The morning Tita Marie came crying into this world on her grandfather's sofa, I cut the cord. Me – a stranger, an oilman. An adoptee.
Soon after the birth, a rumor spread in that Mexican town that the child owned a birthright to the States. 'The American ita of Poza Rica," they called her. Meanwhile, I replayed the labor and delivery in my head over and over, trying to grasp the contours of the scene I'd participated in. The clenched-fist pain of the beautiful mother. The smell of an ashed cigarette smoldering on the coffee table. The young grandfather's soft voice uttering platitudes in Spanish.
And then, that eggplant of an infant: daughter to a girl I'd only glimpsed the night before, grandchild to my client Manuel, a half-Mexican entrepreneur who loved ragtime piano, Tita had materialized into an anonymous maid's hands with her legs churning like she'd been listening to Springsteen's "Born to Run." In one moment Tita didn't exist, and in the next, she did. As a Coloradan, I thought of her as my Continental Divide: one day I'm walking in the mountains and everything's flowing east, and then I pass over the time of her birth, and suddenly, everything's flowing west.
It happened like this. I'd come to Poza Rica on contract to consult with Manuel León on his start-up, a waste oil treatment business. I hoped the work might finance my exit from that industry, which I'd come to think of as a complete Dumpster fire of greed and schmooze. Having eschewed a flight from Denver for a brooding drive south, I parked my Buick at the airport's lot and walked to the terminal. In a carpeted lobby where passengers on a flight from the States filed in from the tire-scarred tarmac, a courier held up a handwritten sign with my name. He passed me a note from Manuel that said I'd be staying at The Hotel California.
"No joke intended," he deadpanned.
Through the shuttle van's windows, the town looked waylaid and pockmarked by the oil industry. Missile-shaped semis hauling rounded tanks of oil idled in refinery parking lots of cracked asphalt. Smokestacks and oil rigs appeared on the horizon as a constellation of lit machinery: a mechanical labyrinth of intricate piping and metal scaffolding, desalters and hydrotreaters, isomeziration units with ominous-looking parts and protrusions. Schools stood next to oil fields where derricks pumped slow and sure. Exhaust towers too near the roads burned sulphur into the city sky. Gasoline fumes blurred the air between cars. The smells wafted through the van's vents, and to avoid them I tucked my nose under the lapel of my suit.
The Hotel California shone with the finer touches of luxury. Its tennis courts gleamed with freshly painted lines and bright white net cords. A bean-shaped pool sparkled with clear water, and a fountain trickled from a rivulet that ran through a garden of azaleas exploding with color. Next to the garden stood a full bar. El Tajin, a restaurant named after nearby ancient ruins, overlooked the pool and boasted a stained glass mural of Mayans dancing in the rainforest. If Lisa, my fiancée, hadn't broken off our engagement a month prior, it might have provided us a strange and lovely getaway. Shimmering on its hill above the gray and tattered town, The Hotel California was a diamond into which much of that crudeness had been pressurized. I knew one thing right away: whoever owned it had to be an oilman.
Early the next afternoon, I met Manuel in the lobby. He was older and whiter than I'd anticipated. He had me by half a head and about fifteen years. With thick eyebrows and a slightly receded hairline, he possessed a weathered face that could pass for an American of indeterminate ethnicity. He wore a drab button-down emblazoned with his name on the pocket, which gave him the appearance of a disaffected conference attendee – except for his eyes, which were sharp as an owl's. Almond-shaped, Asiatic, they squinted his temples into crow's feet as he approached me. He walked like he was tumbling. He smelled of cigarettes, and I could see a pack outlined in his shirt pocket. He blinked as he shook my hand and then came out of the grip looking right at me, holding my gaze for a beat longer than I expected.
He ushered me into El Tajin for lunch and introduced me to his partner, Adolfo.
"Well, well," Adolfo said through a gruff-voiced accent. "Very nice for you to see us."
An elderly, beady-eyed cowboy type, he wore a black blazer and bolo tie and his cheap cologne didn't cover the fleshy odor of the inside of his hat as he took it off. He made no effort to hide his greedy smile as he shook my hand.
We sat beside the mural of Mayans dancing in the jungle. Over steak and Coke, we talked about oil. Right away, Adolfo ordered us a mystery appetizer and smirked like he was letting me in on some sinister plan. I let fly a whispered oh boy and winced.
"If you don't mind, Keith," Manuel started, "I'd like to begin with a quick overview of our company. PetroPuro."
Adolfo interrupted. He pulled at Manuel's elbow and whispered to him in Spanish. Manuel resisted, but Adolfo kept on.
"Pardon me, Keith," said Manuel.
Adolfo gestured toward me as he instructed Manuel, and I understood then that Adolfo had put up the money for this venture. Typical front man, I thought. Like all of them, always out to show it. Manuel sighed.
"You must tell me your story!" the old man blurted out.
Manuel rolled his eyes. I flashed him a look that told him I understood. I did. Too well.
"Sure thing," I said.
I harbored a fantasy of launching into a diatribe I'd rehearsed in my head that went something like this: It's the tail end of the summer and I'm standing in a brick courtyard of rich donors to a museum listening to a jazz trio beneath a garden of live oaks strung with white lights that reach up to the highest branches. The song is "In a Sentimental Mood," the appetizers are crab puffs and mini-quiches, and I'm talking with a beautiful Indian woman in a black cocktail dress. Candles in white paper bags line the pathways that lead one way to a historic home and the other way down to the parking lot where my brand new black Nissan Z is coiled and waiting to speed me and this girl up and away into the mountainside, where we'll look down at city lights twinkling in the vast, black plain. Now, you'd think this couldn't get any better, but I'm not enjoying myself because all I can think about, because of what I do, are the following things: the bricks of the courtyard beneath my feet are likely a blend of clay and shale, the shale being a by-product of refining oil. The crab puffs and mini-quiches were cooked on a stove powered by gas. The candles, the paraffin in their wax is a by-product of refining oil. My Nissan Z runs on gasoline, and the highway that will take us back to my house is made of asphalt, a by-product of refining oil. The museum's biggest donor is an oil company, and as the bass player gives spine to Duke Ellington's tune, all I can think about is how his strings are probably made of a polymer blend that is, as you might guess, a by-product of refining oil. For five years now, these have been my concerns, and I can't stop thinking of what my Uncle Stock told me when I was a kid: the world's a pretty cold place, and the only way you get any meaning out of it is by what you make of it through your own eyes. And, Adolfo, if all you're seeing every day are the byproducts of the energy everyone else uses for living? Well, then you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
Blake Sanz's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Chariton Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Acentos Review, and other literary magazines. An MFA graduate of Notre Dame, he now teaches writing at the University of Denver. His fiction manuscript, White Coyote, has been recognized as a semifinalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition. He received a work-study scholarship to attend Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in 2014 and has since been awarded fellowships from the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria and the Seaside Writers' Conference. He was also the Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholar at the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers' Workshop in 2015. Additionally, he has been a jury-selected attendee at Aspen Summer Words Festival and a funded attendee at Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.