AVE MARIA
Helix (Spring, 2013)

Head down, white fedora ribbon swaying, his eyes veiled behind dark glasses, Carlos Santana played “Black Magic Woman,” his guitar flashing beside a nimble, red-bloused woman dancing on the darkened stage. Diego sat well back in the audience, eyes closed, head nodding, thinking that a man could do worse than live in Vegas, play the guitar, and love beautiful women.

Diego grew up in Mexico, learning to play the guitar in shoddy outdoor cantinas, his twangy music mixing with dense smoke and layering onto the dusty streets of rural Tijuana. He had dreams of standing on a softly lit stage, exotic dancers, dresses twirling; of crowds dancing and waving to the music. He stole across the border and scrabbled through the parched desert to Vegas. There the bright lights, with gaudy crowds, and loud women were so different than the silent, dark nights out in the mesquite beyond Tijuana, where he had lived by nature’s clock and women were more than daubs of glitter.

Tawny, mustachioed, long black hair combed back, and weathered for his age of twenty-eight, he was an immigrant without legal papers. In Vegas he maintained the slots at the Hard Rock Casino, where friends collecting tickets for shows would let him in free. “Thank you,” he would whisper as he slipped past them.

Oil-smeared and grimy in his casino uniform, he would return evenings to his shabby, third-floor apartment. He would sit in a frayed chair near the window, embracing the guitar like it was a woman, his right hand plucking strings, left hand vibrating against the stem, playing and singing slow blues.

* * *

It was a July evening, hot as hell. Shirtless, sweaty, mopping his face and hands, he strummed the guitar, softly singing “She’s Not There”:

Well, it’s too late to say you’re sorry

How would I know, why should I care

Please don’t bother trying to find her

She’s not there

Hoping for a cooling breeze, he raised the shade and opened the window. A slender, raven-haired woman walked in a brightly lit apartment across a narrow bay. Head down, wrinkled forehead, she seemed unhappy. Many evenings that summer, lights off, he sat in darkness and watched. She would park her old car out front, come in, switch on a light, throw the mail on the table, then take off her skirt and blouse, fix a drink, and sit down by an opened window in her bra and panties. Arms propping her head, she would stare at people and cars passing by. Sometimes she paced back and forth like a caged animal. A faded jade plant in a crystal vase sat on a table, its wrinkled leaves and spindly stems untended.

One night, while watching, he dropped a damn beer on the floor, glass broke with a crash, beer spilled all over. She jumped up with a flashlight and shined the light at him as he picked up broken glass and cleaned up the mess around the chair. Diego straightened up, turned her direction, shielding his eyes.

“Goddamn, you’re either a private eye or a peeper!” she shouted, pointing a small, black pistol at his window. Bam! Bam! Two bullets hit his chair, sending small puffs of dust into the shafts of her light.

“Jesus, stay cool,” he said, diving for the floor.

She stood at her window.

“A fucking pervert! Did my ex-husband hire you?” she shouted. “Lights out, sitting there looking at me.” Bam!

Crawling away from the window toward a solid wall, he answered, “Well, if you thought that, why didn’t you pull the shades?”

“I’m turning you in, you warped son of a bitch!”

“I suppose you have a permit for that gun. You pointed it at me, tried to kill me. I can tell you what the cops will think about that.” He sat there on the floor for a while breathing hard, thinking. Then he smiled. A hot-blooded woman. She might be Latino. His voice settled. “Maybe we should get together and talk.” Keeping low, crawling over to his guitar, he stayed on the floor and nervously played a slow, romantic tune. She closed her window slowly, with a slight smile, and pulled the shade. Other people may have heard the gunshots, but didn’t come to investigate. Diego let things ride and kept lights on in the evenings.

A few weeks later, while driving home in the sunset, he thought how lonely she must be, even though she had drawn the gun and shot at him. How lonely he was. He stopped at Mel’s grocery for a six-pack. There was a rose garden nearby. Diego cut a few blossoms with his knife—a nice little bouquet. The good Lord wants us to help others, he thought. What the hell, sometimes you just have to take a chance. He went home, took a shower, and then walked to her apartment.

Holding his guitar, the roses, and the six-pack, he stood there in a fresh blue Hard Rock uniform, still wearing beat-up work shoes. Diego knocked on the door.

“Oh shit,” as the door opened. Where’s the pistol? he wondered.

“Hello again,” said Diego, handing her the roses, smiling.

Frowning, she took them, slim, hair tossed, red-lipped, barefooted, a nightgown loosely drawn across her breasts.

He stepped closer to her, noticing the scents of lavender and sage. “Thought we might share a few beers.” She turned to walk into another room, pointing to the refrigerator.

“I’ll be a minute,” she said. “You can put them in the fridge.”

Still uncertain what might happen next, Diego moved to the other side of the kitchen near a wall, closer to the door. Before long she appeared in a wraparound quick-change dress, hair combed back, relaxed sneer, slippers.

He was standing near the refrigerator. “Look,” she said, “I’m not going to shoot you.” She walked to the fridge and snapped open two bottles.

“The gun’s in the drawer. You’re safe for now,” she smiled.

The two of them sat on opposite ends of the flowered sofa, sipping, glancing at each other, looking out the window, waiting for what might come next. Her perfume’s dry pungence again brought memories of the peaceful Mexican desert. But this woman had shot at him; he had to be careful. He looked at the dark, mascaraed eyes, a slight flare of nostrils when she spoke, her white teeth, a smile that wrinkled her lip edge. He put his left arm on the back of the sofa behind her. She didn’t object.

“I don’t like cops—never have trusted them. I thought maybe you were the private eye my ex hired to spy on me.”

Smiling, Diego leaned forward, took a long swig. “Are they after you?” He wondered how someone so beautiful could be in trouble.

She crossed her legs, sat forward stiffly; her lip twitched.

“Relax; I’m not a cop. I repair slots at Hard Rock.” Some metallic squeaks as she settled back on the faded sofa, moved a little closer, her face softening. His arm moved to her shoulder. Again, she didn’t object. Diego liked her looks, her fragrance.

“Well, why were you peeking at me for all those nights? Why didn’t you just come over or call me and introduce yourself? You scared the hell out of me.”

Her breath was warm, sweet. He stared silently at the floor, shifting the bottle from one hand to the other as she told about her “bastard” ex-husband, who kept their two-year-old Alec from her, and hired dicks to follow her everywhere, hoping to prove she couldn’t be a good parent.

She was shaky, her eyes now moist. “I work as a dancer at the Bellagio. You know, one of those leg-raising, costumed women. We line up and sing before the main shows. The pay is nothing.” She slowly turned to him, a finger wiping tears from her cheek. “With a little money, I’d move the hell out of here with little Alec and start a real life somewhere decent.” Diego gently pulled her closer, his arm now around her slender waist. Her smooth face, full red lips, even her perfect little ears. I want her, he thought.

“Maybe I can help you,” he said. Her hands moved smoothly to his face, their lips now touching. Then she pulled away.

“What do you mean?”

He thought quickly. She could help him get more gigs. Just guitar playing without a singer was a hard sell. Her sexy looks and seductive allure were just what he needed.

“I was thinking maybe you could dance while I played the guitar. We would make a good team.”

Then Diego stood, head down, slouched like Santana, playing “Maria Maria,” teasing her. After a while she stood beside him, swayed and danced, long arms extended above, hips moving gently with the rhythm. They had a few more drinks, he kept playing the guitar, and she kept dancing until almost midnight. “A kiss good night,” Diego said, embracing her tightly. She pressed firmly against him. She was smooth, Diego thought, walking back to his apartment. Smooth and dangerous.

* * *

A week later they hiked trails in Red Rock Canyon near Vegas. Maria had suggested the park and brought a small lunch. Diego carried the drinks and a blanket. Neither had seen pictographs or fossilized sand dunes before. Diego held his hand up. It was slightly larger than those ancient prints. The sky was cloudless. It became very hot. They climbed a steep, rocky trail through desert scrub and Joshua trees, reaching higher-placed junipers and a few pinyons.

“Finally shade, and no more damn thorns or barbs,” she said, sitting down on the blanket Diego unfolded. They relaxed after lunch and drank beer. Neither one felt like hiking further. Tour groups walked the trails far below, shimmering mirages on the desert floor. It was cool and shady under the junipers, where the wind blew a calming whisper through the trees. The blanket rested softly on fallen needles. They talked quietly. “My hand looks almost the same as those painted on the rocks,” he said. “I wonder where those people came from, what happened to them? Life must have been dangerous.”

“It’s uncertain for us too,” Maria said, her voice now low, an eyebrow raised. Diego smiled.

“We have a good chance,” he said. “I will play the guitar, you will dance.” She laughed at that. He kissed her. They were close together now, embracing, their damp clothing in soft needles beside the blanket on which they lay. They clung tightly together. Then she was on top. Oh, Oh, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God—her repetitions taken to silence by the trees, the wind, then it was quiet except for ravens calling hoarsely from above. Diego lay on his side, looking at Maria, then asleep beside him, her breasts resting gently on the blanket, nipples still erect. He stroked her forehead, her eyebrows. Who is she? he thought. Could she really love me?

* * *

Many evenings in her small apartment, Diego strummed the blues on his guitar; Maria danced beside him, her arms and long, slender legs flexing around him, teasing him to hardness. Looking down, he tried to concentrate on the melody. As the sweltering summer drifted past, they held hands on long evening walks, usually ending up in a karaoke bar like Shifty’s or Calico Jack’s, where they sat closely and she would brush mascara on her eyelashes, finally sweeping it up and away from each eye, then apply the brightest lipstick. As Diego stared at her exotic look, she would kiss him, her tongue bringing fire to his cheek. They would drink whisky until introduced; then strobe lights would follow them to the dim, smoky stage, and Diego, sunglassed, white fedora obscuring his eyes, would hold the guitar closely and begin playing, a chained medallion swinging across his chest. Maria danced and sang beside him, swaying hips and breasts, her white high heels moving rhythmically while singing “Black Magic Woman,” her hand fondling tossed hair as if in pain while holding the microphone by its suggestive tip; finally caressing his neck, embracing him, sending electric shocks down his body as the last chord was struck. The audience hushed before they finished. Many stared wantonly, wishing somehow they also could experience such passion.

What little money they made was spent drinking in the small clubs before they performed. Alcohol becalmed their anxieties and let them physically express emotions that most people would reserve for darkness and seclusion. In late August, after opening for Elvis impersonators at the Bellagio, they walked through a nearby small park. It was still hot at midnight. There was a full moon. The wind moved leafy shadows. Maria, looking down, glanced at faded flowers along their path. She pulled Diego closer.

“Babe, we’re not going to make enough in music to keep Alec with me. I mean I love it, love dancing with you, but the money won’t amount to anything until we hit the big time. My ex will take him away long before that.” She looked up at his face. “What about gambling, about taking a chance? What do we have to lose?”

Diego frowned. He remembered those sunglassed, frowning gamblers folding money into their pockets after playing blackjack and then slipping away into darkness. They had looked dangerous to him, even violent. He had heard from other casino workers that only outlaws made money at the tables.

“It’s risky,” he said. “Only bandits make money playing cards. You would join them. Do you think they would care about you when trouble came? They would run and leave you.” His frightened thoughts skipped wildly like the leaves they walked upon.

“How risky can it be? We have nothing. What’s more risky than that, Diego?”

“I love you. We have love.” She unclasped his hand and looked away.

* * *

Maria read about blackjack and watched players in several casinos. After her dance routines at the Bellagio, she stayed in low-cut dresses, high heels, and was careful with her makeup.

She began spending time at the gambling tables and got Robo Moran’s attention—a local thug. He looked up from a table one night when she touched his sleeve.

“How about teaching me to play?” she said. He showed her a few things about blackjack and helped her play a few hands.

She got back to the apartment late that night. “What in hell are you doing?” said Diego. “You look like a hooker. Let’s just leave Vegas—get a new start while we still can.”

The next night she called Robo. “Dino’s lounge’s nearby,” he said. “No cameras or mics there, we can talk.”

They sat in a small booth. He put his arm around her and kept an eye on her cleavage. “Baby, there’s a lot to learn. It’s easy to fuck up your game and ruin your partner’s chances to win too. Besides that, there just ain’t no money in it. The casinos play it too safe now—not like the old times before all the cameras and computers. The real money is in stealing from the big spenders.” He put his scotch down on the scratched Formica and moved closer.

“We got some openings,” he said. “We need a spotter right now.” He didn’t tell her the last spotter had been arrested. “There are lots of jerks coming to Vegas just dripping with drug money. You can spot most of them—fancy cars, expensive watches, beautiful dames covered with fuckin’ diamonds—I mean it don’t take a genius.” Robo thought the gang did a good service for others—sort of like Robin Hood.

“We help put it back into circulation,” he said. “Choose a blackjack table and watch where the rich bastards stuff the money after they buy chips or cash in later in the evening. Hell, my pickers could slip your bra off and you’d feel nothin’. Just dress like a dumb tourist—you know, big floppy hat, blouse that shows a little tit, low heels, nothing fancy.”

Maria wore black, white pearls, and a wide-brimmed hat that hid her eyes. Just small bets at a blackjack table near the cashier desk. Choosing targets wasn’t hard. One player at her table placed big bets and bought several thousand dollars of chips, pulling large bills from his money clip in his front pocket. She gave a picker the signal. He closed on the target walking toward the elevator and slit the bottom of his pocket. An easy take of $6,000. Then there was a guy who kept his money in a money belt. Maria saw him unzip it several times to buy more chips, each time having difficulty closing the belt over the stuffed money. Another $4,000 there.

Waiting for Maria in her apartment, Diego was worried. She was gone most of the time. When they did see each other, Maria talked about making real money. It was late in the evening when she finally returned.

“Unbelievable,” she said, kissing him, “two thousand dollars last week.”

“Take it easy,” Diego said, afraid something bad would happen. “Slow down, let’s go dancing.” He embraced her.

“Just a few more nights,” she said, looking out the darkened window beyond his shoulder. “Then we’ll dance. If there is trouble, if something happens, I’ll leave notes for you.” But he knew it would never be that easy. How could she even return to the apartment if trouble started—if she was betrayed by the gang and arrested? He was frightened.

The next evening Diego decided to follow her. She was playing cards at a table near the cashier, large hat and sunglasses. He saw her stare at a showgirl with big diamond rings, fondling a man wearing gold chains and a large, jeweled wristwatch who was playing cards at a table with $500 minimums. He peeled off bills from inside his jacket. Nodding slightly, she gave the signal to the nearest picker and placed her hand lightly on her right breast. Her lip twitched. The dealer had seen her before; he remembered the way she looked around, how she seemed to signal with her hands or eyes, her twitch. He hit a red button. Before long, two goons in black ran to the table and began dragging her toward one of the back rooms.

Diego followed as Maria was led away from the smoke and bright lights. “Maria!” He ran to her and put his arms around her waist. One of men dressed in black tried to pull Maria away.

“She’s the one we’re after,” he said. “Get the Mexican too.”

Diego decided to fight back. He hit that goon hard on the back of his head with his fist; knocked him way the hell over and slammed another one against the wall. But others still held him, he could not free himself.

“Maria! Run, Maria!” Without looking back, she fled from the casino into darkness. A black car drove rapidly away.

Diego was arrested for assault. After several days in jail, an immigration officer escorted Diego back to his apartment to collect things he could take with him back to Mexico. Diego walked up the stairway that led to Maria’s apartment. The door was open. He stopped, shaking free of the officer for a moment, and walked through the entrance. Painters were rolling fresh paint on the kitchen walls. The faded living room carpet was being ripped off the floor, leaving strips of dark, sticky glue. The old stove had been torn away.

“Where is she?” Diego said, his forehead contorted, tears welling from his eyes.

“Who?”

“Maria! The woman who used to live here!”

One of the painters rested his roller on the ladder and looked down at Diego.

“No one’s been around since we started work here, mister.”

A small paper was fastened to the window, a note: We had fun while it lasted. Don’t try to follow. Robo will kill you. Maria.

THE END