When he was younger Carlos rode the bull and in this he still found much pride, especially when talking to pretty girls who looked at him as he bragged of his exploits with something akin to awe sparking a widening of their pupils as they smiled and caressed the skin on his arm while holding his hand in theirs very lightly and long.
Now, he washed dishes. Sometimes, when drudgery set in and the day seemed to draw out like a hundred years the white stacks of plates and endless gray trays of dirty silverware appeared to Carlos as wild stallions frolicking in the morning mist of his homeland far to the south.
"I must leave this place and go el norte," Carlos announced to his mother on a brilliant winter day in the middle of July when the sun shined so brightly on the newly-fallen snow it hurt his eyes to go out of doors without his sunglasses. Of course he said this in Spanish and of course his mother cried to see him leave. Yet neither did she attempt to sway him. "I will send money home to you so that father may get well again."
He grew up on the Salado River deep in the Andes Mountains of Argentina where his father raised prized bulls on a thousand acre ranch situated in a high green valley that spun itself into one giant flower each spring. A calamity befell his family when the old man became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor over a few acres of land and arrived home shot through the stomach carried on a make-shift stretcher by a ranch hand who found him bleeding profusely next to the neighbor who lay dead with a bullet hole through the head.
His father didn't know Carlos rode the bull or he might have done his best to forbid it. But the old man had been shot and lay lingering close to death for many months after and his mother wrung her hands over bills coming due with no money to satisfy them, so Carlos took to the rodeo to help make money for the family though he'd just turned fifteen.
"Montar toros!" the crowd called out the day Carlos mounted the bull, an angry mass of meaty muscle that bucked so badly when he climbed on its back in the holding pen that his right knee dislocated and popped back in just as quickly… he didn't notice the pain until much later. When he fell in the dusty corral and the red-eyed beast bore down on him with bloody horns and a singular purpose colorfully dressed clowns leaped to his aid, one hurrying him to the sideline while the others distracted the raging bull to give Carlos that instant of escape.
Afterwards the owner of the rodeo praised Carlos while filling his hand with crisp pesos assuring him there would be plenty more if he returned the following week but when he showed up the policemen turned him away saying the man had been operating without a permit and had been arrested and if he knew anything it would certainly be better to speak up or risk the same. Carlos ran away. The policemen called out for him to stop following him a short distance with pistols drawn but gave up the chase when he entered the Plaza de Mayo seeking refuge in a rug hut until the owner angrily tossed him out.
Knowing the police were bound to show up at the ranch seeking him, Carlos left the next morning with some home-cooked empanadas folded in a handkerchief and a fistful of coins pressed into his hand by his mother who held him a long while and then turned away as he left his home never again to return.
The Indians in Central America fed him eriba giving him a place to sleep as he passed through their towns one by one on his march north. Sometimes a pretty girl might take him in her arms and lull him with her beauty and soft breasts into thinking of staying but he knew his mother awaited his assistance back home and so he would leave them to their tears and continue on.
Traveling through Mexico banditos waylaid him taking the few coins he had left in his pockets and forcing him to hand over his fine hand-made Argentine boots leaving Carlos to walk a hundred miles barefoot over the Sonoran desert stumbling over creosote bush that left his skin sticky and prickly pear that drove their needles deep into the soles of his feet causing him to limp so badly that many times he thought of sitting down and dying.
Crossing the Rio Grande into Arizona proved easier than he ever thought… the water but a tepid trickle and the fence breached in many places and the night starless black. Coming into the United States for the first time he happened upon an encampment of immigrants such as himself huddled together under a jumping cholla that did little to hide them from view but Carlos sensed it made them feel better all the same. The Mexican men laughed when they saw his ragged condition and told him that's why they paid a coyote to take them across the desert but the women were kind to him plucking the thorns from his feet and dressing his wounds in rags they tore from their own clothing and feeding him tortillas and a thin gruel of beans that tasted wonderful.
Now after working many years washing stacks of wild stallions and each week sending home most of his meager paycheck to his mother who always wrote needing more, at night Carlos dreamed of the bull… a sullen heaving menace moving under him lurching with an urgency only attributable to a great hate and malice… dreaming of how the crowd cheered "Montar toros!" as he held one hand high in the air to keep his balance while holding onto the stiff rope wrapped about the bull's torso with the other hand feeling it bite into the flesh of his palm until he no longer knew which bled the more, him or the rope.
"Come to my cousin's horse farm with me this weekend," Marissa urged him, her dark eyes aflame in the candlelight that illuminated the bedroom where they lay her long black hair cascading down to her waist covering her breasts that rose and fell with each breath she took. "You work too much. You need a day off."
Marissa waitressed at the café where Carlos worked and it pained him to see Antonio squeezing her buttocks and nuzzling her neck when they divvied up the tips at night but she explained that since he ran the café there was nothing she could do but to acquiesce to his unwanted advances and hope they'd go no farther. Carlos thought how he might lay in wait for Antonio and challenge him but the man stood much larger than he with tree trunks for arms so he did nothing, hating himself for his meekness.
"They have horses?" Carlos said, feeling silly as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Of course a horse farm would have horses. He spoke quickly to cover his faux pas. "I rode a bull but never a horse."
"You did not."
"Oh but I did," Carlos said with pride swelling his voice.
"Well then… riding a horse will be no problem for you, caballero… you must show me your wonderful skills," she teased him, poking him in the ribs and causing him to loudly pass the gas he'd been attempting to hold in so as not to embarrass himself.
The horse ranch proved very fine with an enormous white house that stood in the center of many corrals with a half dozen red barns dotting the estate. Marissa took Carlos by the hand leading him down to an enclosure where five cowboys sat on a fence observing one of their comrades attempting to ride a bucking wild horse. They stood a moment watching as the horse bucked the man off into the dust and how he scampered away so as not to be trampled when the animal tried running him down.
As they walked to where the men sat the cowboys all began whistling at Marissa and hooting her name and Carlos felt his blood begin to boil as she let go of his hand going to where they sat greeting each by name and kissing them while enduring their embraces the way she endured Antonio's at the café.
"I could ride that horse," he heard a voice say before he realized it had been he who spoke the words. "I rode a bull. A horse is no problem for a man who has ridden a bull."
"Marissa, darling!" said the cowpoke who had just been thrown from the horse and who now walked over close to the fence taking the girl in his arms and kissing her deeply and tenderly for all to see before looking at Carlos. "Is this silly fellow with you?"
"Carlos, this is John," Marissa said, still ensconced in the cowboy's arms that looked to be made of sprung steel and corduroy. "We go way back… he's my cousin, well… sort of. This is his place."
"I could ride that horse," Carlos repeated, not knowing what else to say to save his pride from crumbling altogether in front of these men who eyeballed him up and down and shook their heads to one another with grins that betrayed their intent toward the girl that he loved.
"Give it a go," John offered, opening the gate a crack and winking at the other cowboys. "She's all yours, Carlos."
"Don't," Marissa said, coming to Carlos now and holding him the way she'd just been holding John and the rest of the cowboys. She nearly convinced him, like the Indian girls in Central American had almost induced him to stay with them before he broke away. "Let's go riding on the tame horses, me and you, together… don't go out there… that horse is too wild, too mean. You cannot ride her. No one can ride her."
"You will see," Carlos said, shaking himself loose of her grasp. "I have ridden the meanest bull in all of Argentina… this horse is nothing compared to him. Watch me… I will show all of you."
"Caballero," John called out, throwing him a length of rope. "You'll need this. If you can get close enough to tie it around her neck, you might get a chance at riding her. But she's an ornery one… she'll stomp you if she gets a chance and she'll bite you in the ass to boot."
Carlos talked softly to himself as he walked toward the horse. The cowboys on the fence had disappeared now and Marissa and John too. Only the horse existed. She stood with nostrils flared watching him with wild black eyes alive with the knowledge of his weakness and her strength.
"Whosa, whosa, whosa," he said, nonsense words to calm his jangled nerves… to calm hers as well. Her eyes watched his lips as they moved and her ears perked at the sound of his voice. "Whosa, whosa, whosa."
The looped rope slipped easily over her head and when she started away he spoke to her again, softly, letting her get used to hearing his voice… allowing her to become used to feeling the tug of the rope on her massive neck. She seemed a fine beast, as fine as the bull he had once ridden and Carlos thought how he might have a new dream to dream at night and how Marissa would leave all the others and cling only to him once she had seen how he could ride.
He leaped onto the horse's back the way he had seen cowboys do in the movies… an instant later the ground rushed up at him with amazing and disconcerting speed. Carlos heard a sound not unlike a tree branch snapping under the weight of a heavy foot. When he tried to raise himself from the dust where he lay his body did not respond. He heard rather than felt the horse stomping his mid-section a few seconds before hands dragged him toward the safety of the other side of the fence.
"His neck's broke," John said, standing over him while Marissa knelt by his side with tears rolling down her cheeks and her hair mussed from a breeze that blew out of the south. It smelled of Argentina. Carlos wondered momentarily why he no longer needed to breathe, thinking he had discovered some great truth heretofore unknown not only to him but to humanity in general. Gradually as he watched Marissa's face hovering over him, a darkness gathering on the periphery of his vision overtook him and he dreamed of riding that bull once again with shouts of the crowd filling his ears.