The Oil Novel – First Chapter

“How do you start a novel? Well, you just begin. And then wait until the explanations, i.e. the rest of the novel, catch up with you.”

Chapter 1 ~ Sleep (Early Draft)

The bus was a 1934 Ford, with one wooden bench running the length of each side of the bus and two back-to-back benches running down the middle, forming two aisles. Sometime around midnight, the bus driver—whom I also knew as Enrique, a part time labor organizer in Tampico, where we were going—opened the door from the outside and came up the three steps to our level, holding his hand over his right forehead, as if someone had just hit him there. He walked stiffly like a condemned man. Someone was coming along behind him and kept his head behind Enrique’s, as if trying to hide.

I had been holding my travel duffle on my lap for warmth. I reached in and found the heavy Colt that had belonged to my father-in-law, the national rural policeman—before they finally managed to accuse him of treason for helping the Yaquis around Guaymas and put him against a wall in front of six shaking Mauser rifles, all of which missed—probably intentionally—except for one that caught him in the heart and took his life away from him.

I pulled back the hammer one click, then two, to its firing position, and held weapon under the bag, the butt resting on my left thigh, pointing up the aisle.

Mariana had been stretched out on the bench, with her feet toward me and her head toward them.

“What are you doing?” she said.

The bus driver was about eight short steps away. He brought his hand down away from his forehead. As if someone had ordered him to.

With the flat of my hand, I indicated to Mariana that she should neither get up nor continue speaking.

Mariana usually doesn’t do what I say, and this time she didn’t either.

I shifted the duffle to one side and raised the revolver. The angle had changed and I should have been able to see much more of the second man—but I couldn’t. I turned more toward them, and toward Mariana.

“It’s a .45,” I said, softly.

“I know that,” she said.

“I’m not talking to you,” I said, just as softly.

The driver stopped.

“If I fire,” I said, “the bullet will go through both of you. Your stomachs.”

I added my left hand to the grip to still the nervous trembling. The driver remained mute, confirming that things were not normal.

“Raise all four hands. If I see a pistol, I fire.”

Something was delaying the man in back. Then his hands went up. I assumed that the pistol was now in his belt.

“Back away,” I said.

I hoped they were thinking how un-armored their stomachs were.

Mariana was shaking her head in disapproval. I assumed it was meant for me—but maybe not. Maybe just in general.

At the door, the men turned and clumped down the steps. I got up, went down our aisle toward the back of the bus and came up the right side aisle. Passengers lay stretched out on that side-bench as well, and I slid into a slot between two of them.

Outside my window, there was some moon, but not enough to make out the features of the second man. The men moved away and I lost sight of them through the dirty window. No one was looking at me.

I got up and went back to Mariana. She was sitting up now, looking pretty and unhappy—the wife that had never forgiven me.

“What was that?” she asked.

“No idea,” I said, which was not true.

I told her to go ahead and sleep, that I would keep watch.

And I did, for the rest of the night. A noble impulse, you might think, but in reality because I am an insomniac, the perfect watchman—and the one that can fall asleep for a moment, in mid-sentence, during the day.

I wondered whether the Second Man could determine exactly where we were sitting and put a bullet or two through the thin wooden side of the bus. At first, there were muffled voices outside, hard to hear over the snoring passengers. Then there was nothing.

Someone—a male passenger, irked—got up and shut the bus’s door, for warmth, then lay down again. I was pretty sure he had completely missed what had just happened.

Mariana had rejected my suggestion that she lie back down and go back to sleep. Instead she tried to sleep sitting up. But her head sank lower and lower, and finally lean over and rested against my shoulder.

I lowered the Colt’s hammer to its safety position—where it would not fire if something jarred it or brushed against the trigger. I kept it under my right thigh. After a while, I scooted back and let Mariana down on the bench. She brought up her knees and put her hands under her head. I took off my jacket, folded it and put it under her head. She put her hands between her knees. Feeling sorry for myself, I wrapped my arms around myself. With most people, cold works against insomnia—but in my case, it has no effect.

At dawn, someone came to the door and said there was a dead man at the bottom of the steps. People registered the information slowly. A few sat right up and looked around to see if they could spot anyone that was missing. A young man raised his arms over his head, his hands laced. The crime had already been committed and he had decided there was no reason not to stretch.

I got up to have a look. On the last step, and holding the grip, I had to step over the corpse and on down to the ground. I could tell from his uniform it was Enrique. The air was dry and smelled of oak. My hips hurt, and it was cold.

“I’m a policeman,” I said to the man standing in front of me. I saw no need to tell him I was actually Auxiliary Police, Anti-Corruption, answerable directly to Lázaro Cárdenas, President of Mexico. Actually retired. Actually fired—for misconduct.

The bus driver had been dragged about six meters from where he was murdered, to the bus’s steps. Someone had poured oil, thick and crude, over his head. The black liquid had pooled at the top where someone had crushed his skull. Blood had oozed out from under the liquid tar and fallen down over the head in thin streams that entered under his collar and traveled below his shirt, down to the round of his belly, where they flowed sideways and dripped on the ground. All of it was nearly as dark as the oil on his head.

“When did you find him?” I asked.

He said his wife found him. She had come outside to get charcoal for the comal so she could make his breakfast and saw the oil on Enrique’s head and knew wasn’t just drunk and sleeping next to the bus.

I asked him whether he had a tarp. He said he did. An old one. I said that was fine and we would drag him behind the little restaurant and cover him—so no one would see him when they went to have their breakfast. Plus, it would help keep off the flies, until we decided what to do with him.

“Have your wife sweep over our marks.” I said. “But not over the ones leading to the bus.”

I watched him react to me ordering his wife to do something—instead of him ordering her to do something.

His face hardened.

“By the way, let me see your hands.”

“I didn’t kill him,” he said.

His hands were covered with a uniform layer of old dirt, with no sign of oil or washing.

“I know you didn’t,” I said. “And you weren’t the victim.”

Why I said it that way, I wasn’t too sure. Except that I was thinking of other possible victims—such as myself, who I thought was probably the one meant to be wearing oil on his head.

For a moment, I also thought of taking this man on to Tampico and pinning the murder on him, to redeem myself. But that would have been continuing in the old ways, and I just didn’t have the heart for it any longer.

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