The Guatemalan Gunslinger
Written by Mark Brazaitis
Illustrated Elahe Behin
Read by Peter Twal
“Hello, I’m Arthur Shaw with the Channel 7 News at 6 Spotlight. This evening, we’ll be spending our three minutes with Raymundo Rax, owner of the Land of Honey restaurant on Prospect Street in downtown Sherman. Some of us remember Ray as the Guatemalan Gunslinger, the quarterback who, two decades ago, led the Ohio Eastern University football squad to within a field goal of victory in the Cotton Bowl. But tonight we’re celebrating Ray not for his exploits on the gridiron but for his generosity in the kitchen.
“For the eighteenth time in the last year-and-half, Ray is donating all of a night’s proceeds to a worthy cause, this time to the unfortunate hurricane victims in what seems, tragically, like half the southern states. Ray, how can you afford to be so generous?”
“How can I not?” Raymundo says. What he thinks, however, is I cannot. He has taken out a second mortgage on the building that houses his restaurant. He sold his house last year, after his wife moved out, and all of that money is gone. “How can anyone look at the television today and not want to help?”
“Your list of causes is as long as a football field,” Arthur Shaw says. “You’ve donated a night’s profits to tsunami victims in Asia, war refugees in the Sudan, farmers in the Midwest, and families displaced because of the civil war in your native Guatemala. You’ve even donated a night’s profits to Sherman’s homeless shelter. How do you go about selecting a charity?”
“When I see a need—great or small, halfway around the world or in my neighborhood—I feel I must help.”
A year ago, his wife, Eileen, confronted him with the near complete disappearance of their savings. When he told her he’d given it to charities, she insisted on having sole control of their finances. A week later, when Eileen was at work, Raymundo sold his football memorabilia—helmets and jerseys and five game balls from the “miracle season” in which he led Ohio Eastern to within a field goal of an upset of Miami in the Cotton Bowl. Some of it still smelled of the field. All of it was irreplaceable. He gave the proceeds to a Habit for Humanity project in Sherman’s Spanishville.
“I know you’ve turned into Santa Claus to chase me off, you passive-aggressive bastard,” Eileen said after she saw his empty trophy cases and his barren walls. “Well, I’m off.”
Eileen was his second wife. He’d met his first wife, Caroline, in San Diego, where he played professional football. His football career and his marriage both lasted two years. Afterwards, he pursued a movie career. When he was cast, which wasn’t often, it was inevitably as a Mexican drug runner.
“Excuse me, Ray?” asks Arthur Shaw. “Did you hear me?”
“Do you want to tell viewers what’s on the menu tonight, just in case some of them haven’t had dinner?”
Raymundo has never been an epicure. What he likes most about owning a restaurant is watching people stream into it the way they used to stream into Sherman Stadium. “Our menu of Latin American favorites is known around the state,” Raymundo says. “Our head chef, Lucia López, is a superstar with a stove and skillet.” Lucia’s boyfriend, George Dedrickson, a.k.a. Big Ded, is the most notorious of Sherman’s slumlords. Over the last nine months, Raymundo has borrowed $20,000 from him.
“I keep returning to the question of why you’re being so generous and how you’re able to do so,” says Arthur Shaw. “But whatever your motivation and methods, I stand in awe. I’m Arthur Shaw with the Channel 7 News at 6 Spotlight.”
The camera’s light goes dark, and Arthur Shaw shakes Raymundo’s hand. “You must be a hell of a businessman,” he says.
Or a hell of a fool, thinks Raymundo as he turns and bounds up the five marble steps into his restaurant.
As a football player, Raymundo was considered short—six feet on his toes—and although he had forearms as thick as telephone poles, he was, in newspaper accounts, always described as “scrappy.” In this respect, he was every fan’s image of himself in a football uniform: too small, too thin, but, by God, full of uncommon determination and pluck. Remembering his earlier glory, he strides onto the red-carpeted hallway of his restaurant. There is a line fifteen people deep in front of the maitre d’. Other customers, including Bernie Smith, the owner of the wine shop around the corner, are sitting on the four red couches against the walls. Bernie stands up and says in the voice of a stadium announcer, “Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, the Guatemalan Gunslinger.” There is applause, and Raymundo waves, smiles, shakes hands.
When Raymundo was five years old, a group of masked soldiers came one evening to Finca Libertad, the dairy farm 190 kilometers north of Guatemala’s capital where he lived with his mother. The soldiers gathered everyone in front of the pond below the main house, where the finca’s owner, Señor Mitchell, lived with his wife. Two dozen men, women, and children lined up on the sand and mud. One soldier, his eyes wide and white beneath his stocking mask, brushed the end of his rifle against Raymundo’s chin. Raymundo’s mother, standing next to him, squeezed his hand and whispered, “It’s all right, mi hijo. I’m here.”
The soldiers said they were looking for guerrillas, and if there were guerrillas present—and there must be, they said, because the finca’s owner was a comunista—they should step forward. When no one did, one of the soldiers told Don Armando, who was seventy years old, to swim in the pond. Don Armando protested: “I can’t swim.” The soldier said, “This is your problem.” Don Armando didn’t remove his clothes before he stepped into the pond. When the water rose to his chest, he stopped and the soldier said, “Go on. Go on or someone will join you.” And so Don Armando disappeared beneath the brown water.
The same evening, the soldiers dragged Señor Mitchell out of his house and into the back of a jeep. Two days later, he was found dead, his neck slashed, in a village outside of San Pedro Carchá, forty kilometers to the north. At the time of his death, Señor Mitchell, who was from Ohio, had been teaching indígena children, including Raymundo, to read and write in three languages, Spanish, English, and their native Pokumchi. He had drawn up plans to turn the finca into a cooperative, with ownership shares going to everyone who lived on it, including the children.
Soon after her husband’s death, Señora Mitchell sold Finca Libertad and piled her belongings in the back of her white pickup truck. She invited three people from the finca to come with her to Ohio: María Inéz, her cook and housekeeper; María Inéz’s brother, Alberto; and Raymundo. Raymundo remembered the day he left the finca. His mother ran by the side of the truck, shouting into the open passenger window. He couldn’t understand a word. Raymundo recalls the scene frequently: his mother racing beside the truck, her skin the color of weak coffee, her mouth as red as strawberries, her eyes as dark as sorrow. Raymundo had never known his father, a man from a neighboring village who had disappeared before Raymundo’s birth.
From time to time, Raymundo asked María Inéz and Alberto, with whom he lived in an apartment in East Cleveland, about his mother, but they couldn’t answer his questions. One day María Elena told him, “If what we have heard is true, it is a miracle Señora Mitchell rescued you.” When Raymundo asked what she meant by this, María Inéz, who worked sixteen hours a day in hotels downtown, shrugged and said she didn’t believe in rumors.
A year-and-a-half after Raymundo moved to the States, María Inéz told him his mother had died. She said the news had come in a letter from her father, who knew no more than this.
By the age of fourteen, Raymundo towered over Marîa Inéz and Alberto. He drank protein milkshakes and lifted weights, and after every football practice he ran up and down the steps of his high school’s stadium until it grew so dark he couldn’t see. If he didn’t have homework, he would sit in the stands and watch stars fill the sky. By his senior year, Raymundo was the starting quarterback of a mediocre team. No one seemed certain if he was the cause of the mediocrity or the lone bulwark against atrociousness. Ohio Eastern was the only school to offer him a scholarship.
Raymundo sleeps on his back, and because he never moves during the night, he always wakes up the next morning in the same pose, as still as a corpse. In the past couple of weeks, he has failed to remove his clothes, and often even his shoes, before going to bed, as if in anticipation of something. This morning there is a soft but persistent knock on the door of Raymundo’s apartment. After he sold his house, he moved to The Woods, a complex in Partytown, the student-dominated neighborhood of Sherman. The walls are made of a material less soundproof than cardboard.
When the knock grows louder, Raymundo rolls over to stare at his clock. It isn’t yet seven. Whoever’s knocking, he thinks, is probably a still-drunk student in search of one more party.
The knock grows a degree louder, then two degrees louder. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Silence. Thank God, Raymundo thinks. But no more than ten seconds later, a fat man with eyebrows like lines of French mustard and hair the color of Swiss cheese, signature characteristics of the Dedrickson family, is standing over his bed. “I can’t hit a man while he’s down,” says the fat man.
“I guess I’ll have to stay here forever,” Raymundo says.
“I don’t have forever,” says the fat man, who pulls Raymundo into a sitting position, then flattens his nose with a punch. Raymundo’s head hits the pillow at the same time the fat man hollers, “Son of a bitch!”
Although Raymundo is the injured party, it is the fat man who is shaking his fist as if it’s been stung by a bee. “I should have just gone straight to the bat,” he says. And giving Raymundo a hard look, his eyebrows locking, he adds, “Stay the hell where you are.”
The fat man leaves the room and returns a moment later with a wooden baseball bat. He lifts it over his head like a lumberjack would lift an axe and brings it down on Raymundo’s knees—or where, beneath the covers, Raymundo’s knees would have been had Raymundo not moved them swiftly off the opposite side of the bed. The bat meets only mattress. “Brown bastard!” the fat man shouts.
“I don’t think we need to do this,” says Raymundo, now standing on the opposite side of the bed. “You’re a Dedrickson, I presume?”
“And who the fuck do you think you are? Doctor fucking Livingston?” He shakes the bat at Raymundo, although Raymundo is beyond its reach.
“I know why you’re here,” Raymundo says.
“So you know I’m here to smash your skull.”
“I thought you were here to collect your family’s debt.”
“I’m here to smash your skull and collect what you owe.” Dedrickson resumes shaking his bat.
“All right,” Raymundo says. “I’ll sign over ownership of Land of Honey to your father or uncle or whatever relation Big Ded is to you. I’ve got the paperwork in the other room.” Raymundo points out the doorway to the living room, which is barren save a stack of library books in the corner (Raymundo has been reading up on his native country: histories, novels, travel guides) and three Spanish grammar books, which he found in a dumpster in the back of his apartment complex. He hasn’t spoken Spanish regularly since he moved out of María Inéz’s house at the end of high school. He was glad to have discovered the books to refresh his memory.
“Everyone knows the bank owns your sorry-ass restaurant,” Dedrickson says. “You might as well sign over a piece of toilet paper.”
After a pause, Raymundo says, “So where does that leave us?”
“With me beating some sense into you.”
“What do you mean by sense?”
“You used to run a profitable business. You used to be one of the most successful restaurant owners in the state.” Dedrickson is exaggerating, although Raymundo decides against correcting him. “But then,” Dedrickson says, and he seems to want to spit, “then you became a freak combination of Mother Theresa and the Tooth Fairy and started pissing away your business one tamale at a time. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“You’re in the shithouse for $25,000 of Dedrickson family money.”
“It can’t be more than $20,000,” Raymundo says.
“It is now.” There is a brief pause, and this time Dedrickson does spit, onto the bed between them. “So what I’m here to say is wise up. Go back to being the businessman you were. You have a month. Then you start paying us back—$1000 in cash every two weeks. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Raymundo says.
“And no more fucking fundraisers—unless they’re for the Dedrickson family.”
For at least a minute, neither Raymundo nor Dedrickson speaks or moves. At last, Dedrickson says, “I have to hit you with the bat.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Big Ded needs to know I was here.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“You’ll tell him with a black eye and four missing teeth.”
What Raymundo does next comes straight from his football days. The Guatemalan Gunslinger wasn’t hailed only for the power of his arm but for his agility as a runner. He leaps onto the bed, fakes left, and jumps off to his right, slipping under Dedrickson’s beefy left arm. He even manages to scoop up one of his Spanish grammar books as he races out the unhinged door and into the golden sunlight of the October morning.
Raymundo turns to his friends in Sherman for help. Bernie Smith, the wine shop owner and the last of his friends to whom he speaks, hands him a fifty-dollar bill and suggests he take a business management course at Ohio Eastern. “Or, seeing as how unpopular you are with a certain landlord, have you thought about going back to Guatemala?”
After two border crossings and fifty-seven hours on busses, Raymundo arrives at Finca Roja, the former Finca Libertad. Immediately he realizes the absurdity of thinking his homecoming would be anything like the homecomings he celebrated in high school and college. Instead of parties and parades, there is silence. On the red arch above the entrance, below the finca’s name, are seven Chinese characters. Raymundo walks down the muddy road from the arch to the farm’s main building, which looks like a small barn and is also painted red.
The main entrance to the building is open. Inside is a large room, two-thirds the size of a basketball court. On the right wall are refrigerators and freezers with samples of various products made on the farm, including chocolate and regular milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. The rest of the room is a sports museum, with pictures of soccer teams, all clad in the same red uniforms, and goalie’s gloves and soccer balls displayed within glass cases. In addition to soccer teams, Finca Libertad sponsors basketball teams, long-distance runners, and golfers. Statements about the accomplishments of the athletes and teams accompany the paraphernalia.
On a bar stool in the far-left corner of the room, Raymundo discovers a dust-covered laminated notebook. Inside is a biography of “Guatemala’s Greatest Player of American Football.” Before he can read about himself, Raymundo hears a noise behind him and turns to find a short Asian woman whose lipstick matches her blazing red blouse. “Are you the owner of a supermarket or convenience store interested in stocking Finca Roja’s delicious milk, savory cheeses, and delectable yogurts?” she asks in Spanish.
Raymundo shakes his head. “I’m only looking.”
“Oh, a tourist,” the woman says. “If you haven’t yet tried the incredible products of Finca Roja, I hope you will be inclined to purchase something today.”
“Thank you,” he says and turns back to his biography. He reads, “Raymundo Rax is the son of the finca’s former owner, Peter Mitchell, and one of its workers, Clara Rax.” The news strikes him as at once shocking and familiar, something he sensed long ago. He reads the sentence again and a third time. He reads to the end of his biography and finds this note: “Written by Marcos Buenafé; early boyhood recollections of Raymundo Rax provided by”—and Raymundo finds himself squinting to read a name covered over imperfectly by red ink—“Hermelinda Mo.”
Raymundo turns around and finds the woman in red standing where she was before. “Do you know where I might find Hermelinda Mo?” he asks her.
There is a long pause, so long Raymundo wonders if the woman has heard him. “I will happily give you the information you want after you select one or more of our fine products to purchase,” she replies.
With his last centavos—the meager change from his bus ride from Guatemala City to Finca Roja—Raymundo buys a block of Swiss cheese.
“Hermelinda Mo,” the woman says triumphantly, “is dead.”
The woman wishes him a good afternoon, excuses herself, and heads toward a door at the back of the store. “Hermelinda Mo,” Raymundo says aloud, as if speaking her name might prompt her resurrection—in his memory, if nowhere else. He steps outside. The sky is filled with clouds in the east and an almost blinding blue in the west. On either side of him are pastures, although he sees no animals. None of this welcomes him with anything but indifference.
My life is over, he thinks. But what he says is, “Hermelinda Mo.”
Behind him, a deep voice intones, “Would you like to see Hermelinda Mo?”
Raymundo turns to find an old man hunched over a cornstalk cane. His face is wrinkled like an apple left days in sunlight. Where his eyes used to be, he has ovals of withered skin.
“She’s alive, Don Paco?” Raymundo asks, the name of the finca’s former manager coming to his lips unconsciously.
“Who are you?” Don Paco asks.
Raymundo tells him, adding tentatively, “I’m Señor Mitchell’s son.”
“So it’s true?”
Raymundo is about to say he isn’t sure, but the old man says, “I will take you to Hermelinda Mo. But first, may I have some of your cheese?”
The cheese in Raymundo’s hands is sealed in plastic. “How did you know I have cheese?”
“When a man is blind, his other senses become as potent as his eyes are useless.” Don Paco smiles. “Also, I overheard you when you bought it inside. It’s a shame you didn’t also buy ice cream.”
With a pocketknife, Don Paco slices off a rectangle from the block of cheese. Between bites, he tells Raymundo that Hermelinda Mo’s house is four kilometers from where they are standing—two kilometers on flat ground, the last two straight up a mountain. “Are you prepared?” he asks. Raymundo nods. When he realizes Don Paco can’t see him, he says, “Yes,” but Don Paco has already begun to walk.
Several times, Don Paco steps into potholes in the dirt road, but this never interrupts his pace. When they have covered most of the straight stretch, Raymundo asks Don Paco about his mother, about her death.
“There are stories,” Don Paco says. “There is the story of how when Señor Mitchell disappeared, your mother, like Señor Mitchell, attempted to turn a dairy farm—in San Juan Chamelco, where your grandparents lived—into a cooperative and how she met the same fate as Señor Mitchell.
“There is the story of how she died attempting to cross the border into the United States soon after you left, so as to be with you.
“There is the story of how Señora Mitchell paid to have her killed so as to avenge your mother’s transgression with Señor Mitchell. This story is preposterous—Señora Mitchell was as angelic and forgiving as her husband was flawed and in need of forgiveness—but to people here, who are used to murder, it is persuasive.”
Raymundo stops walking, feeling unable to continue while he contends with this new information. Don Paco, however, maintains his pace, and before long, Raymundo must run in order to catch up with him. “What do you think happened to her, Don Paco?” Raymundo asks, panting.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know who the men were who took my sight. Yet I can see them in their masks and with their guns and knives as clearly as I did the day they pulled me from my bed and destroyed my eyes.”
“When was this, Don Paco?”
“Three weeks before they kidnapped and killed your father,” Don Paco says. “The men told me what I should tell him: ‘Give your farm to peasants and you will die.’”
“And did you tell him?”
“Of course. I urged him to abandon his plans for the cooperative and go home. When he didn’t, he knew what he was risking.”
“Why wouldn’t he go home?”
“He was loved here—he still is.”
I know this kind of love, Raymundo thinks, remembering the crowded stadiums, his crowded restaurant.
Don Paco says, “Now the hill.”
The hill is as steep as Don Paco promised, and Raymundo is too busy catching his breath to talk. Don Paco walks with the same casual but brisk pace. After half an hour, they are standing outside a gate made of rusted milk cans. The gate is attached to a milk-can fence, which surrounds an adobe house. Inside the fence are dozens of chickens, strutting and squawking.
Don Pedro calls Hermelinda Mo’s name several times before the wooden door of the adobe house opens and a hunched woman, wearing a red güipil and a blue corte, steps into the sunlight. Her face isn’t wrinkled like Don Paco’s; it seems as smooth and glowing as a girl’s. Her hair, which hangs past her shoulders, is an assortment of white, gray, and black. She is familiar to him, but only as part of the larger tapestry of what he left behind.
“Here is a visitor, Doña Hermelinda,” says Don Paco, and after introductions, Don Paco is gone and Raymundo is sitting with Hermelinda Mo on a wooden bench behind her house, drinking coffee and eating the last of his cheese. Hermelina Mo speaks a mixture of Spanish and Pokomchí, and while Raymundo’s Spanish is adequate, his Pokomchí has atrophied. Yet while he fails to remember particular words, he recognizes their sounds, like notes from a childhood song.
After they have talked about his journey, he asks, “How are you certain Señor Mitchell was my father?”
She doesn’t turn to him when she speaks but stares past the milk-can fence and into a green valley. On the opposite hillside are ten cows, grazing. “If you would like me to tell you I was present on the night you were conceived, well, even though I knew your mother, even though as girls we bathed in the same river, even though as older girls we laughed at, and loved, the same boys, you wouldn’t believe me,” she says. “But I can tell you of the dream I had in which I saw your mother and Señor Mitchell holding hands with the glee of a bride and groom.”
“Your proof is a dream?” asks Raymundo.
“Sometimes a dream clarifies what we know already, deep inside,” Hermelinda Mo says. Turning to him, she asks, “What is it you know deep inside?”
“I think you are mistaken.”
He closes his eyes and asks himself, “Why did Señora Mitchell bring me with her?”
Because she loved her husband, despite what he had done, and wanted to honor him by saving me. Or because she detested my mother and wanted to force her to choose between keeping me with her in a poor, war-torn country or sending me away from her to safety in the States.
“Why did my mother let me go with Señora Mitchell?”
She knew the danger I would have faced if I had grown up here; she knew the poverty I would have endured if I had lived as a peasant under Señor Mitchell’s successor. She weighed it all—what she would lose in losing me against what I would gain in a prosperous country—and made her decision in tears.
“How did she die?”
I don’t think I ever believed she had. I was hoping to hear her voice in all the cheering. The more voices, the more chance one voice would be hers.
Raymundo hears a roar fade to a whisper, like a crowd retreating. He opens his eyes.
“I am the age my father was when he died,” Raymundo tells Hermelinda Mo, although he’s only guessing this.
“But you have escaped his fate,” she replies. “And now, in this second life of yours, you must think about where to begin.” She pauses. “You could start, I suppose, with a job. There is work at Finca Roja.”
“It’s run by Chinese capitalists and sports fanatics,” Raymundo says. “It’s communism without the commune. It isn’t the finca my father dreamed of.”
“Perhaps you would be willing to join my cooperative?” she asks.
“So there’s a cooperative here after all?” His excitement surprises him.
“If a cooperative can be made up of one person,” she says. “The cows you see in the valley, the chickens you see in the yard—they are the cooperative’s animals.”
“But I have nothing to offer.”
“You have your hands.”
He looks at his hands, their largeness essential to his quarterbacking prowess.
“Unlike on Finca Roja, we have no machines to milk cows,” says Hermelinda Mo. “We must use our hands.”
He looks at his hands again. If they have ever milked a cow, it was decades ago. As they walk out of her yard on their way to collect the cows, Raymundo says, “At Finca Roja, they told me you were dead.”
“They wish I was dead. I am their competition.”
“You aren’t afraid of what they might do to you?”
She smiles. “I sleep with one eye open and keep a machete beneath my pillow.”
Half an hour later, Raymundo is kneeling on the dirt floor of an adobe barn, holding the teat of a Jersey cow, a bucket below him. Hermelinda Mo has explained how to milk the cow. But to make sure he has learned, she is kneeling next to him, watching.
Raymundo squeezes, but no milk comes. He squeezes again and again. Nothing. Raymundo feels weariness overcome him, the accumulation of exhausting days on the road. He struggles to keep his eyes open but fails. He is instantly in a dream, kneeling on a football field in an empty stadium. He cannot tell where the field begins or ends. There is mist everywhere, and, above him, a colorless sky without a sun or a moon or stars. Presently, someone touches his hand, and he hears a warm voice whisper, “Don’t worry, Raymundo. I’m here.”
“Mamá?” he asks, opening his eyes. Hermelinda Mo is beside him, her hands over his. Her voice is soft: “Outside of dreams, I am as close as you’ll come.” She smells like something familiar from a lifetime ago, like soil and milk and a flower whose name he never learned. “Like this, mi hijo,” she says, and together they coax milk into the waiting bucket.
Listen to this story:
Mark Brazaitis is the author of four books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, which won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame Press. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in The Sun,Ploughshares, Witness, Confrontation, Notre Dame Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poetry International, Poetry East, and elsewhere.
His work has also appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post,the Detroit Free Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, American Medical News, theCharleston Gazette, and Glamour. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, he is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
(Updated Apr. 2013)
Born in 1979, Elahe Behin is a freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and member of ASIFA (Iranian association of animators). She studied graphic design at Tehran University as well as Alzahra University. She has worked as a graphic designer for several advertising companies, illustrated a number of books for children and adults and participated in the production of several short animations. She is a prize winner at the 8th Tehran International Animation Festival, 2013. Elahe Behin currently lives in Rasht, Iran where she has her studio and teaches art. Her works can be found here.
(Updated Jan. 2014)
Peter Twal is both a writer and electrical engineer. After completing his undergraduate degree, he found himself programming software aboard countless ships, despite being certain that just watching Titanic made him sea sick as a kid. He only sometimes gets dizzy writing poetry these days. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in NAP Magazine, smoking glue gun, and DIG Magazine. His chapbook,Sissyboy Bullshit and All of the Above can be found in plain china. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame.
(Updated Feb. 2013)