Héctor Villa did not feel disposed to take phone calls this morning. He was at work outdoors, gilding a large piece of driftwood he and Jesús “Eddie” Juárez had retrieved from a sandbar in the Rio Grande between Contreras and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge and brought home in Jesús “Eddie”’s pickup truck for display in the side yard of his house, where he hoped it would not attract too much notice from passers-by. Pleasingly tortured in shape, in which it vaguely resembled a steam shovel with the crane bent backward over the cab, the wood’s appearance struck Héctor as significantly enhanced by its coat of gold and bronze paint. Intent on finishing the job, he’d pretended not to have heard AveMaría when she called to him the first time from the back door. She called twice more again before he saw her rounding the corner of the house with Dubya on one arm and the cell phone in her free hand.
“¡Héctor! ¡Fónica llamada! Are you deaf?” AveMaría protested, between puffs.
“Some Anglo, a Mr. Domenici.”
“Tell him I’m not at home.”
“I can’t; I already told him you are.”
Héctor, seeing she’d left the line open while they spoke, gave up and snatched the phone from her hand.
“Hello, Mr. Villa? Pete Domenici here. ¿Cómo está?”
Pete Domenici . . . ? The name had a familiar ring to it, like Tommy Hilfiger or Chef Boyardee.
“That’s Senator Domenici, calling from Washington. ¿Ingles o Espagnol, compadrito?”
“English is okay,” Héctor replied, confusedly, before he remembered Pete Domenici was Mexican on his mother’s side. Or would that be Bill Richardson, the governor?
“English it is, then,” the senator assured him. “Listen, hombre, I’m not the hombre to beat around the bush. I’m sure you heard of the tragic death in June of Alberto Torres, the incumbent Republican U.S. representative renominated in the primary for New Mexico District 1, when his car was T-boned in June by one of those Mexican semis up here driving without brakes. Well, the state GOP wants to appoint you to run for his seat in November! How about it, compadrito? You’ve got name recognition like César Chavez—or, for that matter, Pancho Villa, ha-ha! Your opponent would be Tomasina Luna, a schoolteacher from Los Lunas who’s in like Flynn with the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico and once invited Hillary Clinton to her house for homemade chiles rellenos. You can’t lose for winning, amigo. You aren’t going to let us down in a crisis, now—are you?”
Héctor, as he listened, felt his initial astonishment turning to anguish and despair. Since his run-in on the border with the Minutemen the previous June, his hitherto quiet life had been transformed by publicity and other unwanted attention into that of a minor regional celebrity. The story of an innocent Mexican-American citizen harassed and threatened on reentry into his adopted land by a gang of white-skinned, gray-haired, potbellied, racist vigilantes with guns had made him a victim-hero overnight, an emblem of persecution throughout the Southwest—the Borderlands area, in particular. Héctor wasn’t enjoying the life of a celebrity, while the manner in which his unfortunate experience had been exploited seemed to him basically un-American. Besides—
“I’m authorized to say the White House is asking you to run as a personal favor to President Bush,” he suddenly heard Senator Domenici saying. “By the way—are you really a descendant of Pancho Villa?”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” A Democratic president had said that, but it seemed to Héctor Villa it might just as well have come from the mouth of “W,” who only recently had pleaded for Americans to make sacrifices on behalf of the Iraq War. And so, feeling like a sacrificial goat himself, he’d agreed in the end to run for office against Tomasina Luna, who’d been Contracepción’s homeroom teacher last year at Belen Junior High.
The Villa women, somewhat to Héctor’s surprise, had reacted enthusiastically to the news of his candidacy. Contracepción crowed that she’d get even at last with Mrs. Luna—the old bag who’d refused to allow her to sit in class until she removed the SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbon pinned to her T-shirt—when Papá kicked her butt in the election, while AveMaría immediately announced her determination to lose 25 pounds and refurbish her wardrobe entirely before the campaign got under way after Labor Day. And when Contracepción understood that her parents were going to be involved in a major multimedia campaign, including statewide TV appearances and candidate tours with rock bands along, she demanded to be withdrawn from school for the entire fall semester. In the face of all this, Héctor kept his peace, though he could have wished for a better start to a long and tiring campaign that everyone seemed to expect would be ugly as well. He was acquainted with Tomasina slightly, which was all he’d ever aspired to be. An oversized, bossy woman, with an appetite for power as well as chiles rellenos and a brassy voice that was reputed to shiver the plaster saints each Sunday morning at Our Lady of Belen Church, Tomasina was not the sort of woman Héctor looked forward to having as an enemy. In fact (the thought occurred to him), he’d rather have the formidable Luz Corral mad at him, any day—maybe even The Centaur himself.
For better or worse, however, Héctor was now a candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and, as such, so he’d been led to believe, in dire and immediate need of a campaign manager. The party functionaries in Santa Fe had promised him they were trying to find a suitable replacement for Torres’ man, who’d been killed in the crash along with his boss, but Héctor was convinced he could do better himself. Less than 48 hours after his conversation with Senator Domenici, he phoned Jesús “Eddie” and offered to treat him to as many beers as he could get down if he’d agree to meet with him that evening after supper at the Taberna Aztlán. He was facing the crisis of his life, Héctor explained, and stood in need of the kind of advice and help that only the closest of friends could give. Jesús “Eddie” had planned on accompanying his wife to a bingo game in the basement of Our Lady of Belen that evening, but he loyally assured Héctor he’d be present at the taberna in half an hour’s time. The only crisis he could imagine likely to befall the Villa family was Contracepción’s getting pregnant, and Jesús “Eddie” was keen to hear the salacious details of her fall from virtue.
When Héctor arrived at the Taberna Aztlán, Jesús “Eddie” had been waiting a quarter of an hour already while he drank beer, ate buttered popcorn, and watched a baseball game on one of three wide-screen TVs. The set was surrounded by a halo of the popcorn Jesús “Eddie” flung at the screen each time a player for his team struck out or missed the ball. Héctor, who had no interest in baseball (guiltily, he much preferred soccer), led him away to his favorite table by the window looking out on Highway 47, where he half expected to witness one of the fiery head-on collisions graphically described, every week or two on average, in the Albuquerque Journal. He noticed Jesús “Eddie” brought his bar tab along with him to be added to the overall bill when Héctor was ready to pay up at the end of the evening.
“So, what’s your cri-sis, amigo?” Jesús “Eddie” demanded, as soon as the girl had left to place their order.
Héctor, attempting President Bush’s gravitas, felt he’d achieved John Kerry’s constipated look instead.
“I’ve decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said.
Jesús “Eddie” stared like a dog that’s just heard a tomcat roar like a lion.
“I’m running for Congress, District 1, here in Belen.”
For all his astonishment, Jesús “Eddie” was more disappointed still. So he wasn’t going to hear about the impregnation of Contracepción, after all.
“You loco, or some-thing?” he demanded.
Héctor had been impressed by Senator Domenici’s directness on the telephone. Big-league politicians, apparently, did not beat around the bush.
“I’m not the kind of hombre to beat around the bush, hombre,” he said in a stern voice. “I want you to serve as my campaign manager, starting in September after Labor Day.”
“You are loco, compadre,” Jesús “Eddie” told him, pityingly. “You don’t know no more about politics than the Pope knows about love.”
“But you do! You ran for school board last year.”
“And just look how that turned out!” Jesús “Eddie” was about to say, but didn’t. His defeat in that election by the Anglo candidate was still, ten months later, a sore point with him.
“Even if you did get creamed, you have experience now. Plus, you have a friend at city hall—you know, the guy that let you use the postal-stamp machine for almost nothing.”
But Jesús “Eddie” heard his friend with only one ear now. He was thinking. This whole business of Héctor running for election in the First District didn’t add up for him. Something was out of kilter—wrong. And then, suddenly, it came to him.
“You can’t run for the First, hombre! They already have a candidate—Tomasina Luna! She won in the prim-ary last month. Anyway, you don’t want to get crossways with Tomasina, the fat bruja! That one could eat Bill Clinton for breakfast and pick out the scraps with a tooth-pick! Just think what she’d do with a babe-in-the-woods like you, amigo!”
Héctor sighed. He was trying hard to be patient. “Tomasina is the Democratic candidate. I’m the Republican one.”
Jesús “Eddie” set his bottle down with a bang on the formica tabletop.
“You? A His-panic? A Re-pub-lican? In New Mex-ico?”
Héctor, to his surprise, found himself suddenly on the defensive. “Well . . . you know how I feel about President Bush . . . I’m doing this, really, as a favor to him.”
But Jesús “Eddie” was out of his chair already, standing with the neck of his beer bottle pointed down his throat.
“The Republican Party is for the An-glos,” he shouted; “the f–king movie stars in Santa Fe, the environmentalists, PETA! Bush is for the An-glos and the Mexicans, the f–king wetbacks—not for us who’ve lived here in New Mexico for five hundred years, the Nuevo Mexicanos! The Republican Party is the party of cultural genocide, man! You wait, you’ll see! They’ll geno-f–king-ciadize you too, hombre—if Tomasina Luna don’t eat you first! ¡Viva Villa!” Jesús “Eddie” concluded (somewhat illogically, it seemed to Héctor).
“¡Panchito! What’s the matter with you?” AveMaría exclaimed when she saw her husband twenty minutes later. “Did you see the fantasma down along the river by the bridge? Teresa Aguilar was telling me about it only the day before yesterday! It seems some Indians ambushed a Mexican family there many years ago, and—”
But Héctor paid her no attention. Instead, he went on to the bedroom, where he pulled off his jacket and shoes and lay down on the bed with his clothes on. Never had he been in such a quandary, so divided and confused in his loyalties, so uncertain where his duty lay. The United States, Mexico, New Mexico—wasn’t it a part of the United States, after all? He could not comprehend why his good friend, Jesús “Eddie,” had to make everything so complicated. Héctor called for AveMaría to bring him the tequila bottle and a glass and drank something. Afterward, he tried to think, but thinking would not come to him this evening, and, in a little while, he fell asleep.
Héctor was still not himself by morning, and his wife, now seriously alarmed, sat him down after Contracepción had left for school to learn what was troubling him. AveMaría listened intently while he explained the situation for her and sat in silence when he’d finished, considering. At last, she spoke. She was a woman, AveMaría reminded him, and therefore ignorant of politics. It appeared to her, however, that her husband’s dilemma was not political at all, but spiritual. Therefore, she suggested they call Brother Billy Joe and ask him to pray with Héctor, begging the Lord to help him find a solution to his problem.
Brother Billy Joe visited the house that same evening, arriving just in time for supper. As soon as he smelled the carne asada AveMaría had prepared, the preacher suggested they should eat first and pray later. Héctor agreed, in an attempt to play the good host, though Billy Joe’s presence at table meant having to deny himself the two or three Coronas he’d looked forward to with the meal. The pastor ate three large helpings of carne asada, plus dessert. Then he and Héctor adjourned to the den for prayers.
To Héctor’s enormous surprise, Brother Billy Joe failed to perceive a dilemma in his situation. President Bush, the preacher avowed, was a true Christian and the greatest president the United States had ever had, dedicated one hundred percent to Values, the War on Terror, and the coming Rapture. If Héctor had been requested by the President to play a part, however modest, in the fulfillment of his calling, then it was his clear obligation as a Christian to cooperate in the Divine Plan.
As if in afterthought, the pastor wondered out loud whether Héctor supposed the President might agree, following his election as congressman, to address the congregation of the Assemblies of God church, right here in Belen? It would be a huge step toward putting a new roof on the meeting hall, Brother Billy Joe explained.
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