As he pulled into the restaurant parking lot, it occurred to Alberto that he had already worked 9 hours today. Tonight, if he was lucky, he should be home by 10:15, so that would give him just over 12 hours today! He knew he was working too much, but he really wanted to take Carla to Mazatlan for her birthday, and it wasn’t that far off. And what was wrong with Carla lately? She seemed, he thought, a little distant, a little sad. He loved his wife, but she was so complicated. They’d been through a lot together, but he sometimes was left, if he was honest with himself, with the feeling that he bore most of the “work.”
He parked his aged Hyundai, its blue paint peeling from too many years in the hot desert sun, in the back-parking lot, partly through habit and partly because of the fact the restaurant was already filling up at 6:30. Another busy night, he hoped Los Tigres would make decent tips tonight. Lately, it hadn’t always worked out that way. Las Palmas was not a bad restaurant (they made their own tableside salsa) but it was primarily a tourist restaurant, at least during snowbird season. A decent selection of Mexican beers and a decent enchilada sauce made it popular; the nice decor helped more than the owners had imagined. He was so lost in thought, mostly random thoughts brought on by a long day, that he didn’t notice the parked silver Nissan (owned by his wife) as he passed by.
“Hola Alberto,” Gianna said, smiling. Gianna was one of the two young hostesses that the owners brought in on busy nights. She liked Alberto, his brown eyes were so sad that she thought she could fall in love with him. She flirted with him -- and not like some gringa college student, but he was so serious and, well, married. And this made her want him only more. “Why is sex and love so complicated, so unknowable, so ridiculous,” she mused while seating a table of drunk Canadians in room one.
By this time Alberto had gulped down a Coke and a small plate of chips and salsa in the back of the kitchen. He would need energy to play and sing for three hours. His share of Los Tigres’ tips tonight would probably go towards buying tickets to Mazatlan. Alberto called out to his musician friends entering the side door, “Hey Javier, Martin, how was the wedding?” Javier was his cousin, Martin was one of his best friends. Last weekend Josue, an old friend of theirs from Nogales, had married but, as usual, Alberto was working and missed the wedding.
Sometimes he thought his life was getting away from him.
Once again, Jose was late to perform. His job was way down Houghton and it often took 45 minutes to get to Las Palmas from there. “Why,” thought Alberto, “doesn’t Jose leave 15 minutes earlier.” As if he knew he was under inquiry, Jose vaulted into the back door, knocking over a box filled with tomato sauce cans. “Shit, traffic was crazy!” As the de facto leader of the group, Alberto ushered Los Tigres into room three, where they would begin performing. Los Tigres liked to start in room three, it was generally less busy and therefore less noisy, so they could match pitch and balance. They opened with “La Bamba.” “Dios, why do the gringos love this tired song so much?” he thought with some irritation. They moved towards the front of room three, having spotted a large table of young and attractive latinas, probably celebrating something that happened at work.
Ray spotted Carla seated under a large palm in room two. “Por favor, Senor, make this happen tonight,” he thought as he moved through the crowd, a bouquet of pink and orange Alstroemeria in his hand and a ring box in his suit pocket. “Carla, me encantas,” he spoke huskily. She had that effect on him, even after these five months! He bent down to kiss her cheek, she smiled shyly. His full rich lips, so sensual they belonged on a movie star, turned her on almost as much as his body, truly the nicest one she’d ever seen.
They had not seen each other since last Sunday, when Carla managed to get away for an hour or two during a shopping trip. They had planned on a nice quiet dinner at an Italian restaurant in Marana, but Carla thought it too close to her home to be safe. She didn’t want to run into any neighbors looking for pasta. Although she loved Alberto in her own kind of way, she felt something different with Ray, whatever it was, it made her feel wild and youthful again. The feeling was intoxicating.
Ray had never met a woman like Carla. He was, even with all his good looks, a shy man who struggled to find ways to communicate with women. His communication skills were awkward and his search for the right one, the woman that he wanted to spend his life with, the woman that he could protect and worship, eluded him.
They ordered jalapeno margaritas, in outrageously festive colors, to celebrate the evening. Were they in love she wondered? Would this last? Her early life was filled with memories of men who came and went. Her father Luis doted on his favorite daughter, but he loved to drink and gamble just a little bit more. Then her brothers, twins in fact, who teased her relentlessly when she was just a little girl longing for their attention. Franco was shot in a bar-room brawl in Guaymas on his eighteenth birthday, his twin was still in prison in Hermosillo. She had not seen him in 5 years. It was clear by the way that Ray looked into her eyes that, just perhaps, she had found a man that excited her, worshiped her. A stable man who would do anything for her.
They were so lost in their own disparate thoughts that they did not even notice the entrance of the singing entertainment.
The quartet began to play “Sabor a Mi” when they entered room two. Alberto, on gitarron, loved this old standard and always gave it a flourish at the end. It was, during a moment of particularly skillful fretwork that he noticed Carla and a man under the long palm fronds in the corner of the room. It was clear that they were intimate. He lost the right fretting at this moment, causing Javier (on vihuela), Martin (on guitar), and Jose (on redoba) to look over. Suddenly, and without any warning, Alberto screamed “play Perfidia!” and the quartet, in astonishment, started to play this beautiful bolero by Alberto Dominguez. Alberto led the group towards Carla’s table, his visage a mask of anger and disbelief.
At this moment nearby diners, if they were paying attention, found themselves in a telenovela of facial emotions: Alberto’s face ruddy with righteous anger; Carla’s face reflecting astonishment and guilt in equal measure; Ray’s face a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. Carla, struggling to her feet, flew towards Alberto, who, at this very moment, screamed, “get back, you puta.” This invective caused Ray, a chivalrous date for sure, to intercept the emotional lovers. A brief struggle between the men, almost ballet-like in its intensity of emotion, preceded the main event: Alberto brought his gitarron, given to him by his Uncle Tomás when he was seventeen, down upon Ray’s head.
Maricela Gallegos, working on a master’s in nursing during the day and, on this night, the restaurant manager, watched this dance with alarm, she wondered what could possibly have caused Alberto, a most gentle and wonderful man, to behave this way? She knocked over a salsa table on her rush to get over to room two. By the time she got there, the rest of Los Tigres had pulled Alberto, now more sad than angry, off Ray, whose upper body was now festooned with broken strings and pieces of cypress wood.
“Basta!” Carla thought. It’s been enough time. After all the fracas, after Ray and Alberto had left, she stayed seated at her table of shame. She refused to get up and run out, although that was clearly what Maricela, the manager, wanted. She knew Maricela just enough to know that she didn’t like Carla, and now, even less so. “That frumpy bitch,” she thought to herself, “how dare she look down on me.” And then the bleached blonde woman seated across from her, playing loving mom to her bright-eyed Anglo family, had tried to stare her down. “Let that gringa try to make me feel inferior,” she though, “she hasn’t an ounce of my fortitude. I have endured so much in my life.” She remembered her early years in Magdalena; how she dreamed of leaving that dusty little shit-hole of a town. Well, she did. She made it out. She would make it now.
Somehow, during the conflict, she had lost the topcoat on her new nails. “Mierda!” she said out loud -- even some of the red polish (her favorite - Revlon’s Crimson Jelly) had come off! Maybe it was time to change nail salons, she wondered as she swept the shiny, broken, red flakes into the remains of her margarita and rose from the table to face the night.