Here’s a horror/fantasy short story I wrote last year, drawing on some of the events of Chris Marshall’s unhappy life.
 

LUNCH AT TITO’S

By G. Owen Pearse

He said he’d been having the same nightmare for the past twenty years. I told him his whole life seemed like a nightmare and how could he tell one from the other? He shrugged, coughed up some phlegm and spit into a napkin. “I just wanna die,” he said. “That way I don’t have to be tortured no more or torture nobody else. The only problem is the Lord won’t take me.”

That’s the way it went as we sat talking in Tito’s Taqueria at the end of a fire-gutted shopping strip, just bordering a poor Latino neighborhood east of downtown Houston. I wondered what miracle had spared this miserable dump of a restaurant from Satan’s fiery tongue, when everything else around it was a pile of ashy debris. Maybe it had something to do with the Our Lady of Guadalupe mural that took up most of the back wall – that is, if you believe in that sort of thing. The painting reminded me of one of those Mexican prayer candles found in supermarkets, except more gothic. And though it had faded with the years, mostly due to the greasy smoke bellowing from the kitchen, it still had the power to transfix the eye.

It didn’t much matter where we sat. No one greeted us. No other patrons. “Seat yourself,” read the sign. The booth where we ended up was in the far right corner, the one nearest the Devil, who was about to be impaled by a very angry Archangel Michael. They were fighting over a poor crippled girl standing on crutches before the mighty Guadalupe River. Above her emanated the resplendent light of the Virgin. The red-eyed beast had taken possession of the girl and was now being cast asunder. I wondered how this scene would play itself out. What would happen to the poor kid? Martyrdom? Sainthood? A dead body tossed onto a trash heap? It was all the same to me.  Who could tell anymore the shit from the the truth, the filth and the slander from the spoken virtues, the vampire from the prophet? I sure couldn’t, not even within myself.

 “You know,” my guest said, after coughing up another wad. “When I was ten, I was left at home a lot. We was living out in Waller County at the time and my parents and my brothers and sisters used to come into H-town to do shopping and such. I was the youngest by nine years, so I preferred to be by myself. Besides, I was happy to see ‘em go. I loved my parents, but my siblings made my life a living hell. They used to make me do all sorts of things like stand in the kitchen and hold a row of encyclopedia books between my two hands like an accordion for ten minutes. And if I dropped any of them, I had to drink a glass of boiling water as punishment.”

He stopped and began making awful gagging sounds deep in his throat, like a cat heaving up a monster hairball. Alarmed, I got up to hit him on the back. But he swallowed whatever was torturing him, and then continued like nothing happened. “My older sister was the worst. She did what she called closet time. And she’d make me go into the closet with her and do really bad things.”

He wiped a tear from his eye, and I stared at him in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell your parents or the police?” I asked.

“I was afraid. You gotta remember this was out in the country and you’ve got to get along everyday with these people and there ain’t nowhere else for a ten year old to go.”

“Man, I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”

“That’s all right. It’s over now. It teached me to get tough real fast. Eventually, I was able to fight ‘em off. I went on to become the star quarterback in high school. I even got a football scholarship to UH.”

“That’s great.”

“Anyway, I got sidetracked. This one day, when everybody was gone, I heard a noise coming from the garage. I picked up my Pa’s twelve-gauge, loaded in some ammo, put the rest in my pocket and went out ‘round back and snuck up beside the garage. I peered through a crack in the door and saw it was one of my brother’s friends, Jimmy Smithson, from two blocks over. I hated that prick. He was always blowing smoke in my face and feeling me up when nobody was looking. I knew he was hunting for my brother’s stash of weed. My brother hid it in a loose panel behind where we kept the lawnmower and such. And only I knew where it was. ”

He paused as a little man dressed in black with a white apron appeared and set down between us a basket of tortilla chips, warm and dripping in fat, and a bowl of picante sauce. I ordered fajitas for the two of us and a pitcher of whatever they had on draft and he disappeared into the kitchen, which had above its doorway Dante’s famous quote at the entrance of hell, “¡¡Oh, vosotros los que entráis, abandonad toda esperanza!”

At least they had a sense of humor, which was always a good sign. Besides, the joint kind of grew on you. It was one of those places where you worried more about the intestinal damage the food was going to cause, than about being recognized, which was why I decided on coming here. If you wanted anonymity, this seemed about as dead as it gets.

“Go on,” I said.

He laughed. “You like a good story, don’t cha?”

I nodded, and he continued. “Well, I pulled the trigger and put my first shot right through the roof of the garage. You should have seen that queer boy jump. I could smell the dump in his pants. He tried to come near me and take the gun. Tried to nice talk me, tell me how much he liked me. I was pleasant and smiled and that seemed to set him at ease. And then I shot his right hand off. I never seen a pig bleed that bad. Messed up my Pa’s clean garage too. That got me even madder and I kept on pluggin’ him and pluggin’ him. All my anger, my hurt and pain that I’d been storing up my whole childhood went into those gunshots until…let’s just say by the time I got through with him, there was no way to resemble the pieces. I got some of my Mom’s jewelry and my brother’s pot and planted it all on him. Then I called the sheriff. When he came out, he took one look at the mess I made and said, ‘Who taught you to shoot like that, boy?’ and patted me on the head. No charges were ever pressed. In Texas, you better have a damn good reason for messing around somebody else’s property. Sheriff figured Jimmy was just thieving for drug money. When you rip a person to shreds like that and then get patted on the head for it, you know there’s got to be a higher power behind it.”

“Or a lower one,” I said, trying not to care one way or the other.

He laughed, gagged and spit.“You’re right about that, boss,” he said.

A darkness came over his face, which made his features harder to see. The light in the restaurant was already dim enough thanks to the collection of old insect carcasses strewing the bottom of the light fixtures above, which was just as well, as my guest was a pretty sorry sight. Behind him was a wall, strewn with black and white reminders that this was once a thriving and happy place. I needed a break, so I got up for a closer look and saw that each photograph had in it the same accordion-wielding fat guy, with a smile as broad, and sinister, as a Cottonmouth snake pulled end to end. Around him mariachis blared, senioritas swirled, teenage girls celebrated their quincenaeras and skeleton-costumed dancers celebrated Dia de los Muertos. And always in the foreground were those same fleshy cheeks and layered chin, the small, piercing eyes, the sweaty forehead and that insidious, coiled-up grin.

It’s probably Tito, the owner, I thought. From top to bottom, year after year, pictures of Tito with famous area bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Decades flew by. Politicians changed, sports legends changed, everything and everyone changed, except for Tito. It was as if his timeless image was superimposed over each background. What magnetic pull did Tito have to attract so many famous people to such a cockroach dive? I supposed the pictures could be hoaxes. Intuitively, though, I sensed not. The realization sent a shiver down my spine. And that wouldn’t be the last shiver I’d feel today.

The smoke from the sizzling marinated steak, onions and bell peppers wafted into the dining room and made my stomach growl. I moved back to the booth and settled my gaze on the wreck of a man sitting across from me. I looked at his sun-worn face and realized his left eye wasn’t moving; it must be a glass eye. His features looked in high relief, so deep were the crevices in his skin. He’s only fifty-fifty frigging years old, I thought. He had ten years on me, but he looked a hundred and made me feel like I was just out of diapers. However, the most striking detail was the tattered wool coat, full-length and lined, he never took off, even in the hundred-degree Texas sun. Hell, even Bradbury’s Illustrated Man went for a swim now and then. I wondered if this man was covering up something like those tattoos. Or perhaps it was a skin disease of some sort?

The man broke the silence with a heavy sigh. “Thanks, man,” he said. “Thanks for the meal and the a/c. It’s hotter than hell out there.”

I nodded. “Don’t mention it. It’s something I wanted to do for awhile now.”

“Bless you, sir,” he said, wiping away tears. “Sometimes I get awfully sentimental.”

“You know, you can take that coat off if you like. You’d be a lot more comfortable.”

He just ignored me and said, “You come by my corner every morning in that nice car with that pretty lady of yours next to you and you always give me a twenty for a one dollar paper, sometimes more. And I say to myself if God gave me another life, that’s the man I’d like to be.”

“I’m afraid I’m not quite the saint you make me out to be.”

“It don’t make no difference. It’s the good inside a person that counts.”

He coughed and gagged again, but I think that was more from emotion. I saw he was eyeing the chips, like he was at a high stakes Monte Carlo blackjack table. “You must be starving,” I said, taking a couple out and pushing the basket closer to him. “They’re really good. The rest is all yours.”

He took out a large one, dipped it in some salsa and placed the whole thing in his mouth. So many of his teeth were missing or distressed, he seemed to have trouble finding some up for the task. Finally, a grateful crunch was followed by a bittersweet smile. “Mmm, these are really good, but I think I better wait for the meal.” He pushed the basket away. I saw a brief glimpse of embarrassment in his eyes and a pang of guilt struck me. Maybe I should forget my stupid plan, I thought. Just have the meal and leave the poor bastard alone.

The waiter interrupted my thoughts by plunking down two frosty mugs and a cold pitcher of beer. “Dos Equis?”

“Perfect,” I said and he started to leave. I called out, “Oh, waiter!” He turned and smiled. I pointed to the pictures on the wall. “Is that Tito with that accordion? Where is he now?”

“Tito? Ah…my English very little…lo siento.”

“Can someone else help? I’d really like to know.”

“Un momento.” He smiled and walked into the kitchen. 

I brought my attention back to my lunch guest. He had already chugged down his mug of beer.

“That was fast,” I said.

“I was thirsty,” said the man, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. A childish grin formed on his face. “For a while I gave it up. Then it came back and bit me in the ass like a Rottweiler with rabies.” He let out a crusty laugh and burped.

“Shit happens,” I said, watching him pour another glass.

“You want some?” he asked.

I shook my head. “It’s all yours. You need it more than I do, my friend. So, anyway, tell me what happened to your football career. There seems to be a disconnection between then and now. I mean, how does a person become a…”

“A drunken train-wreck? A heap of living garbage on two legs?”           

“Well, I wouldn’t...”

“I don’t know if I want to go there. It’s too painful. I may start blubbering all over the place.” He poured himself another beer and downed it in one swig. “Aw, I don’t know, sir. I got injured in practice and lost my scholarship. I left college after that first year. Had good grades, though. Really I did, even in English. Even did a little Shakespeare for the drama department. I know that’s hard to believe. Road does that to you. The dust and grime gets into your head and scrambles up the gears up like an old transmission, soon you’re standing around, shitting one syllable words in your pants like the town idjit. Sorry for the vulgarity, mister. I shouldn’t cuss in a nice place like this. If my Ma heard the way I talk, she’d get out the horse whip and beat me silly.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I laughed and thought to myself what a fascinating human being this is, and how often we prejudge people based on their appearance or station in life. At that point, I pretty much decided to scrape my plan. “Not everyone is cut out for college,” I said. “Many successful people did just fine without it. Hard work…”

“Just wasn’t the college type is all,” he interrupted. “Went back home, did odd jobs, enlisted in the Army, got into the Special Forces, married my high school sweetie, got her pregnant, had a kid, got her pregnant again, had another kid. You should’ve seen them, though. They were two beautiful sticks of dynamite, roaring to go every time their Pa come home. Man, I loved those boys. The littlest one was named after me, Pete, Jr. Me , Karen and the boys lived in a perfect little house out near Katy, out near where Roger Clemens used to live.”

“Ah, the Rocket that exploded.”

“Yeh, I remember after I enlisted, Karen gave the kids to her sister, and me and her took off to Florida for a weekend, compliments of the army. We walked on those white sandy beaches, had all them fancy drinks and got real friendly at night. I think that was the best two days of my entire life. Then, it all ended. You don’t want to hear the rest.”

“You mean, she just left you and took the kids and the house and put you out on the street? How long ago was this?”

“I don’t know…”

“Listen, I have a very successful law practice. My partners and I have won some of the highest profile custody battles in Harris County. I’m sure I can help you get back…”

“Naw. It’s too late for that.”

“No it isn’t! Pete, I’ve been very fortunate in life, and I would like to help you get your life back in order, get you off the street, clean you up, get you some medical care and then represent you…”

Just then, the waiter burst through the kitchen door, carrying a scorching platter of charred steak with all the accoutrements: freshly baked tortillas, bowls of shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, shredded lettuce and salsa. 

The man’s eyes were huge. A stream of drool fell out the side of his mouth. And he said, “Now there’s a meal for a king!” I tried not to look in order to preserve my appetite.

“Fabuloso,” I said to the waiter.

The little man bowed. “Señor Tito…he say he come out soon. Provecho!”

I could’ve done without that bit of news, especially before eating. Those pictures of Señor Tito gave me the creeps. I should have just kept my big mouth shut and not pried. Now, I’ve got one nightmare in front of me and another one on the way. I shook my head, picked up my spoon and began scooping the sour cream onto my plate. And then I noticed that Mr. Pete hadn’t made a move at all towards his food.

“What’s wrong?” was on the tip of my tongue, but I looked up and saw the man with his eyes closed, his desert dry cheeks covered in moisture. A subtle glow had come over his features. He bowed his head and said, “Heavenly Father, for Thine ever-abundant table, we are eternally grateful. Amen.”

It was the most purely child-like thing I had ever witnessed. My eyes watered, and I suddenly felt very small and insignificant. For every ignoble thought I had directed towards that man, I felt deeply ashamed. At that moment, my whole life, all my wealth and successes, could have fit onto the head of a pin. Here was a shell of man, who had been abandoned by his family and probably hadn’t eaten a good meal since Christmas dinner at the Star of Hope, offering up such a pure gesture of gratitude. And for what? A life of disappointment and cirrhosis of the liver? The only abundance in his life was an abundance of misery. It made me feel empty and spent, like I was leaning over a precipice, trying to spot my life in a dark valley far below.

 “That was incredibly beautiful, Pete,” I said, rubbing my eyes.

“Aw, was nothing. Just a little prayer my grandma taught me is all.”

“Here, I thought I was going to help you out, and I just realized like a fool I’m the one who’s the homeless person.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,  friend. Your heart’s in the right place. That already counts for something. Maybe a lot. Come on, dinner’s gettin’ cold. Let’s dig in.”

I looked up at the Virgin of Guadalupe mural next to me. Her glorious image was still there, and so was the devil and the archangel. But something had changed, the focus of the picture. Wasn’t it a crippled girl at the banks of the Guadalupe that they were all fighting over? Yes, I was sure it had been a sweet little peasant girl. My insides dropped as I now stared at a new image – a plump little boy was playing the accordion by the river. His smile was sweet and innocent, except for the incisors that shot out of his mouth like a pair of open hedge clippers. Was this a young Tito? I reached over to touch the figure with my finger, as if expecting wet paint. I felt a sharp prick and instantly pulled back. “Damn it!” I cried, shaking my finger. There was a trickle of blood at the tip. I examined the wall again. The only sharp edges I could see were the kid’s teeth, which now had a faint trace of red on them. And was that a glint in his eyes? I simply told myself that I had misperceived the situation, that there was logic here, even if it eluded me, and that I would better understand what had just happened with some perspective…like in the next county.

But when I turned to Pete to suggest that we had better leave, I was shocked to see that he was now staring straight ahead, almost trance-like, his lips trembling,  as if he was struggling to articulate something dire. Then out it came, “They all died, Mr. Lawyer.”

“What?” I asked, trying to transition from my experience with the mural.

“They was all killed, all three of them, Karen, my wife, and Teddy, who was eight, and Pete, Jr., who was just six.”

“Geez, Pete,” I said, forgetting about the painting. “What happened?”

He wet his parched lips and continued. “I was stationed in Munich at the time. My commanding officer called me in and told me I had to go back to the States. I asked him why, but he wouldn’t tell me. Nobody told me nothing until I got back home. I knew something had to be wrong, but never in my wildest dreams did I think…” He paused and covered his face with shaking hands. “But when I saw my wet-eyed relatives waitin’ for me at the airport without my family, I knew it then.  My whole life collapsed in a blink. There was an army counselor there and a chaplain, at least they provided that much. They told me Karen took the boys to see her sister in San Antonio. They had been travelling on West I-10. It had been raining hard. An eighteen-wheeler went out of control, hit them and slammed them into the concrete divider and another truck come up behind them and finished them off. They said Pete, Jr. was the only one who didn’t die instantly. He bled to death while they were trying to cut him out. They said he kept crying for his Daddy to come help save them all. I told the preacher to go to hell and headed downtown to the morgue to ID the bodies. I had this new hope that somebody had royally fucked this thing up. This was all going to get straightened out when I got down there. Boy, were those poor bastards going to be sorry they put me through this. There was certain to be more additions to the morgue when I got through with them.”

Poor old Pete slumped back and looked ravaged and defeated, like he was a thousand years old. “I’m afraid there wasn’t much left of either my wife or Teddy to identify them. It looked like some monster had eaten them and vomited them up on the table. But then I saw Pete, Jr. and my heart broke. He looked like a vampire kid, lying there with the blood all drained from him, staring straight up, waitin’ for the moon to rise so he could be with his old Pa again…if only that were true. I put my finger in his little hand and for a moment I could have swore he grabbed it. But it was all in my mind.”

I sat there listening to his narrative, stunned speechless. Never before had I been so blindsided by misreading a person. This broken man was vital and intelligent and had an incredible story to tell. Finally, I asked, “Who was at fault? In the accident, I mean.”

His eyes flared up. “What the hell difference does that make? Do you have a deal with the devil that can bring back the dead or something?”

I instantly regretted my question. I know it sounded so petty and trite, but I’m always thinking like a fucking lawyer. That’s the way I’m wired up. I can’t help it. The need for justice, in my mind, always equals opportunity.

“Okay, Mr. Lawyer,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “Let me tell you a little story about justice and see what you think. There once was a man who wasn’t able to save his family because he was too busy killing people for Uncle Sam. This man was a highly-skilled assassin. He was sent on covert missions all over the world. He killed like it was natural, like boy scouts whizzing on a campfire, like he was born to do it. Honor killings? Justified homicides? Bullshit! Truth is he just liked killing people, liked the rush it gave him, just like the time he killed a young man in his garage way back when he was ten. If he wasn’t killing for the military, he’d be out murdering the public. Yes sir, the army sure treats their serial killers well. Week long trips to Hawaii and all the babes and booze you can handle. Don’t tell the wife, though. Even if she’s dead, don’t tell her.” He moved his face closer and there was a scent of beer and rot on his breath. “Do you know how many men that guy killed? They all had wives and kids, just like he did. And you know what? When that man lost his family out there on the highway to hell, he was just gettin’ his just deserts back. Because all the pain he dished out suddenly come right back at him like a boomerang coming back to cut his own head off.”

He suddenly stood up. “Listen, I know you meant well and everything, but I gotta go, mister. Thanks for the meal and your generosity. I won’t soon forget it.”

“Please, Pete!” I stood up and touched his shoulder. He flinched and moved away.

Then he turned to me with a sad smile and said, “You want to know something really funny, Mr. Lawyer? I’ve tried to kill myself twelve times, but the Lord won’t let me die. I’ve tried cutting, stabbing, hanging, suffocatin’, drowning, falling off buildings, jumping in front of cars, pills. Hired a guy to off me like the Romans used to do, and he ended up shootin’ himself. I even set myself on fire, everything else burned down around me except for me. I’ve seen every psychiatrist, had every therapy, taken every drug. But ain’t nothing been invented that can dull the pain of the truth knivin’ away inside a person. Day by day it just eats away at me a little more. I can feel things slicing off, like a fish being cut open and filleted. And that’s why I have to wear this damn thing!”

He flailed off his coat. A seething mass of maggots covered his arms and torso, which had been stripped bare of flesh. The bones in his rib cage and sternum looked like exposed fossils in a medical waste dump. His body excreted a yellowish puss that the insects seemed to be thriving on, and his intestines oozed a thick green goo that looked like the guacamole on my dinner plate and let off a noxious odor.

I fell on all fours and heaved my guts onto the floor. Never in all my years of helping vicitims of horrible crimes, accidents and medical malpractice had I ever seen anything remotely that appalling. How could he still be alive? The pain, the torment he must be living with was inhuman.

Muttering a long trail of Spanish expletives, the little waiter came running out the back with a mop and bucket to clean up my spew.

Old Pete put on his coat and started for the door.

A booming voice called out, “Wait!” and Pete froze. Where had it come from? Everywhere and nowhere; in my ears and in my mind.

“Mucho problemo,” said the waiter as he dropped the mop and scurried back to the kitchen. A subtle vibration filled the room like an infrasonic tremor. Then I smelt the acrid odor of smoke, like the first whiffs of danger from a burning house. Above I me, I saw long vaporous strands, similar to something a pipe might produce. Nothing to get alarmed at yet, but where was it coming from? The ceiling maybe?   Then, the sound of a distant, out-of tune accordion. Was it broken? And where was it coming from? Below us, yes, far below us. Señor Tito has arrived, I thought, although the notion was still quite ephemeral as most of my attention was taken up trying to ascertain my rapidly changing environment.

Then the damaged accordion sounded again, this time louder, drifting in with the smoke. What was that smell? Then I remembered: Long ago our house burnt down. I was ten, Pete’s age, when he shot that boy. I was left alone, just like Pete. Kept pluggin’ him and pluggin’ him, Pete had said, and I knew what he was talking about. But who set the fire? I was the dumb kid who heated up the cast-iron pan. I was frying hotdogs, the long, plump kind, like at the Astrodome. I was hungry. Three dogs and a whole stick of butter. I was really hungry, so I turned the burner all the way up to high. I looked at the clock.  It was time for Final Jeopardy. I ran to the TV. I knew the answers. What are the Himalayan Mountains? Yes! I won! Smoke filled the kitchen! The dogs were on fire.  The pan was glowing red. I panicked. I grabbed a broom and knocked it off the burner onto the floor. The bristles on the broom caught fire. I tried to get over to the sink to put it out. I lit the curtains instead. It happened so fast. The fire in the pan had started to spread to the lower cabinet, where the bug spray and the cleaning products were kept! I ran outside to get the hose, but the sprinkler was attached. Why did my Dad have to make the connection so tight? By the time I got back in, there was too much heat and smoke. I ran screaming to the neighbor’s house. Nobody was home. I thought about breaking a window to get to their phone. I looked over my shoulder. Flames roared out the kitchen window and were snaking up the siding.  I decided the next logical step was the run to the firehouse - five miles away. Yes, I would run and tell them…but what? That I had started it? The police would arrest me and send me to reform school with that bully Bobby Bosco and that big jerk from Longfellow Middle, Kevin something. They had tried to set the woods, no, the world on fire.  Maybe I would get the book thrown at me too and have to go to jail or to Sing Sing or Alcatraz and have a chain around my legs and break rocks all day. I cut through yards and ran to the next block and then two more until I got to Old Lady Haskell’s house. She had a garage that she never visited because she was wheelchair bound. It was stuffed with every conceivable useless item manufactured in the last half century. Over the years the kids had forged a trap door around back and carved out a nice bubble within all the junk. Older kids used it to do stuff with girls, younger ones found it useful in times of war with neighborhood tribes. The smoke from my house was now high in the sky. It reminded me of Apache distress signals and I went into the garage. Jim Perry, one of the older boys, found me in there about four hours later and, boy, did I have a lot of explaining to do. But my parents blamed themselves and were grateful I didn’t go up with the house. They were always so kind and…willing to die…murdered them while they slept…pluggin’ away and pluggin’…

I felt a severe tug. It was Pete. He was trying to help me up. “Come on, man. Weird shit’s happening. We got to get you outta here!”

“It’s Tito, the owner,” I said. “He’s evil. Run!” I tried to get on my feet, but I looked like a newly born calf as my legs quavered and gave way. But whereas the calf would get back up at the coaxing of its mother, I stayed down, splayed in my own vomit at the coaxing of a force greater than my will…Señor Tito! Pete pulled me up again, grabbed hold of my waist and we both staggered towards the door. “It’s locked!” yelled Pete. I picked up a chair and banged it again and again against the window, every time it rebounded, knocking me off my feet. That sickly accordion was now in the room. Pete and I slowly turned around. From the smoky shadows, we saw it, at first looking disembodied, one of its bellows torn and hanging down, the buttons dingy with wear. Then old, scarred hands came into view, not at all like the pudgy hands in Tito’s pictures. And finally, those hands joined a body, which was gliding towards us on a wheelchair being pushed by the little waiter. I don’t know what looked worse, Pete’s chest or this guy’s face.

He had virtually no hair, only a scalp that was one gigantic blistering scar. Those once stout, vibrant cheeks, now looked skeletal with wounded flesh that was pulled taught, making his eyes bulge like huge eggs. The waiter now bore the same cutaneous affliction on his face and hands and his uniform was in tatters.

As Tito spoke, whatever jaw he had left dangled up and down as if it were a skull puppet on a string. And yet his voice sounded strong and articulate. “Buenos días mi amigos!  Muchas, muchas gracias for visiting my humble restaurante today!” The cackling that came next was horrible, made up of such venomous pain as cannot be replicated.

Pete and I stared at each other in disbelief. I’ve been in front of the most difficult judges and juries one can imagine and my nerves had never been more flayed, more hyper-exposed. 

I stepped forward, my knees about to buckle at any moment. “What a fascinating place you have here, Señor Tito,” I said and coughed into a shaking hand. “Though maybe not an ideal place to bring a romantic date. I think I should just settle up the bill and leave. Visa, American Express?”

Tito’s voice sang out in an eerie, disembodied falsetto, Tumba, que tumba, que tumba, tumba, tumba. The accordion hummed along discordantly, even though no keys were being pressed. That melody, if you could call it that, still haunts my nightmares.

“We really don’t have time for the entertainment. Although you do have a very interesting voice…”

Walking up beside me, Pete said, “I’ll handle this, Mr. Lawyer. I ain’t that drunk that I can’t recognize two pieces of shit on a stick. It takes a lot more than a pitcher to get me drunk.” He laughed, spit and said to Señor Tito, “You half-witted spawn of a poxed goat. You ain’t getting my soul, no how!” From his coat pocket, Pete pulled out a military issue M9, walked up to Tito and aimed it right in his face. The waiter started to protest, and Pete pointed the gun at him and yelled, “Hey, why don’t you shut the fuck up, you little Mexican midget. Make yourself useful and bring us out more brew.” Then he repositioned the gun in front of Tito, who remained expressionless. “Now that I’ve got my sweet Karen Jane pointed right at your ugly face, I want you to let this nice friend of mine out of here, so we can finish our business.”

“Pete!” I said.

“Shut your lawyer ass up!” He turned around and pointed the gun at me. “You don’t know what’s going on here. But I do! So just get the hell out here!”

Tito repeated his mantra, Tumba, que tumba, que tumba, tumba, tumba, this time adding some Sephardic flourishes.

“You go nowhere, misters,” said the waiter, exposing a row rotting teeth as he smiled. And that smile remained on his face as he fell backwards with a freshly carved out hole in his forehead from Pete’s pistol.

The light in the restaurant vanished. An illuminated smoke seethed in from the cracks in the floor, smelling like fried cat urine.

“I don’t think that was a good idea, Pete,” I said moving all the way to the front of the store. But instead of a window, I now saw a solid wall, cutting us off completely from the outside.

The accordion crackled, groaned and growled and took on the form of a rabid dog with foam frothing out its sides. Then there were two, three, ten, a hundred hungry accordions surrounding us. The floor shook with low, insane voices rising up beneath us, chanting, Tumba, que tumba, que tumba, tumba, tumba with barbaric Bartokian staccato rhythms.

Tito’s singing grew louder and more rhapsodic, Tumba, que tumba, que tumba, tumba, tumba.

And then in English:

Tomb, which tomb, which tomb, tomb, tomb am I coming from?                                  

Tomb, which tomb, which tomb, tomb, tomb are you going to?                                                                                      

Fear and smoke filled my lungs and I found it difficult to speak. “Run, Pete!” I tried to say. Then I saw Pete’s tattered sneakers slowly coming towards me. “No!” I wheezed and coughed. “The other way!”

Tomb, which tomb, which tomb, tomb, tomb is mine?                                                     

Tomb, which tomb, which tomb, tomb, tomb is yours?

The smoke cleared enough that I could see the mural of the back wall begin to crumble, and as piece after piece fell away, behind it was revealed the identical scene, but this time in real life. It was like peering through a misty portal and seeing something from the Book of Revelations as John had seen it.

Then all went quiet. The boy in the hole in the wall, no, now it was Tito with his accordion, called out from the scene. “Come and join us, Amigos! The water is perfecto!” The reality around me collapsed as the view from the wall grew larger and more tactile until it had fully encompassed us and then swallowed us up whole in its monstrous belly. Both of us hurtled headlong into the deep, muddy waters of the Guadalupe. Everything happened so suddenly, I had not yet absorbed the shock and the water helped revive me. It felt cool and flaccid but tasted stale. I didn’t stay submerged for long. And as I swam to the surface I wondered why there were no currents. It was more like a lake, than a mighty river. I looked around for Pete and I spotted him about twenty yards away. He was having trouble staying afloat. His weak arms thrashed the surface, his waterlogged coat helping to pull him down. The image of his torso flashed through my mind and I couldn’t imagine what that water must feel like against that…flesh? I swam over to him, “Pete, hold on. I’m coming.” I grabbed him by his coat collar and began pulling him towards the embankment. The water seemed to get thicker the closer I got to shore. Every stroke was agony. Just ten yards to go, but I couldn’t swim any longer. The image of Popeye the Sailor pulling the Titanic, anchor and all, flashed through my head. That was ridiculous. I hadn’t thought about Popeye since I was a kid. I hated that cheap-looking cartoon; it was ancient and stupid. Two cans of spinach for Perry Mason and his maggoty friend, Pete.  Raymond Burr? How archaic and dumb can you get? I started to laugh and that made me even weaker. Where had that voice come from? My head bobbled above and then below the surface and I began to sink. I resisted. The water here tasted vinegary and a harrowing picture flashed through my head of the Savior’s mangled body covered in maggots; then I saw Pete’s face. And they gave me gall to eat and vinegar to drink and a beer to chase it down.  I laughed again. Please stop this! But who was I talking to?

I spit the sour water out of my mouth. I couldn’t hold up both myself and Pete any longer. “Pete, I’m beginning to take on water. It’s too thick. Get rid of the coat, or I’m going to have to let you go.” That voice again. It’s so damn thick you could eat it with a fork, came into my head. Yes, it’s like I’m swimming in a Campbell’s soup can. I started to laugh again. But you’ll want to use a spoon to get every maggoty drop. “Stop it!” I told the voice. And I forced the words away.

There was a vicious laugh from the shore. “What’s the matter, Perry Mason? Lost your sense of humor? The great hairy beast with the glowing red eyes from the mural was holding out a long tree limb for us to grab onto. A voice inside me told me not to take it, that I wouldn’t or couldn’t drown. But I was desperate. Pete had already been under water for some time and I was coming up for the last time. I reached out my hand and the limb lashed out snake-like and sank it’s teeth deep into my hand. The pain was paralyzing. There was now the head of a cobra latched onto my hand; it’s eyes flickering with flames. It kept chewing and pressing further into my bones. I felt the poison release and race down my arm. There was more laughter from the beast, followed by a pulling sensation. The only thing supporting Pete and me were the fangs of the serpent embedded in what was left of my hand. Tugging, jerking. The pain reached a point of transcendency, where I felt disconnected with my body. You’re losing it. Stay awake. Don’t let him win! Soon, I felt the muddy earth supporting my body and with a horrific yank I was up on dry land with Pete dragging behind me. The Cobra head let go and I lay face down, trying to catch my breath. It was all I could do to stifle the waves of thrashing pain.

A twentyish and vibrant Tito was playing his accordion and dancing a little Mexican-style jig. He sang the old Frito Bandito tune, except substituting his name: I am Tito Bandito. And then the Devil joined in, grunting and spastically moving his limbs. The scene looked ridiculous, cartoonish, except that it was solidly real, just as the snake bite had been real. A sense of comic doom permeated the surroundings like a mock execution. The thought occurred to me that perhaps we were now inside Tito’s mind, his inner sanctum, which would help explain his younger persona and the old TV references.

The whole scene was bathed in a glittering, surreal light, but there was no sun. Instead, there floated high in the sky the radiating image of the Virgin queen. A tiny little mouse, dressed in a sombrero, came down the embankment and whispered in my ear: “My name is Speedy Gonzales and I know everybody’s sister! Do you have a sister?”

“I’m afraid not, Speedy,” I replied, shaking my head in disbelief.

The rodent took out a large six-shooter and pointed it in my face. “The judge wants you up, up, up and ready for the trial.”

“What trial? And who’s the judge?”

In a whirlwind of light and movement, Pete and I found ourselves standing side by side before the Lady of Guadalupe. On her left the Devil stood with his mighty serpent scepter, on her right was an older Tito, who now looked grave and sullen. It was like no courtroom I could have ever envisioned in the furthest limits of absurdity.

The Lady wore a magnificent blue cloak and a crown adorned with roses and diamonds. When she spoke, it wasn’t so much hearing her words, as it was feeling them in one’s core. “Life is about choice,” she said in a stately, but tender voice. “But truth is adamantine and every choice has a consequence. Are you ready Peter?”  

Pete straightened up. And moved forward “I’m real sorry, Ma’am. I shouldn’t of shot that waiter. But he was gettin’ on my nerves and…”

She interrupted. “Ten years ago you were trying to end your life by setting yourself on fire, did you not?”

“I guess I did. My wife and boys died and I was pretty messed up…”

“And do you bear the horrible reminders of this tragedy on your chest, arms and legs?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I do.”

“And did you not set the building you were behind on fire instead?”

“I guess so. I was pretty drunk at the time.”

“Did you know that the building you set on fire was Tito’s.”

“No, Ma’am. I honestly wasn’t in my right mind.”

“And did you know that you killed Tito and his entire family in the blaze? And that he’s been waiting for you these ten long years to extract his revenge, so he can move on?”

I looked up in astonishment. Tito was dead? This just keeps getting weirder, and yet strangely more elucidating.

“But the restaurant was still there,” Pete argued. “Mr. Lawyer and me, we was having a fine meal there.”

“That was just an illusion created out of Tito’s lust for revenge.”

“Excuse me,” I interjected. “I appreciate the seriousness of the allegations, but I was having lunch there as well, and it all seemed perfectly real to me. And seeing as I’m not part of this little spat, I don’t see why I’m even here. Just let me pay the bill and I’ll leave. I’ll even throw in a gratuity of say a couple of hundred dollars for the excellent sideshow.”

The Lady’s radiance increased. “Oh, but you are a part of this, Mr. James Kelly. Please step forward and tell Pete the real reason why you invited him to lunch at Tito’s.”

I resisted and tried to leave but my feet felt like two railroad ties. Then a coolness came over me, and I felt an odd sensation of something writhing up my esophagus. I coughed and out of my mouth flew a huge black moth. And it pulled from out of me a dripping string of words that looked like sickly pearls dredged up from a swamp. And I heard my voice saying, “I am not a lawyer. I’m a professor at a university here in town. I’ve been having an affair with one of my grad students. My wife found out and threatened to destroy my career.”

Pete’s jaw dropped as my words continued to flow without me. “My plan was to hire old Pete to burglarize my home. By the time, he got there, my wife would be dead. I would then arrive home, catch him in the act, shoot him with my gun and plant the weapon I used to murder my wife on him. Who would question the deranged motives of a homeless man with Pete’s horrid looks and history?”

Next to me I heard Pete’s crusty old laugh. “Why you miserable piece of scum, you really had me going there. How much was you thinking of paying me to do all that?”

“Listen, it’s true. I was planning to do that but I…I changed my mind once I got to know you. I changed my volition completely.”

“What about your poor wife? I don’t think she’ll ever be safe, you monster. I think you’ll just go out and find another bum to take to lunch at Tito’s.”

“Excuse me.” Tito’s voice interrupted. “Excuse me, but Tito’s Tacqueria is now closed forever.”

“See there, Mr. Whoever-You-Are,” said Pete. “You’re gonna have to find another eatery to suit your devious needs.”

Tito broke in again and pointed at us both. “Excuse me but there won’t be any more need for food at restaurante.”

“And why not?” I asked.

“Because, my amigos. You’re both dead.”

Pete and I looked at each other and laughed.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Pete. “How did you kill us when we’re standing right here?”

“Poisoned chips!” laughed Tito, clapping his hands. “My specialty!”

Pete turned to me. “Mister, one thing I learned in the army: never trust what you hear and only half of what you see.”

“That’s two things,” I said. “Now move!” And as we started to make a run for it, we found our surroundings dissolving into a thick blanket of dust. And there we were, back at Tito’s restaurant, but not as we had previously seen it. Amongst a pile of old rubble and burned-out debris, a rescue squad was trying to resuscitate two bodies. Between them was a bag of “Tito’s Tortilla Chips” with a picture of Tito and his accordion on the front.

I walked over to the bodies for a closer look. “Are those guys us?” Pete asked.

“Afraid so.” I shook my head.

“Damn,” Pete muttered. “I knew there was something not quite right about them chips. That’s the last time I’m eating anything Mexican.”

I chuckled. “Ironically, my wife always told me to stay away from foods like that. She said one day they’d be the end of me.”

“Serves you right, asshole.”

We started walking away with our shoulders slumped, hands in our pockets. After awhile we came to a bridge crossing over Brazos Bayou. We paused and looked down into the murky water. I turned to Pete. “Aren’t you the happy one? Finally got your wish, didn’t you? You’re dead as a door mat.”

“If I don’t get back to my corner soon, somebody’s gonna steal my damn newspapers.”

“And I have an appointment at two.” I looked at my watch. The dial was now blank.

Pete snorted. “I think you’re permanently on leave, Mr. Professor. I bet you ain’t even a teacher. I bet you’re one of them human traffickers or some pervert.”

“To tell you the truth, I am actually a lawyer. I don’t know why I said that about being a professor. Strange…”

“Bull crap! I’m tired of your face and your lies!” Pete took out his gun and shot me three times between the eyes. Nothing happened. He let out a bestial scream and flung the gun into the Bayou.

“Feel better?” I asked.

Pete grunted and bent his head down towards the water as if genuflecting. I walked away, and Pete followed at a distance.

I turned around. “Am I going to have to spend all of eternity listening to you carrying on like that? You really disgust me. Why don’t you go do something constructive like throw yourself off this bridge or in front of a semi or be creative and learn to dissect yourself?”

Pete knocked himself on the side of the head with his palm. “Shit, that’s right! I can’t even kill myself no more because I’m already dead.” The revelation stunned him into a state of despair, and we walked silently for about another half hour, although it could have been much longer.

We reached Hollywood Cemetery on N. Main and sat down on a cement bench beneath a very old and expressive Live Oak. Pete bent over and spit and said, “Ain’t we just two fancy flies buzzing ‘round in our own patch of manure with no place special to go.”

“So what do we do now?” I asked dryly, stretching out my back.

“I could really use a beer,” Pete said, licking his lips.

“Me, too. I’m parched. I wonder where…”

Suddenly, the sound of an accordion wafted through the air.

“Hear that?” I asked and shot my gaze across the cemetery.

“Uh…that better not be who I think it is…”

And the ground beneath us shook with the words:

Tumba, que tumba, que tumba, tumba, tumba, tumba, tumba….

 

Copyright (c) 2011  HomelessFilmProject

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