|The Mariachi's New Clothes
Author: Guede Mazaka
The clothes were brand-new, still unwrinkled and unmarked. Too pristine for the room, for the bed, for El.
He reached out a hand anyway, used to people and things telling him he wasn't good enough. It was good fabric, with fine even stitching. //Where did you get these? Where'd you get the money?//
//I didn't steal them. You gave me the money.// Fideo was leaning against the door frame, watching El with bright reddened eyes, and the ever-present bottle of liquor dangled loosely from one hand. The other man grinned. //Stop stalling. You lost the bet. Put them on and go take a walk before Lorenzo decides to move in here and start puking.//
El sighed and stripped off his old shirt and jacket, then picked up the new ones with the edges of his fingertips. He let them flip out of their stiff folds, dubiously eying the small perfect buttonholes and unstained fabric. //I have to wear this.//
//Oh, for…// his friend took an annoyed swig of tequila //…they won't bite. And besides, you're always wondering what it'd be like to not be who you are.//
Which gave El pause for a moment as he searched his memory. Then he frowned, and narrowed his eyes at the other man. //We've never talked about that.//
//I didn't say we had. I said you'd wondered about it.// Fideo smirked and slouched out the door, carefully shutting it behind him. //Have fun!//
Right. If El could remember how to do that without a guitar in his hand. So, rules of the bet: put on plain white shirt, tan pants and jacket, and then go enjoy himself in any bar he liked. And he was only allowed one gun.
Why the hell had he thought betting on a drinking match was a good idea? Especially since he knew Fideo could drink anyone under the table. And putting money on Lorenzo because of anything, except maybe how fast he'd nail a girl, was just pure stupidity. Where had El's head been? He hadn't even been drunk.
No, he'd been angry and depressed and irritated by that amused glint in Fideo's eyes, as they'd discussed And he was still feeling all those emotions, tight bundle of thistles around which his guts were wrapped. In a sudden fit of defiance at-at something, El yanked at sleeve and pant legs, fumbled with buttons and zippers, until at last he ran out of reasons to occupy his fingers and had to look up.
The mirror on the wall was spiderwebbed with cracks, and grimy into the bargain, but he could still make out plenty. It showed him a man, taller than most Mexicans, still handsome enough to attract his share of winking eyes. It threw back a reflection of nice clothes, neat ponytail. But what it didn't show were the years of a hard life deliberately made harder, of the pieces chipped out and shot apart. It didn't tell him a damn thing about the bloodstains and gunmetal burns engraved over his guitar calluses.
A miracle, or just an exceptionally good lie. He'd given up on trying to tell the difference. Still…
…a blank slate was a blank slate, no matter whether the words had been washed off, or just hidden beneath another layer of black. It might be worth a try-and if nothing else, it would earn him a quiet evening.
It was a small, sleepy town that had too many sharp-dressed visitors on strange errands passing through to pay attention to any of them, so finding a decent bar was easy. Finding one where El didn't fidget too much, unused to the lightness of almost no guns, was more difficult. He only had to walk through the doors to start smelling the cordite in every cigarette, hear the click of gun safeties in every clinking glass. It made him nervous, and even with his back to the wall, his need to constantly look around wore heavily on his nerves. He missed his guitar and the weight of its case dragging on his arm, or sitting beside him.
His behavior didn't garner any friendliness, either; it was as if the other people knew he was an imposter in their lives. They watched him as if they could see right through his clothing, and maybe through his skin, to the killer with the light touch and merciless guns.
After the fourth try, El was about ready call it a night. Let Fideo laugh-his friend probably could use it.
He was walking back to their rooms when something caught his eye: thin stick shadow, tumbling out of a bar. It unrolled into a skinny pale American, cursing at the bartender while dust settled into the wrinkles of his torn clothing. His words slurred, and occasionally dropped a middle syllable, while the stink of cheap alcohol clung to him like a desperate whore.
El abruptly realized he'd come to a stop while he'd been watching, and shook his head. He had grievances against the other man, it was true, but if it'd been one lesson he had learned, it'd been the value of revenge. What Sands had done to him-truly done, as seen through the simplifying lenses of hindsight-was nothing compared to what others had done. And El was proud of very little about himself, but he refused to kill if the reason wasn't great enough. Death was death, and he dealt in it because it was one of the few things that still held any great meaning for him.
He picked up his foot to go, but was halted by a harsh cackle: "Oh, running already? What, I'm not photogenic for your fucking tourist eyes? Why don't you point your Nikon at these?"
And the sunglasses were furiously snatched away to leave El staring into terrible dark pits of twin hells. The sheer shock rocked him back a step, his recoil accompanied by high bitter-acid laughter.
"Sorry. Did I scare you?" Sands' smile was a twisted, wrong thing to see. No longer clever, no longer confident. Only sheer, useless insolence at fate. El had admired the man, a little, but now…
Mexico never saw a damned thing all the way through, seethed the rage that surged up El's throat. His hand, his dead family-and him still standing. Like her real face, made of corpses and powdered with cocaine, was jeering at him, telling him she'd lost interest in his punishment. Dropping him with soul still in that raw, brutal limbo between alive and dead, and giving him no way to go forward or backward.
That was what he'd seen in those empty sockets, and that was what had made him flinch. Here he was, dressed in spotless clothes and strolling around town, no different from any normal man, and then a true reflection fell in front of him. "Not really."
"Liar. Fucking piss-poor one, too." The other man slowly hauled himself to his knees, movements weighed with the careless liquidity of alcohol splashing into a glass. He got halfway up, then collapsed in on himself. "You know, you sound familiar."
El froze, silently dropping his arm so the tip of the gun just grazed his palm.
Sands seemed to ponder for a moment, dramatically tapping finger against chin. "Nah. No dumb jingle. What do you know, I've still got one saint looking after my ass. If I ran in that tone-deaf shitwit…"
Was that supposed to be an insult? For a moment, El didn't know if he should shoot the other man, or hold Sands under a faucet and rinse off some of that stench. Or give in to the morbid curiosity that was clawing up the anger and aggravation; he'd almost forgotten how irritating Sands had been. "What…happened to you?"
"That, compadre, is a story as long as an old whore's cunt is wide." Still with the white razor curve on his face, Sands draped his arms over his knees and tilted his face up at El. "Buy me a drink, and maybe I'll get pissed enough to cry to you about it."
//He already owes for two//, the bartender, who'd been watching from the doorway, informed them. Sands flipped him the finger, and the other man's face reddened as he started to come forward.
//Here.// El flicked the bills over before he really knew what he was doing. And then the bartender was picking the money up, and Sands was curling up even tighter, made wary by inexplicable generosity. Fearful of what strings might be attached this time.
The rational explanation was that El still didn't know the whole story behind Dias de Los Muertos, and he wanted to because that day had awakened something in him. Some restless, shapeless desire that only knew what it didn't want: the silent, still suffering of his past. He suddenly wanted to keep walking the roads, to try scooping up a handful of chance.
The irrational reason was that killing a man by inches didn't ring true to El. And he could see that in the twist of Sands' wrists as they crossed over themselves, the thick scars revealed as El's eyes focused on the dark-filled sockets. It wasn't pathetic-he didn't dare think that when he could sense the cyanide pulsing in the other man's veins, just waiting to poison the unlucky and the foolish. It was wrong.
Maybe Sands was worth a bullet now. Maybe not. El needed to know.
"Where are we?" As soon as he'd gotten hold of the bottle, Sands slapped away El's fingers and fumbled off the top by feel. He drained the beer in two swallows, red of the sunset cutting his stretched throat, then put out his hand for another.
"On top of an old church." El sat down with the rest of the bottles on his other side, and waited.
Eventually, the other man seemed to understand, grinning at resignation and shame. "Oh, I get it. Information for alcohol. You think I'm a whore yet?"
Past experience with drunks told El that there wasn't any point to answering a question like that. Sympathetic protests only riled them up, and sarcasm just helped derail the already unsteady train of thought. So he was silent.
"I used to be very pretty, you know. So naturally, that was the first thing everyone thought when they saw me-yeah, I had actual eyes then. Goddamn Guevara."
"Who?" The name was vaguely familiar, but not enough for El to immediately place it.
"Ah…well, you have to have heard of Barillo. Right?" When El grunted an affirmative, Sands nodded knowingly and sprawled on his back. He arched up and dragged out the name in a mock-seductive rasp. "Barrrrrillo. Fucker. Dr. Guevara was his personal surgeon, and torture expert. He's the man who had the honor of de-eyeballing me while Barillo and his cunt daughter giggled together in the background. But he's dead. In fact, they're all dead. All except that motherfuck jangle-pussy. Mr. Unbreakable."
It took El a moment to pry his fingers off his gun, and a second one to push it back up his sleeve. He just breathed, as if he were simply mulling over the story and not, in fact, trying not to rip out the other man's heart. Show him what it was like, living with a hole there. "I heard a little about that day in Culiacan," he said, very slowly. "They said this…that legend with the guitarcase of guns…they said this El came out and cut out the festering sores of Mexico. Saved the president."
Some nonsense Lorenzo had brought home one night, snickering at El's annoyance. Rescuing the president had been an accident, so El didn't really count it among his good deeds.
"Bullshit." The forcefulness of Sands' voice would've startled El, even if the striking parallelism of thought hadn't. "Look, I actually met that skullfuck. And he was just that: a skullfucker. Turn your mind inside-out, upside-down, six folds from Sunday. He wasn't any more righteous than the rest of the shits around-just a hell of a lot better at getting what he wanted done, done."
"I heard General Marquez was in bed with the cartels, and they tried-"
"You heard. You heard shit, darling. Who the fuck turns down firsthand for thirdhand?" Sands held out his hand again, and after a moment, El reluctantly put a bottle into it. The other man noisily slurped his drink before continuing with his tale. "Hey, tequila. You've been holding out on me. Then again, no surprise. He did, too, and you're both Mexican. Can hear that."
Then Sands' face settled into a brooding, somber expression. When he spoke again, the bite in his voice had deadened to a harsh mumble. "All I wanted was some money, some fucks, and a few assassinations. And that bastard gave me a counterrevolution."
"It probably wasn't what he meant to do," El muttered. He realized he'd talked a little too quickly when the other man's cheek muscle twitched. No way to take words back, once said, so instead he brazened it out. Roughened his voice to sound even more discontented. "Nothing ever goes like it's supposed to."
"Amen to that." Sands raised his bottle in a toast, then tipped it to pour liquid amber into his mouth. It splashed all over the place, but he didn't seem to care. "At least, that's what my eyes would say."
El counted and recounted the remaining bottles, trying to figure out how many more it would take to get Sands too drunk to notice El was leaving. The other man wasn't telling him anything useful, and was getting under his skin far too easily. But not hurting him enough for retribution to be owed, so that removed the last reason for staying.
"What the rest of me says is: you're a fucking limpdicked crybaby. Because that's the world, damn it. Life is a rigged poker wheel, and people are jackasses to each other over money, power, sex. Everyone knows that." Sands' lips curved in a fond smile. "I used to bet on that."
Then he jerked to his feet, so fast that El nearly blew off Sands' head. But he didn't. Instead, he watched in numbed shock.
Sands swayed in a spin, snarling equally at all directions. "Except that's too ugly, even for a don't-care rat bastard like me. So I ignored it, and everyone else ignores it, and then-and then it's such a goddamned hallelujah surprise when the sword comes down. Fuck! Why the hell didn't I find out she was his daughter? How did I miss something like-oh, fuck it."
He flung the empty bottle, then tripped and fell. El's arms reflexively came up, and Sands was a filthy, bony mess lolling in them. Ragged nails dug into El's shoulders, and a soft voice whispered to his collar. "Okay, one thing I didn't mention. That mariachi shitcase. Yeah, I stacked the deck against him, but I was hoping he would live. Not because of that underdog crap. Because…he would've earned it. You understand?"
"I think so." El could feel oily moisture seeping into his clothes, and the stains beneath his skin rising to meet the counterparts.
"No, you don't," Sands chuckled, raspy and blackly amused. "Not that stupid saint-martyr shit, either. It's just-it'd be the perfect fuck-you to all the strongmen around here. They're such pricks. Keep their balls in safety deposit boxes, and their dicks in dog shit."
Puzzling statement. El went over it several times in his head, playing it different ways, and tried to put the varying themes together. Something was still missing, though. "You sound like you…respect him."
"Hell with that. I liked him, plain and simple. Not enough to change my plans, but…and great ass, too." Fortunately, Sands was too busy laughing to notice El going stiff. The other man rested his head on El's shoulder, breath slowing and deepening. "And the big question is: why am I telling you all this? Especially when normally I'd shoot the cocksucker that even stared at me funny?"
Which was why El's gun had been trained on Sands for the entire conversation, and why he'd kept Sands from grazing against it. Though that hadn't really added to El's sense of security; the real danger Sands posed wasn't the kind that could be handled by violence. Curiosity led to reconsidering led to changes in the mind, which were far harder to root out than a bullet was. "Why?"
"Nice clothes." Sands' fingers stroked down El's shirt, rubbing over the fabric. "Bet you've got a good nine-to-five job, a cosy place. Pretty peaceful life, or else you wouldn't ask such a dumb question. Like a kid, parroting the grown-ups."
Then El was pushed away, and Sands rolled onto his side. "Thanks for the drinks, but get lost. I'm as deep as I'm going to go. Time to exit."
There were footsteps on the staircase. The wind shifted, and El smelled thunder and lightning.
"Think I'll take a nap now. That should piss them off plenty," Sands sleepily slurred. As El flicked his eyes between the other man and the stairs, Sands quietly passed out.
Stupid as the thought was, the first thing that came to mind was that El wasn't dressed for this. But it was true-he was who he was. A new set of clothes wouldn't change that. A new life wouldn't change it, just as failure and depression hadn't altered the essence of Sands. They were what they had made themselves, what others had done to them. And all that was left was to decide what to do with that.
El took out his gun and cocked it as he silently padded over to the staircase. Then he waited, scenting the blood to come.
When El returned, his clothes were ripped and scarlet-splotched nearly beyond recognition. Fideo would've been worried if the other man didn't have a body slung over his shoulder. If El was in good enough shape to kidnap shitty-looking gringos, then he was in good enough shape to see to his own wounds.
But still. //Do you know how much those clothes cost?//
//Yes.// And El's eyes burned. //I'm not willing to pay that price.//
Fideo meditated on that for a moment as he sipped on his tequila. //I think you do. It's nice to be able to do what you want, isn't it?//
"Oh, fuck, my head." Right. Groaning equaled noise equaled pain, thus implying really fucking bad idea. Sands whimpered and burrowed away from the manically evil headache army tangoing in his skull.
Wait. "I'm alive."
Jingle. Someone was sitting by the bed. "Yes."
"Shit. You…" pieces of memory resurfaced and reassembled with alarming speed "…and you! You were that-last night, and I said-oh, fuck. I think I'm going to shoot myself."
Amazingly, El chuckled, which sent another wave of pain through Sands' head. "Would you like some aspirin?"
"Why the hell not?" Sands bided his time until El's hand touched his fingers, and then he laid enough of a smackdown on his migraine to be able to seize the other man's wrist. "What are you doing with me?"
"I'm still working on that." And boy, mariachi fuckhead was all dry stoicism today. "By the way, if you ever call me a 'jangle-pussy' again, I will-"
"Kill me? Heard that one before," Sands snorted. He leaned down and swirled his tongue over the back of El's hand, teasing the ridge of scar tissue he found there. "How about that?"
"I will fuck you up. Badly." Ah…maybe El wasn't quite as deadwood as Sands had thought. "And maybe."
Maybe what-oh. Oh. Oh, shit. This was-ow. Sands hurt too much to think about anything complicated right now, and anyway, his brain seemed fixated on the observation that El had killed people for him. No one had ever done that before.
And no one had ever listened to his maunderings, because Sands didn't make a habit of it. Personal discussions were always a quick way to the grave…except for this time. He wondered if that was supposed to mean something.
Last night had been a weird, dark haze, and the morning after was promising to be just as bizarre. If a little brighter. He wondered if that would change, once the last of the alcohol had been booted from his system.
Fuck it. The point of his little drunken spell had been that he couldn't go on as he had been. And the point now? He had no idea, but 'fuck you up' sounded a hell of a lot more promising than anything else. "Can I get some water with that?"