Security’s on him soon as he struts through the door. Profiling ain’t right, man. Still, he don’t look like everybody else, no lie. Odd cross between a young Chuck Norris and Woodsy Owl, like some badass birdman. My homeboy sports all black, cargos, t-shirt, and Dodgers cap, his cape fluttering behind him. Comes for snacks but never gets that far. Gotta protect the weak and innocent, right?
Today ain’t no different. In the produce aisle, a young mother with three screaming kids backhands her eight year-old when he drops the armful of lemons he’s juggling. My homie swats her into the iceberg lettuce, and she’s out cold. On the baking aisle, this ugly thug, all neck tattoos and snaky glares, wrenches his young wife’s arm and shoves her into the brown sugar. Señor Búho don’t think twice, dropping the dirtbag with a flying roundhouse to the head. Now security closes in, but that ain’t no thing. He front-flips over a pastry display, dashes past the freezer case, and dive-rolls into the chip aisle, where he finds the assistant manager copping a feel of the new girl. She ain’t even sixteen yet, so guess who eats industrial linoleum?
Soon 5-0 swarms in, but forget about it. Ain’t no catching Señor Búho.
Takes me a minute to get my head on straight. I kinda teeter there, leaning against a handicap sign till everything stops spinning and I catch my balance. Least I recognize the place: DeVargas Center parking lot. Could be worse, right? Could be completely jodido. Without no Vaseline, man.
Only where’s Señor Búho? Ain’t like him to ditch me. Said he wouldn’t be a minute, I should stay out here and chill. Homeboy got the munchies, if my mind ain’t playing tricks on me, went inside for chicarrones and chili nuts, and just try to stop him. He’s an asskicker, bro. Ain’t nobody mess with him. Not if they know what’s good for them.
Only it’s been forever and he still ain’t come back. Not to worry cuz like I said Señor Búho can take care of himself. He’s got all them martial arts: karate and kung fu, taekwondo and jui-jitsu. Black belt badass. So I give him some space to do his thing. Plus, he’s got a sixth sense or some shit, so he’ll know where to find me: Owl Spirits. Only place in town carries Tecolote. He’ll catch up when he’s ready.
The wind smells of sage and ozone as I weave up to the door, grab a cart, and linger, digging in my pockets like I mighta forgot my American Express or whatever. You can’t just ambush them, bro. You’ll be lucky they don’t call the cops down on your ass. Best thing’s a retired hippy dude. I squint, scanning the lot for an 80’s model pickup, beat to hell and splattered with bumper stickers. I keep my bleary eyes pealed for tie-dye and stringy gray pony tails, sniff the dry air for patchouli and wacky weed. But every customer who comes out wheeling a squeaky cart gives me a what-rock-you-crawl-out-from-under glare, or worse, pretends to ignore me, going all tense and clattering across the asphalt on a beeline for a shiny Mercedes-Benz. Bad news, bro. I can practically hear the squeal of them police sirens already.
But I gotta hitch a ride outta here, so I make a stab at it, pushing my cart after a woman loading jugs of milk into a Beemer, a couple strapping kids into a Lexus, and a dude sliding into a Porsche convertible with this hot blonde chick twenty years his junior. I got me some patter, a tale for every occasion. Seriously, sob stories, pity parties, you name it. Some of them are even true. Only don’t nobody let me get close enough to say word one. Slam doors, throw locks, rev engines, and that’s all she wrote.
Make matters worse, my leg’s killing me. Hip to ankle, a dull ache. Plus, them ice picks in my knee. Hey, at least I still got a leg, even if it’s full of screws. Most of my buddies over there wasn’t so lucky. Buncha of them was blown to smithereens, man. Saw it with my own eyes from the cab of my big rig: one minute, they’re working security detail, the next, I’m wiping them off the windshield. I got a limp and constant pain. What do they got?
So I hobble toward the Plaza, head down, fading into the shadows.
At Guadalupe and San Francisco, Señor Búho spots a group of dumbass tourists about to get mugged. They stick out, right? Too put together. Got that high-desert chic thing going, with the matching linen outfits and bigass straw hats. Expensive-looking shoes, too. Ladies got bags full of turquoise jewelry and hand-woven rugs. Dudes got fancy gold watches and fat wallets sticking outta their pockets. Talking easy prey.
But Señor Búho’s got the eagle eye, day or night, don’t matter. Sees them vato thugs sharing a blunt in an alley, knows their plan before he even hears them slurring about pinche gringos and plata. He don’t let them get nowhere close to the dumbass tourists, knocking them to the pavement and taking their stilettos and switchblades. Then it’s boot to the head, once, twice, thrice, and they’re down for the count.
Dumbass tourists don’t notice a thing.
I wake up in a haze. I smell the river, though the spring thaw’s long over so there ain’t much to it by now. Sand, granite, a trickle of runoff. I lie there, listening to it gurgle and splash. The sun’s trying to set, turning the sky pink and gold and fucking tangerine. It ain’t half-bad. Plus, this grass is soft, bro. Better than cardboard on concrete any day. I could stay here forever—wherever here is. Señor Búho will know where to find me.
Soon I hear voices in the twilight, shadows getting closer. I hunker down, hoping to disappear into the dusky light. I ain’t up for the usual bullshit, right? But what I want ain’t nothing, cuz them voices close in on me till there ain’t no exit in sight.
What you got for me, ese?
I know what comes next, so I curl up in a ball, fetal style, covering my head. Now here come the kicks to legs and back and shoulders. Couple blows to my bum leg and it’s pins and needles all the way down.
Now three pairs of hands, calloused and scabbed, flit through my pockets. Ain’t nothing to find: no greasy bills, no rusty coins, no weed. Nada.
Señor Búho’s gonna bust your ass! I gasp between grunts, cuz that shit hurts.
A half-dozen kicks rain down before one of them says:
Hold up! What you say, pendejo?
Don’t take shit from nobody.
Señor Búho, I say. Who else?
Traffic swells on Sandoval. Not ten yards away, tourists blather on their after-dinner stroll back to the Hilton. Me and Señor Búho get their leftovers sometimes: lukewarm enchiladas, BBQ sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas. All kinda tasty grub.
Now somebody’s cackling above me. It’s contagious, cuz soon they’re all doubled over. Maybe Señor Búho’s busting a gut, too, if he ain’t this very instant fighting injustice or whatever. As for me, I ain’t got a clue what’s funny.
Why didn’t you say it was you, ese?
I blink and blink again, though everything’s still kinda blurry. But then he pulls back his hood. Tito?
You know it, he says, helping me up, brushing grass off my shoulders, passing me a ratty old bandana to wipe the blood leaking from my temple. Thought you was dead, man.
You ain’t all that, Tito.
Naw, he says, lighting a smoke. Iraq and shit.
We both did time at Española Valley High, detention every Saturday, and he’s still got that same ugly mug. Never mind the buzzed head, soul patch, and faded Latin Kings crown on his neck.
Not me, I say. Señor Búho’s got my back.
Still working that whole Mr. Owl thing, huh?
Tito’s buddies seem suddenly giddy. Like, Mr. Tootsie Pop? says ones. With the glasses and square hat? says the other. How many licks does it take? says the first.
Tito shuts them up, then passes me a smoke, lighting it with a dented Zippo. Anyway, sorry about that, he says, waving the attack away with his cigarette. Didn’t recognize you with all that, what’s it called, plumage. Hair and beard and whatever.
Glad you ain’t dead neither, I say.
He nods. Hungry?
I fight against the haze shrouding my mind. I wonder how long it’s been since that leftover half-burrito. I could eat, I say.
Tito and his buddies lead me down to their little camp in the sand on the banks of the river. There’s so many trees overhead, the tourists and retirees up on the sidewalk can’t see nothing. Cops neither, I guess. Señor Búho would love it. Tito and his buddies make a campfire, and it ain’t long before I’m gnawing on a scorched hot dog in a stale bun. Better than nothing, right?
Plus, they uncap a fresh bottle of Tecolote. You heard of Thunderbird? Like that, only stronger and tastes better. We stamp out the fire to keep the 5-0 away, then pass the bottle around in the dark, joking and laughing and talking shit. They got it all figured out, man. Can’t see nothing but the burning glow of our smokes melting the black night.
Now this calm settles over me like I ain’t known in forever, from back when I was a just a little snot-nose kid and my step-dad took me camping that time up near Taos. Big-ass pine trees, zigzagging hummingbirds, cool mountain air. That was the good life, man. Hiking, fishing, grilling hotdogs over the campfire when we didn’t catch no trout. Owls hooting in the night, coyotes yipyapping at the new stars. Course, my step-dad spent more time at the bar than the campsite. And, in the end, Señor Búho had to beat that dirtbag’s ass for what he tried on me in the tent. But good from bad, me and that birdman been tight ever since.
The bottle’s dead by the dead campfire. Tito and his buddies lie back. Lightning flickers and flashes over the mountain, but I never hear the thunder. Something sickly sweet taints the sage and ozone scent. I stub my smoke out on a river stone, then teeter to my feet.
Where you headed, homes? Tito slurs.
Gotta meet someone, I say.
He whips out his stash. One of his buddies passes him a glass pipe. Party’s just getting started, he says.
My grin feels like a grimace. Thanks for the chow, I say, slipping and stumbling up the incline.
On a dark side street, Señor Búho breaks up a car-jacking. Rail-thin tweeker’s got a dented aluminum baseball bat, and he’s screaming at this twenty-something dude and his little hottie. Chick scampers around to the far side of the car. Outback’s just a damn stay-wag. Dime a dozen in this town, too. Easier to jack one when the owners ain’t right there, but this tweeker’s stupid and lazy and don’t know how to hotwire.
Gimme them goddamn keys! screams the tweeker, and the guy looks like he’s about to do it. Maybe he’s got good insurance, but Señor Búho ain’t having it. Thug losers can’t just take what ain’t theirs. So when the tweeker cocks the bat like he’s gonna crack some skulls, my homeboy wrenches it loose and smacks him in the gut. Tweeker doubles over, eyes wide and gasping. Señor Búho thumps him to the sidewalk, then clocks him in the head. Dude and his chick don’t stick around for the end. Jump into that Outback, fire it up, and tear off into the summer night.
Traffic creeps along Guadalupe. Sedans and pickups, sure, but mostly pedestrians. You got folks from both coasts and everywhere in between following the tourist circuit between restaurants, the Plaza, and all them downtown hotels. They’re fat and greedy and got a gleam in their eyes. Some look like they just came from church, all buttoned up and battened down, while others let their freak flags fly. They’re on vaykay, right? Anything goes: black knee-socks, old-man sandals, luau shirts, you name it. It’s a scene, no lie.
I cross the street at Our Lady of Guadalupe and play it cool past The Cowgirl. Just a BBQ joint full of rednecks, but they always got cops hanging around at the door. I keep my head down and try to blend—which ain’t hard as it sounds. Hey, man, this is Santa Fe, right? Ain’t called the City Different for nothing.
Still, I can feel that cop’s burning glare on my skin. I try not to look, but I can’t help it. He stands out front, hands on hips. Broad shoulders, square jaw, ugly haircut. Can’t tell if the dude knows me from somewhere or is just a fucking dick. Maybe both, right? I don’t let on nothing, making my way down Guadalupe, one foot in front of the other.
Soon’s I get clear, I’m belting out Señor Búho’s favorite song. Middle of a crowd, too. Ain’t the best idea, but that’s the way it goes sometimes: just wells up inside me till it’s gotta come out. Don’t ask me where he got it. Song don’t even make sense. Plus, I got the words but not the tune, so I gotta make it up as I go along.
The great black
Hi! a! haa!
Like I’m some kinda warrior on the path, fixing to kick some serious ass. Never even felt like that in Iraq, right? That was 24/7 terror, like you can’t deal with it none so you go numb or just laugh everything off.
Señor Búho’s song keeps pouring through me, but locals don’t even flinch cuz it’s just another day in paradise. But the tourists, man, they’re a different story. They gawk and glare and give me a wide berth. Some even cross to the other side of the street. Texans in boots and Wranglers shout, Get your head on straight, son! But I can’t hardly hear them, right? Like they’re deep down a well or whatever. I just keep right on singing. Along with the Tecolote, I got the spirit of Señor Búho surging through me.
In the Tomasita’s parking lot, gravel chatters beneath my boots. It’s late, so things must be slowing down, though I can still smell tortillas, beans, and green chiles. Tahoes and F-150’s growl toward the exit, but I don’t pay them no mind. Drivers glare, some even cuss me up and down, but that ain’t nothing to me cuz if shit gets real, Señor Búho can handle them. Still, I wouldn’t mind their leftovers, tacos and burritos and tamales, only ain’t nothing on offer.
Other side of the restaurant, in the shadowy part of the lot back by the dumpsters where employees park, I spot this dude about my age, maybe a little younger, headed to his pickup. Trash reeks of rotting sludge, but I suck in some of that cool, crisp night, then lay it on him.
Hey, bro, I say. Nice ride.
Homeboy glances my way. Probably got a knife in hand already, or, given his job, maybe pepper spray. Red, green, or Christmas? You bushwhack some dude in a dark parking lot, better expect what’s coming. But that ain’t the way it goes. He gives me a head nod, neutral expression. What’s with the cape? he asks, and that’s more invitation than I need.
Used to have me a Tacoma just like that, I say, little older maybe. Got it used when I came back from Iraq. Bet that double cab holds a lot. Mine was only an extra-cab but still felt huge. Plus, I was rocking the camper shell, came in handy when my fucking landlord kicked me out. Mine was green, with a little what you call rust coloration around the fenders. Drove that thing everywhere, in all kinda weather. That four-by-four’s badass, right?
Dude’s still standing there, wide-eyed, keys in hand. He don’t know what to say, so I make my pitch:
Think you could give me a lift?
Where to? he says.
Not far, I say, hobbling around past the tailgate toward the passenger-side door. Got this bum leg, so getting anywhere takes forever.
Hold up, he says. All I said’s where you going.
I try to play it real Rico Suave. St. Francis and Paseo, I say.
Homeboy mulls for a minute, jangling his keys. Headed north? he asks.
Other direction, I say. Here in town. Where Paseo turns into Hibou.
Industrial wasteland, more or less, and I can see him puzzling on it. He still ain’t even unlocked the door. Not a good sign.
I’ll ride in the bed if you want, I say.
Oh, right, he says. The liquor store.
Owl Spirits, man. Everybody gets thirsty.
Sorry, he says, climbing into his truck. That’s out of my way.
Don’t be like that, I want to plead, but he slams his door and cranks the engine. Then, just like that, he lurches out into the high desert night.
I stagger back around toward the entrance. As the last stragglers emerge from Tomasita’s, I’m there, waiting. Drunk Texans heehaw and backslap, lugging their blinding belt buckles toward Chevy Silverados. Locals mutter amongst themselves in Spanish, shrugging on their rebozos and shaking their heads. Lucky Señor Búho ain’t here to beat all their asses black and blue.
Then this big-haired blonde in tight jeans and turquoise boots and lots of flashy-ass jewelry sidles out into the night. Got a fancy-looking purse in one hand, good-sized to-go box in the other. She’s stumbling and reeling and laughing to herself. Too many margaritas. Lady makes the edge of the gravel lot, then stops to take a breather. That’s when she notices me.
Evenin, sugar. How’s your night goin?
Been better, I say.
Bless your heart, she says. She digs a Virginia Slim out of a dented box. Want one? she asks.
Got my own, I lie.
Well, then, how about some dinner, honey? It’s a chicken quesadilla. Jimmy thinks he’s gotta order half the menu, so we always end up with too much.
From where he leans against the shiny Silverado, a big-gutted Texan hollers, Let’s go, Charlene. We ain’t got all night.
How gallant is my man, she says. Then she passes me the to-go box. There you go, sweetie.
I nod in thanks.
Get a move-on, woman!
You want something done about that guy? I ask.
You waitin for Christmas? he bellows.
Cuz he sounds like he needs his ass beat.
Don’t let him fool you, sugar, she says, chuckling. He’s all bark.
Señor Búho will set him straight, I tell her. Just say the word.
She crushes her half-smoked cigarette with the toe of her boot. Appreciate the offer, darlin, but I’ll take a rain check, okay?
I nod, cradling my quesadilla dinner.
She gives me a long-lashed wink, then crunches across the gravel lot. Over her shoulder, she says, You be good, now.
I nod again, though she’s already gone.
As I wander down Guadalupe, I hum Señor Búho’s song to myself. Love that shit, bro. Had it word-for-word earlier, but now I can’t remember them lyrics to save my life. Don’t matter, I guess. Still got his spirit flowing through me.
In the parking lot outside Boxcar Blues, I listen to some dude wail on an electric guitar, just knockoff Santana riffs, till I find a six-pack of longnecks, two empty, four full, in the bed of a Dodge Ram. They’re lukewarm but will still get the job done, long as don’t nobody spot me first.
I trudge down a block, then slide on over into the park. Used to be a big vacant lot, drunks and bums and deadbeat drug dealers, till somebody wised up and planted a buncha flowers and bushes and whatever. Makes a difference, right? I ease down the hill, then disappear into the darkness.
When I find a clean patch back in the trees away from the road, I make myself at home. Scarf my dinner and wash it down with a couple bottles of cerveza. Then I lie back in the soft grass and gaze up at the stars. It’s a clear night, not a cloud in the sky above me, though lightning sparks and flashes over the mountain. Moon’s out, too, just a silver slash in the blackness. I nurse the remaining beers, listening hard for the hoo hoo of owls prowling in the night, yet even as the traffic noise dies away, I still can’t make out a single one. I finish the longnecks, pitch the dead soldiers, and curl up against the cool night air.
Ain’t like Señor Búho don’t notice them ski-masked vatos with Uzis and shotguns slipping out their van and easing through the barred door. He ain’t three feet away, chilling in the cool night, nipping from a fresh bottle of Tecolote. They head in, he caps his bottle and follows. Thugs are already yelling about Gimme the cash! when the door chime rings again. Vatos turn, pointing their guns, but ain’t nobody fires. They blink and goggle and gaze at each other in disbelief. Dude behind the counter, too. Can’t none of them figure out what they’re looking at.
It don’t take more than a few seconds. That’s how quick my homie is, right? He whips this way, slashes that way, and before they know what hit them, he’s got them thugs disarmed and whimpering in a pool of their own sweat and tears. Pops each in the head with the butt of a .12- gauge, and it’s lights out.
Señor Búho grabs two bottles of Tecolote, swaps nods with the counter dude, and makes for the door
Church bells clank and clang, beating my head into submission. The ground feels hard as concrete. Plus, my bum leg aches worse than ever, like it’s being squeezed in a vice on a full-time permanent basis. I cover my ears, hoping to mute the bells. I keep my eyes clamped tight against the hot morning sun. When I roll over to give my hip a break, my head spins, and I can taste last night in the back of my throat. Plus, them church bells keep on banging like it’s something personal.
I struggle to get comfortable on the hard ground, and a couple them empty bottles go clattering. They got a different ring than longnecks, right? Thicker and deeper. Plus, grass don’t usually make that noise, no matter how dry and dead. I crack an eye slit and sneak a peek. Busted asphalt, broken glass, a stained dumpster leaking toxic Jello. More parking lot than park.
Takes a minute to get my eyes to stay open. Like forever. That sunshine’s harsh, bro. First thing I see’s them bars on the windows, bars on the doors. Neon signs like crazy, only they ain’t lit up. I drag my carcass up against the wall, shielding my face from the sun with my hand. Need one of them bigass straw hats like all the tourists got. I blink and blink and look around. What I can tell, lot’s empty. No vagrants idling on the corner. Ain’t hardly even no traffic.
I struggle to my feet, swallowing hard to fight down that queasy feeling, catching my balance against the rough stucco wall. Feel like I got run over by a Mack truck. Sign in the window behind them bars says CLOSED, and there ain’t no posted hours. Door’s locked up tight. Still, Señor Búho’s probably gonna show any minute, so ain’t nothing to do but wait.
Now I slip over into the shade. Find an empty Tecolote bottle and chuck it across the lot. Real high arc, bro. Watch that thing explode and shatter into a million little pieces. Find another, same thing. Morning sunlight shimmers through the blue glass, refracts or some shit, like a rainbow in motion. Beautiful, man. Course, it all ends when glass meets asphalt, that sharp pop against the empty morning, jagged shrapnel spraying everywhere.
Next thing I know, here comes the 5-0. Ain’t no flashing lights or squealing sirens. Dude just eases around the corner, then idles up into the lot and puts down his window. I know the drill, so I slide back down to the hot concrete.
Help you with something? he says.
Might be the same cop gave me the evil eye last night.
No, man, I’m good, I say, but my tongue feels thick and furry.
Uh-uh, I say, shaking my head. Nope.
Smell of burning piñón wood carries on the light morning breeze. It’s already scorching, so ain’t nobody in their right mind’s got the chimney smoking. Maybe it’s a house fire?
Then what’s your business here? he asks, all gruff and shit.
Waiting for a friend, I say. I backhand sweat from my forehead and shove some greasy hair outta my eyes. I try to reel off a sob story, but my tongue ain’t cooperating. Brain neither.
Attempted robbery here last night, the cop explains. Know anything about it?
Me? I say. Why?
He gives me a cop smirk. I can feel him eyeing my cape, wondering if he’s seen me before and where. Then he says, The night clerk reported some vigilante took out the perps.
The cop nods, gnawing on his toothpick. Dressed in all black, he says, shaggy hair and beard, singing at the top of his lungs while he dropped three armed thugs.
Bad ass, I say.
Old white dude in a pristine Chevy SS, late-60’s model, grumbles up the block. Familiar how? I say.
Cop comes at me again with that smirk. You around here last night?
No way, I say. Slept in the park.
Railyard? he asks.
That’s only half a mile from here.
Feels like five to me. Got this bum leg, I say and smack my right thigh.
Fighter jets scream across the empty blue sky. We crane our necks, following them till they disappear and all that’s left are vapor trails.
The cop fiddles with his toothpick. Do me a favor? Find someplace else to loiter. Owl Spirits is closed all day on Sundays.
I nod, then hoist myself to my feet and stumble down the steps. I still feel real woozy, like I might upchuck or keel over right there on the hot asphalt.
The cop stares me up and down, studying me like I’m a riddle to puzzle out. I try to stare back but wind up squinting at the Zia detailing on his cruiser door. Sweat beads and runs down my back.
Now a call comes through the cop’s scratchy radio, killing the stare-off. Dude responds, and there’s some back-and-forth in cop code. When it’s over, he gives me this weird look.
Duty calls, he says. But I guess you’d know all about that.
Wait, what? I say.
He smirks again and swallows a laugh. When you see Señor Búho, let him know we appreciate his help, okay? Then, lights flashing, siren screaming, he screeches outta the parking lot and blasts around the corner.
Señor Búho’s gotta get clear of this whole scene. He says what he always says, talking to himself and anyone who’ll listen: You get jodido, go back to the beginning. Kinda like his mantra, right? Means where it all started, up north in the mountains, where me and him first met. Now he looks around, head on a swivel, taking in the scene. It’s Sunday morning in Santa Fe. Ain’t no wrongs to right. Ain’t no injustices to fight. Maybe he’s still standing in the middle of this empty lot, asphalt stained and buckled, but he can already smell them pine trees swaying in the cool mountain breeze.
So he ambles up St. Francis, thumb out, smiling into the new day.