CHAPTER 1: Carlotta and The Boys
From the day Carol met Alfred and Ramon they had treated her like a princess; though by then she had already come to believe it would all be like this, the great adventure of Mexico, which she had embarked on with her own Prince Max, after he had rescued her from twenty years of servitude to the crippled tyrant Isabel.
Carol had also been treated like royalty by the Mexican workers who had built their house, maestros and peons alike. She had cooked for them each Friday ever more elegant meals, bringing that first time pots and trays of scalloped potatoes, green beans almondine, Tuscany pot roast, hot biscuits. On subsequent Fridays she never brought the same meal twice, serving out the generous portions herself from the back of the van while Max assisted. She called them her boys. They called her Carlotta, though her name was Carol; and she kept the new name.
The boys had worked with great care and the house they’d built was beautiful and finished with dozens of artistic flourishes that both she and Max the artist had designed. On the last day of construction maestro Lupe had gone to the bedroom where Carlotta was crying for the end of it, and he’d begged her to come join them for the official photo Max was taking, for she was an essential part of the team.
So she’d dried her eyes and come out and joined them. In the framed photograph she foreverafter displayed over her bed they all stand proudly in front of the house, she in the middle of all, taller than any. The double domed cupola they’d built especially for her on the housetop seemed in the photograph like a crown settled upon her head, as she smiled her happiness to all the world.
That same month Alfred and Ramon had entered their lives, on the prowl for new listings. They had gushed for the house and that had won her and Max both, and they’d given them the listing. The following week Alfred and Ramon had assessed Carlotta’s sociable personality further and convinced her to train and join their sales team, despite a snide reception and frequent sniping by Polly Allen. But that happened in fairy tales too.
Even so, though visitors had gawked and praised it, weeks then months passed and the house they’d built didn’t sell. This to Carlotta had been a petite disappointment, the kind princesses are prone to. But she had borne it.
Meanwhile, she had learned the lakeside real estate business. Ninety-five percent of its traffic was Americans and Canadians, all retiring, many buying houses. Most had cashed out their lifetime equities up north and migrated to this idyllic climate, which was rarely much above or below seventy and eighty degrees. Tempering the summer heat, rains fell throughout the summer months, all so conveniently at night, accompanied by spectacular electric violence in the skies over the lake and the village. The lakeside community of gringos was more or less eight thousand. Satisfied. Taking it easy. Conservative. Old.
They were a realtor’s dream: they came, bought houses, died soon, and the houses resold. Over and over, to a continuing flow of short-lived retirees dazzled by press releases and brochures that glorified this quiet little lakeside village, where twenty thousand dark-skinned Mexicans have also lived five centuries and more.
Thus, time serenely passed for these two expatriates. Carlotta sold a few houses and brought home a few commission checks. Askance, she and Max watched Alfred and Ramon struggle to begin their own colossal project, MexicoLimpio, for as suspicioned, acquiring water permits did indeed become a problem as the lake receded further and further from the shore. Max and Carlotta would never be so ambitious. They would be happy building their one, perhaps two houses a year.
While they waited for their house to sell and while Carlotta worked for Alfred and Ramon, life was idyllic for Max in this new house they both loved so much. He searched out new exotic plants for the ever-expanding garden. He built himself a latticed pentagon gazebo flanked by royal palms with an oval, brick-lined, raised garden in front of it, full of roses. He read novels and histories and took notes on Maxmilian and Carlotta. His own Carlotta loved their new life. It was almost like being married.
And then the house sold, and everything changed. For better, for worse.
Three weeks after the sale Carlotta came home from the office one Friday afternoon, thrilled because she’d spotted a view lot on the day’s new listings. Nobody could have seen it yet. Five hundred meters, a perfect size and a perfect price, too good to be true. It could be their next project, and the fairy tale could resume its happy course.
They drove to the lot immediately. It was on a slope that might require a large foundation, who knew. But the view of the lake was spectacular and the neighborhood was upscale. And her boys could go back to work again.
Monday 9AM Max and Carlotta gave Ramon a check for ten percent down. Two weeks later the deal closed with Lionel Quemado and his aunt, the shy widow dressed all in black, who had recently been bequeathed this property. They all signed documents. Max handed over a check for full price, and everyone shook hands. Max and Carlotta were ecstatic. The following day Max was there on the property with Lupe and three peons clearing brush, marking boundaries and deciding where the living room would be, the master bedroom, the garage. Carlotta, who’d taken the morning off to share this special moment, was happier than she could ever remember being as she watched them all so busy, making a lot of people’s dreams come true. She also watched a black Chevy Blazer come up the hill. It parked beside her white Dodge Caravan and a large man emerged. He seemed in his fifties, his face round, friendly, fair-skinned, more European than mestizo, wearing round wire glasses like a teacher might. However, he dressed as if he would go tromping through the African veldt, in khaki shorts, khaki jacket, and a tan safari helmet on his head. He carried a folder of papers. He smiled cordially as he walked to join them. Mysteriously, momentously, Carlotta sensed a sudden intensifying of the air they all now breathed.
Max shook the hand this affable stranger offered, and Max greeted him in Spanish. The man introduced himself. “I am Alejandro Frances. You seem to be preparing to build, senor.” Carlotta saw in this stranger’s eyes that this was not a casual question; it seemed somehow ominous. Even so soon, she sensed grief coming. She sighed.
Oblivious to such sensitive perceptions, Max was still a proud, new landowner, smiling, eager to show off his property. “Yes we are, Senor Frances. The view is fabulous here–don’t you think so?”
Carlotta watched this gentle Mexican shift his feet nervously. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I have always thought so. But you see–this is not your property. It belongs to my family. It has been in our family for a hundred years. More than a hundred.”
Carlotta’s Spanish was not so good as Max’s, but still she knew enough to understand the essence of what this man said, and all the rest it grievously implied. She sobbed once loudly.
This startled Senor Frances. He looked at her, and must have seen the tide of loss already sweeping over her. Max stepped back, for this declaration was of course a shocking blow, and for the moment he could think of nothing to say.
He saw in Alejandro’s eyes compassion for Carlotta’s sudden sorrow, though Max also saw that this man dared not give that sentiment undue attention, lest he lose his own determination. Senor Frances turned his eyes away from Carlotta to hear Max’s response. Max knew the words he spoke in Spanish lacked conviction, because suddenly he, as well as Carlotta, now felt the fetid breath of doom in the air all around them. “But...I have a deed, Senor Frances.”
Senor Frances nodded yes, as if he’d expected Max to say just that, and went on. “But I have the true deed, senor.” Senor Frances held up to Max the folder thick with papers. Carlotta saw Max had no heart to ask him to open it, to go ahead and prove it all to him, for he knew, as she knew, that it would all be there. But, surely, something could be done. Something. So they could still have this.
Utterly bewildered, Max barely managed to control it. He said, “Could you come with me, Senor Frances, and bring your papers? We need to talk to the broker that took this listing, that sold us this property. And to the two who say they are the former owners.”
Carlotta blanched as she recalled the forgotten players in this drama; and then she saw it all. Of course–Ramon and Alfred, Lionel, the frail, dark widow...ah yes, too good to be true.
Senor Frances bowed his head graciously, saluting them with his old world dignity, and said most patiently, “I am at your service, senor. I follow you.”
Fifteen minutes later Carlotta stomped into the Lakeside Realty office and yelled at Ramon. He insisted he was wholly sympathetic and on her side. Nonetheless, he sent them all away, prolonging their anxiety, saying that they could only meet in two days’ time, when he would bring Lionel Quemado back to the office for the meeting. Ramon seemed unruffled by all of it. “I’m sure there’s a proper explanation,” he said with his exceptional smile, most of it for Senor Frances. “I have had other dealings with Senor Quemado and the widow his aunt, whom he represents. I’m sure they will make this all right.”
Senor Frances thanked them all and carried his folder away with him. Ramon attempted to detain Carlotta with what he thought to her would be good news, something to lighten her burden. “Carlotta, you’ll be happy to know that, thanks to Polly Allen’s mystery ally, not only have we been granted thirty water permits, but we have also sent to Ed Bustamante a copy of our new deed from Senor Cuevas. We just today received a very substantial check from him, and we’re starting work at MexicoLimpio in two weeks, three at the most. Isn’t that wonderful?
But he had radically misjudged her. She was fired by great anger; he had never seen her like this. “I don’t want to hear another word from you until you make good that property, Ramon! Goddamnit! You told me you’d checked the title twice! Twice!” Not waiting for Ramon to answer or Max to join her, she hurried out the door and down the front steps; she wouldn’t let them see her unraveling.
Two days later, accompanied by Max, she went to the meeting without hope. Lionel Quemado the first time she had met him, when he had signed the sales agreement and taken their check, had seemed like a creepy little man preying on his frail, far too trusting aunt. The widow had set silently at his side, unwilling to look at documents, unwilling to look at any of the other participants. She so thoroughly trusted her thin, well dressed, sharp faced young nephew. Her check and his had been separate; perhaps and to all appearances probably a mystery to her how it had all been divided. In the end Carlotta had decided they deserved each other.
However, when Lionel sat down at the table beside Ramon, broker of the fraud, across from Senor Frances, Carlotta looked in Lionel’s shifty eyes and she wanted to strangle the little bastard where he sat. She already knew this confrontation between Lionel and Senor Frances would be no contest. She stared at Lionel, daring him to look her in the eye, surprised that he’d had the nerve even to appear. The aunt was absent of course, and probably didn’t know anything about this. And maybe never would.
Senor Frances was polite but devastating. He opened his folder and produced his documents. The first was a large map that had to be unfolded section by section until it covered the entire table. The extent of it encompassed hundreds of acres of Rancho del Oro, from the careterra to the hillcrests. Certain large areas were blocked out in blue pencil, and these he said had belonged to the family Frances for four generations. His father had recently died and bequeathed all of it to his widow, who in turn was now parceling it out among her three sons and her daughter. On top of this map, he placed a second smaller one, on which had been inscribed in thick black lines the boundaries of the property in question, which he called Section C. He traced with his finger the five sides of this Section C and said that this comprised 1480 square meters. It had never been further subdivided.
He asked permission of Lionel, who followed all this with the look of a doomed man, and Senor Frances took Lionel’s small, sad lot map and he placed this fraud upon his own great display of maps and territories. He showed them all that this little map of Lionel’s was not a true map at all, that it was only an arbitrary slice described upon a terrain to which it didn’t belong. He then produced a deed dated forty years ago in which Section C had been subdivided out of a property twelve times larger. He read for them all the metric measurements of each of the boundaries and showed that those corresponded to his map of them. He showed them the municipal seals and the signatures of notarios and registry officials for decades. His last document was yellow with age and frayed with usage and he showed them dates that were nearly a hundred years old. He pointed especially to a paragraph wherein a Jalisco governor long dead had agreed to the sale of so many hundreds of acres in Rancho del Oro to the family Frances. This deed adduced that all this property had been in its origin a quitclaim from an even more ancient deed deriving from the King of Spain nearly two centuries ago.
As Senor Frances finished and looked up at the others, he nervously wiped little traces of sweat from his brow, then sat back in his chair, waiting for someone to say that what he’d said could not be true. But no one did.
Max turned to Lionel, whose squinting eyes were still creeping from map to map and deed to deed. Lionel shifted uneasily in his chair when Max said to him in Spanish, “What do you say, amigo? What does your aunt say, the widow?”
Speechless, Lionel at last looked into Max’s eyes, since it was the least of payments he could make. However, he could not bear the confrontation long, and his eyes slid away, dipping and floating helplessly. Carlotta could see that someone else might pity those desperate yes, but not she: who watched him rigid with anger.
Finally Lionel spoke in genteel Spanish, but meekly. “Yes, there is a possibility I have somehow mistaken. My engineer took measurements from a certain reference marker that may not have been the correct marker. I suppose that is possible. My property is part of an inheritance my aunt received this year, from her husband. She meant only to sell it. Her deed comes originally from her father-in-law. Though I see there is no doubt that the documents of Senor Frances are in good order.”
Max then turned to Ramon. Before Max spoke, however, Ramon was ready with an answer, trying to smile through his own obvious bewilderment. “I did check it, I swear, but I checked the deed only, not the map. And not the location. I never imagined, if the deed was correct—and the records showed it was correct—that the location would not be what the map shows.
Hearing this, Carlotta slumped, drained of all hope. She said bleakly, “What do we do now, Ramon?” Who in her opinion deserved the shotgun, along with his rascal confederate, Lionel.
But Ramon was already having ideas. Suddenly he perked. His smile blossomed like a merry poppy at a wake. “Let me offer this! The lot in question does exist–I’m sure of that. If Lionel has mislocated it, he can make another survey with greater care, with a new engineer. He may use the man we use, Senor Guacho, and establish the true location. It should not be a problem.” And to Lionel he said, “You could do this–yes?” Lionel, sensing a miraculous reprieve, struggled to look optimistic, struggled to make a strong affirmation, desperate for any solution which would allow him to walk away unfettered from this meeting. However he could only mutter a twist of words that no one comprehended, though all believed he was probably trying to say something affirmative.
At the boiling point, Max spoke to Lionel, who tried to wipe the sweat from his forehead with a gesture that would keep its purpose hidden. “And what if I don’t like this other lot? Wherever it turns out to be. What if I want my money back?
Carlotta had already forsaken any hope of that.
Lionel attempted to smile sympathetically but his mouth quivered and could form no such smile. He could only say, “That’s not possible I’m afraid. The money’s gone.” Max, not surprised, pressed further. “What about your aunt’s money?”
“Gone also. But please, no need to talk of money given back. I’m sure the lot in question must be close to the other on that hillside, and all the properties there have beautiful views.”
Max strained to keep it simple and direct. “But you’re not hearing me. What if I don’t like this new location? What if I don’t?”
Ramon raised his open hand off the table in a gesture that asked for their attention. He said, “Let me make a suggestion. We should hold off any discussion of money being given back until we know where the actual property is located. Who knows?–there is even the possibility– considering it’s in Rancho del Oro–that the property will be–Finer!–than the one you thought you’d purchased.” He glowed with optimism. “Or it could be way worse,” Carlotta said, for she had seen plenty of that kind too, even in Rancho del Oro. Her hand covered her eyes, drowning in dejection.
“We shouldn’t be thinking negatively,” said Ramon, refusing to look at her. “Please, let’s take this one step at a time. Let’s give Lionel’s new engineer a chance to locate the real property. And then we can talk about what we have, or don’t have. Isn’t that reasonable?”
Max stared hard at Ramon and said, “Reasonable or not is something else. But I’ll tell you–I’m damned unhappy about this.” Max turned to stare as hard at Lionel, who could barely return his look, and Max said, “And that goes for you too.”
Max turned to Alejandro Frances who sat next to him. Senor Frances had during all this kept his eyes respectfully downcast, graciously not wishing to call down by his own witnessing any greater shame on those responsible. The anger but not the agitation passed from Max’s face and he said in Spanish to the land baron Frances, “I’m sorry for the trouble we’ve caused you, Senor Frances. I see the property is yours. My men will stop working there.”
Senor Frances smiled at him so large with gratitude that Max was surprised and silenced from saying anything further. Senor Frances answered in the same language, “You are very kind, senor. I appreciate your honesty very, very much.” Then he folded his maps and deeds again to their portable sizes and placed them one by one back in his folder. Ready to leave he said to Max, “I wish you luck finding your property. If I may be of any assistance, please call me. Here is my number, I am at your service.” He handed him a card. He looked to the others as well and said, “And if I may be of assistance to any of you, please call me as well.”
“Oh yes, yes,” said Ramon, who was assisting Lionel to rise, who was happy he was out on his own recognizance. Confident Ramon spoke for his crippled accomplice: “And rest assured, all this will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.” He flashed them once more the handsome smile that he had ready for this quick getaway, and he ushered Lionel away.
Senor Frances rose to leave and wished Max and Carlotta well again, and thanked them for resolving the problem so graciously. “It does not always happen so, Senor Max, Senora Carlotta. And for that I thank you. My family thanks you.” And he departed.
Carlotta again covered her eyes with her hand and Max could not hear her crying; but he saw the steady rise and fall of her chest and he knew she hid her tears and he knew how complete was her misery.
Nothing really changed for weeks. Lionel and his new engineer passed on week to week to Ramon little maps that they’d told him were each probable locations of the disputed lot. Ramon likewise passed these on to Max and Carlotta, with smiles more and more feeble. Finally Max and Carlotta gave all their documents to a Mexican lawyer named Carmelo Delavaca of Chapala, a man thin and sleek, always in the best suits, a little moustache, a charming grin, who accepted their retainer and promised swift and certain justice. He assured them he had what was most important of all, the good connections.
Nonetheless, Max and Carlotta came to accept that the property was lost, though the money might be recovered. Max, however, admitted one last desperate strategy. He and Senor Frances met at a little sidewalk coffee shop in downtown Chapala where Max had invited him, prepared to be even extravagant in his offer to buy all of Section C.
As they sipped their coffees, however, Senor Frances told him it was no use, that the family soon would begin developing the property. Brother Federigo was an architect. Then he’d shown Max a surprising smile which Max had thought of as elven, for Alejandro’s eyes suddenly sparkled when he said, “My father told me and my brothers, many, many times–never sell, only develop. My father said there is only one thing worse than selling undeveloped property.” He winked. “But he never told us what that one thing was.”
Then he became again merely sympathetic and laid his arm across Max’s shoulders. “I understand how you feel and I truly wish I could help you. If it were only up to me, I might. But this selling land is a thing that always involves the entire family. You understand.”
Carlotta sighed and began looking again half-heartedly through each day’s new listings. A week more passed. Polly and Alfred were spending more and more afternoons at the big Cuevas property doing MexicoLimpio. Ramon was in Guadalajara again, doing who knew what, and it was left for Carlotta one Friday afternoon to close up the office. She afterward went to meet Max in the plaza for their twice a week lounge on the iron park benches in the village community living room, where they watched the locals come and go and sit and gossip.
Carlotta went up the little steps to the plaza and saw there were only a dozen or more Mexicans strolling the plaza or sitting. She saw Max on an iron bench, sitting beside Alejandro Frances. She sighed again remembering the beautiful property that wouldn’t be. Both men were laughing as they watched a little boy playing with an empty coke can. Max saw her and waved. She saw another man, perhaps another of the Frances brothers, on the bench next to Max.
Alejandro rose and made her the smile that already had endeared him to her. At the same time Max also rose, hugged her briefly and turned her toward the new Frances and said, “This is Oskar, Alejandro’s brother.” He rose to greet her; he too had the generous family smile. But unlike Alejandro’s conservative gray slacks and open-collared business shirt, Oskar wore levis and a bright short-sleeve with sunsets and palms waving. He seemed younger than his brother, though not much. They both had the identical bald head, the same long wispy hair sweeping left to right across the dome.
The men reseated, making room for her, but she preferred to stand. Alejandro spoke to her in a slow, calculated English, the first time she’d heard him use her language. “Good to see you again, senora. So pretty you look—Que bonita—as we say in our language.”
“Yes,” said jovial Oskar, in English no more polished than his brother’s, “you are ready to go to dinner with the mayor.” She laughed, believing it was the new hair color. “I dress this way to sell more houses. It’s what the gringos like.” She saw it amused them that she’d used that word. Alejandro said, “Max is telling me that you have still not discovered your mystery lot.”
She laughed again, that he’d found in English such a perfect word to describe it. “Yes–our mystery lot! I laugh, but I’m still angry. A lawyer is helping us. I hope he’s helping.” She hesitated, then decided to say it. “Ramon is making us deal with Lionel on our own. Says he can’t waste any more time on this because it’s not resolving quickly.” She stopped talking, took a deep breath, and tried to reassert her smile of a moment ago. She wouldn’t look at Max.
“Disgraceful,” spoke Alejandro shaking his head. “Unfortunately. I have seen this before in these real estate people. I never use them.” “Fine,” Max said, surprising her to hear a lilt of humor in his voice. “We’ll sue Ramon too, along with Lionel and the widow.” “Go ahead,” she responded with an avenging grin, “I wouldn’t care. I’m ready to quit.”
Alejandro placed his big hand on Max’s shoulder and said, “Let me speak to my brother Federigo. He is very resourceful, perhaps something can be done to help. I will call you in a few days.” They spoke a few minutes longer, but nothing that seemed memorable. Then the two brothers wandered away.
However, two days later Alejandro telephoned. Max at five minutes before eight in the morning had to take the call in the bedroom, naked and dripping from the shower as he tried to dry himself one-handed with a towel. Alejandro told him that the brothers had conferred and had agreed to sell them Section C. Brother Oskar in addition possessed a piece even bigger than Section C, though with a lesser view, but still very desirable. He would also sell that, well priced, if they wished it.
Carlotta stood beside him bouncing on her toes as she listened, knowing by some psychic osmosis exactly what was transpiring. When he put down the phone, his face stricken with astonishment, she shrieked for joy and couldn’t have stopped herself.
That same day they met Alejandro at brother Oskar’s village apartment to sign the sales agreement and to give the brothers the ten percent down. Two hours later they met with an accountant named Jesus Calzon, who explained to them the procedures for incorporation, and they signed the appropriate documents and they paid him his fees. Then Carlotta went four hours late to work and gave Ramon her notice to quit, thinly masking her gloat with a smile that was worthy of Ramon himself.