The morning after meeting Juanito Villalobos, Héctor, throwing Dr. Spock’s strictures to the wind, put his foot down when Dubya demanded to be taken to the Lion Habitat immediately after the family’s return from breakfast at McDonald’s. His patience was suddenly at an end. Although the Habitat itself was free, the Villas’ suite by now was overpopulated with a collection of expensive stuffed lions in varying sizes, from Metro to something hardly bigger than a rat. AveMaría and Contracepción, both of whom had plans of their own for the day, were similarly disinclined to spend it hanging around a zoo exhibit, however elaborate. In response to being denied lions, Dubya threw a temper tantrum and had to be shut in the bathroom until he got control of himself, while Héctor made his escape under cover of the confusion. Let the women trade the kid off between them for the rest of the day: He’d done his duty, and more, since their arrival in Las Vegas. ¡Vivo jo! Héctor assured himself happily, as he strode from the elevator and across the hotel lobby in the direction of the casino, close by the entertainment dome.
He was hurrying past the entrance to the Lion Habitat when an unpleasantly familiar voice called his name. Héctor turned and saw Juanito Villalobos following behind him, in uniform and carrying a broom on his shoulder. He considered cutting him and found he hadn’t the heart to be rude to the typo, after all, despite having determined overnight to decline the offer of drinks this evening.
“¡Eh, compadrito! ¿Cómo está? And where is your little boy today, amigo? He has lost interest in my beautiful lions so soon?”
Héctor sighed. Would he never have time alone in which to enjoy his much-needed and better-deserved vacation?
“The kid’s with his mom this morning,” he said shortly, “and I’m on my way to have a little fun, myself.”
Juanito’s sly grin spread nearly as wide as his broad, pockmarked face. “Ciertamente, hermano. It is safer that way than to hire a babysitter—much. You know where your wife is, but she knows nothing of where you are!”
Héctor began to be nervous. The thought of what Juanito implied made him feel compromised, dirty, and insecure, at risk of some vague catastrophe.
“My wife doesn’t care what I do,” he said defensively, “so long as I don’t go in the hole more than a couple hundred dollars.”
“It seems you have a good wife,” Juanito observed, knowingly. “Better than most. For some women, even a cocktail waitress is cause for jealousy. And so, tonight, we have a good time together! Guys’ night out—eh, compadrito?”
“Sure,” Héctor agreed, helplessly. It was the only thing he could think of to say.
In the casino, he won $105 at blackjack and forced himself to quit while he was ahead. For some reason—the Poop-scooper from the Lion Habitat perhaps had something to do with it—Héctor did not feel justified in trusting his luck today. Also, he was anxious not to be away too long: AveMaría and Contracepción by now would be wanting a break from Dubya, in order to go shopping at the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. (Anticipating an SOS from his wife before now, he’d turned off the cell phone he wore on his belt.) There was just time, Héctor decided, for a stroll along the Strip and a quick lunch (reuben sandwich and a margarita) at New York, New York before he returned to the hotel room, where he found Contracepción minding Dubya while she watched The Bachelor on TV. “I can’t believe he gave her the rose!” she was shrieking as her father let himself in. “Papá, where have you been all morning? Mamá went out two hours ago to play the slot machines, leaving me all by myself with Dubya, who’s been such a brat! Nothing but lions, lions, lions—you’d think we were on a safari or something! Please can I go now, Papá? We’re going home in only four days, and I haven’t got to see or do anything I wanted yet in Vegas! I feel like it hasn’t been any vacation for me at all, hardly! Puh-lease, Papaíto!”
So Héctor spent yet another afternoon with Dubya at the Lion Habitat, keeping his eyes peeled the whole time for Juanito Villalobos. Nothing but trouble could come from associating with a hombre like that. It was Héctor’s firm intention to confront Villalobos and tell him face to face he preferred to spend the evening in the company of his wife and family. But the keeper must have had the afternoon off, or perhaps he was away poop-scooping behind the scenes somewhere. One way or another, Héctor went upstairs at five without having caught a glimpse of Juanito Villalobos.
That evening, the Villas ate an early supper at the International House of Pancakes. Back in the MGM, they held a family conclave to decide how the rest of the evening should be spent. To Héctor’s disgruntlement, the hotel failed to offer childcare facilities, meaning Dubya had to go everywhere with the adults (when they were not going everywhere with him). Héctor was greatly relieved not to find a message waiting from Juanito Villalobos and was beginning to hope the keeper might fail to follow through with his offer of a drink. Contracepción was clamoring to be allowed to attend a Bon Jovi concert in the Grand Garden Arena, while AveMaría was keen on seeing David Copperfield at 7:30 at the Hollywood Theater, provided they allowed Dubya in with her. Héctor himself would have liked to take in a boxing match between Jesús Chavez and Marco Antonio Barrera farther down the Strip. When, however, he learned that tickets to hear Bon Jovi began at $52 and David Copperfield cost a flat $97, Héctor determined to deny himself the indulgence ($450-$475) and apply the money he’d made at blackjack that morning to subsidizing the girls’ evening on the town. Indeed, the more he considered the matter, the more it seemed to him the responsible thing to return to the gaming tables that evening and replenish his depleted, if not quite bankrupt, pocketbook. This meant hiring a babysitter through the front desk, which would cost him big bucks. On the credit side, though, it would free him up to make those bucks. It was a gamble, of course. But what was he here to do, in the first place, if not to gamble?
On learning she was going to be allowed to hear Bon Jovi after all, Contracepción threw her arms around her father and kissed him on both cheeks, Mexican style, squealing with delight at the prospect of getting to unveil her new belly-button ring at a Vegas rock concert. AveMaría, stricken with guilt at the thought of abandoning her baby to a stranger for the evening, was more subdued in her enthusiasm. (“At least, she’s sure to be Méjicana,” she consoled herself.) In the end, Héctor phoned the front desk and arranged the procurement of a babysitter at the rate of $15 per hour ($20 after 10 P.M.). Then, after instructing them to look for him at the blackjack tables in the casino after the shows let out, he left the women to primp and preen in the bathroom while he descended to the lobby, eager to make an immediate start in his quest for financial solvency. Walking out through the elevator doors, he collided frontally with Juanito Villalobos walking in.
“¡Ay, compadrito!” the Poop-scooper exclaimed. “¡Tal coincidencia! I was just on my way up to your room in search of you. You had not forgotten I have promised to buy you a drink tonight—no? You have eaten already I think? ¡Bueno! So have I, hermano. We can drink all the more now, without getting picked up by the policía, or the f–king migra—¡salos cochinos!”
Holding Héctor under the elbow in a familiar way, Juanito steered him into the casino and between the tables up to the bar, where the two men seated themselves on tall stools facing the long array of bottles and taps presided over by two strong-looking tawny blondes, alike enough to be sisters and with the bold predatory faces of a pair of exceptionally handsome lionesses. Juanito Villalobos pulled a leather trucker’s wallet, attached by a chain to his hand-tooled belt, from a back pocket of his jeans and fingered out a few grimy dollar bills.
“Héctor!” he invited, in the grandiose manner of an alcalde bestowing upon an illustrious visitor the keys to his city, or a mafia don exhibiting his kingdom to a favored lieutenant, “I will treat you to anything you care to drink—beer, whiskey, tequila, anything! Please order freely, compadrito! You are a big man in America, after all—a success story! I feel honored just to share a drink with a jefe like you, Señor Héctor Villa!”
Héctor felt slightly sickened. He was trapped, unless he had the stomach to refuse the man’s generosity, however unwanted—and he didn’t have it, he knew. All he could do, in the circumstances, was accept the offer of a drink with as good grace as he could muster, leave Villalobos with a reciprocal round, and find himself a place at the blackjack tables as quickly as possible. It was all very embarrassing and annoying, ciertamente. Also, it was the civilized thing to do.
For a sub-keeper, or maintenance man, at what was basically an upscale zoo, Juanito Villalobos was a sharp dresser, Héctor thought, taking in the polished yellow cowboy boots and pressed powder-blue pants, the black-and-white checked shirt with its spread collar, and the Indian silver necklace weighing heavy on his brown collarbone. He was tempted to order Napoleon brandy but compromised with Crown Royal instead. Villalobos nodded approvingly.
“You know how to live, compadrito—anyone can see that,” he said. “So, Héctor! What you do for a living when you ain’t fighting the gringos or getting yourself elected to something?”
When Héctor explained that he owned a computer-repair company, Villalobos looked attentive.
“How many men you got working for you?” he wanted to know.
“Just me. My wife helps with the billing some.”
“Maybe you need a bodyguard, next time you run for office?”
“I’m through with politics. I thought I mentioned that.”
Juanito Villalobos nodded, as if to say he’d heard that one before. “That’s what they all say. I’m going to go ahead and write down my address and phone number on a piece of paper, hermano,” he added. “You think you can use me, just let me know. Us mojados owe it to each other to stick together, up here in El Norte. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life picking up behind the ass-end of a bunch of mangy, flea-bitten cats. Can you believe they f–king shampoo the goddamn things every single day?”
Héctor, impatient as he was to get down to work at the tables, called for a second round of drinks so as to leave the bill even-steven. When they came, Villalobos asked the nearest lioness to bring the cigar box, from which he carefully selected two thick and long Bances.
“One for me, one for you,” he explained, laying one of the cigars on the wood beside Héctor’s balloon glass. Then he beckoned the girl closer and leaned across the bar to whisper something in her ear. She nodded distantly and went away again.
“This is a night to celebrate,” Juanito Villalobos proposed, holding a plated lighter under the end of Héctor’s cigar. “Tonight, I have found my compinche for life.”
Héctor had smoked half his cigar already before he remembered cigar smoke gave him a headache. The smoke, combining with two stiff Crown Royals, made a vague space where his brain ought to be—especially tonight, when solvency would depend upon its utmost strength and capacity. In his distraction, he scarcely noticed when a pair of young women approached the bar and took a stool on either side of himself and the Poop-scooper. Both girls had on hip-huggers exposing their beringed navels, flimsy camisoles, and so much makeup they looked like patrons who’d forgotten to remove their facials before leaving the spa.
“Hi,” the girl next to Héctor said. Startled, he turned sideways in time to see her take a sip of his drink. “I have a thing for Crown Royal guys,” the girl said. “But I always drink Napoleon, myself,” she added to the hovering lioness.
Héctor was too astounded to speak. On his opposite side, Juanito Villalobos and the other girl were already getting to know each other while her drink was being poured.
“You don’t need to be shy just because you’re Mexican,” his girl said. “I wasn’t raised to be prejudiced.” As if to prove it, she hitched herself onto his lap, threw one arm about his neck, and reached with her free hand to accept her balloon from the lioness.
A piercing shriek from across the room was sufficient to penetrate Héctor’s mind, even in its present condition of shock and befuddlement. Looking around the girl in his lap, he saw AveMaría plunging toward them across the room, her capacious handbag brandished above her head. His first thought was that the thing was impossible; David Copperfield could hardly even have started yet. He had no other thought beyond that one, and no memory later of bucking the girl off and dashing headlong between the card tables and the astounded dealers in the direction of the nearest EXIT sign. The house police caught up only a few yards from the doors, bringing him down with a flying tackle on the carpeted floor among the discarded bar tickets and cigarette butts.