouth, and there, growing increasingly visible as it limps forward from the shadows, is a dog.

It's a very small dog, short-haired, with large oval ears and a pug snout. Its color is a dirty white, and over the foreleg it holds limply above the ground, its chest is a row of bird bones, and its eyes, its protruding eyes, like those of a just born calf, are rheumy and running, and it's those eyes that get her.

A chihuahua, she thinks, poor thing, and she squats down gracefully, places her shopping bag to stand alone on the broken pavement beside her, then reaches her palm and her opening fingers out toward it. The dog limps from the final shadows and to her hand, extends his snout tentatively and sniffs her fingers. Then, his mooning eyes in her eyes, protruding from his small skull as if they might pop out should he stare much longer, his salmony tongue slides through his lips and touches the tip of one of them. Her fingers curl back quickly. She's a little startled, but she's undeterred, and she takes the silk scarf from her neck, makes a kind of hammock out of it, then reaches down and lifts the dog, light as a single tortilla, swaddles him and stuffs him gently down into her shoulder purse, among the jewelry, cosmetics and air freshener.

This is a good woman, you can see, and unapproachable, so when she does not tell her husband about the dog, smuggles him aboard the plane, it is no wonder she is successful, given her husband, her fine clothing and demeanor. The dog leaves the bag only when the two have reached the woman's apartment in New York City, the guest room that her husband never enters.

But the dog will not eat. The woman tries everything, and still he fails. Soon he no longer limps, though he might stand shivering beside the guest bed. And his eyes are closing, victims of an oozing infection.

Veterinary medicine? She's tried that, pills and potions gathered from friends surreptitiously. And every imaginable hard food and liquid sustenance too. He's sipped only at a saucer of milk, and this briefly, but that gives her the idea, mother's milk. She's heard it somewhere, a thing about animals, and she sets out with efficiency to find it, and she does.

The dog drinks and drinks again, and for a few days he's limping, his eyes seem to be opening. But then he takes a turn and is failing again, even more quickly than before. No longer can he stand now, and his rheumy eyes have closed completely. He begins to resemble a premature fetus, a small dirty bladder of some kind, curled into a shallowly panting bit of wet empty flesh at the foot of the guest bed.

The woman, in desperation, calls the family doctor, who recommends a veterinarian of stature. Then she calls him and makes a special appointment for the afternoon. She goes then to the dog and lifts him, in a thin rubber pillowcase this time, and settles him gently on a bed made of dishrags deep in a cloth satchel.

They arrive at the doctor's office on time and are ushered right into the examination room, where the woman takes great care in lifting the dog out of the bag. She places the small rubber package on the shining surgical table, then steps away, and the doctor steps forward and peels back the swaddling.

The dog has become nothing to the woman, nothing surprising that is, so when the doctor jumps back, a little shaken at the sight, she is offended. It's only a dog, she says, though a very sick one. Ah, well, the doctor says. But did you feed it mother's milk? I did, the woman says, and they both look down at the dog, only now recognizing that its eyes are half open and completely glazed over and that it is not breathing.

My poor, poor dog! the woman cries, her hands fluttering near her face.

Poor, yes, the doctor says, that is true. But this is no dog, chihuahua or otherwise. This is a Mexican slum rat, numerous in those cities. Did you find it there?

The story unfolds no further, since the point has been made. It's the weakness, cowardice and filth of the Mexican and his representative dog, which is really a rat, or often mistaken for one and vice versa. But this has been a modern version of the story and a reversal is coming, which is not really part of the story but is suggested by it.

In the version just told, the woman is like the woman in any such story, elegant and refined, but though she is these things, and kind, she is also useless. There are no details in her life here, but for her concern with shopping, and though she is possessed of certain efficiencies she had no place to put them, but in the service of the failed resuscitation of a rat. The woman's husband is completely absent in this version, a piece of reality and social commentary, since that's the way it is up north.

And you might notice too a hint of the commercial quality of the fine main streets of the Zona Rosa here and how these are in contrast to those invisible byways behind it where the Mexicans live. The woman finds the dog in a dark alley and the concrete is cracked. But the alley is between two shops, one a depository of intellect, the other of art, those two crucial elements of the survival of a culture, the real Mexico here, el corazón of the healthy beating under the drumming of commerce.

And in the reversal the story has not quite ended though the point has been made, because the doctor was wrong. The thing left on the examination table was no rat at all, but a chihuahua of mixed strain, one who had drunk of pure mother's milk and was not dead but was rising up in the night, his blood cleansed by that milk in the way Mexico might be cleansed, returning to the children of the Indian mother. For the pure chihuahua is an Indian, one who came down from those mountains behind us where I came from. He's preening and turning in slow circles, his nails clicking on the slick metal, free now of the attentions of woman and doctor and the manipulations that might come from them. It's dark in the room, and the dog shakes his bum leg and stretches, his eyes blinking, then opening wide as small saucers as he stares down over the table's edge. He licks his lips. Then he jumps into the void of blackness below.

Her feet hit, her pads thumping on the hardwood of this floor. There she is now, returned to the female through her mother's milk. In our candles' light she searches the room for something she might never find. See her? She's passing low over the carpet there. She looks like a piece of fruit. I think she must be the Indian phoenix that could rise again, redeeming a rodent and the meaning of a hue. This is why I have named my chihuahua Rata and why I have colored her yellow.

***

And yet this is not the story I have set out to tell, but one that begins on a windy morning in which Chepa had awakened me with the long smooth muscles of her small body and with the sun and we were active in a cool breeze on our bed. She had a way of holding me with her legs, her voice like a strange urging instrument as she fingered the base of my spine. But that is yet another story, and private, and inexpressible even now in this mind of an old man as he remembers.

Chepa stood in swirls of dust as I fired up the de Havilland. I could see the pink Estrella, her long coat feathering in the wind and brightening into cotton candy as the last shafts of sun were swallowed in the high clouds. She was trotting low, her muzzle close to the ground, heading back up the porch steps to join Don Lupe and Rata in the doorway. My goggles were sand-blown and the house shimmered and I could feel grit at the cups' edges. I glanced ahead, under the upper wing, and could see the planters rocking at the runway's end through the prop's whir. I looked down at Chepa. Her hand was guarding the side of her face and wind blew her loose dress against her body, revealing those large breasts that had not known mother's milk, though I had sucked for it. She grinned up at me and I kissed my lips down at her. She wiggled as she waved me away. Our beautiful routine.

Once into the sky, the de Havilland was severely buffeted. My wings were rocking, my tail pushed to the side, and I had to cram my scarf down into the neck of my jacket to keep it from blowing across my face. Wind whistled along the leather of my flight cap where it hugged my cheek. So I took the plane higher, climbing until I was just under the clouds, no more than twenty yards below them. They were thick and almost black, and they raced over me, coming in from the sea. I felt the plane's nose tip up toward them and had to look away, disoriented.

I was flying very high, and soon I could see the city of Tampico far below, and beyond it, ten miles off, the Gulf of Mexico. I could see the tiny shapes of a few tankers. They seemed still and untroubled by storm, but there were flashes of white in the dark blanket of water they rested upon, waves surely, and the sky was a roiling black wall where it joined the sea at horizon.

I had to fight the stick getting the plane down, and in my landing the wheels bounced and squeaked, then did it again. I parked the craft, chocked and tied it down, then struggled in the wind across the concrete to the Texas Oil office, glancing back once to see the de Havilland dancing at its moorings, its wings vibrating in gusts. I knew there'd be no flights that day, and I was already figuring how I might get back to Chepa as I opened the office door and saw Joaquin sitting at the large desk where the mail and parts chits were distributed. He was the only one there, and he looked up from the documents he'd been reading and smiled.

"Qué tal, hombre?"

"Well," I said. "It's a real pisser out there."

"Ah, yes," he said, and got up from the table. "A good storm. No sky riding today. How, then, is Chepa?"

"Fine," I said. "Quite good."

"Well, that's good," he said.

He'd risen in formality, and once I was in the chair across from him he sat down again. He was dressed up, in a fine cotton suit, and he wore a tie and his hair had been carefully combed and oiled. I'd already given up on the idea of getting back to Chepa, not in this weather, so when he indicated, somewhat obscurely and delicately, that he could use my help, I said fine.

"But why the suit?"

"That's it!" Joaquin answered, lifting his hands from the papers. "It's a meeting in Chorreras. With General Corzo."

He must have seen something in my face, for he paused, his hands still in the air.

"Can this be a good idea?" I said. "My being there?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "That's right. A very good idea in fact." He'd gathered up the papers and was rising again. "Come now. I'll tell you about it on our way."

Chorreras was located on the Gulf, near where the Panuco River emptied into it. It had once been a thriving fishing village, much like so many others along the sea's gentle curve of shoreline, but the arrival of oil interests had changed things. The construction of sea terminals, spills from the tankers, both had killed fishing, and with pipelines had come a need for workers and administrators. Chorreras looked much the same as it always had, but now its ramshackled stucco buildings contained offices and apartments. Some fishermen and their families remained still, and there were an old church and a village hall too, but most of the population was foreign‑‑American, French and British‑‑and there were no more than fifty Mexican workers at the few national terminals, like Corona and Aguila.

The driver moved the company car slowly through the busy streets of Tampico, heading for Laguna de Carpentero and the small-gauge railroad that would take us along the bank of the Panuco and out to the sea. I sat beside Joaquin in the backseat, sniffing his subtle cologne and listening to what he had to say. Outside the car window, the streets and the wooden sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians. It was the end of October and the city had been hot, still and humid for weeks. But the cool, stormy weather had cleansed and freshened the air, blowing out the acrid refinery smoke, and the people were taking a windy pleasure in it, standing before shops, pausing to look up into the cloudy sky, their hair flicking at their ears and napes, fingers holding the brims of their hats.

We passed the mouths of crowded side streets that were decked out for fiesta, ribbons and banners flapping over makeshift archways, women turning in traditional costume under them. We came upon the Ciudad de Pekin, where I'd eaten my first Chinese food with Chepa, and saw a small orchestra of men in pigtails playing strange-looking instruments, the refined and simple sounds momentarily everything in our ears, then disappearing suddenly as we moved by. We passed a bakery, a table of small white candy bones and skulls on the sidewalk in front of it, and a man dressed like a skeleton staggered in half-dancing drunkenness into the street so that our driver had to jerk at the wheel to avoid hitting him.

"It's not just the weather," Joaquin said, a faint scent of mint touching my nostrils as he turned and looked out the window too. "It's the Day of the Dead. Not the day itself, but first days of celebration."

"And Calaca?" I said. "Will he be there too do you think?"

"Yes, well I suppose he will be there, no doubt of it."

It was to be a formal negotiation only, Joaquin had said, talk of figures, the signing of a few documents, then a delivery of cash. Corzo, like most of the generals, required this, a way of legitimizing what was seen by the oil companies as no more than extortion. But the generals saw it as tribute, as well as a slap in the face to Obregón. Some were no more than gangsters, but Corzo was old enough to remember his legitimate power in the revolution and young enough still to have hope for the future correctives he felt he would be a part of. Joaquin wasn't all that sure about his army, the two dozen men who like Calaca had joined only after the constitution had been signed. They had been with General Corzo for three years now, though whether it was wealth or patriotism that drew them wasn't clear.

"And why me?" I'd asked. "I'm surely not dressed for it."

Joaquin laughed. "Well, it might be the house, I think. Surely it's Chepa. Curiosity? Beyond that I can't be sure. He doesn't know you of course. But he knows of you."

"He asked for me?"

"Yes, well, in fact he did. But it was just asking. Nothing more than that."

"I'll have nothing to do there then."

"No, not that. Just to be there. It's all very formal. You'll see. Nothing more."

The clack of the train's steel wheels and the grind of the couplings made talking impossible even though the compartment was very small, like a child's playhouse, and our shoulders were brushing. Out the window, beyond the pipeline running below the track bed, the Panuco was cooking, waves slapping at rocks along the shoreline. I saw flying fish pop out of the swells, fight for a few feet against the wind, then fold into small cigars and disappear into the river's dark waters.

We passed agitators, warehouses, paraffin plants. Black smoke rose in solid columns from the chimneys of stillstacks, then quickly dissipated in the stormy air. We passed the Corona terminal, then the Waters-Pierce, and beyond that, where the Panuco turned, I spied that oddly virginal banking, a stand of banana palms and resida, the place where Chepa had taken me fishing.

It had been early on in our relationship, and I had still been searching for ways to be with her in those quiet moments that were unattached to loving or the times in anticipation of it or in the sweet and equalizing hours afterward. I couldn't quite figure who I could be with her, young as I was, how take the place of a man in her presence. And I was often awkward and silent, and that made her an urging mother, which was not exactly what I wanted. At least I didn't think I did.

But then we hooked a fish, a monstrous tarpon, and we were together in our struggle into exhaustion on the steep, rocky shore to land it. It was seven feet long. I know that, because I lay down on the ground under the banana palms beside it while Chepa measured. Then she too lay down, on the other side, and after we'd lifted our heads and grinned at each other across the tarpon's belly like children we fell asleep only to wake again as the sun was sinking. We made ourselves a spit then and a fire and roasted the fish, turning it in fire and starlight until the skin was brittle and wrinkling and the flesh at the surface was hot white.

Then, sitting across the massive fish from each other, we pulled away pieces of meat, eating and licking the oil from our fingers and wiping them on our clothes.

Our activities were everything to me then, and I saw that with Chepa there need be no vacant and unattached moments, nothing of the absence of anticipation. I think I knew even then, as I tasted the fish, that this was my first life lesson and that it might go beyond even her, and I have tried to carry Chepa with me through all my travels in that knowledge.

Our four-car train clacked slowly toward a halt, and while it was still creeping ahead Joaquin opened our cabin door and the salty breeze washed in and rippled my collar, causing the tip to tap against my cheek. The wheels squeaked and the train stopped and I followed Joaquin, stepping down onto the gravel slope of the track bed and below it sandy soil. Up ahead the toy engine idled beside the guardhouse kiosk, and between them I could see the thin passage of the rail spur and the pipe running beside it as they headed on their systems of elevated pilings out into the Gulf and along the water's swelling surface to the Texas Oil sea terminal, a low cluster of tanks and buildings, its flags blowing, awash in wind and spray on its platform a quarter mile off. A massive tanker was docked there, and beyond, where high waves had risen near the edge of a fog bank at the horizon, I saw the shadows of two others under a darkening sky.

Papers were passed, an arm held out a clipboard, then the train was moving again, and in moments the view opened and we could see the rutted dirt road that climbed to a low seaside crest and the roofs of the first buildings of Chorreras.

"Okay, then, vámonos," Joaquin said, and we stepped up to the track bed and over it and headed for the hill and the town.

The place where we were to meet General Corzo was situated at the far end of the village, a little beyond it, on a low bluff overlooking the sea. It had once been a public building, a place for women to gather and watch out for their husbands in stormy or clear weather as they fished at the edge of horizon. Used too, Joaquin had said, for drying fish in the sun on racks outside.

"But now it belongs to Corzo. You'll see, he's done some work on it. He won't be there, you know. Not until we are."

We walked at the edge of the muddy track of the main street. It was two o'clock and still siesta, but this was no longer a Mexican town and we saw lights in windows of those at work, passed a few huddled figures in a hurry to get somewhere, leaning into the wind. The sky was almost completely black now and the light like that at dusk. Joaquin wore a heavy, oilcloth raincoat, his hand over his heart to keep the fabric from filling with air, and I'd put my flight cap back on, buckling it tight under my chin. Then we passed the last town building and I could see the house a few hundred yards up in the distance, what light there still was washing in its windows.

It was a square box, with a widow's walk on top, but the general had torn away the central cupola, turning the walk into a sundeck. I saw lawn chairs and a metal table there, a closed umbrella sticking up from its center, its edges flapping in the wind. Below he'd set large windows into the old board walls to get the view, and the path leading up to the house was white stone lined with cactus, a trellis hanging with bougainvillea surrounding the entrance door.

Joaquin knocked and we waited, then heard the sound of feet on wood. Then the door opened and a man who looked very much like Joaquin himself, though younger, stood aside, raised up his arm and ushered us in. This will be Sosa, I thought, a man with a woman's name. The translator. Joaquin had told me about him, something General Corzo insisted upon. He would speak no Spanish with Joaquin.

"Sosa might be my counterpart, a patriot. Lucky that we look alike, a way for the general to insult me without actually doing so. In his eyes I'm a turncoat, but then he needs me, you know, to make it all go smoothly."

The house held only the one small room, but the large windows lining three of the walls brought the outside in, expanding it, and from where I sat I could see both into the Gulf and along the rocky shore for a good distance. Waves washed on the rocks now, spray obscuring them, then leaving them to glisten under the dark blanket of cloud cover as the surf receded, and out the front window the sea had risen up into whitecaps all the way to the fog bank, which had crept in a little, and the tankers had disappeared.

Joaquin sat in an easy chair beside me, and across the fine wicker and glass table from us sat Sosa. The table held a bottle of tequila, salt and lemon each in its own stoneware bowl, and there were other chairs in the room and a worn couch draped with colorful vegetable-dyed rugs. And there were rugs too on the hardwood floor, and engravings by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada on the walls between the windows. He was called Don Lupe, as was Chepa's dog in his honor, and the prints all showed the calaveras, those skeleton figures he had introduced into art or at least had popularized. They were riding skeleton horses and bicycles, giving speeches, dancing, playing instruments, dragging the dead away.

"Yes, and it is the Day of the Dead, these weeks," said Sosa, seeing me looking.

By Toby Olson

Toby Olson is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including Seaview, winner of the 1983 PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as more than twenty books of poetry. He has received Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and NEA fellowships.

Praise for Toby Olson's writing:

"Nothing can detract from Mr. Olson's ability to conjure gorgeous prose passages that celebrate the healing powers of friendship, the pleasures of love and lovemaking, and the inborn mystery and beauty of things in this world."

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"Toby Olson takes on almost everything that a work of fiction can bear."

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"Toby Olson is one of America's most important novelists."

Robert Coover