I’m half-dressed and half in the bottle when the Federales pound on the door, shouting for my roommate, Angel Rios. You think you know a person, I think to myself, but then I think I don’t really know why they’ve come, and I can’t seem to sense if they’re saying his name like he’s familiar to them, familiar the way a rat is familiar to these types of dogs. Beside me hangs that old painting I nicked from Pipo’s attic after he passed — a figure in relief, dark corners that frame a pale backside, the soft creamy white rippling with shadow where la señora’s ass pokes into view. At my feet, a coffee stain darkens the biscotti shag, and beside the painting the plaster is cracked from floor to ceiling. They shout Angel’s name a second time, and I look around as if the idiota might suddenly pop up beside the yellow cooler or against the cracked laminate where the coffee machine mutters and scorches the bottom of its carafe. Damn, but Angel is working that factory job down by the waterfront, where cargo freighters spray salt onto the pier and scare away the spotted trout, no more than a skipping-stone’s leap from Old Baker Street. I set my coffee mug on the table beside the open bottle of corn whisky and ask them for a moment. My Pipo used to have a saying for the way my heart is beating now. Nothing grandiose, mind you, as he was a simple man of simple means, but he had ways of expressing himself. The heart sets to leaping like rice in a frying pan. It’s what he said he felt the first time he set eyes on Mima, when they were both young and foolish, and had everything to lose. I go to the door and undo the deadbolt. I leave the chain in place as if a few links of fingernail-thin brass will keep the dogs at bay.
“Is Angel Rios here?”
“Do you know Angel Rios?”
I make them show their badges before they enter. Innocent citizens have rights, even if they are flaco Mexican boys in dark, rundown apartments, shirtless and half buzzed on a Thursday afternoon. The fact that there are only two of them and no SWAT breaking down my door means they have only vague evidence linking Angel to… whatever they think Angel is up to. Circumstantial, maybe. Or maybe nothing at all. Maybe nothing but a name given them by some snitch on the corner of Baker and Dogwood. It doesn’t stop the perros from chewing on me, even after I offer them coffee, which they refuse, and I sip on my own, grateful it tastes thicker of corn distillate than coffee bean.
They ask me when I last saw Angel, how long I’ve known him. They ask my relation to him, and I say we’re practically brothers. Our families lived on the border of Texas — the northern border, I clarify — at Burkburnett, and it only made sense for us to move in together once work took us to Playa Blanca. They ask me where he works, and if that’s where they’ll find him now. I counter with a question of my own.
“Why are you looking for Angel, amigos?”
They share a glance, and then they tell me they have reason to believe he’s the big cheese behind some local cook, somewhere near the downtown waterfront, where a small band of muchachos produce and supply methamphetamine for the greater Playa Blanca area and half of California. Angel Rios, they say. El Jefe. I almost laugh, but the stern faces of the Federales are enough to keep me quiet.
I shake my head. “You think you know someone.” It’s about all I can think to say while I sit there, shaking my head.
For a few more minutes, the dogs bite down and whip me around like jaws finally caught the taste of blood, because we all must have one finger or another in a cartel, and always know what the others are up to at any given time, and I tell them truthfully that I haven’t the faintest whiff of Angel being up to any sort of business the likes of which they’re sniffing after. So they leave to continue on the scent, and once the door is shut, the deadbolt locked, and the chain back in place, I take a moment to settle myself, to think past the leaping rice kernels in the frying pan and figure out what I mean to do about it.
I give him a call, because we’re practically brothers. He doesn’t answer, and I’m sure it’s because he’s at the factory, because where else would he be? I call him and tell him the poli are looking for him, but I don’t imagine he’ll hear it in time. I tell him they think he’s involved in some meth cook somewhere in one of the abandoned buildings in that area not so far from the factory, of which, I tell him, I’m sure he’s not involved. I don’t tell him about the building on Old Baker Street, the old brick thing with all the windows and doors boarded up aside from the one on the second floor that you can get to if you push the old dumpster up underneath it. The cook isn’t on that floor, but I don’t tell him that either, and when I hang up I lean against the door and take in the clear whisky bottle and empty coffee mug, the faded, stained biscotti, and that old painting of Pipo’s hanging on the wall. The pale backside is framed in darkness, la señora turned away, her face hidden from view no matter what angle you peer from, and I think to myself that when Pipo was still alive I never did ask him who that woman was in the painting, always turned away, hiding her face.
From his humble desk in St. Louis, Missouri, J. Patrick has written stories and poems that have been published in Currents Magazine and in the American Journal of Poetry.