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IMG_0072_1024Ninety- nine years ago today, September 15, 1916, the bandit-general of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa pulled off a daring attack against Carrancista forces in Chihuahua City, in state of Chihuahua, with 2,000 Villista irregular troops against 9,000 government soldiers—the opposing revolutionary faction recognized and supported by the U.S. At the same time, 10,000 American troops under General Pershing were not that far away, looking for Villa for his attack on Columbus, New Mexico earlier that year on March 8 – 9, in which eighteen Americans died.

September 15, at midnight, is when Mexicans traditionally give the Grito, the Cry of Independence, re-enacting the cry Hidalgo gave in 1810 in Dolores Hidalgo, a town forty-five minutes from here, Guanajuato, declaring war against Spanish control.

Villa’s troops entered Chihuahua at midnight without challenge because they blended in with people coming into town for the celebration. Much of the citizenry was sympathetic to Villa. The Cry for Independence—”Viva, viva México!” soon turned into “Viva Villa!” as sympathizers realized what was happening. Villa freed potential allies from the Penitentiary and occupied the Presidential Palace, then withdrew.

This is the scene then in my novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, when Frank Holloway and his friend Juan Carlos, a young doctor, captives, find themselves forced to join Villa’s attack on Chihuahua. Frank survives, Juan Carlos does not.

Because the latter believed in the civilizing power of horses, that night still outside Chihuahua, Frank and friends build an immense fire beside the river Chuviscar and burn Juan Carlos on top of his horse’s side—both killed by Carrancista machinegun fire.

“Dawn was coming and the stars faded. A river of sparks curved up and away. The fire crackled and spit. River stones exploded from the heat. A slight breeze came up. The three of us stood upwind, so we would not have to smell the roasting horse, which was acceptable, or Juan Carlos, which was foreign and troubling.”

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When I was a young man, I went through a period of doubt about myself, questioning whether I was the only male in our family who had difficulty approaching women he was attracted to. To gather advice, I decided to write my older cousin Dave, whom I knew the family considered–with clucking and raised eyebrows–something of a rake.

Ten days later, my answer arrived.

“Dear Cousin,

When our History teacher Mr. Plumley returned from four years in Mexico, he said things that made me uneasy. Also something had happened to his English, and he said verdad? when he meant, really? Frequently he qualified his statements with the phrase más o menos, which in English apparently means more or less. This qualifier left me confused as to how firmly he believed in the truth of anything he said. For example, in 1915 when Pancho Villa took reprisals against the village San Pedro de las Cuevas, shot the kneeling priest with his pearl handled pistol, and then sixty-two other poor villagers for an imagined betrayal, he was más o menos a paranoid homicidal maniac.

Mr. Plumley was a man who clearly knew things and said them right out, even if he had to qualify them in order to remain perfectly honest. In addition to that, he only ate avocados, Roma tomatoes, and tortillas, flat corn discs más o menos, which he bought in a Mexican market on the edges of the great declining industrial town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. This was a city we never went to because it was working class and did not figure our prep school’s view of what was relevant. He preferred gorditas, a somewhat thicker peasant tortilla, which he had delivered to his home by S.S. Pierce–each one carefully wrapped in pear-type wrapping paper, with a picture of a large-eyed Mexican woman, in a frilled folk dress, with light skin and a Betty Crocker likeness. Over her right ear, she wore what looked like an artificial rose, in full bloom.

None of this bothered us. But there was talk among the faculty, we heard, that Mr. Plumley, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, might have already acquired the romantic, that is to say, seductive habits of Mexicans. For that reason, they watched him closely when, at tea dances, he welcomed the girls from the neighboring girls’ boarding school Winston Road.

I attended those dances, and I too watched him very closely. Sophía was the half-American, half-Mexican dark-eyed beauty I waited to see, and I suffered greatly when on the occasion of the first dance after Mr. Plumley’s return, he shook her hand, looked her in the eye with sincerity and kindness and said, “Bienvenida, señorita. Cómo le va?” And she dipped as she had been taught and chirped, “Muy bien, Señor! Gracias!

I could only turn away, fighting for breath, and look out the window at the wet blowing leaves, the cold night and the awful darkness that was waiting for me on the walk home to my dormitory. Behind me, the phonograph played Guy Lombardi, the waxed oak floor began to squeak, and in the reflection of the window I saw Mr. Plumley reach out his hand and ask Sophía to dance.

It was clear what was happening, and I hoped that the other faculty could see it. Sophía’s young breasts–I had never seen breasts–were practically in Mr. Plumley’s experienced hands. Her green satiny dance dress, strapless, waited to be slipped down over her tan belly, and her lipstick lips, as soft as a real rose, were parted and breathing a softness that Mr. Plumley was in the very process of directing toward himself.

I forced myself to dance with Victoria, who asked me questions about American History. Did I know who had laid waste to Georgia in the Civil War? Instead of gliding into a step, she hopped. She was taller than me, blond, with braces weighing her teeth down so that her mouth stayed open when she finished a remark. How could she know that American history was nothing compared to Mexican history or to Mr. Plumley’s, not Sherman’s, march to the sea. His campaign, evident to me, was to ravage that landscape south of Sophía’s brown belly, an area I had difficulty imagining, but which I knew Plumley could, because he had been in Mexico.

Several times I came close to having to dance with Sophía during partner exchanges announced by the faculty hostess, Mrs. Thompson. Once, abruptly, Sophía stood before me again. I pretended I did not see her and chose Victoria, who immediately brayed out the question as to where I had heard about Plumley’s march to the sea and what exactly was it that he was intent on ravaging. I know Sophía heard, because she had not moved away, and her look was dark.

My face burned. I did not realize I had actually said the words. But then I did not see how Sophía could have understood the reference. I guided Victoria away in a few coordinated hops.

When the dance ended, we were good little gentlemen and helped the girls on with their coats, saving the scarves for last. I helped Victoria. Then we headed for the door and stepped into the cold night, with our sweaty bodies, saying good-bye, good-bye and hunching over against the wind.

I was just in time to see Mr. Plumley bow and, right in front of our eyes, take Sophía’s mole skinned glove and pretend to kiss it. “Gracias por todo, Señorita Sophía,” he hummed. And she cocked her head to one side, bobbed slightly, and said, in a clear, essentially adult voice, “Por nada, Señor!”

Stricken, I took that moment to slip past. Mr. Plumley stepped into a car with other faculty. I thought I saw a high heel enter just ahead of him. I heard the car door shut with a heavy click. I heard the purr of the engine and the tires squishing over wet leaves. I hurried forward into the dark. And I thought this must be what it is like to fall out of an airplane at night, without a parachute.

The night was wild. The bare limbs of the maples and elms slapped and rattled against each other. But I do not think I heard them. It was if I was under water, the sounds grew muffled, my steps were slow and labored. I had taken the long way home, chosen a path where I would not meet anyone, and was not paying attention. In the next moment, I hit the ground. I managed to tuck a shoulder just in time to break the fall, and rolled over to see what bastard had kicked my feet out from underneath me on this the most miserable night of my life.

Sophía stood a trip-length behind me, in her long blue coat, her white scarf, and her moleskin gloves. Her big dark eyes bore down on me. Her arms hung at her sides. She took two steps forward and kicked the bottom of my right shoe and then stood glaring at me.

I lay looking up, stunned in more ways than one. The sidewalk was empty. A gust of cold air pushed wet leaves against my ear. It blew a strand of Sophía’s black hair in front of her face. She pushed it aside. Then she dropped down on her knees. I could feel them against my ribs, on my left side.

“Plumley’s march to the sea,” she said, as if she were prompting testimony.

Another gust blew the same lock of hair back across her face. She reached up and this time tucked it back behind her ear. I lay very still, vaguely aware that there were stars visible on either side of her head.

She never took her eyes off me–like a surgeon, I thought, taking her time to decide where to make the first cut. She wriggled her knees deeper into my ribs. Then she leaned forward, placed her hands on either side of my head, swooped in, and kissed me on the lips. Without lingering. Just long enough to feel the cold tip of her nose. The strand of black hair had come forward again. She sat back and poked it behind her ear. Then she rested her hands on my stomach, just where it joined my chest, as if I was a piano and she was deciding what to play.

“I can feel your heart,” she said after a while, and I thought she looked pleased with her discovery. When I tried to rise a little, she moved her moleskin gloves up my chest and pressed me back down.

This was not like in the movies. Perhaps it was love Latin style, but I had no way of knowing. It did not seem dangerous. I could not help myself and smiled.

“Are you happy now?” she asked.

I nodded. In fact, I was enjoying my position very much. No más o menos about it.

I hope this has been helpful.
With love,
Your Cousin Dave”

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