Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
It’s high noon in Bruneville. Not a cloud in the sky. The sun beats down, piercing the veil of shimmering dust. Eyes droop from the heat.
In the Market Square, in front of Café Ronsard, Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno:
“Shut up, you dirty greaser.”
He says the words in English.
At that moment, Frank is crossing the square, muttering to himself, “and make it snappy, make it snappy”—in English, which he speaks so well people have changed his name from Pancho Lopez to Frank. He’s just delivered two pounds of meat and one of bones (for stewing) to the home of Stealman, the lawyer. Frank is one of the many Mexicans in the streets of Bruneville who run errands and spread gossip, a “run-speak-go-tell,” a pelado. He hears the insult, raises his eyes, sees the scene, dashes the last few feet to the market, to Sharp, the butcher, to whom he blurts out the burning phrase at point-blank range, “The new Sheriff said, ‘Shut up, you dirty greaser,’ to Señor Nepomuceno!”—syllables almost melting together, and continues immediately, in the same exhalation, to relay the message he’s been rehearsing since he left the Stealmans’ home, “Señora Luz says Mrs. Lazy says to send some oxtail for the soup,” adding with his last bit of breath, “and make it snappy.”
Sharp, standing behind his butcher’s block, is so startled he doesn’t respond with, “How could a jumped-up carpenter dare speak that way to Don Nepomuceno, Doña Estefanía’s son, the grandson and great-grandson of the owners of more than a thousand acres, including those on which Bruneville sits,” nor does he take the opposite stance, “Nepomuceno, that no-good, God-damn, cattle thieving, red-headed bandit, he can rot in hell for all I care”—two perspectives that will soon be widely debated. Rather, in his eagerness to spread the news, he (somewhat melodramatically) claps his left hand to his forehead, and glides (dragging his long butcher knife, which scratches a jagged line on the earthen floor) two steps to the next stall, which he rents to the chicken dealer, shouting, “Hey, Alitas!” and repeats in Spanish what Frank has just told him.
It’s been three weeks since Sharp has spoken to Alitas, supposedly they had a disagreement about the rent for the market stall, but everyone knows that what’s really pissed him off is that Alitas has been trying to win his sister’s heart.
Alitas, happy to be on speaking terms again, enthusiastically broadcasts the news, shouting, “Shears told Nepomuceno, ‘Shut up, you dirty greaser!’” The greengrocer, hearing the news, repeats it to Frenchie at his seed stall, Frenchie passes it on to Cherem, the Maronite at the fabric stand, where Miss Lace, Judge Gold’s housekeeper, is examining a swatch of recently arrived cloth, a kind she hasn’t seen before but it’s perfect for the parlor curtains.
Sid Cherem translates the phrase back into English and explains to Miss Lace what has happened; she asks Cherem to save the cloth for her and hurries off to relate the news to her employer, leaving behind Luis, the skinny kid who’s carrying her overloaded baskets. Luis, distracted from his duties by the rubber bands at a neighboring stand (one would be great for his slingshot) doesn’t even realize Miss Lace has gone.
Miss Lace scurries across the market square and is half way down the next block, when she sees Judge Gold coming out of his office, heading to Town Hall just across the street.
It’s important to explain that Judge Gold is not a judge, despite his name; he’s in the business of stuffing his wallet; his métier is money. Who knows how he got his name.
“Nepomuceno’s goose is cooked,” Judge Gold tells Miss Lace because he’s just received another report and, with both bits of news in mind, he continues to the Town Hall, which Sabas and Refugio, Nepomuceno’s half-brothers from Doña Estefanía’s previous marriage, are exiting angrily.
Sabas and Refugio are proper gentlemen, the region’s crème de la crème. Wagging tongues can’t understand how Doña Estefanía could produce two such jewels, and then produce the roughneck Nepomuceno, who doesn’t even know how to read. Others claim Nepumuceno’s illiteracy is a blatant lie and consider him the most elegant and best dressed of the three, with the manners of a prince.
Sabas and Refugio owe Judge Gold a lot of money. They’ve just testified before Judge White (who is a real judge if, though not necessarily just)—the Mexicans of the town call him “what’s-his-face” instead of Judge. Nepomuceno preceded them but they waited until their messenger, Nat, told them that their half-brother had left the premises, so that they wouldn’t run into him. Nat was the one who reported to Judge Gold that the legal proceedings would be delayed “until further notice,” bad news for Sabas and Refugio, who want a ruling soon so they can get the payoff promised by Stealman, and even worse news for Nepomuceno.
A shot is heard. No one is particularly alarmed by the sound. For every 500 head of livestock you need 50 gunmen to guard them, and each of those gunmen will pass through Bruneville; each of them are capable of lawless acts, all sorts of violence. Shots are nothing.
Judge Gold hurls the sheriff’s words at Sabas and Refugio, thinking, they won’t be able to pay me for who knows how long, but at least I have the pleasure of delivering bad news. But he immediately feels uncomfortable: the taunt was unnecessary, and he has nothing to gain from it. That’s Judge Gold for you, callous impulses and heartfelt regrets.
Nat, overhearing this interchange, rushes off to the market square, to check out what’s happening with Nepomuceno and Shears.
Sabas and Refugio would have celebrated the humiliation of their mother’s golden boy, but they can’t because the news has been delivered by Judge Gold with intent to wound, so they continue on their way, as if nothing of consequence has been said.
Glevack, arriving from Big’s Café, is about to approach Sabas and Refugio but stops abruptly and turns, seeing an opportunity to speak with Judge Gold.
A few seconds later, Olga, a laundress who occasionally works for Doña Estefanía, approaches the brothers. She wants to tell them the news about Shears, in hopes of patching things up with them; they’re annoyed with her because they’ve heard she’s told Doña Estefanía they don’t have Doña Estefanía’s best interests at heart. Of course Olga was right, and everyone knows it (even Doña Estefanía, even Sabas and Refugio), but was it really necessary to spread such poisonous gossip?
The brothers ignore Olga and keep walking, side-by-side, each wrapped in his own thoughts, each unaware the other is counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours, till they can go to Stealman’s house, where they’ll discuss the Shears-Nepomuceno affair at length, each thinking, we have to make it clear there’s a world of difference between us and that good-for-nothing, and each worrying that by going, they run the risk of being snubbed. Damn Nepomuceno, that troublemaker, he had to stir things up today, just when we’ve been invited over there.
Olga tries Judge Gold. He, too, ignores her. Desperate for attention, she runs to tell Glevack, who’s trying to catch up with Judge Gold, but Glevack forges ahead as if no one’s there.
Glevack is in a bad mood, for no good reason, since he’s a primary beneficiary of the fraud against Doña Estefanía, which Nepomuceno is trying to legally reverse, the reason for his recent court visit. Indeed, Glevack was the one who cajoled Doña Estefanía into making the deal with the gringos, knowing full well they’d take advantage of her and he’d get a cut of the profit. How Glevack would love to be the one to insult Nepomuceno in the Market Square, call him a worthless nobody in front of everyone, he’d called him worse, the man who was his friend and associate. Once Glevack nearly got him thrown in jail. The two of them had hired a mule driver to steal back some livestock Stealman had rustled from them. When the mule driver turned up dead on the steps of Town Hall, people blamed Glevack and Nepomuceno. Glevack testified that he had had nothing to do with the murder, that it was all Nepomuceno’s doing. He gave lots of factual details and made up others, even saying it was Nepomuceno who had robbed the mail.
Glevack should be relishing Nepomuceno’s insult, but it’s not in his nature to enjoy anything. And his perpetual foul humor has deepened because Judge Gold won’t stop and listen to him, and, what’s more, because he suspects that Sabas and Refugio are turning against him. He feels beset by problems.
Olga’s got her own worries. She’s no longer 18, twice that, in fact, she’s lost her bloom. No one, not even Glevack, looks at her like they used to. When women lose their glow they’re like ghosts to men; out on the street, no one turns to admire them. Some feel liberated by this lack of interest, but others, like Olga, won’t stand for it, they’ll do anything for attention. So Olga crosses the main road, Elizabeth Street, walks to the intersection of Charles Street, and knocks on Minister Fear’s door.
It’s not yet a month since Olga helped unpack the trousseau of Eleanor, the minister’s new wife.
Although Eleanor is a recent bride, she’s no spring chicken either, she’s past 20. Her husband, Minister Fear, is 45; he had been a widower for two years when he placed an advertisement for a new wife. The ad, which appeared in papers in Tucson, California, and New York, stated in succinct English:
Lonely widower seeks wife to accompany Methodist minister on the Southern frontier and assist with his work. Please respond to Lee Fear in Bruneville, Tejas.
Olga knocks impatiently on the Fears’ door a second time, so hard the Smiths’ door pops open—their house is adjacent, on the corner of James, which runs parallel to Elizabeth—and out comes the lovely Moonbeam, an Asinai Indian. Others call them the Tejas Indians, though the gringos call them Hasinai; they’re kin to the Caddo. The Smiths bought her for next to nothing a few years back, before it became fashionable to have Indians as servants, now they’d have to pay twice as much. She’d be a bargain at any price: she’s beautiful and hardworking, with a pleasant demeanor about her, though sometimes she gets distracted.
Moonbeam steps into the street. A second later, Eleanor Fear opens her door with an expression of befuddlement. Eleanor doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, but Olga makes herself understood. First, she offers her services, washing, cleaning, cooking, anything the Fears might need. Eleanor declines amicably. Minister Fear arrives to the door, curious to see who’s there, as does Moonbeam (the Smiths’ young slave is always interested in gossip), and Olga tells them about the incident, using gestures to make herself understood: a five pointed star for the sheriff, a violin and a lasso for Lázaro, but Nepomuceno’s name alone is enough, everyone knows Don Nepomuceno.
The Fears don’t show the least bit of interest (the minister is too prudent, and Eleanor is wrapped up in her own world) but Moonbeam is captivated. She knows Sheriff Shears is stupid, he came to fix the Smiths’ dining room table and left it wobblier than before, and she thinks the world of handsome Nepomuceno (Moonbeam carries a little torch for him, as does the Smiths’ daughter Caroline—an ever bigger one—and most of the young girls in Bruneville).
When Minister Fear closes the door, Olga turns and heads back to the market.
Moonbeam glances up and down Elizabeth Street, looking for any reason not to go back inside the Smiths’ and finish her chores, when around the corner come Strong Water and Blue Falls, two Lipan, astride handsome mounts, followed by a heavily loaded pinto mustang, a typical prairie horse (if someone offers a good price, it’s for sale). Lipan are fiercer than most Indians, but friendly with the gringos.
Strong Water and Blue Falls are turning onto James Street to avoid Nepomuceno’s men; they haven’t come to Bruneville looking for trouble.
Despite the heat, the Lipan wear long fitted sleeves with bright, colorful stripes. They’re wearing embroidered moccasins. They have bands of colored beads tied around their foreheads and necks; their long hair is decorated with feathers, leather strips, and rabbit tails; and their spurs are embossed.
Neither too slowly nor too quickly—she knows what she’s doing, the street’s her territory—Moonbeam approaches them. The Lipan dismount. Moonbeam mimes to them what has just happened in the Market Square, using Olga’s gestures. Then she turns and goes back inside the Smiths’ house, slamming the door, which prevents her from hearing the second shot of the morning.
Strong Water and Blue Falls interpret the Shears-Nepomuceno incident in different ways. Strong Water thinks it means something has happened at the Lipan camp, and he wants to return immediately because this bodes ill for his people. Blue Falls, on the other hand, thinks it has nothing to do with the Lipan; he’s certain the only thing they should worry about is selling their wares according to the orders of Chief Little Rib, and besides, the shaman, being omniscient, will already know all about the incident.
Should they head home, as Strong Water urges, or stay and sell their goods, as Blue Falls wants? Nothing they have with them is perishable, Strong Water argues. The skins, nuts, and rubber sap will keep for weeks. But the trip is long and tiring, says Blue Falls, and they need munitions back at camp; the two shotguns they plan to buy are not urgent purchases but they’d come in handy on the way home; they’d detoured many times to avoid danger on the road to Bruneville. It would be better to return armed.
The Lipan defend their points of view, ever more vigorously. They start fighting. Strong Water pulls his knife.
Inside the Smiths’ home, lovely Moonbeam gets back to work, filling the bucket at the cistern to carry water to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, back at the market, Sharp, the butcher, is roaring with laugher. Nepomuceno! That cattle thief! Humiliated in public, in the town square! “He deserves it!”
The label “cattle thief” requires explanation. Sharp believes the cow in question is his, because he bought it, but Nepomuceno calls it his, because the animal was born and raised on and bears the brand of the ranch where he himself was born. “Sharp shouldn’t be so self-righteous,” he says, “because he knew perfectly well the cow was stolen, and the price he paid doesn’t come close to the value of such a heifer, he can peddle that argument somewhere else!” When Neopomuceno’s words got around the Grand Hotel, Smiley said, “Does he think Sharp’s cow is his sister?!”
Sharp puts his knife on the chopping block, wipes his hands on his apron, and, without taking it off, strides over to the Square.
Let’s leave him there because we should travel back in time to just before the Shears-Nepomuceno incident—say, 11:55am—to fill in some important details:
Roberto Cruz, the leather merchant everyone calls “Cruz,” has been waiting some time for the Lipan, watching the main road impatiently from his stall at the edge of the market. According to Cruz, the Lipan sell the highest-quality skins, the finest embroidered moccasins (which nobody buys besides some eccentric Germans), and incomparable leather leggings, which sell like hotcakes because the women can’t ride without them without chafing their private parts.
Two days earlier, Cruz bought a bunch of buckles and eyelets. Sitú, the kid who knows how to burn designs into belts (a new look that’s very popular), is waiting at home for the Lipan’s leather. Since the Lipan, like all prairie Indians, follow the moon calendar, Cruz expected them shortly. If they didn’t show up, Pearl would start getting irritated at Sitú for sitting around, doing nothing, getting on her nerves. Pearl is the girl who has kept house for him since his wife died, and whom he is determined to marry, as soon as his daughter gets hitched. He’s made up his mind, though he hasn’t told anyone yet, not even Pearl.
So there was Cruz, craning his neck, trying to spot the Lipan coming down Main Street, when Oscar passed by with his basket of bread on his head.
“Psst, Oscar, I’m talking to you! Gimme a sweet bread!”
“OK, but I’m only selling one per customer today. I didn’t put much in the oven ’cause I thought it was going to be a slow day, and I have to hold on to enough to sell down at the docks.”
“OK, just one.”
Cruz keeps craning his neck, scanning for the Lipan, while Oscar lowers his basket.
Oscar selects a crunchy bun covered with sugar (he knows what Cruz likes, it’s his favorite). Cruz pays him.
“Keep the change.”
“Nah, Cruz, you don’t have to do that.”
“Then put it toward my next bun.”
Oscar lifts the breadbasket onto his head and leaves for the docks.
Tim Black comes out of Café Ronsard. He hails Cruz and gestures for him to bring over his belts. Tim Black is a wealthy Negro who, most unusually, owns land and slaves, Congress having granted permission for him to do so, even after Bruneville became part of Tejas, where the gringos imposed slavery and racial restrictions.
Cruz puts his bun on the counter and slings a bunch of belts over his shoulder, all hanging by their buckles from an iron hook.
At this moment, in the middle of the Square, Sheriff Shears shouts at Lázaro Rueda, the old vaquero, the one who knows how to play the violin, and whacks his forehead, hard, with the butt of his pistol. After the second or third blow, Lázaro falls to the ground.
Tim Black turns to see what’s happening. He doesn’t understand Spanish, leaving him clueless about much happening on the frontier, but no language is needed to know exactly what’s going on: a poor old man is being beaten senseless by the sheriff.
Nepomuceno exits Café Ronsard and he, too, witnesses the scene with Shears. He instantly recognizes Lázaro Rueda and decides to intervene on his behalf.
Black watches Nepomuceno’s reaction, hears his calm tone, catches the drift of his words (with the help of Joe Lieder, the German kid who repeats everything in his poor English) and clearly hears the crudeness of Shears’s response: “Shut up, you dirty greaser.”
Margarita, the merchant ship, sounds her horn, announcing imminent departure.
From the other side of the square, Oscar hears Shears spit the words at Nepomuceno and sees what’s happening out of the corner of his eye, but his sense of duty is greater than his curiosity; if the Margarita has sounded her horn, he barely has time to get down to the docks, and if he doesn’t speed up they won’t get their bread. He hurries away.
Don Jacinto, the saddler, crosses the square toward Café Ronsard, carrying his new creation, “a really fancy one.” He’s from Zacatecas, and he’s been married three times; two days a week he works in Bruneville, the rest of the time he’s in Matasánchez across the river. Business is good. He declares to one and all, “I want to show this one to Don Nepomuceno, no one else will fully appreciate its fine workmanship.” Everyone knows that if Nepomuceno expresses his admiration, the saddle will fetch a better price. No one knows more about saddles and reins, no one handles a lasso or rides as well—it’s not that the horses obey him but that they have a mutual understanding.
Don Jacinto is nearsighted and can’t see more than two yards away, or he’d have witnessed the scene, too. But he’s not deaf; he hears the blows clearly, and Nepomuceno’s words, and Shears’s response, which stops him in his tracks. He can’t believe the lousy carpenter would speak to Don Nepomuceno that way.
Peter Pfeifferstein, who the Mexicans call “El Sombrerito,” owns the hat shop. His original surname being unpronounceable, he changed his surname for the gringos to Hat: “Peter Hat, hats of felt and also of palm for the heat.” He’s hanging a new mirror on the column in the middle of his store when he sees Shears pistol-whipping Lázaro Rueda, “the violinist cowboy,” in its reflection. He also sees Nepomuceno approach and the kid they call “Snotty,” the one who hangs with La Plange, running toward them. His instincts tell him something bad is about to happen. He takes the mirror down. “Why, Don Peter?” asks Bill, his assistant, “It was almost straight.” He stows the mirror safely behind the counter, and sends Bill home with a few coins. “Help me close up shop and skedaddle! And don’t come back to work till I send for you.” He lowers the blinds and locks the front doors of his establishment, crosses the threshold that separates the store from his home, double bolts the door from inside and shouts to his wife, “Michaela! Tell the kids not to go outside, not even the patio, and lock all the windows and doors; no one sets foot outdoors until this blows over.”
Peter Hat goes to the patio and cuts two white roses with his pocketknife and holds them before his altar to the Virgin, next to the front door. He kneels on the prayer stool and begins to pray out loud. Michaela and the children join him; she takes the roses from his hand and puts one in a delicate blue vase, the same color as the Virgin’s robes, and the other in her husband’s buttonhole.
Mother and children begin dissolving their worries in hurried “Holy-Mary-mother-of-God’s.”
But Peter, the more he prays, the more worried he gets, his soul is a poorly woven hat, the material full of knots.
Out in the street, towheaded Bill adjusts his suspenders. Every penny he’s ever earned working for Peter, Bill’s spent on expensive, trendy suspenders.
He soon catches on to what’s happening down in the square and, instead of heading home, he runs across the square to the jailhouse.
His uncle, Ranger Neals (who oversees the prison and is highly regarded) listens closely to Bill’s report.
“That idiot Shears… insulting Nepomuceno is gonna land us all in deep shit.”
Others arrive at the jailhouse door fast on Bill’s heels: Ranger Phil, Ranger Ralph, Ranger Bob. They’re bearing the same news and they arrive just in time to hear him say to his nephew,
“Let’s sit tight, no one makes a move, you get it?”
They don’t stick around to hear the rest, they run to relay orders to the other rangers.
“We don’t want to start a wildfire. This is a bad business.”
Urrutia is the prize captive of the Bruneville’s jail. He was one of a gang of bandits who help Negro slave fugitives cross the Rio Grande. They’re free men by law the minute they set foot on Mexican soil. Urrutia lured them with the promise of land in Tabasco. He showed them contracts that were more fairytale than anything else; he described the fertile land to them, the navigable canals, the cocoa plants growing beneath shady mango trees, the sugar cane. He was vague about exact size and location, but that didn’t matter, given such promising prospects.
Urrutia did take them to Tabasco. The landscape was exactly as he described. But the reality was different. Urrutia had valid contracts committing the free men to indentured servitude and maltreatment, practically imprisonment. The lucky ones died from fever or starvation before the first whipping.
Urrutia’s men made a fortune doing this. Sometimes, when a slave had unusual value, they returned him to his owner for a ransom. They even bragged about the free blacks they caught in their net, selling them at a premium because, being strong and healthy, “they make good foremen.”
Urrutia is guarded by three gringos who get paid extra wages because the mayor suspects Urrutia’s accomplices—numerous and well armed—will try to rescue him. (We’ll get to the mayor’s story later; suffice it to say the notion he’s been elected by popular vote is preposterous). The three guards, whose names can’t be divulged for reasons that will become clear, overhear the story of the insult without paying much attention. They’re here only for the money (which isn’t always paid on time, to the chagrin of their families); if Nepomuceno offered them more money they’d work for him, despite the fact they’re gringos.
When Urrutia hears about Shears and Nepomuceno, a sudden change comes over him; he’s like an autumn leaf about to fall from the tree. And for good reason.
Werbenski’s pawnshop sits between the jailhouse and the millinery. It’s not a bad enterprise, but the really profitable part takes place at the back of the store: the sale of ammunition and firearms. Werbenski doesn’t go by his real name, to hide the fact he’s Jewish—no one knows where he comes from. Peter Sombrerito can’t stand him; Stealman takes no notice of him (but Stealman’s men do business with him, same as Judge Gold and Mr. King). He’s married to Lupis Martínez, a Mexican, of course—“What can I do for you, Sir?”—the sweetest wife in all of Bruneville, a real gem, and smart, too.
Like Peter Sombrerito, Werbenski senses the Shears-Nepomuceno affair will have repercussions but he doesn’t shut up shop. He tells Lupis to get to the market quickly, before things get ugly.
“But sweetie pie, we went early this morning.”
“Stock up. Buy all the dry goods you can. Get bones for the soup.”
“We’ve got rice, beans, onions, potatoes, and we’ve got tomatoes and peppers for salsa growing in the back. There’s water in the well …”
“Get some bones, for the boy.”
“Don’t worry, sugar plum, the chicks are growing up, the hen is laying eggs, we’ve got the two roosters, though one is old; there’s the boy’s rabbit, and the duck mother gave me. The turtle is hiding somewhere, but if we get hungry, I’ll root him out, and if I can’t find him I’ll stew up the iguanas and lizards like my aunts do.”
The last bit was intended to make her husband smile, but he wasn’t even listening; neither of them could stand Aunt Lina’s iguana stew, not because of how it tasted, but on account of skinning the animals alive. Werbenski’s head is reeling, but he takes comfort in the fact they baptized his boy; they may do what they want with a Jew, but my wife and my son must be saved. Lupis reads his mind.
“Don’t worry, sweetie pie.”
Lupis adores him. She’s naturally sweet-natured, but she knows she’s got the best husband in all Bruneville—the most respectful, most generous, most sensible. A Jewish husband is worth his weight in gold.
There’s a pleasant breeze down at Bruneville’s docks, but up at the market and in Town Hall—why lie?—it’s like being inside a Dutch oven. Short distances from the river make a big difference. Crossing it makes an even bigger difference. On the other side, they also have many varieties of Indians, cowboys, bandits, Negros, Mexicans, gringos, profitable mines, and endless acres of land. But the southern side of the river has another feel.
When he arrives at Bruneville’s dock, before taking his basket of bread off his head, Oscar announces loudly what Shears, the crappy carpenter—and even worse sheriff—has said to Nepomuceno. He’s overheard by Santiago the fisherman, who’s just emptied his last basketful of crabs into Hector’s cart. Last night’s rain explains his unusually large catch. Santiago’s three children, Melón, Dolores, and Dimas, sit on the cart’s edge, their legs dangling outside so the crabs won’t pinch their bare toes; they’re binding their claws and bunching them into bundles of a half dozen each—they’ve spent the whole morning at the task. The cowboys Tadeo and Mateo hear Oscar, too, their livestock is already aboard the barge bound for New Orleans, stopping first across the river to load the feed and some crates of ceramics from Puebla by way of Veracruz; they’re ready to feed their hunger and thirst, soothe their tiredness and boredom from the isolation of the pastures.
The cart’s driver, Mr. Wheel, doesn’t speak Spanish; he doesn’t understand a word Oscar says and neither does he care. No sooner has he gotten underway—to where the homes have roofs of reed or thatched palm, and the walls are made of mesquite or sticks, where they eat flour made from flame coral trees and prickly pear cactus cheese (which doesn’t deserve to be called cheese)—than Santiago’s kids start shouting, “Crabs! Crabs!” working the insult “dirty greaser” into their sales pitch, all the while deftly trussing up their remaining captives. They come to the part of town where the houses are made of brick, and they continue pitching their wares and spreading gossip.
Santiago passes the story to the other fishermen who are detangling their nets for tomorrow’s early return to the water, leaving them laid out on the ground.
The fishermen carry the news along the riverbanks.
The cowboys, Tadeo and Mateo, go straight to tell Mrs. Big, the innkeeper—it’s said she fell in love with Zachary Taylor in Florida and followed him to Tejas, and that when he went to fight Mexico she moved down to Bruneville, where she opened her waterfront hotel; cheap but with pretentions to class, it has a dining room, bar, “casino,” and “café.” Word is that when a gossipmonger came to tell her that the Mexicans had felled her Zachary she spat back, “You damn sonofabitch, there aren’t enough Mexicans in all Mexico to knock off old man Taylor.” Driving the point home she added: “I’m gonna rip open your foot and give you a new mouth down there. You understand? Let’s see if you can learn to tell the truth with your new mouth, and stop spreading lies with the one you’ve had since birth.”
Mrs. Big tells the story about Nepomuceno and Shears to Lucrecia, the cook; Lucrecia tells the kitchen-hand, Perdido; Perdido tells all the guests. Mrs. Big celebrates the news by buying a round on the house.
Why is she celebrating? Because she doesn’t like Mexicans? Or is it vengeance, settling unpaid debts? It’s a little of both, but the main reason is that Nepomuceno patronizes her rival, the Café Ronsard, her competition, her enemy, the focus of all her envy, the testament to all the mistakes she’s made, the burden she bears daily. She’s the best card sharp in all Bruneville, no one can beat her at Blackjack; so why doesn’t she have the best café? Her view of the river is better; there’s a good breeze, and she’s got an old mamey sapote tree, which gives great shade. The Ronsard doesn’t have any of this, “just stinking drunks, lying around outside in the dirt.” Mrs. Big even plants tulips in the spring and her roses bloom year-round (though when it’s burning up, their petals literally roast in the heat).
The two cowboys spread Shears’s insult, embellishing it along the way. Tadeo tells the Flamenca sisters, two whores in one of Mrs. Big’s rooms. Mateo tells Cruz’s two girls: Clara, the fur merchant’s daughter, who Mateo’s been wooing (she was waiting for him down by the docks); and Pearl, Cruz’s sweet-assed housekeeper, who Mateo has secretly sweet-talked into bed.
A little later, Mrs. Big tells her fellow card-players about “the Shears-Nepomuceno affair,” while one of the Flamenca sisters gets the story a little muddled in the hotel bar; Tadeo remains in the room with her sister, still trying to get it up.
Three people are playing cards with Mrs. Big: Jim Smiley, a compulsive gambler (he’s got a cardboard box with a toad next to him, for a while now he’s been trying to train it to jump farther than any other); Hector López (who has a round, childlike face, is an incurable womanizer, and owns the cart in which the trussed-up crabs are making the rounds of Bruneville); and one other guy who never opens his mouth, Leno (he’s desperate, and he’s only here to try to win some money).
On one side of the table Tiburcio, the sour, wrinkled old widower, is watching them play; he’s always got some comment on the tip of his tongue that’s as bitter as his breath.
Captain William Boyle, an Englishman, is the first of the dozen seamen who are about to set sail on the Margarita to understand the insult—most of them don’t speak a word of Spanish—and he translates it back into the Sheriff’s mother tongue, though his rendering alters it somewhat: “None of your business, you damned Mexican.”
The sailors celebrate the insult, “At last someone put the greasers in their place.” Rick and Chris hug each other and begin to dance, singing, “You damn Meexican! You damn Meeexican!” in a joking tone that carries across the water. Before the day is over people on both banks of the Rio Grande, from Bruneville to Puerto Bagdad, will have heard about what the gringo sheriff said, more or less accurately.
Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee.
Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of the website Words Without Borders, which will publish an issue on Spain’s Great Untranslated Writers in March.
—Carmen Boullosa has published 15 novels, most recently La virgen y el violín, El complot de los románticos and Las paredes hablan with Editorial Siruela in Madrid. Her novels in English translation are They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, Leaving Tabasco and Cleopatra Dismounts, all published by Grove. She received the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize in Mexico, the Anna Seghers and Liberaturpreis in Germany, and the Café Gijón Prize in Madrid. She is a member of Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Creadores. This excerpt is from the novel Tejas, recently published in Spanish by Alfaguara.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.