The Bard of Santa Gertrudis


Dan Harvey Pedrick

"Horacito... get up, Darling, it's time to get ready for school. You'll have to use a candle. The power is off again."

Horacio's mother put the candlestick on the little wooden stand beside his bed. He rolled over and groaned, pulling his blankets up against the January chill. Horacio hated going to school lately, not only because early mornings were so cold this time of year, but because the other kids had taken to giving him a pretty rough time.

"Gordito" they called him, Little Fatty. Even Herlinda Muñoz called him that, which really hurt, because he had written some of his best poems to her. Of course, he had written some very good poems to Marisela Miranda just before Christmas, not to mention the Quintero twins, Chepa and Chuy. But never had he revealed his literary creations to the sources of their inspiration. He could no sooner do that, due to his shyness, than show them the rigid phallus that he now began to fondle under his blanket, a ridiculous little creature that dwelt in the folds of baby fat below his belly and always seemed to wake up before he did.

Horacio wasn't sure what it was that made him awaken engulfed in heartbreaking waves of desire every morning, whether it was the sight of his mother dressing herself in front of him, as she customarily did, or the constant parade through his mind of the images of his many loves at school and in the plaza. But he rarely got out of bed until he had taken hold of that featherless

little rooster of his and pleasantly wrung its neck, something that his mother either did not notice or chose to ignore. She just sat in front of her vanity mirror in the room she shared with her youngest son, preening and brushing her long, henna-tinted hair, occasionally uttering orders and encouragement to Lupita as the poor cousin and unofficial servant to the family shuffled around in the kitchen preparing breakfast.

María José Villavicencio Romero was past forty, although she was still an attractive woman, in Horacio's opinion. Even the extra weight she now carried could not conceal the pleasing curve of her shoulders, her straight back, her full, pear-shaped breasts and round hips. Her face was beginning to show some creases, but still retained the wide and open quality that, together with her other facial features--large eyes, aquiline nose and full lips--had made her the most unforgettable Carnival Queen the village of Santa Gertrudis had ever seen. That was well before Horacio was even born, of course, but he had heard the story so many times that he carried the memory of it as though it were his own. His mother was, in fact, quite sexy, although she was rarely known to have a lover in the ten years since she announced to her friends in a somewhat inscrutable tone that she had become a widow. Horacio was glad of that.

No one ever remembered a funeral for her late husband. He just seemed to fade away after taking a job in Alta California, leaving María José with three sons. The older two, Heráclio and Rigoberto, followed in their father's footsteps and disappeared from the profound isolation of the peninsula into that much greater California to the north. It was rumored that Rigoberto was in prison. Of Heráclio's career little was known, although he wrote occasionally and even sent money.

Horacio was just a baby when his father left. He had yet to sleep in any other bedroom than the one that he shared with his mother for the thirteen years since his birth, although there were plenty of others in the sprawling hacienda-style house that had been the Villavicencio home for longer than anyone could remember. Most of those rooms were shut, however, full of junk and the fine, gritty dust that covers everything in Baja California and smells of lizards, cactus, and a faint odor of putrefaction.

Old Fadrique, María José's father and Horacio's grandfather, was still the breadwinner of the family although now past eighty. Years ago, after he had retired from farming, he had converted one of the rooms of the house that faced the street into a changarro, a little store that sold packaged food, some local produce, beer, and cigarettes. He decorated the walls and ceiling with braided strings of garlic that travellers often bought for no other reason than their visual appeal.

Another story that had been engraved in Horacio's memory was how his grandfather had left Santa Gertrudis for a time when just a young boy of twelve. It came about after Fadrique's father died and his older brothers began to quarrel violently over the matter of the inheritance. Hoping to narrow down the competition, his brothers sent Fadrique to live with an uncle in Alta California who resided in a village north of Los Angeles called Hollywood, ostensibly to receive a better education. There, Fadrique was enrolled in a public elementary school where he quickly learned English. But soon he was distracted from his formal studies by the increasing demands of the part-time job he had landed working for a fledging film production company that was turning the streets of the sunny little town into a dream factory.

Fadrique was first hired on as a mere errand boy, but before long he was acting minor parts in scenes with Mary Pickford, Doug Fairbanks, and even the boss himself, an acrobatic little Englishman whose name was Charlie Chaplin. Soon Fadrique became obsessed with the idea of movie acting and show business, practicing song and dance routines in his spare time, much to the bewilderment of his uncle.

By 1919, Fadrique's career was starting to show the same tendency for early success as the newborn film industry itself when he began to receive offers from other companies. But destiny intervened in the form of a tragic epidemic which, for a few bad months, resembled the great plagues of the Middle Ages, darkening even the sunny California skies with a pall of death. In the same week, the flu claimed Fadrique's uncle in Hollywood as well as his disputatious older brothers in Santa Gertrudis.

The good news was that he was now the sole heir to his father's fortune. More bad news, however, came in the realization that he was still a minor and not a citizen of the U.S. Therefore, he was obliged to leave the country immediately and apply for a visa from without if he wished to return. As it turned out, he went home to Santa Gertrudis to think about things and promptly fell so deeply in love with his cousin, María Dolores Meza, that he married her and gave up forever all thought of returning to Hollywood.

Now, a longtime widower in his dotage (which was the only way Horacio had ever known him) he wandered around the interior of the crumbling old house in a shirt, loose flowered undershorts, and rubber flip-flops, muttering obscenities and playing with himself.

"C'mon, little man," said Horacio's mother getting up from her vanity in her lace-trimmed slip. "Can't you smell those tortillas Lupita has going?" She sat down on the edge of his bed and stroked her son's face.

"I love you, Mama," Horacio said with a sigh. Then he jumped out of bed and wrapped himself in a dressing gown.

The smell of fresh corn tortillas and hot olive oil shifted his appetite over to the gastric mode. At the breakfast table he ate three eggs, a stack of tortillas, a mountain of fried potatoes, and several lengths of chorizo sausage, all smothered under an avalanche of ranchero sauce. All this he washed down with several cups of instant coffee.

During his meal both women waited on him, Lupita preparing and placing the food in front of him, María José tying a large napkin around his neck. Afterwards he returned to the bedroom to put the finishing touches on his appearance. He took a long shower, then carefully combed a mousse-like substance into his hair which was thick, wavy, black--and now very shiny. Although the hair dressing had quite a strong scent of its own, he splashed himself with cologne water as well. A freshly ironed white shirt appeared in Lupita's hand just at the moment of need.

He picked up his books, kissed his mother on the lips, ignored Lupita, and walked out the door into the cool, sunny air of the village. Groups of children scurried through the unpaved, dusty streets heading towards Manuel Pineda Secondary School.

"Gordito!" cried some boys, waving for him to catch up. Horacio deliberately lagged behind. He knew they only wanted him closer so they could tease and pound on him, messing up his clean shirt and pushing him to the brink of tears. When he noticed another unfriendly group catching him up from behind, he took evasive action. Cutting away from the street, he followed a narrow path that climbed a steep bluff separating his neighborhood from the schoolhouse. He would feel safe once he was within sight of it.

When he reached the top of the bluff he was sweating and breathing hard. He sat down for a moment on a pile of bricks and watched some workmen mixing mortar. "What is it?" he finally asked them.

"Satellite dish," answered one as he approached the pile of bricks with a wheelbarrow and motioned for Horacio to move.

He got up and walked on, taking in the view. From there he could see almost the entire oasis along which the town of Santa Gertrudis was laid out. He could see the estuary, the highway bridge, the dam, the mission and the vast date orchards the Jesuits had planted more than two centuries ago. And he could see the Plaza 16 de septiembre, the main plaza of the town where he loved to go and watch the beautiful young girls promenade in the evenings. Glancing around one last time, he began the quick descent to the schoolyard arriving well ahead of the others.

Saturday evening was the best time for the plaza, in Horacio's opinion, although any night could be worth going. But on Saturday the promenade developed its greatest momentum, and the girls were all turned out in their latest and best. As always, Horacio took great care in readying himself for the occasion, but he was careful to arrive after eight o'clock when the attention of all present was focused on the goings-on. He slipped into the crowd unnoticed and quietly took a seat on a bench.

Next to him sat an ancient, tatterdemalion fellow known only as "el Marroquín," reputed to have once owned a great fortune. His senility or feeble-mindedness had not yet erased his appreciation of female beauty, and the spectacle of the plaza was the one thing that seemed to distract him from his only other activity of counting on his fingers with profound concentration. On the next bench sat Sergio Mayoral, a married farmer as notorious for his many love affairs as for his fierce fighting cocks, one of which latter he now held tenderly on his lap. He carressed its irridescent feathers with large, calloused hands while his latest paramour, the portly Beatriz Arce, sat by his side and looked on, enthralled. A jingle of spurs and bit chains drew momentary attention to Antonio and Salvador Higuera riding their horses around the outside of the plaza, decked out in all their vaquero gear. And all the while, the girls and boys strolled slowly past each other, looking, whispering, and yearning to find their other heart.

As he watched all this from his bench, Horacio was hoping to spy Cata Hinojosa, his current favorite. She had almost two years on his own thirteen and had celebrated her quinceañera, her coming out party, only last week. Horacio had been invited. And when he saw her exquisitely made up doll-like face, her cleavage peeking through the lace ruffle of her new dress, and heard her gay, melodic repartees as her womanly beauty was sincerely praised by the guests during the affair, he once again fell hopelessly in love. That night he went to the salon in his house where the TV was kept but never turned on and stayed up past midnight writing and re-writing his poem of love to her. By the time he had worked it over again for an hour or two on Sunday night, he suspected it might be his finest composition yet.

The next Saturday night he sat in the plaza once again and tried to summon up the courage to give it to her along with an attached note asking to meet with her privately. He had both documents carefully folded together in his shirt pocket with her name written on the outside of the packet. But he didn't have the nerve to get up and walk around, he was so certain that he would be laughed at by the others. When Cata glanced at him, which she seldom did, he tried to discern some sign of encouragement that might move him to his feet, to action, but there was none. As he had done so many times before, he left the plaza with the letter still in his pocket, rather than in the hand of the addressee.

Which was all the more regrettable, Horacio felt, because his talent as a poet was not inconsiderable. His family carried an artistic streak, after all. Old Fadrique, whose Hollywood history and occasional rousing guitar and song performances were well known to almost everyone in Santa Gertrudis, was not the only example of this. There was also Horacio's great uncle Amador, now deceased, who was a declamador , an orator whose fame extended even to faraway mainland Mexico.

With Amador's fortyish bachelor son, Homero, Horacio had formed a special bond. He would often go to the home of his older cousin and only male friend and with him share his entire artistic burden. Line by line they would go over his verse, critiquing it together. From there, the topic of conversation often opened up to include the broader subject of poetry itself, and Homero would end up regaling his younger cousin with spirited readings of the Castilian poets, and sometimes even the French Provençals and the Italians. The current object of Horacio's desire also was painfully analyzed in these discussions--as was his chronic lack of courage.

"There is nothing wrong with this poem," Homero would say, over and over. "You must get over this silly bashfulness of yours. Believe in the power of your words. That's what you put into them all those nights of agonizing and longing... Power! The power to evoke a woman's emotion, to make her realize that your love for her is the most valuable thing in the world. But you've got to walk up to her like a man and hand it to her, I tell you! Otherwise, your verses might as well be written on the wind."

"Look, I just can't!" Horacio finally blurted out one night, his voice breaking with emotion.

"And why not, for the sake of Holy Mary?"

"Because I am afraid the other boys will humiliate me in front of her, that's why. I can't defend myself against them with these... these words. They will hit me and knock me down."

Homero could see that Horacio was truly upset. "OK, OK, Horacio," said Homero, patting the boy on the back reassuringly. "Just let me think about this for a while, OK? Go home and work on that meter problem we talked about and I'll see you tomorrow."

With a tremulous sigh, Horacio gathered himself up and bid his mentor goodnight. Homero stood in the doorway of his house and watched his portly young cousin walk out into the street, cut through the tiny Plaza Benito Juárez with its stagnant watering trough full of green algae, and disappear behind the CONASUPO store. "The kid has talent," Homero muttered to himself. "He just doesn't know it yet--but he will soon."

When the two cousins met again Homero seemed confident. "OK, Horacio, my son, here's what you gotta do. First, tell me the name of one of those guys that you're worried about, one who's the greatest threat to you--and whose tail he is chasing."

Horacio didn't have to think long for an answer. In the countless hours he had spent on his bench he had observed every heart throb and every snub that had passed among the would-be young lovers as they encountered each other in their concentric orbiting of the plaza. In fact, he knew their desires better than they did themselves. "Apolinar Monroy!" he answered. "He's in love with Herlinda Muñoz--but she doesn't love him."

"Perfect," said Homero, "absolutely perfect. So, now you're going to offer him a chance to change all that."

"I am?" replied Horacio. "But... how?"

"By offering to write the poem that will win her over. You will sell it to him for, say, fifty pesos. Tell him he doesn't have to pay you if it doesn't work. But I guarantee it will, because I will help you write it."

Horacio thought for a moment. "What if it works but he doesn't pay me?" he asked.

"Leave that to me," said Homero, "I know his father. Now, listen," he went on, "Apolinar walks by here every Saturday afternoon after he finishes working in Juan the Gringo's vineyard. Next time you'll be sitting on the step out front. You call him over and lay it out. Got it? I'll be right here behind the shutter of this window listening to you."

Horacio was stunned by the sheer audacity of Homero's plan. Thinking about it over the next few days terrified him to the point of almost getting sick. But what if it worked? Considering that possibility produced a feeling of exhilaration in him that he had never felt before.

Somehow Horacio found the courage to take a seat on the step in front of Homero's house the next Saturday afternoon. Before long he saw Apolinar coming along, just as Homero said he would. Apolinar was carrying his shirt as he ambled along in the afternoon sunshine, his brown muscular body still glistening from the sweat of his exertions for Juan the Gringo. "Here he comes," he whispered to Homero, still not sure if he was brave enough to actually call out to him.

"Speak out! Now!" hissed Homero from inside.

Apolinar was already looking at him. It was now or never. "Listen, Apolinar! Come here, I want to talk to you." Horacio's own voice sounded to him like someone else's and far away--but he had done it.

"What you want, Gordito? I'm busy."

Horacio cleared his throat and tried to make his voice sound deeper. "It... It's not what I want, Apolinar. It's about what you want."

Apolinar came closer, puzzled and provoked by Horacio's un-characteristic tone. When he was very close he stopped, glaring, and said, "How do you know what I want, you fat little turd?"

Horacio's heart was pounding like a captive bird's. He ignored the insult and went on quickly, trying not to stammer. "You want Herlinda Muñoz to be your novia , your girlfriend, right?" he blurted out. "Well, I can show you how."

The dull-witted Apolinar was momentarily struck dumb by that bold utterance, articulating as it did the matter that had been playing on his mind that very moment. He nodded brusquely for Horacio to continue.

"You just give her this," said Horacio, and handed him the poem, beautifully written out on a piece of bonded stationery paper.

Apolinar slowly took the copy and stared at it for a few moments. Then he passed it back. "What's it say?" he said.

"You want me to read it to you?" asked Horacio.

"That's right, Gordito. Read it to me."

"OK," he said, "Here goes." Horacio cleared his throat, sighed deeply, and began to read:

"Is it because of who I am

that you reject me?

Because I am of humble birth

you can't respect me?

May not I sing at your window grate

like those rich snobs I've come to hate?

Give me a chance and I'll show you

a love far better, and more true.

For I know that deep inside your soul

you must realize I adore you more

than life itself.

And when you admit this to yourself

you might love me half as much

and make my life worth living again."

When Horacio finished he looked up at Apolinar who was staring intently back at him--with admiration or murderous intent he was not sure which. "You don't have to read it, you just give it to her," said Horacio quickly. "If it works you pay me fifty pesos. If it doesn't, well... just forget it."

Apolinar stared dumbly at Horacio, then at the poem. Finally, he slowly took the sheet of paper in his hand, turned and walked away. With quaking knees, Horacio slipped back through the door into the waiting congratulatory embrace of Homero.

The following Saturday Horacio waited once again on his cousin's doorstep for Apolinar Monroy, either to collect his bill or to flee from him in terror. At the expected moment Apolinar appeared, but this time Horacio didn't need to hail him. He could see the young man was already making a beeline for Homero's place and with a spring in his step that had not been there before. He walked up to Horacio and paused. Once again Horacio could hear his own heart beating. Then Apolinar Monroy put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a fifty peso note and handed it over. "Thank you, Horacio," he said, and turned and walked discreetly away.

Once again there followed a quiet celebration in Homero's house, this one enhanced by a dusty bottle of local muscatel that the older poet opened for the occasion. He poured the contents ceremoniously into two small goblets. "This is just the beginning," he said ebulliently to his younger cousin as they raised their glasses, "just the beginning."

Within a couple of months the level of romantic excitement in the main plaza of Santa Gertrudis had risen dramatically. For example, Apolinar Monroy and Herlinda Muñoz were seen to stroll arm in arm there almost every night and their parents had begun to hold preliminary talks. Graciela Jordán and Serafín Saba suddenly became inseparable after a long estrangement, as did Ramona Tauncer and Epifanio Mayoral. Even Candelaria Benomea and Reyes Rivas de la Torre, whose familes had been feuding for so long they couldn't even remember what it was about, were rumored to be so hopelessly fond of each other that they were planning to elope to La Paz.

But the suddenly unleashed power of Horacio's verse was perhaps best appreciated in the case of the two Jesusitas and Quirino Quintero. Quintero had pursued Jesusita Aguilar without success for almost two years and was believed to be near suicide when he finally contracted with Horacio to write the poem of his life to the object of his obsession--which Horacio did, and did well. But when Quirino quailed at delivering the vital document himself, he contracted for outside services again, this time with little Pepito Verdugo, who got mixed up and delivered it to Jesusita Aguiar instead. Quirino was so beside himself with joy when he received a positive answer to his request signed "affectionately, Jesusita," that not even the sight of the wrong girl waiting at for him at the rendezvous could cast him back into the depths of his late despair. He just quietly decided to let it go and accept a new reality.

But for none of these fortunate beneficiaries of Horacio's talent did life improve as much as it did for the young poet himself. Almost overnight he had gained the great respect that he always believed he deserved. The unpleasant epithet "Gordito" was never hurled at him again, at least not by anyone who mattered. Now it was always "Horacio, excuse me..., Horacio, please..., Horacio, thank you." He regularly strolled to school the long way and his schoolmates jostled each other to walk near him. At home, he announced to his mother and Lupita that he was moving into the study next to the salon of the silent television. María José began to cry at the news. "Horacito," she sniffled, embracing him, "my Horacito, you are no longer my little boy. What ever will we do without you?"

"We'll watch TV," interjected Lupita, earning a reproving glance from María José.

"It's all right, Mamacita," Horacio replied soothingly. "I'm still here and I still love you. I just want to have my own room now. As for the TV, Lupita," he chuckled, "it doesn't work, remember?"

Horacio was well aware that the televison in the salon, along with the other couple of dozen sets that gathered dust in various Santa Gertrudis homes since they were brought in several years ago, did not work because the nearest transmitting station was too far away, across the Sea of Cortes on the mainland. Only when there was a high layer of cloud--a rarity--did the reception approach an acceptable quality, and then it only lasted for an hour or so.

"Well, they're going to fix all that," Lupita said quietly.

"How?" replied Horacio and his mother at the same time.

Lupita seemed surprised to have the attention of both of them at once. "They're building something on the hill," she said with a shrug, unable to elaborate any further.

María José made a gesture of dimissal towards Lupita with her hand. "Enough of your nonsense, Lupita" she said. "Now get cleaning up that study for Horacio. You heard him say he wants to move in there."

The next Saturday night Horacio was in his new room getting ready to go to the plaza. Lupita had cleaned everything thoroughly and Horacio had re-arranged a few things to suit himself. For example, he moved the writing desk out of the dark corner where Lupita had put it and placed it in front of the tall window that provided a glimpse of the street. He moved the ancient crucifix on the wall to a location over the fireplace so that he could not see it as he lay in bed. He fixed the latch on the door so that he could secure it from the inside.

As he dressed himself, he walked slowly around his new abode, viewing it from every conceivable angle until he was satisfied with everything. When he finished, he sat down in a heavy wooden rocking chair. He ignited some scraps of paper and wood in the fireplace, and stared into the flames.

For the first time in his life Horacio felt that he might be on the verge of becoming a man. And now that he had gained a sense of confidence in himself and in the power of his art, he wanted to use it to win a love of his own. The only problem was, since he had successfully won the hearts of so many local girls--for others--he no longer fancied them himself in the same way.

Somehow, seeing them surrender to the promises of love his lines of verse proclaimed had taken the edge off his painful, delicious desire for them. It was not that he had lost all his ardor. Far from it. But now, the images of the girls of Santa Gertrudis, the faces and forms that had haunted his waking moments so completely before--at least the ones who had fallen under the spell of his poetry--had become hazy and indistinct.

He tried to visualize other girls from other places, girls he had not met, girls whose lips had never called him "Gordito," incomparably beautiful girls, like the film actresses Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish that Fadrique used to whisper to him about when out of earshot of María José. Those stories had excited him very much but he always shied away from his grandfather when he talked of such things--the old man did so often--because Horacio was a little afraid of him, afraid of what might happen if he carried on in that vein for too long.

When the flames died down he got up, opened his door and walked across the patio into the kitchen. He fished a piece of still warm chicken out of the stewpot and ate it, carefully holding it over the sink so that the drippings would fall there and not on his immaculate white shirt. He finished off another one in the same way, rinsed his mouth with a swig of soda water, and carefully wiped his lips with a tea towel. With one last wistful glance into the stewpot, he walked out through the corridor, into the street and headed for the plaza.

It was early yet. The sun had set but the shops were still open around the plaza. At Provedores California, S.A., appliance dealer Armando Ordoñez was directing the unloading of a large number of cartons from the truck he had personally driven back from La Paz. "Be damn careful with those," he warned his workers as they hefted the heavy boxes marked 'Toshiba' and 'Sony.'

Horacio strode slowly across the plaza, nodding in response to a few polite greetings. The promenade had not yet begun in earnest but the place was, as always, humming with life and a feeling of expectation. Some spruced-up adolescent boys and girls started to arrive. Small groups of young children darted about, shouting and laughing. The usual elderly men and women occupied some of the benches, enjoying the evening air, chatting and reminiscing. A few food vendors sold tacos, mariscos, and fruit drinks to several tourists from the hotels.

Horacio bought a shrimp cocktail and sat down to devour it. Timoteo Tachuelo approached him with that desperate look that told Horacio another poem was urgently required. Timoteo stood respectfully until motioned to sit down by Horacio, who continued to consume his shrimp. "Let me guess," said Horacio between mouthfuls, "Teodora Alemán is not paying any attention to you." Timoteo nodded anxiously, looking around.

'Teodora, te adoro...' Horacio was already composing in his mind. "You got a new job at the ice plant I hear, Timoteo. That's good, because I raised my rates just last week."

Timoteo nodded again. "Th... that's all right," Timoteo said nervously. "That's no problem at all."

"Good," said Horacio, swallowing the last of the shrimp and blotting his chin fastidiously with a napkin. "Come and see me in my study tomorrow evening and we'll work out the details."

"Thank you, Horacio," said Timoteo, and the poet dismissed him with a nod.

Horacio tossed the empty paper cup over his shoulder and looked around the plaza. It was beginning to fill up. Suddenly he noticed several girls coming from the direction of the Old Hacienda Hotel. They were mostly the slovenly Leal sisters, but in the middle of the group a tall, blonde head towered above the rest. It was Kimberly "la güera", the fair one.

Kimberly was the daughter of some gabachos, some gringo hippie types from the north who used to spend a couple of winter months staying at the ancient and crumbling Old Hacienda, engaged in some sort of university research project, some said. Horacio had not seen Kimberly since the winter before last when she was still a child. But since then she had undergone a profound change. She was was much taller and her body had bloomed into that of a young woman, a very beautiful young woman. As she approached, Horacio stood up to get a better view.

The closer she got, the more heavenly she looked. As heads turned all across the plaza, Horacio felt all the old passion and desire that had become so flat in him lately suddenly flowing back into his being in an intoxicating flashflood of sensation. Wavering, he clutched the backrest of the bench and steadied himself. When she passed by he called her name: "Kimberly!"

She turned and looked at him blankly.

"Kimberly, how are you?" he said, offering his hand. "Welcome back."

She smiled slightly and nodded, swept on by her retinue of followers. As they walked away he heard Lupe Leal say to Kimberly in English, "Gordito like you," and giggled.

"That damned little beggar," he muttered, "she doesn't even know what I have become." But he kept his eyes on Kimberly, along with just about everyone else in the plaza. Within an hour he was on his way back home, manipulating lines and rhymes in his mind. This is destiny, he thought, this is what I have been waiting for. A girl who is so much more than all these others. A girl who has never called me "Gordito."

Back in his room, he knew it was useless to try to sleep. He lit a fire to ward off the creeping chill and pulled his rocker close to the hearth. Kimberly, he kept repeating to himself, Kimberly.

The next day he went to consult with Homero. "She doesn't speak much Spanish," he said after explaining everything to his mentor. "How will she understand it?"

"That doesn't matter," replied the older man confidently. "She will find a way to comprehend your words if you present them properly and chivalrously. She must. What other possibility is there for a young girl, ready for romance? Trust me. Unless the world has been turned upside down, this the way things work."

By the next week Horacio's pièce de resistance, thoroughly edited by Homero as always, was ready. During the week he had spoken politely to Kimberly a few more times and she now knew his name. He set out during the siesta hour on Saturday to deliver the poem to her along with the accompanying note. As he crossed the plaza he noticed the Big Sale! banners were still up in the windows of Provedores California, S.A. People had lined up to buy sets that morning and nearly all were sold by closing time at one p.m. Armando Ordoñez was planning to drive his truck to La Paz for another load.

Horacio approached the ancient window of the room in the Old Hacienda Hotel that Kimberly occupied with her younger sister. He gently rattled the wrought iron grating that covered it and cautiously emitted a hissing sound. "Kimberly," he called quietly, trying not to attract the attention of her parents in the adjacent room. The curtain jerked back quickly and Kimberly's younger sister Kelly stared at him. "What is it?" she said curtly.

"Kimberly," he said, proferring the envelope through the bars. Kelly grabbed it out of his hand and slammed the wooden shutter closed.

He sighed deeply and slowly walked away. There was nothing more he could do but wait. He had asked her to meet him at eight p.m. in the plaza. He walked through it now on his way back home. The place was deserted, bleaching in the hot afternoon sun. A gusty wind wooshed noisily through the fronds of the fan palms overhead, causing them to gyrate madly. Below, a couple of scavenging dogs foraged around the empty benches. On arriving home, he walked quickly through the corridor and went directly to his room, bypassing the usual obligatory stop in the kitchen. He dropped onto his bed exhausted and fell asleep. It had been the most draining week of his poetical career.

It was hours later when he woke up to the sound of strange, unreal voices. He got up and walked into the adjacent room, the salon. María José, Lupita, and even old Fadrique were gathered around the television set which was on and turned up so loud it made Horacio's ears hurt. On the screen was a crystal clear picture of Pedro Infante in his charro suit playing a guitar and singing to a bevy of beautiful women who swooned at his feet. Fadrique was tapping his flip-flops, grinning like a fool. Lupita was swaying in her chair and María José was humming along to the tune. They hardly seemed to notice Horacio. "What time is it?" he asked, but no one answered. They were hypnotized by the flickering images.

Still not fully awake, Horacio wandered across the patio to check the clock in the kitchen. It was almost seven-thirty. He stumbled into the bathroom and threw some water in his face. He looked at himself in the mirror for a moment, searching habitually for traces of whiskers. Then he turned away and walked quickly back towards his room. He peeked into the salon once again. Everyone was exactly as he had left them, unchanged. He started to call to Lupita about ironing a shirt but something made him swallow his words. He went into his room and changed, listening to the strange background of noise coming from the salon.

Later, as he walked quickly through the streets to the plaza, the sound of the television program seemed to follow him. He could see the fluttering beams of bluish light on the windows and interior walls of other houses. But when he got to the plaza he was certain he must be dreaming. There was only a handful of people there; the vendors, who stood fidgeting around their carts, a few older people, and some ragged, itinerant beggars he had never seen before. In a daze, Horacio walked over to his bench and sat down. He looked at his watch. It was eight p.m.

Old Marroquín came shuffling along, bent hard over his cane, rheumy eyelids drooping, the threads of his motheaten old coat quivering with every step. Horacio couldn't remember the last time he had spoken to the senile old man or even if he had ever spoken to him. But tonight he leaned forward on his bench and hailed him like an old friend. "Marroquín," he asked in a desperate tone, "where is everybody?" But the old man just shook his head and grinned toothlessly. Horacio looked at his watch. Eight-fifteen, and still... nobody. He felt sick. He wanted to jump up and run away but he couldn't move.

At eight thirty-five he heard an accented voice call his name. It was Kimberly. In his shock he had forgotten all about her. "Hola, Horacio," she said. "What's up?"

Horacio shook his head. He didn't even get to his feet. He just sat there staring at the tall, blonde gabacha, trying to remember where she fit into his scheme of things. She handed him an envelope. "I can't read this," she said. "And anyway, my dad says I should give it back to you."

He slowly reached out and took the envelope.

"What's it say, anyway?" she asked, smacking her gum and looking around vacantly.

"Nothing," he replied turning his glistening eyes away towards the barren plaza. "Nothing at all."

"Say, where is everybody?" she asked him.

He kept his face turned away from her. "I think they're all watching TV."

"Hey... cool. I really miss TV. My dad says it's good for us to be away from it for a while, but I say like, yeah, sure, Dad."

Suddenly Horacio thought of some lines in the unread poem he had written to her.

If I am not what you want

your lover to be,

tell me, Sweet Lady,

and I will change for thee.

If you find me too quiet,

I will sing like a canary.

If you think me too serious,

I will juggle like a clown.

If you consider me too plump,

I will starve myself.

"If you like TV," he said, still locked in the meter of the verses which now filled him with disgust, "you can come to my house."

"Hey... cool!" said Kimberly. "Let's go!"

"What's your favorite program?" he asked as they walked off together.

Horacio suddenly felt light as a feather, and the disturbing vision of the desolate plaza evaporated from his mind. Only El Marroquín now remained in it, lost in the rhythm of his perpetual counting.

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