The building had been deserted for at least two years; there was enough grass and glass in the parking lot to suggest that the owners had vaporized or might as well as have. The city wasn't stepping into the mess; it would require a commitment and caring long lost on the downtowners.
Through the dissipation, Arturo had been watching. Nothing vigilant, mind - why bother? - just a casual look out the corner of his eye, wending his way down the broken street on his way to the post office, or just blowing steam down the old dairy road late at night, Buena Vista on the box, his little bit of "Chan Chan" a lost dream in his swollen chest. It wasn't his idea, anyway; he'd just been watching the place through all the months. Preston was the one who broke it.
"You're kidding me, right?"said Arturo.
"What's this kidding, cabron?" The beers weren't getting any colder in the summer night's heat. Beto's Ice House was a misnomer. There'd been no ice in the place since little Turito had climbed up on the wooden picnic tables and sipped off his abuela's cerveza. Beto was long gone; the gueros who owned the place traded off the nostalgic good will of third generation patrons who longed for the old laps they'd sat in, the Friday night cheer of daddies finally off work and the red-painted toes of the mamas who'd come to play and join in the mirth. Exquisitely red-painted toes.
The old pecan trees still towered over the tables, casting just enough of God's good grace on the understory to forgive the icelessness of the nightly proceedings. Still, as both Preston and Arturo knew, a chilled beer ain't nothing compared to an iced beer.
"Taco wagon," said Preston again, beaming. Right proud of himself was the old boy.
"Wagon. Taco wagon, you green bastard. Big box on wheels, gas grill, swirling Hot Donuts cop light in the window, I gotta spell it all out for you?"
"Like squatters, we just pull on in -"
"Who the hell you gonna call? You think Castro gives a shit about what goes on down this shit road? He's up to his earballs with Presley trying to shank the strip clubs. Every damn new councilman comes rolling in through District 10 going all Jimmy Swaggart on the titty bars —"
"Yeah, well, we know what went down with old Jimmy. That have anything to do with your little fandango?"
Preston leered one of his trademark grins: nothing the least bit reassuring about it. "Not a thing, Art. Taco wagon, plain and simple."
"Since when was anything with your name on it plain and simple? Since when was anything with your breath on it plain and simple?"
"Gotta point. I don't fault you the skepticism."
"Oh, and now we have five-dollar words to boot."
"Patty's rubbing off on me. Takes me to the library, reads to me at night. Made me get my own damn library card. You can't imagine what a ball buster that was. Mr. Lenz, your limit will be fifty books -"
"And you thought it was a lifetime limit," said Arturo.
Art took a swig of his warm beer. Pearl wasn't the same anymore, either. "Damn piss. How'd we get from tacos to books?"
"Something about five-dollar boots."
"Let's cut to the chase, Webster."
"My take: the owners blew out as soon as they closed the doors, they're off in, what, Valdosta, Georgia, Castro's got his hands full of of Brother Presley, and that piece of shit real estate is crying out for a big broom, a box on wheels, and the sweet smell of cebollitas spicing up the sweaty nights. Boys with their hard-ons from their titty bars need something to put down the beast."
"So, what are we. Tantra?"
"Smart-ass does not become you, Arthur. You was always a good Catholic boy. Don't go messing it up."
"You building this box yourself, P?"
"Brother Jamie and his church, Seventh Day Who's Down in Whovilles, they rode in a float this last Fiesta. Still got the shell of the float in the back yard. Jenny's about to lose her mind, if she has to look at the piece of shit one more week. A little this, a little that, we''ll have a taco wagon to beat the band."
"Which band did you have in mind?"
It was considerably more than a little this and a little that. Noah and his Ark had the advantage of an insistent consultant; Preston and Art were in way over their heads, until a couple of shop boys from Roosevelt High caught wind of the taco Ark down the street and came to the rescue, no cost, save for the obligatory graffiti and Metallica posters. The boys weren't about to let a piece of their fine work out on the streets without the proper touches. As a gesture to the old boys, they tossed in a mural on the back that featured Waylon, Johnny Rodriguez, Freddy Fender, and just for grins, Castro himself in a big old Boudreaux Stetson that had him looking more like Kinky than any tennis handsome out of Harvard Law. Not a half bad look, actually, if Julian ever planned on making that statewide run after his gig as mayor ran out. Might buy him at least a half dozen votes in the Texas hardscrabble up around Glen Rose and Rainbow.
Arturo went through a dozen spools of weedeater line clearing out the jungle of the parking lot. Preston kept on about how all they needed was their little corner of the action, but Turo felt a strange obligation to the entire lot; likewise, he cleaned up all the broken glass, even out in back of the derelict building. In his sleepless nights, he imagined slapping a coat of paint on the building itself. Only Preston's threats to have him committed saved him from being the More Fool.
It was mid-August and two in the morning when they hauled the Whoville float onto its new lot. The Roosevelt boys joined in on the festivities, two other buddies and four chicas in tow. Just for grins, Arturo plugged in the rotating cop light and the neon Tacos sign he'd unearthed at the Eisenhauer flea market. The dowager empress in charge of the stall made him pay a pretty penny for the find, but within minutes of its appearance, a truck full of vatos pulled up, shouting orders before they were even out of the truck.
"Sorry, boys, just a dry run," said Preston. "Come back in about three days, we'll be having our Grand Opening."
"Grand?" said Arturo, as the men pulled out for their next adventure. "What do you mean, Grand?"
"Can't be small-minded about a thing like this, Art. We're in the big time now."
"Son, when was the last time you slung hash on a grill? This thing's nothing more than a poem in your head. You ain't got clue one about the nitty gritty of grilling tacos."
"What's Patty got to say about all this?"
Preston beamed at the invitation: "One thing: You're not gonna let Arturo near that grill, are you?"
"Any chance you've got a job for me in all this?"
"Hell yes, Art. Maitre 'd. You're the big schmooze. You get 'em in, make 'em comfortable, talk Ginobli and Pop, Eva and Tony, Mighty Tim on his last legs -"
"- And clean up the mess."
"Saves on a bus boy, you doing double duty."
Arturo surveyed the neon-drenched fruits of their labors, felt an unaccustomed - and unexpected - pride swell his chest. Even brought a few tears to his eyes; Preston didn't see them at first, but he could feel the mood shifting beside him, a little tremor in the sticky air. A lick of cool air followed it.
"Touched, ain't you, Bud?" said Preston.
Arturo laughed through the tears he wiped away to stanch a sob: "Hell if I know why. Helluva thing."
"Hell, son, you're a taco-preneur now. It's all up from here on out. We're standing right at the lip of the canyon.'
Arturo declined to point out that down was the only way to go from that precipice.
They took another week before filling the night air with the smell of cebollitas. Once the eagle had landed, as Preston liked to say, he spent his days creating a warm and cozy outdoor living room for the future customers. Quick trip to Lowe's for some unpainted lattice, with which he built out an arbor that came off the side of the trailer in front of the order-up window. Big Lots ponied up the half dozen plastic lawn chairs that sat under the arbor. He also built a sturdy shelf on the side of the trailer and was setting an old TV atop it when Arturo drove up one afternoon.
"You planning on folks moving in here, P?"
"You wanna be the Mayor of San Antonio Tacos, Art, you gotta think beyond meat and veggies in a folded tortilla. That ain't what we're selling here."
"And, pray tell, what is?'
"We're selling community, son. Togetherness. Hell, for some of these folks, we'll may as well be selling church."
"I don't believe church is a thing you sell."
"Tell that to Hagee. That man could sell your dry-cleaned soul back to you for four times what you sold it for in the first place."
"Take it we're gonna watch Pastor John on the box then?"
"Whatever the customers want, Art. Customers are the Lord, and we are but servants."
"God help us. Why didn't we just cut to the chase and pull this trailer onto Hagee's parking lot on the north side. Sell tacos to all the sinners on their way into his weekly Godapalooza?"
Preston cracked his famous - and now not a little frightening - grin: "First things first, Art. First things first."
There was no Grand Opening after all. Preston blew the petty cash on the taco living room, so one Tuesday night, with no excuse for further preparations, they turned on the neon and the cop light and watched as customers poured out of the nooks and crannies. Sure, plenty of famished boys from the scanty-bars, but scads of the night's other usual suspects: post curfew urchins, postal workers from down the street in their tired blues, not a few cops with not word one about the premises, a handful of familias with kids of all ages, from stroller-sized to hangers-on, a few homeless from under the Beitel Creek bridge, and, no surprise, a few Magdalenas with the grace and coin to pay for the taquitos of those under the bridge. All the others farther up the food chain tried to keep their eyes on the plates in front of them, while the Magdas graciously cooed the broken ones over their way, sharing bites out of the same tacos and then buying more for them to take away to their cool concrete beds under the bridge.
A tall dark negrita, watching Preston's increasing frustration to keep up with the unexpected turnout, stepped - stooped, she was that tall - into the trailer beside P and hip-bumped him out of the way, deftly swiping his spatula at the same time.
"Can't pay you, girlie," said Preston, abashed and befuddled, but trying to gain some kind of ground.
"Mijo, you couldn't pay me what I'm worth, anyway, so just settle your nerves on down. Even the sisters and me do a little pro bono on the side. Ain't gotta go to church to know a little charity never hurts no one. Besides, you like the fare, you can name this nameless ship after me."
"And that would be -"
"Ain't tellin' you that just yet, sugar. Might give you some labor away for free, but them branding rights is gonna cost you something."
Preston, moved down to the living room floor with Arturo by the woman's blindingly swift efficiency, marveled at all the Christmas in August splashed around him and took to calling the mystery cook Shelley in his head, after yet another dark woman he'd fallen for very hard in his now distant youth. He felt a slight stirring of that other fathomless infatuation as he watched this sturdy woman move with decisive grace, glimmers of what he'd seen Shelley do walking across a packed barroom in Houston's Heights, but he was sufficiently immersed in Patty's nighttime literacy program to keep that stirring on a cool setting. Added to that was the certain knowledge that this Yemaya would deep fry him if he were to make even the slightest deviation from the social services arrangement currently at play.
Business that first night finally petered out about half past three, enough to give Ms X an excuse to turn a handful of late night "gentlemen" away with a sneer and shut down the grill. She shooed Preston away for the necessary ablutions, too, and then took a load off in the living room beside her two gelt-smitten restaurateurs. Kicked off her sneaks, stretched out her long lean chocolate legs, and scratched the soles of her feet on the Astroturf Preston had laid down for carpet.
"I like the chairs and living room atmosphere," she said, "but you boys are gonna need some picnic tables to get this church going the right way."
Preston foolishly piped up with "Well, seeing's how we already got ourself a guardian angel -" but was cut short by a look longer and stouter than the cleaver up in the Big Box.
"Lotta things on my resume, guero, but angel ain't one of them."
Preston foolishly pressed on: "Well, I sure as hell don't know what else you're gonna call -"
Arturo wisely caught the storm brewing in the air: "Shut up, P."
Preston did as told, and successfully let a good five minutes pass as the dark clouds dissipated in the living room. They all watched a muted sequence of commercials up on the TV shelf, before X slipped her shoes back on slipper-style and made to shuffle off into the night.
Preston ante'd up one last time, as she stood to go: "Case we see you again, you got a name we can use instead of the one I've been calling you in my head?"
She threw a hard-bitten stare back at the fool in front of her and then, unpredictably, broke into a warm smile that unnerved the man enough to declare five lifetimes of fidelity to her.
"James," she said.
"James?" Confusion ran riot in the poor man's head for a delicious half minute before his guardian angel reached up to her scoop-necked t-shirt and flashed him just enough of a luscious coffee-colored tit to put his fevered mind at rest.
With that last bit of grace, she turned and walked off into the night.
Labels: sensible wear