Javier didn’t recognize their faces, but he had seen the chairs before; white, plastic, cheap. Stackable. Their center of gravity was off kilter. They strained, almost buckled on weak, ill-designed legs to hold the nine men reclining with their heads lolled back in the middle of the traffic roundabout in the center of town. If it weren’t the wrong time of year, Javier might have thought they’d harmlessly fallen asleep after a hard day drinking at Uruapan’s Avocado Festival or Día de San Francisco. If it weren’t just another Tuesday morning. If it weren’t for all the blood, the electrical tape lashed across their mouths and over their eyes, hands bound behind them, and the large hand-printed warning signs affixed with ice picks to their chest.
Two days earlier Javier had been pricing electric fans at the hardware store for a possible surprise present for his wife, Alma, when he saw two “malos” at the front counter. Both were young, but one was still a child, near the age of his own boy, Alfredo, who was twelve. The malito had a sad expression, as if he wished he could return to a not-too-long-ago hour when he had never been born. He wore a faded t-shirt with a picture of Tweety Bird on it. His thin upper limbs dangled from the arm holes. His pants were ingrained with dirt, hand-me-downs that were no doubt his only pair. The older one had a barrel chest and the sort of muscular biceps Javier had seen before, formed from hard labor and hard time, countless push ups done in the confined space of an overcrowded home or prison cell. The malos didn’t seem related, except that the boy would someday become like the older one, if he lived that long.
“Where can I find some ice picks?” Barrel Chest asked the woman working at the register.
She had already rung up three rolls of electrical tape, two balls of twine, and a pack of magic markers. The two rough customers stood by two dusty stacks of chairs they had dragged to the counter. The stacks were uneven, four and five high. Not that Barrel Chest seemed motivated, or very smart, but Javier wondered why he didn’t try to negotiate a better price by buying the chairs in pairs. An even ten? Javier assumed this purchase wasn’t for them, but everyone could use extra money in their pocket and whoever had sent them on this errand, possibly a parent or neighborhood friend, wouldn’t they want to set them out evenly around a table in their backyard?
“Why would anyone need more than one ice pick?” was the cashier’s question.
Then she looked up at Barrel Chest, quickly spotting the sword tattoo on his bicep. Now, Javier saw it too. There were other brands of varying quality as well, a bird, a woman, misquoted passages of the bible, a name in cursive swirling on the side of his neck. Evangelina. Two teardrops near his left eye. But it was the sword tattoo that made the woman wish she had not answered his question with a question of her own.
“Why don’t you ask my boss why?” he replied. “Maybe he’ll show you.”
Javier was glad he had remained quiet, hadn’t interrupted their transaction with inquiries about the merits between the oscillating and stationary fans.
“The Home Depot,” the cashier uttered obediently, trying to take back her earlier indolence, also knowing that The Home Depot was on the other side of town.
“That’s a long way to go,” Tweety Bird complained.
“And if they didn’t have them,” Barrel Chest added, “I’d have to come back here so you didn’t give other customers bad advice.”
The woman swallowed hard and rang up a pack of poster boards.
“They usually have everything,” she said, measuring her words.
Her fear was making Javier nervous. He would have left and come back later, but didn’t want to leave the woman alone.
“Would a blender do?” the cashier said, now trying to be extra helpful, almost pleading. “We have one that makes great margaritas.”
“No,” Barrel Chest said, letting out a small laugh. “We aren’t mixing drinks.”
Clearly, he was following orders. Somebody had something in mind, a specific number of items to accommodate a specific party. One without margaritas.
“I can give you a deal on those chairs,” the cashier offered.
Barrel Chest turned to Tweety Bird, smiling with a nod, imparting a lesson to his protégé, “That dumb bitch got wise fast, eh esé.” He reached into his pocket for a wad of bills, what looked to Javier like two months of picking avocados.
Tweety Bird caught him noticing the money.
Barrel Chest turned to face Javier.
“What are you looking at, faggot?”
Javier wanted to give him an answer, something like, “I’m looking at why our country is becoming a failed state.” Maybe even punch him with all the anger that had been building inside him these last years at what had been happening to his home state of Michoacán, to the whole country of Mexico. To his family. Javier wasn’t a violent man, had never actually been in a fight as an adult, but sometimes you had to be physical to teach someone a lesson. Or at least hold your own ground. That’s what he taught his children. But the opportunity had been lost for settling things with a single altercation. Or even with a single generation.
The pulse behind the tattoo sword on Barrel Chest’s neck throbbed.
Javier knew he wouldn’t be able to beat this man. Barrel Chest probably had a weapon too. And even if Javier won this fight, there were many more Barrel Chests. They would come after him. All armed. They’d come for his children too. Alfredo, Isabel, Petra…
“Nothing,” Javier said, but didn’t avert his gaze. “I’m just next in line.”
A group of construction workers came into the store, part of their day's work clinging to their clothes and faces. Two had masks around their necks, all had sheet rock dusting their hair. They laughed as they entered and nodded to the cashier as they walked past the check-out towards the aisles.
“You better hope you’re not next in line,” Barrel Chest cautioned.
Javier heard the malo’s warning again as he took in the gruesome sight at the traffic circle. By the cut of their clothes and the poor quality of their shoes, the dead men in the chairs didn’t look like typical criminals, more like men who cleaned car windows for loose change. Begged for a living. Begged for their lives.
The ice picks made poor sundials.
What time was it?
A past hour from an Aztec calendar where human sacrifice was a monthly festivity and a man’s blood, or virgin’s, couldn’t be replaced by an animal’s for a proper ceremony.
Blood smears stained the warning signs like exclamation points in another language, one even an illiterate cashier could read – the universal language of fear and violence. The messages were the usual mish mash of “Divine justice” and threatening promise, “This is going to happen to all muggers, pickpockets, thieves of cars, homes and pedestrians, kidnappers, rapists and extortionists.”
Except for the ones who perpetrated this crime, Javier thought.
A woman pulled down the arm of her pointing son, and hustled him away from the growing crowd. No policemen were present. It would be a short straw that decided what flunky finally appeared with the police tape after a long morning of outcries, anonymous phone calls and muffled tears. It was common knowledge now that most transgressions went unpunished. Ninety-eight percent of crimes were going “unsolved” by the police. As if they weren’t often the criminals themselves. Or in the narcos’ back pocket. Crimes were solved by other crimes. Cover ups and kidnappings. Executions.
Many were beginning to see through the consensual lies of Los Templarios – the Knights of Templar, Guard of Michoacán – who had reinvented themselves from La Familia Michoacana after Nazario “El Chayo” González’s death. If El Chayo did die. There had never been a body or government autopsy report. Some still carried his “bible” of sayings and believed he was alive and in hiding. Unkillable. A dark angel. Hadn’t he appeared at the morgue in Morelia after his son had died in a motorcycle crash and the coroner refused to give the body to his sister? Hadn’t the men involved in the “accident” been killed? Hadn’t El Chayo been spotted casually with his henchmen at cockfights, counting his winnings? Hadn’t a crowd seen him dressed like Saint Francisco de Asís, baptizing followers, passing out holy wine, and leading a well-armed flock? Whatever the case, The Templarios, along with the politicians, the police, the press and media on both sides of the border, kept telling citizens that the tens of thousands of murders these past years only happened to people in the drug trade. Even though it seemed everyone had lost a cousin or father, a sister or uncle, some continued to believe the propaganda, that only bad things happened to bad people, hoping the horrors would stay outside their doors and lives if they worked and prayed long and hard enough. A life spent on their knees.
“It’s not just narcos,” Javier tried to convince his uncle Arturo, who had been burning candles and giving tribute to the Templarios since recently purchasing a thirty-acre avocado orchard with the family’s pooled savings. “Remember Israel Duran?”
Javier didn’t need to recount the story of the young man that left a waitress what she thought wasn’t enough for his dinner bill. The cartel connection started with the owner of the restaurant where the complaining waitress worked and ran through the rogue cops that pulled Duran over, the whole police department, the towing company. And everything from Israel’s car to his body vanished right in front of Duran’s brother, mother, and the Mexico sun.
“We are an honest business,” his uncle had argued at first, when the malos showed up eight months ago. Afterwards, he obediently told the family, “It is just a small business sum, like a tax to make sure things run smoothly.”
Javier knew this wasn’t so. He had heard that the Templarios infiltration into the government had turned up useful financial information on agribusiness and the avocado fields. Because the import and exports had to be closely moderated for international safety standards, they knew what each farm produced, down to the last crate. Aside from using the avocado fields to cover their meth labs, they began to realize that the avocados themselves were valuable – “oro verde.” Green gold. A cash crop bigger than marijuana. Uruapan, whose name meant “where the trees always give fruit,” was also “The Avocado Capital of the World.” It was an ancient city tucked in Michoacán, the state that grew ninety percent of the internationally favored Hass avocados in Mexico, along with some lesser varietals, “Fuertes,” “Ettingers,” “Gwens.” Thirteen metric tons. Six million pounds of avocados were packed weekly in Uruapan. Seeing the private records of each farm and company, the cartel chose accordingly. Some farms they let run for tribute, some as a front to launder money, some they took over entirely. They’d just tell the owners to leave. Sometimes they had them officially sign papers to make it a legitimate business transaction. It was like the Italians with their olive oil. Maybe the Templarios even got the idea from watching “The Godfather.” They made the farmers an offer they couldn’t refuse. “Plata o plomo?” was the phrase in Spanish. Silver or lead? Money or bullets?
Uncle Arturo was naïve to think he could ever say, “No.” The first pay-offs, which were difficult enough to keep up with, had grown into the malos demanding an actual piece of the farm. What was a better indicator of profit than being able to pay their tribute? Javier had heard tell of similar tactics in the lime industry. And that the Templarios had even stolen minerals from the state and sold them to China on the Black Market. They were too powerful. They’d kill your whole family. Everyone and everything you ever loved.
Uncle Antonio, who thought the family never should have risked buying a business, happy to work for the US owned Mission Produce until his back broke, groused that things were better when El Chayo was clearly in charge. Before this New Generation. He said at least El Chayo had his “bible” and guidelines, gave to the churches and farmers, made drainage ditches so the poor didn’t have to live in their own shit.
“Did you forget the thousands of murders?” Javier countered. “The mayor that was stoned to death? The councilmen macheted? The women carved up. Dismembered! Bodies put into barrels of lye. The beheadings?”
“We will see how your Calderon protects you,” Antonio said, dismissing Javier with an almost silent scoff.
Javier didn’t want to talk politics. He had no use for politicians either.
“Bottom line,” Arturo stated, the patriarch of the Lopez family, who made the final decisions, “We have invested too much in this to let them take over what is rightly ours.”
Javier’s father, Alfredo, whom Javier named his own son after, had been the second oldest of five brothers, no sisters; Arturo, Alfredo, Antonio, Ricardo and Juan Carlos. But his father had died of a respiratory disease when Javier was seventeen, a strain of “farmer’s lung” from some mold in a packing plant or pesticides in a field. Nobody knew for sure. It may have been one of the reasons Uncle Arturo demanded their fields were “organic.” That, plus there was a higher profit margin and steady growing demand for organic avocados now that exports to America were being allowed. Javier represented his family at these meetings, the only one of his generation to do so given that his cousins’ parents were all alive. Uncle Arturo had become the head of the Lopez clan after grandfather José Luis died of diabetes fives years back, and had been preparing his business plan for at least twice as long. Arturo was pragmatic and pigheaded. He had worked his way through the fields and into management at the packing plant, having learned the business from soil to shovel, crate to conveyor belt. They said he could spot a weak seedling in the nursery and among the various workers, whether they were pickers, packers, truckers or motherfuckers. He wore spotless white shirts tucked into creased khakis, and brushed at his grey mustache with a finger when he pretended to listen. He had taught himself to read, and gave books as presents at Christmas time. He drank too much during celebrations, but otherwise was sober. Nobody had ever seen him dance. Other than that, he was a Lopez through and through.
“So what was the number?” uncle Antonio asked, usually staying out of business discussions. He could barely read, and his older brothers and abuelo José Luis had always taken care of that end, the scrutiny of contracts, tax returns, machinery instructions. Now government regulations and compliances. There came a point when Antonio felt he could never get up to speed to enter the complexities of their ventures. His observations and input remained practical, avoiding his older brothers’ fights and rivalries. He preferred to control his own household. He had four daughters, and gave Arturo’s Christmas books to Javier, not wanting their pretty little heads filled with useless facts. He filled his own head with baseball, becoming the unchallenged expert on the subject, following the Dodgers, idolizing Fernando Valenzuela who had lived out Antonio’s sand lot dreams. He was the most athletic of the brothers, distinguishing himself further by choosing baseball over fútbol, which none of his siblings played. A rabid fan without any sons, he spoke of the Brewers Michoacán-born Yovani Gallardo like a proud papa. His main priority, aside from providing for his family, seemed to be watching “Béisbol Esta Noche” and arguing with the commentator Candy Maldonado, who he disliked for coming up with the Dodgers and then switching to the rival San Francisco Giants. Like most sports teams, Javier noticed that Uncle Arturo himself had much more confidence at home than away.
“Two hundred dollars per hectare, which isn’t bad” Arturo said, as if he had bargained with the cartel to drive that price down. In truth, it crippled their profits, and the family was making less now than when they had worked independently. Arturo reminded them all that it was better to own something and be your own boss. He promised they would make lots of money soon, showed them a ledger, offered to let them look at the spread sheets and projections.
Javier felt like he still had a boss, Uncle Arturo.
“What do they want now?” he asked, well versed in the long term goals and upside, the greater good and hope that came with being more than a field hand. But in the meantime, he knew every family member had cooked their nest egg and had less to spend on groceries. “Too much,” Arturo answered, eyes red from lack of sleep, a shade brighter than luvisol – crappy dirt that caused fungus and root rot on plants. Sometimes they called that soil “charanda” after the similarly colored local rotgut vanilla-tasting rum that alcoholics drink. Some had no sense, doomed their farms, their futures. Arturo had made sure that the family farm’s soil was “andosol” – sandy – perfect for maximum yield. He also had a small plot with some “regosol”, volcanic in its derivation, trucked in from Parícutin, one of the modern “7 Wonders of the World” which rose, spewed and became extinct in less than ten years as alarmed farmers watched and prayed. The last eruption was in the year Uncle Arturo was born. This grove was hallowed ground for him. Here he planted “criollos,” the original “alligator pear” that was much smaller than a Hass and had a large seed but was super creamy. It made premium guacamole. Mexican ambrosia. It was also thought to be an aphrodisiac. After all, the Aztec name for the avocado plant was Ahuacuatl, “the testicle tree,” and it was thought to go beyond the shape of the fruit or how they grew in well-endowed pairs.
Arturo thought he had thought of everything.
His uncle certainly knew about avocados, Javier granted. He remembered Arturo showing him how the skin of a criollo was edible, how you could tell another local varietal was ripe by shaking it and listening for the rattle of the pit inside. That the pits were mildly poisonous. And the Haas avocado was simply a varietal grafted onto the criollo by a postman in California, another American piggy-backing on the fruits of Mexico. Arturo constantly shared obscure avocado facts that Javier found himself spouting to his own children, indoctrinating them into the family business, “Did you know two mature trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four?”
“But there are five people in our family, Papa,” his eight-year-old daughter Isabel pointed out.
Javier could see her panic, thinking about who wouldn’t get to breath.
“We’ll plant more trees,” he soothed.
But now, because of those trees, he was the one thinking about who wouldn’t get to breath.
“Each good man must kill three bad men,” the youngest of his uncles, Juan Carlos, blurted into the conversation.
Outside of these meetings, his brothers rarely spoke with Juan Carlos. He didn’t care about avocados or baseball. He was a packer and driver who liked the ladies. A playboy. To pursue women most actively, he never married, telling himself there was always time for that. One day some chica would trap him, getting pregnant no doubt, but until then there would be a steady stream attracted to his good looks and good job. At least he thought so. He wore black cowboy boots with silver skulls on their tips. Once a week, he took special care to polish them.
“Then the next, and the next…” he continued into the deaf ears of his siblings. “Until the bad men ask if it is worth it?”
“What will each good man ask when they are dead?” aunt Migina, Arturo’s wife, interrupted, having come in to see if any of the men wanted coffee.
She looked from Juan Carlos to woeful Ricardo, who had a son, Miguel, who had recently vanished on his way home from work. Rumors spread that he was involved in drugs and that he had fled to America. But he hadn’t taken anything from his closet, including 200 pesos aunt Luisa, his mother, had found rolled into a pair of his socks.
“For God’s forgiveness,” Arturo replied, unable to look at Ricardo.
He secretly feared, like all of them, that his nephew’s disappearance had been a bargaining chip anted up early by the cartel before the real hand of business was to be played. Everyone knew Arturo was strong-willed and proud.
“They’ll ask for God’s forgiveness,” he repeated.
Arturo didn’t bother to take a vote, pretending it was a unanimous decision. He rubbed his mustache. They would continue to give the cartel a cut. But they would relinquish no more. And now, Javier saw Tweety Bird knife his slim body to the front of the crowd at the traffic circle. He had on the same greasy pants Javier had seen him in before, but his big-headed cartoon bird T-shirt had been switched for one with Monarch butterflies on it and the words “Reserva de la Biosfera.” This famous tourist attraction was one of Javier’s favorite places and he and Alma had taken the kids to the park many times. He had always been fascinated by the beautiful insects, one of the few species on the planet that migrated without having any of their group make the trip before them. No father, mother, uncle, grandfather. Four generations of Monarchs would live and die before they set out from Michoacán to California, some flying even further into Canada. Somehow they knew where to go. And something told them when to leave.
Javier caught himself staring. For an awful moment, he felt afraid that the boy would spot him.
What sort of man was fearful of a child?
Tweety Bird neither smiled nor grimaced at the spectacle, instead he gnawed a piece of corn on the cob slathered with butter and red pepper.
Javier scanned the growing legion of gawkers for Barrel Chest. It was scary to see the agreed upon distance that the group would come to the murdered bodies. Twenty feet. No closer. Some certainly had to have known the victims, but they dared not step forward any nearer than the strangers. None brave enough to take the tape from their loved ones eyes, unknot their bindings, to touch them or put an end to their public humiliation. The executions degraded them all equally, the living and the dead. A couple of bystanders took photos, one seeming to concentrate on the signs. Javier wondered whose hand had printed them. Tweety Bird and Barrel Chest didn’t seem capable of it. There must be a division of labor in the cartel as intricate as any major corporation where special death warning scrawlers were like copy writers in a public relations department, “Come to avocado country!” Javier had read that the average Mexican attended 7 years of school, just ahead of Slovenia and Kuwait. No wonder the signs were misspelled.
No Barrel Chest.
But Tweety Bird saw Javier.
What did it matter? He may not have truly recognized Javier. Just a shared glance. And he had only been in a store with the boy, that was all. He hadn’t witnessed any true crime. And who would he tell? The corrupt cops?
Tweety Bird took another bite of corn and slid back into the throng.
Javier found himself walking briskly towards his home, past a wall with a mural painted in bright colors that depicted a band of Pre-Columbian warriors holding giant avocado halves as shields, butterflies fluttered near their heads depicting confusion or royal crowns.
(This is the second of five parts of a novel “in progress” by Robert Mailer Anderson, author of the best-selling novel, Boonville.)