Vignettes from Strawberry Fields
By Chuy Ramirez
This vignette is included to complement the accompanying book review of Dr. Tatcho Mindiola’s new book, Race Talk in a Mexican Cantina.
Saturday evenings, Don Armando relaxed the rules and allowed dice games and drinking in his camp. On that last Saturday in Decatur, as some packed for the long trip back to Texas and others sought an extended stay in Indiana, a heavy rain began at dusk and continued through the evening. In spite of the weather, a spirited game of dice developed once the rain subsided. A pickup truck was backed up next to the light pole at the entrance to the camp. In the bed of the truck, pieces of cardboard were laid out to create a smooth surface for the dice to roll.
Junior was pitching dice, with a half-empty, dark bottle of Stroh’s in his left hand. He wiped sweat beads from his forehead with the back of his left hand. His beady black eyes looked beadier now, as well as red.
For the past hour, as if it were his obligation, Blue had been nursing a warm beer, steadying himself against the spare tire attached just behind the driver side of the Chevy pickup. He was caught in a trance, his eyes at half-mast and his fedora pulled back so it only covered half of his head. Even stone drunk, he just kept smiling in a quiet chuckle, as if his brain was connected to some perpetual movie in which he took great delight. While his eyes occasionally acknowledged that he was superficially still with the rest of the men, it was obvious that his focus was elsewhere. Wherever it was that Blue’s mind visited during those Friday and Saturday night binges, it seemed to be a peaceful place.
The old man, the alcoholic with the two women and the blonde girl, insisted on rolling the dice on a twenty. He got craps and dropped another twenty. When he got craps again, he grumped away. He sat in front of a cabin, sulking, comforted only by his half-empty bottle of bourbon whiskey.
Shorty was very lucky that night, and he was beginning to get on the other players’ nerves.
“Nine, canine! Talk to me!” Junior blew on the dice for good luck.
“No viene (It won’t come)!” yelled Shorty, wanting to make a bet.
“Orale chapete.” (“Put your money where your mouth is.”) Junior matched a five, but his trademark snicker was missing. “Any other takers?” he threatened.
There were none.
He picked up the two dice and inspected them briefly in his right hand, manipulating them with his thumb.
“Nueve, se te mueve (Nine, your money’s mine),” Junior jibed and snickered in a move calculated to set off Shorty.
Shorty chuckled. Not to be outdone, he taunted Junior in kind, “No, you’re mine, baby; have been all night.”
That drew a raucous laugh from the others.
Shorty acknowledged everyone’s enthusiasm, laughing heartily, poking at Junior.
Half of Junior’s weekly earnings were gone, but Junior wouldn’t be outdone. He bit his lower lip.
“Five more says it does come, mi chorizito (my little sausage).’” Junior threw another wadded five-dollar bill on the cardboard.
While it was a play on Shorty’s name, Junior was likewise raising the bar in the taunting, ribbing game of la mosca, el relajo, the insult game that consisted of sparring insults, put-downs, and sarcastic digs, with a propensity to evolve into cruel and deprecating assaults on the other poor soul, who had to spar back with his own insults or risk being judged unmanly for not defending himself.
“Ay, ay, ay…” some of the others taunted Shorty, trying to coax a stronger comeback from him.
Junior looked on calmly without reacting, knowing he had wounded Shorty.
Shorty grinned and avoided passing spit. Nevertheless, his eyes admitted that he was considering the consequences. The ribbing had thickened, and Junior had placed the ball squarely in Shorty’s end of the court. The rules for the banter were unspoken, but everyone knew them. Shorty knew carrying it to the next level could result in dire, unpredictable consequences. He was in a weighing mode: the ego, pride, violence, pain, and death.
How will Shorty react? Will he submit? And if Shorty raises the bar, how will Junior react? all the wide-eyed onlookers wondered.
Feigning a frustrated impatience, Shorty retorted, “Orale, shoot the dice,” his attempt to save a little face. Shorty, however, had blinked, the most advisable option under the circumstances. His remark had the intention of defusing the situation. Everyone knew it, and the ribbing stopped.
Injured, Shorty had retreated, and Junior knew the taunting game was over. Junior had won, but unlike the matador, he was gracious. He let the bull walk away injured but still alive. Nothing more was said. Within each of the players, while no one would ever admit it, there was a silent sigh of relief. Even Blue, who had appeared comatose a few minutes earlier, seemed to nod, acknowledging the truce as the better solution.