Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The online debut of Jim Parks' Tucson novel!

 Dust Of The Earth

by Jim A. Parks


No one in Tucson was especially surprised to hear of the death of Raul Castelleno. He had been a successful criminal defense lawyer for many years but was also suspected of being connected to the Mexican Mafia. He had defended several prominent Mexican drug lords and rumor had it that he had become a kind of consiglieri for them.
What did surprise the citizens of our desert town was the manner of Castelleno's death. He had been dismembered in a particularly brutal fashion -- blood and shreds of flesh covered the walls of his office where he had been working late on the evening of his murder. Though the police had toned down their description of the scene, rumors began to spread that Castellano had been attacked by a large animal of prey rather than a human. Some thought that the Mexican mobsters had used a pack of dogs.
Passing much less noticed was the death of Pedro Luis Martin, the father-in-law of Castellano, who had died the same evening. The elderly Don Pedro had expired from heart failure. Detectives theorized that the mobsters had visited the palatial Castellano residence -- where Don Pedro also lived -- and had scared the old man to death. The old man was untouched, however, which was the source of much speculation among the inhabitants of the old barrios of Tucson. Don Pedro had the reputation of being something of a brujo or sorcerer. He was reclusive and mysterious, and many thought that the mobsters hadn't dared to touch the old man because of his magical powers.

There was indeed something magical about Don Pedro, but to me it had to do with the breadth of his knowledge and the generosity of his spirit. I had known him for several months prior to his death. During that time he became a kind of mentor to me, though I never felt like I was being taught. He was a great storyteller. Some of the stories were about his past, while others were about history and ideas. I would ask to know more about these subjects and Don Pedro would send me home with a few books from his capacious library. 

I was nineteen at the time and nearly thirty years have now passed. Back then I spent most of my time in downtown Tucson, a refugee from the colorless suburban neighborhoods that had sprung up after World War II. My own family lived in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of town. I was the only child of a doctor and a teacher, a culture-less white boy looking for some kind of authenticity on the bad side of town. I wasn't alone. Artsy counter-cultural types had discovered the dilapidated downtown area as well. Hippies and homeless Viet-Nam vets had walked these streets in the early 1970s, and later in that decade, when the Castellano murder had taken place, the punk-new wave scene was getting started in seedy bars that were occupied by blue collar drunks during the day.

It was love that led me to Don Pedro -- or infatuation, I suppose. One afternoon I had seen his teenage granddaughter coming out of Cele Peterson's on Pennington Street. Cele Peterson's was one of the few clothing shops that hadn't abandoned downtown for the malls. I found out later that the granddaughter had been doing modeling for the store. She was accompanied by a stern middle-aged Mexican woman. Following behind was a tall strongly-built man wearing a business suit in which he seemed uncomfortable. He had the features of a Mexican with predominantly Aztec blood. I learned later that the woman was an aunt and the permanent chaperone of the girl in public, while the man was a kind of chauffeur and bodyguard. He drove the girl to school -- Salpointe, a private Catholic school -- and accompanied her anywhere else she might need to go. At home, he looked after the needs of the wheelchair-bound Don Pedro. He was also mute as a stone.

I followed the odd threesome from a distance, fascinated by the beauty of the girl. She seemed piercingly sad to me - lonely in spite of or more likely because of her constant companions. They turned left on Stone Avenue and then left again on Congress Street. Some of the businesses were still open in those days -- a barber shop from which wafted cigar smoke, a shoe shine stand run by an old black man named Jackson, and Thrifty Drug, which was their destination. I waited for maybe ten minutes. They came out of the drug store with 25-cent soft-serve ice cream cones - treats that made Thrifty a popular place after the neighborhood schools let out.

Some of the sadness seemed to have left the girl. She worked on her ice cream cone as she strolled down the sidewalk, smiling and greeting many of the people she passed. She was evidently well known to many. There was much tipping of hats from the elderly gentlemen who still wore them, and many of the children greeted her with a hug. The aunt's expression lightened somewhat as she took delicate licks from her cone, but the tall Indian remained serious as he fought a losing battle with his dripping ice cream.

They continued to walk west on Congress, but as the crowds thinned out I began to feel conspicuous. I tried to stop and look in store windows or read fliers on phone poles, but eventually I came to the attention of the vigilant bodyguard. I was maybe thirty feet away when he stopped and turned to look at me. There was something hawk-like about his face as he peered at me. It wasn't that I felt afraid or threatened. I simply felt this compulsion to turn around and walk the other way - which I did. He had a powerful gaze.


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