The sun was sitting low and the fat little guard up the front hid under a hat as the chain-gang worked toward him. Dark sweat patches spread out from his pits and every now and then he fanned his little arms like a bloated scarecrow trying to take flight.
The rear guard was taller and younger. He toted a tatty yellow parasol and a rifle and hummed a tune of his own making.
Back at the truck, the Boss was dozing to the shimmer of cicadas when an approaching car broke his peace. The car passed by the truck and slowed right down, idling past the work gang. On this side of the border cars sped up when they passed a prison gang. They didn’t slow down.
The car finally barrelled away into the heat haze and the Boss’ eyelids were just fluttering closed when the car made a hard U-turn and started back.
“Puta mierda,” hissed the Boss. He kicked open the truck door and hit the ground with a stumble. The guards had witnessed his awkward descent and he suggested that they should be watching the oncoming car and not him.
The fat little guard stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. The gang downed tools and a waterboy hefted a rusted pail across his shoulder and shuffled down the line, pausing by each prisoner so they could drink from the dented ladle. The car passed by the gang again and pulled up opposite the truck. ‘Buenas tardes senor!’ boomed a cheerful voice from inside the car.
The Boss unclasped his pistol.
The car door opened. The driver’s seat was sitting flush on the floorpan and set way back. Two vast, long legs slid out of the car, and then a cane and then two huge hands pushing on the cane as the man-giant hoisted his bones upright. “Bloody Mary,” winced the Giant as he straightened his back.
The Boss looked the Giant up and down. With his bulbous cheekbones, knot-jointed fingers and elongated legs it was as if his frame could poke through the flesh at any moment.
The Giant went to retrieve something from his inside jacket pocket. “Uh uh,” said the Boss, clucking his tongue. The rear guard bolted the chamber of his rifle. The Giant raised his hands.
“No. Amigo. Soy un amigo.” The Giant kept his cane-hand in the air and with the other he carefully retrieved a bottle and held it out for the Boss to see and then he plucked the cork and took a drink and as he swallowed he let out a deep contented sigh.
The Boss licked his lips.
“Would you want some whiskey sir?” asked the Giant in a cheery brogue.
The Boss cocked his head. “Usted no es Americano?”
“Oh no senor. Irishman.”
“Irish. Irlanda. Irlandes.”
The Boss pointed to the bottle. “Irlander?”
“Si. Lo mejor.”
The Boss took the bottle and shucked the cork with his teeth. He took a whiff and screwed up his nose.
“Muy fuerte!” grinned the Giant. “Very strong.”
The Boss raised the bottle to his nose again and then he looked up into the Giant’s milky eyes and took a swig. He held the liquor in his mouth until he could hold it no more and as the heat of the booze started to creep from his belly and up his spine, he whistled. The Boss nodded and took another swig before offering the bottle back to the Giant.
“Oh no. Regalo. You hold on to it.”
The Giant limped down the line inspecting the prisoners. All these men with their crosshatched skin and crazed hair. The Boss nudged the Giant as he pointed to the waterboy.
“Mirarlo, eh? Chiflado, heh. Monstruo. Hehe.”
The Giant struck his cane into the dirt and turned to the Boss and asked if they might have a quiet word back at the truck.
The prisoners were dragging themselves onto the truck in pairs. An older prisoner lost his footing and tumbled backwards taking his shackled counterpart with him. They hit the ground hard and cursed each other with their eyes as they found their feet. Once the prisoners were all in, the fat little guard made a final count on his fingers and locked the tailgate.
The Giant turned his head to the Boss, who had made himself quite at home in the passenger seat. The whiskey was already half gone and the Boss stared at the unlabelled bottle like it was a source of secrets.
Then his nose wrinkled as he caught a whiff of something. He inhaled deeply trying to find the source.
“Perfume uh?” asked the Boss in a conspiratorial whisper. He’d traced the scent to the Giant’s coat.
“Oohhh,” said the Boss, clucking his tongue. “Boniiito. Niiice.”
“Vamos?” asked the Giant, keen to change the subject.
“Oh si, si vamos,” grinned the Boss. “Bonito. Hehe,”
The prisoners bobbed on the flatbed. A few miles after the sun had left the sky, the truck made a left turn onto an unsealed road and the Giant ground the gears up a couple, keeping enough distance so they weren’t engulfed in dust. The muscles in the Boss’ face were loose from the booze and every now and then he would snort himself awake, pretending to focus on the road ahead like he’d never been asleep.
At the crest of a hill the Giant stopped the car so the Boss could relieve himself. He watched the truck lurch down the hill toward the electric-lit penitentiary below – a walled prison crowned with lassos of barbed wire strewn across the main gate and lamp poles. As they eased down the hill the car headlights glinted across hundreds of broken bottles fused atop the sandstone perimeter wall where a lone guard walked the parapet.
The Giant struggled out of the car with his cane and followed the Boss over to a reinforced steel door by the main the gate. Above them, flying insects spiralled towards a naked floodlamp and at their feet, among the cigarette and cigar stubs lay scores of dead or dying moths and wasps and beetles.
When they reached the administration building, the Giant was told to wait outside. He lowered himself on to a sleeper bench and watched the guards reverse the truck into the sallyport. The Giant closed his eyes.
Heavy iron shunting against thick steel. The muffled call and response of prisoners separated across hallways. An officer booming back at them to shut their mouths. Batons bashing doors and bars and nail-booted footsteps on concrete marching up and down and another door bolted hard and then…
Just for a moment. A short peace, before someone cut through in anger or fear or hatred or for no other reason than to just be heard.
At the Giant’s feet an upturned beetle clambered to right itself. He nudged it with the brass-shod tip of his cane and tried to flick it upright. After a few attempts it clung to the base. The Giant raised the cane in the air and the beetle shot out its wings and hummed away.
The Giant could hear the Boss talking with someone. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the conversation ended in laughter. A few minutes later the Boss opened the door and led the Giant through to a large untidy office that reeked of tobacco and old sweat. The Chief Warden motioned for him to sit.
“You are very tall,” remarked the Chief Warden in emotionless, well-schooled English.
“Aye,” smiled the Giant.
“You are Irish?”
“Indeed I am, sir.”
“I’m told you wish to purchase the release of a prisoner?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“Do you have any idea how many laws you are breaking by making such a request?”
“Sir I don’t believe I am breaking the law by asking a question? In good spirits?”
The Chief Warden lit a fresh cigarillo from the one he was just finishing.
“The prisoner you speak of is sentenced. You know there is no bail?”
“I understand. I am asking you to consider granting the boy release, in return for…”
“Why do you ask for this… prisoner in particular? He is not very capable of manual work?” The Chief Warden looked at the Boss, who was trying not to smile, and then he turned back to the Giant.
“Why are you in Mexico?”
“Sabatico. I take my yearly vacation at this time.”
“Alone? By yourself?”
“I live and work in a… very close community… I like to travel by myself and as it happens I also have friends in Tijuana whom I like to visit when I am here.”
The Boss clucked his tongue.
“What do you want with this prisoner?”
“I do not believe that prison is the right place for him.”
The Chief Warden turned to the Boss who was still battling to keep a straight face and then back to the Giant.
“Could you tell me what type of work is it that you do, sir?”
The Giant twisted his cane between his palms.
“Of course, sir, but I wonder if first I may ask you a question?”
“Approximately how is it to keep a prisoner per day, or per year? Food? Accommodation? Clothing? Salarios?”
The Chief Warden counted silently with his mouth and fingers as he did the figures.
“I would say… something in the order of… between four and six pesos per day.”
The Chief Warden stubbed his cigarillo and then asked the Giant to step outside for a moment.
A diabolical melange of odours hit the Giant as he entered the cellblock and he felt many eyes on his back as he followed the guard down the corridor. They stopped in front of a cell where in the din a body lay strewn across a straw mattress, his mouth wide open in a death rattle snore. The guard kicked the door. The body stirred.
“Arriba!” shouted the guard. “Levantate!” The guard smacked his baton against the bars.
“Vete a la mierda!” came a response from a nearby cell. The young prisoner dragged himself to his feet and stood in front of the Giant and the guard.
“Mirame. Look up at me, son,” whispered the Giant. Slowly, the prisoner looked up into the Giant’s translucent eyes. The Giant winced.
“Let’s get you out of here you poor bastard.”
The beak-nosed Clerk fumbled through a filing cabinet mumbling names to himself.
“Rubeo. Ruesga. Ruiz. Sampedro. Sanchez. Sanchez. Sanchez. Sanchez. Sanfelipe. Santiago. Santiago. Ah… Saragosa.” Then the Clerk placed a dog-eared yellow envelope on the counter alongside a pen and ink before disappearing into the property room. Saragosa began to remove his greys. He was down to his shorts when the clerk returned with a sack of clothes.
Saragosa began to dress. His undershirt was blood-spattered down one side and his collared shirt was torn across one shoulder. He stepped into his shoes and then upended the sack, reaching inside for something. The Clerk told Saragosa the sack was empty and that was all of his clothes and then he called him stupid. Saragosa shot his eyes at the Clerk and snatched the envelope and tore it open. He retrieved an empty coin purse, a driver’s license two years expired and a neatly folded square of silk.
Saragosa carefully unfolded the long scarf. It was embroidered in long-faded gold and blue silk and there were stains the same as those on his undershirt. His hands shook and his breath was short as he wrapped the scarf loosely around his head and neck and by the time he had finished covering himself, the hideous melon-sized cyst growing out from his neck was mostly shrouded by the flow of the gold and blue silk.
‘Saludos, Saragosa,’ whispered the Giant.
The steel door clanged shut behind them and they stood under the floodlamp looking out into the black. A moth tried to land on Saragosa’s nose and he waved it away with his shackled hands.
“We’ll drive for a while. It’s a good night for it don’t you think?”
Inside the car, the Giant handed Saragosa the key to his shackles and told him he could remove them when they reached the highway. From atop the parapet, the Boss and the fat little guard watched as the car climbed up and over the hill.
The fat little guard flicked his cigar stub and watched it fall among the others underneath the floodlamp and then he started chuckling and the Boss asked him what was so funny and the fat little guard’s laughter grew louder.
The Boss asked again what was so funny and the guard tried to speak but the laughter took over and he became short of breath. Now the Boss was laughing but without knowing why and when the guard finally calmed down enough to talk, he said that they had forgotten to tie tin cans to the back of the wedding car. The Boss burst into laughter and the guard started up again and just as they were calming down he asked the Boss whether the conjugal bed came with three pillows, and the Boss bellowed so loud that the guard dogs at the other end of the prison started howling in their kennels.
The car flew down the highway through the darkness and Saragosa hung his head out of the open window. The Giant flicked open a small pillbox and threw a couple of white tablets into his mouth and washed them down with a swig from a bottle like the one he had given the Boss.
Saragosa accepted the bottle and took a long drink, followed by another, and then another. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and set the bottle between his thighs and watched the headlights swoop across the feathergrass alongside the road.
The Giant lit a cigar and when it was burning nicely he switched on the radio and worked the dial until he found a station, all beautiful guitars and tenor harmonies and he looked over and there were tears forming on the lids of Saragosa’s eyes and by the time he had finished his cigar, Saragosa was snoring.
From this angle, the Giant was able to study Saragosa’s neck, and the hideous tumor twisting out from it, stretching the skin taut and tight. He moved his hand to touch it, but Saragosa stirred and the Giant returned his hand to the wheel.
The motel room was cheap and decorated in burnt orange and wood veneer. There were two beds and a table and chairs. The Giant had found an American station on the radio and was listening to a morning news story about the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and how they were now the only nation other than the US to have such a device. It was codenamed First Lightning and he thought it sounded like a great name for a racehorse or a brand of cheap whiskey.
The Giant stood in front of the wall mirror. He had to bend down to see his face, which was in need of a shave and he noticed that his dyed hair was greying at the roots and would need retouching soon. He squirted some oil into his palm and warmed it up between his hands and combed it through his hair.
There was a polite tap on the door. The Giant opened it and took the tray from the girl and gave her some coins. She looked up at him and her eyes widened as she registered his height, but the weight of the coins in her hand made her smile and the Giant smiled back and winked at her and thanked her for the food and coffee.
The coffee smelled good and smoky. The Giant had stayed at this Motel before and remembered that they always had good coffee. He poured a cup and sat on the end of the bed.
The faucet shut off with a thunk and moments later Saragosa emerged from the bathroom and walked over to the wall mirror where he fixed the blue and gold scarf loosely around his neck. The smell of the coffee and the sight of the beans and eggs and fried potato made him salivate.
“It’s for you lad. Eat. Comer.”
Saragosa sat down and took a fork and began spooning the hot, beautiful food into his mouth and he didn’t stop until there was nothing left and then he downed the coffee and wiped the plate clean with his fingers. The Giant drained his cup and reached for his cane.
“Well then. Time for us to get to work. There are some friends I want you to meet.”
A month later, the Boss was making one of his visits to the city. He parked his car around the back of the club and carefully took his best suit jacket from its hanger and slid it over his shoulders. He checked his hair in the side mirror and smoothed a kink down with spit and then he strode down the side alley and around to the front of the building.
He was greeted at the entrance by a beautiful young hostess with long false eyelashes and a crimson beehive wig. She placed her arm around him and kissed him and led him up the carpeted stairs to the main parlour.
The parlour was draped with heavy forest green velvet and a pall of smoke spread across the room at head height. There was a bar along one wall tended by a dark skinned woman wearing a white shirt buttoned low. She was leaning across the bar on her elbows, flirting with an old ruddy faced American in a linen suit.
The hostess asked the Boss if he would like a drink and he asked for Irish whiskey and she stroked his cheek and kissed him again and invited him to sit in one of the plush leather tub chairs.
“Madam will be with you shortly.”
The scent of perfume hung in the air and the light was warm and low. The hostess returned with his drink and he sipped it slowly as he studied the posters over on the far wall.
One poster caught his attention and he went over for a closer look. It was the waterboy from the prison, the freak, all dressed up in a vivid blue and gold Matador’s uniform staring defiantly at the heavens.
Staring straight at the Boss was the thing–the criatura–on the side of his neck, now garishly adorned with a tuft of hair and dead bulbous eyes and an empty gaping mouth…
The poster read:
In defiance of God and science…
THE TWO-HEADED TIJUANAN
Aberration of humanity…
GUARANTEED TO TERRIFY
YOUR MONEY BACK!