I ordered myself a couple of hot dogs. The young woman at the window didn’t let her black eyes meet mine, and she deftly squirted mustard and piled onions without my asking. She filled a paper cup full of ice and then soda from the fountain, and pushed it across to me with the food. As usual, she wouldn’t take my money. As usual, I left two bits on the counter anyway. I knew she had a little girl at home, and that she worked a lot harder than I did.
Red-and-white metal tables were grouped in the shade of a live oak behind the drive-in, and I went to them to wait for Lopez. The lunch rush was over, so I had the area to myself. I was nearly finished when he came out of the back door, followed by a tiny Chihuahua that looked more arthritic than his owner. The two of them hobbled over to me and sat down. Lopez struck a match on the tabletop and carefully lit what might have once been a cigar. I smelled the sulfur before the wind took it away.
“You always order the same thing,” he said, looking at my hot dog. “Siempre lo mismo.”
“Saves me thinking about it,” I shrugged. “No point in adding any more decisions to my day.”
His smile looked like something that had been dried in the sun.
“I never would have thought of that,” he said. “That’s why you are a famous detective, and I own a little taco stand.”
“One of the reasons,” I agreed.
The little dog bared his teeth at me.
“Oye, Chiquillo,” Lopez warned. “Portate bien.”
The dog ignored him. A low growl started up. His eyes were filmy and his muzzle was grey, but he looked entirely ready to tear my throat out.
“Chiquillo would kill you if he could, amigo. That is why God made him so small. Sometimes God protects us from ourselves.”
Danny Lopez had come here from Corazón Rosa twenty years ago. He opened his drive-in every morning and stood over the grill every lunch hour, alongside his help. He lived poor and drove a truck that was held together by rust. He was one of the most powerful gangsters in the state, wealthy beyond reason, and probably the most dangerous man I knew.
He was also the best friend I had. He had saved Annie Kahlo’s life, and she lived in Mexico now under his protection. He loved her fiercely, but not as much as I did. Because that was impossible, I didn’t hold it against him.
A blue Plymouth crunched onto the gravel and stopped. A couple of hard cases got out and stood for a minute, looking around. Satisfied, they stretched, threw away cigarettes and headed to the order window. Danny Lopez barely glanced at them, but I knew he was watching them carefully. He never missed anything
“You don’t pay for your meals here,” he said. “I do not permit it.”
“I appreciate it,” I nodded.
“So you don’t need to leave the girl money every time you come here.” His voice was soft. “I pay her very well.”
Over at the counter, one of the tough guys laughed loudly. Lopez stirred, and puffed at his little cigar. Then he dropped it and put it out with the toe of his huarache. The men glanced over at us and then away; they were suddenly aware of us sitting there. They knew who the old man was. After they had paid for their food, they moved back to the Plymouth and got in. As they pulled away, Lopez settled again.
I finished the last of my hot dog, and crumpled the yellow waxed paper into a ball. I twisted my torso and fired it into a steel trash drum. One-hopper to first base, an easy double play that Pee Wee Reese couldn’t have turned any better.
“I should have stuck with baseball,” I said.
“You should have stuck with Annie Kahlo.” He gave me a sharp look. “You belong in Mexico, with her. You shouldn’t have left her there.”
I watched the parking lot and the traffic going by on Chapala Street. The sun was warm and there was a nice breeze. When the stoplight turned red, I got a drift of music from an open car window. I recognized the opening saxophone notes of “I Love You Madly”. After a minute the light turned green, and the car left and took the music away with it.
“You should not have come back here,” he insisted. “This is not your place any more.”
I held up a hand, in protest. My throat was suddenly tight, but I spoke carefully and kept my voice normal.
“I tried,” I said. “You know something? I asked her about that. I asked her to marry me.”
My eyes were stinging, just a little.
“She didn’t answer me, one way or the other,” I said. “She just didn’t answer… so I came back.”
Lopez leaned forward on the bench. His elbows were on his knees, and his gaze was liquid and dark. His focus was absolute. I didn’t want to look at him.
“Maybe if you wait a little while, she will tell you,” he said. “She moves according to her own time.”
I stood up and brushed imaginary crumbs from my jacket. It was going to be a long walk back to my car.
“Maybe I’d rather not risk hearing the answer,” I said. “See you around, Danny.”