Spring 2010, Volume 8

Drury Award Winner

Fiction by Peter Basson

The Ring

I’d figured Tony would look the same, but Gonzo, 31, looked like a construction foreman who’d won the lottery, a big guy gone soft, still holding onto some of his brutish charm, but sagging in the gut. He’d cultivated elaborate face hair to compensate for his thinning pate: mutton-chops and a soul patch. He wore a gubayara, the traditional Mexican shirt, and he picked me up at Los Mochis airport in a shellacked black Escalade, a fortress-like vehicle that cast frightening reflections in the roadside puddles. After throwing my bags in the back, he drove toward the village at breakneck speed, hurtling through alleyways of towering mango and banana trees that shuttered us in on both sides. The ferocious winds I'd flown in through had blown over, but the sky was snaggy with cloud. It was humid, hot, and hard to breathe.

He said, “So here comes trouble. It’s been how long?”

“Too long.”

“But how long, exactly?”

“Three, four years. Must be.”

“Try seven, amigo, which makes me wonder.” He looked at me before switching back to the road. “By the way, mi corazon, Cascabel, will be at the plaza. Anything you have to say, she’s hears it too. Fill me in while I’m driving. What’s the latest?”

I hesitated. The instant I’d seen him lumbering toward me at the airport, I’d realized the currency of our old friendship was devalued. We’d been apart too long and what had once seemed natural—asking him for help—now seemed like begging.

I said, “The latest? I’m here to help Suze out of her shit, that’s about it.”

He said, “All due respect, her dealing property in Mexico—she was naïve, it’s a sucker move. So now she’s on the hook to some asshole money man. Why not cut her losses and run back to Chicago? Situation solved.”

Overhead, the clouds split and a sunlit arrow of cirrus burned in the seam, tracked the road, and pointed our way forward. Tony was pushing 80, gripping the wheel hard.

He said, “You want her back, understood, but even if you get her back, it’ll never be like it was. If I help you get her out of this mess, things only get complicated. I see resentment, regret and grudges held. That doesn’t bother me but it ought to bother you.”

I switched subjects. “Tell me about Cascabel. Another one of your spitfires?”

Tony had a thing for acid tongued molls. I’d seen an old girlfriend attack him physically during a drunken brawl. It was like watching a spider monkey beat its fists against a gorilla chest—not so much ineffective as beside the point.

“Cascabel’s a gigantic pain in the ass and she’s red hot. She’s smarter than you and me and she hates bullshit. That enough, amigo? You okay with that? Women are a pain in the ass, but this isn’t about Cascabel, it’s about this giant favor you want from me.”

I rotated my white-gold wedding ring, worn talismanically for the first time in months. “Mexico suits you, Tony. You look good.”

“It suits me. How’s that? They’re crazy down here just like me? Get off your knees, amigo. You look like a fuckin’ ghost. When was the last time you saw the sun? When was the last time you ate red meat? When was the last time you ate pussy?”

 “I’ve been Occupied.”

“Shit, you need some dulce, Holmes, a nice mamacita with big milky tits to fill you the fuck up and put some lead in your lapiz….So you’re still at the house?”

“I’ve been waiting—.”

“I know, for Suze to come walking back with her suitcases and an apology, Forget it. Not happening. She won’t come back, even after this.” He paused, turned and looked at me for a moment, letting the Escalade drift into the opposite lane, where a fruit-laden truck was speeding toward us.

“Watch out for—Holy fuck, Tony!”

He cut back in just as the truck went whizzing by on the other side.

He softened for a moment and smiled. “Well, Magic Man, we certainly have got a lot of catching up to do. We’re going to party tonight.”

An hour later, I’d checked into Villa Amour, a whitewashed motel Tony had recommended at the edge of the village by a turgid brown river. The room had a cigarette-scarred carpet, creeping mildew on the walls, a bed with dirty sheets and a fiber-glass shower with a hole in it. I spent a few minutes searching for creepy crawlies, then took a tentative shower, dressed, and walked through the hot, humid streets to the plaza.


We sat outside El Colon with cold beers and a bottle of mescal. An orange glow hung over the plaza. The sky had no stars. Tripa and chorizo sizzled on hot plates. Pop music, screams, and laughter came from the ancient carnival rides that were propped on leveling piles of brick and timber. A small crowd buzzed about a reed tower shaped like an electricity pylon. Strapped with fireworks, the tower rose through a tangle of overhead wires between the parochial church and the crumbling municipal building.

            Tony scooped guac from the molcajete, tipped his head and dropped the gloopy mass between his teeth. “So I get that you want me to help you sort this out, but I’m curious, why help Suze now, why not let her burn?”

“You want her back,” added Cascabel. “after she dropped you like a bad habit.”

Cascabel was no surprise—all made up, a viper with an upturned nose and almond eyes, her black hair writhing with bleached orange streaks. She even wore snakeskin, a pythonic bodice laced vertically down the front, the laces parted top and bottom to give plenty of eyeball room to her long brown legs and cleaving breasts. She looked about twenty, though it was hard to tell, under the lights, under the influence.

She said, “She calls up and says she’s in trouble and boom, you’re here before she puts down the phone. It’s as if you were hovering in the background waiting for her to fuck up. It’s kinda creepy, actually. What’s with the desperation?”

“Easy,” Tony said. “Home boy didn’t come here for a lecture.”

“Ask yourself if she’d do it for you. From what I’ve heard—”

Tony put a finger to his lips. “Babe, please, check yourself. Rick’s an old friend.” He looked at me, held out his hands and shrugged. “Remember when we used to tell them what to do?” He picked up the mescal, held it up to the light, the grub at the bottom like a chunk of cerebral matter. “The worm has turned, but I have to agree with Cascabel on this one. Explain to me how this works.”

 “I don’t care about the past, not right now. She needs help, I’m here.” I downed my mescal, dabbed sweat from my forehead with a paper napkin. “If you can’t help, so be it. I’ll do what I can on my own.”

Tony refilled my glass.

“Drink,” he insisted, nodding approvingly as I picked up the fresh shot. “You’re going to need help down here, amigo, something outside of the normal channels.”

 “This is the pits,” said Cascabel, getting up to visit the bathrooms. “It stinks.”

Tony glared at her as she turned. “Tell you what, anything you want down here: money, horses, drugs; that’s all  fine. But women? Not in Mexico. The women down here are fuckin’ witches. But look at me, I’m fucked, I fucking love them.”

A waiter came by with three more beers and a receipt on a small white plate. He bowed, swept away our empties and disappeared into the lights. The bar was packed for the fiesta and now the paseo had begun—a circling of the plaza. Ranchero blared from the amusements, while a rocket flashed and exploded overhead like a gun-shot.

After a short silence I said, “So what do you think?”

He tipped his mescal, pounded his chest. “Oh, that’s the ticket.” He poured us both another shot. “It depends, but if you’re willing to pay a price, you can pretty much get whatever you want down here. The courts won’t do it. Forget it. This guy she’s with, by the sound of him, he probably has relationships with all the local cops and judges.”

“It’s disgusting,” said Cascabel who’d returned and was now picking at the bronze lacquer on her nails. “That you’re even thinking of getting involved in this, Tony.”

I ignored her. “From what she told me, Suze was played. This guy made all the right noises, wined and dined her, flew her to Cancún for a long weekend while he took care of her debt, the whole deal. Then she moved in to his place and it all went wrong.”

“Asi es!” Tony lit a cigarette, drawing smoke open-mouthed over his splayed tongue. He tipped his head, blew out a wobbly smoke-ring. “Take a walk, amigo? Soak up some flavor, flave!” He turned to Cascabel “Keep the home fires burning, mi corazon.”

She hissed at us from her chair: “Don’t count on it.”

I bolted my shot and stood. I had no idea what Tony was still capable of. He was still an immense guy, doorway filling, but a fat fifty over his playing weight and with that elaborate facial hair, he had fiasco written all over him. Still, he was all I had.

We joined the paseo, walking counterclockwise.

“Don’t worry about Cascabel,” Tony said. “She knows less than you think.”

A foursome wearing sombreros and white suits played from the palm-fringed kiosk. The smells were burning meat, gunpowder and sweat. The clock on the tower said 9:45. My white-gold wedding ring had an etching on the inside—Suze loves Rick. I’d have been happy with silver, but Suze’d insisted I get white-gold with her coda inside.

Tony said, “Let’s talk hypotheticals. Will this guy roll over if certain pressure is applied. That’s all you need to know. There are variables, unforeseens, but if you act quickly, you might get a result. The door’s closing, though. It’s going to slam—” He slapped his hands in front of my face. “Shut!”

The paseo halted as if in response to his thunderous handclap. A drunk, wearing what looked like a dirty area rug, wobbled by holding a rocket that he lit with a wavering match. He pointed it unsteadily upward, then watched sparks burn down his arm. The cohete exploded low over the plaza, causing the crowd to duck beneath it.

I said, “I’m ready to do something. I’ve realized—”

“That prudence isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to bring heat.” He clamped a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Come on now, admit you’ll do anything.”

“Okay, yeah, I admit it. Name your price and I’ll pay it. I hope that’s not insulting because that’s the last thing I want. This isn’t about money, after all.”

“Listen, my friend, Suze rolled the bones. She got in above her head. You want to help her, figure on rolling them again. It’s as simple as that. You want advice, there it is.”

There was a pause in the circling as the crowd caught up in itself. The paseo, like a vortex, was slowing under the weight of its own accumulation. We shuffled forward, Tony half a foot taller than anyone else. People poured in from adjacent streets, men carrying ballenas, liters bottles of beer, or plastic bottles filled with fermented corn mash. Cohetes were being fired indiscriminately from all sides. A drunk threw up over a railing. Six Tarahumara Indians in white pajamas, chalk and carbón smeared over their faces, pounded gas cans with hooked sticks while dancing about a dismal effigy, a stuffed bundle of rags with a crude mask and a burning cigarette in its mouth. A rolled up newspaper penis—lacquered a garish red—protruded from its open fly.

Tony stopped walking, the crowd parting around him like water around a rock.

“Suppose I do know somebody who could help. I’ve met a few of these types. One of my cousins has los negros watching his exports. They don’t fuck around. You give these guys the word, it’s impossible to take it back. They go, because then, amigo, you owe. We’re talking firm contracts now, not some mierda signed in an office with a fat fuck smoking a cigar. Someone gets this message, something gets done. It’s business time and you, my friend, are paying irregardless of results.”

Several rockets went crackling overhead like gunfire. I imagined a dark country lane, a big house at the top, two asesinos waiting for this guy as he got out of his Mercedes, capping him as Suze sat in the passenger seat, then yanking the keys from his curled fist.

I twisted my wedding ring. “I want to be a part of this, Tony. It feels right for the first time in months, you know. I’m doing something.”

“Careful, amigo, you’d better be very careful with this sort of commitment.”

“What about a simple threat, some hard-core arm-twisting?”

Threats? Let me tell you something, weakness is an invitation down here for others to take advantage. Suze needs something to frighten this fucker away.” He pointed at the crumbling municipal building, a baroque hall where a crowd had formed. A group of men were huddled around an Indian carrying an electric-shock machine—a crate filled with batteries with a rheostat on top and two cables running from its side.

“Ever try that therapy, el toque?”

“No thanks. I’ve enough juice running through my system as it is.” 

A beefy, shaven-headed young man took up the electrodes. A hoot went up then he emerged from the huddle thumping his chest.

“You’ve thought about it, though, right? A real man always wonders about his tolerance for pain. You can’t help it. That dick pumping his chest like he’s King Kong, the state you’re in, don’t you think you could take more than that? For him, it’s a game; for you life’s fast becoming a deadly serious business.”

A soft-bellied older man took up the electrodes but we walked on.

“Suze is the desperate one, Tony, not me. I’m only here because of her.”

“Right, you’re not desperate but you’ll do whatever it takes to get her back. Here’s the deal, Holmes. Suppose I send someone to help—most likely scenario? She escapes and you’re a hero. Most people, they see one of these guys, they sigh, they walk away, they understand. But not everyone. You could have blood on your hands. And you’d hold onto that. You could never tell Suze what you did.”

I felt suddenly flushed, burping up an acidic mouthful of mescal.

“That’s my only option, then, is it?”

“Enjoy it, amigo. In life, how often do we get to choose our fate?”

We worked our way back to the table, where Cascabel had been joined by a squat, powerful looking man with a Fu-Manchu moustache and Asiatic eyes he kept trained on me. He wore a white baseball cap turned backward over dark curls and he had bad acne. He nodded at Tony, then looked back at me.

“This here is mi primo,” Tony said. “Wasabi.”

Wasabi leaned forward, extending his hand. I was expecting a bone crushing hand-shake, but it was limp and cold and damp, like the hand of a corpse. He let his dead hand lay in mine until I snatched mine back.

“Well?” said Cascabel. “Did dark knight ask white knight to check his mate?” She laughed then stopped a waiter and ordered more beers.

Tony said, “What with you tonight, chica? Fickle are the moods of the goddess. You’re giving me a fuckin’ headache.” He gestured at Wasabi, then spoke to me. “Wasabi here’s a top man. But don’t cross him. This guy’s scary as hell if you want him.”

Wasabi leaned over and said, “Wha’ you wan’ man? How much you pay?”

Tony looked at me, as if trying to coax a complicit smile. “Bidness among friends. Hell, I got to find some way to keep mi corazon in her fancy duds.”

Cascabel said, “You’re doing this on my account, Tony. This is your deal.” She looked fiercely at me. “You should know better than come here after the way this bitch treated you. Why should Tony help her? She doesn’t deserve help.”

I said, “What is this, you don’t know Suze from Adam.”

“I know enough to realize she shit in her own bed.”

“Hut!” Tony shouted at a passing waiter. “We’ve been waiting how long?”  He turned to Cascabel. “Maybe Rick should visit the compound in Santa Luisa first? Think things over, reassess, do some deep-sea fishing, a little desnudo sunbathing, whatever it takes to get his minds off the problem at hand. What d’you think it would take to distract my old friend from his lady problem, mi corazon?”

She gave me an appraising once-over, crossing her brown legs as if daring me to look up them. Her breasts bulged over her scaled bodice, the annular cleavage of two silicone moons. What I’d first thought was sweat on her chest was glitter. “Not much,” she said. “The usual things.” She ran her fingers through her coiled hair, wrapping a few whorls around her knuckles. “The usual shit.

“I don’t need to be distracted,” I said. “I’m focused on helping Suze.”

Tony stroked his soul-patch. “Focused like a laser beam, amigo. I see that.”

“The action man,” said Cascabel. “who gets mercenaries to do his dirty work.”

Wasabi grabbed Cascabel’s wrist and pulled her hard. “Don’ talk like tha’. Hiss a guess. You embarrass mi primo.”

Tony smiled at Cascabel in a way that was both repulsive and reassuring at the same time, but Wasabi’s act didn’t seem to phase Cascabel at all. She smiled playfully, swiping a glossy tongue across her pink lips. Her nostrils flared.

“Scary, isn’t it?” she said to me. “Playing with fire.”

“I know why I’m here.”

“And why’s that, to make a fool of yourself?”

The church bells struck ten.

Por fin,”  she said. “El infierno.”

A thin man dressed in black pulled a silver blade from his pocket. He advanced on el castillo. A hush fell over the crowd, who parted before him. He slashed a dangling fuse, took his cigarette from his mouth and touched it to the cord. There was a roar as one side of the tower came crackling to life. Catherine wheels wobbled unsteadily on their pins, turning lopsidedly to a fizzy red-green crescendo. Volleys of cohetes were launched from the church courtyard, streaking overhead like tracers.

I felt Tony’s hot boozy breath in my ear.

“Ten thousand American. That’s all operating, by the way. I won’t take a bite for myself. All I need is your money and this guy’s name.”

A fat drunk staggered against our table, straightened, then apologized profusely when he saw Wasabi, who stood and threw an empty beer bottle at him. My hands were hot and swollen, my wedding ring like a noose around my finger. “I don’t know,” I said. “If I can pull this lever just yet, Tony, not before I go talk to this guy.”

“Right. Tell you what, how long do you need, amigo? I’ll give you one minute.”

He went inside the restaurant with Wasabi. The paseo had come to a complete standstill now, the crowd massing around the tower and spilling into the restaurant. Cascabel looked around, got out of her chair and moved into the seat next to mine. She put a hand on my thigh. Her face was smooth, sweet, unreadable.

“Whatever he’s told you, don’t accept it. Get out of here right now.”

“What do you care, Cascabel? It’s not Tony’s ass that’s on the line. If this thing goes south, it’s coming down on me. I’ll be the one taking the fall.”

“I suppose you know he’s already spoken to Suze.”

My heart hammered in my chest. “I don’t believe that for a minute.”

“Ask yourself why he’s helping you. You two haven’t spoken in years. He told me all about Suze, how she had you cut him off.”

“I didn’t cut him off. Okay, we lost touch when Tony moved down here, sure, and I feel bad about that, but shit happens. That’s life.” 

She looked around. “I’ll say it again, tell him you’ve had a change of heart then get away as quickly as you can. You’re way out of your depth here, home boy.”

I downed another shot of mescal. “I can’t do that. Sorry.”

The second side of the tower went up, burning in myriad colors. Kids charged forward from the fringes of the crowd, cardboard sheets tented over their heads, to dance like demented spiders beneath the hailing sparks. A neon car shunted across a wire to a nearby palm, where it collapsed, tangled in the fronds, and set fire in the crown. A fluorescent angel appeared, head bowed, its hands clasped below two fiery white wings.

“Then welcome to the freak show,” said Cascabel. “It’s all yours, home boy.”

“Hey, cabrón! Moving on my lady already? I give you one minute.” Tony shouldered his way through the crowd minus Wasabi. A white flare streaked from the tower into the plaza, bounced back up and did a squiggly little twist, before burning out in the air. Another flare struck the church façade with a splatter of white sparks, a third shot into the kiosk temporarily halting the music and scattering the band.

Tony put his paw on my shoulder. “I need an answer, Holmes.”

Cascabel stared at me with her daggers.

 “Do it,” I said. “You know I’m good for the money.”

Tony nodded. “Qué hombre. And look over there, is that a sign or what?”

The Indian with the shock-box stood nearby watching the fireworks, the contraption hung around his neck like an old stereo speaker.

“Ready to prove your huevos, Ricardo, before we seal this muthafucker?”

I felt ready to explode with all I held inside. I felt sick to my stomach with the mescal.  “I told you, Tony, I’m not about to touch any…”

He stuck his tongue into the side off his cheek, brought his fist to his mouth and made an obscene chewing gesture while staring at me. The tower was now fully engulfed. White flares shot randomly into the crowd, which scrambled to escape the erupting lines of fire. Cascabel hunkered below the table next to me, looking at Tony. The crown of the tower began to erupt like a volcano, fiery missiles shooting upward through the tangle of overhead wires and a rising plume of colored smoke.

She shouted at me: “He’s going to do it himself.”

I thought I saw the shadow of a bruise under her eye.

“What are you talking about?”

“Once you say go, then you owe. There are no los negros. How many different ways did I have to tell you? This is all his now. It’s time for you get out of the way.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m part of this.”

“Then maybe you have two big problems on your hand instead of one.”

Tony held the electrodes like a lunatic bracing against his chains, squatting into the pain, his body silhouetted against a screen of illuminated smoke. “Más!” he shouted at the vendor, “Más!

A flaming white ring began to lift slowly from the crown of the tower, spinning up until it hung over the plaza like an eclipsed sun in a starless sky. The crowd stood reverentially beneath it, heads upraised, as if awaiting benediction. But it couldn’t hold, and its tremulous collapse sent them all screaming, sent us all running madly from its fall.


BIO:  Peter Basson lives in Long Beach with his wife and 16-year old daughter. He enjoys sustainable gardening, playing soccer, volunteer work, community organizing, reading and writing, good food, good beer and good company. His work has appeared in Verdad Magazine, The Houston Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and others.