“Papi, Juanita is here, we go to church now. We be back at noon, the pollo is cooking on the stove” said Catalina.
“Ok” said Gabbayo, vacantly. His sister, Janet, took Catalina to mass every Sunday and they would eat Sunday lunch together. He still had the faith but was in no condition to travel. His hip replacements were now 20 years old.
“I’ll see you soon then,” said Gabbayo.
When Catalina left, Richard De Leon clawed the remote with his four fingers, flipping through. No games yet. He looked out the window and reminisced, there wasn’t much else to do now. He turned off the TV. He set his hands out before him, which bore the scars of 2nd and 3rd degree burns in lieu of pinkie fingers. In his younger days Richard “Gabbayo” De Leon would regale his friends and family on how he was an ancestor of Martin Lopez, one of the original engineers on the boats with Hernán Cortéz. Martin eventually returned to Spain, but his progeny did not, and with the establishment of the presidio at Bexar, Richard’s forebears set up a colony.
The Lopez and De Leon families became, like most Tejanos of the period, ranchers. Richard was the oldest of three boys enjoying the wide-open spaces of Texas and in his teens heard the harrowing adventures of his uncles in the Great War. He had been excited to get his chance to see some action in Korea, he saw it as an opportunity for a boy from Comfort Texas to see the world. After spending much of the Korean conflict in Japan running communications, he returned to Fort Sam Houston and met Leslie Van Pelt. Leslie was a hawk-faced blonde from a Dutch family in Amarillo. They had three girls, but their marriage was tumultuous. She would nag, and wheedle, and back-bite him. Leslie’s mother would get ill, and Leslie would spend the holidays, and sometimes the weekends in Amarillo to
care for her. For a period, Richard felt the old woman would outlive all of them.
While the family did maintain a modest acreage, Richard became a roughneck and then a foreman on various wildcat drilling operations before working for Tejaco. It was in this capacity that Richard met his date with destiny. The regulatory pressure on OSHA was relatively non-existent. His shift was over and he was clocking out as foreman when the kick hit. The drill hit a pocket of methane, and this caused the pressure on the wellbore in the line to get extremely hot and compressed the mud column. Gabbayo was eager to return home to Comfort and was shooting the shit with the crew when he heard the sudden “clunk”. The fatigue of a long shift was the just the delay needed for the kick to turn to a blowout. He looked at the foreman who was supposed to give him relief. The relief looked back at him plaintively, and in a mad dash Gabbayo ran to the blowout preventer. In his fifteen years in the industry, he had never faced an emergency like this. His life, the lives of the men on his crew, and all of their families depended on him closing that blowout preventer. So, in a poetic inversion of Martin Lopez, who first lit the torch on his boats at the order of Don Cortez, Richard “Gabbayo” De Leon embraced the fire, scorched his own hands on the safety valve, saved his crew, and suffered greatly. Gabbayo had just started manually closing the blowout preventer when the sparks within the wellbore got hot enough to ignite. In the searing heat of the blowout flames Gabbayo turned the blowout preventer one more quarter turn, closing the well entirely. The rest of the crew reached him with the asbestos and extinguishers but by then the damage was done. He had 2nd and third degree burns on his face and hands and lost both his pinkies. After three months of therapy and a $3 million settlement from Tejaco, Gabbayo became reborn by fire and embraced the lifestyle of a gentleman farmer. He inquired about starting a horse farm out in Comfort, Texas with an eye toward expanding his cattle holdings.
Not long after his right arm recovered, a second accident befell Gabbayo. His right arm was still stiff when he joined his Uncle on a cattle drive. His uncle chose thunder, a black stud; the horse’s unpredictable nature slipped his mind. Gabbayo got on Thunder and was getting his saddle rust off when Thunder, sensed something. Thunder began to panic and broke into a full gallop. Gabbayo was still rusty and not 100% in control and Thunder raised up on his back feet and Gabbayo fell to the ground. Thunder then charged again into a full gallop and inexplicably jumped under the arch of a barn. When the dust cleared the cowboys were shocked to see Thunder seizing on the ground, in death throes.
Gabbayo was sitting in the dust, and considering his second brush with death in a year, guffawed heartily.
“HAW HAW HAW”
He laughed at the universe. He had been through the fire and come out the other side and now was determined to make his mark on the world. Gabbayo then abandoned his goal of running a horse farm in favour of a recreational vehicle. His daughters were growing up, and flush with cash he could support them through college. He channelled his natural restlessness into travel. On a whim he would take his RV up to Thunder Bay Canada, or Chihuahua Mexico, or the Grand Canyon, wherever his desires would take him.
After a quarter century with this severe, hawk-faced woman, he called it off with the mother of his three girls. He shared the blame, he knew it, but the heroism of his act on the west Texas oilfield, and the newfound riches it brought him, wore off quickly in her mind. The annulment came through one year after the Diamond anniversary, and, naturally, he took to his RV.
On his quest for cheap land in Chihuahua he met eyes with Catalina, a widow 15 years his junior. She was not a beauty Queen, but let’s face it after grafting skin from his thigh to his face, neither was he. Catalina had a softness in her eyes, a kindness in her voice, and a warmth to her touch which seemed at first unnatural to Gabbayo. With his first wife, even romance had become a battle. He had soon built a second home in Chihuahua, more of a compound really, and started farming garbanzo beans. With the initial investment from his Tejaco settlement and the cheap labor, he created a working farm. He could cover three years of expenses with a harvest and have a modest enough income to not dip into his windfall. His Spanish was rudimentary, but the locals began to learn his unique style of Spanglish.
After settling in his villa, he was still restless. Something was missing. The nearest church was 45 minutes away, and although he did not feel he needed a regular church, he felt THEY needed it more. Nominally Catholic, the people took to a superstitious animism, in his mind they needed order. In the sweltering summer he would venture up to comfort and sought out seed money to finance a church in Chihuahua. He put in $7000 of his own money and received pledges of additional $14k to build a church to St Miguel the Archangel. Over the last decade the tides turned in Chihuahua once the warlords started venturing into Los Vasquez. He and Catalina retreated to Comfort where he now lay in bed.
Well, now it’s time to venture out. Sitting up, Gabbayo winced. He clawed the blanket off, swiveled his legs to the left, and grabbed his cane. He shuffled, slowly and painfully into his wheelchair. Adjusting himself so that he would align up with the seat, he carefully lowered into it. He took a deep breath. On wheels again. The door was just wide enough for his chair but usually Catalina pushed him. He had to back up and go forward a couple times to line up the angle. Finally, he made it through the door. Once he was able to leave the bedroom it was a little bit easier; he ventured first through the living room and bar, complete with 1980s decor, and took at the guest bathroom, which led to his extended kitchen and parlor. He wheeled up and then down the ramp into the kitchen, which had a wide-open layout. Gabbayo then wheeled up to the stove and turned off the gas flame. Catalina and Janet would be here in 30 minutes.
Looking again at his hands he reminisced now about the joke he played throughout Comfort, and then the rest of North America. When Gabbayo would gas up his truck or RV he would put up his hands to signal how much money he wanted to put in the tank. This was back before credit cards and the cashier would look at you and see if you were good for the money and would set the limit for $10. Gabbayo would then fill up the tank to $10 worth of gas and saunter up, bowlegged from years of riding horseback, and approach the cashier.
When the cashier would say, “That’ll be $10,” here Gabbayo would take off his cowboy hat, throw it on the ground and holler, “TEN DOLLARS, TEN DOLLARS! I said EIGHT! EIGHT!” Then he would hold up his mangled hands with the missing pinky fingers and go “HAW HAW HAW.” The cashier would laugh, relieved really.
Catalina and Janet, when they showed up, found Gabbayo laying in the middle of the kitchen floor. The pot was on top of his belly and the roast chicken was covering his entire sprawled body. Catalina screamed “Gabbayo”, and Janet bit her lip. Janet pulled out her phone as Catalina wailed “Gabbayo Gabbayo.” Catalina cradled his head, which smelled of Brut and Mole sauce and pleaded “Juanita, Juanita, she pleaded, with tears streaming down her face, “Call the ambulance!”
Turning his head, and sitting bolt upright, Gabbayo exclaimed “Now whattya wanna do that for? HAW HAW HAW!”