Desenredando rronteras (Unraveling Borders) by Héctor Duarte
In mid-April, Marc Zimmerman’s book of fiction, La penisola non trovata (trans. Marco Codebò), appeared in Italian as a special issue of the Milan-based journal Nuova Prosa. Dealing with Italian American and Italian encounters, adventures and reflections, with several Latin American/Latino connections, the book was presented in Milano May 17 and at the Torino International Book Fair on May 20 (see photos), with the English version, The Italian Daze, set to appear this fall. Meantime, Zimmerman’s still more recent book of fiction, Lines on the Border, featuring cover art work by Chicago’s Héctor Duarteand dealing with life and love on the San Diego/Tijuana border and beyond, appeared on April 29th, and is now available at Amazon. One story, appearing in both volumes, “The Last Laugh,” appeared in El BeiSMan before; here we present the only other story to appear in both volumes.
Only a woman like Marlena could turn what should have been a simple job interview trip to San Diego into a kind of Mexican border remake of that underground flick, Il Sorpasso. Only Marlena could use a time supposedly focused on improving Mel’s limited job prospects into a pretext for exploration, misadventure and near disaster. And this she did by simply saying she would not go with him or even consider moving from L.A. to San Diego if they didn’t use this job trip as a chance for her to reconnect with a former college friend, Helen.
For Mel all this was clear and so was his view that the friend was not the kind of she whose face would launch a thousand ships, but a rather ungainly woman in her mid-thirties who had recently and without doubt briefly corralled a very young and wiry, short and super-feisty Italian, Giulio, who was just raring to do something, perhaps out of boredom with his current and soon to be dumped Anglo-American lady love. And sure enough, Mel’s interview became less than a parenthesis, let alone a short sentence of its own; and before you knew it the two couples were off for the border with Giulio at the wheel of an almost mufflerless convertible four-seater version of some one’s Sci-Fi sports car. They headed east out of San Diego, passing El Cajon and up into the mountains, then turning south and crossing the border at Tecate and heading east once again. The goal was the Rumorosa highway between Tecate and Mexicali that Giulio had heard about and that he was crazy to try out with his crazy car.
At first only a bit daring out of respect for local police, Giulio jumped to his task as soon as the road began to rise and wind, throwing off his mask and growing at least a foot, to reveal himself as Il Sorpasso’s star, Vittorio Gassman, and suddenly letting out all stops as if he were racing in the Grand Prix. Within a few miles, the road revealed one incredible panorama after another. First one rockscape, then another scape and then another appeared just like those Mel had seen before on an earlier trip. But then, he had hardly observed anything but a blur; and now, whether he wanted to or not, he was able to see and focus on so much more, especially since the convertible top was down and the lives of all four passengers might well be up for grabs. And sure enough as Giulio stepped on it, Mel began to feel more and more as if the dashing if crude Italian and yes Italian-Jewish leading man of what seemed to be just a minor cult movie of the time might well become his own personal gas man after all.
Of course in some ways, it might seem that the highway and surrounding landscape, more than Giulio himself might be what would do them in, but in other ways, Marlena could easily prove more deadly than any Mexican road or Italian road king. All Mel could do was sit back and see who or what did what to what or whom.
First he saw the mammoth formations in which huge rocks sat on other, smaller ones making incredible, precarious caricatures of all God’s creatures. Once in a while a small rock fell on the road and it was obvious a big one could follow. At every curve in the road, another vista appeared and so did another possible danger, like a live or dead animal or a slow or stopped vehicle, or a bus or truck driver assuming the road was his and barreling down the center of the road or around a blind curve without even a horn beep for a warning. Then there were the cars, busses and trucks that were trying to pass other vehicles on one of those blind curves, looming before you while you figured which of two precipices you might want to flirt with.
To make matters worse, of course, Giulio insisted on the same approach to driving, but in spades. His favorite tactic was to ride just behind a car or truck in front of him, almost touching it as he blasted his horn demanding the vehicle move over, then making his move only to find himself in virtual confrontation with an oncoming car, and then tucking back in just in the nick of time—but always (was it a matter of honor?) passing first.
The warnings of his passengers meant nothing to him, nor did Marlena’s comments about Italian machismo being worse than Mexican. “You Italian American girls don’t know how to keep your place,” he called back to her. “Well this girl’s a woman, in case you’re not the kind of guy to notice. And my place is certainly not in this car with you,” she shouted back, though with the roaring muffler, the mountain wind and the drone and roar of the other vehicles dodging and being dodged by theirs, it was hard to imagine he heard a thing. But to launch a full-press attack about Italian males, starting with her father and hardly ending with Mussolini. “I’ve had to live with them all my life,” she complained. “And they’re all the same—even the sweet-talkers like Marcello Masticiolli,” she said, mockingly. “They’re all the same underneath, and the worst are the little guys like this one.” My father was another little guy, and he raised my younger brother to be a pig just like him—the two guys playing ball while I helped mom with the melanzana.” On and on she ranted, but Mel had heard the litany before and just kept his eyes on the rock formations. Suddenly Giulio slammed on the brakes, just averting a big rock as he swerved wide on a curve, just missing a bus coming the other way. Then he found himself amazingly behind a tar truck spraying its thick gunk on the road, and even spraying the front of his car and then his windshield so he could hardly see. “Che succede?” he shouted adding some expressions that sounded like ca-ca, cursing and fingering the tar truck driver as he whipped around him oblivious to any possible car that might be bearing down on him. “Figlio … puttana” are the words Mel thought he heard, and then something about Mama.
Coming to an overlook, Giulio jerked the car into a parking space; and instead of enjoying the spectacular view, he turned around to address Marlena directly. “Just so you know,” he said, “my English isn’t so strong and my car’s noisy, but I heard and understood everything you said.” “What part of Italy are you from anyway?” she asked. “The south,” he said, “near Naples.” “Just like I thought,” she said. “The men get worse as you head south.” “And where are your parents from?” he retorted. “My mother’s from Calabria, but my father’s from Abruzzi,” she answered. “Ah—you must be your mother’s daughter,” he said, laughing. “And who knows who your father was,” she returned.
“Probably from the south of Sicilia.” “Probably from the south of your mother’s ass,” Giulio said sneering and laughing, and with the most charming and almost innocent smile spreading across his face. And without another word, he started driving again, going around curve after curve.
Finally the road became less rocky, less curvy as they made their way down to the dusty valley, all the way into Mexicali. Hungry and thirsty, they parked their car, made it to a taquería, eating their fill and recovering as best they could from the nightmare ride. Marlena kept ranting about machistic Italian males and then males in general, as Helen listened without saying a word but growing tenser with each beer. Mel felt relieved to be left out until he realized where the conversation was going. “M is the least machistic male I’ve ever met,” Marlena said, as if in complement. “The only problem is, that makes him a wimp,” she said laughing and downing her beer. “She got you there,” Giulio chimed in. “See how women are? They complain about machos and that’s all they want. And who made us machos?” he asked and then answered, “Women! Our mothers and then our sisters—women like Marlena!” And with that he downed his taco leavings with a beer and ordered another round. In fact it was round after round of the beer; and when they finished, the two couples could hardly stand. And when they did, they staggered out of the restaurant and into the first noisy bar they could find on Mexicali’s ugly and dusty streets.
The bar was packed with single males, a scattering of couples, and a mass of bartenders and bargirls roaming all around, with musicians, dancers and comics in a constant flow on the stage. Mel and Marlena had traveled some in Mexico and Spain, so they understood something. But Giulio’s Italian gave him the edge, and, as was natural with him, he took over, choosing their seats and ordering the drinks for every one. They had gone now from beer to tequila and things were getting heavy. Marlena was pissed with his ways and let him know it at every turn. Helen kept trying to calm her down, going so far as to tell her she was making things difficult for her relation with Giulio as the day wore on. “Relation? How can you have a relation with a pig like him?” Marlena said, and Giulio just sneered back at her. “You’d be surprised,” he said, “And don’t make me spell it out for you.” As for Mel, he kept eyeing the bargirls and dancers, with one fantasy after another racing through his head, while Giulio glared at the women, clearly furious with Marlena and not too thrilled with Helen either as the gender wars continued and he seemed waiting to find a way to strike back big time. “Look at these two,” he said to Mel. “And all they want’s a dick in their pussies. All the rest is bullshit.” Mel wondered where he’d learned such elegant English, but he didn’t ask—nodding his head as he kept staring down the bar girls. “You think I didn’t hear you, don’t you,” Marlena said, slurring all her words together. “You think we’re dying to get fucked by little punks like you.” “Don’t judge the package by the wrapping,” Giulio retorted. “Oh yeah?” she said, “then show me.” Giulio got up as if to honor her request, beginning to take off his belt, when she stopped. “No, on second thought, forget it because I forgot to bring my magnifying glass.” All of them laughed; and Giulio sat down, ready it seemed to call a truce. But Marlena just had to stir the coals. “You know what?” she said, “You almost killed us on that road and you didn’t give a damn what we thought about it. You act like you’re super macho every minute, but you don’t even have the balls to make love to your own lady friend.” “What are you talking about?” Giulio answered. “I fuck her whenever I want.” “Oh whenever Mr. Peter needs a thrill, you do her a favor, is that right?” Helen protested, “Come on, Marlena, you’re going too far.” “Don’t shut me up, Helen,” she answered, “Look at these two bit bastards,” she brayed. “Here we are sitting and talking and all they’re doing is eyeing all the girls they’d love to fuck in the bar.” “Speak for yourself,” said Giulio. “As for me and your husband here,” he added. “We’re just fine here drinking our tequila, right?” he asked Mel. ”You’re right about that,” Mel said, lying through his teeth.” “Then how come my sweet husband’s looking at every one but me and with his little peter getting harder by the second?” “Well maybe first because he’s human and maybe second it’s because he’s with a bitch like you.” Mel said nothing, made no move. Was it possible he hadn’t heard the direct insult to his wife? In a flash Marlena slapped Giulio. In another flash, Giulio rose to slap her. And now Mel, playing the hero, stood up and took a poke at Giulio. But Giulio, tiny though he might be, was compact and dynamite. Playing Jake LaMotta to Mel’s Tony Zale, he launched a blow to Mel’s chin that sent him flying across the barroom and up against a table where two couples were trying to enjoy their evening out. “See what you’ve done now?” Helen said crying. “Me?” Marlena said. “You’re the one who chose this total jerk. I love you with my all my heart, but we’re with a pair of two-bit twerps—and I just won’t let them dump on us.” And with that she hugged Helen as to console her. Which is precisely why and when the bar manager stepped in and told Marlena directly that this was a respectable place and that in accord with regulation 6171856, they would have to leave. “You don’t talk to my wife like that,” Mel said in the best Spanish he could muster. “Lo siento mucho,” said the manager. “But we tolerate no scandals in this establishment.” Eyeing the manager’s backup, two enormous heavyset mugs ready to do their boss’s bidding, Giulio was the one who tried to restore reason, ushering them out of the bar. “It’s not worth fighting with these Mexicans,” he said with some contempt.
“This is really great,” said Mel when they hit pavement. “We’ve been kicked out of a whorehouse for being too disreputable.” “Maybe we should’ve fought it out with them after all,” Giulio muttered, “but we’d probably have ended in the hospital or jail.” “Sure,” Marlena chimed in. “Why should you fight with them when it’s more fun to punch a woman?” “Listen, paisana, I’m sorry. Please accept my apologies. I think the tequila just took us by storm.” “All right,” she said “But let’s get out of Mexico.” When they finally found their car, Helen insisted on driving. “I’m the only one who didn’t drink that much,” she said; and Giulio accepted her decision without a fight, moving into the passenger seat at her side.
`When they crossed the border, Giulio put his arm around Helen and started to massage her neck. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and whispered something in her ear. “Look at the love birds,” Mel whispered, but Marlena turned her head toward the window and fell asleep as far away from him as she could. When Helen finally dropped them off, Marlena gave her a kiss and said, “I’m sorry.” She even managed a good night to her favorite southern Italian.
Once in the house, Mel suggested she’d gotten a bit carried away and had maybe damaged one of Helen’s few love affairs. Marlena answered, “I hope so, but from the way they were cooing, it looks like I got them so stirred up, they’ll probably screw the rest of the night away. “ “And what about us?” Mel gently hinted. “As for me, I’m going to bed,” she replied. “And as for you, you can go stick your you know what up you know where.”
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his second book of fiction, Martín and Marvin.