Fiction – “Centzon Totochin” by Cat Rambo
Out in the small town’s plaza, men stood gathered around a bonfire, their backs turned to the darkness. They were still, watching as the flames leapt and shuddered, their shadows jerking like marionettes. Even from twenty feet away, my face could feel the blazing heat, battling the evening chill.
Across the fire, barely visible in its glare, a hunch-back played his big-bellied mariachi guitar while two other men sang: “Se fueron los árboles de la pimiento… los pequeños botones de fósforo…”
“Buenas noches,” I said as we came closer. The men nodded at Tom and me, making way for us in the circle. I could feel the heat of the fire, the warmth of the bodies near me. Overhead the stars were clear as ice.
We stood facing the blaze while I took out my cigarettes. I shook out two and Tom handed me his chunky metal lighter, pleasantly solid in the hand. I lit cigarettes for both of us, handing his back with the lighter.
The smoke from the bonfire glittered with sporadic sparks as it rose to the sky. The Milky Way hung in curdled, spangled splendor far above and the moon was the faintest of slivers, a fishhook in the sky. A man passed me a cloudy bottle. I took a burning swallow before passing it to Tom, who drank and coughed. The taste of anise and dirt didn’t mask the alcohol’s burn.
Out in the darkness, something scuttered in a flash of dark, spidery limbs. The men drew closer together, murmuring to each other.
“What the hell was that?” Tom said.
“Que fue eso?” I said in my clumsy Spanish to the man beside me.
“Nadia,” he said. He shrugged, not looking me in the eyes. “Fue un raton. Un ratoncito.” He pinched his fingers together as though to show how small it was. Another man laughed derisively in the darkness and said something scornful. Laughter rippled around the campfire.
“He says it was a rat,” I told Tom.
“A rat the size of a dog,” he said, frowning out into the darkness.
“Un perro?” I said to the Mexican man. He wore a creased and dirtied linen suit, a red rosebud pinned to his lapel.
He nodded in quick agreement. “Si, si, un perro.” Beside him another man muttered something under his breath that I could not catch.
It was early September. We’d been staying down in Acapulco spending hazy afternoons on the white sand beaches, drinking tequila and eating chili-dusted slices of grapefruit and tangerine. Then a tropical storm drove us off the coast and inland into a small town, Mayahuel. We checked into a place called El Motel del Mango and ate a late dinner before sauntering out of our rooms in search of adventure.
The music shifted and someone on the other side of the blaze sang, “Verde que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verdes ramas.”
“What are they singing?” I asked.
“It sounds like poetry,” Tom said. “It’s familiar, but I can’t place it.”
I nudged the man next to me. “Donde estan las tavernas?” I said in my barely serviceable Spanish. I knew enough to ask for a cigarette or directions to the bars, but not much else.
He pointed across the plaza to the doorway of a rickety shack. It was topped by a neon sign showing two rabbits dancing on either side of the green-lit words Centzon Totochin.
“Solamente una taverna,” he said. Only one bar.
I elbowed Tom and nodded towards the doorway. We made our way out of the circle, ignoring the other men. Our shadows separated from the bonfire’s tangle and followed like patient servants.
Inside the bar it was dark and smoky. I held up two fingers. “Dos cervezas,” I said.
The beers’ odd label was bordered in blue and red. It showed a green and orange rabbit, almost Celtic in its lines, surrounded by circles and dots. There were no words. The liquid had a dark, bitter taste.
A jukebox blared ancient songs from the eighties, with some woman I didn’t know singing “I think we’re alone now.” Small round tables held pairs and trios of slumped drinkers, every table topped with a brimming ashtray. A film of ashes dusted the table around each glass circle. Two booths flanked the front door and we made our way to the empty one.
“Hey,” a voice said behind us. “Hey, you guys. Trevor, Tom.”
It was not only American, it was familiar. For a moment I thought about pretending to ignore it. Then it boomed again and I turned to see Bill Wicks.
“Bill,” I said, waving my beer in salute with a forced smile. “I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
He grinned, collecting a drink and shouldering his way past the bar and over to us. We all slid into the booth, Tom and I facing Bill.
“Son of a gun,” Tom said pleasantly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
His voice had an edge to it; he’d disliked Bill. Me, even though I worried that Tom would say something, spoil the moment, I was glad to hear someone other than Tom speaking fluent English. Bill was full of hot air, but I had never minded him that much.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
A big, beefy guy, Bill would have been on the football team if he hadn’t had a bum knee. He was florid in the way that very fair men can be – an unhealthy red flush mixed of sunburn and alcohol.
“Great to see you guys!” he enthused. “You here killing time? That’s what I’ve been doing for the last week.”
He drained his shot glass, which held an oily, milky liquid, iridescence trembling on its surface. His sour exhalation smelled like grain alcohol and rotting plants.
“Killing time,” Tom echoed, and drank down a third of his beer. “Yeah.”
“We’ve been over in Acapulco,” I said.
“Acapulco!” Bill scoffed. “You don’t get the authentic experiences in a place like that. It’s all tourist crap. You want the heart of the country.”
“Is that why you’re here – for the heart?” Tom asked.
“It’s as close as I’ve come, this place.” Bill’s eyes gleamed with a drunken glassiness. “I started coming down here when I was just a kid. The bar would serve me whatever I wanted even though I was underage and my folks would sit around in Acapulco and not care where I drove on the weekends as long as I stayed out of their hair.
“Just… pulls you back, you know?” He gave both of us a curious, sidelong look.
I shrugged and he laughed. “Oh, you’ll know, eventually,” he said. “It’ll pull you back too.”
He fell into silence.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure,” Tom said. “You about ready to head out, Trevor?”
I was going to protest that we’d barely started drinking, but an angry glitter in Tom’s eyes forestalled me.
We paid and plunged into the coolness of the night. Across the way the bonfire continued to blaze.
“Let’s find another bar,” Tom said.
“There’s just one.”
“Jesus.” He ran a distracted hand through his close-cropped hair. “I can’t stand that prick. I know. Wait here.”
He headed back into the bar and I moved over to the bonfire, taking my place again. Across the way I could see the man who’d shared his alcohol; we exchanged nods.
Tom came out with a bottle under each arm and moved up to me. “Just a matter of picking where we want to drink,” he said.
“Senor, you should drink in your hotel,” a nearby voice said. He moved into the firelight, and we saw it was an old man, hirsute with hoary white hair. “Too dangerous to wander around the streets. Go back to your hotel. Or drink here in the plaza within sight of the fire.”
Tom grinned at him. “Think we should stick and share our booze with you, Pops?”
The old man’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Many tourists get attacked in the darkness and it is bad for business. Sit where you wish, senor.”
He moved away, the pate of his head glimmering like a furry balloon in the darkness. I said, “He’s right. I don’t feel like getting rolled tonight. Let’s sit here.”
We found a bench and sat there working our way through both bottles. Men drifted away from or back to the bonfire, only one or two every once in a while. Overhead the moon contended unsuccessfully with the bonfire’s light.
Finally after hours of listening to the singing, sodden with tequila, we made our way to the hotel. The streets were eerie in the early morning, moon washed and silent. As we paused outside the motel gate, fumbling with our key cards, I heard a scuffling and turned to see something twisted and black – another dog? – dart out of the pool of light shed by the entrance lantern.
“What the hell was that?” Tom said.
“Fuck if I know,” I said, staring after it. “Let’s go inside.”
We went to bed in our separate rooms to fall into restless sleep.
No matter how late we stay out, Tom is always up at 6 am. He says he just can’t sleep any later. When I looked out the patio doors towards the central courtyard, I could see him in a lime green pair of trunks, swimming laps in the turquoise pool.
I grabbed a towel and went outside. He spotted me and waved, pulling himself up on the tile inset side of the pool. I threw him the towel. He leaned into it to ruffle his hair dry. He gleamed in the morning sunlight filtering through the glossy mango leaves; there was no other word for it. He seemed larger than life. Vibrant.
It was the vibrancy that had always pulled me to him, even in our freshman year together. Not in a romantic way – he’d never tolerate that, but drawn to a fire, wanting its warmth, its light. I followed him all through college, basking in his glow and letting it shine on me. He wouldn’t have applied to a fraternity without my urging; I wouldn’t have gotten in without his friendship. And now I was still following, although the light seemed dimmer nowadays, lost and rudderless.
I sat down on a lounge chair and stretched while he dried himself off. Every once in a while, a mango tree released a golden fruit, which fell to the ground with a heavy thump. A cloud of finches surrounded one that had fallen onto a cement walkway and smashed, the red pulp pulling away in bloody strings in their beaks. The air smelled of chlorine and rotting fruit.
“What’s the plan for today?” he said.
I shrugged. “Check out the local sights. And I need a new pair of sunglasses. There’s got to be a place that carries them.”
“Breakfast first,” he said. “I’ll go change.”
We ate out on the patio, watery eggs, limp toast, and Mexican chocolate. Not very palatable, but the sunlight was as strong and stultifying as wine, and mingled with the sweet smell of the waxy white lemon blossoms bordering the bricks it made the world seem paradisiacal.
“How long do you want to stay here?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know – a few days, see what it’s like. Maybe head somewhere new. Off the continent. Thailand’s supposed to be pretty nice. So’s Bali.”
“It’s cheap here,” he said.
“Only disadvantage of this place I can tell is Bill,” I said. “He’s going to want to be chummy just about every night, I think.”
“Yeah, I know.” He swished the heavy white mug around in his hand, looking down into the brown-stained depths.
“Why can’t you just get along with him for a few days?” I said.
He set the mug down, looking at me across the table. A few flies buzzed in desultory circles in our vicinity.
“You know he hit her, right?” he said.
“Nancy?” I said. “No, you never told me that.”
He stared in the direction of the pool, eyes flat and empty. “She came to me, wanting sympathy. I couldn’t feel much, dizzy bitch – I’d been telling her for three months he was no good. She showed me the bruises on her arm where he’d shoved her down because she tried to keep him from driving drunk.
“And then poof, next day she acted like it had never happened and said I must be exaggerating.” His hand wavered in the air before it settled to massage the bridge of his nose. “Idiot. But I can’t sit quiet next to a man who’d hit a woman.”
“So we probably shouldn’t stick around here,” I said.
He sighed. “How about two days, long enough for the storm to blow over, then we say goodbye to Acapulco and head for Thailand?”
“Deal,” I said. We touched the knuckles of our fists together in acknowledgement.
The first night of college, he cried himself to sleep. We were roommates, two slender beds at right angles to each other. Mine lay parallel to the window and I could see the light of the streetlight shining through the leaves of the oak outside. I lay there listening to him cry, tiny stifled noises into his pillow, homesick and ashamed of his weeping.
If I’d gone to him, he would have turned away, would have been angry. I’d seen it in the set of his jaw when he introduced his father to us. Our dads were a matching set of blusters, but he had no mother. Mine took to him right away, considering him half an orphan, but an irritated tilt to his head made her retract her fluttered gesture of sympathy.
At first my fastidious ways irked him, but he came to appreciate the fact that there were no dirty socks on the floor. We didn’t have classes scheduled together that semester, but the following one we did. We divided up the work and I coached him in math and logic while he tried to get politics and history through my skull.
History just seemed like a series of lessons in bullying’s effectiveness to me, and I said so.
“That’s why it’s so interesting,” he said. We were both sitting on our beds, arguing and passing a cigarette back and forth. The window was wide open and we’d stuck a towel into the space below the door to keep the hall monitor from enforcing the no-smoking rule.
We had the light out, and the only color in the dark room was the cigarette’s cherry, sparking brighter whenever one of us took a drag.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” I said. “It’s as meaningless as a sitcom.”
“Do you think you feel disenfranchised from it because of…you know?” Tom said, his voice hesitant and careful.
“Because I’m a fag?” I said. We had never spoken of it aloud before, although I knew he’d noted the Queer Studies 101 class on my schedule. And by now, three months later, he’d been through a dozen girls while I’d brought no one to the dorm room. Well, that he knew of; I had in fact blown the dorm monitor more than once, which is why I wasn’t too worried about the cigarette.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. And somehow, we never talked about it again. It was as though we’d established our own don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
Still, senior year when Tom asked me to come traveling with him, it trembled in the air.
“It’s a guy friend thing,” he said. “Just want to have that clear.”
“My dad said I should go figure out what it meant to be a man.” He laughed with a bitter edge. “If I thought he knew what he was talking about, it’d mean something to me.”
“I know what you mean.” My dad liked Tom, liked his cleancut air. He had said one time, “I’m glad you never took up any of that nonsense with Tom.”
I should have said something at that point, but my dad intimidated me. I’d seen him shout down a mugger one time as my mother and I cowered back, and I was afraid of that anger. Afraid it would be turned on me. Was that what a man was, how angry he could become?
We applied sunscreen and drowsed in hammocks by the pool, which glittered like a jeweled teacup in the brilliant afternoon light. Tom was reading some gaudy airport lobby paperback, and I had the local newspaper, three columned on yellow paper and totally in Spanish. A picture of two girls and a crude drawing underneath them took up most of the front page.
“Chupacabra…” I read. “What the hell is a chupacabra?”
Tom glanced up. “No kidding, it says that? A chupacabra’s the Mexican equivalent of Bigfoot. It drinks blood, usually from goats and cattle.”
“Looks like one got two women last night, if I’m conjugating the verbs right.”
“No shit?” He put his book down. “Lemme see the picture.”
The page rustled as I passed it to him. Unfolding it to look, he shook his head. “That’s not a chupacabra. They’re supposed to either be large dogs or lizards, shapewise.”
“How do you know this?”
“I used to read a lot of science-fiction crap in high school,” he said. “What you have there is definitely a monster of some type, but it’s not a chupacabra.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Hey. Hey guys.”
Bill was standing near the motel gate, so I went to let him in. He settled into a folding chair near us and shared out the six-pack he’d brought with him. The beer was the same dark, bitter brew as last night, but it was cold and went down easily.
“What’s the haps?” he said, setting his bottle down onto the chair arm and curling a hand around it to keep from sliding off.
“What’s the name of this beer?” I asked, pointing at the label.
“Conejo,” he said.
He nodded. “Yeah, but tonight let’s try something stronger. The local tequila is pretty good.”
“What’s that?” Tom asked.
“It’s called Centzon Totochin.”
“Like the name of the bar,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s their signature. Good stuff. Goes down slow and easy and takes your head off from the inside out.”
“Wow,” Tom said sardonically.
Bill lumbered to his feet, taking a beer for the road. “I’ve got a date with a little senorita, so why don’t I hook up with you guys maybe around ten, ten-thirty?”
“Sure, that’ll be fine,” Tom said. “At the bar? Is that really the only one?”
“Only one in thirty miles,” Bill said. “Local watering hole. Authentic.”
He let himself out the gate, and we watched him leave, drinking the beer. The labels gleamed candy bright in the sunlight.
By eleven we were stir crazy and more than ready to head to the bar. Inside, REO Speedwagon blared on the decrepit jukebox, its inner labels coated with fine grey dust.
“…And I can’t fight this feeling anymore…I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for” floated over the crowd through the hazy curtains of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. We settled at a table and set to drinking.
Bill was late by another hour. The jukebox was playing the theme from Miami Vice when he came in with his hair disorderly and lipstick red as blood on his collar.
“Sorry about that, guys,” he said with a sly grin. “Look, I’ll buy the first round.”
He went over to the bar and returned with three shot glasses full of the milky liquid he had been drinking the night before. The light played on the trembling surface of the alcohol as he slid the glasses onto the table in front of us. We took them up and tossed the drinks back. The booze burned its way down and hit like a sack of angry bricks on the back of my skull.
I swear to god the walls breathed in when I took that drink, swelling towards me, and straightening into normality as I exhaled. It tasted like piss distilled through decaying moss cut with cloudy swamp water and burned through my stomach like a diamond-tipped drill.
“Man,” I said.
Bill grinned sloppily at me. “See what I mean? It’s the bomb.”
Tom didn’t say anything, but went over to the bar and returned with more of the same, along with three of the rabbit beers.
He slid the dark bottle, beaded with water from the ice cooler, to me. “Something like that deserves a chaser.”
Bill’s smile didn’t waver as he looked back and forth between us.
We drank that round and then another and another. I lost track after that. The evening was a blur. We staggered back to the motel, the stars swaying dizzily above our heads. I would have fallen straight into bed but I hate cleaning up puke, so I pulled the blanket into the bathroom and slept in the bathtub.
The porcelain felt cold and clammy against my fevered skin. I fell into nightmare dreams of skulking through the shadowy streets of the town, followed by Tom, looking for… what, I wasn’t sure. I woke at intervals throughout the night feeling out of skew with the world, stiff and cramped from the size of the bathtub.
Waking in the late afternoon I hauled myself out onto the patio to join Tom for coffee and too-sweet churros.
I spread the latest edition of the paper out on the table and leaned over it, smelling the cheap ink and newsprint. A man’s picture, black-bordered, appeared on the front page with the artist’s rendition of the “chupacabra” next to it.
Tom downed a glass of orange juice in thirsty swallows. He’d been up for hours. “More of the same tonight?” he said.
I shrugged. “Fine by me. We can head back to Acapulco tomorrow and return the car there before heading into Mexico City for an international flight.”
“You’re thinking Thailand?”
“Sounds all right to me. Never know what we’ll run into there.”
At nine we made our way to the bar and started drinking without Bill. He came in a couple of hours later and joined us.
By then we were hammered in the way I hadn’t been since college, feeling as though half my blood had been replaced with grain alcohol. We made our way home away in the swirling, early hours of the morning.
In my nightmares I was running through the street, Tom at my heels, and saw a figure hurrying ahead of us. The world pounded with the sound of our heartbeat as we ran. With a whirl of her skirt, the young woman turned, raising an arm as though to ward us off. The moonlight gleamed on the cobblestones as we tensed and sprang, each taking an arm and pulling her to the ground. She screamed and a light came on in the nearby building.
We tore at her tooth and nail, and she screamed more, flailing at us. A doorway slammed open and someone emerged with a torch, thrusting it at us, driving us back. I snarled, angry, and shuddered awake on the icy porcelain of the tub, my stomach coiling and writhing like an angry blacksnake.
I grabbed and pulled my way to the toilet and knelt in front of it, spewing the liquid in my stomach out in a furious, vile gush. I clung to the rim, feeling the chill bite through my hands until the last spasm passed.
Water splashed up onto my face as I flushed and I made my way over to the sink to splash cool water on it. I grabbed for the bottled water and drank it in gulps.
There was no returning to sleep when the nightmare’s tendrils were tangled around me so close. The window shimmered in the moonlight and a shadow crossed it, so I went to the glass doors and stood looking outward.
In the courtyard, a lean, black humanoid hunted back and forth among the bushes in voracious sweeps. I made a small noise deep in my throat. It turned, looking at me, then rushed in leaps and bounds to collide with the glass, which shuddered but held at the impact. I had seen it before. In the newspaper.
I stepped back to grab the massive brass lamp from beside the bed and held it at the ready but the creature didn’t rush the glass again. Instead it stood steadily glaring at me and conviction crept up on me that I knew it from somewhere.
In the courtyard, two mangos fell to the ground in a double thump. The creature shifted its stance and something about the motion placed it for me. I recognized Bill’s features, thwarted and angry and above all hungry. I readjusted my grip on the lamp and it turned away from the window. It crossed the courtyard in long loping strides, reaching the gate and pulling itself over in an effortless motion.
I envisioned a host of them, moving through Mayahuel’s streets, male and female shadows slipping along, looking for the weak, the unwary, while the bodies that had hosted them lay asleep and drunk. While the town’s inhabitants waited inside their houses, listening to the scuffling, the scuttling outside.
Did they lie inside all of us? Would the liquor’s reek bring them creeping from any human breast?
In our junior year, Tom met a pretty black-haired girl named Kathleen. They were inseparable for two months. Then a football player swept her off her feet. The break-up devastated Tom. He spent two days lying rigid in his dorm bed, staring up at the ceiling. By now we’d graduated to a larger suite with our own rooms. I got two friends to help me grab him and drag him, kicking, in a cold shower. “Once you’re dried and dressed,” I said. “We’re going out to the bars to drink until you don’t just forget you broke up, you forget she ever existed.”
And we did our best. Jagermeister shots and jelly shots, a bevy of Long Island Iced Teas and then boilermakers. Tom took exception to some senior in the parking lot who objected to his peeing on his new Saturn. The guy’s friends jumped in when Tom took a swing at him, and I had to follow, flanked by the rest of our crowd. We swung and collided until I had a black eye, Tom was wrestling on the gravel, and a police siren growing closer set us fleeing through the alleyway. We staggered back home, barely coherent.
As we came through the doorway, Tom pounded me on the shoulder, grabbing at the back of a chair to keep himself upright. It wobbled, but maintained its balance. “Goddamn,” he said. “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn.” He shook his head.
“Yeah.” I said. “You okay to get to bed, man?”
He flung his arms wide and hugged me with puppy enthusiasm. “You’re the best, bro. Yeah, yeah. Goddamn!”
He went into his bedroom.
I stood there for a moment with my eyes closed.
I could still feel his body against mine, and smell the shampoo in his hair. It had brushed my cheek. Like a kiss, but lighter.
His light went out with a click. I still stood there while the moonlight crept through the window and washed my feet with its cold, white hands.
In the morning I intercepted Tom on the way to the pool. A new mango lay smashed on the sidewalk, sending up a rich fruit smell.
“Hey, did you have weird dreams last night?” I asked.
“Jesus, yeah, that Mexican booze doesn’t kid around. I dreamt I was all sorts of shit.”
He scratched his face, thinking. “Like something out of a horror movie. Chasing people. Weird shit.”
“Yeah, that’s some weird shit, all right,” I said.
He started his laps while I signaled for coffee and eggs and the morning paper. I didn’t want to unfold it at first but when I did, the face I expected, the young woman from my dreams, looked up at me, her head bandaged, her forearms bearing angry bite marks like blossoms all along them.
I leaned my face on my arms and closed my eyes for a minute.
“You know we could stay a few more days if you’re feeling that bad,” Tom called from the pool.
“No,” I said. I debated telling him why. It’d shatter him, tender-hearted Tom, to know he’d been running the streets alongside Bill, fellow hairy men, savaging anything in their path. In our path.
The sunlight danced on the chlorinated water, and fragmented bits of it twinkled on the grass, the leaves, the tiles, and the newspaper in front of me.
“You sure?” He pushed off the side and dipped underwater like a dolphin, to surface glittering and blond in the sunlight in time to hear me say it again.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Let’s ditch him and push on.”
He trod water, looking at me. “About time,” he said. “Yeah, let’s move along.”
A mango thumped and overhead three blackbirds moved low against the brilliant sky. If we packed quickly enough, we’d be on the road before seven. And away from the bonfire’s blaze, and the tiny town, and Centzon Totochin, and Bill.
I could never tell him what happened. But that was okay; I’d let my love keep me silent. It was only one more secret to keep.
About the Author
Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in such places as Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, is an Endeavor Award finalist this year, while her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories, was published in 2007. She is the fiction editor of award-winning Fantasy Magazine. You can find her website at http://www.kittywumpus.net.