Who Was Gregorio Cortez

By Dee Redfearn

hree weeks after the Fourth of July, the people of Realitos settled into their customary niches, all except for Chu Cho Gonzalez Cortez. He stood on the curb, watching a cobalt-blue wagon lolling toward Main and First. The wagon had seen better days. Frayed gold tassels fringed each corner. The yellowed cover advertised a sideshow, stenciled in bold red print: Tea remedies, readings by Tillie, a Gypsy dancer, and more. Although unable to upstage the flatbed that followed, the and more boggled Chu Cho’s mind, a mind much in need of sobriety.

Moby, the Fish was scrawled on corrugated cardboard in red letters and attached to an enormous crate. The truck traveled slowly; its motor hummed with the weight it hauled and drew a crowd. A tarp, not quite large enough to cover the sides, cloaked the tank that held—what? Two men stepped up to help with the unveiling, then backed off with what they saw.

This was the first time Chu Cho, or anyone else in Realitos, had seen a whale. A 1,200-pound, 11-foot calf whale stared at him through the glass. Not quite believing the stare was meant for him, Chu Cho looked over his shoulder. Suddenly he took center stage. It felt like one of those rare moments when man, drunk or sober, ready or not, comes face-to-face with his fate. Sensing that half the town stood gawking, Chu Cho turned.

“What…?” he said.

What a magnificent creature of silver-gray fish skin and a ribbed belly of perfect symmetry. The eye darted this way and that before their gazes locked.

“Que loco,” Chu Cho said and backed away.

Barabbas, the name tattooed on the truck driver’s arm, cleared his throat. Cartons of shrimp and squid, packed in dry ice, lay near his feet. He said the boxes had been shipped from Port Isabelle, where the whale had been transported from Baja, then lifted by helicopter onto the truck. Somehow the calf had gotten separated from its mother. A pod like hers (according to marine science calculations) was due to cross the Gulf of Mexico at the end of this week. Barabbas had inherited the job from his cousin, a marine biologist, who had arranged Moby’s release near Corpus Christi Bay. Everyone watched while he explained his mission and set up an elaborate contraption plugged into a generator that kept water circulating at a certain temperature. For a creature so enormous, so full of life, the whale looked listless, floating in the tank of murky seawater.

“Did he say they had to get her there in time to meet up with her kind?” someone nudged Chu Cho and asked. He shrugged.

“How can that happen? Someone’s really got to know what they’re doing. And be lucky.”

The man on his left moved in for a closer look.

*   *   *

“That’s it, folks. Take a good look. Harmless, you ask?” Smoke streamed from Barabbas’s lips as he spoke. He flexed his muscle to expand the tattoo on his bicep. “Now don’t let that high-pitched tone scare you. She’s just singing a fish song, of love maybe, yearning to get back to the deep blue. Maybe she just needs company.” He took off his cap, whose band read, “Save the Whales.” He held it to his heart before passing it around.

“Ladies and gents, you obviously know how much shrimp cost.” He eyed the crowd. “Or maybe you don’t. In either case, reach down into your hearts and help Moby out here.”

To view a whale was a first, let alone pass the hat to save one, unless this cause was for Barabbas to jangle a bit of change in his pocket; some had seen his kind before. No le hace. It didn’t matter; he might be sincere. Some reached into their pockets; some shook their heads before walking away. The clinking of quarters and pennies blended with the clanks and clunks of Chu Cho’s rake and hoe that he tossed in the trunk of his car. He was late for work, but he turned back to have another look and to toss in a quarter.

“Hey, you.”

Chu Cho pointed to himself.

Barabbas nodded. “Don’t forget the show. Eight o’clock tonight. Be there.”

*   *   *

The and more had lingered. Not knowing if it was Moby or the Gypsy woman that lured, he found himself in front of the cobalt-blue wagon at eight sharp. Whatever the reason, the Gypsy woman did not disappoint. Her plump stature was as unfit for the small stage attached to the wagon in back of the truck. People gathered around her wagon to watch.

She wore a black satin skirt, a jute blouse secured at the waist with a purple sash, and gold earrings. Gypsy’s face was staged to attract: cheeks powdered, hair hennaed, nails painted. She fingered cymbals that blinged with each bang of her hips and inspired applause and intermittent whistles. After the crowd thinned, several passed by the tank, eyes cast down, as if viewing a casket. They plunked pennies, quarters, whatever change they had into Barabbas’s hat.

Chu Cho took a swig. He looked at the crowd before turning his attention toward the tank. He blinked his eyes; Moby appeared blurred. He staggered in the direction of a light that caught his eye, and somehow he ended up in Gypsy’s tent. He was there out of curiosity, out of a need for company, or just out of not wanting to face another immense night alone. He’d never had a reading and couldn’t imagine that a reading could last the night. But it did. He remembered vaguely the word “adventure” whispered, and the queen of hearts turning up repeatedly, and so it went. Embarrassingly so.

*   *   *

Going about minding his own business, the garbage man saw, or thought he saw, Chu Cho leave Gypsy’s tent at five in the morning. And more, he saw Chu Cho kiss the tank; that’s right, kiss. The morning sun would stoke embers of speculation that made ears blush: Some would say Chu Cho was in love. But who with? Gypsy woman? A fish? Rumors started at dawn. Things that happened in and around the cobalt-blue wagon created a spark in the otherwise dull town of Realitos.

What had really happened that night? Had Chu Cho spent the night in her bed? Had he really kissed a fish? When all was said and done, the state of affairs sounded unbelievable, even unnatural. When someone flat asked him, “Que pasó, Chu Cho?” he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, remember.

*   *   *

That night, the click of a lamp was the last thing Chu Cho heard.

“Where the hell am I?” Chu Cho opened one eye and then the other to find his head nestled in a cushy set of pink teats. “Oh, my God.” He eased himself away from the heat of Tillie’s body and drew the cover to his chin. “Is it night?”

“No. It’s 4 a.m.”

“What happened?”

Hand to mouth, Tillie yawned. “Relax.”

How? he thought but didn’t say. Here he lay in a tent beside a woman he hardly knew. She could well be a thief or worse. His mother had warned him of Gypsies when he was a boy. They steal children, she had used to say, and have their way with them. And here he was in bed with Tillie, a Gypsy. Good God. He must have been desperate. Chu Cho, who never wore a watch, checked the wrist. “Where does the time go?” He reached for excuses. “Aha, poor Lucy. I’ve gotta run.”

“Lucy who?” Tillie’s brow knitted into a worried look.

“Lucinda, my goat. If I don’t milk her, well,” he gestured, “it’s horrible.”

Tillie sighed, a deep, rather pitiful sigh, and upon release allowed her coverlet to slip from one shoulder.

Chu Cho shut his eyes. Upon slowly opening them, two exposed mounds of pink flesh presented themselves, with attentive nipples. Chu Cho stared hard at the freckle on Tillie’s shoulder.

“My love,” Tillie began, “ju are wonderful, and funny.”

“I’m funny?” he asked, making the effort to keep eyes-front. Really?

“You sing, you dance.” She continued, “Oh, yes. You’re a hopeless romantic, Chu Cho. Last night, you professed love.”

“Professed? Did I say profess?”

“Not exactly.” She tilted her chin in his direction.

“No, no way am I funny. Funny’s not me.”

“Well, I think you are my copita de miel. In a very charming way.”

“No, no, no. I’m not charming. I’m, I’m”—he scratched the back of his head—“I’m a drunk. Ask anybody. I drink. A lot. And look.” He reached for his threadbare khaki pants, wadded and tossed on the nightstand. “What sort would wear pants like these?”

“Ju,” she smiled.

He reached for the first thing he could find to cover up—a crocheted tablecloth.

She gave his shoulders a gentle push. “Ju, stay right where you are. I will brew you a cup of mint tea.” (The thought of mint tea sounded nauseating.) “No sugar, of course,” she added. “Ju are sweet enough.” Wrapped in her coverlet, sarong-style, her enormous hips rhythmically bounced from side to side. Her legs, a pair of oversize ninepins, couldn’t possibly find balance on such tiny feet in black slippers, but somehow she managed.

“Oh, God,” he said and laid his head in the palms of his hands to ease the throbbing. Last night when she danced in her purple sash, with her earrings dangling and finger cymbals jangling, she had looked pretty good, but in the cold light of day…

“Listen, Gypsy, the first thing you need to know is that in Realitos there’s nothing to do but talk, talk, talk. Better to pretend nothing happened. Deny, deny, deny—what happened to happen didn’t happen. You know? People talk in small towns.”

“But why?”

Chu Cho drew a blank. “Because,” he began, “…because there is reputation to consider. I’m not thinking about myself, but you’re a woman, a single woman.”

“Chu Cho, who cares what people think?” she said.

*   *   *

In a way, she was right. Of course, his mother would have cared, were she alive. But she wasn’t, and who was he kidding? He had no friends. Most of his buddies were dead and gone in the war. The fact that he came back from Nam was not a pleasant thought. So at night he drank. He hated doing things he regretted later, but here he was. He couldn’t even remember if he’d reduced himself to a brute, forcing himself upon this poor woman.

“That’s it. No more. No more booze.”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself. You’re not at fault. Practicality is. I have but one bed; the reading took longer than expected. It was late, and you were drunk as a skunk.”

“Drunk?” Chu Cho sat straight up. “How drunk?”

“Plenty drunk.”

Maybe he was too hard on himself. Maybe being drunk wasn’t so bad. His mother would have disagreed. She had expected more from him. He’d played the cards he was dealt. Things hadn’t worked out for him, that’s all. It does for some, and for others, well, others stay in Realitos, Texas, and never know the difference.

“Chu Cho, I have something to tell you. You are a perfect gentleman. For forty years I’ve been saving myself for someone like ju.”

“Someone like me?” The compliment was nice, but the source—well, face it, had the evening called for gentlemanlike behavior? Had he given her the wrong impression? Possible. But what could he say not to lead her on and, at the same time, to get himself out of this mess? He had to think, think, think. He grabbed his pants off the side table. How could he speak harsh words in a gentle manner? This woman was, after all, nice in spite of herself.

“Maybe,” he began, measuring his words, “we should cool it. Take our time. What rises fast, falls quickly. In thinking about myself, I, too, have been saving myself.”

“Oh, Chu Cho, that’s a sign.”

“A sign?” The only sign he could think of was the one attached to the cobalt-blue wagon that he remembered to read: and more. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign not to start something we can’t finish.”

“No. No, no. Quite the contrary. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a chance.” She pulled a silk, fuchsia scarf out of nowhere and ran it across his face. It smelled of lavender and felt smooth, like a healing balm.

“Oh my God, Lucy, and my work. I can hear the grass growing.” He checked his wrist. “Ha, I’m late.” He stood to maneuver into one pant leg, then the other.

“But the tea.”

“You drink it.” He buttoned the first and last button of his shirt, threw open the flap of her tent to check that the coast was clear.

He looked from side to side to make sure the lot was empty.

He passed near the tank. Moby’s listless stare drew him to her. “It looks like you’ve had better days. Yeah, me too. I had no business staying the night, I drank too much, and I don’t feel like going to work.” He felt sorry for this beautiful creature and felt something more he couldn’t put into words. “Look at me.” Moby’s eye met Chu Cho’s; he pressed his forehead against the plate glass. “Look at you, a big fish in a little pond like Realitos. That’s something.” Pressing his head against the tank, he felt the coolness, and against his cheek, the smoothness, and closer still, his lips felt the cold and smooth glass tank.

What the hell was he doing? A 36-year-old man kissing a fish. “Loco. Plain loco.”

*   *   *

Chu Cho eased himself into his chair, which featured a well-defined imprint of his rear in the center of the cushion. The furniture stood exactly where his mother had left it. Even the dust hadn’t stirred, with the exception of an occasional paw print left by Princess, his cat, who strolled at will, her powder-pink nose turned up and lower lip turned down as if something smelled bad. He sat where he always sat to stare and think. He would sleep it off and work later. He clicked his TV on and got up to adjust the rabbit ears. He would show up to work around three. He didn’t want to be too late, like he always was, or not show. Frau Beiterman had been kind to him to hire him as her yardman. She’d hired him in spite of his long hair, which she disapproved of, and his hip-slung britches, which she thought disheveled. But when she checked his driver’s license, she saw his photos. A man who carries a picture of his mother in his wallet and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe couldn’t be bad, she said and hired him on the spot. It was too early to go to work and too late to sleep. But sleep overtook Chu Cho, and he pulled a no-show.

*   *   *

His mother, God rest her soul, had always wanted him to be responsible and to marry well. Who you marry is important in life, she had said. Chu Cho was glad he’d never had to face that decision. He hadn’t particularly wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Poor bastard, always hoping for some opportunity to help him get off the treadmill of life in Realitos, always in hopes someone or something would come along to set him free. Chu Cho remembered hot summer nights when family and neighbors gathered like chicks at his father’s feet, listening to him strum “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” on his guitar. Whoever the hell that Cortez was—a cousin, his father had said. Who knew? Everyone in Realitos claimed any relation that had achieved success or notoriety. Gregorio was known for shooting a sheriff. Hero? Bandito? That depends on who was telling the story.

Chu Cho’s days were passable. It was night that gave him the willies. This night was no exception. He had slept straight through work, and he roamed the streets of Realitos wearing a crumpled felt hat and threadbare khakis wrinkled like an accordion. Chu Cho passed the San Jose Church, crossed himself, pressed his cheek to a nearby lamppost, and hummed “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”

“Who the hell was Gregorio, anyway?” Chu Cho hiccuped and smiled, pleased to hear his own foul words. “Quien erda, a quién chingo? O lo chingaron?” Humming, he tried to remember the words: “Then said Gregorio Cortez, with his pistol in his hand, ‘Ah, so many Rangers, just to take one Mexican.’”

*   *   *

Bits and pieces of corridos and stories, that’s all that was left. Nothing remained of his family but cairns over hard dirt. Gregorio had been remembered (by at least one man, Chu Cho’s father) as someone worth remembering. What was there left to remember about anyone in the Cortez family, whether named Gregorio or not? Nothing, man, the answer was nothing. Like his war buddies, scattered piece by piece God knows where. And for what? For what? He took a swig and, trying to hum the tune, unzipped his fly, saluting the daisies while he attended to his civic duties. “Chingos,” he said, watering the daises and half-forgetting that he stood in front of the church.

High-pitched sounds pierced the night, like a blues trumpet. It was Moby. Chu Cho leaned his head back, took another swig, and returned Moby’s yelp, with a grito straight from the heart. He’d miss Moby; miss the excitement of something new happening in Realitos. He’d miss having anything happen in Realitos. Which made him think of Gypsy. What had happened between them, anyway? There was a soft light in her little tent. Even if nothing had happened, something could have. He’d met an okay Gypsy woman, who wasn’t all that attractive, but she wasn’t a thief either, and she didn’t steal children. Nearing the tank, Chu Cho answered whale clacks by clicking his own lips. Air spewed from the top wire that protected the tank, and Moby barked a few trumpetlike yelps. The spray cooled his face. He could smell the brine of the ocean, an ocean he hadn’t seen in years. The Gulf wasn’t far, fifty or seventy-five miles. But for some reason he, like everyone else in Realitos, never strayed from home.

Moby’s fish song was as lonely as the ocean, with its unimaginable depths and its shimmering surface lights reflecting phosphorescent life below. Beneath that darkness, always the abyss, the unfathomable. He leaned his head against the glass tank and thought of the dark abyss. Moby didn’t move; her eyes were, in fact, half shut. “You don’t look so good. Where the hell is Barabbas?”

“Barabbas! Barabbas! Donde estás, cabron?

“What is going on?” Gypsy stuck her head out the flap of her tent. “Chu Cho, what are you doing? It’s late.”

“Look here. This big fish don’t look so good. Why?”

“He’s been on one of his binges.” She pointed under the truck. “And it could go on for days.”

“Days? Moby doesn’t have days.”

“It’s worse than that. Moby doesn’t have food.”

“What?”

Gypsy pointed. Barabbas was sprawl-eagle under the truck, empty boxes of shrimp strewn hither and yon.

“Where’s Moby’s food?”

“He sold it.”

“Sold it? What for?”

“For fifty dollars, I think.”

“Pendejo.”

“Worse. He didn’t give me my share.”

“Oh no, Gypsy. You’re not in on this scheme, are you?”

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea, this caravan ride I’ve been on where he gets all the money; I get all the problems. But it’s business. I have a horse to feed. And no money to even buy the old mare a decent headpiece plume.” She pulled the fuchsia scarf from her bosom and dabbed her eyes.

“Don’t.” Chu Cho put his arm around her shoulder. “You don’t have to be with his kind.”

“What’s left for people like me?”

“Anything is better than this, Gypsy. Never forget that.” Chu Cho looked at Barabbas snoring his foul-breathed snores. “Come on, Gypsy. Help me out here.” Chu Cho grabbed the inebriated body by one boot and Gypsy by the other, and together they dragged Barabbas out from under the truck. Chu Cho felt fire in the pit of his gut, out of control, burning. He grabbed Barabbas by the collar.

Bastardo, have you no sense of responsibility? Have you no soul?” Chu Cho shook him till he let out a moan.

“Forget it. He’s out for days.”

“Moby doesn’t have days.” Chu Cho felt his jaws tighten and his fists clinch. “You self-centered, sanctimonious son of a bitche.” He shook him harder. “Who do you think you are, strutting into town like you own the place? Like you own Moby. No one owns anyone. Not that way.” He dropped Barabbas, who lay unfazed with a smile on his lips.

Chu Cho stuck one hand in his hip pocket and brought the other to his head. “Think, man. Think.” He leaned against the glass; Moby’s eyes were closed. “Hey, in there.” He tapped the glass tank. “Do you hear me?” His bottle of whisky lay on the ground. He looked at Moby, then back to Gypsy. Oh, great; a loser, a slacker, and a near-dead fish. Who was the least desirable was up for grabs. He picked up his half-empty bottle and tossed it. The bottle shattered. He leaned his head against the tank. “Oh, man. Oh, man, Moby. You know what? Life is a bag of shit. And try to get rid of a bag of shit. You know what you’re left with?”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself.”

“Shut up, Gypsy. Let me think.” Through the glass tank, he heard the slightest bleep, like a submerged submarine, or like a heart monitor before flatlining. Maybe there was time. Maybe there was a way out. Gypsy spoke up.

“You could drive Moby to the Gulf.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You’re crazy. I can’t drive that big truck.”

“You know how to drive a truck.”

“I drive a pickup. A ’52 Chevy pickup.”

“It’s practically the same.”

Chu Cho hopped onto the fender and peered in the truck’s front window. A mass of gearshifts sprouted from the center console like a crop of goldenrods. He jumped down.

“It’s not the same.”

“Well, what’s so hard? There’s got to be a first, second, and third gear somewhere. Chu Cho, try.”

“I guess I could.”

“Yes, yes.” Gypsy rose on the toes of her ballet slippers as if she might twirl; she clapped her hands instead.

“Could I? Could I possibly move this chingos of a flatbed to the Gulf, crack open the crate, and let the force of the water plunge Moby into the Gulf of Mexico? Hey, Moby, you could be a wetback.” He grinned. “Yeah.” He walked toward the truck. “Wait a minute. Wait one minute.” He stopped. “Let’s be practical. So, I give it a go. So I get the damn truck on the highway. One wrong move, and the police stop me. Red lights blinking, sirens blare, y toda la cosa. One look at me, you know what they’ll say. Marijuano! Smuggler. Where, pinche cops? The whale’s belly? they’ll say. Crazy. This plan is crazy, Gypsy. It will never work.”

“What if it does?”

“What if it doesn’t?” Chu Cho scratched the back of his head. “What can be more crazy than the truth? ‘I’m doing the right thing here, Officer. I’m transporting a whale. Yes, in the back of my truck. Some shithead brought it to Realitos en route to the Gulf to meet up with a marine biologist, but he stopped. He stopped to make a buck. Now the whale needs to go home. So let me do what I have to do, Officer.’ What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, Chu Cho. That sounds wonderful. Maybe you’ll get a medal. Maybe you’ll get a police escort.”

“Maybe. Now where the hell are the keys?” Gypsy shrugged. “Oh, great.” Together they scavenged through the driver’s pockets and cargo bags. Nada. They combed the ground near the empty boxes of shrimp. Nada. Chu Cho hopped on the fender and looked into the window on the driver’s side. Moonlight struck the dashboard, and Chu Cho reached in and flicked the key ring full of dangling keys. No excuses now. He jumped into the front seat.

“Chu Cho, wait.” Gypsy hoisted herself on the fender and pursed her lips. Chu Cho, eyes rolled upward, leaned closer to her. “I wanted to say…” She hesitated. “Something happened,” she said and pulled him closer still. She kissed him hard on the lips.

He smiled, hit the ignition, and listened to the engine rev up while he adjusted the side-view mirror and his felt hat. Through the mirror, he could see Gypsy waving her fuchsia scarf, looking a bit forlorn. What did she expect? He was a man with a mission.

“Hang in there, big guy. Don’t give up,” he shouted.

Hearing the slosh of water and a few weak whale yelps, Chu Cho tapped on the rear window. “What do you say, Moby? Let’s go for it.”

___

Dee Redfearn is an honors graduate of the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program in fiction writing, where she was nominated for Best New Voices in 2003 and 2004. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Willow Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She was also published in Vol. XXIII of Green Hills Literary Lantern and more recently in Under the Sun where her essay “The Camino” was nominated for Best American Essays. Dee is a finalist for the New Letter’s Fiction Award.


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