This is the way I like it. No salt, no lime. Straight from the bottle is best. It's a habit I picked up during my smuggling days.

I'm out of that business now. I killed two men in Mexico, maybe three. I can't go back there. Even if I could, it wouldn't be to bring back Michoacan bud. There's no market for it anymore. But I'd go back for the woman who got mixed up in it, if I knew where to look.

This is a hard story to tell, because it never comes out sounding like the truth. It's only what I remember. Sometimes they're not the same thing.

I was crossing the Sonora Desert on my way to Durango. I awoke on a bus cradling a half-bottle of mezcal that I'd carried with me out of the bar in Hermosillo. The last thing I remembered clearly was stepping out back and sharing a pipeload of seedy dope with a grinning guy who spoke English -- an Emeliano Zapata-looking dude with a mustache and battered sombrero. I was lucky. I still had my backpack, my cash, and a cigarette pack full of bud that he'd sold me. Some people don't survive that kind of stupidity.

That's when I met her: a chiquita in a low-cut red dress, slowly making her way toward me. I thought she was taking tickets until I caught the woozy glimmer in her eye. She engaged in a whispered but spirited negotiation with a sunburnt old man then sprawled face-down in his lap for several minutes with her skinny, bug-bit calves in the aisle, the points of her cheap high heels aimed at the roof. He groaned; she spat. Then she staggered to her feet and moved on, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and tucking a dollar bill into her cleavage. A half-dozen more George Washingtons, I could see, and I'd be up to bat.

I tipped the bottle back and let the liquor work its mojo, feeling the heat of it swell up through my chest. I pulled on my headphones and cranked up some old J.J. Cale -- singing about "bringing it back from Mexico" -- and shut my eyes.

An explosion of harsh guitar chords lifted me clean out of my seat. She stood there smirking, a couple of chipped red nails twisting the knob on my Walkman. I yanked off the phones and was about to kick her skinny ass when I noticed that my fellow passengers were chuckling and sizing me up. The biggest one, a thick-necked guy skinning a pineapple with a machete, gave me a conspiratorial wink. I saw nothing to gain by causing a scene, so I smiled back at the crowd and gave my new friend´s nipple a friendly tweak. I yanked the cork from the mezcal with my teeth and, taking note of its astringent character, offered her a swig.

Suddenly, the bus backfired, hawking up a compact tumbleweed of oily diesel smoke. I instinctively ducked, and a harsh laugh, perfumed with the stink of sex, issued from the semen-slicked mouth of my paramour. She upended the bottle and let the mezcal drain down her throat. My fascination grew with each rhythmic "gluck" as the level in the bottle subsided and the hapless worm swirled slowly into the neck. At the point I would have heaved, she stopped swallowing and extended a sinuous tongue into the bottle. It wrapped around the worm like an anemone, and she eyed me as if to say, "Are you ready for this, hijo?"

I settled back down and patted the seat next to me, figuring a few moments of eye contact might substitute, in such bizarre conditions, for foreplay. Her gaze locked onto mine, and I felt an ineffable craving that led me to believe that for a moment, at least, we might become more than strangers passing on a dusty desert highway. But even as I sensed that she might feel the same way, her gaze abruptly grew distant. The veins in her eyes swelled, and she pitched forward into my lap, to the cheers of my fellow passengers. I briefly considered unhitching my 501s and negotiating a means of letting the forces of gravity and the rutted road work their magic, but that would be low -- even for an immoral ferret like me. Instead, I waited a reasonable interval (no harm in misleading my newfound fans) scooped her into my arms and eased her onto the seat across from me. I extracted a dollar from between her pechugas -- more than fair compensation, in my mind, for a half-quart of raw Mexican liquor.

I rolled up a fat spliff in a pair of spliced-together Zig Zag wheat straws. With all the windows rolled down, I figured nobody would give a damn, and nobody did. It was just what I needed. I drifted into a pleasant reverie and admired my now-snoring seatmate, who was curled up on her side with her dress drifting north of the border and her well-worn meal ticket aimed at me. A severe bikini trim gave it the appearance of a giant winking eye (albeit with a mild case of conjunctivitis). I dismissed my baser inclinations and decided for the time being to try again to catch a few winks. But with each jarring pothole the accumulated failures of my squalid life played out in my mind, and every rangy seguaro cactus we passed appeared to be flipping me off.

~

I awoke in a fever to the sound of distant Latin drums. Blackness surrounded me, and the whole world canted to one side. I reached out in the darkness to feel for the seats and discovered that I was still on the bus, although I couldn't fathom why it had stopped.

"Senorita?" I called out, to no avail. I scrambled to my feet and began feeling my way toward the door, lurching sideways with each step. I expected to bump into the legs of sleeping passengers, but everyone had cleared out. When I got to the door, I inched my way down the steps and plunged into nothingness, falling a few feet before flopping hard on the ground. Sharp gravel clung to my hands, and blood seeped from my knees. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I saw a corner of the bus propped up on a tiny auto jack, the right front tire missing. Things were starting to make sense.

I followed the sounds of the drums to a tin-sided shed with a grass roof. A fire inside a steel barrel offered the only illumination in the dirt-floored room. A sharp-eyed barman dispensed drinks from the side of a delivery truck parked by an open window, keeping a sawed-off shotgun at hand on the weathered planks he used for a bar. In the corner, a kid tapped on a crude homemade conga while an old man shook a rattling coyote skull like he was calling home the dead. My seatmates from the bus were dispersed about the room in various stages of stupor. The girl stepped into the light from out of nowhere, circling the flames and rolling her hips to the drumbeat with a feral grace that hadn't been apparent during her single-minded bargaining on the bus. She´d changed out of the red dress into a low-slung sarong. In the shifting light, it was hard to tell whether she wore a skimpy bikini top or had slicked patterns onto her naked chest with day-glow finger paint. Other than me, only the kid slapping the conga seemed to notice, and his eyes grew wide as she traced eerie runes in the night air with birdlike hands.

I noticed then that a terra cotta pot was slowly making its way around the room, each supplicant tilting back his head to swill some of its contents and wheezing for a few disorienting moments before passing it on. I approached the barman and nodded, then pulled the marijuana from my pocket. He tipped his head in approval and watched as I rolled a fat joint. After I handed it to him and scratched a match on the bar, I suspected my glaring gringohood wouldn´t be an issue. He inhaled deeply and turned to uncork a bottle of tequila, pouring me a tall shot and waiting for me to down it all before blowing out a swirling cloud of smoke.

As I took my first hit, the girl mamboed over and encircled my head with her arms. Her mouth opened wide and her lips pressed against mine, blowing enough smoke through the number to knock a burro to his knees. She clamped my leg between her thighs, massaging it during a lithe lambada, and plucked the joint from my lips. She sucked it to a nub then turned and flicked the roach disdainfully into the flames. Her pupils cranked open like the aperture of a Nikon, telling me there was more than a drumbeat propelling those wriggling hips. She snaked over to the blank-faced dude who was bogarting the clay pot and snatched it from his hands, tipping it back and crinkling her face as she gagged down the putrid brew. When she handed it to me, I waved it under my nose and eyed the pattern etched on its side: a bandanna-wearing coyote howling under a massive moon. I could make out the forbidding stench of peyote and God knows what else -- a splash of tequila and maybe an exotic mushroom or the crushed carapace of a scarce desert beetle. A malicious grin crept across the barman's face. What could I do? I knocked it back and swallowed deeply, the gruel sliding down my throat like an unshelled snail.

I held out my glass, demanding another shot of tequila. The bartender's laughter seemed to echo from the depths of a metallic pit as tiny jolts of chemical energy sizzled down my spine. The girl shifted shapes before my eyes, her image doubling and tripling as she shimmied in the dancing glow of the fire. Her breasts appeared to swell and shrink as she moved, and the rattle of the coyote skull became a devilish hiss. The only haven from my terror was in the blackness of her eyes, which drank me in as the universe whirlpooled around us. She inched in close and popped the buttons off my shirt with a sharp yank, pressing against me with an animal urgency. The last thing I remember was waltzing out with her into the chill of the evening, a chorus of coyotes yowling somewhere in the blackness and the earth dropping away beneath our feet.

~

I awoke in the desert with a sunburned ass and my dick in the dirt. My jeans were bunched at my knees, but there was no trace of the girl. I rolled over and sat up, and everything I saw had a rainbow edge, as if I were looking at the world through prisms. My skull bore a tender knot, and each time it moved a sound like the slash of a Star Wars light-saber hummed in my ears. I wobbled to my feet as if I were standing on a manhole cover balanced on a bowling ball.

My legs had turned to taffy and my feet to bricks. I dug the prism thing until I saw the coyote. That snapped me into an instant of sobriety - the scruffy little bugger sitting there with her tongue lolling, like some malnourished police dog with chunks of missing hide.

"Hyah!" I yelled, the sound of my voice startling me more than it did her. "Get the fuck outta here!" I lurched toward a tennis ball-sized rock, falling flat on my face. I realized then that I hadn't pulled up my pants. I hoisted my denims over my sizzling cheeks and buckled my belt, but by then the beast had vanished.

I frisked myself and found that my dope was gone. So was my roll of cash, even the goddamn Zig-Zags. The backpack was empty, my stuff strewn about. I returned to where I'd first awakened and found several sets of footprints, none that looked like the girl's. The coyote's tracks were all over, zigging and zagging around mine. I backtracked along a seemingly aimless path to the edge of a 400-foot vertical drop, where the tracks materialized at the edge as if I'd casually strolled up the side of the cliff. Way down below was the grass roof of the bar. The bus was gone. The barman's delivery truck baked in the midday sun. Behind the building, concealed from the road, ravens feasted on a long-discarded corpse. I shuddered to imagine what my attackers must have done with the hooker.

I was tempted to simply spread my arms and walk off the edge, but by then I knew better. I heard a yip and turned to find my mangy amiga sitting upright, waiting for me to come to my senses. She took a few steps into the sagebrush and then turned as if beckoning me to follow. Once I got the message, she took off at a slow trot, pausing every once in awhile for me to catch up. I was still weary and disoriented, but she showed a preternatural patience, leading me along the edge of the cliff to a ridgetop that stairstepped down into a dense grove of gnarly junipers. Then she vanished.

The scrubby trees clumped around a small crystalline pool that overflowed to form a tiny stream, which was sucked up by the parched sands less than a stone's throw away. The bleached bones of a sharp-horned steer lay a few feet from the water's edge. A cluster of scolding jays squawked in my direction like the Brooklyn chapter of the League of Ex-Wives and a regatta of water bugs rowed across the surface. Neither showed any ill effects, so I decided to take my chances. I scooped up handfuls of water and poured them down my throat then dipped my sizzling buns into the coolness of the pool.

When I felt as together as I was likely to get that day, I bent over the steer skull and snapped the tip off a horn with a rock, then lashed it to a weathered branch with my scarlet bandanna. A well-worn path led away from the pool, and I had a pretty good idea which way it headed. I squared my shoulders and hitched up my jeans. Some hard gringo shit was going to hit the fan before the sun got high.

~

A curl of smoke rose from the apex of the bar's grassy roof. I used the truck for cover, darting forward quickly with my spear aimed ahead. Lanquid, slurred conversation wafted out into the desert air. I inched between the truck and the rusted metal panels of the bar and peeked through the window. Two men -- one fat and glistening in the heat, one bony and thin-faced -- sat at a table alternating swigs from a long-necked liquor bottle. A third, the barman, wore my favorite Hawaiian shirt. He lounged like a roasted pig on the plank table, his shotgun resting inches from his head.

I stepped carefully back toward the door and gripped the spear tightly, then let out a rebel yell and charged the barkeep. His lifted head presented his throat as if he were expecting a shave, and I plunged the tethered horn deep through the cartilage and sinews of his windpipe, feeling a giddy fascination at the reverberation of the rending flesh through the handle.

By then Fat Boy had lurched to his feet, brandishing a machete. I pulled on the spear to free it, but it left the horn lodged in the barkeep's neck. I brought the stick down hard on the attacker's wrist, then splintered the other end against his skull. He pitched forward like a falling tree, and I snatched up his machete as it hit the floor. In the meantime, the skinny one had made his way toward the shotgun. As he reached for it, I brought the blade down hard across the bar, severing his hand neatly at the wrist.

Lefty fled outside screaming, clutching his forearm to stanch the flow of blood. I followed him as far as the truck door, before watching him run, cursing, into the desert. I stood to catch my breath and looked inside the cab. No keys. Lots of booze, but no way out of that desert shithole. I tossed the machete onto the road and decided to rest awhile in the shade. As soon as I stepped back through the door Fat Boy was on me again, wrapping his thick arm tightly around my throat. I elbowed at his ribs and stomped at his instep without any effect, but managed to twist sideways and hook an elbow around his neck. I rolled him over my hip, head first into the flaming barrel. I grabbed a leg as he went in, steadying the lurching can until his screaming and kicking fell quiet. The smell of burning hair and human grease brought up the dregs of the filthy chemical stew that still sloshed in my stomach.

When I could lift my head again, I found myself staring at the side-by-side barrels of the shotgun. The barkeep aimed it with one hand while the other clutched the broken horn. A foam of blood issued from his mouth and neck. He glared at me, coughed and managed a wry, desperate smile. Then he pulled the trigger. Both of us were shocked to hear only the click of the hammer. His eyes widened and he fired again. Nothing. The thought must have been too much for him. He slid sideways along the bar and dropped heavily onto the floor.

Finally, it was over.

I kicked him onto his back and saw the truck key dangling from a leather lace looped around his shattered neck. In the shirt pocket were my dope and my money.

"Thanks, asshole," I said. I picked up the gun and examined it. The chambers were empty, but I knew it might be useful if I could round up some ammo. I hoped the truck either had a full tank or could run on tequila.

I stepped back out into the harsh daylight. When I could make things out, I noticed the machete had vanished from the street. I spun around, instinctively aiming the shotgun. There she was, leaning against the truck door, slapping the blade against her bare thigh. She wore one of my shirts knotted between her breasts, and a pair of cut-offs rolled up as high as they'd go.

When she saw the shotgun, she broke into a throaty laugh. She tossed the blade into the dirt and set her nails to work on the knot in the shirt, slowly drawing the ends free while her eyes locked onto mine. As her breasts spilled into sight, a pair of shotgun cartridges dropped at her feet. I puzzled at first, but she said, "Tres hombres, dos balas." Three guys, only two shells. Sure. She figured her odds weren't good, even after she got her hands on the gun. She smiled when I showed her the truck key. We fled south on the dusty road to Durango.

She wet her mouth with a bottle of rum she picked out for herself. I let my fingers play along her inner thigh, figuring I'd earned a freebie. She smacked me hard across the face -- so hard I saw stars. She met my glare with bemused defiance. I guess she was waiting for me to punch her. When I didn't, she blew me for the next 18 miles.

We traded the rest of the booze for a night in a decaying colonial hotel with mice scratching in the walls and a balcony overlooking a creek, where peasant women beat rags against smooth stones in the late afternoon. I was drained by the drive, and by the time we finished fucking, I felt near death.

I dreamt that night of a scruffy coyote, bearing my red bandanna around its neck and gnawing on a withered hand. I awoke in an empty bed. She was gone, along with the last of my weed.

My wad of cash, still intact, lacked a single dollar bill.

* * *


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