Buitre

Buitre

“Buitre,” Alberto says, squinting at the sun-drenched sky and pointing to the vulture as it makes parabolas in the bright morning. It’s nine o’clock, and we’ve been on the road for two hours.  Alberto is seated to my left in the rear of the big convertible—Nuri’s convertible. Beside Nuri, riding shotgun, is his friend Milstein. We met Nuri and Milstein only several days before, but that chance encounter turned out to be a lucky one, because it provided us with a place to stay for our weekend in Acapulco, and a free ride back to Mexico City.

It’s summer in Southern Mexico, and most people that Alberto and I have met have been friendly. After all, it’s the season to relax and a place where you don’t have to feel guilty doing so, although Buzz, who is sitting to my right, has had an anxious expression ever since he got into the car.  Even though he’s been asleep for over an hour, his eyelids and mouth show signs of tension.  Maybe he’s having a nightmare, or maybe his unconscious is dealing with real life fears. Or maybe it’s both.

Photo credit: "White-Backed Vulture" by sufw via Flickr
Photo credit: “White-Backed Vulture” by sufw via Flickr

Besides the vulture—a dark speck framed by a blue sky—there isn’t anything else that’s of much interest, although the desert in its sameness, seems to insinuate a furtive expectation—as though adventure and intrigue are bound to be the pay off for having to endure so much monotony. In Acapulco, we saw throngs of iguanas, basking in the sun or racing along the sand dunes. I’m not talking about puny pet shop lizards but huge five-foot long monster types.  We also watched scorpions making their determined way on the sand or across the road, and in the evening, we walked with our heads bent towards the ground, so we could look in front of us to avoid coming in contact with one.  But all that is past.

Now, a caravan of indifferent cumulus clouds drifts above us.  Nuri is turning the dial on the radio. A cacophony of sounds blares from the speakers: music, news reports, and tacky advertising jingles in Spanish. The two-lane highway we’re on is lightly traveled, although now and then a vehicle approaches from the opposite direction and then passes.  Whenever one gets close, we turn our heads and gaze to see who’s behind the wheel, as though someone interesting will reveal himself. A celebrity, perhaps.  Or maybe we’ll see a van transporting mysterious artifacts, like headstones or statuary. There are also trucks. Most are delivering live chickens, and are driven by farmers wearing straw cowboy hats.

“Hey, Nuri, man,” Alberto says, “Why don’t you find a station and stick with it.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Nuri says, turning the radio dial. “Mexican rock and roll!”

“How about the Rolling Stones?” Alberto says.

“Do I look like a deejay to you?” Nuri laughs and glances to his right at Milstein who begins singing in an off-key voice: “You gotta tell me you’re comin’ back to me…”

“Milstein, you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the car,” Nuri says. Milstein laughs and shuts up—as much for his own sake as ours.

We met Nuri and Milstein on Friday, about fifteen minutes after we got into Acapulco, shortly after we completed the last leg of our hitchhiking journey, courtesy of a wall-eyed guy in a red pick-up truck.  We had begun to casually stroll around town when Alberto sees two tall guys with straight, dark hair, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and bickering in English. The heavier one—who turned out to be Nuri—wore dress pants and a white wrinkled business shirt. He was lighting up a cigarette when Alberto walked up to him.

“Mind if I bum a cigarette?”

“What are you? A Jew?” Nuri asked.  We were both a bit weirded out. But then Nuri laughed and offered Alberto a smoke. After Alberto pulled one out of the pack, Nuri held out the pack towards me.

“I am a Jew,” I told him.  “Does that matter?”

“Just kidding,” Nuri said. He shook his head in mock exasperation. “This is Mexico.  You need to have a sense of humor.”

“I guess I’ll have one then,” I said, “even though I am Jewish.”

“I’m a Jew,” the guy with Nuri said. “Alex Milstein.”

Nuri took out a small box of matches, and lit our cigarettes.  I tried to pretend I was enjoying mine. It wasn’t easy since I didn’t smoke.

Alberto is my roommate for the summer back in Mexico City. We’ve been taking a program in Spanish language and culture at the Universidad Autónomo. Alberto is from Queens, New York, and doesn’t know Spanish any better than I do. But he has been using his name to advantage when socializing with the local senoritas. Nuri and Alex had rented an ‘hacienda” on a dingy beach, inhabited by elderly sun worshippers, packs of abandoned dogs, and lots of scorpions.  It had the beauty and charm of Brighton Beach, but to Alberto and me, it didn’t matter.  We were having an adventure.

Nuri and Milstein invited us to stay over at their rental. It was the last weekend of their month-long lease, so they didn’t mind a couple of extra bodies over for a few days. The place was big enough. It had a huge open-air living room with tropical vines growing along the adobe walls and two unused sofa beds that Nuri said were reserved to use for “chicks.” They were heading back to Mexico City in a couple of days, so we had a place to stay as well as a means to avoid the frustration of hitchhiking back.

When we climbed into Nuri’s convertible at seven a.m., he warned us the car couldn’t go over forty-five miles an hour because of the steering. That was OK with us. We’d still save a bunch of hours in travel time. Standing out in the sun with your thumb extended in the desert loses its romance pretty fast, as Alberto and I discovered on our trip down.  Nuri also told us he had to make a short stop along the way to take care of some legal business, but that too seemed a minor inconvenience, considering that in hitchhiking from Mexico City, we got stuck four or five times at isolated gas stations where all we got were suspicious glances when we asked for rides.  We even resorted to showing our student IDs to drivers that were filling up on gas, while we swore in the most humble and dignified tones that we were serious college students. Alberto even began reciting a poem by Garcia Lorca, which, if anything, proved to be detrimental to our cause, especially when one heavy-set guy pulled a 9-millimeter pistol from his glove compartment and trained it on us because he thought we might be lunatics.

So driving in a broken-down convertible in the heat felt like a luxury, even though we weren’t out of Acapulco more than five minutes when Nuri slowed to a stop and offered a ride to a hitchhiker. He was sporting a blonde crew cut, a t-shirt, and cut-off blue jeans. His standard hitchhiker uniform ended there, however, because he also had a cardboard sign pinned to his shirt that read “Mexico City” while between his thumb and forefinger, he stolidly held a glinting silver crucifix. His pose reminded me of the homeless people in Spain that would kneel frozen, and stare at the sky, their palms pressed together in prayer.  I thought that maybe it was a scheme to impress passersby that he was a member of some religious order.  He also had an iguana with a red kerchief tied around its neck–peacefully stretched out behind his head and over his shoulders.  When I absorbed the whole picture, I decided he wasn’t scamming. No one would go through all the trouble.

The stranger said his name was Buzz, and that he had to get back to Mexico City, fast, for his studies.
“Just like us,” Alberto had said. Buzz looked baffled, as if to imply, “What have I got to do with you.”
Nuri told Buzz to get in back, but said there wasn’t enough room for the iguana. Buzz stared at Nuri, hesitated, but then carefully pulled the iguana from his shoulders, and set it down by the roadside.  Then Buzz climbed into the back seat, next to me. As Nuri started up the car, Buzz turned and regarded the lizard wistfully, and stared at it until it was out of sight.

“Hey Nuri. You sure this car is going to make it back? I don’t want to end up being dinner for those buitres.”  Alberto points to the vulture again, which had now been joined by two companions.

“This goddamn car will get us there. It’ll take a bit longer, that’s all,” Nuri says.  He pauses a moment, then looks over at Milstein.  “What do you expect from a Jew car salesman? Right Milstein?”
Nuri has a playful grin on his face. We’re all supposed to know this is a game that Nuri and Milstein play, but it still feels uncomfortable.

“Salaam alechem,” Milstein says.  “You got a lot better deal on this car than Nasser got on those crap Russian tanks.”

“Next time…” Nuri begins, but Milstein interrupts him. “Next time it’ll take five days, not six.”

“What will? Alberto asks.

Milstein turns and looks at Alberto. “The war,” Milstein blares out, as though it should be obvious. He says it so loudly he startles Buzz awake.

“The war?” Buzz snaps. He looks around the car, trying to figure out who just shouted. He figures its Milstein.  “You talking about Vietnam?”

“The Six Day War in Israel,” Milstein says, with more exasperation than volume.

“Six day war? What war lasts six days? Are you fucking crazy?” Buzz says.

“Hey, relax.  You just woke up. We were just having a conversation,” Milstein says.

“What war you talking about?” Buzz says.  Now he leans forward toward Milstein.

“It’s too complicated. It’s nothing,” Milstein says.  “Relax.”

“You mean I’m too stupid?” Buzz says.

“It’s too damn hot to argue,” Nuri says. “Nothing to argue about, anyway.”

“They killed my brother,” Buzz says.

“Who?” Milstein says.

“Vietnam. That’s who.” Then Buzz is suddenly silent. I look at him. Something he’s considering makes him upset, something which he could never resolve. Everyone is quiet and tense. We’re all trying to figure out how to calm things down, but no one wants to be first.

“I’m so sorry,” Milstein says.  He turns and looks at Buzz.  Buzz is leaning back in his seat now.

“Hey,” Milstein says. “Hey, Buzz.  My man.  I’m really really sorry. When did it happen?”

“It didn’t fucking happen,” Buzz says.  Silence again.  Buzz looks at the sky, and the arid surroundings. There’s about five or six vultures now.  Buzz takes his hand, and configures his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a gun, then aims in the direction of the vultures.

“What I mean is, they killed him.  The U.S. government killed him. Sending him off to some bullshit country for some bullshit war.”

“I agree with that 100%,” Milstein says, his body twisted so he can look at Buzz. “The whole thing.

Bullshit.” Milstein puts out his hand. He’s offering it as a peace gesture. Buzz looks at him. He takes both his hands, and wraps them around Milstein’s, revealing a trace of appreciation as he does so.

“Are we almost there?”  Buzz says. “I’m going to have a heat stroke.”

Nuri glances at us in the rear view mirror. “You could have a lot worse things happen to you out here.”

Nuri returns his gaze up ahead, focusing on the cracked, paved road. The highway looks like a painting, rendered to suggest the viewer is streaming towards an undecipherable future.

“Like marrying a Mexican?” Milstein says.

“Funny man,” Nuri says. “Better than marrying a Jew.”

Milstein is about to respond, but instead points at a road sign, and reads it aloud.

“Tolu. Five kilometers. Isn’t that it?”

“That’s the place.” Nuri says, and sighs.

“What place?” Buzz says. “I thought we were going to Mexico City.”

“We are going to Mexico City.” Milstein turns around and looks at Buzz. “But first we have to stop off in Tolu, thanks to our A-rab friend over here.”

“What the fuck is that all about?” Buzz says. His confusion seems to have escalated. The  hostility in his voice causes the rest of us to fall silent again. The pause begins to stretch, like the long length of road. A small knot of tension seems to move from one of us to the next.  For the first time, I feel the heat. My pants feel stuck to the seat.

Milstein sighs, then blurts out, “Because Nuri has to put notices in the local papers because he just got divorced.”

“Notices?  What notices?” Buzz says.   He shrugs, and pulls out a switchblade and starts pressing the button release. A shiny blade spring out. He closes it shut with his right hand, and then repeats the action.

Finally, Nuri explains. “I have to place public notices in the local papers, stating I am no longer accountable for any debts my ex-wife incurs. It’s the law here. Have to place the notices in two newspapers published in the county where I got divorced. Right, Milstein? Milstein’s my lawyer.”

“Legal advisor,” Milstein corrects him. “I’m still in law school.”

“Goddamn,” Buzz says. “The only reason I took the ride is because you said you were driving back to Mexico City today. No one told me this was a broken-down car, or that we’d be taking a side trip. You already made me give up Michael.”

“Who’s Michael?” Nuri asks.

“My iguana.” Buzz emphasizes as though it should have been obvious, and for us to realize what a grim sacrifice it was.

“No one made you,” Nuri says.

“Nuri, shut up,” Milstein says. Then he and Nuri exchange hostile glances

“Time is of the essence,” Buzz says mechanically. “I have to be in seminary by tonight. Otherwise I’ll be in deep shit with the priests.”

“Priests?” Milstein says.

“Don’t mind Milstein,” Nuri says. “He’s a Jew.”

“Priests,” Buzz says “the guys with the white collars.”

Milstein stares at him quizzically.  He’s thinking the same thing I am, probably the same thing the rest of us are thinking. This guy is studying to be a priest?

Buzz becomes quiet, nods his head in disgust, leans back, and closes his eyes, but keeps the knife held in his hand. I wonder whether he’s going to nod off again and drop it on the floor, or worse, lean over in my direction, and accidentally stab me with it.

Another sign appears. This one simply says “Tolu” with a curved arrow pointing towards a turn-off. Nuri makes the turn, and we proceed down a narrow side road.

“Son of a bitch,” Nuri says, in a voice more to himself.  “Get myself into this mess.”

We arrive in town.  It has a zocalo with shade trees and a few shops and lots of outdoor vendors.  Nuri drives around for a few minutes, and then pulls up in front of a gray building with metal bars running vertically down the front of its two windows. A sign is displayed on the door that reads La Tierra. I smell the acrid odor of ink and hear a sound like a locomotive dynamo.

“The presses,” Alberto says.

“Me and Milstein are going inside. “ Nuri says.

“I’m his witness,” Milstein says.

“Witness for what?” Alberto asks.

“Witness to vouch that I’m me,” Nuri says. “I know as much as you do about it. It’s the law here, right Milstein?”

“Two forms of ID. One witness,” Milstein says.

“How long will this bullshit take?” Buzz says.

“This is Mexico. Who knows? You guys can take in the sights meanwhile,” Nuri says, as he and Milstein climb out of the car.

“What sights?” Buzz says.

“Try the municipal building. They have some kind of historical museum,” Nuri says,

“What about a church?” Buzz says.

“Ask Milstein,” Nuri says.  “He’d know. Milstein, where’s a church in this town?”  Milstein gives Nuri the finger as they ascend the five or six steps to the newspaper office, and disappear inside.

“Museum?” Alberto says. “Sounds good. That will make us bona fide turistas.”

“I don’t need to see any museum,” Buzz says, and just starts walking away.

“Where you going? Alberto says. Buzz stops and turns.

“Taking a walk. I’ll check back with you at city hall in a while. Don’t leave without me.” He offers a nod and continues walking, as though he has an apparent destination.

“Let’s buy some cokes and find a cool spot,” Alberto says.

We find a tiny store with a refrigerator and a small counter that serves as the cashier area. The interior is painted a drab green. We buy two cokes, and hand the money to a squat man that stands by an old cash register. I pull off the bottle cap on a metal opener secured to the refrigerator. Alberto follows suit and we both chug down the contents. Alberto takes another one from the refrigerator, and pays for it.

“In case this takes longer than it should,” he says.

“I’m going to be an optimist,” I say. We’re about to leave when Alberto turns to the owner.

“Museo?” Alberto asks. “Museo histórico?”

The man just shrugs.

Soon, Alberto and I walk through an archway, and find ourselves in the courtyard of the municipal building. We begin ambling along the walkway that frames its perimeter. The yard is just pebbles and dirt, and one forlorn tree, about the height of a man. The building is two stories high, and made of adobe. There are tall wooden doors placed about six feet apart, providing access to the various departments of the local government. Each door has a small sign indicating its sector.  We pass the first door whose sign designates “Impuestos,” and the second that states, “Seguros.”  We head over to a wooden bench that abuts the inner wall, and sit down.

“This has probably been in use since the time of Zapata,” Alberto says.

Seated, I notice the second floor has a walkway that juts out from the facade and helps to provide some shade. The side opposite us is baking, and I wonder if the sun will make its way to our side before Nuri gets done. A door opens at the far right end of the second-floor catwalk, and a man in a green uniform steps out. At first, he gives me the impression he’s a soldier. He walks slowly along the railing, his hand gliding along the handrail until he reaches the center, directly opposite us. He stops and stares down at us. I notice he has a badge pinned to his shirt, and figure he must be a police officer. He has a hint of wariness in his eyes, which belies his casual demeanor.

“We have company,” Alberto says.  Alberto takes a coin from his pocket, and manages to bend open the bottle cap with it.  He brings his coke bottle to his lips and gulps down the contents in two long swallows.

“Guess we’re his entertainment,” I say.

Alberto regards his empty coke bottle, and then places it next to him on the bench.

“This place could use a few trash cans,” I say.

Alberto looks up at the sentry. I can judge by Alberto’s eye movements that he’s examining the man’s weaponry.

“I wonder if I threw this coke bottle in the air, he’d pull out a gun and shoot it before it hit the ground,” Alberto says.

“You’ve seen too many Westerns,” I say. I try to imagine Nuri and Milstein at the newspaper office, and wonder how long they’ll take. I think about Buzz roaming the town, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine what he could be doing.

“Be ironic if it turns out they all leave without us,” Alberto says.

“Why don’t we save the irony for literature class?” I say.

Suddenly we hear a door creaking open and slamming shut.  We turn our heads and look above us. Between the walkway slats, another sentinel has appeared

“Turistas!” the guard across the yard shouts at his partner, as he points to us. Alberto and I look upwards, and see the face of the second guard staring down at us, his head peeking out from the railing. He seems taller and slimmer than the first one, and sports long sideburns and slicked-back hair—like a Mexican version of James Dean. He looks up towards his companion and shrugs.

“Cigarrillo?” he gestures with a victory sign across the open space. The first officer reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and begins to retrieve a smoke. He seems to change his mind, returns the cigarette to the pack, and calls towards me.

“Oye, muchacho,” he says, then gives a “come closer” motion with his hand.  I get up and walk towards his side of the square.

“Give him it.” He nods to indicate his buddy, then tosses the pack over the railing, and luckily, I catch it.

I look at Alberto, shrug, and walk back across the yard and look up.

“Aquí, chico,” the guard above us says. I make an underhand toss.  The pack just manages to reach the top of the railing, and he catches it with one hand. He smiles, extracts a cigarette from the pack, puts it between his lips.  He takes out a small box of matches from his pants pocket and strikes up.

“Hey,” he calls to me. He points a finger at the cigarette pack and smiles down at me, a gesture of offering me a smoke.

“No fumo,” I yell.  He nods, then takes a deep inhale of his cigarette and exhales slowly, a show of how much he is enjoying it, and how much I’m missing out.

“I guess you’ve become their valet,” Alberto says.

“Oye,” the guard says. I look up again and he tosses the pack down to me. Then he points to the owner of the cigarette pack.  I walk across the yard again, toss it up. The first officer nods, puts the pack back in his pocket, and I walk back to the bench, and sit down.

“What about that museum?” Alberto says. He seems hotter and more fatigued.

“What about it?” I say.

Alberto stands and shouts across the quad at the officer.

“Museo?” Alberto asks.

“Cómo?” the guard says, and puts his hand to his ear.

“Museo?  Museo Histórico?” Alberto shouts.

The guard looks at him oddly, then shouts to his partner.

“Museo Histórico!” They both start laughing. Then he turns around, unbuttons his pants, and manages to lower them, gun belt and all.

“Aquí!” he says, pointing to his butt. I can hear hilarious laughter from his friend. The guard pulls up his pants and buttons himself and laughs.

“Museo Histórico!” he shouts to his friend again.

“Fuck. Maybe somebody inside knows,” I say.  I get up and walk to the closest door.

“That’s the police chief,” Alberto says, pointing to the sign by the door.

“Well, he should know,” I say.  I get up and walk up to the door. Before I open it, I look to see whether the guards are observing me, but we seem to have exhausted our entertainment value for them. However, I notice a few black specks high above us. Vultures. There seem to be a lot of them now.

I open the door marked “Jefe de Policía,” walk in, and carefully shut the door behind me. My eyes struggle to see something besides shadows. It’s like suddenly entering sunlight after being in the dark, but in reverse. As my eyes adjust, I notice that on the opposite wall there are two gun racks. One has about a dozen ancient rifles mounted vertically inside it. The other rack is nearly identical, but the guns appear to be of a newer vintage. I hear papers shuffling. I turn and realize I’m less than six feet from the Chief of police, who sits at an old wood desk spotted with burnt cigarette marks. He’s stopped his routine and stares at me.

“Dígame!” he says.

“Museo? Museo histórico?”

“Está loco?” he says. He holds his side holster as he rises from his seat.

I point at the antique guns, but this just makes the Chief more wary.  I try to think of something clever to say, but suddenly I hear gunfire outside. Then screaming and shouting. The Chief stares at me, then bolts from his desk and runs to the edge of the doorway. He glances outside, then pulls out his revolver, and starts running in the direction of the commotion. I wait a few seconds, then run outside as well. The bench where Alberto was sitting is deserted except for the empty bottle of coke. I look at the second floor landing. The police officers are gone as well. I see a glimpse of the Chief as he reaches the open archway at the end of the square, and disappears to the left.

I start running in the same direction until I’m outside the quadrangle. A few feet from the outer walls, the two deputies have Buzz on the ground, and incapacitated. Buzz’s face is pressed into the dirt while one guard has his knees pinning Buzz’s shoulders, and the other one is handcuffing him. Alberto is standing a few feet from the struggle. When he sees me, he points to a spot about four feet from Buzz’s left hand, where a revolver lies in the road.

The Chief sees me; he pulls out his weapon, and motions me to the wall. I move towards it unhesitatingly. Then the Chief spins me around, until my face is against the wall and he frisks me. He lets me go and starts talking to his men.  The three of them are talking very fast, and I hear the words “pistola,” “disparó,” “hijo de puta,” and “hijo de la chingada.”  With his face in the ground, Buzz can’t say anything. The Chief picks up the revolver, smells the barrel, opens the cylinder, and knocks out the shells, then sticks it in his waist.

“Friend?” the Chief asks Alberto. Before Alberto can answer, Nuri’s convertible suddenly approaches, pulls up, and stops. Nuri and Milstein get out.

When the Chief sees Nuri, he displays a look of recognition. Nuri shakes the Chief’s hand and begins to talk to him in a way that suggests they’re acquainted. The guards pick up the handcuffed Buzz and lean him against the wall. He’s got a slow trickle of blood running from his nose, but otherwise looks all right. The Chief is in a huddle, conferring with Nuri in Spanish. After a few minutes, they both walk over to Buzz.

“The Chief wants to know what you were shooting at,” Nuri says.

Buzz looks at each of them, and then he looks at the rest of us: Milstein, me, Alberto, and the two officers.

“The vultures,” Buzz says. “I was shooting at the vultures.”

Nuri turns to the Chief and translates. The Chief laughs, says something to Nuri.

“The Chief says there’s no way you could hit those vultures. He wants to know if you’re crazy.

“I’m not crazy,” Buzz says. “I want justice, that’s all.”

Nuri confers with the Chief, then looks at Buzz.

“Justice for what? Nuri asks.
Buzz breathes deeply. He looks at the sky. The vultures are gone.

“For my brother,” Buzz says.

Now Milstein joins Nuri and Buzz.

“Your brother?” Milstein says. “You told us what happened to him.  How can you get justice for him out here, man?” Milstein for the second time puts his arm on Buzz’s shoulder.
Buzz and Milstein look at one another for a minute. No one is talking. Then, Milstein starts nodding.

“OK, I get it. I get the deal,” Milstein says.

“I’d sure like to know the deal,” Nuri says. So would the Chief. Milstein looks at Buzz. He widens his eyes, a signal that suggests he’s telling Buzz to start talking.

“Justice for the bastards that killed my brother. I looked at those vultures, and I thought of those bastards in Washington, and then they merged together. So I started shooting, imagining I’d get revenge for my brother.”

“How could you…?” Nuri begins, but Milstein cuts him off.

“He was pretending,” Milstein said.  Then to Buzz, “Right Buzz? You were making believe.”

“Of course I was pretending. You think I’m crazy? I know I can’t save him. I know I can’t pay back the people that sent him away, but I can imagine it, can’t I? I can at least pretend. Maybe he’s looking down at me from someplace up there, and wondering what I’m thinking.  Maybe he’s watching me, and now maybe he understands how I feel, how I’d do anything to bring him back.”

“Hey Buzz,” Milstein says. Buzz looks at him.  “I understand, man.  I understand.”

“How come?” Buzz says

“Because I’m Jewish.”

Buzz looks at Milstein. He hasn’t a clue.

“Yeah, why not?” Buzz finally says.

Nuri walks to the Chief and begins conferring with him. He’s explaining the situation. The Chief is listening and as he does, he glances at Buzz. The Chief nods with dawning enlightenment. He shakes his head, indicating how crazy he finds the situation. He says a few words to Nuri, who then walks over to Buzz.

“He wants to know where you got the gun.”

“Some street vendor. He said I could own a part of old Mexico,” Buzz says
Nuri tells the Chief. The Chief pulls out the gun from his belt, looks at it, laughs, and says something to Nuri.

“The Chief says it’s an old Russian gun. And he says it’s a piece of shit.”

Buzz shrugs. The Chief signals one of the guards to uncuff Buzz. Key in hand, the James Dean guard turns Buzz around, and unlocks the handcuffs. Buzz rubs his wrists. The Chief takes something from his pocket. It’s a coin. The Chief looks at it, massages it with his thumb and forefinger, and then hands it to Buzz. Then the Chief turns and speaks to Nuri so he can translate.

“The Chief says to take that as a souvenir. It’s a Zapatista coin. It’s like 70 years old. He says it’s a part of Mexican history. It’s money the revolutionaries coined when they were trying to liberate the country. He says it brings good luck.”

Buzz takes the coin from the Chief’s extended palm, and examines it, as Nuri and the Chief cautiously watch. Buzz nods, and looks pleased. We all begin to calm down, until Nuri and the Chief start a conversation that soon escalates into an argument. I can see each of us has the same thought: “Now what?”

“Let’s get out of here,” Nuri says suddenly. Then he turns to Buzz.

“He’s letting you go, Buzz.  He just wants for all of us to get the hell out of town, fast.”

With that, we climb into Nuri’s convertible—each of us resuming the same seating arrangement–and

Nuri starts pulling away from the municipal building.

“Son of a bitch,” Nuri says.

“Who?” Alberto says.

“Tell him, legal genius,” Nuri tells Milstein.

“The notices. We couldn’t get them approved,” Milstein says.

“You mean we stopped for nothing?” Alberto says.

Buzz mumbles something, but none of us can make it out.

“What?” we all say simultaneously. We’re all concerned about him, and a bit wary.

“Not for nothing,” Buzz says. Everyone becomes silent, each of us thinking about what Buzz is saying.

“Two forms of ID and a witness, right Milstein?” Nuri says.  “But the witness has to be a Mexican. A Mexican citizen.”

“Hey, I’m just a law student,” Milstein says.  “I didn’t know about the citizen part.”

“Prick,” Nuri says.

“You could have asked the Chief to be a witness,” Alberto says.

“I did.  He told me he had his fill of doing favors for us. He told me to come back another time—by myself,” Nuri says.

“That’s it?” Alberto says.  We’re back on the two-lane highway now.

“He also said ‘that’s what I get for marrying a Mexican.’”

“What does that mean?” Alberto says.

“How the hell do I know?”

Then Nuri focuses ahead on the road, and just drives in silence. No one else seems to have anything to say either. The car sputters ahead at 45 miles an hour.  I look at the expanse of sky.  It looks pretty much the same.  Only there aren’t any vultures. At least none for the time being.

Alan Gerstle

Alan Gerstle

Alan Gerstle has written poetry, short fiction, essays, and plays, and worked as a free-lance editor for college-level humanities textbooks. He has published poetry, fiction, and essays in literary and educational journals. His one-act plays were performed in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. He lives in the Northeastern United States.

Alan Gerstle has written poetry, short fiction, essays, and plays, and worked as a free-lance editor for college-level humanities textbooks. He has published poetry, fiction, and essays in literary and educational journals. His one-act plays were performed in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. He lives in the Northeastern United States.

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