20191112

Kirk Marshall


Overture of the Hermanos Luchador / Obertura de la Hermanos Luchador
a novel excerpt from Feverglades

                Cocaine, cocaine, she who condones, she who consoles, she who controls. A fairer woman fortune had not conspired for the Hermanos Luchador to countenance. She monopolised their minds in the fullness of their waking hours like an earworm exploiting the damp dark of their skullspaces, hotwiring their synaptic circuits so that their entire bodies vibrated with a magnetic pang. She animated their minds as they lunged for sleep, crumpling on heat-shrunken mattresses beneath the cool ceilings of their adobe squats, between walls green as pistachio and fragrant with the stink of baked earth. The Ortegas writhed through the night, like iguanas driven insane with dehydration. Sweat suppurated their slumbering brown bodies the way juice evacuates a cactus. The twins would sometimes whimper, would sometimes snarl, and the dopamine would thunder behind their eyeballs, summoning the teeth in their heads to chatter in the dark.
                Cocaine solicited dreams of black turmoil as the twins chased nocturnal oblivion, visions of skeletons arrayed in cempasúchitl vestments, gossamer and marigolds, pale-skinned angelitos wreathed in flame, conquistadors half-feral with the faces of bears, padres cowering in cassocks as blue as the Yucatan, pyres on which flocked white cockerels, their combs and wattles red as the rubies plunging from the slopes of the Pinacate volcanoes, cockroaches sporting wingspans of jungle splendour, armadillos feasting on the carrion of the dead strung from doorways, the bust of Emiliano Zapata unsettled in the sand, the rats with candles igniting their bellies, mariachi with vihuelas lashed to their backs fighting dogs in barren riverbeds, genial coyotes skulking in opera theatre boxes, a howl for the ladies bathed in roses on stage. If any of it startled the brothers, they didn’t betray their indifferent snores. They thrashed without ever waking, the way of alligators.
                The twins craved cocaine like its evil might allow them to metabolise the nutrition in addiction, convert hellfire to stores of fat. They breakfasted on blow, rose to gut the sun if they caught it creeping beneath their window with a sly prejudice. They chopped up powder lines on their dead papi’s cufflink box, divided cuts of the motherlode with a Gold Santander VISA card issued in the legal name of their sweet-natured hermana. They would neck cold orange juice from the bottle, burden their chests with bling, and brood their way through the twitching Sonora streets.
                The Hermanos Luchador dedicated their days to the ardent defence of their inviolable mistress, a chemical grade of pure-strength crack cocaine which, when first pursued, renewed a person’s faith in his calling and, when finally tasted, verified for him the compulsion to serve with unquestioning loyalty. The twins harboured no sluggardly confusion as to the rationale upon which their nation’s war was founded; by retaining a monopoly on the manufacture and dissemination of their capital’s most lucrative export, they ensured that Sonora’s civic industry — nay, Mexico’s supremacy as a bastion for trade — would continue to thrive. To betray their cuchita blanca, the goddess who rewards constancy with kingdoms and restores power to the poor, the twins would be complicit in courting her disfavour, would be deliberate in inviting her distress. Cocaine is not a blind bedfellow; her heart breaks like that of any other beloved. But when she is cut, she will poison all others against you; when she is violated, she will not equivocate in her accusations; when she is forsaken into the hands of the enemy, she will not succumb to braindead servitude.
                To solicit her favour and capitalise on her affection meant demonstrating that with cocaine as your advocate and confidante, you could amass power, inspire fear and suffering, broker lucrative transactions, convert your familiarity with the pathology of addiction into expertise. Cocaine would not abide being exploited; it was she alone who administered the exploitation of others. Agua Prieta was a concentrated little microcosm auspiciously amenable to the governance of cocaine; to be a workaday junkie required ambition, for to get one’s fix one was compelled to either spy for the cartels or doggedly avoid capitulation in the face of death, and fortunately the Sonora slums predominated in opportunistic crackheads with a taste for self-abasement, because everyone knew that to live as a dissident was romantic but not particularly charmed with longevity.
                And the streets thrummed with pin-eyed baseheads, lofty rib-exposed dreamers, sweat-beggared smack mules accosted with rattlesnake cheek sockets, otter-skinned tweakers kindled with choleric complexions and silky strings of spittle wisping down their chins. Addicts hunted in packs, in tribes of warring creeds: boys, not much older than children, hefted bags of ice beneath the hot haze of the morning sun, their faces like candied prunes, their skin dark and tallowy as a tanner’s leather. Passels of thieves in immaculate white wifebeaters and squeaky white sneakers panted idly against shop windows, performing brazen feats of coordination with their butterfly knives, their mail-order nunchucks, their hacky sacks. Silver-haired mystics divulging mouths of gold beneath strongman moustaches hunched over vacant gutters, pandhandling for blow in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s name. Muscular grunts freshly released on parole shadowboxed underneath the alcoves, their breaths metronomic, the ruck and scrabble, the smack and lathe of their flesh within the fountain mist cloaking the hexagonal aquifer of heat-flocked limestone which ornamented the courtyard.
                Perched and crumpled along the circumference of white stone lingered street merchants of limes, pomegranates, tamarind sweets, clove cigarettes, pulque, moustache combs, wheels of sheep’s-milk cheeses, quesadillas, tamales in banana leaves, chocolate in billfolds of gold foil, squid meat ceviche, pickleback whiskey, hollow-point bullets in cigar boxes, toothpaste, caged parrots, spider enclosures, fetish porn, cockfight tickets, counterfeit prescriptions. The men were small and leathered; the women tall and cryptically amused. In the dust, an artist busked while rendering rococo portraits of Sonora drug lords in crayon and sidewalk paints. If that morning you were idly passing through and had stopped to study their quality, you could not realistically deny a word of praise for the artist; for albeit his works were second-rate at best, he stooped low to the jigsaw pavement anyway, and though he frequently itched his wrists, and grit his teeth, you could not say he betrayed his habit. He crouched in a teal quartermaster’s jacket and black Panama hat, his hands reedier than a ratcatcher’s, and he toiled with his crayons in the dust, and he stunk of eucalyptus oil and mosquito coils, and he would bark out impeccable renditions of favourite film quotes when the inspiration seized him, rumpling his face to resemble that of Orson Welles, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., or else he would spontaneously exclaim whatever calmed his questing mind at the given moment, would blurt aloud “My kingdom for a triple-cheese pizza!” or “Comfort is a bullfrog asleep in a sagebrush pillowsack!” or “A rose for breakfast will soften the Reaper's porridge!” and he would simper and tremble when the Ortega brothers stalked by.
                His name was Enzo Erizo, and he was the hardest-working familiar of the Ortega twins then assuming occupancy in the whole of Agua Prieta plaza. Enzo would prostrate himself in a public thoroughfare each morning, the hoods of his eyes freighted with windblown dust, his lusty mouth chawing its way through opulent supplies of candy, a quarter of his body weight apportioned in sugar skulls and salted plums and chilli-dried mango confections, all just for the surest means to earn a twist-top baggie of crack. He dreamed up entire sophisticated cosmologies with gouache and watercolours on weatherbeaten plaza pavement, even as he dreamed of cocaine carving her sultry poetics into his brain, of cocaine slinking with martial laughter down his spine. Enzo’s artistry possessed a curious surreptitious power; he was in no ways an unaccounted visual genius, for he was much too erratic and unstudied and conceptually dissonant for that, but he was endowed with the psychonautic aesthetic vocabulary of a major stylist all the same; and yet any judicious or definitive appraisal of his sidewalk psychedelia was given to conclude that Enzo’s work shared a closer affinity to punk disruption than to jazz sensorium.
                In the many-splendored murals of Enzo Erizo’s own secret mythological fantasia, brawn-honed swordsmen fell entangled in serpent nests, demon princelings rode flaming hellbeast, ancient cephalopods writhed and groped for dominion in weird alien seas, robot overlords administered lingering cruel torture to caged maidens and back-flayed beargarden fighters. Pegasus soared, cannibals congregated in the oil marshes, tentacles spawned out of moon craters, and a single red dragon doze unblinking beneath the ruins of a smoking keep, its bed a howling waste of charred human remains. His skies were always panoramic attacks of acid yellow; his planets always evil balls of Hyperborean fire. His women were sleek tawny Amazons with breastplates like toppled ziggurats; his men were barbarian champions attired in loincloth couture with stuporous scowls and crowns of topaz skulls.
                History suggested a viable devotion to the rage-bewitched visions of Diego Rivera, to an aesthetics of inquiry first interrogated by those mystic mapmakers from whose ecstatic frescoes and landscape friezes the secret outlines of Comala and Macondo were once prophesied. In truth, Enzo’s frenzied worldbuilding shared a zealous fealty with the cornucopian pornography of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Drew Struzan, Gino D’achille, Reynold Brown. He was less interested in an artful study of the human form than in chainmail and levitating pyramids and women transplanted from 80’s American fitness videos adorned in suggestive throat-chokers. He dreamed a simple dream, and it was always the same dream, a dream of a bullet-breasted she-devil with foaming hair bereft in an iron cuirass, purple gauntlets, a bodice of lizard flesh, shining with sweat above the fires of a soupy simmering lava planet. He looked not to the night stars for inspiration, but to the Anita Ekberg stock shots embroidering his briefcase, to the mouths of the leggy escorts tonguing smoke rings from beneath cantina marquees, to the witchy revellers who would assassin down the streets with their midriffs as pale as Christ condemned. Evenings, Enzo Erizo would smuggle into the local monastery of gold brick and retire to the nave beneath the vault of the cathedral, full and clearheaded from the day’s work, before descending into sleep like a snake in ivy. He was a magician, he came to realise; his art was a pure thing, like that of a rector of this church; he was possessed of a warrior love for every terrestrial being deprived the happiness he felt; and tomorrow he would mule some cocaine up his ass, and he’d earn a cut of the score, and he’d divert himself from the hunger of his headlice for another week.
                Cocaine was disposed to fête Enzo’s dedication to his discipline; she courted his confidence, compelling him to persevere, hissing in his head like a backmasked message transmitted from the molten surface of a world of scorched sands. If he kept at it, he would be a giant. He would cauterise his name into history’s trembling white flesh. He would attain an immunity to the evanescence of time. If he would only keep at it, he’d endure in the minds of men, he’d see. She told him this. His art would defeat time. For that’s what art was engineered to do, that was its hardwired latent capability, Enzo discovered: to resist cultural ignominy; to recommend its quality in the annals of future centuries.
                ‘My art will be legend in the annals of future centuries!’ He squealed that morning, while squatting in the square. ‘The human clock always envies the permanence of poetry!’
                This attracted considerable attention. Two shadows, the bodies of brutes, hulked over his locust-like ligaments. They each were giggling, while Enzo scrabbled over the adoquín stone.
                ‘What da fuck he say, esé? What whack shit did this critter just say?’
                ‘I think he vouched that his art will beget anal between super-centurions, am I right?’ The giggling intensified, but neither brute had called on Enzo to repair any demonstrated confusion. ‘He said the human cock always spends its sperm on bloated titties.'
                This induced further giggling amongst the two looming sentinels, and Enzo had to shade his brow to discern anything but the whites of their eyes. He noted that when the brutes laughed in unison, their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads.
                The Ortegas were no less psychotic merely because they were in a good mood.
                ‘El Perverso Pinche’s gonna need to perform us a tasty favour if he intends to keep labouring over these orgiastic fantasies orbiting somewhere ’tween Planet Poontang and Barsoom.’
                This last ultimatum insinuated itself through Emilio Torres’s grin — it was ever like Emilio to belittle the numinous or incantatory if he could not dominate it, Enzo Erizo knew, for Emilio sported the heart of a clown, as well as its venal appetite — and he pawed at his crotch as if revelling to dryhump his hands in public. Enzo did not respond immediately, but merely observed Emilio as he bent forward to snicker, the crack punk’s snaky pink tongue darting between his teeth.
                ‘You gonna escort a little somethin’-somethin’ for us, okay Enzo?’ Segundo chimed in, invariably relishing the directive, his razor-shorn head contracting in the light like a boil shrinking before the lance. ‘Check it. We like you, cabrón. See, we respect you. We’re not here to antagonise, comprende? We appreciate your services — it’s not just in anybody’s ass we secret our product. It’s in yo’ ass, mi amigo. You’re doing us a solid, here, Enzo. As long as — you feel me — you don’t do a solid when it’s in yo’ ass. Hi-hi!’
                ‘Híjole, guëy!’ The Ortega brothers were cracking up, and Emilio, who’d resorted to clutching his abdomen while his face glistened like a nugget, was now emitting an untoward whistle as he laughed, and it reminded Enzo Erizo of someone drinking water through a harmonica. ‘I feel you, I feel you. If there’s one thing we shan’t encourage—’ The word “shan’t” induced its own spree of animated wheezing ‘—is for our cuchita blanca to be transformed into caca bronca, hi-hi! We deal in crack, a huevo, but not that sort of crack.’
                Enzo assented to a disappointed smile, and commenced chewing the points of his moustache. ‘I don’t shit when I need to eat,’ he proposed, his alert yellow eyes divining the dirt. ‘I’m happy to do this work for the illustrious Ortegas. Gratitude overwhelms me, even in my basest need. If it is germane that I transport more llello over the Baja Californian border—’ At this, Enzo rung his spidery feminine hands, ‘—I regard it a duty to my flag, a blessing of kings, a patriotic question. My ass is yours to requisition. I only ask that we might delay,’ Enzo motioned, wincing like a monkey manacled to an organ-grinder’s leg. ‘A temporary détente, I beg of you. I only ask for a premium of a few hours to finalise the sketch at hand, and I will endeavour to pack cocaína by the metric ton in my sphincter.’
                Enzo’s expression was one of quivering penitence, his knees marshalled under his chin like that of a shitting kangaroo. He gestured with feeble grace at the gum-spattered palette and the sundry paintbrushes and boxed watercolours and oil pencils littering his feet. His latest interdimensional landscape was not emblazoning the plaza pavement, as the brothers might’ve anticipated, but was yielding its hypnotic blue panorama on an unfurled cylinder of fragrant white craft paper, beryllium crags constellating the edges of the map. Enzo could feel his chest tightening as the brothers towered overhead. The undulating alien terrain seemed to manifest no means of escape. He couldn’t draw his way to paradise. He could only obtain paradise by snorkelling it up his nostrils, one glittery lunar drift at a time.
                This ultramarine hellscape Enzo had laboured to delineate was not some hack rendition of an astrological zone, complete with weird ecology and antimatter spacecraft hewn from the accentuated curves of an Oscar Niemeyer fever dream, but a star-washed backcloth before which two barrel-chested gladiators grappled, drawn with the gait of tigers and the faces of butterflies. These were neither a behemoth race of Cimmeria nor shapeshifter gods with pelts like parrot plumage; but mythical beings they were all the same, their rhapsodic collision more deafening than the buckle of mountains. The Ortegas were rendered mute before this latest vision of Enzo Erizo. His was a portrait of warring luchadores, fantasy bodies in thrall for human contest. Enzo’s penmanship was exquisite. It was a paean to lucha libre, a celestial sort of anthem composed by a crackhead. There was religion in it, and vigilante justice, and the infinitude of flight, and the meaty clap of grown-ass men confined in spandex and stomach-girdles exchanging blows for haloes. For what are superheroes if not canonised saints who walk among us? To look at it ignited fires in the heads and hearts of the Ortegas. Cocaine may have been the presiding regent of Mexico, but public-access TV would always be its first love.
                Emilio Torres lashed out at Enzo with a kick to the knee, made ornery by the junkie fantasist’s unassuming simian whimper, and began kneading his fastidiously buzzcut skull. Having lashed out with some satisfaction, however fleeting, he began to pace the plaza erratically, swivelling his piggy eyes with violent mistrust. Enzo Erizo was fixing to betray them; or else, the street artist had already been bought by some brazen wannabe cartel. How else to explain Enzo’s inexplicably painstaking diligence to craft portraits of imaginary folk heroes? The Ortegas knew him to churn out phantasmagoric tapestries by the hour. This was different: Enzo had been studying his subjects, the way of an anatomist, for these were photorealistic phantoms.
                ‘You punking us, eh, pendejo di mierda? Is that it? You prostituting yourself to the highest bidder, pinche mamon donkey jizz? You think we don’t own you, eh, hija de tu puta madre? Eh? Because if for the scantest minute, you think you can score two deals for two rival tribes, and keep us neutered while you fuck us both, keep us grovelling for favours, like some skunky, mealy-mouthed little estúpido bitch,’ Emilio spat, his pupils dilating with sudden cold rage, ‘then Segundo and I will have to hold you down, retract our boot knives, and amputate something. And it might be your cock or huevos, it might be your fingers, it might be your eyes, but trust, bastardo, when they’re gone, we won’t be remiss to remove the rest.’ He paused, and savoured a private handsome smile. ‘Streamlining is our especialité.’
                With this fierce edict, Emilio Torres withdrew some metres away across the zócalo, his lip curled, his head bowed. Enzo watched him retreat, Emilio massaging the gangbanger swag, a gold cockerel, sloping over his throat, thumbs working the intaglio of his neck chain as if to summon a djinn. He sunk to his haunches across the plaza, his palms held flat against the hot adoquín stone. His dark eyes did not break away from holding Enzo’s own. It was as if a man, long starved of any stimulus, had bested the means of his captivity and was now free to look, to roam, to scorn and to invite and to kill with a look. Enzo found himself frozen as if vivisected, grinning as if cornered by orderlies before the retrieval of a butterfly net. Emilio Torres and Enzo Erizo performed the tableau of escapologist and prisoner from across twenty feet of inert red dirt.
                ‘What mi hermano is saying,’ Segundo Flores disclosed with a wheedling singsong smile, ‘is that we will cut you — skillfully, gradually — if you do not speak to the facts. Tú entiendes? We are not reluctant to do this, but we would prefer to retain some civility between us. I don’t like blood, you see? The liquid does not agree with me. There is no variation to it, nada, el cero. It is all red, red, it has very little ambition. It is muy conservativo, you know? And all the stickiness, mi hombre. Believe, it does little to recommend it. So spare us this unpleasantness.’ He held his fingertips to the crown of his head, and entreated Enzo with catlike eyes. ‘What we want is to know who you are drawing here. Do not confuse our concerns, esé. It is a grand painting, a dramatic painting, very artful. Muy correcto, sincero y expresivo. Our qualms are not with the eye, but with the spine, tu espina — you are an inimitable technician, but your soul often deflects the difficult subjects. We do not abide rats in our company, you feel me? Ustedes odio, we detest la puta ratas. Rats are worse than blood.’ Segundo grimaced, evidently dismayed by his own comparison. ‘They harbour no honour, sin escrúpulos; a rat will eat its own offspring if this might offer escape. We want to know why this sketch is so important, y lo importante? This ain’t no portrait of Emilio and Segundo Ortega. Por qué no? This is a portrait of punk-ass pinche pendejos. Who commissioned this trash, eh, chingada madre?’
                Enzo flinched; if this was Segundo’s attempt to palliate his brother’s own furious outburst, it defined itself in terms no less illuminating. He could feel the hate of Segundo’s inquiring eyes like death all coiled up, panting to strike. All Enzo had yearned for was to dream of luchadores in elegant lofts of colour, the way that Degas might depict his dancers, their fists pinwheeling and their chests risen with sweat, their faces hooded in masks, their faces reminiscent of orchid blooms, their faces swimming in sunbursts of triumph, their backs firm, their legs strong. He wanted to believe them to a state of living, will the thunder from their punches and the wincing ovation from the raving crowd, debaculous, heartbroken, agasp for one more enzuigiri, one more body avalanche, one blinding testicular claw, a final shockwave of love. Enzo felt he could spend his days drawing all the luchadores, and all his nights with his septum in a supper of crack. He saw a crossroads yawn wide before him; to do one might require surrendering the other. This shook him, staggered him to the core, and to prevent the horrors of a life without his art, he could do nothing but speak, speak and hope to restore his credence before being forever discredited by the Ortegas. Enzo thrashed at Segundo’s feet, and his voice croaked for pardon.
                ‘It is not a portrait for any cartel, and these men are not your enemies. No-one has poisoned me against you, and I would do nothing to betray you. This sketch is no portrait at all. It is a film poster.’ Tears were emptying from Enzo’s eyes. ‘There is a new film studio in Agua Prieta — Cinematográfica El Viajero — and they are shooting wrestling pictures. The company was scouting in the square and recognised my talent. They offered me a provisional contract on the spot. They have asked me to present them with a sketch. I would very much like to be granted their approval. These men I’ve painted are only luchadores. Professional performers. They battle no-one but the backlot bluescreen.’
                Enzo was witless; he’d violated his own confidences, spilled his guts for a spoonful of white medicine. He sagged on his knees, his arms hanging slack at his sides. The Ortegas had reduced him to a rat, for their own devices. He was now theirs to exterminate.
                ‘Is this the truth, mi amigo? Las veras? You’re speaking no bull?’
                Enzo cowered in his quartermaster’s tails, nodded once beneath a nimbus of flop sweat. He knew he could no longer be of any use to the brothers. He was no longer theirs.
                ‘, Senõr Segundo. This is the truth.’
                ‘If it is the truth, I would like to see it,’ Segundo confided, after a pause that seemed to steal all motion from the junkie’s painting. ‘Take me and Emilio to this Cinematográfica El Viajero. I would like to see your luchadores face-to-face. So wipe off the snot. Get the fuck up. Now. Comprende?’


                Enzo had denuded his whiskers of snot gossamer, had scuttled to his feet, and had escorted the Ortega brothers to a subterranean studio entrance where the offices of Cinematográfica El Viajero were scurrying to conduct a lunchtime location shoot. Presently the Ortegas were clustered beneath the arcature of some excoriated underground train platform, beneath whose airy vault an interior of scummy stormflung masonry and groaning, spawn-thwart pillars was brought into stark relief.
                The so-called production studio was essentially a tent-city collective of students, freelance designers and costumiers, failed businessmen and film aficionados, all bivouacked on state-privatised property fallen into terminal neglect, all united in the common industry to make exploitation cinema for midnight movie markets. Backlights thrust a beacon of polarised light from their makeshift towers, dolly tracks scythed along the perimeter of the station, grips wrestled with gimbles while puffing on cigarettes in vexation, boom operators paced the forecourt to capture the squeaky acoustics of their own sneakers against the clammy linoleum. Enzo turned to each of the twins in turn, and gestured at the organised chaos induced before them. He was beaming, his arms wide, his gaze one of elated communion.
                The Ortegas followed his operatic hand wagging, their stares equally mystified, and traced the locus of Enzo’s excitement to a whip of activity being orchestrated before a backdrop of matte-painted landscapes at the base of the platform steps. Here, in the guts of the undercroft, where all available cameras forgathered, a knife fight was afoot, the two hired combatants striking at each other with the fluid severity of whirling dervishes. They displayed an equipoise undreamed as they dizzily circled each other, their heads thrust back, their faces spastic with bloodlust.
                They lunged to cut each other right to the retina, cleave off each other’s tongues, shank away an unsuspecting testicle, slit wide the dark churn of their bellies. They could have been scorpions on crack, for all their churlish careening. Each of the blade-wielding knaves retained a Dumas-esque profile as they pivoted to avoid each other’s glancing thrusts, the choreography of their feet hushed in scarlet Elizabethan suede which tapered to the toe, their hair pulled tight into ponytails, their foreheads each boasting a widow’s peak as if finessed in the likeness of a peregrine falcon. The smaller of the two duelists displayed a seething parabolic scar above the left eye and which bisected his face, and when he grinned his mouth scintillated with gold. The larger of the disputants obtained a moustache in the Franz Ferdinand style, as well as a prominent wart on the bulb of his nose, and occasionally he would laugh with a mocking gaiety, as if a Frans Hals portrait made flesh incarnate.
                In their incredulity, the Ortegas were quietly impressed; they did nothing to intervene or contain the feud as it ensued, but only stood brooding at the threshold to the atrium, their eyes dancing with the fleet pirouette of the knives. The sweat shone on the torsos of the mercenaries, the pale architecture of their faces, and each successive feint or slash or parting strike would score transversal cuts in the sleeves of their cambric shirts, their tunic cuffs, their harlequin breeches. Nary without warning, the small knife fighter effected a breathtaking somersault onto the lowest of the platform stairs, his feet finding immediate purchase like a pronghorn along a canyon wall, and he darted at the exposed throat of the moustachioed bandit. His misericorde sung in his fist, an upward surge which clove the intersecting space, and as he rived the inches between them, a reveille of melodious vengeance passed his lips to sound in the harkening deeps of the undercroft. His teeth flashed, his eyes watered, his blade burned like a sigil in the lustre of the footlights. The knot of spectators kept a dumb enraptured vigil, as if solemn before a matador’s advancing kill stroke.
                There came the decisive snap of a clapperboard, and the Laughing Cavalier threw up his hands.
                ‘Holy fuck, Mateo! You could’ve stabbed me!’
                ‘Cut!’ boomed a voice from behind the eyepiece of a camera, smoke blooming with the director’s resigned exhalations. ‘Listen, chicos, let’s dispense with the theatrics, alright? We need to take the reverse shot — rápidamente. Mateo, try not to stab Alonzo, por favor. Now can you take your marks?’
                The Ortegas shot each other a glance. Neither of the brothers could, from their present vantage, apprehend a definitive or unobstructed view of the director, but they each appeared to conclude in unison that he was their meal ticket to Mexican celebrity. They watched as the rival knife fighters hung their heads momentarily, and brokered a begrudging accord, shuffling their feet while wincing at their own disingenuous apologies. Inexorably, with a display of almost timorous coquetry, the dagger-commanding dastards each succumbed to a common sheepish laughter, which soon devolved into envigoured backslapping, a ululating chortle, and much waggish grinning.
                Mateo and Alonzo were entwined in a swaggering embrace, jaunty and joined in a spontaneous refrain of Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!, when the director emerged from behind the bank of cameras, his brow a smouldering forge of impatience. A cigarette-holder, capped with a packet smoke the length of a knuckle, gyrated in the director’s face like the turret gun on an artillery tank. He was bedecked in short sleeves, an Acapulco guayabera shirt whose pleats were embroidered with redbreasted trogons trellised in golden foliage, and he glowered out from two sockets of icy blue, daring the world with his stare from beneath the brim of a croupier’s visor.
                He boasted a luxurious black beard, flat and lenticular as a jalapeño pepper, and dimples that made him look more cadaverous than aristocratic. In his right hand he clutched a megaphone; a tabloid newspaper — El Nuevo Alarma! — remained tucked up beneath the crook of his arm. Before his assembled cast, he retained the hulking stature of a viking, the teeth of a Sergio Leone bandito, the twitchy gawk of a watchtower sniper. For the quiet appraisal that ensued, the Ortegas might’ve been in love.
                ‘Motherfucker’s a lumberjack,’ Emilio hissed. ‘Cabrón’s a Mejicano Paul Bunyan.’
                ‘Cabrón’s Pancho Villa resurrected,’ Segundo concurred with a croak.
                ‘That’s Raúl Bustamente,’ Enzo Erizo whispered with a conspiratorial smile. ‘He’s really the trailblazer at Cinematográfica El Viajero. The others, well, they’re either imitators or amanuenses. See how they orbit him like helicopters ’round Kong of Skull Island? He’s the heart of the enterprise. This is a historical revenge film about two backstabbing conquistador brothers competing for sunken Aztec gold. It’s called, Los Hermanos Escorpión en el Río Bravo.’
                ‘Say what, mi pequeño compañero?’ Emilio looked spooked. His whole body had visibly tautened.
                ‘Scorpion Brothers on the Río Grande?’ Segundo intoned, his nostrils swelling with the shallowest breath. ‘What kind of man makes a picture like this?’
                He pivoted to demand a mystic disclosure from Enzo Erizo, some rationale that would normalise their immediate surroundings, but the fledgling poster artist was too rapt in Bustamente’s bewitchment to discern the amplitude of Segundo’s threat.
                ‘It’s the first part of an imagined ennealogy,’ Enzo rocked on his heels excitedly, his hand clutched to his breast. ‘In the next one, the Scorpion Brothers time-travel to Atlantis.’
                Emilio snatched the street painter by his lapels. ‘What the fuck’s an ennealogy, esé?’
                Segundo scowled, increasingly cognisant of his brother’s own tempestuous scuffling, and swifted a hot palm over Enzo Erizo’s gaping mouth. ‘Never mind that shit, mi muchachos. We all just gonna cool down, now, you feel me? I’m going to ask a question, estás escuchándome, and you’re just going to nod. Tú entiendes? You’re gonna nod like a pinche parrot. Is Mateo and Alonzo over there your luchadores? They make other kinds of films here?’
                Enzo avoided nodding altogether, and proceeded to babble from beneath Segundo’s chokehold.
                ‘What’s going on over there?’ The voice was Raúl Bustamente's own, a deep thoracic baritone which seemed to destabilise the configurations of the atrium, a toothy quavering tremolo which recalled the gloating of space-ravaged Sith Lords everywhere. He was speaking again now, and there was a bitter honey in his voice, as if sweetness yielded by fire. ‘I said, who’s speaking up there? I require relative tranquilo on set, uh huh, and I demand it especialmente when I’m halfway finished filming a goddamn scene! Directing can present certain dificultades, uh huh, but none so grievous as the condescension of assholes! Well? Can you say nada in your defence? Are you not men? If you are men, uhuh, I charge you to speak. For what is a man if not his convicciones? No man at all.’
                The entire prodigious architecture of Raúl Bustamente trembled with rage, and he inhaled with caustic dismay before hoiking a dark wet ruck of nasal junk at his feet. ‘Only a rata. Los bichos. Gutter spies whose souls are sewers for pestilencia. Men who would hide lest they be seen as men.’
                The Ortega brothers could do nothing else; they had lived a great many years, years of striving and blood money and retribution, since they might ever recall being defamed. To suffer such a venal and self-righteous incursion on a legacy heretofore irreproachable would be ungovernable. They had long since stopped soliciting the authorities of Sonora to contest the sovereignty of their manhood; they had taken their thrones by force, at a great expense to their enemies; how dare they be traduced, and here, by him, by a what, a hijo de la chingada cocksucking schlock director of trash masquerading as cinema? They surged out of cover of the undercroft, out of their alcove swarmed in darkness and into the flashbulb furnace of the backlights.
                They stood, squinting, like twin wild boar flushed from a thicket.
                ‘Dios mío!’ Raúl Bustamente's quivering voice betrayed a sharp intake of breath. His twisted sneer had flowered into an expression of thorny astonishment. ‘What in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s name do we have here?’ The director retreated a step, his shambling deferential, as if in a gallery. ‘I believe I may have misspoke. You ciertamente are men. Por favor perdóname, gents, forgive an inveterate blowhard his prattle. Hablé con prisa. I mean it. You each are daddy black bears to behold!’
                Emilio, his brow thundersmote in contortions of animal crazy, exercised an abrupt uppercut into the free air, as if to swat the distance away between them. He was blinking with rhythmic intensity, the way of a mole rat surfacing to fight.
                ‘You damn right we oralé puta madre men, you pendejo yellow cock phantom! We be the men who will beat you like an unschooled poco bitch! You anticuado rapey-handed sperm sommelier. Am I being abundantly clear? We will subject you to a beatdown in front of your whole patético raggedy-ass film crew.’
                Segundo cringed, coveting a priestly smile as if to exculpate his brother’s heretical confession. ‘What Emilio is trying to say, with little etiquette and a lot of energy, is that we’re somewhat ofendido that you would question—’
                ‘I say, after what just came out of your hermano’s mouth, anything else would seem to me fair game.’ This last contention was the venturing of either Mateo or Alonzo: the Ortegas could not be sure. ‘And as for who you people are — nos vale madre. I can’t envision why we’d dream of troubling ourselves.’
                ‘A guëvo! Fucking-A right,’ affirmed the smaller of the two Cinematográfica El Viajero hack actors, who was probably Mateo. ‘The nerve to threaten Senõr Bustamente, a revered elder in la communidad! He’s suffered pinche punietas punks like you all his life. And you know what? Your kind put la ratas to shame. You’re pubic lice on a mule going nowhere—’
                ‘Say what?’ Emilio was rimy-eyed and his fists were shaking. ‘You’re going to have to run that past me one more time. I hear you talkin’ big, cabrón, but I can’t work out if what I’m hearing up here is the same as what’s coming out your perra sucia mouth down there.’
                ‘Silencio on my fucking set!’ Bustamente roared, startling the misericordes from the hands of his bickering conquistadors. The blades clattered at their feet, pretty props better equipped to open letters than to assert a lingering bandit justice.
                ‘I said enough! Mateo, Alonzo, if I required your intervención, I’d ask for it. You are not espadachines, gauchos, matadores; you are Method actors. This is not some seamy rainforest cantina familiar to whores and freebooters. This is el estudio of Cinematográfica El Viajero! We are makers of cinema, not merchants of obscenity. Igualmente, it is shrewd for strangers to el estudio not to engage in provocación, uh huh, for slinging insults is not commonly touted as a productive use of one’s time. Unless, maybe, you are Jerry Lewis. But last time I checked Senõr Jerry did not have an image of an icepick tattooed to his neck. So I do not seek to offend, my visitantes, but I must solicit your sympathies, las simpatías, here. I do not abide bullshit turf wars. I am here to produce pictures — las producciones de teatro. And I see in you auténtico fotogénico quality. Are you here to audition, cabelleros, or does your curiosity lie elsewhere? In stunt work, perhaps?’
                Raúl Bustamente snapped his right eye shut and thrust out his lower jaw, as though impersonating Popeye reminded him how to assume a taciturn expression. His lustrous black brow undulated and refracted as if ink ejected from a polyp. His face deployed a sharkishly political grin. The brothers were apt to liken the director’s snout to a conch shell. It was conical, pink, pendulous, a desirable home for hermit crabs and white shrimp. It whistled on his face like wind through beach coral bleached bone dry. There was something of Neptune in him. He carried a storm in his eye which forecast a benthic fury. He was unholy weather enveloped in windburned flesh.
                ‘Well? Can I assume you have a reason, uh huh, for being here? Can you duel an alien spider? Slay el dragón? Stake the heart of a midnight libertine in his crypt? Pilot a rocket? Fly a blimp? Behead a hydra? Wield a silver bullet?’
                Bustamente insisted on squinting, his primal smile receding, his fists seized at his hips. ‘Por el amor de Christo. You have to give me something, cabelleros. Or do you think the Cinematográfica El Viajero colophon is some surefire designator for artless monster porn, uh huh? The studio name a signifier for pornografía monstruo, for trash telenovelas featuring transvestite covens, the name Raúl Bustamente synonymous with witches riding dicks instead of brooms? Hmm? Because I’m the first to confess I’ve authored some, uh huh, cinematic mistakes. That I’ve sometimes been, uh, waylaid by the lazy seduccíon of commercial profitability. But one must twin one’s directorial agenda to transgresíon to capture the truth. To repatriate pulp to the artistic fringe where it belongs. To attack the gentrificacíon of the profane. To resist the domesticacíon of the cult. If this means tits and ass, I confess to administering such a medium. I have dabbled in erogenous cinema. I have peddled in smut with negligible respecto to quality, it is true. But I am not the first hombre to conclude that the filmografía of Ingmar Bergman would be improved with a cumshot or two. I defy any artist auténtico to deny it! And yet I am no whorehouse fetichista! I rue the prostitucíon of the cinema, uh huh. We at Cinematográfica El Viajero envision new horizontes, new filosófico frontiers, uh huh, for the expresíon of la mente subconciente, the subconscious mind. A language of simbolismo. A language of sensación. A language of disrupture. A language of dreams. I find las convenciones of pulp provides an access-point for audiences. Sometimes this means witches on dicks. Today, uh huh, it means los conquistadores battling for Aztec gold!’
                Bustamente jawed at the hilt of his cigarette-holder, his beard flapping like a windsock, and swivelled to transfer the cast of his baleful eye to the brothers. He proceeded to nettle his whiskers as if to evict the interred remnants of a taco. ‘So for the purposes of Cinematográfica El Viajero, I ask again, mis interlopés. What can you do? Why dream of you? Speak now, or forever forego la opportunidad.’
                The Ortegas stood cowed, owlish, their tongues slack in their heads. A confusion of hope, loathing, wonderment, desperation and brute affront engulfed them. Theirs was not a state of sangfroid and psychological laxity. They might flay or fellate Raúl Bustamente, such was their covert turmoil. They might gut him like a pig or grovel at his feet. They were only certain that cinema would ensure their infinitude. That their local campaign of fear would not inculcate loyalty in the people of Agua Prieta. They would have to compel the people of Agua Prieta to love them. For history is only ever determined first by merit, and thereafter by coercion. Brooding beneath the rectilinear ceiling of the studio anteroom, their twin stares transfixed by the tall smoking silhouette of Raúl Bustamente, the Ortegas recognised well enough that cinema was the preferred medium of bullies.
                ‘They can wrestle.’
                Enzo Erizo had sidled forth from out of the echoey alcoves darkling. All the immediate excitement had evidently agitated him, for he quickly proceeded to prance in his place, cavorting like a cane-drunk locust in the simulated dark. No-one bearing witness to this fantastic behaviour would refute that the street artist was an arresting personality, for in his Panama hat and teal swallowtailed coat he seemed to exult in the present company, to frolic about miching mallecho, the way a jester might fawn before a throne while mimicking a misbegot menagerie. His eyes were bright, his laugh a springtime whinny. His was the face of angelic gurning.
                ‘Cómo? Say what? Is that you, Erizo?’ Bustamente blundered, his hands flapping as if to apprehend a convenient abstract. ‘My word, it is you. Why, it’s that excéntrico crackhead muralist, Erizo.’ Bustamente bustled through the clustered bodies of his bewildered crew. ‘I thought I asked you to design me a poster for my picture. Like something by Frazetta or Vallejo. You’re bringing me gangbanger doppelgängers to harass my working actors, instead?’
                ‘Look, forgive me, lo siento, I have the poster sketch right here, augusto maestro Bustamente.’ Enzo coveted the coiled cylinder of craft paper in his fist. ‘But this is Emilio Torres Ortega y Segundo Flores Ortega. These men are assassins for El Rompedor de Lengua. They are the Tastebreaker’s instruments. They are his brainstrust.’
                ‘And his brawntrust, chingada madre,’ Emilio protested.
                ‘Sí, sí, they’re his muscle, he’s muy correcto,’ Enzo persisted with a hasty genuflection, intent to maintain momentum. ‘But más importante, these men have escorted me here because in their hearts they believe themselves to be luchadores. They admire your skill with the luche libre stories. They insist you are the poet of pummelled bodies. They exclaim in the plaza that you are the “Cecil B. DeMille of Mejicano masked warrior adventures”. They required my encouragement to come here. Just now, they stood speechless before your directorial visión, your mastery of el escenario.’
                Just now, the Ortegas stood speechless. Enzo was master of something, but it was closer to el excremento. Still they did not debate him, for presently he seemed to be arbiter of an unmediated truth; still Enzo rallied on, seeking purchase on rhetorical planes where there lingered no doubt. He gesticulated wildly, his brow beetling, his voice winnowed with emotion. The twins would grant him this licence, if only because he was painting an impression which would remain corrupted if they finagled to contradict him.
                ‘And they can wrestle. Por favor, maestro Bustamente.’ Enzo nodded with a zeal to rival a meerkat above a warren. ‘They’re not here to exercise threats, to rough up your artistas, or to obstruct your proceso creativo. They’re here to wrestle.’
                Raúl Bustamente drew his chin to his chest. With eyes averted from his guests, he navigated the labyrinth of fissures bisecting the old linoleum, champing at his cigarette-holder as though a beast engineered to subsist on tobacconist plastics. He seemed to grow, with a menacing slowness, before releasing a breath.
                ‘Bueno. Persuade me.’
                Before either Emilio or Segundo could coordinate an attempt at disparagement, or ascertain whether their gutter junkie guarantor was seeking to punk their asses, or postulate who the fuck this escapism-peddling pinche pendejo Golden Age dinosaur Cecil B. DeMille was, they were being shadowed by anonymous members of the Cinematográfica El Viajero collective and then frogmarched toward the studio platform, and left to flinch before the backlot box lighting, having been deposited in a concrete oblong marked out on the linoleum in scabs of gaffer tape while presided over by a snarl of spectators, and the brothers were eased to face each other, and they could feel each other’s panting breath hot in their eyes, and they were asked to take position, and it all came so naturally, and the thews of their legs tautened as they sank onto haunches, and their blood quickened, and Segundo was springing with a scissor kick to Emilio’s neck, and Emilio was conveying a flying punch into Segundo’s kneecap, and the clapperboard snapped, the human satellites collided, a bone clove with a hiss, someone bellowed “Acción!”, and Enzo’s colours were alive.




Kirk Marshall is a Brisbane-born writer living in Melbourne, Australia. He was a teacher of Creative Writing, English, Literature, and Media (Film & T.V. Studies) at RMIT University for two years, and is a former General Manager of "Going Down Swinging". He has written for more than eighty publications, both in Australia and overseas, including Award-Winning Australian Writing, Island, Going Down Swinging, Voiceworks, Verandah, Visible Ink, fourW, Cordite, and Mascara Literary Review. He is the editor of Red Leaves, the English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal. In 2017, a chapter from his hillbilly apocalypse novel secured a nomination for The Pushcart Prize.
 
 
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