Part IFellows, I don't exactly remember everything that transpired Saturday night. And by Sunday morning it felt like a conga group had taken residence in my head and were using my hollow skull as a timpani. But, fiestas are like that. Some of it is still hazy, but I emphatically and categorically deny making absolutely any untoward advances at Miguel's horse.
Damned thing is too ugly...
By the time my lovely wife came to rescue me, (more for her sake than mine; she has steadfastly maintained that she wants me alive rather than the life insurance bounty that she steadily increases every year), I was in danger of drowning in Puerto Rico's finest: Bacardi Anejo. 151 proof of the Caribbean's best medicine. A tumbler glass in one hand, plate of roasted pork, tortillas, rice and beans, precariously balanced on one knee, I held court in the center of an admiring crowd, punctuating every sentence with the free hand. Hey Honey! How much am I worth now?
The morning's hunt had been a rousing success, the she hog I had brought to my friends' home had been enthusiastically received, the multitude of happy children capering about while the adults admired the animal. A little fellow named Jesus tugged at my gun belt. I tussled his jet black hair and scooped him up in my left arm so he could better see the sow’s snout and ivory. As I leaned towards the hog, grunting in his ear, and snorting in his neck, he let out a squeal of delight and I gently let him back down to run off with the other children. There was the promise of another Fiesta looming large, and the excitement was contagious; Don Alberto was here and there was sure to be a lot of fun. Already the commotion had attracted the neighbors who were now making their way up the driveway.
Chilled from a low crawl stalk through wet grass, during the early morning's hunt, I was forced to imbibe Bacardi's aforementioned magical elixir; for medicinal purposes of course. It works great on cuts, cactus scratches, blisters, dog bites, and anything else that ails you. Begging off after the second dose was administered and had completely seared the back of my throat to numbness, I asked a couple of the young "Muchachos" to take the sow off the horse's back. Grunting from the weight and trying to avoid the horses hooves, they managed to haul it off to the wooden dressing table. Telling them I would be back later, I remounted Chester the trusty horse, and rode home to a hot shower and dry clothes.
Before I could do anything though, I had to take care of the horse. Back at the stables, I put him in his stall, took off the bit and reins and gave him a cup of feed to occupy him while I unsaddled him. I ride a western saddle, but I've been considering an Aussie saddle. It's a cross between a McClellan saddle and a western and is designed for the horse's comfort. Which when you look at the financial cost and the emotional side of the equation of horse ownership, isn't such a bad idea. Flipping the saddle blanket over, I hung it on one of the rails to dry, and then reached for the brush and towel. I took the towel, wet it, and washed his rump where blood had seeped into his hair. Afterwards, starting at his neck I brushed him thoroughly on one side and then the other until his coat gleamed. By then I was good and warm. Grabbing a double armload of hay and tossing it into the rack, I gave Chester a pat on the withers and walked back down the winding path to the house.
On account of Alexander Graham Bell, good news travels fast; Martin and Emanuel, my boys' buddies, had already called ahead to tell them about the impending Fiesta. I didn't make it through the threshold before being accosted by two very excited young fellows and an exasperated yet ever patient and forgiving woman. "Dad!, dad, DAD!" hollered the youngest while the older did exactly the same except in a different voice. The words fiesta, party, music, dancing was all I could make out. The excited jabber was threatening to overwhelm me and the look of cornered prey must have been evident because Mom finally came to my rescue, steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand. A light kiss and a whispered "How did it go?" was all I was able to get while being guided to my chair. Jordan, the older of the two is a preteen, with all that it implies, and was already considering whether to wear his denim Arizona jeans or the black Wranglers. Something about Consuelo or Juana or Maria. Blake on the other hand was wondering if they would be serving tamales again. He seems to think that everything is a celebration and that the menu should contain whatever he likes.
I finally sorted them out, and looking up caught sight of my wife purposely looking at me. I was beginning to feel like the impala caught between the hyena and the leopard. My wife's eyebrow was up, which is the first of several physical signs that doom is near, so I immediately went into a defensive play number one. Mug on the coffee table, I put on my most innocent look and throwing on a crooked smile that was guaranteed melt the polar ice caps, or so I had been told, I said "Good hog, quite an adventure... Uh, by the way, there's going to be a party tonight and we're the guests of honor."
Silence. I could feel my smile slip a little. Cold sweat beaded my forehead. Don't sweat, I thought, don't let her see you sweat.
"I would have never guessed.", was the deadpanned response, eyebrow going up another fraction of an inch. “And have you been drinking? Already?“ Never having been called a coward, I decided that discretion is the better part of valor after all. Thinking quickly, I threw myself at her feet and told her about the harrowing escape from near death, the snake infested swamp and I even threw Idi Amin, the former cannibal dictator of Uganda, in for good measure.
I wasn't sure if I would pull this one off.
But, she finally relented, and said we could all go. The kids hurrahed and I figured I'd done it again, sly old dog that I am. You see, the problem is that she doesn't approve of, what is in her opinion, the over-inflated esteem that I am held in by my Mexican friends. She says she knows better; whatever that means. But that, as you might imagine, is yet another story.
Everyone ran to get ready. Within moments hair was slicked, boots shined, buckles polished, and hats brushed. We men were ready in a flash. As the second hand of the clock ticked, the boys got antsier. Jordan had settled on his black Wranglers, and must have combed his hair twenty times. Blake was whining about how hungry he was, even as he wolfed down another serving of synthetically buttered popcorn. I love these parties and just wanted to get there and take my seat at the cooking pit. But the wife, as all wives do I'm told, had to get prepared. The shower was still running. As the afternoon wore on the men's patience was wearing thin. Not that we’d do anything about it, mind you, we’re not fools you know. But the sighs spoke volumes.
Finally the door opened and she came out, resplendent in jeans and silk western blouse, sparkling jewels on hands and neck. Blake is still mesmerized by his mother's beauty and me, let's just say I'm as lucky as a man can be. Jordan's looking in the mirror trying to decide which is his best side.
Anyway, we loaded up and headed on over to the shin-dig, everyone looking forward to it.
When I pull up in our Ford F250, it looks that half the neighborhood has shown up. Cars were parked on the dirt road, along the drive, and in the front yard; I headed up the driveway to my usual reserved spot. No sooner had I driven up the driveway, when a mob of kids came pelting around the corner of the house, scattering chickens and puppies under their churning feet. Seeing us, they hit the brakes, their shoes kicking crumbled shell about. After a pause too short to even call momentary, they wheeled in unison and rushed the truck. Pulling the truck up into my space they swarmed it like locusts. The doors flung open, my boys bailed out and were quickly and irretrievably swallowed into the writhing mass of children. Like a tornado leaving destruction and disarray in its wake, the mass boiled away into the distance.
Two of the "muchachos" swaggered up, the gold medallions of the Virgin Mary that hung around their necks reflecting light, their Stetsons pulled low over the foreheads. I had already popped my door open and was halfway out, but the Wife knew to wait for one of the boys to open the door for her. "Don Alberto, que tal?" asked Martin as he manfully stuck out his hand, his crocodile hide boots giving him an extra couple of inches of height, "My father asked to be told of your arrival."
I gave him a firm shake of the hand and a squeeze on the shoulder. "Tell him on my way.", I said. He gave me a half salute and took off with purposeful strides to his father. In the meantime, Emmanuel had opened the Wife's door, held her hand and helped her down out of the jacked-up truck. Offering his arm he asked her if he could escort her to where his parents were. To see a couple of 12 year olds with better manners than most adults is a real pleasure, and a treat. With great seriousness, and yet lightly, my wife accepted and was escorted to the grand fete. Me, I was left behind to fend for myself, as usual, but at least I knew were the bar was.
Ambling over to the bar and pouring myself a long one over ice, I took a sip and let the liquid fire run down my throat until it hit my belly burning. The Fiesta was wound up by now and the revelers were happily carrying on. Mariachi music was playing and I could see some of the younger couples dancing. Martin was talking to his father and pointing back towards the truck, Guadalberto looked up from his labor and scanned the crowd. As he looked in my direction, I raised my glass, and caught his attention. A broad grin split his face, and handing the long oak wood spoon he had in his hand to Martin, came in my direction, side stepping around children and seated people. Turning back to the bar and reaching behind, I grabbed another tumbler and dropped some ice into it. I was putting it down when a work hardened and callused hand grabbed me by the bicep and spun me around. "Don Alberto!" I get that a lot when I'm there. "You must come to the fire! Everyone is there waiting, Come, come!" His hand had grabbed mine and pumped it in greeting, at the same time he was pulling me that way. I reached back, grabbed the two glasses and just managed to hook the bottle with the little finger of my free hand.
A circle of mismatched seats circled the fire pit. All of them filled by the equivalent of the village elders. A seat remained empty for me. How I rank up there with the elders is beyond me.
(Actually the reason I do is because I am educated, seemingly successful, and Castilian speaking. To their way of thinking I am the equivalent of a Spanish Don or in its English counterpart a member of the titled gentry. The other title I hear often is "Patron" which is the same in English, patron. Tonight I was "El Patron", I was the patron of the party. I supplied the main course, in this case a "marrano", very much like the land owners of yore might possibly have dropped off game or even cattle at the mission for the peasants. There is a subtle caste system at work here, and as my father has told me, it is best not to rock the boat. In this social structure, everyone knows his place, but if it is upset, nothing works right. So I play my part, and encourage the youngsters to strive at school and be the best that they can.)
Anyway, the fire was going, the seasoned live oak and hickory wood throwing up the occasional spark, my belly was warm, and the antojitos were being passed around by the pretty young ladies of the families in attendance, their dresses colorful and festive. Spearing a chunk of fried chicken breast with the proffered bamboo skewer, I squeezed a bit of lime on it, dipped it into the salt, and popped it into my watering mouth. There were triangles of warm flour and corn tortillas, crisp avocado chunks bathed in lemon juice, salsa verde and salsa roja, rounds of corn cobs with butter and salt, and assorted other goodies. Taking another sip of my drink, I watched as my friend, Guadalberto, pulled out a sizzling chunk of pork from the cauldron, and put it on a waiting wooden platter.
Anticipation was on everyone's face. The aroma wafted towards me, filling my nose with the wonderful bouquet of well prepared food. Spearing another hunk with a trident fit for the Roman coliseum, he lifted that one, spitting and popping to yet another waiting platter. The ladies had their hands full tonight. The pork was taken to a table where it was to be cut, served and distributed to everyone.
The good Padre was there, Father Ramon of "Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe" Catholic Church. Able to speak Latin and English in an impeccable manner, he is a strong , wiry man, seemingly fit enough to wrestle cattle, drunks or sinners with ease. He is one of those old fashioned priests that still makes house calls to tend to his scattered flock. At his signal everyone rose from their seats, the children quieted down, and one and all, (Including this godless heathen!) bowed their heads for the benediction. When he finished, everyone headed for the serving tables to be fed!
End Part I