Condoms and Sarapes
by Erik Bosse
It was a quiet afternoon in May. I sat on the second floor balcony of Alex’s apartment above the defunct Michoacán Bar on the western fringe of downtown San Antonio. On the thrift shop table between us lay scattered a dozen tubes of oil paints in many colors which he insisted he had stolen from the Southwest School of Art and Craft.
Alex had been living over the bar for maybe a year. It’s along the railroad tracks between a light industrial area and a brutally impoverished residential neighborhood. There were two apartments above the bar. He had a kitchen, bathroom, and two other rooms, all arranged in a row from the front balcony to the alley. Across the central corridor was the other apartment. Four undocumented Guatemalan laborers lived there. Quiet, polite young men, all from the same town.
We were painting on one-foot squares of Masonite that Alex had cut earlier in the day with a Stanley blade. I was working on a study of the downtown skyline, and in the foreground I had balanced on the railing a coffee can with rosemary growing from it. Alex was working on a new piece for his Modern Lotería series — this one had crack pipes, sex toys, and Alberto Gonzales.
“You should come over here at dawn,” Alex said, adding some shadow to a butt plug. “The sun comes up from over the Alamodome and this whole porch glows with warm morning light. You can hear the doves, the ones nesting under the eaves of the abandoned shop across the street. I make a pot of cafe de olla and sit out here watching the city.” Alex stopped and leaned in to his painting. He muttered a bit of profanity in Spanish and over-painted the cartoon fart cloud emanating from Gonzales’ ass so that it became an enormous mushroom cloud. He smiled in satisfaction.
We heard footsteps from the inside corridor. The door opened and William stepped onto the balcony with his nephew, Abel. Alex, William, and I were all about the same age — pushing forty. Abel was in his late twenties. William was the product of an anglo father and a dark-skinned Mexicana mother; he grew up blond and blue-eyed in the barrio, and, no doubt because of that, he could be a pretty tough customer. Abel was just a drunk. He followed William, tottering out in flip-flops, cut-off jeans, and a denim vest with no shirt. He sat on the floor of the balcony and placed a twelve pack of Lone Star beer beside him. He tore the box open and cracked a can for himself. It was clear he’d already been drinking.
William fished out drinks for the rest of us. He looked at Alex’s painting.
“Still doing that Lotería stuff? The condoms and sarapes?”
Alex chose to not respond.
The two men knew each since they were children. And, late in life, each had decided to become an artist. With the rise in popularity of outsider art, they were getting some interest in the local art scene. A competitive streak began to grow.
Alex opened his beer and looked up at William.
“Compliments of the loco check?” he asked.
William collects a disability check. Something to do with mental illness.
“Naw. I’ve been getting some money painting apartments on Zarzamora.”
Abel turned his moist eyes in my direction. He tapped on my boots.
“That your bike?” he asked. “The one in the hallway?”
“Yeah,” I said. I squeezed out some light blue onto the pizza box lid I was using as a pallet.
“I used to have a bike. Rode it everywhere. But I’m diabetic, and I can’t do it anymore.”
William turned from Alex and glared at Abel.
“Then you shouldn’t fuckin’ drink.”
Eventually the painting supplies went back into boxes, and we silently drank and watched the traffic over on Frio Street. As dusk began to fall over the neighborhood, the Guatemalans stepped onto the balcony with a six pack of beer, a bag of charcoal, and a package of frankfurters. They nodded to us and turned toward the little hibachi on their side of the balcony. Alex bounced over, and after a quick exchange that had the men blushing and laughing, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of twenties.
“William, go with one of these guys to the Culebra Meat Market over on Flores. Get some good meat and more beer.”
“Fuck. I just got here. I’m not going anywhere.”
At the moment, Renaldo Salazar flung open the door. He’s an established local artist with a flair for the dramatic.
Alex beamed. “Naldo! It’s officially a party now!”
William made a sour face. “Okay, I’ll go to the meat market,” he said.
“What’s this?” Renaldo asked, ignoring William. “Meat market?”
Alex filled him in.
“No one knows the subtle code of the barbecue better than I,” Renaldo said with gleeful electricity. He snatched away Alex’s money and pulled Abel to his feet. “You’re coming along, wallflower.”
With Abel in tow, in mute inebriation, Renaldo separated the smallest and prettiest Guatemalan from his people and whispered soft words in his ear. Renaldo departed with his baffled yet committed entourage. A man on a mission of barbeque bacchanalia.
Years ago in Dallas, during another occasion in my life where I played at being an artist, I remember a night much the same. I was living in a drafty loft in an old downtown warehouse. It was the Forth of July and I was out on the roof with some friends. There were maybe five of us, all drinking from big jugs of wine. As the fireworks began going off about a mile away at the Cotton Bowl, Keith wandered to the far end of the roof and began to fire off rounds from a little Italian .25 automatic I had given him earlier in the day in trade for some hash. I wasn’t too concerned as the clip only had four rounds in it and I could hardly see what sort of trouble he could get into shooting down into the railroad tracks between two abandoned warehouses.
Giving the matter no more thought, I returned to watching the explosions in the sky. Moments later Keith was tugging on my sleeve. He pulled me aside and placed the gun in my hands. He whispered to me in a panic that he thought he shot a homeless man sleeping beside the tracks. The first shot he said was to see if it was in fact a person. “I think it moved. I think it was a man. I don’t know why I shot three more times.” I checked the chamber. It was empty. There were no more rounds in the clip. Keith was trembling and whispering to himself what I assumed were prayers.
I slipped the gun into my back pocket and took the fire escape down to the loading dock and jumped down and walked up and down the tracks. There wasn’t anyone down there. Nothing that even looked like what might be confused for a sleeping person. When I got back to the rooftop, Keith was gone. We sort of drifted apart after that.
Strange I had forgotten all about that night so many years ago. But it was brought back with beers on the balcony and the fireworks display from the direction of Woodlawn Lake commemorating Cinco de Mayo. I guess I had been oblivious as to the date, and I was as surprised as the Guatemalans with the colorful flashes throwing quivering shadows on the walls behind us. Alex and William were giving a running critical commentary, comparing the display to previous years.
Renaldo returned while the fireworks were in progress. As the rest of us watched the sky, fascinated, he fired up a joint, examined the coals in the hibachi which the Guatemalans had already prepared, and busied himself with food preparation.
A bit beyond midnight, after I had lost count of beers and brisket tacos, I realized I had been nodding off in Alex’s lawn chair. I looked around. The stereo inside was playing Lila Downs. Alex and William were arguing about a girl who had died twenty years ago. Renaldo was dancing with one of the Guatemalans, while the other three looked on uncomfortably.
I eased up and walked inside. I walked my bike down the hallway and carried it down the back stairs, almost falling over Able who was snoring slumped on the bottom step. The moon light struck a streamer of saliva from his mouth and it glowed blue like a fiber optic cable.
I rode south down Colorado Street, and paused for a few minutes to watch a couple of kids throwing lit firecrackers at each other in their front yard until their father yelled for them to shut up. I continued through the peaceful neighborhoods ripe with the blossoms of mountain-laurel and huisache marinading with the odors of barbecued meat. The measured thump of norteño music drifting through open windows followed me all the way home.