El cumpleaños de Jose-Luis
Johnny took the job driving Las Copitas because he had nothing better to do. They were a four-piece girl group, two guitars, bass, and drums. They played straight-ahead power-pop stuff, and they were cute. They drank like men, knew every coke dealer in every town, and they paid pretty good. It would be ten shows through southern Spain, and the food would be astounding. They all spoke English, and Johnny had a crush on Pilar, the drummer. There was really, really nothing better to do.
They left Madrid Saturday morning, and the first three shows, Ciudad Real, Albacete, and Córdoba had gone great. Tuesday night was Sevilla. The promoter got them a huge paella for dinner, the crowd was rabid, and there was cocaine everywhere. When the girls left for an after-hours bar, at about 3am, Johnny thought it prudent to sleep in the van with the equipment in the club’s parking lot. There, he might get the ringing out of his ears. He wasn’t quite ready for sleep, so he decided to take a walk to La Plaza de España nearby. There was a famous fountain there that he had never seen. He cracked open a big bottle of Mahou, and both the beer and the night were crisp and cool.
As he neared the huge fountain in the center of the plaza, he could hear a man singing. Closer still, he saw it was a man splashing around, laughing, falling down drunk in the fountain. He thought he recognized the voice.
“Jose-Luis?” he called out.
It couldn’t be. What the hell would he be doing in a fountain in Sevilla? The man stopped singing and splashing, and sure enough, it was Jose-Luis, Johnny’s downstairs neighbor from Madrid. He had helped fix the toilet in Johnny’s apartment when Johnny would have had no idea what to ask for in the hardware store. Jose-Luis was short and muscular, dark-skinned and in his early sixties. Right now, his thick, graying hair was plastered down over his eyes, which looked like bloodshot cocktail onions. He tried to focus them on Johnny.
“¡Juanito!” he cried in jubilant recognition. “¡Es mi cumpleaños!”
He awkwardly waded a few steps forward and fell, his head smacking the stone lip of the fountain. It sounded like a rifle shot, but he hopped back up, howling laughter.
“Happy birthday,” Johnny said. He held out the beer. “Ven conmigo Jose. Tengo una cerveza.” He sounded as though he was trying to coax a foaming dog into a cage.
Jose-Luis tumbled obediently out of the fountain, staggered to Johnny and threw his arms around him. Johnny gave him the beer, and Jose-Luis leapt onto Johnny’s back, yelling, “¡Andele, caballito!” Jose-Luis weighed about a hundred-fifty pounds and was sopping wet, but Johnny carried him piggyback all the way to the van, Jose whooping, “¡Andele, hijo! ¡Andele, hijo!” and guzzling beer the whole time. In the van, they talked and drank beer and smoked cigarettes. After awhile, Jose-Luis passed out, snoring, smiling, drooling, angelic as the day of his birth. Johnny dropped off soon afterwards.
The van felt like a sauna when Johnny awoke. He looked at his watch, and it was ten-thirty. The girls would be there soon. He used the back of his hand to tap Jose-Luis’s cheek. There was no response. He shook Jose by the collar, but the man’s head just lolled about. This was no good. He put a finger under Jose-Luis’s jaw, and there was no question about it; the old man was cold and dead. Johnny lit a cigarette and begged himself not to panic, but his mind raced. He thought about calling the police, but he had been living in Spain for two years, and he was entirely illegal. He would be deported, or far worse, as there was a large purple welt on Jose-Luis’s forehead. It would sure look like murder when the Guardia Civil arrived. A Spanish inquisition was not what Johnny had signed up for. Not with this hangover. He was sweaty and panting, already raped in a Spanish jail.
He got out of the van and went behind the nightclub. There were some trash barrels and bottle bins in the tall weeds. He ran back and grabbed Jose-Luis under the shoulders and began to drag him around the building. What a party, Johnny thought, he weighs twice as much as he did last night. Oh, no! Did anybody see us coming back?
He laid the corpse behind the garbage cans.
When Johnny emerged, the girls were loitering around the van. He fiddled with his fly as though he had been taking a piss. Paloma, the bassist, said, “Oh, I should go too,” and started past him.
Johnny snagged her elbow and thought fast.
“No, no, I saw a big rat back there. You can go at a truck stop. We need gas anyways.” His hands shook badly as they all got into the van. He could barely get the key in the ignition and then couldn’t find the gears.
When they were a few kilometers outside of town and on the highway, Paloma called from the back, “¿Que es esa? ¿Es tuya Johnny?”
Johnny looked over his shoulder. Paloma was holding up one of Jose-Luis’s sodden work boots between two fingers, grimacing as though it was a dead animal.
“I thought it was Cristina’s,” said Johnny, referring to the singer, the smallest and cutest of the band. “Just get rid of it.”
“Ha-ha,” said Cristina.
Pilar, in the front passenger seat, rolled down the window, and with a “bleah,” Paloma chucked the wet boot out onto the highway. In the side mirror, Johnny watched it tumble along, come to rest, and shrink into a speck.
After that, there was nothing but a constantly diminishing reflection.
They drove several kilometers in silence. Finally, Cristina piped up, “Hey, let’s get some cognac at the truck stop. And put on some fucking music. It’s like somebody died in here.”