The House Loses

Terrales was founded by improvident people, who found themselves without fuel in the mountains, and had no wish to return on foot to the desert suns. The sole meeting place (though it would be more precise to call it a "passing point") was a ramshackle hut where the drivers would gather and play poker. For some reason that no one recalled, they also came to ascribe the name "Terrales" to the three of aces. Those hands of cards always seemed to bring bad luck.

Radio held up his three losing cards. There was no need to show the other two as well.

"A glass of spirits?" Guadalupe came over to his table.

The Polar Bar's owner knew all the places the drivers came from: she had covered the north with Los Intrépidos, a band of musicians dressed like space cowboys. For a number of years, she got gigs for them and oversaw their stage sets (which she always called a "stend") along all the frontier villages, then spent a while in Monterrey, staying at a house with two satellite dishes on the front. Her moment of glory came in the United States, living with a gringo who took her to see The Nutcracker Suite on Ice. Her "anticlimax" (she relished repeating this word which she'd gleaned from the changing fortunes of Los Intrepidos) also came while she was north of the border: the gringo left her off at a dentist's and never returned to pick her up, as if he already knew all about the porcelain crowns that were forever to "disfigure her smile."

"What I need is a heart that's true . . . " lamented a voice emerging from the jukebox's flashing lights and plastic bubbles.

Guadalupe tugged Radio's shirt with her strong fingers, those fingers that had poked inside his trousers once upon a time. He retained a torrid recollection of the morning when he'd first arrived at the Polar Bar for a cup of coffee; the two of them had spent a sleepless night, he in the radio booth up in Paso de Montana, and she waiting tables. They'd eyed one another like sleepwalkers until a roar parted the skies: "The crop-sprayers," explained Guadalupe. They leaned over the edge of the canyon to watch the biplanes fumigate the slopes, spraying trails of pink poison. Without any further communication between them, Guadalupe had pulled down his zipper and caressed him with all the skill she brought to one-handedly opening beer bottles. Radio had once watched as a woman bit through the umbilical cord of a newborn baby with her bare teeth. Guadalupe behaved in like fashion, motivated by a sense of practical urgency. When he felt he was getting close to the brink, she told him: "A mandrake will grow from this," one of the stranger things she had learnt from los Intrépidos, or maybe in Monterrey, or else from the gringo who took her to the ballet on ice.

They never repeated the experience nor spoke about it thereafter. From that time on, Radio assumed that Guadalupe's secrets were more important than her city adventures. The clouds of roseate smoke, the cold air, the swoops of the crop-sprayers and the near-unbearableness of her caress combined in a single word: "mandrake." He never enquired as to its meaning, because he wanted it always to continue meaning all the unrelated events of that dawn.

". . . And in the hold it carried a thousand watermelons," Guadalupe was talking without addressing a particular audience; she'd begin a sentence behind the counter, and complete it at any one of the Formica-topped tables. "The house loses!" she exclaimed, on seeing someone arrive at the door.

The man had a ruddy face; his staring eyes revealed he must have traveled the length of the Quemada highway, and had never for an instant left off loathing it. He advanced without lifting up his heavy boots, as if he'd forgotten how to walk. He paused before the shrine to St. Christopher and studied the "Truck Driver's Prayer."

Give me, O my God, a firm hand, A vigilant look, That my journey may cause no harm to anyone

"This way," and Guadalupe took him by the arm.

"I've come from Zapata," said the man.

Every state in the country boasted a town called Zapata. To produce such an aspect and those lethargic movements, the Zapata he referred to must have been some days of non-stop trucking away.

"Don't you have a driver's mate?" asked Guadalupe.

"Where's the toilet?" he replied.

Guadalupe accompanied him out the back, along the corridor with its mildewed wooden floorboards. Would she help him to the end, with her hard, calloused hands, capable of setting anything to rights? Radio looked her over slowly as she returned to the room; the woman's thin body, her bloodshot eyes, disclosed the hours of overwork, hours spent splitting blocks of ice in order to cool bottles of beer that were already cold, then nights spent having to put up with drunks and their vomit, careful never to display the least disgust. What miracle, or which tragedy, could have brought her here? Whatever had happened to her in some other place that made this one better than there?

"May I?" A hand bearing a skull ring waved at an empty chair. "How's the game going? Are we playing Las Vegas or regular poker?"

Although separated by two seats, Radio could smell the sheepskin jacket on the back of the new arrival. The man stacked up the cards and emptied a bottle of Estrella beer that no one had offered him. He glowed with having recomposed himself, master of a tense attention. He must have taken enough cocaine to fly to Zapata and back.

"Off up to the frontier?" he asked someone.

"Wherever else?"

After a couple of inconsequential games, the man spotted Radio.

"Do you work at Paso de Montana?"

"How do you know?"

"That fucking little badge tells me," and he pointed at Radio's shirt, with its badge of a striped microphone. "Still, I'd no idea you wore a uniform. You and I have spoken plenty of times, though your voice sounds stronger over the mike."

The shirt was another of those absurd gifts the truck drivers brought him, a publicity item from a Mississippi radio station; its red stripes, crossed with a yellow thread, implied some kind of a comic-strip superhero.

There were five players around the table, but the truck driver only addressed Radio in making his introduction.

"Chuy Mendoza," and he extended a fat hand.

"What do you carry in your trailer?" asked another player.

Mendoza studied his cards, inhaled deeply, then gingerly touched his chest, as if he had a rash or a sting he'd already rubbed too often. "Luxury timber."

Radio couldn't help thinking of forbidden rare species, a clandestine electric saw, the customs officers bribed to smuggle the lengths of wood over the border. He was hardly surprised when the other guy said, "Shall we raise the stakes?"

Two players looked at their watches and rose to their feet. At the back of the bar, Guadalupe polished the lead elephant she had rescued from the debris of a road accident. The landscapes decorating the bar were likewise the result of a crash. A beer lorry had overturned nearby and she was left with a counter, which displayed the picture of ice floes in an Arctic bay. It was the origin of the name of the Polar Bar. In the background of the picture, beneath the Northern Lights, you could make out little blobs, which could have been either igloos or bears. Radio focused on this far-distant detail until he felt a hand on his forearm.

"You, say something."

He asked for two decks. He was surprised at the calm manner in which he lost the game: he pushed a couple of bottle-tops, which served as poker chips across the table.

"You go on air at seven, don't you?" Chuy Mendoza asked him. "We've a half-hour left to us; if you like, I'll keep you company to Paso de Montana, and we'll play on there, until our bodies give out. I've brought the packs of cards with me."

Yet again, he only addressed Radio. He knew his timetable, and his taste in card games. The man had resumed rubbing his chest, opening a button the better to scratch himself; Radio spotted a chain with a gold animal charm dangling from it, the kind of jewelry sported by Los Intrépidos at the height of their fame.

He took another long look at the broken-down snakeskin boots, once very expensive, now sorely soiled. Even Chuy Mendoza's name had an unreal ring to it: it belonged to a gunman in a cheap western made by the Alameda Brothers. The rare timber must be another invention. The one sure thing was that he was determined to spend a sleepless night gambling; presumably he needed to get to the frontier for the morning changeover.

"I'm out," announced the last player still seated at the table, making Radio's answer that much easier.

Guadalupe was polishing the elephant with a disturbing degree of concentration. Radio would have preferred it if everyone else carried on just as if nothing were the matter, with the same indifference as when they listened to the gringo who called in every Saturday to regale them with tales of nuclear war, and the refuge he was supposedly about to build up in the mountains. For the moment, however, everyone was busily pretending to be in their own world, with an irritating degree of absorption. What did the truck driver have on him? He obviously knew his voice, repeating the words that helped the lorries remain on course through the mist and fog, but he'd arrived as if to a pre-arranged meeting. Perhaps he really was onto him, or perhaps his radio discussions were tantamount to a confused confession, subject to a thousand interruptions, but a confession all the same and when all was said and done. But not even Guadalupe knew this much about him, his job made him nothing more than a nocturnal microphone. And even he had got used to thinking of himself as the Radio, and jumped when Patricia called out his real name the first time they slept together.

His program began in a quarter of an hour. He got up hastily, paying no attention to his adversary's bossy manner. "I'll pay," he said.

***

The door had swollen with the rains; he had to give it a shove with his shoulder. He wondered whether the squeaking hinges would awaken Patricia, or their daughter.

There was a thermos of coffee left on the table for him. He switched on the cabin light and the radio mike. The man followed him with steps that reverberated oddly on the floorboards. Maybe it was down to the snakeskin boots.

He listened to the weather forecast out of San Vicente Piedra: a night of heavy fog and lorries parked all across the mountainside. He considered possible resistance from the intruder (suddenly matters presented themselves to him in a different light). How long would the effects of the drug take to wear off? Did he have any more on him? He studied his shiny fingernails, with their dark half-moons at the base. By the light of the unshaded spotlight the man's eyes seemed to be shining yellow; his eyelashes were stiff, like bristles on a broom. He had resumed scratching his chest. Radio visualized insect bites from the desert crossing, the kind of little creatures which opened up your skin to get inside and lay their eggs, then inject their poison into your system with a sting. Perhaps within a couple of hours Chuy Mendoza would faint outright onto the bottle-tops he had laid out on the table.

Only rarely did the truck-drivers' voices have a northern accent; they always spoke differently when in front of a mike, as if attempting something new on the local airwaves. Radio directed a lorry heading towards the lay-by on Kilometer 140, another to the lorry park on 167. He told them to spend the night there where they were, and keep their headlamps burning. From time to time a song emerged out of the gloom with the infinite melancholy of los Bukis.

Chuy Mendoza was listening carefully to the messages being relayed into the cabin, as if he were watching a film on rewind. How often might the two of them have conversed previously over the airwaves?

"Do you often come this way?"

"As and when necessary. You cut."

"How are we going to go about this?"

Chuy pulled out some dollars, counted them scrupulously, then laid three on the table. Radio had hoped for a more substantial first bet.

An ocean of silence followed, as the two men stared at their cards as if each one offered a double meaning, and while something creaked in the bedroom. Perhaps Patricia was having a nightmare. The woman's dreams reached their cabin as if transmitted through the woodwork.

Radio poured out the coffee, more to warm his hands on the metal cup than to have something to drink.

"Don't you have something stronger?" Chuy Mendoza let fall a five of diamonds.

He went to look for the bottle in the closet. There it was, hidden behind two bags of flour. He served it in a glass that had once contained a religious candle.

The man knocked it back. "Pure shit!" he said admiringly. His fingers caressed the cross at the base of his glass.

A trucker who identified himself as the Marisca wanted to get through at all costs; the driver sounded as if his mouth had been washed out with diesel: he had got to reach the frontier before dawn.

"Those bucks must have a date with their fiancées," Chuy concluded.

Radio was also well aware of the tricks of the trade. The "fiancées" came with the regulation issue .45s; leather boots; powerful aftershave; dark glasses; and were absolutely adamant about keeping appointments running exactly on time. Should the "suitor" dare to arrive late, a lot of things could go wrong for him, not one of which would get him over onto the other side. Ill-treated "fiancées" were the best police force there was: and they'd exact their revenge by ripping out cab upholstery and deflating tires in search of Class A drugs.

Up in the mountains, all they talked about was "the altar," "the suitor," the predictable "altar boy," and the customs post as a negotiating counter in the "courtship." A curious form of respect applied to such an elaborate metaphor: men thus bribed did not become whores; these "fiancées" could have been daughters of whores, but never whores as such.

Marisca agreed to pull over when he was already high up the road - they heard the metallic groan of his stick shift as it crashed from sixth into fifth gear and the truck rumbled onto the graveled lay-by at point 236. It was as if he had been swallowed up, high in the mountains: total silence, the shortwave radio still on, then the sound of a harmonica, a melancholy wail, a lament as of train tracks vanishing into the night.

"The fiancée has had her serenade cut short," Chuy Mendoza made the kind of comment anyone could have made. Ever since he'd walked into the Polar Bar, he had shown no signs of anything whatsoever beyond an overwhelming single-mindedness to win. His nails rapped on the table. Radio poured out the remainder of the hooch.

They had reached a stage where they were turning up only low-value odd cards, where even to achieve a pair seemed something of a victory.

"Destitution wins out over poverty," added Chuy, when he lost a hand. "Where on earth did you get this shit?"

Guadalupe brought in the hooch stored in metal drums, then filtered it into bottles through a funnel. The man appeared fascinated by the foul taste of the stuff.

The light indoors made it impossible to see outside. On clear days, Nuevo Terrales seemed close at hand, but the bends in the road set it at ten hours' traveling distance. Ever since he was a child, Radio had watched the articulated lorries roll by; he remembered his astonishment at seeing the first refrigerated truck that came in to pick up strawberries from the Bajio. The mountains had always been the same, only what traveled them changed with the times. Now there was a landing strip on the other side, and a meteorological station, the radio studio, and the nightly advance of the trucks (it was unusual to spot a car on this highway devoid of towns), all showing up on his radar, and on invisible airwaves. Radio didn't know the owners of the weather station, nor even who was responsible for paying him to keep vigil over these night- time crossings. One pick-up truck, never driven twice by the same man, brought him bills bundled together with elastic bands; sometimes the dollars got mixed in with pesos, and brought a faint trace of perfume, as if they had passed through the hands of the frontier "fiancées." Every so often he was given a raise, indicating that a system existed, that someone out there was concerned with the landing strips and the circulation of merchandise. Nobody in Terrales knew how much money moved along its narrow streets, where the oyamale trees formed green tunnels. According to Guadalupe, it must have amounted to a fortune, but she always liked to imagine the worst: the truth was always more extreme. The village and border post at Paso de Montana lived off trafficking: "The sultans of swing keep it all moving; we are but their bailiffs," and she spoke of her distant benefactors with equal measures of loathing and admiration.

Radio won a couple of games; perhaps it was chance taking a hand in the only way it knew how: do not concentrate, allow your attention to wander.

"I'm going for a leak," and Chuy got up, in order to break the spell of bad luck.

"Radio" went out with him. Together they urinated over the narrow pass; the scent of the cedars reaching them through the fog. Their piss fell as if into a bottomless pit. Was the mandrake something that only existed way down at the bottom?

A call-in from another truck brought Radio back to his cabin. Perhaps the other guy took advantage of the break to take a snort of cocaine. In any case, when he returned to the room he was radiating alertness and exhaustion in equal parts.

"How high can you raise?" he pushed a finger down on the star decorating the centre of a bottle-top. "Shall we add another three zeros?"

Inside the Polar Bar, the proposal would have proved a conversation stopper but here, his head filled with images of badly-shuffled cards and trucks pulled up on every lay-by (their headlamps shimmering like a lost constellation), such sums began to seem feasible. Chuy Mendoza was testing him out, with meticulous calm, as if he were assessing an engine he was not as yet prepared to strip down.

Radio studied the hands in charge of dealing the cards. Physically, as if under the weight of a second wave of weariness pressing down on the nape of his neck, he realized that Mendoza knew what he was hiding, and had arrived there in search of it and with everything to play for it. Only this could account for the raised stakes. The wooden rooms, the badger hide nailed to a wall, the oil lamp on the kitchen table, beside the box of cereal and two badly matched spoons, the dangling pear-shaped mike (a relic of the Second World War, still astonishingly functional), the oil drums next to the wire-mesh door, made it clear that a single game, as proposed by the night visitor, was clearly absurd. As of now, however, it was also quite logical.

"We've two hours left." That was why Chuy had taken them outside, so that the fog could bring them closer to the dawn. The loudspeaker emitted a similar static, indicating that sleep had overtaken their traveling companions. Radio pondered whether the other guy was working for himself, or if somebody had sent him. Possibly a pair of distant hands were involved, wearing the ridiculously opulent rings that Guadalupe relished describing, hands that had found a way to reach him. It would have been simpler to send in one of the "bailiffs" who roamed the sierra to bury him in some canyon or other. Why on earth make the recovery contingent on the game?

Only then, with discomforting suddenness, did he realize that there was still a possibility of his winning. But in such an eventuality, how would Mendoza ever be able to pay him? The snakeskin boots and the gold animal charm told of better days, while the sheepskin jacket, the exhaustion maintained under control with coke and speed, the ruined fingernails, spoke of a hostage to fortune. Maybe he had taken months over planning their encounter: going up and down the mountains, always in contact with Radio, insects staining his windscreen a thousand times over, and his left arm getting scorched by the sun along the interminable length of the Quemada highway, keeping his "dates" with the frontier, until he became so overcome with exhaustion that the endless journeys gradually revealed a way to achieve what the radio station was always keeping concealed, the secret of those hills where the petrol stations gave out.

Radio studied Chuy Mendoza's voice: when the Thorton jack-knifed and went over, there was another lorry behind it. He pulled it up with the agreed code words: "something strange going on." He pulled on a jacket and took a storm lantern to go out in search of the remains of the Thorton. Meanwhile, someone was waiting a few kilometers away, on the "speckled bend." But how did he know that between the two broken corpses of the driver and his assistant lay a metal box? Perhaps he had delayed in tying up the loose ends; perhaps he too was later to learn that the Quemada dog-track had lost a fortune (of money generally sent across the border to buy dogs).

When Radio asked Guadalupe about it, she added some dirty details: the real game was dog fighting. For some reason or other, he felt relief that the metal box came via a game of chance; the dogs had run for it; and the unknown fighting hounds had torn each other apart for it. Nevertheless, he had only ever opened the box once and had never counted the bills. He searched for some way of raising the subject of the money with Patricia. He couldn't find one. He had kept the box in the shed, some two hundred meters from the radio booth. His father had spent his last years there, doing little beyond smoking marijuana and staring out at the horizon. "This room is small on the inside, but enormous on the outside," he would say, referring to the surrounding vastness. The window dominated the valley, with its airfield, the freeway with its white lines along which his father always anticipated the return of a no-longer fashionable car, a Valiant, in order to close the circle.

Radio could scarcely remember the years when his parents had a bungalow in Terrales, with two rooms for renting out. Only occasionally did a traveler decide to spend the night there. True to say, the only memory he retained of the place, was the obsessive recollection of an isolated scene. He had gone over it so many times in his mind, adding in further precise and painful details, which kept returning with growing veracity, as if he had perceived the event at different ages throughout his life. The bungalow provided a sketchy surround, but the kitchen light was burning brightly. The bald guy always wore a basketball shirt; it was summertime, and a sweaty oval blotched his swollen belly. He must have been around fifty years old; his chest was covered with grey hairs; on the back of his hands, though, the hairs were still red. He smiled without rhyme or reason, as though stupidity were a gift to be shared with everyone. He spent three days with them, an eternity in that region of continuous transit. He killed time by making matchstick men. Perhaps he knew Radio's mother from before, in any case memory had turned him into a pointless guest, who bent matchsticks all day in the kitchen, until night fell. What was most striking was the physical deterioration of the man: his pallid arms; asthmatic breathing; the bald pate shining with sweat; the imbecile smile; and despite all this he had succeeded in possessing his mother on the kitchen table. With suffocating slowness, Radio remembered the hands with their ruddy hairs pulling down the pair of panties; her raised legs; the ridiculous high-heeled shoes wrapped around the man's neck; the expression of indecipherable surrender; far from the passionless contact; the relief of two lonely people in the sierra. Then too, Guadalupe's uncomplicated compliance. And an incommunicable joy, as if the young body of his mother awaited nothing else but to be penetrated, there on that kitchen table. Perhaps his memory failed him at certain points, perhaps Radio had infiltrated it on purpose, in order to make his subsequent flight appear even worse; in any case, the head that turned in his direction was real, the eyes suddenly opened were real. His mother saw him in the corridor and that was what made her decide to leave; there was no way she could bear having a witness to the best night of her life, there up in the mountains, growing up alongside her. The very next day, she left the house with a leather suitcase. The man was waiting for her beside his Valiant, as he ran towards her and tried to grab her belt. She broke free and got into the car.

Enough years had elapsed for Radio to admit a cool reassessment of the scene. Why did they not turn out the kitchen light? Everything had the quality of an over-exposed photograph: skin looked too white, sweat shone, the flower-print dress, shoes coated in mud, the matchstick man falling to the floor, a table held together with nails about to give way. Had the nails broken, his father would have woken up, saving him the next twenty years of waiting with his rifle loaded with bullets for each of them, his gaze fixed on the highway.

On one wall of the shed, there was a picture of her smiling, a bit in the fashion of the bald guy. It was a hand-tinted portrait: eyes that were black colored in blue, cheeks the color of raspberries. His memory of the kitchen scene resembled this photo.

When Radio went to the shed for some tool or other, he always glanced at the picture anew. It seemed to him incredible that this woman, younger than he was now, retouched in unlikely colors, had lived there. He had fed from this body.

His father died in his sleep, facing the window, looking out over the "vastness" of his home. From time to time, Radio imagined that he had died with the rifle across his knees; then he withdrew such an obvious distortion; he died at peace, as if such a long wait were but another means of consummating his revenge.

***

They heard the sound of steps, Patricia's feet walking across wooden floorboards.

The woman paused on the threshold, standing awkwardly, her face slightly swollen with sleep, her hair in her eyes:

"It's so cold" - she always said "it's so cold" and went around barefoot, as if she were unaware of what it meant to be in Paso de Montana. She wore a pale blue nightshirt that barely covered her. She took a few steps inside the doorway and curled up on a bench. The Radio stared at her toes, where the skin changed color and turned very white.

He went to their room where their daughter slept, to retrieve a bedcover. In the gloom he could make out a bottle of soda. The pillow smelt of eucalyptus linctuses. The first thing he knew about Patricia was her pretty daughter, who smiled from behind the wire-mesh door and told him their car was "broken down."

From the first night he ever slept with her onwards, she called out his name and became the first person not to address him as Radio. She left him with an irresistible invitation whispered into his ear: "Let's go." But he stayed where he was, and got a job in the fiberglass factory, some fifteen kilometers from Terrales. Radio had seen its smoke in the distance; according to Guadalupe, the work was poison, and induced glass shards to form in your lungs. Patricia worked wearing a mask, and sprayed substances through a hose with a sprinkler on it. He enjoyed visualizing her through clouds of the spray; one way or another, she could only see things thereafter as if through a vaporous mist, a wire mesh, a filter that allowed her to be somewhere she had no desire to be.

The Thorton accident occurred a few weeks after Patricia had set to work to make the house habitable, and to beg them to leave. He agreed with her, thinking of the sand oval, perfectly illuminated, where the dogs so rapidly determined the call of destiny and then, as if without any connection, the bills that remained uncounted. He discarded the idea of using the money: he had no idea how he did it; gradually he felt himself overcome by something that prevented him from recounting any of his story to Patricia; everything was assuming the shape of a bitter secret. Patricia was so longing to leave that the box hidden in the shed gradually became the hope he betrayed without her even knowing about it.

Radio put a blanket around Patricia's shoulders and watched her smile as if dreaming of something good and unalterable. He returned to the card table. He felt something approaching relief when he picked up the three of aces. "Terrales" he said to himself. He demanded two cards. With slow monotony he went along with every bet that Mendoza raised. He lost the game, and turned his gaze towards the window caressed by the mist. The speakers gave forth a continuous hiss devoid of words. How many nights had he spent in vigil beside his thermos filled with coffee, swatting midges on the tabletop, memorizing basketball scores, laying out the cards in a game of solitaire? Someone had to remain awake, after all, so that the rest of the travelers could get through. It really was that simple. That was the sound emitted by the speakers that suited the obscure mist, which he was watching through the window.

After hours of silence, the first voice sounded strangely through the speaker:

"Have you got a truck up there with you?"

Chuy Mendoza scratched his chest. Radio locked eyes with him. Chuy shook his head in reply.

"No," he answered. "Why do you ask?"

He recognized the voice. It was talking from the weather station:

"Some guy went off track up there after going through Terrales. You seen anything unusual?"

"Nothing."

The man cut the packs of cards, without pausing to thank him for his lies. Was someone watching them? Someone awaiting his return with the box? His yellow eyes were fixed on Radio.

"How much do you have left?" Mendoza pointed to his pile of bottle-tops, an overwhelming advantage.

What was worse, to lose the valley with its neon lights, his open life meant to be shared with Patricia, or for her never to know of the treasure still intact inside its metal box? It was as if he were betting on his woman's dream. When she opened her eyes once more, it would be to return to the shabby room, to everything she so wanted to leave behind, and which nonetheless she had done her best to improve.

He had to go in search of a bag of perforated bottle-tops that he'd kept to use as nail-heads. It would have been easier simply to hand them over to his adversary, but he continued with the ritual they had begun, losing one game after the next, until further tallies became redundant.

"Where do you keep it?" asked Chuy Mendoza.

The window was bathed in a pale light; a few moments more, and the trucks would start up their engines and start calling in to request directions on how to get back onto the highway.

They went outside into the fresh dawn air, and took the well-trodden path to the shed.

Radio pushed the door open and inhaled the dusty air. He leaned over the windowsill; the mist was dispersing, he could see the highway running into the distance, dotted down the middle with a broken white line.

The box was underneath his mother's portrait, to one side of the rifle. Was it loaded? It seemed odd that he had never known whether it was or not.

"Here," and he pulled back the cloth that covered the box and opened the clasp, "I never even counted them." The bills shone stiffly, still ribbed, as if they had been printed overnight.

The man left the shed with an air of indifference, as if he were simply responsible for accumulating property lost in the mountainside. A few minutes later, Radio could hear the sound of his engine starting up.

He looked at the picture on the wall, the cherry-colored sweater covering the body that had fed him, the young woman he would never recognize when she returned to Terrales, because she would return, even if only for a few minutes, just long enough to confirm that particular incident in his life, or else - as so often happened - to demonstrate how one could become marooned at such a vanishing point.

He approached the window. The land stretched out before him, as if its breadth were an opportunity. The landing strip floodlights went out one by one, like vanishing gold baubles. He lifted his fingers to his nostrils: they had a metallic odor, from pushing so many bottle-tops back and forth.

The shed was the last possible outpost on the mountainside. He wondered what would happen if someone somewhere could see him there. Did they know he was here? Did they understand the significance of a matchstick man and a three of aces? Could they also visualize Patricia's mouth, abandoned to her dreams, and the changes they wrought? Did they also feel what he felt? Would they think he had won or lost anything? Did they comprehend what would happen when people are left without oil?