Louis Offer, formerly Ortega, crossed the border near the rattlesnake hills outside of Rio Grande City. Within a year he’d set himself up as a customizer in a body shop on Spaulding Avenue, his specialty the crafting of hearses from platforms that normally did not ship out as hearses, Jeep Grand Cherokees for example. His own hearse was a snazzy labor of love, a modified vintage Dodge Durango with a supercharged Magnum V8, its polished black exterior princely and definitive. He swore that he’d never operate the hearse under the influence, took a blood vow with his dealer who also happened to be the paint shop manager. On the first of every month the manager brought Christmas in a white bag and Louis Offer salivated. He and the manager counted out their bounty on the cover of a vintage paint chip book. The manager stopped counting; so much for the manager.

Meanwhile Louis pushed on, into territory where possibly no one had ventured. He left behind the set designer who ran night parties in the alley behind the taxidermy boutique. He left behind Kristi and Sasha, the twins who had introduced him to Koi. He left behind his own twin, a thirteen-year-old prodigy in Sussex, across the Atlantic. He said goodnight on the first of every month and lingered in the shop alone. By now it took him a good half hour to work lovingly through his outlandish count. Once he’d downed his tally, he strolled out into the residential grid. He staggered home under the jacarandas, expectorating onto the sidewalk.

*

Kristi got up to shut the windows. Lady bounced off the bed to follow her. But it was nearly morning, starting time for Sasha’s tea regimen. Kristi entered the grimy kitchenette and started peeling and grating. Her fingertips were nearly as orange as Sasha’s.

The shriek that awakened Louis Offer came from inside his head, so it seemed as he reentered the ongoing nightmare. Another long morning loomed, the endless wait outside the clinic while the nuns worked the line handing out prayer cards (“You love each other” “You have your health”) and Louis retreated to the place inside his head where slowly and steadily and with the best intentions he was making his peace with the CVS.

But for now he would fetishize the CVS. Soon Louis Offer, a side sleeper, would haul himself off his closed-cell foam pad and change into his scrubs. For now he would transport himself to the prescription counter. His name would deliver an uppercut to the jaw. Louis Offer lived for that jolt. Sometimes the pharmacy tech was a diva and would overplay the uppercut; sometimes the tech knew Louis Offer and even then the number on the screen reached out and landed: another phantom on the screen, another TKO. Best of all was a double uppercut, a fresh new tech, naive, fazed, summoning a pharmacist from the elevated inner sanctum.

The 320 survived the long trek east, just barely. Lady squirmed in a blanket on Sasha’s lap. Sasha having one foot in the grave was an advantage in passing through inspection stations. The clinic in Tijuana hooked them up with an affiliate just across the river from a Hampton in McAllen.

Soon as they checked in, they crossed the border and went looking for the tincture clinic.

*

Coupons for Essent, an imaginary shampoo, papered the walls of the belfry of the CVS, the base of operations for the scam coupon empire run by Louis Offer, formerly Ovallez.

If only he had a window, he could look out across the street to the motel room that was also a shrine to Jim Morrison. The isolation of the belfry suited Louis Offer after a long day of working the fountain at the dog park, ground zero for clearing coupons, a scam coupon clearinghouse.

In the belfry he could cut loose: he broke out his wicker basket, the basket brimming with scored white pills. Wicker went way back with Louis. His distant ancestors had fought flower wars with shields constructed from wicker and leather.

If only there hadn’t been a next-door neighbor, stopping by constantly to gripe about the CVS as ad hoc landlord. What did the neighbor even have to complain about? Talk about favoritism—Louis Offer’s belfry didn’t have a floor, unless bare concrete padded with coupons counted as flooring. And then there were his neighbor’s lame Samuel L. Jackson rants about his using, the neighbor’s using, such as it was. Please.

Relax, Louis Offer told himself as he scooped from the basket.

His neighbor obviously had no idea what he was doing. All night long he showed off his misguided industriousness by making loud noises with a grindstone, possibly a bowling ball. Each morning Louis found a new set of confectionary footprints outside his neighbor’s door.

His neighbor wouldn’t last six months. He lacked cardboard people skills. All his rants were lame, not just the ones about using.

His distant ancestors hadn’t lived in belfries and no body of knowledge about living in belfries had been passed down through generation after generation of forebears who also lived in belfries.

*

After he was banned from the Senior Center, they let him back, on one condition: no Suki.

Louis Offer, formerly Oyarzun, kept Suki on a tight leash as he hung with his Hot Yoga buddies during a smoke break. Suki looked longingly over her shoulder toward the corner of the parking lot that reeked of carnage, the Lavish Massage corner. The day that Suki lived for was the day that Louis would slip up again. She would know it had arrived with the certainty of fresh water sensing the first body waves of an earthquake; joy in her heart would surge like the surging to the surface of all the tens of thousands of fish in a lake just before an earthquake, their simultaneous breaching.

He’d fucked up before, he would fuck up again. He would keep on fucking up and he would keep on telling the same joke about Suki rescuing the shit out of him.

Suki tuned Louis out when he daydreamed out loud about smuggling her across the border to Hidalgo where they would hunt fox squirrels in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Plenty of gray squirrels came and went along the fence out back behind Lavish Massage in the corner of the parking lot where Suki memorably had scored.

Suki tuned Louis out in the Senior Center meeting room when he rose from his folding chair and did his stand-up bit about numbers. Redemption, resolve, restitution, repentance. Louis’s peers at the Senior Center seemed to be impressed. Suki knew better. Louis would show his hand.

He’d miss a meeting and then another, and then the cap would snap off the vial, releasing the thrilling scent of doomed fur.

*

How much cotton was on the counter? Way too much. But of course it was a matter of perspective. The Louis Offer of the past had been made of cotton. He’d gone by the name Olortegui then and spoken with a Texas drawl. Sunshine and cotton and blue skies and cotton. Blues, coffee. Then out into the cotton. Cotton in its raw state, budding and blooming on the stem, outdoors cotton, coffee and more coffee. Cotton took its toll on Louis Offer who retreated into the coffee he was made of, coffee, crooning, disappeared into the retrofuturistic atompunk inside his head, New Vegas, the Ink Spots. Cotton made him a small fortune. His pockets were woven from cotton and they overflowed with cotton. Cotton in the Mojave Wasteland in the nearby town of Goodsprings where Louis Offer was taken to a doctor after being left for dead, Louis Offer, courier.

Now Christmas had come around again and it was way past midnight and he was still at it, quietly bringing down the guillotine inside the splitter. The Russians next door who went to bed at sunset pounded on the wall affectionately—he’d endeared himself to them with his 911 skillz. Under the hood of the splitter all went smoothly more or less and could be observed through the clear hood: Louis Offer, the enigmatic ruler of the Hoover Dam, controlling the splitter, effectively controlling the counter, approximately 204 years after the events in the cotton fields where three major powers and innumerable minor factions had mismanaged an army of Securitron solar energy plants including Yes Man, the reprogrammed solar energy plant that fed its output into Oliver’s compound. Cotton and more cotton annexed more and more of the counter and before morning would blot out the Father Elijah trophy mechanical paddle Linea and the shot glasses of non-irradiated water and additional landmarks. The pounding on the wall became a pounding on the door. “Is that you, Mrs. Albatross?” Louis Offer called out from the kitchen.

*

The groundskeeper, scrubbing the deck, switched over to Spanish to explain a new and improved method for administering CPR—he’d learned it during his screening.

Kristi would be sleeping for the next hour in the Easter hat room. Now was the time to break into the lanai and hack into the documentation that had landed him this excellent gig.

What could have possessed him to declare that he was allergic to meringue? The screeners hadn’t even asked him if he was allergic.

A charitable interpretation was exuberance. It felt like only yesterday that he’d changed his name from Orriols to Offer, landed on his feet somehow in the middle of all this affluence: it dizzied him, the infinity pool infused with apoptotic phenols, the Filipino concierge astrologer, even the sunshade for his rental Fiat in the parking space reserved just for him, Louis Offer.

Anyway, the damage had been done. The whole team gathered on the deck for the presentation of the table cake, the exact facsimile of a trademark made entirely from meringue except that it contained no meringue whatsoever, was guaranteed meringue-free. A first in the history of the bakery, an unprecedented departure from tradition. Also a special occasion for the team, because the fiction was that Louis Offer lived on air. The fact was that he did live on air. You could teach yourself to live on air, alternatively it could just happen. Your body had no need for the confection with your name on it. Your body knew the drill, brought home the white bag. You fed your body from the bag. Your body counted on the bag. Pretty soon anything that wasn’t inside the bag left your body cold. Your body never was sated and at the same time you never were in danger of deprivation as long as you brought home the bag.

*

Good luck, bad luck: he was squeezing between them all the time now. He squeezed between and Good Luck said “Excuse you.” Good Luck said, “Do you even remember third grade?” In third grade he’d had the run of his father’s Urgent Care in Matamoros, an idyllic chapter in his life which he’d spoiled by looking the wrong way at the woman in the waiting room, or maybe just looking. Under her breath she chanted an incantation timed to kick in two decades later or when the white tablets crossed a certain threshold, whichever came first…and she’d aimed it at his head, so that when they stitched up Louis Offer, formerly Othon, they would discover the incantation tattooed on his skull. Because how else could you explain the run of good luck/bad luck. The Xmas on the first day of the month when the last thing he remembered was getting up to shut the blinds and he’d come this close to staving in his loader scar. The fan blade that clipped his temple and knocked him off the stepladder when he tugged the wrong cord, but he narrowly avoided all the chrome and glass because the blades revolved counterclockwise, wired backward. The chunk of drywall from an upper floor which had threaded through scaffolding and the protective slats above the sidewalk and grazed his eyelashes and exploded at his feet. How could there even be gaps between the slats? City Hall was just up the block, near enough to flinch. He would have turned back and reported the incident to City Hall if only he hadn’t been late for an appointment at the prescription counter.

It hadn’t been two decades, so obviously he’d crossed the threshold.

*

Raquel Welch kept checking out Louis Offer and Louis Offer, formerly Ochotorena, kept checking out Raquel Welch, their eyes meeting in the mirror.

He wanted her to speak up. Blurt out how awesome the frames looked on him. They were a dark tortoiseshell and suited his baby face with its trimmed pencil mustache. He would stride into the interview later that afternoon with confidence. Even more confidence if Raquel Welch validated his choice of the dark tortoiseshell over the matte black.

Nothing could shake his confidence which was the confidence of using and not being found out, using prodigiously and passing himself off as just another productive citizen, spreading the wealth around. Doing his part to make brick and mortar commerce succeed in an oversaturated retail environment. He’d already tried on a dozen frames: he was keeping pace with Raquel Welch. Using at a breakneck pace and at the same time nonchalantly being choosy, not excessively choosy, no more or less choosy than Raquel Welch. His receipt and hers would go into the same till.

Sorrow in the world was reserved for the downtrodden who used and it showed: if they projected confidence, it was a sorrowful confidence.

The tortoiseshell frames, with lenses, would set him back a half month’s rent. Same for the matte black.

He’d take both. That would make an impression on the optician. So that when he stopped back in after acing the interview, she would be glad to pass along a note of thanks to Raquel Welch.

Raquel Welch checking him out had an air of being irked at failing to remember. Louis Offer was someone she should know, but she couldn’t place him. Maybe he hadn’t always had the pencil mustache. She checked him out again and mentally erased the mustache.

*

In Edinburg, Louis Osete changed his name to Edinburg: unofficially he became Louis Edinburg. After his shift he waded through the swamp behind his by-the-week hovel and slid under the beater that his landlord had asked him to move to the industrial park because even though the engine wouldn’t start, the constant chirping from beneath the hood undercut the promise of tranquility that drew tenants to the hovel. It took forever, but Louis got the beater running, packed up and headed north, sold the beater, changed his name to Offer. But the chirping stayed with him, he remained loyal to the chirping. Whenever the white tablets wreaked havoc with his body clock, he transported himself back inside the hovel to the perfect few days before the beater had been banished to the park. The chirping had soothed Louis then and it calmed him now to reconstruct the chirping, the afternoon quiet of the sunless room, the unrunning engine drifting deeper and deeper into stagnation, chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp. The engine hadn’t started for a week. Deeper into the soothing calm he tumbled until: whomp. He just barely managed to hang on while considering the difference between the white tablets and the Texas engine nuisance. The chirping was a lullaby, albeit a death rattle of a lullaby, but still a lullaby because it lulled him into sleep reliably and was there for him when he awoke. Whereas the tablets every so often pulled a fast one on him: Louis never incremented upward by more than half a tablet, but the antics of the count involved something more complex than mere addition.

*

Louis Offer, vet tech, aka Louis Offer Engulfed in a Sugar Hopper, climbed into the jacaranda with a chainsaw. He knew what he was doing, he was a safety freak.

He’d always been a safety freak even during the five minutes he’d worked as an Xmas wreath quality control apprentice.

Louis climbed higher, adjusting the frayed orange rope. The tree was outmatched, Louis had been into it before and could take whatever it threw at him, Louis the sumo arborist versus a middleweight jacaranda.

All of 15 years. You could count in months the longest I’d held a job. Louis quipped that the Xmas Quonset hut, if he’d stayed a minute longer among its chain gang middle management, would have done him in. Animals on the other hand won’t turn around and bite you. I figured that this was a standard vet-tech quip.

A branch plummeted onto Louis’s shoulders, then another, sliding off his shoulders and drifting to the sidewalk. He went at the jacaranda hard, knowingly. He looked to be aiming for the branches that would connect him to the tree, his tree, the annual rite of trimming, brushing him ritually as they descended. Cloudless blue sky framed his steady successful lopping. You could walk around our neighborhood and on any given day catch sight of some self-designated safety expert with a chainsaw, no hardhat, no gloves, no safety harness, and if you pointed at your own scars the expert would smile and give you a thumbs up. Not Louis. Louis had been tending to the jacaranda in his green scrubs each year for 15 years. An uneventful event. Entertainment.

I watched from the sidewalk, swigging from a bottle of Tecate.

Louis could stand to lose a few pounds, but in the jacaranda he climbed nimbly, disfiguring the tree for its own good. Next year I would be back on this same spot with an even more blemished employment record. Louis would have added one more stellar year to his stature among the regulars at the dog park. What was the ceiling for a vet tech? Louis seemed content to put in his hours and limit his escapism to a few sixes at the dog park fountain after it officially closed. Save up and sketch out a cactus garden. Cultivate a row of coral trees, colorines, for the hummingbirds they would attract and their gaudy machete flowers that blossom in synch with the violet explosion of the jacarandas.

Meanwhile I’d been in and out of rehab so often that I’d been flagged as an insurance risk. At least when I emerged from rehab I could rely on Louis to help me work the insurance nuances.

Even after 15 years, the lopping seemed overdone, the tree becoming no more than a scaffold that could just barely support the weight of Louis.

When I heard the news a few weeks later it was like the day at the dog park when the regulars let me in on the secret about the fountain. Carl and Victor and Miguel and I organized the send-off, smuggled in the fireworks. After we smacked the door of the moving van in turn for good luck, Louis waved and rolled away: so much for Louis Offer. We sat shiva for him, then he was dead, as our rehab buddy Alejandro said.

 

Fortunato Salazar

FORTUNATO SALAZAR's recent fiction & translation are at PEN America, VICE, The Brooklyn Rail, The Offing and elsewhere.

Latest posts by Fortunato Salazar (see all)