Dan Namingha, South Butte, Acrylic on Canvas, 40"x40" ©2020
And it was Like This...
(A Tale Untold)
And it Was like This…
(A Tale Untold)
Tuerto, wiping the bar with a practiced gesture that left only a slight scent of lime, never of the tequila that was never spilled, not a drop, was certainly wiping away some representatives of the microscopic life that crawls over most of us most of the time.
As usual about this time of night when all but one of the stools were empty and the last man was staring into the last drink and occasionally twisting the salt rimmed glass between fingers that had known only the work that leaves your hands twisted lumps at the end of your arms, hands unsuited for anything else when your back will never again stand for being bent to the soil...
When, as I say, on the graveyard shift, the bar is empty and the man who will never remake himself in middle age, is sitting with a margarita as good as any of Tuerto’s masterpieces, then Tuerto might also be getting ready to tell the tale the man is waiting to hear, the one of how he, Tuerto, like any good bartender who knows how to look out for himself, lost his eye, the one missing from beside the one now eyeing his last customer of the night, the eye that had given the name to his otherwise unnamed establishment.
Tuerto’s. One Eye’s.
Here Tuerto’s last customer raised his sticky glass, looked into it as if another masterpiece might accompany the tale he had hinted he would like to hear but, when it was not forthcoming, the heavy glass went back down on the bar to be twisted between hands that, as I said, weren’t good for much else anymore, except maybe the violence that is always waiting along the border, on one side or the other, maybe the one you’re on.
Then have one yourself, said Tuerto’s last customer, knowing better than to tip the proprietor yet echoing the words that must have accompanied some meager gratuity given when he had anything to give, once upon a time in his past life—yes, he had one too, like the man behind the bar, only different—for he, though it hadn’t kept him from making some wrong choices, even taking the wrong road to the very end, had both his eyes in his head.
You should know by now I never touch the stuff, said Tuerto.
It may have been at this point Tuerto backed off from telling his tale or, encouraged by the silence that followed his own remark, went on with it.
In any event, whatever followed that night, or some other, when Tuerto’s found itself full, the night some tough customer who’d certainly, with his buddies, taken a wrong turn on the dirt in the dark or he wouldn’t be at Tuerto’s, where the little that remained of the road ended and there certainly wasn’t work to be found, however humble and all but unpaid, beyond it. Somehow, maybe best we don’t know how, these men had obtained a little spending money and were spending it, perhaps before it was taken back, and so, the tough customer, well tanked by this hour raised the question that, really, no one ever raised at Tuerto’s.
Tell me, amigo, how did you get that hole in your head?
It might be remarked that Tuerto’s wound never had quite healed, or healed completely and, for the viewer, took some getting used to.
Anyway, only a couple of hard cases were within earshot and they, as may have been mentioned, weren’t regulars, so maybe they didn’t pay much attention to their buddy’s question, though the wording of it, pointed as was, did bring some faces up out of their whiskies. Why whiskies? Because these were not the kind of men Tuerto, who considered himself something of an artist, wasted his masterpieces on.
Tuerto eyed the man and, as anyone who’s drunk at Tuerto’s knows, Tuerto, with one eye, can stare down many a man with two.
That’s a long story, said Tuerto, not adding amigo, perhaps because he was more careful with his words than some.
Tell it, tell it, said the customer. We haven’t got anything better around here. At least I haven’t seen the dancing girls.
Tuerto didn’t say a thing though someone who’d been here before did.
The dancing girl, the one whose night it is, doesn’t come till word of a paying customer gets out and she rushes to get herself up and find the end of the road in the dark, said the man who’d seen more than one tired, dusty, made over local beauty trudge into the one place.
Wipe, wipe, for whatever reason, and most unexpectedly, the time had come for Tuerto’s tale.
‘Twas on a night like this,’ he said, and added, almost tonelessly, that there had been a couple of worthless types at the bar..here he eyed his clientele in both directions…and maybe a girl like the one who, for all you blind men know, might be dancing by herself in the corner.
Go ahead, said the customer who was either too dumb, too tanked or too sure of himself to take offense at the remark about the worthless types, the blind men at the bar.
Anyway, Tuerto took a breath, appearing to enjoy the eyes hardening in his direction and went on…
I was just wiping the bar when the door opened and a man came in carrying a saddle, a very nice saddle. Now there aren’t that many bandidos around here. You don’t have have to worry that much about your saddle, or your horse, if you have one, or the other. Just then one of my regulars stepped out and stepped back a couple of minutes later.
“Where’s your horse?” he asked the man with the saddle, who’d taken his place at the bar. The man who, it turned out, was a man of few words, didn’t answer right away, then he did.
“Just gave up the ghost, I guess, somewhere out there,” he said, nodding out the way the road ended altogether.
“Not very likely,” said my regular who’d stepped out just as he’d been stepping out every hour or so, to look down at his boots so he didn’t spatter them any more than necessary, only this time noticing that there wasn’t a horse to be seen.
The man with the saddle turned on the stool that was now his. He was way ahead of my man or maybe he’d anticipated just such a question and perhaps I should say that most of us are border people here, halfway to being half cowboy, talking like tejanos half the time.
“If I’d wanted to steal a saddle, I wouldn’t have left the horse behind. A saddle gets heavy, even a Mexican one,” added the man who, though he wasn’t a gringo, knew they were near enough the border to know the difference, added it, in his way, disarmingly, and turned back to his drink.
My regular returned to his own, which he slid down the bar a bit but something was troubling him, his mind wasn’t easy and, after a minute or two, he continued.
“How far did you carry that saddle?”
“A couple of kilometers,” said the man, readily enough.
Here Tuerto paused in the telling of his tale, poured himself a glass of water, carefully squeezed in a drop or two from a handy lime, took a sip and added another.
What about your eye? said the tough customer. I thought you were telling the story of your eye, how your lost your eye, how you got that hole in your head.
It appeared Tuerto, in telling the story of his eye, had gotten interested in the story of the saddle, which he was apparently picturing in his mind’s eye, white wood, tooled leather and all. But, in good time, he looked up from his wiping and continued.
“I don’t believe you carried that saddle a couple of kilometers” said my regular, “even if it is a Mexican one.”
Slowly, just like in a Western, after asking his question into his drink, my man turned his head to look at the man who’d set that nicely tooled Mexican saddle up against the stool that had been his, just like he expected someone to question his right to it, the saddle. But the man didn’t turn to look at my regular. He was looking into his own drink when, just as slowly, he answered.
“You can believe what you like.”
I don’t give a damn about that saddle, said the bastard at the end of the bar, eyeing Tuerto, how much it weighed, whether it was Mexican or American, how far he carried it or whether he stole it or made it himself. I’m not a horseman. I’m sitting here, paying good money for your goddamn whiskey, which might be the real thing or doctored as they say, adulterado, like the tequila in some holes a man might end up in, and I want to know about the eye.
Tuerto hardly responded, certainly not to the crack about adulterado and continued, only a little more slowly, the story which now seemed to absorb him.
My regular who wanted to know about the saddle stood up. He wasn’t carrying a gun any more than the man with the saddle or there might have been a shootout, right here in my bar, the first.
“I’d like to see that dead horse,” he said.
Everybody, at least those who could, turned to see what would happen. Even the girl dancing by herself in the corner, to music only she could hear—I like peace and quiet in my bar or I wouldn’t be at the end of the road, would I?—came to a stop and stared. A minute passed. Another of my regulars spoke up.
“I think Tuerto’s got a couple of horses somewhere, took them in for unpaid bills or held them as collateral, something like that.”
The eye, Tuerto, mumbled the bastard at the end of the bar. What about the eye that isn’t there, that goddamn hole in your head?
Wipe. Wipe. Tuerto, not batting the eye, proceeded with his tale.
It turned out that, if anybody went, we’d all have to go. We all had to go have a look at that dead horse. Well, all right, I thought, I have to keep my customers happy. I came out from behind the bar. I lifted the saddle—it was a beauty with that white pita tooling and practically weightless—here he eyed the bastard who, he was sure, would appreciate this—a fraction of the weight of an American saddle—and carried it back behind the bar. I thought, I’d better not close up altogether and I wondered who I could trust. After all, there aren’t that many places at the end of the road. In fact, only one. Mine. I realized, quickly enough, there was no one I could trust except my dancing girl. That night it was Rosie. It was Rosie’s night.
“Rosie…” I said.
Rosie turned, raising those thin, thin lines she drew just where she wished her eyebrows were, lifting with both hands, as was a habit of hers, her breasts, as she looked from one to the other of us, raising those make-believe brows a little further.
“Rosie,” I said, just as if she was as slow as she sometimes seemed. “Rosie, I need you to keep an eye on the place. Here’s the key. Lock yourself in. Don’t let anybody in unless he’s a decent hijo de puta, some son-of-a-bitch we both know we can trust.”
Rosie nodded, not at all like I was asking her to do something I’d never asked her to do, which was in fact the case.
…the eye, Tuerto, mumbled the bastard at the end of the bar, the goddamn eye…
To make a long story short… said Tuerto.
I’ll bet, said the bastard.
So, continued Tuerto, we piled onto the back of somebody’s wreck and bounced over to where I do keep a couple of nags just so some questionable types remember to pay their bills. We saddled up with genuine cracked, worn out Mexican saddles and were off into the night. These were miserable excuses for horses, let me tell you...
Please don’t, said the bastard.
Tuerto didn’t even crack a smile though, by now, everyone but the bastard knew Tuerto was telling the tallest of tales, one that might have little, or nothing, to do with the eye we had, all of us, always wondered about. Tuerto continued.
“I think I should tell you men,” said the man who’d carried the saddle in out of the night, “I think I should tell you my horse isn’t dead.”
Oh my God, said the bastard who, if he’d been there, would have said he soon will be.
And sure enough, when we got there, somewhere in the ravines, in the canyons, in the hills, somewhere where there was still a blade of grass, the horse wasn’t dead, just old. He barely raised his old head to look at us, just like he’d known some explanation would have to be forthcoming when his rider walked off into the night with his saddle and had just been waiting for us to come slipping down the trail, setting off stones, to see if there really was a horse, even an old one, that went with it.
That is, with the saddle, added Tuerto, for clarification.
“As you see,” said the man who wasn’t a gringo, “he isn’t dead. I just thought it was time to turn him loose, let him finish his days doing what he always wanted to do, poke a little bit this way, a little bit that, like he wasn’t going anywhere in particular.”
Just like somebody we’re all getting to know, said the bastard.
It was on the way back I lost my eye, said Tuerto.
Suddenly all eyes were on him, even Rosie’s. Yes, gentlemen, Rosie was still there, dancing in the shadows—that’s why no one had noticed her—years later, I won’t say how many, and she was looking at Tuerto, make-believe brows rising skywards and the twinkle in those secretly intelligent eyes well suppressed, just as if she hadn’t heard the story a thousand times.
It was black night, said Tuerto, returning us to the canyons, the ravines. Something had covered the moon, the stars, as if rain were possible, though it wasn’t even so likely it could be described as unlikely. Rain, as we all know, in these parts…
Please, Tuerto… pleaded the bastard.
We all of us were riding, continued Tuerto, with our dried out excuse for reins, or even just an old bit of rope, in one hand and the other hand out in front of our faces, you see, so the occasional dead branch wouldn’t…
But one got you, didn’t it, Tuerto, right in the goddamn eye, said the bastard. Stuck deep in there—painfully, painfully—taking a bit of brain with it, isn’t that right?
To begin at the end is the challenge, for the beginning, as we all know, is in the end as the end was in the beginning, and if we have words, and breath, the last words will tell it all, but it may well have been another night, years later, to, you may remember, the last man nursing the last margarita, sucking on ice by now, that Tuerto told the tale.
I was a child. I know it may be hard to picture me as a child, but I was one once. Really.
There was an altercation I didn’t approve of. I don’t remember if my father was beating my mother or she was beating him or one of them was beating the dog. Anyway, I, being naïve, stood up for him, or her, or him, at just the wrong time. And the stick, the one being used on my mother, or my father, or the dog, unintentionally, for my father, or my mother, both as innocent as only real drinkers can be, was simply raising it as I rushed him, or her, raising it to teach me a lesson I would never forget—which was, incidentally, to mind my own business or, if I knew anything about anybody else’s, or even my own, to keep it to myself—the stick, practically by itself, went straight in my eye.
Go on, said the last man.
There was no hospital to rush to, not in a wreck of a pickup on una terracería, a genuinely third class road. At any rate, whatever evil had been taking place, I had stopped, or at least postponed, though, naturally, at the time, it was only my eye I could think of.
That’s an expression you may have heard. But the eye was not a dead loss, not yet. My mother knew of a curandera not that far off.
And it was like this…