The summer of ninety-one was a bad one. I got stung by a Portuguese man-of-war off The Gulf of Mexico and ended up with a horrible scar. Ninety-two I was sitting on a couch in my brother-in-law’s place when I felt as if someone had dug a knife blade into my shin. I looked down and a giant scorpion was mincing at my shoes.
“You horrid bastard!” I screamed, slapping it to the floor and mashing it into Ernie’s Persian weave.
The doctor gave me a handful of painkillers but once again I ended up with a nasty scar. Mexico wasn’t the place for me. I packed my bags and got on a plane. I went to a fortuneteller and she told me I was unlucky but destined to father several beautiful children.
“Bullshit!” I said, pushing aside the circus tent flap.
It’s war! Flat-out war! I shall arm myself to the teeth! Poisons, rattraps, roach motels, fly screens, bug zappers. I shall carry a small lightweight hammer and a can of Mortein at all times.
But it was not enough to keep me from The Secrets of the Vinegaroon.
One Sunday afternoon I was sitting around in my socks and sandals, thumbing through Ecclesiastes, when I heard a knock at the door.
Who’s that? I thought, peering through the cheesecloth blind.
As I stood there with a hand on my knee, looking as if I was taking a painful dump, squinting at the midday sun, I realized I must have been imagining things. I sat back down and opened a box of chocolates, picked up a caramel rose, and then there it was again. I jumped up and swung the door wide but here was no one. Not even a worm or a beetle.
The next day I was in the shower with the stereo turned up, listening to Fergal Sharkey’s A Good Heart is Hard to Find, when I thought I saw a shadow moving down the hall. I picked up my feet—all soapy and wet—and charged out of the bathroom. As I turned the corner and leapt into the kitchen, my feet went out from under me, and I banged my head on the ground. The last thing I remember was a strange smell like fish and chip paper hanging in the air.
I opened my eyes and there he was—less than a foot from my nose—The Vinegaroon! I widened my eyes and admired his form; six legs, spider-like and thin; two pincers; crab-like, bulldozing towards his thorax as if exulted in prayer; silent black lips, and an almost invisible cluster of eyes. But the most extraordinary thing was his tail: erect and whip-like, whizzing about the air. He was a good ten inches from pincer to tail.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, raising my fingers to my temple.
“Nothing,” he replied, “I want nothing. I am The Vinegaroon. My presence is merely a warning sign. Be careful, tread with care.”
“Lies! I know your kind. You’re savage and irrational. You’d tear the skin from your children if you were desperate or in a bad mood.”
I slammed my fist down, hoping to crush the life out of The Vinegaroon, but as soon as I hit the linoleum, I realized he was gone.
Old Lucifer in a dinner jacket… was I losing my mind; having conversations with pseudo-scorpions who warned me to take care?
I got to my feet and walked into the bedroom, turned up Fergal as I dripped soapsuds over my fake polar bear rug, then walked back into the bathroom and let the water run hard.
My burrito business wasn’t going well. Taco Bell and a bunch of other joints were killing me. I’d bought my van when I’d acquired some cash from a sweet anteaters and pangolin deal and only intended to drive it on weekends. But then things went sideways, forcing me to stop smuggling anteaters and pangolins.
I had to hide out for a while. I drove the van all the way to Dallas, slept in it for the first few nights, and then found an apartment beside a Chinese grocery store.
My ex-brother in law Ernie wore tight shiny pants and hid his comb-over beneath an ugly black hairnet. Like a lot of guys who worked in the customs department, he had a cushy deal. We had a system worked out. Whenever his boss was away, we were able to get our anteaters and pangolins out of the country to a Vietnamese businessperson who went by the name of Nguyen Van Pong.
I’d first met Mr. Pong online after searching various dark crevices. After a few chats and guarantees, Nguyen or Mr. Ping Pong as he liked to be known, flew out to The States to see if I was the real deal. The first week Nguyen stayed with Ernie and me, we had a swell time. We drove down to Mexico and got drunk every night, picked up a hundred and forty seven anteaters from my cousin Ezekiel, then flew them back to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Ezekiel thought I was a crazy fucker living in The States; coming all the way down to Mexico to do my business every few months, and I wasn’t too crash-hot on Ezekiel and some of the friends he brought home from his discos, but we had a good thing going with our anteaters and pangolins. My ex wife lived in Mexico City and everything about Mexico rubbed salt into my wounds. San Antonio had a sweet feel. The first anteater deal with Mr. Ping Pong had lined my wallet so well I didn’t need to work for a while. But now I was hiding out in Dallas, hoping to Jesus nobody had taken my picture when I was in Mexico with Mr. Nguyen Van Pong, whose name was splashed over the daily news.
‘Cops bust endangered animals smuggling racket. Members still at large.’
I called Ernie and Ezekiel from my apartment in Dallas and they told me things were dicey and they didn’t know whether the Feds had closed their investigation. Somehow they’d managed to avoid the cops, forcing me to ask: What the fuck am I doing sitting on this cigarette burned sofa, thumbing through the Bible while some other fuckers are out there getting rich, transporting anteaters and pangolins?
I decided to go into the Deep Ellum area to see what Dallas had to offer. I shuffled up to the ticket window of the aquarium in The Old City Park, walked inside and began to admire the fishes. I can’t remember where she approached me. It was either the seahorse or the nautilus room. She looked across with an ice cream in her hand and then started talking about how she came to the aquarium on Fridays.
Her legs were big and wobbly but she had a good rump and firm cans. She looked about forty but could very well have been in her early thirties. She told me her name was Louisa and she’d been living in America for over a year. We goofed around for a while, and then she told me she had to get back to work, and placed her number in my hand.
I waited a day—like you’re supposed to… or not, depending on which magazine you read—then called and arranged to meet her at a Korean restaurant in the Arts District.
It must have been around three in the morning when we stumbled back to my apartment drunk, laughing as I slipped in my key. The lights were dim and I put Ghost Train on the turntable. Louisa took a shower and then stepped into the hallway with nothing on but lime green panties. Our rhythm was good and we were just getting into it when sweet Jesus! The Vinegaroon crawled up the wall, whizzing his tail in circles.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” I shouted, working Louisa from behind.
“Hey?” She asked, craning her neck.
“Not you Louisa!” I said, patting her on the head. “This damn fucking scorpion thing crawling ups my wall! Can’t you see him up there by the light?”
Louisa pulled away and covered herself with a towel, looked up at the wall and peered at me.
“What are you talking about!” she shouted. “There’s no scorpion up there! You must be imagining shit!”
“No, I swear it. I just saw him slip behind the light fitting as soon as you turned around. He’s up there all right! He wants to harm me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I swear it! I’ve seen this thing before and it actually said some weird shit to me. I know it’s crazy but you’ve got to believe me.”
“Oh shit! Here we go again,” said Louisa, lifting herself off the bed and quickly putting on her clothes. “I really thought you were alright for a while Enrique. I really thought you might be the one. Then you go and turn into a fucking nut job on me!”
She picked up her purse and didn’t look back, turned the handle and walked out.
“Fuck!” I shouted, standing on the bed with one of my shoes in my hand, hoping to mash the Vinegaroon’s brains out.
“Now, now, now,” a voice whispered from the other side of the room. “Once again you’ve let your temper get the better of you. Once again you’ve let your emotions collide.”
“Where are you?” I screamed, tossing my shoe at the wall.
“I’m here,” said the Vinegaroon, suddenly appearing from behind a little flap of loose wallpaper, mincing up the wall. “I’m here because you’re in great danger. I’m here because you appear to be blind. How could you be so stupid; thinking Ernie and Ezekiel have your best interests at heart? How could you be so stupid and not put one and two together and realize it was them who ratted on Mr. Ping Pong because someone else offered them a better deal? For Fuck’s sake! Who do you think has gone and bought a new Trans-Am since you’ve been hiding out in Dallas? Who do you think is pissed off because you screwed up his little sister and left her in Mexico with mom and pa? Ernie, you idiot! He’s had it in for you since the day you moved to San Antonio and started telling everybody you were fed up with Mexico and in love with America. The only reason you’re not behind bars right now is because he knows you can pin shit on him and he’s got you right where he wants, driving around Dallas in a pissy burrito van.”
“How dare you!” I shouted, jumping off the bed, racing towards the wall.
I was about to reach the Vinegaroon and mash him into oblivion, when I tripped on my shoe and found myself lying on my back, breathing in the same strange scent of acrid fish and chip paper. I climbed into bed and pulled the covers around my neck.
What the fuck is happening to me? I thought, biting my fingernails, spitting them across the bed sheets. What is this freaky creature with its horrible black armoured skin and whizzing tail doing in my apartment, telling me Ernie and Ezekiel are scamming me out of my anteater and pangolin deal? Jesus… come to think of it, maybe the Vinegaroon’s right! Maybe Ernie is still sour about the breakup with his sis and my success in the U.S. Come to think of it… it all adds up! There’s no way Ernie could have avoided being arrested! And what was that bullshit about having to meet Ezekiel in person to know he wasn’t dealing with a scumbag. Bullshit! It’s all making sense now. The only reason I’m hiding out in Dallas in this shitty dive is because Ernie and Ezekiel have made a new contact in Asia and they’re both getting rich while I peer out the curtains, scared the cops are gonna bust in.
I got out of bed and turned on the light.
“Where are you?” I asked peering up and down the walls, searching for the Vinergaroon. “Look… I’m sorry I got angry and tried to kill you. Everything’s cool now. Just come out and talk. ”
“Please, I’m begging you! Come out and talk! How do you know all this shit about my life?”
I continued staring at the wall, and then turned off the light and crawled into bed.
“The only way you can deal with this shit is to go down to Mexico and check it yourself. Then you’ll see what I’m talking about. Get yourself a good night’s rest and head off first thing in the morning.”
The burrito van coughed smoke as I backed down the driveway. I drove out of Dallas and stashed it in San Antonio, rented a Mazda bongo with a kitchen and a bed in the back, and then drove across the border into Mexico.
Ernie… that little mother with a few strands of hair combed from ear to ear. He had his routine and I had my binoculars. Three days after I began watching him, it happened—Saturday morning; highway forty, a good 200 kilometers on highway 2 all the way to Matamoras, then across to the coast just outside of Rancho Nuevo—The meeting; Ernie and Ezekiel drinking pina caladas in deck chairs, sitting together happily, staring across the Gulf of Mexico.
“You mothers!” I whispered, playing with my crucifix, as I walked side-on two hundred meters away, with a giant sombrero balanced on my head. “How could you cut me out of my anteater and pangolin deal?”
I waded into the water and bobbed beneath the waterline. The sun beat down and the wind sent choppy waves towards the shore. I swam until I ran out of breath, and then surfaced with nostrils bubbling above the waterline. Suddenly they were up on their feet, walking towards me; Ernie smiling as he threw stones across the water, Ezekiel gazing into his eyes with the adoration of a schoolboy on summer camp.
I went beneath the water and my immediate reaction was to pull a handstand. I put my face close to the sandy bottom and felt the spines of a sea urchin puncture my cheek. I came up hyperventilating, wanting to shout and scream, but couldn’t afford to attract Ernie and Ezekiel’s attention. I got out of the water, and laid on the sand, gasping in shock. Out of nowhere the Vinegaroon appeared; sliding his body through the sand, slinking forth like an angel of death.
“Is this what you want?” I gagged, staring into his beady eyes.
“Whoa… calm down!” he said, whizzing his tails a million miles an hour, firing out acrid juice. “I’d say you’d better get yourself to a hospital pretty soon and have those spines removed.”
The tail kept whizzing in circles, sending out droplets that landed on my face. Then there it was again; the strange scent of fish and chip paper.
“Who are you?” I asked, lying paralyzed in the sand.
“I’m a lifeguard! Who do you think I am? This is my job. Think yourself lucky you didn’t step on a scorpion fish or worse a stonefish. You’d be dead in two minutes if you’d stepped on one of those.”
“Yeh… a lifeguard! What do you think this bottle of Stingos is for?”
“Jesus, I’m sick!” I moaned, cautiously touching the flesh above my cheek where the spines had broken off and disappeared beneath the skin.
I looked down the beach and Ernie and Ezekiel were standing close. They held hands as Ernie adjusted his hairnet and Ezekiel jutted his ass towards the wind in a pair of expensive lemon slacks.
I looked up and the sun bit my eyes.
God help me… God bless The Secrets of the Vinegaroon.