Don’t Stand on Ceremony
by Jerry Vilhotti
Finally having eaten, after hours of starving due to Johnny’s high school Spanish being very shallow so not understanding the dining car was going to be left behind ten minutes before he and his wife Linda Ann would get to the place where the bell had been ringing and then being sidetracked for ten hours, waiting if the Mexican president’s train was really going north to negotiate with the Great Decider on what parts of his country he was going to sell to his southern neighbor for their sending their dying of hunger poor to be exploited by his rich contributors as cheap labor resurrecting antebellum times in his great democracy that by his definition did not torture, on the same tracks as they were on; with all the vending machines out of order matching the not see-through compartment window that made for a twilight zone feeling to pervade everything since they had left Nuevo Laredo.
Johnny decided to go look for accommodations in San Miguel Allende, having told the travel agent that if she did it would have stifled a doing of a tourist thing. He told his wife that she would be comfortable in the park beneath lovely trees watching their luggage and by the time he was back she would be feeling better; resenting her a bit that she had devoured his hot-hot spicy meal, saying it was hers and he sort of delighted in the fact that she was feeling the effects of the never before eating anything more spicy than a tiny dash of black pepper.
A half hour Johnny returned drenched with sweat suggesting it wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought; mentioning the three places that had seen his desperation and had jacked up their prices a third and then when he said his wife was with him the sleeping price went up to double — way over the thirty-five dollars he had budgeted for each night’s sleep in San Miguel Allende.
Within five minutes he was up again and the look on Linda Ann’s face as he left was the same one on her face when he tried to take his meal from her and she had waved her fork at him — missing his forehead by inches. They would go through another eating experience in a few days after leaving Allende. The bus terminal in San Luis Potosi was huge with several stores still opened which made them very happy — for here they would eat a hearty supper — not having eaten many hours before due to having to bus through rural areas called Viva Zapata. The very first place they walked into was a large cafeteria that had its food displayed somewhat like USA style.
“Don’t get pastry, Linda Ann. We’ll get that later at the train station,” Johnny said, eyeing the succulent foods.
Would he have the sausages sprawled serenely among potato chunks encompassed by what looked like broccoli or the chunks of chicken heaped on top of big mounds of yellow rice being invaded by little red peppers? He wondered as his mouth watered.
“Don’t you think maybe you’d better ask if they take traveler’s checks before we take their food?” Linda Ann said interrupting his final decision.
“Blessed Bahaism, Jesus Christ and Buddha — this is a city of three mill-”
“OK. OK. I just thought I’d ask.”
He hated that! He hated when she left a hint he might be wrong.
After all, he thought, he’d been born in the East Bronx. Didn’t all guys from there have moxie going back to when Poe, after leaving West Point and with his new young wife, his sister-cousin, Annabellee and had run upon cobblestone streets of old Fordham Village trying to get away from his inner demons in the form of ravens?
Hadn’t Johnny fought all frightened up inside against guys from “aroun da cawna” as a four-year old whom his older brother Leny One N had made sure were bigger and older than he so getting big odds from guys like Jules Garfinkle, who grow up to become John Garfield, a guy would become the godfather of all godfathers; Jakala, the guy who would bull his way to the Middleweight championship who was going out with Johnny’s sister for six months; Steve Mauriello who would take his older brother’s name Tami so he could begin fighting as a fifteen-year old professional fighter and would one day fight the great Joe Louis and would stagger the champ in the very first seconds of the first round but had a foot that had been run over by a truck on Arthur Avenue that was avoiding traffic on Fordam Road to make better time and more money could not retreat from the champs onslaught which had Tami on the canvas hearing the number ten.
Johnny put his empty tray down and walked up to a burly man who could have played a Pancho Villa in movies when cheap labor was not welcomed but would be again in the twenties and then cheap labor would be sent back to where they came from since the dying of hunger had grown to encompass many other hyphenated Americans due to the Great Depression.
“Por favor. You the manager?”
“Do you take these? We’re going to eat and-”
“What is those?”
“It’s money. They’re trav-”
“Come on Linda! There’s other damn places we can eat!” Johnny said in his most arrogant tone to convey his American contempt for people who didn’t talk good English.
After three more eateries, two grocery stores and a semi-opened bank — all saying they never saw such things — making Johnny believe that they were all taking revenge on him for those nasty Texacans stealing a part of Mexico from them.
Johnny told Linda Ann they would eat at the train station for there they would have seen “these things” — what with tourists traveling the national trains and all.
He was wrong again: “We’re here to get the midnight tren,” Johnny said thinking he was pronouncing ‘train’ as a Mexican would but only a large grin and no reply came back at him, which made an anxiousness begin to engulf him from toe to temple.
“Habla inglés?” Johnny said trying to keep a USA accent out of the words.
The grin reappeared but this time words spilled out from behind it: “¿Habla español?”
“Poco poco,” Johnny said holding his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.
After exchanging these very same words three times with the complimentary grins, the man extended his hand for the tickets Johnny was holding tightly.
“¡De primera clase!” the man said pointing over Johnny’s head.
Johnny’s heart began to beat faster still while Linda Ann walked away for a place to sit and catch a quick nap.
Johnny thought the bastard cabby — who could have passed for Jack Palance — had brought them to the wrong train station!
After Johnny calmed down, he was instructed with five vehement points of an index finger to go across the park and implicit in the sign was the information where they would find the train station they wanted.
“Perdón. Does the midnight train to Nuevo Laredo stop here? We just came a hundred miles busing from San Mig-”
“Sí! Sí! Come in!” the man at the big station said warmly.
Suddenly the whole building lit up like a soccer stadium.
Johnny began to tell the man to save the lights as they would wait on the platform but they were told to sit in comfort inside the spacious lobby.
It was now nearing eleven and they would have to wait till morning to eat — wishing he had had two servings of breakfast that morning at the eatery where several workers waved at them at they strolled from three blocks away. Johnny thought it was because they were such a handsome couple and only days later would he realize it was due to his inability at figuring out the difference between moneys as he was leaving a tip as large as what the whole meal cost.
The man left. They were alone.
Johnny took another swig from the tequila bottle and whispered, “Jesus, are we the only ones going north?”
Linda Ann did not hear him, having escaped into a deep sleep.
Johnny decided to step outside to see if others were coming. About a hundreds yards away he could make out four uniformed guys carrying rifles walking briskly toward where he was standing; he could have sworn they were wearing fierce expressions.
“Christ, they’re taking back Texas and the US of A!” he whispered as he retreated backward; yet, keeping them in his sights.
When they came within a hundred feet, they stopped and cocked their guns — making the ugly sound bite into Johnny’s stomach. Now he fully retreated to wake up his wife saying: ”Don’t panic! We got to look like tourists! Four soldiers with big guns are coming our way!”
Linda Ann stirred just a bit. He repeated himself though a bit louder — drawing the word gun out to its fullest emphasis. This made her blue-green eyes widen to begin a stare at the front entrance while her strawberry blonde hair moved nervously.
Johnny took the Mexican hat off that he bought at the old Indian market in San Miguel Allende — so his curly hair would be more visible. He placed his shoulder bag under the bench; fearing they might think he had a gun inside and begin shooting before asking questions as was done in some USA cities, towns and villages. He pretended a sedate conversation with Linda Ann that lasted a full ten minutes with much head nodding and hand movements shaping a meaning from words not being heard nor making much sense.
“Linda, I’m going to see what’s happening,” he said now wishing he had ordered six breakfasts — fearing he was never going to eat again; seeing his body shuddering from the effects of a thousand bullets entering it from all kinds of directions, something like Bonny and Clyde had gone through.
He peeked out to the side and not ten feet away was a soldier standing at attention holding his rifle against his chest.
“The train will be coming soon, Linda. Midnight!” he said more to the soldier than to his wife. Then nonchalantly, he went back to sit. After five minutes of staring at the entrance: imagining all kinds of charging positions — with machetes twirling around heads, Johnny decided he would go see what was keeping them. He swore he felt Zapata and Pancho nearby.
“Nobody out here! They’re gone! Let’s go stand on the platform,” he said regaining his macho composure.
The train came promptly.
Their toilet was broken but this trip back they could see out of their compartment window and once again they missed their complimentary meal when Johnny insisted on this train they would most likely have two sittings since it was much bigger than the one they had come down on and so finished shaving as the bell continued to toll for them and when they came out they were told the dining car with all the different vending machines had been left back at the last stop.
For the rest of the fifteen hour trip north the rumbling of their stomachs matched that of the train’s....
As he walked in this old section of town he felt as if he had returned a hundred years in the past where the once free proud Indian-Mexicans had dwelled in new buildings. When the furtive whistles began after his so many steps he flashed back to an eleven-year old kid staring at a picture depicting Custer’s Last Stand and now he realized what the guy was thinking when viewing the eighty million Indians looking down at him from a hundred ridges: Look at all those Indians!
He was sort of glad only whistles accompanied his walk and stopped when he left the old neighborhood and just before the park entrance he spotted a guy wearing blond hair and he hoped it was the guy’s, rushing up to him nearly out of control with eyes glazed surrounded by sweat and in a trembling Custer like voice he asked the guy if he were a USA person. Johnny jumped with excitement when the man replied: “I’m a bloody Englishman, sir.”
“You were once our mother country! And because you taxed us for past services-”
“Are you quite all right?” the blond man said.
Johnny got a grip on himself literally as he often did talk around a point he was trying to make and he finally asked him if he knew of any reasonable accommodations in the area.
When the man told him of one about two miles out of town, Johnny almost kissed him but his culture rivaled the macho of the conquistadors and so he just pumped his hand for a minute and then began a big run to Linda Ann who was still wearing the same expression, only now it had an added ingredients of anger and disdain.
Within minutes they were in a cab and so excited he was he didn’t realize his front seat tilted so much that he was leaning so far backward that he could see Linda Ann from ankle to head.
Getting out of the cab just in front of the very nice-looking hotel, Johnny bent to get the suitcases but up on the upswing he could not manage to get back into an erect position. He whispered painfully to her to get a room and not to worry about the price.
Linda Ann came back in five minutes telling him it was thirty-five dollars. He nodded and smiled and began his hunchback of Notre Dame walk, not able to see the smile on Linda Ann’s face.
Copyright © 2009 by Jerry Vilhotti