Short Story: Pulcata Romero

pulcataromero

It’s another quiet Friday at Pulcata Romero. Once the great pride and joy of Los Remedios, Pulcata Romero saw its decline after the turbulent 1960s. The constant presence of criminal and ne’er-do-wells, the “quaint” factor of its gaudy decor and the terrible fame brought by films and tv were factors on its decline.

Even so, it still had enough parishioners to keep afloat, managing to stay in the black after so many economical hardships. Every single time the peso lost power against the dollar or the stock market crashed, Pulcata Romero won a few new customers that temporarily made up for the losses.

But now, even the regulars are staying at home. None of the other identikit pulquerías on this street damaged the place as much as the current state of things. People said the world cup 5 years ago was going to liven things up but no one seems to be on a festive mood. The new decade seems to be turning pulquerías into an old relic destined to crumble into oblivion.

Juan de Dios Romero, the great grandson of Joaquín de Dios Romero, is the current owner of the place. He’s tried everything to keep people coming to the place. When Atari was trendy, he bought one console in Tepito and offered people a chance to play for free if they bought one curado or two (2) beers. When the quake hit in ’85, everyone scared of aftershocks flocked to this street full of pulquerías. With the ’86 World Cup, Juan de Dios bought a projector TV and thought he could pay off the expense with the increased profits.

But nothing helped the business thrive long enough. The projector TV was commandeered by a local group of cops that got a bit greedy. Don Gallito, the local drunk, managed to ruin the Atari console with a torrent of half digested quesadillas and curado de nuez. The last years of the 80s were a bit of the struggle, but the place survived. Barely.

It might not survive this new decade, the nineties.

A real shame, as Joaquín de Dios Romero lost everything during the Mexican Revolution. His farm, his wife and six of his eight children, all gone. During the Huerta regime he managed to scrounge enough to have a small place that was in the middle of nowhere in those days, a sort of last refuge before the great devastation that laid ahead. Come the Cristero War and Joaquín and his best friend died in the crossfire of a skirmish near Montes Colorados. The pulquería became the property of Diego, the oldest surviving son. Diego drank himself to death and Joaquín Jr. was alone in this world, with a pulquería in the middle of nowhere.

So Joaquín Jr. soldiered on. He worked every day, carefully brewing pulques with the recipe that his father inherited from his grandmother. Those were difficult years, especially during Cárdenas‘ regime, but the place survived and Joaquín Jr. married. The place was refurbished in the midfifties and Joaquín Jr. retired, leaving the place to Juan Diego, his only male son, who left ownership to his son Juan de Dios in 1983 after he purchased a Motel located on Calzada de Tlalpan and left to manage it. Juan de Dios was too young to be managing Pulcata Romero, but was clever enough to have picked up the finer details of running the joint.

So what went wrong? Let’s focus back on late October, 1991. For the last 3 months, every Friday, firetruck horns pervade the atmosphere. Without a hitch, every Friday there’s a fire in Naucalpan, where Los Remedios lies. Tomorrow the newspapers will speculate on the arsonist’s motives. It’s always bathroom and tiles stores being burnt. Is there a dispute? Is it a drug trafficker charging protection money? Why those stores? Police are silent about the subject and newspapers usually blame bad wiring and “force majeure”, but conspiracies abound. Because Mexicans never take the official truth as a truth. It’s a historical thing.

Doña Greta from the quesadilla stand outside says she heard from a priest that a band of narcosatanistas from Ciudad Juárez are burning places owned by Catholics. Fernando González, a civil engineer that has been drinking the place dry since 1974, swears it’s all an insurance scam. Don Gallito, a drunk that has been faithfully visiting since 1959, heard someone else swear that a big international hardware and domestic goods shop is trying to get all competition closed before hitting the Mexican market. Don Rafael, a good friend of the Romero family, thinks this is all the work of a lonely madman. Why? He mentions something called Occam’s razor.

All good theories for Juan de Dios. He has time for hearsay as long as their defendants keep buying drinks. Juan de Dios keeps hoping that the regulars start bringing their sons when they come of age, as time and tide are also a factor in the amount of clients diminishing. A hard sell, though, but the occasional young drinker comes from time to time, checks the place out and sometimes brings his friends for another round. Who cares if they might be under the legal age of drinking? Ports in a storm and all that.

Midnight and the firetrucks still howl in the distance, the modern equivalent of La Llorona haunting the deserted streets for the souls of the uncaring and the foolhardy. A young man, slender and wearing overalls, enters Pulcata Romero and asks for a shot of mezcal and pineapple curado. He sits by the corner, looking at the window and sighing. Juan de Dios has seen him before, maybe four times, and appreciates the returning customer.

He does look odd tonight, thought Juan de Dios. Somewhere in his mind, he’d love for this customer to be the mysterious pyromaniac that Don Rafael speculated about. Juan de Dios could call the police and get them to pick up the mysterious customer that always drinks 5 mezcal shots, 3 beers and 4 pulques and pays in new bills that have a bit of soot and grit darkening them. Yes, it could be a great story, told and exaggerated for years to come. Maybe it could end up on TV, in one of those investigative reporter shows? Like the one with the really well-built twins?

Of course, it has to be him, thought Juan de Dios, but what if he doesn’t go quiet? What if when the police arrive, the stranger pulls out an AK-47 from his big overalls and goes down in a blaze of glory? Pulcata Romero would be infamous and nobody would come around for fear of more violence. Or what if the guy has a bomb and blows the place up? Sure, it’s rundown but it’s the only family heirloom the Romeros ever had.

Don Gallito opens the door with one fierce kick and everyone but the stranger flinches, even if this his usual entrance spectacle. He yells for two pulques and a puta to be brought to him. He gets his drinks but no whores for His Royal Boozehoundness. Don Inocencio, another regular, swears that Don Gallito was a military stationed in Ciudad Madero that went insane after Hurricane Hilda killed his family. Fernando calls him “the Mexican Bukowski” but the reference always flew over Juan de Dios’ head.

An hour passes, no new customers and the ones inside are drinking slow. Even the stranger, who usually is halfways through his dose by now. Juan de Dios empties a bag of peanuts in a few small bowls that are probably older than him and passes them around. He walks to the stranger’s table and puts a slightly chipped bowl.

“Thanks. Another round please. And stop short changing me with the mezcal.”

Juan de Dios grins and goes back to the bar, serving the mezcal shot all the way up to the brim. The pineapple curado spills a little on the way to the table but a swift movement of a cloth wipes it all away.

“Got a light?” asks the stranger as he pulls out a slightly bent cigarette from a crumpled John Player Special fliptop pack. Juan de Dios pulls out a Zippo lighter and lights it.

“Tough day at work, huh, friend?”

The stranger takes a big pull of air, elongating the red hot section of the cigarette. “Fridays are the worse.”

Juan de Dios was just about what “work” was but the stranger continued. “We’ll never get our dues, us vulcanos. We barely have the money for equipment, the axes are blunt and our trucks are falling apart. My friends are out there, right now, fighting the weekly conflagration and tomorrow I’ll have to take a look at the truck, see which part of that pile of junk needs replacing and ‘acquire’ it.”

“So, you are a mechanic.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Firetruck parts must be expensive.”

“Yes, but there are alternatives. Always. How about you? How’s your pulcata doing?”

“Could be better, could be worse.”

“I’ve been to the others. Yours looks the part and at least has good pulque.”

“Thanks. So how long have you been a firefighter?”

The stranger takes another long breath from his cigarette.

I’ve noticed that your fire extinguishers are out of date and you only have this one exit. It’d be a shame if a fire started and no one could get out, ‘friend’.”

Juan de Dios took the hint and turned around. The stranger kept drinking and Don Rafael turned the volume up. Some shiny suited up reporter on TV was talking about how Naucalpan’s police chased two people near Alce Blanco, the industrial part of Naucalpan. The suspects now were laying in the ground, their lives flowing away in red streams that changed colour with the blue and red shimmers from the cop cars. A silver haired cop with a big mustache explained that an anonymous caller said a white Volkswagen van, a combi, had been parked nearly for a week in front of what is now a pile of smouldering rubble. Two cop cars gave chase after the fire started and the shootout happened after they crashed the van near a community pool.

“Well, waddaya know, chingao?” said Don Rafael, while trying to crack the shell of a perfectly shut pistachio.

When Juan de Dios turned around from the TV screen, the stranger was by the bar, handing over the empties. He placed new looking bills for the exact amount he drank. The money was set clearly on the counter top, no tip to be found among the neat cash.

“I’m calling it an early night” he says as he walks towards the doors, which he opens calmly and leaves ajar. A cop car was outside, with the turret lights off. The stranger hits the roof of the car, shakes the hands of the cops inside and sits comfily in the back and they all drove away.

The stranger would be seen again for another year, every single Friday, sometimes tipping generously, sometimes not even saying “thanks.” Afterwards, he was nowhere to be seen. Later years were hard on the whole street and all of the pulquerías, including Pulcata Romero, closed by 2005. The street now harbours a few places selling religious trinkets, an internet café and a convenience store. Juan de Dios moved to Querétaro and started a new pulquería near the main plaza just as they started to be trendy again.

Words & Photo: Sam J. Valdés López.

This story’s inspiration lies somewhere between MC 900 Ft Jesus’ ‘The City Sleeps’ and Drive-by Truckers’ ‘The Great Car Dealer War.’

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