"Beat the Devil with a Pool Cue" by Eduardo Frajman
I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul.
William Ernest Henley “Invictus”
Aparicio does this thing when he gets ready for the shot. He leans down towards the table, eyes zipping like abejorros en el morro between his cue ball and la rival and la roja, and the rails, and the flat green expanse of the cloth, and he puts his left hand on the bed of the table, palm down, like he’s about to make the bridge. But instead of getting in shooting position he pulls back and straightens his back, slowly, despacio por el espacio, while as he does it his open hand slides over the cloth, caressing the felt as one would the pelt of a big horse one’s about to ride – easy, chica, easy, we’re in this together, beldá? I treat you good so you treat me good right back. I mean before every single shot he does it. Is it just a tic, an affectation? No. There’s thought and reason behind it, there has to be. It must be an integral part of his exact, unchanging routine, the one that’s made him the player he is. Repetition, after all, is the key to success in our game. In this sense, would you say, is billiards like or unlike life? He does it now, as he calculates the angles and decides on the play. This one’s so easy even I can see it. Standard side-angle bank shot off the second diamond noro, the kind you have a beginner practice a thousand times before you move on to the real meaty carambolas, long-angle rotations and reverse-English caroms and the lot. Down he goes, Aparicio, then up – easy, chica – then back down, back straight, the three small fingers of the left hand splayed tight, tips of index and thumb pressed together making the bridge, the O to surround the front of the cue, right hand behind him lightly holding onto the weight, eyes on the cue ball, pristine white, eyes on the diamond, a pale rhombus, eyes on the cue tip, powdery blue, back to the ball. He pulls the cue back, pushes, stops right before the ball, aiming, the varnished wood sliding evenly inside the O, leans down just a bit more, pulls, pushes, one more time, then for real, hard, but not too hard, hard enough, duro con perduro. Tip kisses ball one width up and one width left off center, creating left spin, not too much, the chalk particles holding on for their lives to the smooth acrylic surface. Pac!, the purest music. La rival and la roja wait together on the sure corner, two balls’ width from each other, maybe less. Puc!, one, off the cushion, then angle and spin take the ball to the head rail, puc!, two, down she goes, down and across in a straight path, puc!, three, then to the balls awaiting, pac! kisses la rival and pac! kisses la roja, and keeps rolling, just a bit, energy depleted, vacía de energía, close to the target balls but not too close, just far enough so Aparicio has room for the next shot, until it stops, and it’s done.
Once you put the balls in motion you can do nothing but stand there and watch them travel and wait and see where they end up. In this sense, would you say, is billiards like or unlike life? If like, who is the shooter and who are the balls? If unlike, same question.
Carambola. His third of the inning. “That’s five-one,” calls Vicente from his chair, a bored call, easy shot that it was, and shakes his Solo cup filled with rum and Coke and ice like a maraca, maybe to try and wake up Opponent, to make this a real game. Five-one and still Aparicio at the table. Opponent, no one knows him, is leaning on one of the thick oakwood counters crowded with glass and plastic bottles, a brown beer in his hand, big belly and big head, balding black hair speckled with ash. No habla español. Pakistani, maybe, or Indian, or could be North African. He’s shaking his head and whispering to his buddy, a little man with a mustache, maybe his manager, definitely his cash holder. How much more of this can they take? Aparicio makes one more carambola, a pretty columpio, cross-table slide with heavy top-left efecto. Six-one. He just misses the next one. Cortito por un pelito. The whole room exhales, the men sitting, standing around the table, close enough to see but far enough to be out of the way, and Opponent and his buddy, and even Floriana Vallejo, who just came in and sat on the folding chair right behind me, though when exactly I didn’t notice, and me of course, I let go of the breath I didn’t realize I was holding on to. Opponent takes to the table and bumps the overhead fluorescent lamp with his head, third time he’s done that, so that it sways above like a Sunday church bell. He grabs it and stops it and looks at the table and frowns. Not so easy, chico, is it? The air is thick with the appreciative murmurs and chuckles of the men and the low, monotonous beat of son cubano from a speaker in Gustavo’s pocket, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke, which ever oozes off the walls even though indoor smoking was banned in the state back in 2008. “You again?” I turn around. Floriana freaking Vallejo is speaking. “Yep. Often as I can.” “Just sitting here watching. Why you don’t play no more? I seen you. You ain’t bad.” My face goes hot. Floriana’s a top-twenty-nationally-ranked nine-ball tour pro, a Dominican prodigy who made good, a prowling panther at the table, Chicago-based but known and feared throughout the billiards world. I never have and would never play her. At carambola she’d merely stomp my ass. At nine-ball she’d grind me into powder like a peppercorn. She never plays nine-ball at Dilly’s, a pool joint for dilettantes and off-the-street fun-seeking amateurs, but she’ll shoot a round or two of three-cushion carambola against Robi the Hungarian or Miguel the Filipino, to work on her banking and carom play, to sharpen her touch and positioning. Never against Aparicio, obviously. None of the regulars is stupid enough to play him. Wouldn’t be fun for anyone. Not once in all the nights I’ve spent here watching, over a year now, has he played anything other than challenges, anything other than money games. Hundred bucks a match to fifteen, never more, never less. Who has a hundred bucks to throw away? Only rich assholes from out of town, think they’re top shit, learn their lesson rapidito; or jet-setting pros who’ve heard of the hermit grandmaster, who for his own reasons doesn’t play official matches, never leaves the West Side, and come to test him and themselves. Aparicio doesn’t always win, who does?, but losses are rare, even against the world-class studs who’ll make an unscheduled appearance on a pre-tournament Wednesday. If there’s no one to play against he’ll sit and watch the games at the other tables, sipping at a cuba libre, chitchatting with Vicente or Gustavo or Floriana. The most he’s ever given me is a courteous nod of recognition.
I tell you all this because I can’t help it. I tell you even though I know nothing will come of it. Even though I know you won’t believe it. You can’t. He made it so. No one will ever believe it. You, they, everyone will call it fiction. That’s what he decreed when he put the balls in motion, everyone who was there that night, Aparicio, Floriana, me of course. We’re object balls for him to shoot at and scatter as he pleases. You too, I think. Maybe everyone. Qué vo’a saber? If it’s true, you’ll complain, how come I get to tell it at all? The answer is I almost didn’t. The answer is I won out from the extremely improbable conflagration of someone else’s skill, brains, courage, and luck. The answer is I paid a price, beyond having you and everyone else think I’ve gone loco como el carroco. The price is I get to spend the rest of my days looking for something I know I won’t find. The price is I get to go through this life knowing exactly how little say I have over anything that happens to me, knowing that I’m the ball and not the shooter. But you know what? I wouldn’t have it another way. Jamás me iría pa’trás. I wouldn’t unsee what I saw. Think when you’re standing, the veteranos preach, as they sit around the table, clucking and drinking their BYO booze, watching you try to make sense of the game. Think when you’re standing and not when you’re shooting. That, even I can see, is as good advice for living life as it is for playing a game of billiards.
“Ain’t you got a baby at home?” Floriana’s not done with me. “Who told you that?” She shrugs. “La gente habla.” “My daughter. She’s sixteen months.” “Cute, is she?” I nod. “Apple of daddy’s eye and all that?” I smile. She doesn’t smile even a little bit. “What you doing here, then?” I think she’s joking. I see she isn’t. I flash her my sweetest smile. “I’ll just hang out for a couple more matches.” I gesture at Opponent, who’s missed a close-band bunny of a shot. “This ain’t a real game.” Abruptly she stands up. She’s thick and muscular, not too tall but tall enough to intimidate. “I ain’t playing with you, muchachón. You should be going home. A la casa calabaza.” I meet her eye. What’s her problem? “I think I’ll stay. Aparicio es mi vicio.” I try the smile again. She shakes her head. “Suit yourself, bruto.” She’s now walking among the men, hugging those who psssst! at her, whispering in their ears. The volume of the voices rises as she makes her way through the room. Aparicio notices. He beckons with his hand. They hug. She’s taller than him. Who isn’t? She tells him something quietly. I sense his eyes on me. A thick eyebrow lifts and his mouth widens and he giggles. Opponent’s missed again. Aparacio’s up. Eight-two is the score. “Hello! Hello!,” booms a voice, invisible to us inside the billiards room, a voice who’s just walked in through the front door.
The day of the Lord is darkness, not light.
He looks young, late-twenties maybe, much younger than Aparicio or Vicente or Gustavo, younger even than Floriana or Opponent. As young as me, is what I mean. We could’ve been classmates at Payton High School. His hair is dark brown and cut short in an expensive-looking, fashionable do. The sideburns meet up with his hipster beard, perfectly trimmed, enclosing his face. He is, I don’t mind telling you, guapo como el gran capo. He wears an expensive-looking black leather jacket and expensive-looking black shoes. Behind him is a pretty muchachita, can’t be older than twenty-two, wearing a tight short dress and high heels and a denim jacket that barely reaches her waist. Her face is pale and she’s shivering, from the cold, I suppose. Every eye in the room is fixed on the couple. “My friends!,” says the stranger, way too loud, or so it seems, “Remember me? So good to see you!” Floriana’s looking at him with a puzzled expression. The men are murmuring again. “Who are you?” The stranger smiles and speaks again. “You will remember me. Now.” He says it not like a command but like a declarative statement of fact. It is raining. I am wearing shoes. And the room changes, the energy of the room, I mean. The men go quiet. I hear Floriana’s voice behind me. “Mierda!,” her hand’s on my shoulder. “Boca cerrada. Me oyes?” I have no idea what’s happening. To my shock, she plops back down on her chair and says nothing else. I turn to question her but she shushes me away. “Of course you remember Sotro,” the forastero is saying, and now he’s walking lazily inside the room, around the table, towards Aparicio. Vicente’s gotten up quietly and rushed to Opponent and his buddy. They both make angry faces. Vicente’s face is a mask of concern. He’s still whispering when Sotro comes up to Aparicio, who hasn’t moved or said a thing. I hear a rasp behind me. I half turn. Floriana’s eyes are closed, shut tight. Tears are forming at the corners. She’s whispering something. Whispering. “Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. Santificado sea Tu Nombre...” Sotro pulls out a thin green rectangle from his pocket. He unfolds it to reveal a crisp-new one-hundred-dollar bill. “Shall we play again?,” he says to Aparicio, smiling una sonrisa sin prisa. “I told you I’d come back for the rematch, remember?” Aparicio nods. “I remember.” “Hey! Wait your turn! Every eye now swings to Opponent. Vicente gestures, trying to catch his attention, but Opponent doesn’t notice or doesn't care. Standing straight he’s taller than Sotro. His big belly, hovering between the two men, serves as both threat and defensive barrier. Sotro’s smile stays put but changes, even I can see it, into a different smile.
When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connection; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other. We only find, that the one does actually, in fact, follow the other. The impulse of one billiard ball is attended with motion in the second. This is the whole that appears to the outward senses. The mind feels no sentiment or inward impression from this succession of objects: Consequently, there is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power or necessary connection.
David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
“I beg your pardon, friend?” Opponent puts his beer down. His little buddy seems unsure, but still takes the couple of steps to stand behind his friend. “We’re in the middle of a game, if you don’t mind. Game’s to fifteen. It’s eight-two now,” he glances at Aparicio, who’s still as a statue. Sotro is examining Opponent’s face. “Is that right?” “Yes, that’s right. We might play another game after this. Two even. Rule is challenger stays at the table as long as he can cover his losses.” He seeks support from Aparicio, from the men. “Isn’t that right?” It is right. That is the rule. But nobody backs him up, and I still haven’t understood, how could I?, what Sotro is and what kind of situation I’m in right now, so I open my mouth. “Yeah, that’s right!” Floriana yelps. She shushes me imploringly. Sotro turns to me and looks me in the eye. My mouth goes dry, I don’t know why, and my stomach turns to ice. All I know, with absolute certainty, is I should shut my mouth ahoritita mismitito and keep it shut. He puts a hand on Opponent’s shoulder and with the other points to the far side of the room, where, behind the farthest table, certainly too far to hear what’s being said over here, there’s a skinny boy in jeans and a Captain America t-shirt holding a cue. “See him?” “Him who?” “Him, over there,” Sotro isn’t raising his voice anymore, but I can still hear every word he says with perfect clarity, “He’s going to take the red ball and put it on the table and shoot it at the head rail.” From the corner of my eye I see Captain America moving. “The ball’s going to bounce up, fly across the room, and hit you right here.” Sotro puts his finger to his own right temple. Opponent, imbécil that he is, touches his own left temple. He wrinkles his brow. “Wha…?” The ball makes a hollow pop! as it hits Opponent’s skull. He bends over but doesn’t fall down. “OW!! Motherfu….” “Shut up!,” Sotro’s voice grows loud again. “Get up.” Opponent straightens. “Tell me your names.” “Ayman Naji,” says Opponent. “Saidi Darfan,” says Little Buddy, his voice barely a whisper. “Nice to meet you,” Sotro pulls his shoulders back, “though you won’t remember. You’ll grab your shit and get out of here. You’ll forget this place and my man Aparicio and never ever come back. Now.” Silently, the two men pack up Opponent’s cue, put on their coats, and scuttle out. Sotro looks around the room. He turns to his girl. “What was the big one’s name?” “Ayman Naji,” she says, deadpan. “While he’s driving home, Ayman Naji will be involved in a severe car crash.” He grins at the horrified faces of his audience. “Don’t worry, boys and girls, he’ll live. He’ll come out of it with only a broken right wrist. Unfortunately the wrist won’t ever heal properly, and he’ll have pain every time he plays pool for the rest of his life.” He rubs his hands together and starts pacing. “The little one?” The girl’s lips are pursed. “Sotro…” “Tell me now.” “Saidi Darfan.” “Saidi Darfan will meet a woman tomorrow. They’ll fall madly in love and, let’s say, in a year they’ll get married. But then she’ll grow to hate him, despise him. She’ll cheat on him repeatedly and eventually leave him. Then he’ll be alone, grow old alone. He’ll live a long, long life in fact, bitter and miserable to the very end.” We all look at each other, Vicente and Gustavo and the rest of the men, Floriana, Aparicio, and me. Sotro’s grinning with satisfaction as he looks into my face. “And you….” He’s going to say something. Everyone’s eyes are on me now. Kill me, maybe. Make me kill myself. Is he concocting a terrible fate for me years down the road? Can he really do that? He’s about to speak but someone beats him to it. “We playing, beldá?” Aparicio has a cup in his hand. He takes a sip. “Yes!,” Sotro’s eyes go wide. He turns away, towards his cue. Like a busy toddler he’s forgotten about me. For now. “Let’s play!” He makes a show of looking around the room. “What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?”
All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
Of course he owns a top-of-the-line cue, Lucasi or Balabushka, uno d’esos, which he screws together with practiced motions. Both he and Aparicio chalk their tips, get ready to play. I feel like I’m dreaming. I feel anxiety, trepidation, but excitement also. Not panic. Not shock. How strange the mind is, in its being both and neither shooter and ball. Aparicio offers him the break, offers him his choice of cue ball. Sotro waves his hand. “You won last time, you break.” He goes to the table and pushes the plain white ball towards Aparicio. “Your house, your ball.” Sotro then places the other balls in the starting position, la roja on the foot spot, his own ball on the proper place along the head string line. Aparicio is to put his cue ball next to it. “All yours,” Sotro says, stepping back. He takes a sip of his newly poured lo que sea and waits. Aparicio takes to the table for the first shot, the easiest of them all. You can’t hit this one consistently you have no business playing three-cushion. Still, hace lo suyo, leans down, then back up, pats the table – easy, chica – then down again to shoot. He catches la roja, pac!, on the left side, with just enough right spin to send the cue ball to the back of the second diamond sure, puc!, to the foot rail, puc!, to the other side, puc!, then nice and easy to la rival, Sotro’s ball, pac!, which ends up a finger’s width away from the head rail, while la roja has ambled to the middle of the table. One-nothing. For the next one he again goes for la roja first, because la rival is close to a corner and those are always easier to catch off the bounce. He touches la roja again on the left side, again with right efecto perfecto, this time to the fourth diamond sure, and down, and across, and up to the head rail, pac! Two nothing. His ball ends up almost wedged inside the nore corner. Hard to make a shot from there. He misses. Sotro taps the floor with the bottom of his cue, showing appreciation for Aparicio’s little run. It’s his turn to shoot, but before he does the girl he came in with gets up and says something in his ear. They both turn and look at, of all people, me. What? I see Sotro mouth “okay.” They separate, but then Sotro pulls her back to him and kisses her on the lips. She doesn’t resist but doesn’t reciprocate either. Un beso frío y sin brío. She pulls away, walks in my direction, grabs a chair and plops down next to me. “Tell me what’s happening,” her voice is a gravelly whisper. Her hair is dyed blonde, long and straight. Her eyelids are painted green and her lips a dark brown. She looks older up close. I glance at Sotro. “It’s fine,” she says. “He’s given us his blessing,” flashes me a smile. Her teeth are perfect. Sotro, meanwhile, shoots and misses the second ball by a mile. “Last time he dragged me here I sat for three hours, no idea what was happening,” she goes on, since I can’t bring myself to speak. “Only that he lost. He wasn’t happy, let me tell you.” She has a Midwestern accent. Not Chicago, though. “You do understand the game, right?” I nod, still mudo, la garganta hecha un nudo. “Well, then tell me.” “I…” “It’s ok,” she puts her hand on my arm, sending a shock of no se qué through my nerves. “I’ll put in a good word for you. What’s your name?” I tell her. “I’m Edith,” she offers me her tiny hand to shake. “That’s an old-fashioned name,” I say, because it’s the only thing that comes out. “Ha! You have no idea.” “Bruja,” hisses Floriana, who’s still behind me and hasn’t made a peep since she finished her Padre Nuestro. “You…” “Shush!,” snaps Edith. “Or I’ll call you-know-who…” Floriana crosses herself and says no more.
What happens next I can’t explain. I can’t tell you I’m making a conscious decision, or that my brain makes it for me, or that Sotro makes me do it by muttering an unbreakable command under his breath. What I know is that Aparicio’s leaning, getting ready for the next shot. I see his fidgety eyes. I see him push himself back up, his hand caressing the felt. I see the balls’ placement, and I’m not sure what he’s going to do, and maybe that’s what wakes me up, what loosens my tongue and gets me to talk to Edith as if this isn’t the most consequential moment of my life, my need to know not only what’s happening but what’s about to happen. My thirst for control, I guess. In billiards the ideal is complete and absolute control. Is that, should that be, the ideal in life as well?
“I understand the rules,” Edith is saying, “Three balls, three cushions. But beyond that I don’t know what’s happening.” Aparicio hits another carambola. Three-nothing. He looks tranquilo como el cocodrilo, poker faced. “Look,” I point to the table. “No matter where the balls are, there’s always an infinite number of possible shots that can give you the point. There are no obstacles, no tricks, no nothing. Just three spheres moving on top of a flat surface, and bouncing off straight sides.” It occurs to me that she may not understand what I’m saying. She’s so young and, well, let’s just say she’s not dressed like a Rhodes scholar. “It can get pretty technical.” She shows me her bright eyes, alive, nothing like Sotro’s black holes. “I can handle it.” Ok. “Ok. So, theoretically, there’s an infinite number of possible paths the ball can take to accomplish the goal of touching three sides and the two object balls. And that’s if you only consider straight lines. Add to that the spin you can add to the ball, and, well… It’s literally infinite. Geometrically not one option is better than any other. All are, by definition, equally good.” Her hand motions me to stop. She looks at the table, thoughtful. “I see. So, like, you could have a robot that could play the game flawlessly.” “Yes, as long as it had perfect dexterity and control over the cue. Other than, you know, a fleck of dust here, or a little gust of air, you could completely banish luck out of the game.” She nods now. “I can see why he likes it,” meaning Sotro, who, I realize now, is behind seven-zero. I go quiet and focus on him at the table. His stance is not bad, legs straight, left in front, easy grip, very efficient stroke. I consider his options. He takes a straightforward one, the Cubans call it el mocito, double cushion bounce with reverse English, not a bad idea, but he’s off by several inches. He hit it too hard, which takes the power off the spin. “I’m a little rusty, friend,” he says to the granite-faced Aparicio. “Be patient with me.” “So it’s a cerebral game like chess, but your options are determined by your physical limitations,” Edith muses. “Right. Your hand-eye coordination, your depth perception, your proprioception…” “What’s that?” “That’s your body’s ability to sense where it is, what parts of it are moving…” “Oh. Go on.” “How controlled your motions are, how steady are your hands.” “I get it. So?” “So no game combines mental and physical skill as perfectly. You can know exactly what to do every time, and still not be able to do it.” “Like you.” “No… like…” “Oh, come on.” “Or you can have the physical tools, but not be able to make sense of the angles, the physics, force plus spin plus acceleration, and so on.” “Yes, I can see why he likes it.”
First game’s over. Sotro rallied at the end and scored two easy carambolas, but it wasn’t really a game. Just a warm up. It’s natural that a new player coming to the table will take a round, even two, to find the right form. I’ve seen Aparicio lose the first two games, badly, only to settle down and make caldillo de picadillo out of a foolishly overconfident opponent. Sotro hands Aparicio the hundred-dollar bill. Aparicio puts it in his pocket. The room is completely silent, everybody waiting to see what he does next. “Again, beldá?,” he says. Sotro shoots him a look. He kept smiling, even while he missed shot after shot. But he’s not smiling now. They face each other for a second. It’s Sotro’s job to reset the balls, and Aparicio’s to break, again, since he won the last game. “Now we get serious, chico.”
“Can you please… can you tell me? Who is he? What…? How…?” “I don’t know,” she says. “You’ve never asked him?” “I’ve asked him lots of times. But every time he says something different.” “What do you mean?” “One day he’s God. The next he’s the Devil. One time he told me he’s from the future. Can you believe it? Another that he’s an alien. One visit he went on and on about how he was guarding our reality against demon monsters from the shadow dimension. I think he’d just watched Dr. Strange on cable. Next time he told me he’s a demon monster from the shadow dimension.” She laughs when she sees my face. “He’s a liar, you understand? Full of it. For my money he doesn’t even know who or what he is.” “How long have you known him?” “A long, long time.” “You mean since you were a little kid?” She flashes her painted eyelashes. “I’m much older than I look.” “How much older?” She shrugs. “None of your business. Look, what I can tell you is, from everything I’ve seen, he’s the real deal. Everything he’s ever said in my presence has come true. Every single thing. He can make anyone do anything he wants. Here or in China or anywhere else. And he can make, as far as I can tell, anything happen.” “And you…?” “Let’s just say I made a good first impression on him, a long time ago, and he offered me a deal. I get to be this,” she turns her head this way and that playfully, so as to get me to admire her perfect features, moves her hands up and down her curves, “and in return I answer his call, and keep him company whenever he’s in town. Obviously he’s made it so I can’t tell anyone, not even my therapist, unless we’re in situations like this, where everyone knows.” “So you’re his escort?” “Don’t be gross. I’m his companion. I don't doubt he has one in every port.” “How old are you?” “It’s not polite to ask a lady her age. Let’s just say when I was growing up the Chicago skyline looked very, very different.” “And, what?, he keeps you up? He’s your sugar daddy?” “Honey, when you live long enough, you don’t need a sugar daddy. Just put tuppence in the bank and wait for your investment to grow.” “Clever strategy.” “I got it from Mary Poppins.” “Does he control you?” “He promised me he wouldn’t.” “But you don’t know for sure.” “No, I don’t.” “And you don’t care what he does to other people?” “I care as much as the next person. I’m fairly certain I’ve saved more than one idiot from a terrible fate. But, in the end, nobody can do anything. He’ll do what he wants, when he wants. To me, to you, to…,” she gestures at Aparicio. “When he calls, I go along for the ride. How can I not? You have no idea the things I’ve seen him do. I should, what?, stay home and watch Netflix instead?” I know what she means. After this night I’ll go chasing after him. I’ll travel and I’ll read and I’ll search and research. I’ll build my life and my career around Sotro. My wife will leave me. My daughter will grow up knowing me from Christmas texts and birthday gift cards. Will he make all of that happen, or will I do it to myself? I’ll never know. Who does? What I do understand is why Sotro’s here. He can make anything happen, make anyone do what he wants. No effort, no failure, no accomplishment. He must crave those things. I wonder what he picked first, the game or Aparicio? Edith doesn’t know. “He hasn’t been playing for that long. A couple of years.” “He’s really good.” “Of course he’s amazing. But not perfect. He still has to work at it. All-powerful, but still imperfect. Get it?” I get it. He doesn’t tell Aparicio to play. He asks. He doesn’t tell him to break. He offers. He wants, for a clearly defined portion of time, in a clearly defined space, to be as vulnerable as the rest of us. He could make Aparicio lose, but that would mean nothing. I get it, and so does Aparicio.
The second is a real game. Aparicio scores on the break but then falls into a cold spell. Sotro has a nice run. Vicente and the men whisper to each other, concern alive on their faces. Two-one. Three-one. Four-one. Here’s the thing. Aparicio’s safe from Sotro’s power as long as they play. But as soon as they’re done, Sotro’s liable to do anything. He doesn’t care about Aparicio the man, about his life. He cares about Aparicio as a rival, as a challenge. As soon as they’re done qué le importa? Which is why Aparicio has to win. Because if he wins Sotro has to let him be, so he can come back and play again. He can’t mess up with Aparicio’s body, or his mind, because then the next time they match up it won’t be fair. So Sotro has to let him be, but only as long as Aparicio wins. *
“Keep going. How do they decide which shot to take?” ` “They have to do the math, work out the option with the best chance of success.” Sotro at the table. “See, he’s using the diamonds on the sides to help him.” I explain the basic diamond system, which assigns values to the diamonds on the long rails – corner diamond is 0 points, first diamond sure is 10, second is 20, but then from the fifth diamond on it’s twenty points each, and how this establishes the values on the short side, the head rail in this case. “There’s a value for the start angle, one for the finish, and that helps you figure out where to aim.” Here eyes are fixed on the table but, I can tell, she’s hearing every word I say. “So where’s he going to shoot it?” “Fourth diamond suro, that’s south-west.” And that’s where he shoots it. “Good call! Is that how it always works?” “No. Sometimes it’s mathematically impossible to reach the angle that way. There are variations, and other, more complicated systems.” “Wow.” “And that’s not all. You have to know when to aim at the diamond itself, past the cushion, and when to aim at the cushion in the direction of the diamond. An inch or two will completely change the trajectory after. And where to hit the ball. There’s all kinds of systems to divide the ball into sections depending on the necessary angle and forward spin.” “I get a headache just thinking about it.” “Not a game for the weak-headed.” “Or the faint-hearted.”
Sotro’s up seven-one. He’s in control, his game to lose. He tries a very difficult girafa, which he arrives at using, I’m guessing, the five-and-a-half system. He means to hit off the foot rail short bounce onto the side rail, then up to the head rail and the other side, so four cushions instead of three, then catch la roja on the left side and then to Aparicio’s ball. Almost makes it but his cue ball just misses its rival. Aparicio steps up to the table. “You playing good, chico,” he says. “Better than last time.” You can probably hear the collective intake of breath out on the sidewalk. Like USSSSSSP! Everyone, from Sotro down to Vicente and Gustavo, and Floriana behind me, and Edith beside me, and me. God, me most of all. What are you doing, perturbando a Satanás? Sotro glares at him. Aparicio holds his eyes. He’s even smiling, sonrisa sin prisa. His turn now. He shoots. He scores. Seven-two. Seven-three. Seven-four. At the fourth straight carambola the onlookers can’t help themselves. They whoop. They clap. “Bravo, galán!” Sotro seethes. “Was that good?,” Edith asks. “Good? The best players average one point per inning. A one-point-five average is world-champion level. Your boyfriend made three in a row before. Aparicio just made four in a row.” “So they’re playing well,” she ignores the boyfriend jab. “World class. Look. He’s going to hit between the third and fourth diamonds, off the rival ball, grand rotation around the table, to the red ball in the corner.” Pac!, puc!, puc!, puc!, and nothing. Misses it. “You’re playing better than last time too,” mutters Sotro. He misses the next shot. So does Aparicio. Sotro still has a chance to pull ahead, but misses again. He lets out a yell, a curse, even I can tell, even though I don’t understand the word. “Your friend’s taunting him,” says Edith, but it’s really a question. “Yes.” “Gutsy.” “He has to win though, doesn’t he?” “Oh, yes.” It’s a long, tense game after that. Every time he misses Sotro’s color rises. Aparicio remains fresquito. When it means everything, the veteranos preach, play it as if it means nothing. Good advice, do you think, or bad? After an easy one I’m sure he missed on purpose. Which, I see now, makes sense. A long, tense game, and one player’s losing his cool. Better stretch it, keep it going. No matter who wins, the bad temper will stick around for the next one. Billiards is not chess. It’s not poker. You don’t play the guy across from you. You play the balls and the table. A robot, Edith said, could play it perfectly. But nobody seems to have told Aparicio, who’s dragging this game for all it’s worth, needling Sotro, a word here, a cough there. Nothing too obvious, of course. Don’t want to overdo it. Sotro can get sick of the game and who knows what he’ll do? Aparicio’s playing with fire, but what else can he do? He has to win. He has to. But not this game. This game he’s decided to lose. Sotro’s lost his confidence, but Aparicio’s making him go all the way to fifteen. Takes almost thirty minutes. Thirty minutes of pain for Sotro, who’s on his fourth drink by now. Pac!, he connects for the last carambola. Aparicio pulls the hundred out of his pocket and hands it over. “I take it back,” Sotro snaps. “You suck tonight.”
Sotro breaks now. One game a piece. He scores a point, then misses, and Aparicio comes alive. A third game, fifteen-three. A fourth game, fifteen-six. A fifth game, fifteen-two. His angles are crisp, his shooting motion flawless. Aparcio’s in control, not just of the balls, not just of the table, but of space itself, of the physics and geometry of motion. He can see the lines, the bounces, the curves, the theory, and make it tangible fact. Just because he can, he makes his ball double roll against the foot rail, a carcacha the Cubans call it, puc!-puc!, off la rival, off the foot rail again, and into la roja. Sotro’s a wreck. He pulls on his hair and slaps at his thigh. He slams his beautiful cue too hard against the floor. There’s nothing like a billiards player in the flow. It seems like he can’t miss, Aparicio, though of course he does. A point-an-inning average means that you’re scoring on every other shot, fifty percent success rate. Sixty percent is a great day. Seventy percent is godlike. That’s how Aparicio’s playing right now, like a god, against God himself no less.
It seems not at all unreasonable that excellent predictions would be yielded by the hypothesis that the billiard player made his shot as if he knew the complicated mathematical formulas that would give the optimum direction of travel, could estimate accurately by eye the angles, etc., describing the location of the balls, could make lighting calculations from the formulas, and could then make the balls travel in the direction indicated by the formulas. Our confidence in this hypothesis is not based on the belief that billiard players, even expert ones, can or do go through the process described; it derives rather from the belief that, unless in some way or other they were capable of reaching essentially the same result, they would not in fact be expert billiard players.
Milton Friedman “The Methodology of Positive Economics”
He’s up four games to one, three hundred dollars, though nobody’s thinking about the money. Sotro hands him a bill after each round for the ritual, because that’s how it’s done and that’s what he came for. He’s mad, though, chiloso, sarnoso. I, in the meantime, am besides myself, at seeing what Aparicio’s doing, the transcendent quality of his play. This is why I’ve been spending my nights here, hora tras hora, while my baby grows up, poquito a poquito, at home and my wife pulls away from me, poquito a poquito. To see the game played like this, everything on the line, everything on the table. I can’t hold my excitement as I explain to Edith how Aparicio caught that last ball, after a ticky brinquito off the first diamond sure. Too loud, I am, too stupid, because I catch Sotro’s attention. Edith notices. Her hand is on my knee so she, because she’s nice, pulls it away. But Sotro sees. “Hey!,” at me. I freeze. “Watch it.” Edith speaks. “He’s not doing anything, honey. He’s just…” “Quiet,” he snaps. She quiets. Nice she may be, but not stupid. My time’s come. He’s angry, and he’s a bully, and here I am, weak, powerless, the perfect target. Do it then. Que venga lo que venga. “We playing, chico?” Aparicio comes to my rescue again, except Sotro doesn’t bite. “In a second.” So Aparicio makes him. “We not playing, then.” Sotro whips around. “I said wait.” Aparicio shakes his head, fearless. I’ll never forget what he does now, what he risks now, for me. Why? Why does he do it? “I no wait. We play or we done.” Sotro considers him. Considers me. Considers Edith. “Go sit somewhere else,” he tells her. “Go play your game, or I’m out too.” I turn to look at her. She ignores me. Sotro shrugs. “Fine,” he shoots me a darting look. “I have all the time in the world when we’re done.” And he does. He can do anything, anytime. I’m doomed and I know it. Everyone knows it. Floriana’s crying behind me. Edith knows it. Aparicio.
So here’s what he does. He starts playing better, Aparicio does, in order to lose. He makes the break. He’s up four games to one, one-zero now. He’s using, I think, the three-eighths system, even more complicated. El vagón, the Cubans call it. Such a hard shot. He misses. The veteranos know that your opponent’s play affects yours. It shouldn't, on paper. On paper it’s you and the table, you and the balls and the cloth and the diamonds. But everyone knows how that feels. Opponent stinks, you should crush him, but you stink too, by proximity, by affiliation. And the opposite’s true as well. Opponent plays great, and so do you. And Aparicio’s playing great, better than before, better than anyone I’ve ever seen, in person or on TV or on YouTube. He’s trying the most elaborate shots, the most difficult angles. Every time he makes one the room erupts. Even Sotro can't help himself. He’s as mesmerized as the rest of us. And that lifts him up, lifts his game. Two-one. Two-two. Four-two. Five-four. Seven-eight. Sotro pulls ahead. Nine-nine. It’s a tight one, a squeaker. Sotro takes it, thirteen-fifteen. He pumps his fist. He can’t believe it. He slaps Aparicio on the shoulder. “Good one, friend!” “That’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him,” Edith whispers to me. Yes, I get it. The next game is even better. Each shot a masterpiece of forethought and precision. And the one after that? Ni pa’qué te digo. Over three hours they play, and now they’re tied four games to four. Sotro’s flying high. I know how that feels, más o menos, when you’re playing your best, when your mind is pristine clear and your hands obey without hesitation. “Last one, chico.” says Aparicio. “I tired now.” Sotro nods, glances at me and Edith. Winner take all. He feels the satisfaction of hard-fought play, of having done his best against a worthy rival. Aparicio’s given him that. He could’ve squashed Sotro. I know he could’ve. But he didn’t. He’s played the room like he pays the table, thinking up the angles and how each motion will impact the next. What will he do now? He has to win. If he loses he’s lost. But once the match is over I’m lost. He knows that too. Sotro breaks, scores the point, scores another. Two-nothing. He’s flying high. This is what he’s come for. Puc!, puc!, puc!, nothing. Misses the next one. Aparicio does his thing. Two-one. Two-two. They play the best game I’ve ever seen. Aparicio’s doing things no sane player should do. Dragones and paracaídas, shots to tell your descendants about. “See that?,” I show Edith. “He just used a system they call de los viejitos. The one only old people know because it takes so many years to learn it.” He’s flying, Aparicio is, and Sotro’s keeping pace. I hate him. I’m terrified of him. But, damn, can he shoot. Five-five. Ten-eight. Last game, for all the marbles. Twelve-thirteen. Fourteen a piece. It’s come down to this. Last shot. Aparicio at the table. He makes it he wins, gets to fight another day. He misses, quién sabe? He leans down towards the table, his abejorro eyes zipping fast from here to there, searching, calculating. He puts his hand on the cloth and pulls it back – easy, chica – then stands up, straight and poderoso. Think when you’re standing, the veteranos say. “Tell me something,” he says to Sotro. Sotro’s hair is vibrating from the tension. “Take the shot, friend.” Aparicio doesn’t. “In a second, chico.” Sotro’s lips move. He could order Aparicio to play, command it. He can make anything happen, but then it would mean nothing. “What?” “We play good today, beldá?” “Yes, yes. So what.” “And you gonna make everyone forget all about it? Like last time?” Sotro doesn’t respond. He thinks about it. What does victory mean if no one remembers it? “He’s right,” Edith says, as if to no one. He is and Sotro knows it. “Fine,” he says. “You’ll remember,” he says. To me. “You’ll remember every shot and every point, everything you saw tonight. You’ll try to tell others, but no one’ll believe you. He deserves it,” he nods towards Aparicio. “Don’t you think?” What can I say? “Yes, he does.” Sotro claps his hands together. “You won’t be here when I come for my rematch. You won’t ever see me again.” I know. I won’t. “Now shoot,” to Aparicio, who does. The cue ball is close to the rail, and so is la rival. Ele-ká-ele is the best system for that kind of shot. Tough. Really tough. It’s close, so close, un pelito, but it misses. “I got you now,” Sotro’s almost salivating. He takes his shot, el antifaz the Cubans call it, bias-angled reverse, pac!, his ball hits Aparicio’s, puc!, off the third diamond nore, puc!, down, and puc!, up, and pac!, he meets la roja, and it’s over. “I got you!,” he bellows, pumping his fists, looking up and sighing at the pure pleasure of accomplishing something you’ve worked so hard for, something you weren’t sure you could do. “I got you!”
I pick up my cue and my jacket and leave Dilly’s. I want to look at Aparicio, at Floriana, but I can't, my eyes won’t obey. I suppose Sotro makes it so. I suppose. Qué vo’a saber yo? I do come back the next night, but Aparicio doesn’t. Not the night after either, or the one after that. Gustavo and Vicente have no idea where he’s gone. “Qué raro, beldá?” It makes no sense to them. They’ve no memory of what happened. But I do, thanks to him. Never show how good you really are, the veteranos say, until you have to. I never see Aparicio again. No one else does either, that I know of. That’s his victory over Sotro, I suppose, and the price that the rest of us pay.
Superiority to fate Is difficult to learn. T’is not conferred by any, But possible to earn.
Emily Dickinson “Superiority to Fate”
 In the game of three-cushion billiards, which Aparicio and his friends call carambola de tres bandas, the objective is to accumulate points by making as many successive carambolas as possible. Each of the two players owns a cue ball (sometimes one cue ball is white and the other yellow, others one is completely white while the other has a distinguishing red or black dot), and neither owns the third, la roja, the red object ball. In order to score a point a player must hit at least three sides of the table, plus the opponent’s ball (la rival), plus la roja. The player may hit one ball, then the table rails, then the other, or the rails first followed by the two balls.
 Billiards’ tables are ten feet long and five feet wide, about 10% bigger than pocket billiards tables. Around the edge, the table is decorated with a set of equidistant “diamonds” – nine on each of the side rails (the long ones) and five each at the head and foot of the table. Since the table is a perfect rectangle, the assignation of head and foot is arbitrary, usually determined by markings on the felt designating the “head spot” and “foot spot” for placing the balls to begin the game. Aparicio and his friends refer to the four corners of the table as cardinal directions: noroeste (northwest, for the left corner of the head rail), noreste (northeast, the right corner of the head rail), suroeste (southwest, the left corner of the foot rail), and sureste (southeast, the right corner of the foot rail). For short: noro, nore, suro, and sure.
Eduardo Frajman grew up in San José, Costa Rica. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and holds a PhD in political science from the University of Maryland. His research articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in dozens of publications, academic and literary, online and in print, in English and Spanish. His short fiction has appeared in La Idea Fija, El Ojo de Uk, Aethlon, and elsewhere.
La elotera swung by the brown condos, the ugly ones by the 101 freeway in So Cal, flanked by decaying but still fragrant eucalyptus trees. It was night as she figured that was the best time for her to make a sale. Her shopping cart with dual blue Igloo coolers and a shiny aluminum tamalera pot rising like Medieval towers from its interior squeaked into the noisy complex stifled with chants of playing children and tamborazos of ranchera music.
Two squeezes from the rubber ball from the horn attached to her carrito salute the complex and the murky night. A gust of wind quivers the leaves of the eucalyptus trees, making a resonance like a flow of a river. The aromatics of the suddenly alive leaves smell like Vicks VapoRub. It opens the tamaleras nostrils, expands her lungs. She inhales deeply.
La elotera opens the lid to the cheap swap meet tamalera pot liberating a vapor of sweet corn scent that swirls and embraces the complex in a heavenly fog like a kiss from the marine layer. The familiar smell of boiled elotes attracts her first customer.
A cholo, todo pelón, wearing a Dallas Cowboys E. Smith 22 jersey, with two purple bullet holes to the dome materializes like a Vegas show hologram from aside a dry manzanita shrub embedded in crusty cracking soil. The cholo stagers towards her like a drunk. La elotera sees the entity approach but doesn’t seem frightened. She seems pleased and welcomes the pelón with a smile. Her first sale of the day!
“¿En qué te puedo ayudar joven?” the older elotera asks the spirit as she irons her brown checkered mantil with her hands. Pues, she is a classy lady.
“I can’t rest. I need something to go to sleep,” complains the cholo with his brains blown out. La elotera can see his tired white eyes floating in a sea of black like lifeboats waiting to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
“I have something that will help you rest,” she responds in English. She reaches deep into the tamalera pot, pulls out a steamy white and yellow corn on the cob. The vapor expelled from it swirls and rises to the heavens like a serpent in retreat. The elotera slaters the corn with mayonesa using her wooden pala, sprinkles crumbling white cheese all over that stinks like patas. All while twisting the palito she jabbed at the bottom of the sweetcorn. She then spritzes the corn with artificial neon yellow butter from a farting blue plastic jug, sprinkles earth red chile piquín until the elote is covered with a red furry blanket.
“Ya mérito, mijo,” she tells the lost soul. La elotera reaches for a mason jar with a sticker of the Virgen Maria on one side and La Santa Muerte on the other. She tightens the lid with the tiny nail size holes to make sure the valuable greenish-black powder inside doesn’t spill out. She sprinkles some of the unprocessed-looking emerald powder onto the elote and hands it to the cholo ghost. He takes a bite.
Three miles away in the neighborhood beyond the tracks, the vatos Sleepy and Chato are sitting in rusted lawn chairs drinking cheap beers and listening to ‘80s style corridos on their ‘80s style boombox. The big grey ones with twin woofers in the front and a cassette deck serving as the hocico. The grease from their too full grease collector on their grill steadily drips grease to the dirt, accumulating into a thick viscous puddle. That is unless the wind carries a rouge drop here and there to the neglected lemonade grass.
“Hey, carnal. You’re burning the tri-tip,” warns Sleepy lazily pointing to the flare-up charring the piece of meat. “And you’re going to set the grass on fire, just like the carne.”
“What grass foo’?” Chato unzippers his fingers from on top of his head and displays the backyard with a flat hand like a model from the Price is Right. “Y la carne está bien. No pues que you like it well done.”
Suddenly the back gate explodes open in a squall of splinters and rusted bolts. “Get the fuck down,” barks a gabacho cop with a nervous trigger finger. He points his Glock at the brothers, nervously alternating between all four of their concha bread eyes. Four more swat officers rush in like Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry, .40s in hand. One of the police officers tosses the back door breaching a battering ram onto the dirt. It rolls and knocks down the BBQ. The mesquite embers splash out like neon rubies when the asador hits the ground. The tri-tip lays in the yellow and scorched grass like a slaughtered rhino in the African savanna.
“We’re taking you guys in for murder,” says the lead swat officer holstering his hand cannon. The brothers get zip-tied by the wrists and are taken away to an idling Ford Explorer police car. The detectives that figured out who were the perps watch from their Crown Vics a block away. Cigarette smoke rises from the half-open windows like a grey aura. It gets swept up by a gust.
Back at the brown complex, the cholo is finishing his corn. He is so into it; he doesn’t notice the white goo building up in the corner of his mouth like yeso. He takes his last bite of the corn.
“Man. That was the best corn I’ve ever had,” he says yawning widely like a lion that has cemented his future cubs with his pride of pussies. “I feel sleepy now,” he tells la elotera. He raises his arms into the heavens, begins to stretch his thin torso. El cholo begins to fade and turns into dust. His powder conforms to the laws of the wind and is swept up in the gusty breeze. La elotera sees his purplish blueish particles fly between the dancing eucalyptus trees, twisting and dodging bug-eaten leaves. His hue shoots into heaven like blue smoke from a vape.
“Ojalá que ya puedas descansar, mijo,” la elotera whispers starring at the crescent moon. She sees her next customer materialize from under the stairs of the crumbling second floor of the complex. An older lady, not too old, with a cord around her stretched-out neck, a swinging plancha at the end of it like a pendulum, walks up to la elotera. Her tight black leather pants let go of a chirrido every step she nears la ex curandera turned corn entrepreneur. Her round and too big for her small frame tits hit her chin like dribbling basketballs.
“Hola Doña.” She kisses la elotera’s bony, spotted brown, and loose-skinned hand. “¿En qué le puedo ayudar?”
“Mi marido. Ya no me quiso and cheated on me. Look at my clothes.” She raises her arms and whirls like a slutty amateur ballet dancer. The plancha almost bangs la elotera in the hips when she twirls. “He wanted me to dress like this. Like a hoochie. He stopped looking at me the same way. He didn’t touch me the same. Y yo ya estaba harta y cansada.” She cups her hands, places them on her face, and wails into them like an Irish banshee.
“No llores, criatura,” says la elotera. “Eres preciosa. You should never have to change who you are. Y menos por un puerco.” Like an ‘80s homicidal movie killer, she busts out with a huge chef’s knife from underneath the shopping cart and the blade shimmers like platinum in the sharp moonlight. She reaches into the pot; pulls out a sweaty elote, begins shaving the kernels of the cob with the blade too big for a viejita. The kernels tumble into a short but wide Styrofoam bowl. She wields her trusty wooden pala in the direction of the mayonesa jar and drops a big spoonful of the white oily condiment into the white bowl. She farts out artificial butter again from the farting blue bottle. Following her method to a tee, she sprinkles stinky pata cheese on top. But this time reaches for a Ziplock baggy containing crushed red hot-Cheetos. She sprinkles some of the jagged neon-red rocks on top. One last ingredient. She sprinkles some of the emerald powder gingerly on top of the esquite she lovingly constructed for the older fox. Wha-la, her pièce de résistance.
“Tome,” she says handing the resented lady her esquite. She takes it in her right hand, grips the plastic fork with her left, tight. The nails on her thumb and index finger bleach to white from the death pinch she has on the fork. She begins to scarf down the esquite like she hasn’t eaten a meal in a lifetime.
Meanwhile on the other side of town, at a grimy motel where the rate could be paid by the hour or the day, lays her husband on a lumpy mattress with its fitted sheet unfitted. His half-naked mistress sits on the edge of the bed with her arms behind her back hooking her bra back up.
“That felt incredible,” says the cheater laying with his hands behind his head as an extra pillow layer. “When can I see you again?” The sancha gets up and sparks up a cigarette next to the window overlooking the freshly repaved parking lot. She stares at a rouge cheeseburger wrapper kite in the gusty wind.
“Hey. Is that your S-Class on fire?” she casually blurs out pointing at a car engulfed in flames with her smoldering menthol frajo. She takes a long puff of her cigarette como si nada pasara.
“What!” the cheater roaringly shouts out. He lunges the sheets clinging to his sweaty body like saran wrap, jumps up from the bed as if a compressed spring on the mattress was liberated from the weight bearing down on it from above. He runs to the window. He sees red-orange and blue flames ravaging his interior. The flames flicker with tormented life. “My car!” he yells gripping the last few hairs he’s got on his head with his shaky fists. He pulls them out. His sancha takes another menthol drag, como si nada pasara.
The cheating husband runs out of the motel room tying his robe to make sure his wrinkled balls don’t make an appearance. He stops dead in his tracks upon walking outside to the parking lot. He can’t believe what he’s seeing. Between red flashes and the buzz of a neon sign advertising vacancy, he sees his adult son holding a red plastic gas tank. His daughter hugs numerous road flares. She waves to him with a road flare. The S-class blows up in a spectacular release of kinetic and chemical energy behind them. The bubbling hood lands in front of the cheater. A tire rolls by minding its own business.
“That’s for mom,” says his son with savage eyes. They are more alive than even the fire.
“I hate you,” spews his daughter with a scowl. “Mom killed herself because of you. You bastard!”
Meanwhile, in the complex’s courtyard the fork the neglected fox was holding falls through her grip. It lands in the dirt. The mayonnaise and butter concoction on the fork is like a magnet to the pebbles of dirt que se comportan como nails. The lady with the plancha around her neck begins to dematerialize. Her aura turns into floating spheres that in-ribbon la elotera for a moment, go over her head like a flyover from the Blue Angels at a ball game, and disperse into the heavens.
La elotera has enough time to check her cell phone when a señor walks up dragging his feet. He’s wearing a tan cocodrilo suit ready for the baile. He floats through a tirade de empty beer bottles and decomposing couches and mattresses with yellow stains left for dead in the complex and trash.
“Señora,” he cries bringing his hands together as if rezando El Padre Nuestro. “I need your help. I can’t stop thinking about my daughter’s quince and the father daughter dance I’m going to miss.”
“Ya ya, joven,” responds the old lady to the ghost of a gordito, ya middle-aged señor. His chaleco can barely contain his Mexican beer belly.
“I will give you something to calm your thoughts and guide you to the light.” La elotera fixes up an elote, but not a normal elote. A blue one. She puts the usual fixings on it but instead of putting chili powder on it how she usually does on corn on the cobb, she dredges it with crushed Taquis. She sprinkles some of her emerald powder on it but this time before handing the specter the mouthwatering elote, she hands him a pickled jalapeño. A dark green veiny mean-looking motherfucker. Cosa de maravilla!
“Toma,” she says handing him the jalapeño. Then the elote. “Take a bite of the chile first. Then the corn.” She turns her back on the ghost in the cocodrilo suit, begins rearranging her messy carrito, confident the elote will do the trick.
“Oh, shit this thing is hot,” dice el specter, fanning his hand towards his burning mouth trying to induct oxygen from the cool night. He makes duck lips, sucking in air like a vacuum.
“It’s supposed to be hot. To get all the endorphins going,” says the elotera leaning on her now organized carrito with her elbows.
Dela is nervous about her quinceañera dance. Her dad was her pillar of granite, her cheerleader, her guiding light. Y ya no está. “You were supposed to be here to dance with me, dad. You promised me,” she mutters starring into her glossy eyes in the mirror. A door bursts open from behind her. A lady wearing a purple ruffled cocktail dress sticks half her body into the dressing room. Dela wipes the tears from her cheeks and chin. Sniffs a little.
“We’re ready for you, mija” the lady with the ruffled dress announces to the down quinceañera. She shuts the door gingerly. Dela pulls down her white princess dress that keeps riding up. She takes in a deep breath, grudgingly gets up. She heads for the door of the salón’s dressing room, steps out, and shuts the door behind her.
“Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen,” announces the spiky orange-haired DJ. “Your aplausos to the pista, por favor.” The chatter fades to a whisper. The lights go black except for a spotlight in the middle of the dance floor. “Tennesse Whiskey” bumps out of the JBL speaker set up by the DJ. Dela and her chambelán, her older brother, begin their choreographed walk towards each other, like marching soldiers. The fog machine makes them look like they’re floating on wispy clouds. They reach each other and Dela’s brother takes the lead. He holds her by the hips, she puts her arms around his neck. She begins to cry.
“No llores, Delita. I’m here like I promised.” Dela lets go of the hold she had on her brother’s neck and shoves him in the chest.
“You mother fuc...,” she begins saying but is unable to continue her tongue-lashing because before her eyes are not her skinny brother but her deceased thick father in the tan cocodrilo suit they had picked out together for her day of transformation from a girl to a woman. “Apa,” she half whimpers. She rushes to her dad and hugs him; he picks her up and spins her around as he used to when she was only to his knees.
“Un aplauso para la quinceañera y su hermano, por favor,” the obvious DJ advises the uncaring crowd. “Que bonito. ¡Que bonitas memorias!” Dela rests her head on her dad’s shoulder.
A beam of light resembling the glare from the transporter in Star Trek begins to dematerialize the man in the cocodrilo suit enjoying his elote. A police officer rushes into the courtyard with a beaming flashlight that punctures the dark of the night like a knife versus skin. What was left of the spirit gets skewed away by the coned LED light of the flashlight. The half-eaten elote falls to the floor.
“What are you doing here?” the jura questions la elotera with the tenacity of a junkyard guard dog. He shoots his beam of LED light at her face. Then without letting her respond, illuminates her shopping cart with Medieval towers. “This place is off-limits. This is a crime scene. Can’t you see the crime tape up?” He shines his light on a unit with yellow crime scene tape tacked to the door. “What are you doing here? This place has been abandoned for years.”
The elotera grips the rubber handle to her carrito tight. The playing children’s laughter and cries and the tamborazos of music fade like a distant memory.
“No hablo pitinglish,” she says, looking into the blue of the cop’s eyes. “Well, it don’t matter. This place is off-limits. Get your cart and get out of here before I give you a ticketo,” he acts like he’s filling out a phantom ticket in his phantom ticket book with his phantom white right hand,” for not having a seller’s permit.”
“Sí, sí,” the elotera responds, shaking her head up and down like a bobblehead. She begins to push away from the center courtyard. She looks around the complex and there are broken windows and tagged-up walls and empty syringes and sliver spider webs and a few abandoned rusting shopping carts with tall grass growing from between their steel mesh. The cop finds the half-eaten elote and holds it from the palito. He looks at it, scrutinizes it.
La elotera stops at the end of the abandoned property. She looks back at the brown condo complex. She sees the bouncing white light from the cop disappear and reappear behind the corners of the dead complex. She takes one last deep Vicks breath and mumbles, “All cops are assholes.”
Chicano. Lisiado. Storyteller. Enrique C. Varela hails from Oxnard, California, the land his parents immigrated to from the state Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico. He holds a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Writing minor to accompany it like a solid friend. Two of his short stories have been published in Chiricú Journal & The Acentos Review, respectively. His upcoming memoir, twisted: Tales from a Crip(ple) is slated to be published by Between the Lines Publishing in the coming year. He is beyond excited. His ethnic background is Mexicano. Though his skin pigment tells another story.