CHAPTER 1: Shifting Loyalties



Several times that day Fonzo regretted having dressed so thoughtlessly. Clothes that morning had seemed the least of his concerns. He’d put on the tan denim pants he’d worn all week and a favorite red and blue checked shirt that he would as usual not tuck inside his belt, to conceal the well fed stomach. He’d slipped on the black loafers he’d been wearing every day the last year. He’d shaved, combed his hair and brushed his teeth.

Thus attired, he’d climbed aboard the second class bus and rode it with the peasants and their poultry and produce. The bus had rumbled and chugged through Ajijic, where so many thousands of the gringos lived, and then along the lakeshore to San Juan Cosala, a mere forty minute ride of many, many stops from his aunt’s house in Chapala. Disembarked in San Juan Cosala, he had walked a rutted dirt road past fragrant cow pastures and alongside fields waist high in corn.

The surprise at the end of this road was the newly completed million dollar mansion of the americano businessman Alfred Ulster, where today Fonzo’s recent good fortune would either be multiplied, or it would be rudely smashed. And he was not optimistic. Clothes and appearance would have nothing to do with it. Probably nothing he did or could do would have anything to do with it.

However, when he saw Senor Alfred Ulster open the ponderous front doors of his great house, Fonzo had that day his first moment of regret. He had never seen Alfred looking so stylish. He wore a silver-gray coat and matching pants that had an expensive sheen to them. Fonzo had never seen material like that in any stores he’d ever shopped. He gawked at the lustrous sky-blue shirt, open at the throat, and at the pointy-toed, black shoes, shined to brilliance. Alfred’s face shined also, with a smug, rich smile. The longer Fonzo stared at him, the more he felt like a fat little wretch. The cards were already all against him: he would likely go down without a fight.

As Fonzo walked inside the palace, he stopped to behold the five meter tall windows which exhibited the sculpted and groomed gardens beyond, awash in green and every color of tropical flower in bloom. Fonzo’s curious, round eyes both lingered and drifted. No doubt the opulence entranced him. Yet even so, his attention was a fragile and flighty thing; it soon wandered away to more personal concerns, as it often did. He wondered again, as he had all morning, whether this mysterious invitation portended ill for him or good. Or how much of either. And would Fonzo’s secret partner be there, the tough little Senora Allen, who also worked with Alfred Ulster?

Alfred graciously guided the young man by the elbow toward the palatial living room. The lord of the manor extended a hand to show him that he might sit his peasant’s bulk on the creamy leather upholstery of the sofa. Fonzo sat self-consciously, unsure if it would be proper to let himself relax into the sumptuousness of it. He could not indeed finally believe it, and so he sat with back straight, glancing repeatedly at the vault of ceiling that made him feel as if he were a mouse in an auditorium.

Alfred reclined in the luxury of the Allizon fainting couch nearby, stretching his legs out before him, fingers interlaced upon the pretty blue silk of his chest. He nodded several times, just slightly, as if bestowing a gentle benediction on his guest, before he spoke. “Now, dear Fonzo, I’m sure you’ll see this interview will be beneficial to you. May I ask a few questions?”

Already realizing that any stratagems of his would be infantile and useless against this obviously superior man, Fonzo could only say, “Yes, sir, you may.”

At that moment Alfred’s partner Ramon entered the room and stood silently beside Alfred on his divan, deferring as he always must to his elder and greater. Ramon was also dressed smartly, in fine pressed white slacks and green silk shirt with little black stripes. He smiled brilliantly. That seemed to Fonzo to be the way with these genteel persons of the upper castes: always smiling, as if there were no end to the good news arriving daily.

Alfred blessed Fonzo again, this time with a little smile. “Very, very good. Now Fonzo, you get along well with Polly Allen, don’t you? I hope so, because as you know she’s my partner too.”

Fonzo was taken aback by this. He’d believed his own relation with Polly Allen was a secret no one must know; at least Polly Allen had always insisted that was so. But this Senor Ulster was knowing things unaccountably, and Fonzo realized then that this might be a trick question, so he resolved to tell the truth. “Yes, sir.” “Good. I thought so, and I’m pleased to hear you verify it. Now–we know you’ve been helping us all out with the water permits, and I want to take this opportunity to thank you. Personally. Very, very much.” Fonzo brightened at all this comradery and graciousness. Yes, this might be profitable after all. He thought to lean back at last, for the comfort; but then he thought it still too soon. He remained sitting upright and said. “I do my best. I’m glad you’re happy.” “How much does Miss Allen pay you? For each permit?”

Fonzo’s eyes widened, a little alarm flaring in him. He wasn’t sure how much a true answer would betray the senora. But then again, could he lie to the man who owned all this? And then, which side most deserved his loyalty? Once more he decided he ought to speak the truth, though he was unaccustomed to this strategy in crucial showdowns like this one. He said in a subdued voice, “Twenty dollars US, for each one.” Alfred hmmm’d agreeably: the master seemed pleased with this figure. Alfred continued interrogating. “These permits come because of your Uncle Sebastian–am I right?” Fonzo twitched: how could he know this about the uncle? However, there was no time to hesitate, to ponder; so Fonzo nodded. Yes, a nod was better. How could anyone hold him to a nod? “Does your uncle expect to be able to continue providing the permits?”

Fonzo hesitated a moment, but knew he had committed himself already beyond recall; he must nod again. “Well, that’s fortunate. And my last question. Does your uncle know the Frances brothers?”

Fonzo’s fleshy brow furrowed, puzzling this unexpected question. Fonzo answered,“Yeah, I’ve heard of them. So I guess my uncle has too. But I don’t know if he knows them or not. He probably does.” Then he smiled, the sly provider. “But I can find out for you. I can find out anything.” Alfred smiled, pleased with that. “Yes, I just bet you can. Well then Fonzo–I propose we make a radical change in all our dealings. The first thing I want to do is to give you a substantial raise. Henceforth, you will receive forty dollars US for each water permit you deliver to me.” Alfred paused to let this hook penetrate and take hold. Fonzo’s astonished and happy smile told him that this had been immediately accomplished. “Secondly, henceforth you will report directly to me—not to Polly Allen. I will tell her myself that I have made contact with someone in Obras Publicas who can get me all the permits I need. All you need say, when and if she asks you, is that you have no more influence, that someone new has taken over giving out permits. Do you understand that? You have no more influence. And someone new is in charge of giving permits.” Fonzo chewed the corner of his lip and agonized.

Alfred from his silk jacket pocket drew forth a thick fold of money and extended it to Ramon, who knew to take it and then hand it with a gracious, sly smile to Fonzo. Astounded, Fonzo stopped chewing. He was unsure if he might count it or not; but the wad enchanted him irresistibly and he did count it. Alfred anticipated him, saying, “Two hundred dollars US, Fonzo. A little gift to inaugurate our new arrangement. This will be apart from any permit payments. And–” he added, sounding the grand note–“I have another, bigger gift for you. If you introduce me to your Uncle Sebastian.” Turbulent emotions of great happiness and great fear confounded Fonzo utterly. He knew this could be fabulous, or it could mean the end of everything. He knew his most valuable asset was Uncle Sebastian. Not to be sold. To be milked. And milked. Fonzo feared the loss of this fabulous resource. But he feared this cagey gringo too. And most of all he feared giving up this splendid bundle of cash Alfred was tempting him with. Reading his mind precisely, Alfred withdrew another, thicker fold of money and extended this also to Ramon. His confederate rose again, took it, walked to Fonzo, smiling even more grandly than before, and handed it to their new ally. Without scruple Fonzo counted it. Five hundred US more! So be it then. He would have to take the chance that this gringo would not steal his uncle the cow. Fonzo slid the additional fold of bills into his pants pocket where the other had gone. He leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, his hands enjoined hanging limply between them. He spoke softly, solemnly, for he knew it was momentous. He hoped he would not regret it. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll introduce you. I’m your man.”