Chapter Three of Below the Line a saga that begins with a prologue—a little life, interrupted
Shit. The Director of Transportation hasn't been seen in three days.
As Don North stepped into the quad, a studio limo pulled up, its horn bleeping in agitation. One of the Mexicans from 103 pushed past Don and changed places with the limo driver.
"Yep, teamsters know no boundaries," said Don to himself, regarding this apparent changing of the guard. This would be Gerry's driver for his trip out to the statue. He'd have a great time making himself understood.
Don reconsidered reentering the square, which seemed to have more Mexicans—and therefore more midgets—than it had just a few minutes before. He ducked back into the hallway, turned and walked towards the other end of the hall.
The third room on the right had no number over the door. Don glanced in: there was a woman kneeling before an ornate altar. One of those explicit Latin American crucifixes stared down on her. At the rate he was bleeding, Christ would've died by noon instead of waiting till sunset.
The chapel was a job perk from Los Trabadores de Las Peliculas. Instead of toilets, the union gave them God. Incense filled Don's nostrils. It was better than shit, he considered. But he decided he had to take a leak.
He walked into the room marked Hombres, wondering if women could use it too, or if they just had to hold it till they got home. There was no urinal, and no toilet paper in the stall. The head was completely clogged. He tried to wash away a little of the filth by aiming judiciously. He managed to clean up the sides of the bowl a bit. He didn't dare flush.
Back outside, looking down the length of the intersecting hallway, he could see Mexican movie posters on both walls. The nearest was Anthony Quinn in SAN SEBASTIAN. The actor had a dozen arrows in him, many collected in the groin area. He did not bleed as much as Jesus, however.
"Nice pecs, Tony," Don remarked.
The hall was cold. A rubber plant stood forlorn, in serious need of repotting. Don mounted the staircase, taking the steps two at a time.
The second floor was brighter. New paint was everywhere. UNTITLED had offices on the second floor. Wardrobe and editorial. He could smell cooking coming from the cutting rooms. There was a murmuring of voices and a tinny kind of Mexican rock n roll in the air. He wandered down the hall.
Editorial was Rooms 204 and 205. Room 202, on the left, was the studio shower. Don doubted they let women use it. He cracked open the door a slice. The Mexican rock n roll issued forth, along with a torrent of steam. He could make out a few brown bodies slipping and sliding around.
The shower room had no stalls. Eight or ten nozzles, gushing full blast, hung from the walls all the way around the room. There were two inches of water on the floor. From the giggles and slap-ass sounds, it seemed the boys were having some kind of a good time. Don wasn't into water sports. He closed the door, stepped across the hall, and knocked politely on 205.
"¡Hola!" came a voice. Don stepped into the cutting room. It was the size of a small jai lai court, high-ceilinged, but L-shaped, and the wall to his right was covered in mirrors. A brocade dressing screen angled across the far end of the long side effectively created a small living area, which was where the cooking was going on. A boy, no more than sixteen, sprang abruptly from behind the screen.
"Hello, Sir," he said in perfect English. "Welcome to our humble home!" He bowed, deeply and formally, and said something in Spanish to somebody behind the screen.
A short man with wavy silver hair and eyes like a young eagle's stepped out with a spatula in his hand.
"Buenos dias, Don North," he said. "Good morning! I am Smiley Ochoa and this—" motioning to the boy, who stood at attention—"is my ap-prentice, Junior Ortega, El Rey de Los Pendejos! Welcome!"
He spoke in rapid Spanish to Junior, who hurried behind the screen and returned with a frosty bottle of Dos Equis.
"For you, Señor, la cerveza mas fina del todo el mundo!"
Junior removed the bottletop with his teeth, which were perfect and obviously immune to such a practice. Don winced and accepted the beer.
"The boy is truly the King of the Fools, Señor," said Smiley. "But he is a good worker. Plus—" and here he winked confidentially "—his father is el Presidente de Los Trabadores de las Peliculas—the president of our Union. It is good to keep him around."
Junior continued to stand at attention. It appeared that this last bit of explanation from Smiley had escaped him.
"So what do you think of our home, Señor? It is unlike the sweat shops of Hollywood, no ?"
Don had to admit that was the truth. He looked around, stepping closer to Smiley to gaze past the dressing screen. There was a bachelor's apartment in there. An efficiency-sized stove, a sink, the refrigerator, a microwave oven, a complete Bang and Olufson stereo setup, and a military bunk bed—upper and lower—with two armchairs flanking it. A television hooked to a Betamax was playing THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN with the sound turned off. The black and white dupe print was scratched and patched and there were streamers for music and sound effects cues running through it.
"Our last film," explained Smiley. "Señor Schlesinger, he give me the tape. You know John Schlesinger?"
Don shook his head. "I know his work."
"He is my favorite director, next to Sam."
Smiley pointed to the wall behind Don. It was covered with black and white stills of Sam Peckinpah at various stages of his career. Smiley was in many of the shots: arm in arm with the director, drinking cerveza, practising his quick-draw. Three photos showed Peckinpah, Smiley, and a beautiful teenaged girl.
"She is my daughter. Tina. Junior has the hard for her. Hey Junior?"
The boy looked inquisitive.
"¿Tu tiene el amor para Tinita?"
"You like chiles rellenos, Señor?" Smiley crossed over to the stove and shoveled at a hot pepper with the spatula. "We fabricate rellenos today. ¿Con mucho gusto, hey Junior?"
The boy smiled broadly.
"Thanks, Smiley," said Don. He patted his stomach. "I gotta watch myself."
"Hah! Me too! My wife say the movies make me fat. But it is the rellenos, las enchiladas, los tacos al carbones. And the ladies—las damas. They make me big. I like to drink beer with them. You know the ladies?"
Don looked quizzical.
"Downstairs," Smiley motioned. "They are not just actresses you know. Actresses can never make a living in our poor industry alone." He pumped a muscular forearm suggestively in the air.
"How you say...ah...boompah boompah?!"
"Hah! Boompah boompah!" Junior had grasped the concept.
Smiley giggled long and hard. Junior guffawed and turned red.
"Boompah boompah!" came from yet another voice, followed by a series of squawks and whistles.
Don turned in time to witness the headlong flight of some kind of bird, streaking from the door to perch atop the screen. He was a two-toned gray, light on the chest and darker on the back. He preened himself and looked imperiously from Don to the boy to Smiley. He had an orange tail.
"Boompah, boompah!" said the bird. "¡Chingada madre!"
Smiley exploded with a laugh that was ever so pleasant and heart-felt, almost musical.
"Sam! You bad bird!"
Junior went over to the bird and shook his finger at him.
"Bad Bird! Bad Bird!"
Smiley turned the relleno again and made the introduction:
"This is Sam. He is an African Grey Parrot but he doesn't know that. Sam, meet Don North, the man who buy you cheese."
Smiley went to the fridge and took out a small cannonball of firm white cheese. Crossing to a cutting board by the sink he sliced off a hunk.
"Sam likes cheese. Queso manchego."
"¡Queso manchego! Queso manchego!" trilled Sam.
"I have a cousin in Albacete," said Smiley. "You know Albacete, Señor?"
As a matter of fact, Don did. It was a little farming town in the Middle of La Mancha. He and Jane had spent a night there on their way to Seville.
"Yeah. A one-horse town in Spain."
"Si, señor. You have travelled. My cousin, he send me queso manchego for Sam."
"Your cousin sends you cheese from Spain for your parrot?"
"Si. He is very fond of Sam." He gave the parrot the slice of cheese and the bird cooed contentedly.
"Señor Peckinpah, he give Sam to me twenty-three years ago. Sam will live to be eighty. He is a lucky bird. He will inherit all of my queso manchego." Smiley laughed. The parrot stopped eating a second:
"Señor Peckinpah is a very special man, you know," said Smiley. "He has—how you say—soul. That is why he is the filmmaker numero uno in Mexico. He understands our people. You know why he give me this bird, Don North? Because the Spanish, when they come to our country five hundred years ago, they like to build las haciendas—their homes—like they do en España. They build them of wood—madeira. Pretty soon, we got no more wood in Mexico. The trees, all of them are cut down by los conquistadores. Without the trees, the birds of Mexico, they have no place to live. So the birds all are unhappy and they die."
Smiley nodded sadly. "You look around, Señor. You listen. There are no birds in Mexico City. Pretty much. Except for Sam. And Sam thinks he is Quetzalcoatl. You know Quetzalcoatl, Señor?"
Don shook his head, though of course he remembered the morning's events.
Smiley spoke again quickly to Junior in Spanish and the boy pulled another beer from the fridge. The bottlecap came off easily.
"You sit down, Señor. I will tell you all you need to know about my country. You will be glad you came."
"You must understand, my friend," said Smiley as Don settled back against the wall on the lower bunk, which reminded him somehow of Basic Training
too many years before, "that the Mexican people—the Mexíca, that is, after the Aztecs
, after the Toltecs
, but definitely before the Spaniards, and therefore the Native American Indians of this land—have always suffered from...," he searched his vocabulary, "an inferiority complex
you would call it."
Jesus, thought Don. Anthropology from a Mexican assistant editor before noon. Did he really feel like doing this?
"Drink! Drink!" said Smiley. "This will get better."
Don considered going on a beer diet. How much weight could you lose if you didn't eat anything, just drank these righteous Mexican brews? Definitely worth thinking about.
"Our ancestors come into this world from a cave in the northwest. The cave, she lives on an island in a lake that is surrounded all over by tall rushes where tall birds with pointed beaks and long legs eat fish they catch in the water."
Smiley's voice was mellifluous. The air was sweet with the smell of rellenos. Junior plucked a chile from the stove and joined Don on the bunk bed. Like it was the Children's Hour....
"We call this place of our fathers and mothers Aztlan, the Place of the Snowy Egrets, and our fathers and mothers, they call themselves Aztlantláca or the Axtéca, the Egret People.
"Egretpeople!" Sam whistled and cooed. He had run out of queso manchego.
"¡Sam, silencio!" commanded Smiley. "¡Venga Aqui!" He held out his hand and the parrot swooped down and lighted, chewing contentedly finally, looking pointedly at Don who was, to say the least, amused.
"Stay here," said Smiley to the bird. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
"The Egret people are unhappy all of the time because they are very poor and life is very hard. So they migrate. They follow the flight of the Egret, and, some say, they are spiritual partners, simpatico, with the egret. He is a pretty bird. Would be a good spiritual partner."
Smiley fondled Sam thoughtfully. The parrot was calm and amazingly alert.
"In the early years of this migrate—and it took many many sheaves of years, Don North—they are led by four priests, and the first of the priests, he carries an image of their god, Huitzilopochtli, on his shoulder."
Don marveled at the God's name, which was pronounced—as are most words in the Nahuatl language—exactly as it was spelled.
"Huitzilopochtli means 'hummingbird on the left,'" said Smiley. "And so it is the Egret people travel southeast, all the time searching for 'hummingbirds on the left,' to the Valley of Mexico. But before they arrive here, there is much war and many deaths, for our mothers and fathers are a violent people, Don North. Why, I do not know. Maybe something they drank."
Smiley performed the litany of the beer-gathering and Junior jumped to, returning with two Dos Equis. Thinking ahead.
"Part of the reason, though, comes from early in this journey, when the Aztecs come to Tula, which is the capital of the Toltecs, who are great warriors."
"A widow lives in Tula. She is virtuous and beautiful, and one day, while sweeping the temple there, she finds a ball of feathers, which she tucks—here—between her breasts. These feathers are Holy, and not long after this, the widow, she is pregnant."
"She is not like our Virgin Mary, Señor, because she already has a daughter and 400 sons. The children become angry at their mother for taking the holy feathers and are planning to kill her."
Don must have looked dubious of such a concept, for Smiley in-terjected quickly:
"Don North, I do not make this stuff up. Like I say, we are a violent people. The violent sons are marching on the temple where their mother serves. As they come closer, the widow of Tula hears a voice inside of her, right here, beside her heart, saying: "Do not fear. I protect you."
"In a second, like a lightning bolt, a warrior comes—like Juan Wayne—with three weapons: the obsidian sword of the Toltec, the atlatl, or spear-thrower, and the greatest weapon of them all—the serpent of fire which leaps in a hissing arc of flame to kill everyone of the 400 and their sister. This miracle warrior was Huitzilopochtli." Smiley smiled. "He was a real son of a bitch!"
"Later, many centuries later, the Aztec priest explains to us that the widow is Mother Earth, and her daughter is the moon and the sons was the stars and Huitzilopochtli is the sun who, every day, has to kill the moon and the stars to make it possible for us to live."
"So all these years, the Egret People have a job that is theirs alone to do. Since Huitzilopochtli is the sun, they are the people of the sun and they have to make sure that the sun receive the food he require. He drink blood. It is the most precious food mankind can offer. In our schools, we memorize the words of Huitzilopochtli, just as you in Norteamerica memorize Lincoln's Speech of the Envelope."
And he nodded to Junior, who straightened himself and spoke the following, in great seriousness, with his eyes closed:
Then Huitzilopochtli spoke again: "Hear me, for there is something else that you have not yet seen. Go at once to see tenoch, on which you will see an eagle happily nesting, sunning himself there, and you should be pleased, for this is where the heart of copil was born. We shall find ourselves equipped with arrow and shield, and conquer and seize all those who surround us, for here will be our Mexican homeland, the place where the eagle screams and spreads its wings and eats, the place where the fish swims, the place where the serpent is torn apart and many things will happen.
And when they arrived at the place, they saw the eagle perched upon the nopal, happily eating and tearing apart his food, and as soon as the eagle saw them, he lowered his head. Although they saw him from very far, they saw that his nest was make of various precious feathers, and saw the heads of all kinds of birds scattered about. And at once the people weep because of this and say: We are rewarded; we have attained our desire since we have seen and marveled at the place where our new settlement will be. Let us go there and rest."
Junior's speech was by rote, and it was not clear that he understood completely what the English words meant, but Don was moved by his effort. Smiley, handing Sam the African Grey to Don to hold, stood quickly and moved to the sink.
"Tenoch and nopal are Nahuatl words for cactus. We enjoy a delicious salad even today." He returned, bearing a small plate, and placing it on the bunk near Don. "This is called nopalitas. You will love it and it is not fattening."
"Tenoch," Smiley continued, "is preserved in Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztecs. It means 'the place of the cactus,' and someday we will take you to the ruins of Tenochtitlán, in the Zocalo, at the heart of this city. The eagle and the cactus you will find on our flag, and on our peso. It is our heritage."
"There is one other thing you should know, Señor, of our culture." Smiley took Sam from Don and motioned for Don to try the nopalitas, which reminded North of artichoke vinaigrette.
"The Aztecs do not create the idea of human sacrifice out of their own head. This is given to them by the Toltecs, along with the concept," and here he petted Sam affectionately, "of the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl."
"Quetzalcoatl represents the man who soars as high as the sky as well as slithers along the ground. He can be both high and low. It is...how you say...a duel, a duality. There was, some say, a real man called Quetzalcoatl. He was, like King Arthur, a symbol of the better way of life. Quetzalcoatl comes to teach the Toltecs new crafts and skills. When he does that, he walks east until he disappears into the ocean. But he will return some day, in a later age."
Sam cooed and softly billed Smiley's hand.
"When Hernan Cortés come, with horses and guns, and cross-bows, and other things the Aztecs have never seen, it is easy for them to believe that Cortés is Quetzalcoatl, returned to them in the flesh. Our great King Moctezuma believes that himself, until he watches Cortés in action. But by then," Smiley said sadly, "it is too late."
Don munched the nopalitas thoughtfully. Smiley and the boy sat quietly. The Mexican rock n roll and the sounds of the shower room seemed very far away.
"Cortés kills one hundred twenty thousand Aztecs," said Smiley at last. "Warriors, women and children. Half the people in the great city of Tenochtitlán. An Aztec son of a warrior, many years later, tells us what it was like."
He nodded to Junior, who took a swig of coke and stood this time, tall before the window like a sculpture in a museum:
Thus it happened. While they were enjoying the feast, while there was dancing, there was singing, already one song was entwined with another and the songs were as the uproar of waves, at this precise moment the men of Castille decided to kill the people. They came on foot, carrying their shields of metal and their swords.
Quickly they came up to those who were dancing. They rushed to the place of the drums. They struck at the one who was playing the drums. They cut off both his arms. Then they chopped off his head and it fell far away.
In a moment they were clashing at them. They were running their spears through the people and hacking them. With the swords they wounded them. Some they attacked from behind and immediately these fell to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they severed the head and then chopped it into small pieces.
Others they struck on the shoulders, made gashes in them. Their bodies remained mutilated. Some they wounded in the thigh, some in the calf, others straight in the abdomen, and all their entrails fell to the ground.
There were some who tried in vain to run away. They were dragging their intestines and their feet became entangled in them. Anxious to save themselves, they found no place to go.
Some tried to get out. There at the entrance, they were stabbed, they were cut down. Some scaled the walls. But they could not save themselves. Others went into the communal houses. There they were safe for a while. Others lay among the dead. In order to escape they pretended to be dead. By appearing to be dead, they were safe. But if anyone got up on his feet, they saw it and they cut him down.
The blood of the warriors ran as if it were water, like water which makes little pools. The stench of blood filled the air, and the stench of the entrails which seemed to crawl along by themselves.
And the men of Castille went everywhere, even searching the communal houses. Everywhere they thrust their weapons, looking to see if someone was hidden there. Everywhere they probed, they pried into everything.
The boy looked—pained—from Smiley to Don and back again. Smiley nodded for him to continue, sipping thoughtfully at his Dos Equis.
Junior gathered himself and sang, in a high voice, almost a soprano, this poem:
All this happened to us.
We saw it.
We marveled at it.
With this sad and mournful destiny
We saw ourselves afflicted.
On the roads lie broken arrows
Our hair is in disarray.
Without roofs are the houses
And red are their walls with blood.
Worms multiply in the streets and squares
And on the walls brains are spattered.
Red are the waters as if they were dyed
And when we drink
The water tastes bitter.
We struggled against the walls of adobe
But our heritage was a net made of holes.
Our shields were our protection
But not even with shields could we defend
We have eaten branches of linnet
We have chewed the salty grass
Bits of adobe and ground earth
Small lizards, rats, worms.
We ate meat when it was scarcely on the fire.
When the meat was cooked
We snatched it out of the very coals
And ate it.
They put a price on us.
The price for a young person, for a priest,
A child or a young girl.
And it was enough.
For a common man
The price was only two handfuls of corn
Or ten portions of caked mosquitoes.
Our price was only
Twenty portions of salty grass.
Gold, jade, rich mantles,
Plumage of the quetzal,
All that has value
Was then counted as nothing.
Junior's voice faded solemnly. He looked a little self-conscious. The showers across the hall had been turned off. A mournful flute had replaced the tinny rock n roll. Don felt distinctly uneasy and definitely out of place. Smiley broke the silence:
"But we eat, hey Don North?" He motioned to the nopalitas. "We drink and remember only that this was a long time ago."
Smiley finished his cerveza in a single prodigious gulp. Don couldn't take his eyes off Sam. The parrot's head looked distinctly prehistoric, like some dinosaur's cousin thrice removed. The bird had picked up some of the rhythm and much of the quality of the distant flute. His eye was fixed on UNTITLED's accountant as he cooed and wove hypnotically back and forth.
The jangle of a telephone shook Don back to the cutting room from wherever it was the song and the flute and his mind and the bird had taken him. Junior rushed to pick up the receiver.
"¡¿Bueno?!" He scrunched up his features, trying hard to make out the words of the caller. "Si, Señorita. Momentito." He motioned with the phone to Don. "It is for you, Don North."
Don stood, a little too quickly. He felt a bit dizzy and held onto the cold steel of the bunk a moment for support. He took the phone:
"You feel like lunch?" It was Judy.
Don looked back towards Smiley who was setting Sam back up on top of the dressing screen.
"Unh, yeah. I guess."
"Yeah. Sure. Where? How'd you know I was here?"
"A little birdie told me," said Judy, sardonically. "Some of us are going to Tres Caballeros. You wanna come with?"
"Sure. I'll be right over."
Don replaced the receiver.
"Well..." he said in a long exhalation of breath. "I wanna thank you guys for everything…."
"It is nothing, Don North," said Smiley. "You will come again, soon? Maybe we will drink more and you will tell us a story."
"Yeah. I'd like that."
"Good." Smiley tossed his head towards the parrot. "Say goodbye, Sam."
"Goodbyesam!" the bird chortled.
"He is a very literal bird, Don North. No imagination. Still..."
His thought trailed off.
Don felt very warm and wobbly. He tried to be graceful, moving to the door. By the time he was halfway down the hall, past the now-silent shower room and headed for the stairs, he had decided to break his diet of cerveza and nopalitas.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
Six Feet Under
We Were Soldiers