El Niño Actór
Celestino took the beer. The bottle was cold and wet, and it felt good in his hand. He had not had a drink since Hermelinda died. He wondered if it would taste the same. He had always been a beer drinker; it was inexpensive, prudent. That, and his stomach could never take the harder stuff. It burned the lining of his guts. He remembered the first time he had gotten fall-down drunk, off a half-empty bottle of gin he'd stolen from his Tío Anuncio, and how it turned his insides to fire and shit.
This beer, though, was perfect. It filled his mouth and trickled down his throat, settling low and deep in his testicles. It made him cool and warm at the same time, and even as he took another drink, he silently asked Hermelinda's forgiveness for feeling this good.
"Come, sit with us, Tino," Robles said, his arm around his wife. "I bet you get asked about it a lot, but would you do us the honor of telling us the story of your movie?"
Celestino took the chair offered him, set down his beer, and pulled himself in to the table.
"Nobody has mentioned it to me in more than 35 years," he said, amazed at the honeyed fluidity of his voice, a melody of sound he hadn't heard for such a long time. "Were you there, Everardo?"
"Was I there?" Robles asked. "I sure was. I was seven years old and you were the new Pedro Infante. We all saw it happen. But you tell the story."
"What are you taking about, Evvy?" the comadre Altagracia wanted to know. She had grown up in a small town to the northeast, and many of the childhood stories were alien to her.
"I'm talking about Tino Macedo, el niño actór," Robles said. "He made a movie when he was a boy. Go ahead, Tino. Tell it."
Celestino looked at their faces. The night was warm and late, and their eyes had taken on the sweet look of drink and folly. They were eager for a story, he thought. It had been so long since he'd told it, since he'd given those events utterance. But he had thought about it every day of his life, that man, that tall man, bigger than life, dressed in white, a red bandana around his neck like the flag on a mast of a ship. And every day he remembered the eyes, those steel-gray eyes. Photographs never did them justice; you had to see them to know them.
"Okay," Celestino said, and there was a collective exhalation of approval. They were going to get what they wanted.
"When I was a boy, I lived on the Rancho San Patricio, not very far at all from where I live now, in fact, just down the road," Celestino said. "I was one of six children, and the only boy. I was the baby. Can you imagine? My mother and my sisters doted over me day and night. I was always the baby, even in their playtime. They would dress me up like one of their dollies, and their dollies didn't have but rags to wear. We were poor. But they treated me like a little prince.
"It was decided even before I could speak that I would be an actor. I was el niño Jesus in the posada play when I was an infant, did you know that? They said I was very convincing.
"But let me tell you now, it was all my mother's doing, my mother and my sisters. They wanted me to be an actor. My father, well, he didn't want that for me, not at all. They had to smuggle me out of the house like the real baby Jesus, you know, wrapped in swaddling clothes, to take me to the church for the play. My father wouldn't hear of it. But he had drunk himself to sleep and it really wasn't that hard, you know, to get me out of the house.
"When I got to be able to speak, I was the prince and my sisters were princesses and we would play Magic Kingdoms. Sometimes my sisters were kidnapped and I was the great rescuer who would come and save them from the beast, one of the wild dogs who lived on the rancho.
"In any case, from the earliest age I acted. And I enjoyed acting. I wanted to do it all the time.
"When I was about nine, word came that a Hollywood film company was coming to the border to shoot a Western. It was a new thing for us. There had never been a movie shot in this area, never never never. They were going to shoot it in Mexico, right across the border, but the deal fell through with the Mexican government, and instead they decided to set up here. They needed a boy for the movie. It wasn't a big role, not at all, but an important one. At least it was to me."
Celestino stopped his story. His beer bottle was empty. Someone noticed it and exchanged it with a new, full one. He smiled before he began again.
"The film crew was there for two weeks," he said. "Naturally, I thought I was a shoo-in for the part. Was there any other boy actor for a hundred miles? Well, yes, as it turned out, there were. Hundreds of them. They came on horses, in the backs of trucks, walking, from ranchos for miles. Many of them crossed the river from Mexico. I don't know how the word got out so far and wide, but it did, and they came. The producers held two days of auditions. I didn't even get to audition until near the end of the second day. And these weren't lengthy monologues, it was 'Stand over there, put out your hand, and cry.' That's what we had to do. I tell you, you had never seen so many boys crying. For two days. But I guess I stood and put out my hand and cried better than any of them, because I got the part.
"My sisters were all there, of course. And they were so thrilled. They hugged me and kissed me. Everyone looked at me. I felt I was king, not just acting a part anymore, but really the king of the rancho. We came home and told my father. By that time he was too far gone. He didn't care. He couldn't do anything about it. He had begun to disappear, really, to get paper-thin. He'd lift up his hand, to strike me, you know? And you could see through his skin, see the bones, see the weak blood pulsing in his veins. He wasn't much of a father. He wasn't much of a man at all anymore. He put up no resistance because he didn't have the strength. All he was strong enough to do was drink, so that's what he did.
"They don't shoot the movie in the right order, did you know that? Of course, I didn't know it then, I thought I would have to wait until the end of the shoot for my part. But my part was one of the first things they shot. We rehearsed it one morning with a stand-in for the lead actor, who hadn't arrived yet. I did my best. You see, the hero of the story is destitute at the end of the movie. You think he's lost everything. There's no way he can win.
"But then a young boy, myself, gives up his horse, his pride and joy, to the hero. The hero looks into his eyes, pats him on the head, mounts the horse, and rides away, leaving the boy to weep silently in the dusk. The boy has given the hero the last bit of magic he needs to save the girl, to save the town, to save the day.
"Later that day, the actor arrived and let me tell you, there was no work done. Everyone gathered around him. Everyone wanted to be close to him. He greeted everyone with kindness, but after a moment he said, 'I want to see the boy.'
"They brought me to him. He got down on one knee in front of me and it was like being at the movies and having the star walk off the screen right into your world.
"He said, 'So you're the boy, eh?'
"I just stood there and nodded yes.
"He smiled and his teeth were the white of the highest clouds. 'Be here at eight in the morning and we'll do our scene, we'll do it right,' he said. 'I know I can count on you.'
"I said, 'Yes, sir, you can!' And he smiled and ruffled my hair with his hand.
"I couldn't sleep at all that night. My heart raced. I got up to pee so many times, I was so nervous. Finally, I did sleep, a little, but I was up with the sun and went down there. A makeup artist outlined my eyes and fixed my hair. I was ready early and I was already outside when the actor came out. He looked like a giant, so tall, so strong, and he smiled at me with those white teeth. I looked up, beyond the big lights. All the kids were there, standing up on the ridge, waiting for my scene.
"It was just like the script. The hero is lost, broken, crawling, and then he sees me. He rises from the ground, just to my level, and I put out my hand. I'm holding the reins to my horse. He looks at my hand, at the horse. He can sense right away it's my prized possession, and it's a good, good horse. He takes the reins, pats my head, gets on the horse, and rides away. I watch him go and cry.
"That's it. That's my scene.
"We did it once. The director cried, 'Cut! Print that baby!' The crew cheered like crazy. The kids on the ridge cheered, and I looked up at them and they were so excited. I really was crying then, and so was the actor. He gathered me into his arms and raised me up on his shoulders. We walked around the set for fifteen minutes and I had never felt so exulted in my life.
"Then they started to set up for the next scene. Somebody saw me, one of the production workers, and he said, 'That's it for you, kid. You go on home, now.' I started to go but the actor stopped me. He said, 'Wait a minute. You stay here as long as you want, Tex. Don't let anyone run you off.'
"I stayed that day, but the next morning, they gave me a check for a hundred dollars and told me I wasn't needed anymore. I didn't see the actor around, so I went home. I watched them shoot the rest of the movie but always far enough away so they wouldn't see me. But all the kids from the rancho, they were always excited to see me and talk about my acting in the movie. I walked on air for many months after that, everyone looked at me so highly.
"About eight months later, the movie was finished. It was going to play at the little theater in town. Everybody I know was there. My father, of course, he didn't go. But my mother and sisters were in the front row. And all the ranch kids. They were there to see me.
"When the movie began, there was a roar. I felt like I had when he had carried me around on his shoulders, only now it was the whole town on whose shoulders I rode.
"It was your standard Western, I guess, but the people loved it, everyone waiting for my big scene. Only, it never came. The hero is destitute, just as before, but he finds a horse, my horse, only I'm not there to give it to him. He just hops on and rides off to save the day.
"Everyone watched with a kind of strange look, and nobody really cheered at the end of the movie when the hero saved the girl and the town from the desperadoes. There was only silence when 'The End' came up on the screen.
"People just left. Or they looked at me nastily with anger in their eyes.
"The movie stayed only a few days. No one bought tickets, so the theater pulled it and ran something else, something old, just to make back the money they had lost.
"I don't know what happened to the scene. Maybe it didn't come out as good as they'd thought. Maybe it was cut for time. It doesn't really matter now, does it?"
He looked at the beer bottle. It was empty.
"That's it," he said. "That's the story. I'm going to go find my daughter now. Buenas noches."
They watched him as he stood back from the table and walked out of the room. He had never been a tall man.