“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER ONE

On this world, the dead outnumber the living 10 to one. We’ll never catch up.

Grim cops in bankers’ haircuts, driving cop cars with air fresheners dangling from the rear-view mirrors, swarmed down decaying Guadalupe Street, an airless lane suffocating on elderly two-story homes of peeling lead paint, cracked basement windows and chained-up dogs in the back yard, burrowing on a jailbreak from boredom. Someone threw open a kitchen window, and the neighborhood smelled of burnt toast.

Mrs. Augermayr and Mrs. Valdez, their arms crossed over their cardigan sweaters against the cool morning, watched from Mrs. Augermayr’s front porch as the cops wandered around the small yard of 664 Guadalupe. Satan’s next-door neighbor. The cops were muttering, pointing, coughing, calling on their radios for someone to bring them coffee.

“I was one of the first guys to get into Dahmer’s apartment,” one said. He was a young cop then. Now he was old. He lit a cigarette. “But this… much worse.”

It made him a drinking man for the rest of his life.

A pair of drug-sniffing dogs with red eyes and toothy grins, the hair on their heads matted in spikes against their skulls, were led onto the street. Their hind feet skittered in excitement on the wood steps of the porch. The dogs had torn the lid off a can of powerful art glue.

Silent men in orange hazardous-waste clothing carried skeletons out into the yard and set them on blankets. Paper mache skeletons of all sizes. Some human sized, but most dwarfish and twisted. The cavernous eye sockets were empty. “There’s a cat with an eyeball in its mouth back in the apartment,” one of the cops said.

“Oh, don’t pick up that cat!” Mrs. Valdez screamed. She turned to Mrs. Augermayr. “He bites.”

“I heard there was a detective poking behind an old mattress in the basement, and he burst into flames.”

Mrs. Augermayr sniffed. “Musta been the smoke I smelt this mornin’.”

A detective stepped out of the house, carrying a large bass saxophone. He set it on the grass, next to a misshapen skeleton, and thought for a moment. “My first childhood memory,” he said, “is of looking through a keyhole into my sister’s bedroom, watching her get undressed. It’s the kind of thing that will twist your life forever. Personal hygiene has never been a hallmark of my family.”

“What’s your second childhood memory?” asked a cop who was squatting against the house foundation.

“My second childhood memory,” the detective said, “is getting my physical for the Navy.”

A screen door slammed. Mrs. Augermayr’s next-door neighbor was awake. He was wearing a bathrobe. “My favorite bar?” he said to someone inside the house. “The closest.”

That drunk had been married four times. Each time it got worse. He never learned from his mistakes. He’d married the same woman twice. He lost most of his money at the track, but it was better than handing it over to his ex-wives. He vowed to be a drinking man for the rest of his days.

“GIVE ME A BOTTLE OF WINE!” the guy behind the screen was yelling. He opened the door and squinted into the morning light. Mrs. Augermayr recognized him from the food clinging to his goatee. They’d had breakfast together a few days ago. He slept on the floor of the living room. The television was never off. His dog dozed on the bed and let itself out through a hole in the screen door. One night, the guy was telling Mrs. Augermayr that the dog was 24 years old. “Are you sure it’s the same dog?” she asked. “How do you know your old dog didn’t go out and die, and another one just came in?”

A cop stumbled out of 664 with a videotape in his hand. “Mexican vampire movies, mostly,” he said. “The guy collected ’em. Lotsa sweatin’ guys in turtlenecks looking through keyholes at women undressing.”

“Have you ever seen a Mexican wrestle?” the detective said. “They wear masks all of the time. They’re kinda flabby, but it protects them. Like a manatee. El Santo. He was the big one. I think of him every year at this time.”

A guy who lived a couple of houses down the street from 664 had lost his keys and now had his head under the hood of his car. He’d been trying to start it by pressing a screwdriver against some of the electrical wiring. His legs were shaking, but he had already been dead for three minutes. It was his bad luck that he had just bought a new battery. A Diehard, too.

Maracas. Guitars. Mariachi music. One of the first cops to get to Dahmer’s apartment peered into the front window of 664, where the music was coming from. The detective put his arm around the cop’s shoulders. “That’s the kind of music they play in Texas,” he whispered in his ear.

They were destined to be drinking men together for the rest of their lives.

“Hey,” someone shouted. “Here comes the coffee!”