Click links below for details
Earl Culpepper stands before his dresser mirror, tucking in a black and white checkered shirt he has bought for the occasion. Even when allowed to hang loosely from his belt, the shirt does little to hide a gut that protrudes conspicuously from his six-foot two frame. He looks again and sighs. There was a time not too long ago when he viewed that gut as a symbol of his authority in the community. After all, he is more than just another man; he is the Sheriff of Mariposa County, hardly someone to be trifled with. Back in Alabama where he grew up, any man who achieved something noteworthy in life had a prominent gut. In that world of dainty ladies and stout-hearted men, some degree of belly overhang was a requirement in the upper ranks of business, the professions and law enforcement.
Earl had only to look to his father, Billy Joe, also a sheriff, for an authority figure who projected power through the enormity of his paunch. The same could be said for his granddaddy who, while never a sheriff, rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Montrose police force before dying of syphilis contracted from a black woman who confessed to an affair after the funeral. People said his gut was so big he had to have his shirts made from discarded parachutes.
Earl stands there now, his broad shoulders hunched, his gray-blue eyes staring out from a pale white face, his jowls sagging, his mouth curled in a downward arc. It is obvious that these are the looks of a man who is more than just tired. Something deeper is going on, something to do with how he sees his place in the broad scheme of things. His eyes, once clear and bright, have taken on a faint mistiness; his jaw is slack now, no longer thrust forward in readiness for battle. You might surmise that his inner gyroscope, once his most reliable guide, has been knocked askew, set to wobbling, no longer able to tell him what path to take next.
He squints at the image in the mirror, then runs his hand across his stomach. The sensation is familiar but something has changed. Where once he took pride in his estimable girth, he now has doubts, can even feel a hint of shame. He reaches for the badge on the dresser…suddenly remembers where he is going today and puts it back…careful to place it in the upper right hand corner about three inches from the edge. In a final bow to convention, he slides his Western bolo tie under his collar and pulls it tight. As he turns to leave, he catches a glimpse of his wife in the mirror; her face is taut, her lips quivering.
”Are you coming back?” Emma whispers.
He says nothing. Grabbing his suitcase from the bed, he brushes past her into the living room. She follows, unwilling to let go. She knows it’s too late but says it anyway. “Eric needs your help.” With the mention of his son’s name, Earl’s eyes draw smaller, his lips curl into an unconcealed sneer. Without another word, he yanks open the front door and heads down the walk to where a cab is waiting.
Once in the taxi he slumps back in his seat, relieved to be alone. His thoughts turn to the events that lie immediately ahead. With eyes closed he summons the image of his young friend Santé whose funeral is tomorrow in Oaxaca, Mexico. He gropes for that once familiar face, a handsome face, cocoa-skinned with the high cheekbones, straight black hair and deep brown eyes of his Indian ancestors.
Instead, it is Emma’s face that returns.
The train begins to move. Santé, now wearing his orange jacket, waits until he sees two or three boys leap from the grass and run toward the train before following suit. Once on the roadbed, he picks out a boxcar and heads for the nearest ladder. To reach it he must run faster than the train…at least for a few yards. He imagines Raul calling to him from the boxcar. He raises his hand as if to wave back, then drives his legs faster, reaching the ladder just as his lungs are about to burst. Once his feet are set firmly on the lowest rung, he pulls himself up to the roof and then turns to face the engine. He is surprised to see that several others have already formed a circle a few yards in front of him. From their voluble chatter, it is clear that they are congratulating each other on having boarded successfully. Most of them are younger than Santé. He inches closer and tries chatting with one of the boys. A few stare at him but no one answers. Sensing that he is not trusted, he slides back to his original position and waits.
When the train slows at a second curve, Santé sees several young men, all armed with knives or machetes, climb aboard the boxcar up ahead. They go unnoticed by the boys who are still celebrating their victory over what the woman with the sweet rolls calls El Tren de la Muerte (The Train of Death). From his position to the rear, Santé watches as two of the men leap from their own boxcar onto the one he’s sitting on. They quickly approach the circle of youths. One of the men is brandishing a knife, the other a machete. Awakening to the danger, the boys huddle together. The man with the knife, clearly Latino but speaking with a non-Mexican accent, orders them to empty their pockets. When the boys hesitate, he slashes at one, ripping his shirt. Facing the group as a whole, he yells, “O.K. All of ya…take yir clothes off or I’ll do it with my knife.” Slowly they begin to undress.
From a few yards away Santé watches with alarm but does not move. In his gut, away from prying eyes, a familiar feeling stirs, a feeling he associates with being bullied by Mestizos at school. When he sees the boy’s shirt get ripped, he pulls the macuahuitl from his pack and places it in his lap. Slowly he inches forward. At first the bandits are too busy tearing apart pants and shirts to see him. Suddenly he’s noticed. “Hey you,” shouts the knife holder, pointing at Santé. “Git yir clothes off.”
When Santé does nothing, the man with the knife repeats his order. Again Santé says nothing…but rises to his feet holding the macuahuitl behind him. The man comes closer, thrusting the knife forward. Santé waits until he is only a few feet away…then, gripping the macuahuitl tightly, leans forward and brings it down on his adversary’s shoulder blade. Tremors from the crunch of blade on bone ripple up his arm, shaking it visibly. The night, silent up to now except for the engine’s hissing, is pierced with shrieks of agony as the man teeters on the boxcar edge before rolling off onto the rails below.
The boys who have watched the scene unfold from a few yards away are stunned. At first no one speaks. When the other assailant, the one with the machete, turns and races to the opposite end of the car, they suddenly explode with a chorus of yelps. En masse they flock to their rescuer, eyes wide with joy and relief. Santé sits quickly, bracing himself for the onslaught.
Date of publication: 2012
Length: 215 pages
$17.00 for paperback
$22.00 for hard cover
To order click here.