She and Gabo were walking to the movie theater when a black sedan pulled up beside them and the two men in it sprang out and one of them grabbed her and started pulling her to the car. She tried to kick him and heard Gabo fighting with the other one and then heard the pistolshots. She was able to get out her knife and tried to cut the one pushing her into the back seat but he got it away from her, nearly breaking her thumb. He cuffed her hands behind her and told her to quit kicking or they would wrap her in rope from head to foot. As they sped away she looked back through the rear window and saw Gabo lying bloody in the street with the awkwardness of the dead. People peeking from doorways and behind parked cars. She had not once thought to scream.
She kept asking where they were taking her but they said nothing more. She knew that gangsters kidnapped rich people and sometimes some who were not so rich and demanded ransom from the families. She told them they had a big fucking surprise coming if they thought they would get ransom for her. Her only family was a drunken mother who didn’t have fifty pesos to her name and if she did she sure as hell wouldn’t use it to ransom her. You stupid bastards snatched an empty purse, she told them. She could not stop talking and was afraid they would hurt her to shut her up but they ignored her like the deaf.
They took her far out of town to a house with a view of the sea. Waiting there was a lean handsome man whom the two men addressed as Segundo. He politely introduced himself to her as Enrique. He already knew her name and said it in a tone she’d never heard it said before, as though he were speaking of some “Miranda” she’d never met. She would later come to know he was called Rico by his brother and close friends, El Segundo by everyone else. He said he was the brother of a man called La Navaja and asked if she had ever heard that name, and she said yes so softly she wasn’t sure she’d spoken. Like everyone, she had heard a great deal about the criminal organization commanded by La Navaja. Had heard of its gun battles with other gangs and the police and even the army. Had heard of the horrific things they did. Heads left in bags at the doors of police stations. Bodies hung from overpasses. Charred corpses along country roads. Atrocities of every sort that had become so commonplace they were no longer shocking, just something to take precautions against, like the flu. And here was the brother of the chief of that organization of killers.
She was scared, yes, but in that peculiar way as at a movie about monsters or ghosts. Scared but thrilled at the same time, she couldn’t have explained it. One of the men handed Segundo the switchblade he’d taken from her, and Segundo flicked it open and smiled and then closed it and gave it to her and she put it in her pocket. He told her he’d seen her near the market a few days before and thought she was very beautiful. He said he wanted her for his girlfriend. He said she would have her own apartment with a big television in a nice colonia in Culiacán. He would take her to wonderful parties. She would dine on the best food and drink. She would have pretty dresses. She would have a life most girls could only dream of. He said he could see she was afraid, maybe too frightened to refuse him, but he promised he would not harm her if she turned him down. He would be disappointed, yes, but he would send her back to her miserable life if that was what she chose. His exact words. “Tu vida miserable.” He said he knew how hard it must be for her to believe this was happening and she probably needed a little time to think about it and so she should do that while he made a phone call out in the patio.
* * *
Left in the main room by herself, she wondered how she might tell all of this to someone. She might begin by saying, Imagine my life.... Then tell that she was born and raised in Mazatlán in a loud portside barrio that stank of fish and rage and meanness. A neighborhood of derelict apartments where every night you heard cursings, shriekings, wailings. As a child she many times saw men brawling in the streets and was once a witness to a fight with knives that left both men dead on the sidewalk like heaps of bloody rags. She has seen a man beat his wife to death with a hammer in an apartment hallway. She has seen a woman flung from a rooftop to burst on the street like a clothed melon. But her father was a big man, strong, a good fighter, and other men were afraid of him, you could see it in their faces. Her father made her feel protected, her and her year-older sister and their mother, who was beautiful and always getting looks from other men. He was a fisherman and was almost well-paid and often spoke of getting a house of their own in some other part of the city. But he loved to gamble and was not good at it and they could never afford to move out of that awful barrio.
She was twelve when he drowned at sea. Then life became truly hard. Her mother had no money, no family or friends she could ask for help. She worked at a cannery for a time and barely earned enough to support them. Then there was an accident with a machine and she lost the thumb and first finger of her right hand and nearly died from the infection before she got better. They were nearly starving by then, they were close to being put on the street. So her mother naturally became a whore, an old story everywhere and especially in that neighborhood so full of whores where the seamen came for their fun. But as a whore she could pay the rent and put food on the table. She brought men to her room almost every night. All of them drank and so she drank with them and eventually became a drunkard. Over time the drinking spoiled her looks and fewer and fewer men came home with her and she made less and less money. By that point she had become a stranger to her daughters who were now in their teens and learning for themselves about men and sex and the power of being pretty. When Miranda’s sister was seventeen she got pregnant by a forty-year-old man who owned a café in Villa Uníon, and rather than have an abortion she gulled him into marriage. Being wife to a café owner was her sister’s notion of a good life.
She herself continued to go to school for a while longer, mostly because it was a clean and orderly and safe place to pass the day, and it was there that she learned about contraception. She had liked sex from her first time at fourteen but had been unbelievably lucky not to get pregnant before learning how to prevent it. She had seen what happened to so many young girls who got pregnant, married or not. Had seen how fast they got fat and bitter, how fast they got old. When she took up with Gabo, who was an errand runner for a waterfront boss, the only thing she knew about her own future was that she did not want it to be either like her mother’s or her sister’s. She did not love Gabo but he was handsome and funny and tough. He made her feel safe as her father had and he taught her things about protecting herself. Like how to use the knife he gave for her birthday. Which was sadly funny when you consider what happened when Segundo’s men drove up in the car.
So ... she would say in telling her story ... imagine my life to that point. Imagine yourself in my place. What choice would you have made? Perhaps her listener would own the kindness to say, The same one you did, of course. Segundo was happy to hear her choice. Then took her in a bedroom and fucked her.
* * *
He gave her all that he had promised. The apartment with the big TV, the nice dresses, the fancy parties and nightclubs. But although he and his brother owned several houses in Culiacán and in other cities, he never took her to any of them. For the simple reason that he had a different girlfriend at each of them, a fact she learned from some of the women at the parties, catty bitches who told her Segundo went through young girls even faster than his brother La Navaja and she better be ready for the day he kicked her back into the street.
She felt foolish for not having understood that’s how it would be. Of course he’d have other girls. Of course he would one day tire of her. But she told herself it didn’t matter since she was not in love with him and wasn’t jealous and what did she care what he did when he was not with her? In the meantime why not enjoy the luxury while she could? But she very soon had to admit that it did matter. Because it forced her to face the fact that she wasn’t a girlfriend, she was a whore. Just one more in a world with no lack of them. As much of a whore as her mother, except better dressed and fed and housed and protected. No, more of a whore, actually, because her mother had been forced to become one but she had chosen to. It was an undeniable truth and one that every day became harder to bear. She’d been with Segundo three months when she ran away. She got on a bus to Los Mochis, but it had gone only a few miles out of town before a big car with three men in it forced it to pull over and one of the men came aboard and got her and drove her back to Culiacán.
Segundo seemed more amused than angry by her attempt at escape. She told him she’d changed her mind, she didn’t want to be his girlfriend. She asked him to please send her back to Mazatlán as he had said he would do. He refused. He had given her a choice and she had made it and now she must live by it. But why not let her go, she asked him. He’d soon be tired of her and kick her out anyway. He said that was very possible, and when that happened she could leave, but not before. He had a tattooist put little red broken wings on her back. A reminder, he said, that she could not fly away from him. More effective than the tattoos were the informants she now knew were keeping watch on her and would report to him any attempt she made to leave.
Some weeks later he took her to a party at Rancho del Sol, a lavish heavily-guarded hacienda in the Sonora Desert which La Navaja used for recreational retreats for himself and some of his underbosses. It was four days of drinking and fucking and there were of course many other women there and she hated all of them. But the worst part was the sense of dislocation. It was the farthest she had ever been from home, from the sea. The vastness of the desert frightened her. Everything looked too far away, even the cloudless sky. There was nowhere you could hide in such emptiness.
One late night in the course of those four days, as she lay awake while Segundo snored beside her, she began to recall episodes from her girlhood for no reason she could name. She remembered an afternoon when she was nine years old and fishing with a hand line from the seawall of a brackish Mazatlán inlet and caught a fish more than three feet long with a long ugly snout full of sharp teeth. A man nearby told her it was a trash fish and no good for eating, so she tossed it aside thinking to later cut it up for bait, but then forgot about it. When she described it to her father that evening he told her it was a gar, one of the oldest and toughest creatures in the world. The next morning when she went back to do more fishing the gar was still lying on the seawall. She kicked it into the water and watched it slowly sink. Then it suddenly twitched and stopped sinking. Then waggled its tail and swam away into the murk. She was astonished. How could any fish have lived out of water for so long? She thought it must have held very tight to its last breath until he could return to where he belonged, and she marveled at the force of will such a feat had required. She had not thought of the gar again until that lonely night in the desert.
During the next two months he came to see her at the Culiacán apartment more often than before. It was as though her desire to be free of him had increased his desire for her. But he also seemed very ready to hurt her if she should fail to satisfy him. She had heard stories of what he had done to women who had displeased him, and she did not hesitate to grant whatever favors he asked and to do so with enthusiasm. She was sure he could sense her fear of him and that it increased his pleasure, a realization that made her almost as angry as she was afraid, but she was careful to conceal the resentment. It wasn’t so much a matter of who did he think he was, to take such enjoyment in making her afraid, as who did he think she was? But of course she already knew the answer to that, and every time she thought of it she wanted to weep and scream at the same time.
Then three days ago he told her to pack a bag, they were going to another party at Rancho del Sol. Without thinking, she said, Shit, and the next thing she knew she was on the floor with a numb eye socket and an eye blurred with tears. Excuse me, he said, I don’t think I heard you clearly. Did you say you couldn’t wait to go? She was able to nod and he smiled and said that’s what he thought. He said it would be fun. Like the last time, he said. Right?
She nodded again. And drew a deep breath.
© James Carlos Blake 2012
This electronic version of "Miranda of Mazatlan" is excerpted from the author's novel, Rules of Wolfe, to be published next year by Grove/Atlantic. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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photo: Esme Ace