“Call the Lieutenant” by Daniel Arbino

Issue 11 / Fall 2017

 

I say yes! Sí! It’s true! Es la verdad! The World Cup is coming to our little desert paradise! We love our basketball, but we love our soccer just the same! For us it’s life, for them it’s just a game. The people are dancing in the avenue and down the boulevard! The people are dancing on the roofs of cars. Ha! We’re going to show the world how Albuquerque does it large! I know you wanna celebrate, so hear this tune and grab a mate! Órale!

The reason I have to rush through is…the reason why I can’t let these thoughts patiently evolve is quite simple: time is of the essence. Sure, you might think that us over here in the Southwest have nothing but time. You look at us and see a simpler life, one untouched by the constancy of Wall Street, the unyielding anger and traffic jam. People, the ones who know we’re even part of the United States, come here to get away or to retire. People, the ones who know what mañana means when they call us “the land of mañana,” come here to take a break from their fast-paced life. “You could never survive in New York City,” I hear people say. But we’ve been surviving, that’s all we do. Hell, the government used to detonate bombs in our backyard and we survived that. Anyways, it’s not every day that your life changes, here or anywhere. The reason I have to write this is equally as simple: I need an account of what happened. Soon the police will be here. Soon I will be on every news station in the region. Fact: I just became a very wealthy man. Fact: my family is missing.

Before I went to work this morning, I signed the contract. I run a little corner store in the city—it’s not the best job in the world by any means, barely paying me enough to provide for my family, and still yielding me enough for the occasional night out with my wife. My mornings I spend sweeping. In the afternoon I mop. At night I stock the shelves. I sell the typical products you would find in any corner store, which is why my corner store is not particularly special, nor can I compete with the chain stores that have shown up more and more in the last few years as Albuquerque has grown. But I have my loyal customers that come to me because they know I’m going to give them a fair price. Smokes, tequila, ice cream: those are some of my best sellers. Like I said, nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Sometimes I get those tourists that like to wander off the beaten path from Old Town a bit. They’re usually lost and need directions. In return, they buy some bottled waters, as if I wouldn’t just help them out anyway. But you know those types of tourists, for them nothing is free so they oblige me.

Today’s shift went by quicker than usual. A few of my customers came to talk about the pending World Cup, knowing that I am a huge soccer fan. I know a lot of people around here who only watch European soccer. They’ll have big parties to watch La Liga or English Premier. But not me. I think the Mexican League is the best. That’s what I grew up on when we only had twenty channels and Telemundo and Univisión were two of them. Why would I care about a league thousands of miles away when I was raised on La Liga Mexicana? I think, with home field advantage, we’ll surprise some people this year. More and more tourists are starting to come, which bodes well for my people-watching and my business.

And then with the contract I signed, I start thinking about that income too. Buy my wife a new dress, some proper school clothes for my boys, maybe even move back to the country and live off the land. Don’t get me wrong, the city is all right, but all this modernization is changing everything. The yuppies bring different ideas, different customs, and I still want my kids to see New Mexico as it was. My family used to live in the country back when the border crossed us. My great-grandparents were shepherds over in Placitas. Back then Albuquerque was still small. That was before all the movie studios that you see now. Hell, the west side and Rio Rancho didn’t even exist. But like a lot of other people, my great-grandparents saw the writing on the wall. Their way of life was dying. My great-grandfather took a factory job and my family was able to buy a house right along the Rio Grande in the South Valley where a lot of the other people had come from similar situations. I loved playing along the river as a boy while my great-grandma and then my grandma sun-bleached those clothes, but the truth is that back then nobody wanted to live along the river, what with the annual floods and all the contamination. Right around the time of my mother’s generation, though, that’s when everyone migrated to the city. A lot of people emigrated from Chihuahua and who can blame them? Why should they look through a fence and see people doing the same jobs as them for a lot more money? Some came from back East when they saw how cheap the land could be had for. My mom moved us into one of the older neighborhoods wedged in between the Rio Grande and downtown. If we had a two-story house, we probably would’ve had views of both. She made decent money at the law office where she worked as an administrative assistant too so that when my dad took off and never sent us a cent, we got on. We were part of a community.

With the migrations to the city, the country folk got hit hard. And if you look around the country now, what you’ll see is a lot of mobile homes, emptiness, and desolate llano. Those once-rich little villages founded by the descendants of conquistadors were now irrelevant in the twenty-first century. They just stay there to remind us of what was. They’re a skeleton from the days of sheepherding. The reservations, the other side to that story, haven’t fared much better, but the casinos that they set up keep the money coming in. Others just sit there at their trading posts along the side of the road, hoping that passengers will stop and buy an Indian taco from them.

Yes, in that respect, my corner store is a nice job to have truthfully, but at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get by. The real money is probably in the tourism. People who come here to see the Native American jewelry and art. People who come here to see the legacy of a colonial past that they absolve themselves from. People who come to tour a “traditional Indian village,” not knowing that at the end of the night, the Native Americans pack up their trucks and drive back to Albuquerque where they live in a house, apartment, or mobile home. People who want to buy a house and jet over here when it gets cold in their part of the world. Or not cold, stressful. Or not stressful, overwhelming. Or maybe not overwhelming, but underwhelming; they want something more from their lives. They want to feel special, to escape their mediocrity, to have something to tell their boss at the office about when Monday comes back around. So they can change their Facebook status. “Gary, I skipped on down to my house this weekend and took the kids over to Taos…what’s that? Oh no, we’re nowhere near the Indians. Not for what we paid. We go to them, they don’t come to us.” The city is nice, but it is becoming like any city now. McDonald’s on the corner. Overcrowded. Hipsters strolling down the street. Starbucks. The city’s been good to me, but it’s time to get out.

That’s why when government officials came by my house, I listened to what they had to say.

Can you believe it’s just weeks away? Digo, I say that the World Cup starts a month from today! Albuquerque looks nice! Clean and proper but still with our own spice! The government’s been cleaning up the streets, the government’s been accomplishing its feats. The government’s making damn sure that the world’s gonna find a cure for all this trouble and trial, nothing but happiness for a little while!

 

It’s only morning and already he wipes the sweat from his brow. He never understood why high-ranking officials must wear these elaborate uniforms in the desert heat. It’s hot enough without the black pants, the long sleeve shirt, and the coat. As he walks to his car, the sun beats down on him and he curses the Albuquerque sun. I’m just following orders, he tells himself. Chain of command, he tells himself. Following rank, he tells himself. But he still feels guilty watching his own people being moved out of the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for so many years. Neighborhoods like the one he grew up in when the word “community” still meant something. Since the announcement of the World Cup, he has been asked to do things, unspeakable things. But the world mustn’t see the poverty in this city, he was told! The world mustn’t see the ongoing crime, he was told! The world mustn’t see the homeless people sleeping in Tent City, a row of tents across from high-priced lofts! The economic disparity! The racial tensions. As lieutenant, it fell on him to not let the government down. To attract the investors. To work with the city to increase the tourism. And after weeks of crimes against humanity, he was left with one more assignment: change the neighborhood by the stadium, known for the gangs that run it, into a tourist zone. The people in that neighborhood had to leave one way or another. He just hoped it was the easy way.

For weeks he was authorized to offer the people an exorbitant price on their house so that they would take the money and leave. Then they could knock over their humble homes and build five-star resort hotels. For weeks the people were steadfast in rejecting him. “Esta comunidad no se vende,” he heard over and over. Yet he knew it’d be a domino effect. If one sells, they all will. Because once the tourists show up, flashing their money, running their mouths, these people will take the money and get gone. The alternative will be constant police harassment if they don’t. Search and seizures in the middle of the night. Constant patrolling. Rip and runs. Loitering arrests. Anything to make sure this World Cup runs smoothly. That’s why he was glad that at least one man came to his senses. What happens to him happens, but at least he’ll have the money. Said over the phone that he wants to get back into the country anyway. Says that he misses the clean air, the open space. Working the land like when his great-grandparents were shepherds. Now it’s just a matter of going over there and getting him to sign the contract.

Brothers and sisters, the games begin in less than a week! And we will show the world that we are not meek. The government readying the city for all the people; building new hotels, stadiums, and steeples. Crime is low, money is high, and the music plays on all through the night! Esooooooo!

 

In any case, the lieutenant will surely be here soon to help me. You know, the police have been making efforts since the unrest a couple years back when a couple of white teenagers who were going downtown and killing the homeless got off. Still, sometimes you do wonder where their real interests lie. That’s to say, can you regain your image of serving and protecting the people when there’s a quite contrary image burned into my memory of you harassing Native Americans and Hispanics? That image goes back longer than I’ve been on this earth because, ultimately, those police have always been about protecting a certain type of people and I most certainly do not fit into that category. I don’t know. They can start by helping me with my dilemma right now and acting like they care, but they still haven’t shown up. I hope they come soon. Who else can I rely on?

Before I went to work this morning, I signed the deal. It wasn’t an easy decision. Like I said, my family’s been comfortable now in this very house. I watched my mother pass on in this house, may she rest in peace. And it was around that time, I must’ve been about twenty-five, I married my wife Gabriela. Her family and mine, they had known each other for some time, so us falling in love not only made the elders happy, but it was almost like destiny. My mom was able to attend the wedding before she passed on, so that every anniversary I can’t help but feel some sadness mixed with the love.

Truthfully, I don’t know how my mom would feel about me selling the house, but after thinking it over, and thinking about being able to give my boys more opportunities in life, I decided to take it. I’m the first in the community to take the offer. Many look at me with scorn and think that I’m a traitor. They call me Malinche now because I sold out to the whites. The developers have been lurking ‘round these parts trying to buy people’s houses, but up until me, the community had stuck together, a collective “no.” Everything changed this morning when I sold the house for a good heap of cash. Fact: I became a very wealthy man. Fact: my family is missing.

At first I thought I turned down the wrong street on my way home from work. Maybe I got too caught up in the radio and wasn’t paying attention. All this talk about the World Cup has me filled with anticipation. I had to turn around and drive back up to the top of the road just to check the street name. Sure enough, I was in the right place. As I drove back down the street, I saw that the neighbors were outside looking at me with bewilderment. As I waved at them, they just shook their heads and spat on the ground. Message received. I suppose they’ll be happy to see me gone.

As I approached, I was met with the same puzzlement as before. I arrived to where my house should’ve been only to find in its place a gorgeous, glass, hi-rise hotel called the Desert Inn. My next door neighbor Mr. Álvarez saw my confusion and came to talk to me. He’s the only one that still does.

“Tomás, by 10:30 they had demolished your house, by 1:00 they had the complex up and by 4:00 most everyone had checked in,” he told me.

“Incredible! I didn’t think they’d be in so quickly. Have you by chance seen Gabriela and the boys?”

“Can’t say I have. I just assumed they were with you.”

I tried Gabriela on her cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. Then I went in the hotel lobby trying to find answers from anyone that would talk to me. However, the tourists seemed awfully annoyed by me, refusing to even stop and answer my questions. At best, they just said “No” to me and kept walking. One guy actually called the hotel manager and complained that a homeless man was in the building begging guests for money. The manager met me with fury, screaming at me about how the vacationers didn’t pay all this money to interrupt their busy lives to come here and watch the World Cup only to be harassed by a homeless native. His little mustache hairs bristled as he yelled at me about how the government promised that homeless people wouldn’t be permitted in this part of the city anymore. “Let these nice people enjoy the vacation that they paid for.” Before he was able to show me the door I finally got a word in edgewise.

When I explained my situation to him, he removed himself from any culpability before informing me that the demolition crew left all the trash on the ground floor of the hotel. When I asked him about my family, he replied with a quizzical blank stare.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. There was no family here when I began my shift this afternoon.”

It’s at that point that I called the lieutenant and I don’t know what’s keeping him. He should’ve been here by now, like he was this morning. Surely he will help once he gets here.

I go down to the parking garage and sift through four generations of memories and heirlooms now covered in dirt, ripped apart and crammed into the trash. Everything from my wife’s wedding dress to my children’s bikes. My mother’s dresser, left to us after her passing. Solid and sturdy juniper wood that conveyed a detailed artisanship rarely seen these days—now in pieces. I pull out a picture of my family from the dump to show people in hopes that they’ll have information. There are the four of us, standing near a flowing acequia in the early spring of this past year. All four of us are smiling as the day turned from cool to warm. Cheerful. I remember it well as the present unravels around me. Some of my neighbors are here looking with me. Mrs. Baca’s here. So is Miguel, who soured on me sometime back over something I can’t recall. Unfortunately, no one has seen them since the demolition crew came this morning. Mrs. Baca is calling out for Gabriela. The tourists watch us as if we were a street performance. Others hurry past us, obviously annoyed that we are obstructing their path. Still others double and triple check on their key fobs that they locked their cars.

Gabriela still doesn’t answer her phone…My heart smacks against my chest…Ring…My throat closes…Ring…I gasp for air…Ring…My stomach turns in the heat…Voicemail…The nausea sets in. There is so much noise, and I’m so hysterical, I have to stop this account and keep searching.

Yes yes I am broadcasting from the Desert Inn Hotel, where I’m spending the day casting my spell, where the saying is “no worries, no fear,” and it’s safe to walk at night here for the first time in years! Yes the government is cleaning up the streets, they’re clearing up the corners, they’re building up the hotels to please all the foreigners! Haha God bless the World Cup, we suffered many years asking them to do what they’re doing now sure enough.

 

Daniel Arbino is the Librarian for U.S. Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas’ Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. He specializes in U.S. Latino and Caribbean Studies with a concentration in literature. His creative works can be found in La Casita Grande Lounge, Nos pasamos de la raya, Divergencias, and Chirricu. His scholarly publications can be found in Label me Latino, Sargasso, Journal of Caribbean Literatures, and the Publication of the Afro-Latin American Research Association. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota (2013). You can follow him on Facebook and on his website.

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