by Rudy S
When they pulled Ramone Luna off his plane at Los Angeles, he was talking to his wife back in São Paulo after flying overnight from Brazil. His jet was taking on new passengers before continuing to San Francisco. Two men in fine suits waded through the departing travelers and arrested him. They were polite and quiet, escorting him to the airport security center. He was detained in a small white room with a folding chair and a metal table. They took his carry-on bag, everything in his pockets, and his wedding ring. He waited there for several hours. There was no way for him to tell exactly how long. When a short man with thick glasses finally walked into the room, Ramone had been sleeping. They politely woke him up and informed him that he was being arrested for trafficking illegal narcotics. He explained that he was a Samba musician traveling to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit his brother and his family for Christmas. They cordially listened to his explanation then ushered him to a waiting patrol car for transport to a local detention center.
Several days later, in the detention center, Ramone began to worry about whether he would ever see his wife again or be released. He explained several times that he never messed around with drugs except for beer, cigarettes, and occasionally some rum. He asked to see a lawyer and call his family. He was told that his requests were being reviewed. Finally, one day, he was escorted to a small concrete room where he waited for over an hour. The room had a small toilet with a sink and a concrete slab extending from the big-enough wall for him to lie down on. There was no light in the room, aside from a small window on the door.
When two men arrived in the room, Ramone was lying face-up on the slab. Both men wore suits. One was considerably bigger than the other. The smaller one was of African descent while the other seemed from European lineage; otherwise, he couldn’t tell one from the other.
“Getting comfortable?” the smaller man asked, “If we may, we would like to have a short conversation with you, Mr. Luna.”
“I apologize,” Ramone said, sitting up, “Of course, please let us talk and excuse me again.”
“Not at all,” the short man said, “My name is Ron Williams, and this is my colleague David Curtis.”
“Very pleased to meet both of you.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any good news for you, Mr. Luna.”
“What is wrong?”
Williams glanced at his partner. “From what we learned, you are an awfully bad man. We have determined that you are more than likely working for Maranhão Cartel as a lieutenant. We are fairly sure that you’re using this trip to see your brother as a cover to travel to California for other business. We don’t know what that could be.”
I’m afraid we don’t have any good news for you, Mr. Luna
Upon saying this, Williams walked over and sat next to Ramone.
“Here’s the good news,” he continued while patting Ramone’s shoulder, “If you could provide us information about why you are here and who you’re meeting, we can mitigate a transfer to a more comfortable place with supervised access to phone calls.”
Williams paused and looked him in the eyes. “What do you think, Mr. Luna?”
Ramone could feel his skin crawl and didn’t know what to say. He knew he wanted to get out of that place as soon as possible, go straight home, and never return to the States. “Please, I will help you by any means possible and tell you anything I know. But please understand I am not with any cartel aside from the São Paulo Samba Fellowship.”
Williams smirked and looked over at his colleague. His stillness was unnerving to Ramone, who felt sweat dampening his shirt. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that. We need to know why you’re here, and we need to figure out the Maranhão Cartel plans. We don’t have time. Some of our people are in danger.”
“Please, I will help you in any way I can.”
“Then tell us the real reason you’re here.”
“If you fear your employer, you should know we can give you full protection and bring your family here from Brazil.”
Ramone tried to remain as calm as possible while he chose the right words. “Mr. Williams, please. I just wanted to see my brother. I don’t like to even take medicine from the doctor.”
Mr. Williams glanced at his partner again. Frowning, he got up slowly and stood over Ramone, looking him in the eyes. “Okay, here is where we’re at. We have to know what’s going on within the next couple of months, and we can’t bullshit with you. So, we’re going to keep you in this room for an exceptionally long time. We’re going to keep you until we decide that you are ready to be honest.”
At this point, Ramone was both mortified and angry. He wanted to get up and throw a punch, but he realized the consequences and kept himself in check. “I have! I swear to God, I have. Please!”
“We will be back, maybe in a week or maybe in a month. Until then, you’re going to stay here by yourself. You’ll be fed, and you’ll be kept warm.”
At that moment, Williams pointed to the vertical glass slit that acted as the room’s window. “See the slit in the door? That is your source of light.”
Williams then pointed at a horizontal slot under the window with a small table attached below it. “See that closed slot underneath? That’s where meal trays will be dispensed.”
“Please,” Ramone said, raising his voice further, “What can I do to make you understand that I will help in all ways I can?”
“Oh, that reminds me. David, could you bring in the mattress?”
Williams’ companion quickly left the room and returned promptly with a mattress that he propped up against a wall. He pointed at the mattress. “This is your bed. Please don’t have an accident on the bed, Mr. Luna. You will not get a replacement. You can use the sink to clean yourself and drink water. You will be given a fresh roll of toilet paper every-other-day with your breakfast.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Luna. I hope you think hard about being honest with us the next time we talk.”
“But what am I going to do till then?”
“Use your imagination, Mr. Luna. In fact, I’m feeling generous.”
Williams riffled through his pocket and pulled out a pack of playing cards, throwing it at Ramones’ feet. “Here’s a pack of cards I bought at the airport. Take it to kill time while thinking. And think hard about being more honest next time we speak.”
Ramone ignored the pack of cards and left them on the floor where Williams dropped them. He was in shock and felt satisfied lying on his mattress, meditating on scenarios in which his probable release would be realized. Between moments of contemplation, he slept.
Days blended together until he lost track of time. He moved only to eat and use the toilet; otherwise, he lay docile, lost in his ideas and dreams. Finally, an hour after awakening from a nightmare, he picked up the pack of cards and dealt a game of Klondike.
He could barely see with what light entered his room. Regardless, he began to play. He lost. He dealt another round, and he won. He dispensed another and gave up halfway through the game. This continued off and on for several more days, at least as far as he could tell, having lost the awareness to comprehend the passage of time.
This continued off and on for several more days, at least as far as he could tell
Eventually, Ramone began to feel the effects of solitude and started talking to himself. These informal conversations mirrored his thoughts. There were also times when he would awaken from vivid dreams and continue discussions that he began in his sleep.
He became restless, lying around and playing cards with himself. He started exercising randomly throughout his hours, which eventually evolved into a regular routine before meals. He slept less and thought more. His conversations with himself became more complex as his ability to sleep vanished. Soon, he couldn’t tell when he slept and when he was daydreaming. He hadn’t seen or heard from anyone for what appeared to him a long time—maybe days, maybe months. He couldn’t make sense of time anymore. At some point, he decided to change things around.
He’d been playing the only solitaire games he knew—Klondike and Pyramid—and it had become stale. The cards were worn now. He had memorized and studied the pack design, which was all red on the back with a cheap illustration that featured an airline jet lifting off. He examined the font on the playing side—a basic serif—and the artwork on their fronts—detailed but typical. He was bored. He needed something different when he couldn’t stand lying on the mattress or running through his exercises.
He decided to play a simple hand of poker with his brother Miguel. This was challenging since Miguel wasn’t there nor a gambler. But Ramone was confident that the game would work since Miguel understood the basics of poker. He realized this was crazy. But in light of his situation, he felt he needed to do something before things got worse—before he got worse. Besides, there was no one around to notice his insane behavior.
He dealt two hands of five-card draw. Miguel sat across him in Ramone’s mind’s eye. Miguel was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, green khaki shorts, and those aviator sunglasses he liked so much. Smiling like an idiot, he was sure to win the first hand. He was right and took his phantom winnings with a cock-sure grin.
“Good game,” Miguel said while smiling, “Let’s go again.”
“You got it, bro,” Ramone replied, returning the smile, “You got it.”
He dealt the next hand and was able to win again. Miguel smirked but wanted to continue playing. This went on for roughly three more hands until Miguel was down to his last chips. No one was frowning now. He went all in, swearing under his breath. Ramone saw him lay a pair in front of him. Miguel had three of a kind and took the pot for the first time.
Ramone dealt again, and once again, Miguel went all in. Ramone took the bait. Miguel took everything a second time. Ramone was trying not to frown but went all-in on the first bet. Miguel saw him and showed him a pair of eights. Ramone had nothing.
“Son of a bitch,” Ramone muttered, putting his cards down, “I hate when you pull that kind of stunt. When did you learn to play?”
“You’re too gullible, brother,” Miguel replied, taking the imaginary chips, “I play Texas Hold ‘Em at Artichoke Joe’s with Gina all the time.”
At this point, Ramone became tired of playing make-believe, deciding he had a masochistic streak. There was no way Miguel and Gina went to Artichoke Joe’s. He had to drag them in there the last time he was in town just to look around. Putting the cards away and laying back on his mattress, he wondered if he would see either of them again. He asked where Dalinda, his wife was now. Was she worried? Has she called the Brazilian consulate yet? If she has, what was the consulate doing? He thought about his Mom and Dad back in Mexico City. What would they think?
His Dad was irritated that he immigrated to Brazil so he could play Samba professionally. Ramone was entranced by Samba, which his father found pathetic. There was something with the way the guitar mixed with rhythms and accented the lyrics and melody. It was like a dream seeping into real life through rhythmic playing, a festival of color and energy. When he was a kid, he would listen to Samba CDs and envision casinos and clubs with exciting women. He’d see fights breakout and escapades untangle during the length of recordings. He’d imagine canvases and houses on cliffs and beaches—young and old intermingling their secrets, crimes, and lusts. He never forgot about those visions. When he grew older, he put his hands on a guitar and another on a plane ticket, leaving his hometown for the streets of São Paulo. That’s what he had going for him while lying on the thin foam mattress in his narrow concrete prison— his wife, his guitar, his Samba.
Ramone became restless. His exercise routines throughout the day were beginning to get dull. He was more aware of his narrow cold world. There were times he thought he would scream at the top of his lungs as hard as he could until his throat was raw. Other times, he would cry long and hard. Nothing ever happened. No one ever came. No one cared.
His food was delivered regularly, and every other day he was given a roll of toilet paper. He tried for a while to attract the attention of the person who pushed his tray through his slot, but it was like there was a robot on the other end. He pleaded and complained, but nothing happened. He cried and threw his tray back against the door, but nothing happened. He carried on one-sided conversations with the door, but nothing happened. He prayed to the food guy, begging for mercy, but nothing happened. His food was delivered regularly, and every other day he was given a roll of toilet paper.
Eventually, he passed beyond that phase in his misery, discovering true despair. It was then that he remained in his bed indefinitely, except to relieve himself—he hadn’t forgotten what that son of bitch Williams had said about his mattress. He didn’t take his trays anymore, nor did he exercise. Ramone laid their defeated and empty, barely having the energy to use the toilet. He lost weight and became weaker every time he awoke. Eventually, he stopped sleeping but remained in this half-awake state of being, a kind of self-hypnosis, which made time passed rapidly. He didn’t know how fast but noticed his whiskers exponentially grew as he laid still. He completely lost track of days and truly didn’t know if weeks or months had passed.
At some point, Ramone decided to eat. They just delivered his meal, and it smelled really good. In fact, it tasted wonderful—even though it was the same kind of stuff they had been providing him. After finishing, he saw the pack of cards lying on the floor where he left them; it felt like an eon since he played with the cards. He decided to play a couple of more rounds with his brother.
He sat down on the cold floor and began dealing two hands of Texas Hold ‘Em, just to entice Miguel. He looked up, and there, his brother was sitting on the floor across from him. This time though, it was more than Ramone’s imagination constructing a ghost in the nothingness. Miguel was there. And Ramone didn’t question his presence.
Miguel was wearing the same clothes he wore the other times. He was stretching out like they were about to play some tennis instead of cards. Ramone shook his head and thought about how much his brother loved to ham it up around him.
“You ready to go, buddy?”
“Let’s do this.”
Ramone stretched out to get himself ready and realized that they were no longer in a concrete cell. They were sitting in the sand right outside Clube do Paraíso, where he had regular gigs. It was near sunset. There were a handful of people at the bar and a solo player performing. Ramone figured it was the middle of the week. It was then that he felt something was wrong.
“Miguel, for some reason, I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.”
Miguel took his cards. “The club doesn’t own the beach or the sand, brother. No one’s going to bust us.”
“Oh, okay. That has reason.”
They played a couple of hands. This time Ramone was aware of Miguel’s skills, and things were a little more even.
“Shouldn’t you be in San Bruno with Gina? I mean, are you both here, or is it just you?”
“We’re here on vacation,” Miguel said, lying down in the sand, “Remember?”
“My apologies. My head has been in other places lately. I think I got a concussion or something.”
“What do you mean? I’m getting a concussion listening to you.”
“No, it’s just I swear I was in jail before we started playing.”
Miguel sat up and looked at Ramone. “In jail? This doesn’t look like a jail. Were you in jail recently or something like that?”
“I thought so. I don’t know. Where’s Gina?”
“With Dalinda. Let’s get a drink and catch a cab home.”
They walked over to the bar and ordered some beers as the sunset receded into the twilight. The beach was warm, and the lights of homes in Guarujá’s beach community were visible. Ramone sipped his beer and looked towards the ocean. It was then he realized that none of this experience was really happening. He was still in his narrow concrete room. He was staring at his cell door. Beyond that was the mysterious landscape of the detention center. Beyond that was the world at large. Beyond that were Dalinda and Brazil. It was there that that beach was located in the coastal town of Guarujá near São Paulo. But Ramone was still in his narrow concrete room.
He lay on his mattress for a couple of hours, trying to process what happened. He had been in his cell for a long time, but then he hadn’t. He had been on the beach in Brazil with his brother. It was real, but so was his life in the concrete room. Ramone wondered what life was and what was fiction, then considered whether it mattered.
He looked back at his door and noticed they had served him another meal. It seemed like he just ate, but he also felt burning bangs of hunger as if he hadn’t eaten for days. Getting up, Ramone took his tray, devouring its contents. He drank some water from his sink, used the toilet, and cleaned up. Soon after, he exercised again for the first time in a while, feeling rejuvenated and spry.
The problem was what to do with his energy. After playing a couple of more hands of Klondike, Ramone thought about how long he had been in the concrete room. It must have been months since he was imprisoned, but then he decided it couldn’t have been that long—maybe only several weeks. He couldn’t tell but felt that his jailers would return soon. He focused his thoughts on that. Specifically, what he should do when they returned.
He quickly decided he was going to have to lie. They didn’t want to hear the truth; they wanted him to tell them they were right. The problem was how he was going to play them. He thought about this a lot while playing solitaire until he grew tired and went back to his mattress. He lay down and tried to rest, but he was too restless. He sat up on the side of the bed and looked at the opposite wall, then closed his eyes and prayed.
“Hey Ramone,” a voice said in the quiet of the concrete room, “You aren’t sleeping, are you?”
Ramone sat up, opening his eyes—looking in the direction of the voice. There was nothing but his toilet and sink. He looked to the cell door, which was the same as always. He clamored toward it and looked through the window slit. Nothing was there but the wall adjacent to his cell door. The voice seemed to come from his room, though. He went and sat back down on his mattress.
The voice seemed to come from his room
His nerves were fried. It seemed like his hosts were messing with him now. He closed his eyes and prayed some more.
“Hey Ramone,” the voice said again, “Wake up; we’re almost there!”
Ramone slowly opened his eyes and looked around his empty concrete room. He considered whether he was talking to himself and not aware of it before dismissing the notion as crazy. It was then that something happened that he truly never expected to ever occur in his life, though consciously he was expecting and hoping for it to happen. His cell door opened.
He blinked his eyes several times from the glare of light in the hallway. The brightness was overwhelming, and he could barely see the silhouette of the two men outside the entrance. The larger of the two men walked into the room. Ramone noticed his uniform and recognize him as one of the detention guards.
The guard kept his game face on and looked at him as if beckoning him to make a move. Ramone looked into his eyes, which were as cold as the concrete in the cell.
Soon after, the other man walked in. He was about Ramone’s height and wore a maroon medical scrub. He had a serious expression on his face but more in-line with someone focusing their attention on a task at hand. He looked at the guard briefly.
“Mr. Luna,” the guard barked, “Thank you for your continued patience. Please allow Dr. Brand to perform a momentary examination to determine your ongoing health. This is mandatory, and any unexpected behavior deemed hostile will be dealt with in a swift and meaningful manner. Do you understand what I have said, sir?”
Ramone wondered if this was another fiction his mind had created. He didn’t know what to say and was far from making a movement or any bullshit like that.
“I repeat. Do you understand what I have said, sir?”
The medic then went about performing a complete physical on Ramone while he sat there completely still. Ramone had no energy to move and was in shock by the sudden appearance of other human beings. Also, he contemplated the veracity of their existence in his concrete landscape.
After the medic was finished, he asked him some questions, which Ramone answered briefly as the medic made notes. Most of the queries were simple. How was he sleeping, and was he experiencing anything unusual? This question made Ramone laugh to himself. He also asked questions like his name, including basic information about himself and where he was now. The guard stood behind the medic, stone-faced and glaring. When the medic was finished with his questions, he looked at the guard then walked out of the room.
The guard began backing out of the room. “Thank you for your cooperation and continued patience. Have a nice day.”
“How much longer till I can leave? I mean, how long until I will have a follow-up conversation about my case?
The guard closed the door. “Have a nice day.”
Ramone was again alone in his concrete room. The silence was unbearable. He lay back down and thought about what he should do next. He considered over-analyzing what just happened but couldn’t get his mind to focus on anything aside from the silence. It beckoned him into a meditative state of emptiness, both in thoughts and feelings. He found it refreshing and began to feel a vibration around him. Thinking it was because of the shock he had a moment earlier, he began to recognize the shaking as a sensation he felt while driving.
He opened his eyes and confirmed what he felt. It was warm and humid. He was sitting in an SUV on the main road back to São Paulo. His brother was driving casually. There was some kind of Mexican Hip-Hop on the stereo. The stench of Miguel’s cigars was everywhere inside the truck.
His brother said, glancing at him, “You were sleeping like a rock, Ramone. When’s the last night you slept, buddy?”
Ramone was confused but slightly relieved. He sat up straight and tried to clear his head. “I had some crazy dreams.”
“No,” Ramone replied, glancing at his brother, “Just like this situation where I get locked up in the states when I was trying to visit you and Gina.”
“What? Did they catch you with drugs and stuff?”
“No, but they thought I was a big shot with some cartel.”
“Huh. Well, that sucks. Did you even get some dream time partying it up when they got you?”
“Well, that really sucks.”
“Hey, where are we going again?”
“So, like, don’t tell anyone I said anything, but we’re heading to this bar to have a drink.”
“Oh, what does that mean?”
“It’s a surprise party, dumb-ass. Dalinda rented out the whole place, but it is supposed to be like I’m taking you there for some drinks for your birthday, just you and me.”
“Oh, it’s my birthday?”
“Oh man, you better go back to sleep, buddy.”
Ramone felt someone nudging his shoulder and looked over at his brother. But he wasn’t there. He looked in front of him and found himself staring at the wall of his concrete room. He was nudged again, and this time noticed Ron Williams standing beside him while he sat on his bed. Williams had a concerned looked on his face and silently examined him for a moment.
“Mr. Williams? Are you real?”
Williams was alone this time. His partner wasn’t there, nor was there a guard. The concrete room’s door was open behind him. Williams scratched his chin before saying anything. “Mr. Luna, do you realize you were talking to yourself just now?”
“No, I was asleep.”
“With your eyes open?”
“Well, Mr. Luna,” Williams said, sitting beside him, “You’ve been doing that for quite a while, and, in some cases, you’ve been shouting out loud. My associates are beginning to get concerned.”
“Oh, are we going to have another conversation? Because I am ready to tell you everything.”
Williams brushes his knee and stretches. “That will not be necessary, Mr. Luna, we have cleared you, and you are no longer considered a person of interest. Frankly, the Brazilian consulate has been lobbying for your release after everything that has happened. We sincerely apologize for such long incarceration. There have been several amnesty organizations that have also been petitioning for your release. I am afraid that we have made an extremely serious error. And I sincerely and deeply apologize for your treatment. We will fully compensate you for any health-related expenses you may have incurred, including mental health treatment. I am also authorized to provide you with an extremely generous financial compensation package with your signature on several liability release forms. We can discuss those items and a couple of others at a later time once you have had a chance to recover.”
“May I call my wife?”
“Well, that, unfortunately, is the bad news I have for you. It appears your incarceration has reached the cartels in Brazil. Apparently, a rival cartel took it as an opportunity to take hostages as leverage against the Maranhão Cartel. I am afraid they were able to locate your wife and daughter.”
“Are they alright?”
“I am sorry to tell you that both were killed once Maranhão Cartel refused to cooperate with the other cartel. I am so sorry, sir.”
Ramone said nothing and continued to stare at the wall.
“So, if you wouldn’t mind,” Williams said, getting up slowly, “Could you please remain here for a short while longer. I will leave the door open. A medical examiner will be in a few moments for a quick check. He will then escort you to a very nice room with a patio where you will reside for a day or two until we can finalize your release. I am authorized to take you wherever you want. Your passport will be in your room, along with all your possessions. You are more than welcome to continue your journey to San Francisco to visit your brother. We can also transport you to your remaining family in São Paulo. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
“Thank you. I guess.”
Williams left quietly.
Ramone continued to stare blankly at his wall. He looked for something in the concrete that might reveal that this was just another fiction created by his mind. That he was still trapped in his small home while his family was safe in São Paulo. He couldn’t convince himself of anything, though, as the hallway light poured into his room from the open door. He squeezed his eyes tightly together to block the light. He began to pray.
“You know,” a voice said, “No matter how much you pray, life will continue unchanged.”
“What do you know?” Ramone muttered, opening his eyes and looking at the concrete wall.
“I know that you wanted this moment to happen for so long,” the voice answered, “Only to realize how much it has cost you.”
“I never was told the price,” Ramone said to the wall.
In fiction, things are the way we make them
“No one ever is. That is life, as they say. In fiction, things are the way we make them. But in life, this is not always the case.”
“This is not very comforting. You’re not helping.”
“What do you want me to tell you? This is life.”
Ramone thought about this for a second. Then he looked around him for the source of the voice. He was alone. He thought maybe if he closed his door, he would see who he was talking to. It would at least make things more comfortable. And so, he got up and closed the door. Returning to his mattress, he waited for the voice to show itself, but nothing happened. Ramone closed his eyes.
“Well,” he whispered to the empty room, “If this is life, then give me fiction.”
It was then that he heard a woman singing a plaintive note to some Brazilian ballad before the Samba orchestra began performing their rhythmic melody about beach sunsets and the coastal moan of the ocean.
Ramone opened his eyes to see the club Miguel had mentioned. He’d been there before. He recognized most of the people. The band was on a small platform, and the middle-aged woman singing had a broad smile. To his left was Dalinda in her lavender party dress walking towards him. She walked over with a drink, and they kissed. They strolled together to the dance floor, where couples had already begun to dance.
He could hear a voice echo from somewhere far in the distance. It was Williams’ voice. He was talking to someone else. There was a concern in his tone. Ramone couldn’t make out what was being said and lost interest; instead, he focused on Dalinda and the music.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Dalinda whispered in his ear.
Nothing, my love. You look wonderful tonight. You’re just as I always remember in my mind’s eye.”
Ramone smiled, humming along with the samba music. He danced with his wife and bantered with his brother and some friends. The twilight dimmed the sky above. The warm and humid air saturated the packed club. It was such a great evening that he never wanted to leave São Paulo again. Yet William’s voice beckoned. So Ramone closed his eyes, held tight to his wife and sang along with the Samba performers.