That First Necessary Step

A short story from R. M. Dolin’s novel, TROPHIC CASCADE – The Rise and Fall of Quiet Acquiescence

Summary: The first day of the Albuquerque Wine Fiesta is almost over and Jake has left Sympatico at their wine tent to go listen to Padre’s band perform. Before leaving, Jake invites Sympatico meet him there once the line of wine tasters dwindles. Sympatico wants to go, but with all that’s happened, she just can’t bring herself to venture beyond the security of their tent and into the throngs of festive people. If only she could take that first step, certainly the next would come easier, and the one after that even more easy. But how can she, it’s just asking too much too soon after her ordeal.

Wines may be the reason people came to the fiesta, but music, food, and comradery is how they’ll measure the moments, an ego deflating fact Jake long ago came to terms with. One thing fiesta-goers can count on in New Mexico, is full dose of Mariachi and Salsa music served along side a variety of foods each competing to see who creates the most interesting way to combine red or green chile in uniquely Southwest offerings. Experienced fiesta goers agree that while not all New Mexico festivals include bands from up north, the memorable one’s do, and this year Padre’s band is one of three Northern New Mexico acts presenting their unique brand of salsa.

The music tent is easily one-hundred feet long and fifty-feet across and located in the center of the fiesta grounds. Winery and vendor tents form a square perimeter around the music tent with a forty-foot gap, which gives the layout a kind of medieval charm. If the fiesta were a town the music tent would represent the plaza, and the winery and vendor tents would be the businesses lining the plaza, similar to the layout in downtown Santa Fe or Albuquerque’s Old Town. The music tent has no side walls, just a roof, and at its peak, is probably thirty-feet high and held up by three long poles evenly spaced down the center. There’s an elevated stage at the north end, and in front of that, a twenty foot long, thirty-two foot wide parquet dance floor comprised of forty-four interlocking sections. Beyond the dance floor are approximately thirty rows of twenty-five white plastic folding chairs, with an isle down the center.

The forty-foot gap between the music tent and parameter tents is carpeted with lush green grass having picnic tables randomly interspersed. The gap provides room for both milling around and queuing up for wine tasting. There’s plenty of room on the balloon fiesta campus to expand or contract the gap, but five-hundred years of fiestas has settled on a canonical distance of forty feet. Jake crosses the gap from his wine tent to the music tent intersecting near where the dance floor ends and the first row of chairs begin. Before traversing half the gap, he’s completely cleared his mind of the entire SID incident, not wanting to let the secret police ruin his mood, especially with the music working so hard to arrest their heavy-handed harassment. After being on his feet all day Jake’s hoping to find a seat near the front, but unfortunately, no vacancies exist. The only available seats require him to sit next to someone, and he’s just not up for that level of familiarity, so instead, he leans against a support pole, and between his fiesta attire and solemnly stoic stand, looks reminiscent of a vintage cigarette advertisement.

From this vantage point Jake can easily watch Padre on stage, and with a turn of his head, check up on how things are going at his tent. Padre’s band is just finishing a popular salsa song so the dance floor is filled with couples bumping and grinding. Jake marvels at the way these uninhibited souls dance with such complete freedom, which challenge his conservative South Dakota upbringing and innately nerdy engineer’s personality. He can’t imagine any circumstance in which he’d dance the way they do; at least not without feeling by the end of the song that he’s obligated to smoke a cigarette. Put in another context, there simply isn’t enough bourbon in all his barrels to get him to dance like that, especially in such a public venue. It’s not that he’s opposed to Latin dancing, in fact, he enjoys watching. After all, what man wouldn’t like looking at beautiful women performing seductive gyrations to richly passionate music? That being said, it’s just not something he could ever bring himself to be a part of. It’s sort of like his position on recently legalized pot smoking; he thinks people should be free to smoke pot if that’s their deal even though it’s not something he’s into. What strikes Jake as a sight even stranger than provocative salsa dancers grinding up an open air fiesta tent, is a trumpet playing priest whipping people into this sort of behavior with pagan-like rhythms? However, to be consistent with his views on Latin dancing and pot smoking, why not a salsa playing Priest?

As the song ends, Padre returns his trumpet to its case with a careful reverence, and then enthusiastically grabs his electric guitar from the stand next to his acoustic guitar at the front of the stage. As he plugs his guitar into the amplifier, he steps up to his microphone grinning with a happiness reserved for those who believe with each breath God and heaven await. Padre’s not the band’s lead vocal but he does sing back-up on most songs, and is the featured vocal on a couple numbers in each set. Because of his exuberant charm and charisma, the band long ago delegated song intros to him, which is something Padre has become famous for.

“Thank you very much,” Padre begins to work his charm. “You guys are great. You know that right? Great dancers. Great listeners.” He looks back at his fellow band members with a grin so contagious they know what’s coming. “The boys in the band will back me up on this, because they know half the fun of performing is playing for a great crowd. So on behalf of all of us, viva nuevo Mexico!” Padre readjusts his shoulder strap while waiting for the applause to die down. He strums a couple strands to locate himself and send a signal to the band to be ready. “Our next song is a little shout out to our Southern brother,” Padre announces to the crowd while softly striking up an opening montage for the very popular, ‘Oye Como Va,’ that his band performs with a distinctly Northern New Mexico flare. Some in the crowd catch what the intro’s leading to and applaud while whooping wildly. The intro also portends the opening of silly season, more or less on schedule, and there’s already indications virtually everywhere Jake looks, that the hot sun, mixed with good music and great wine, is going to create an extra crazy silly season.

As Padre works through his intro, one by one the band members join in, each teasing at what the song will be, but not so much as to make it obvious. The effect of ever-increasing musical instruments harmonizing with the melody Padre’s performing, creates an almost Pagan like stirring that builds the emotions of the crowd into a subliminal frenzy. Needing to bring more of the crowd on board Padre provides the give-away clue just as the music reaches its crescendo. “Brother Carlos that is,” Padre seductively says as a clue to the band to begin playing in earnest. Padre steps back from the microphone as he and the rest of the band burst into the song with full volume. The crowd erupts in jubilation as the lead singer steps up to his microphone to run through the opening lyrics, and the parquet floor instantly packs with people eager to let the music move them. Nothing in music or club dancing catches the unabated exuberance for life and the sheer joy of living, than New Mexican’s dancing salsa in an open air tent at a wine fiesta, while listening to the harmonic happiness that can only be captured by Northern New Mexican bands. Padre may have gotten things going, and the band delivered as billed, but it’s the people who make the moment magical.

Having successfully kicked things off, Padre’s able to focus on playing the many rifts the song allows, while providing an opportunity to survey the crowd. He quickly spots Jake, flashing his friend a warm grin. It pleases Padre seeing Jake not only came and has apparently eluded arrest, but that he’s subconsciously moving with the music, not in overt ways like the dancers, but with a subtlety that could easily go undetected.

As Jake predicted, the tasting lines have begun to dwindle, which is another indication silly season is not far off. It was only a few minutes after his departure, but seemingly all at once, that the queues in front of his servers practically vanished, and while Sympatico’s used to Jake being right, what she can’t know is the causal factor for the vanishing tasters is Padre’s band playing Oye Como Va, a song written by the Puerto Rican, Tito Puente, made famous by the Mexican Carlos Santana, and performed in a distinctly Northern New Mexico style by a salsa playing Priest from Venezuela. Regardless of what causal factors led to the sudden evacuation of tasters, it clearly presents an opportunity for her to reconsider Jake’s suggestion that she wander around the festival to see what it’s all about. Even though a part of her wants to venture out, and is looking forward to her rendezvous with Jake with yet unassessed enthusiasm, she’s having difficulty finding the courage to take that necessary first step.

Researchers who study human behavior on either cognitive or neurological levels long ago concluded that the most difficult and complex task humans perform is taking a first step to initiate motion. From a physiological perspective the very act of matriculating motion requires more brain activity and muscle management than talking, reading, solving math problems, or even arguing passionately with your lover. From a cognitive viewpoint, the gap between standing still and moving is akin to the gap between realizing you must end a relationship and finding the fortitude to leave. In the same vein, the delta spanning the statics of simply surrendering to the logical assertion that action is required, and reaching the point where you’re able to release the dynamic energy required to propel accelerated motion, seems unfathomable.

If she could initiate motion though; if she could take that first step, then the rest would be easy. After the first step, the next comes more quickly, more fluidly. Then, one step invites the next, and in a cascading form of recursive simplicity, we’re able to move. From movement comes speed and speed begets more speed, and if we remain on the same trajectory we could in theory eventually achieve escape velocity; escaping all the gravity that slows us down and holds us back. All of that would be achievable, within our reach, if we could just take that very first step. But alas, in the neurological and cognitive constructs of human existence, the real reality is that escape velocity is not possible; if it were, we’d all be somewhere else. So as it is for everyone, so it is for Sympatico, initiating motion from the relative safety of the wine tent, into the uncertain world outside requires a step she just can’t seem to muster. And so in all likelihood here is where she’ll remain, held in stasis like frozen lake water on a warm afternoon; able to change, but unable to go anywhere. That’s how it is for people like Sympatico; and sadly, for the rest of us as well, just at differing levels of intensity.

Had not been for Dario insisting she go, Sympatico might not have found the fortitude to leave the security of the wine tent for the vast unknown of the fiesta crowds. But with his help; with his comforting cajoling, she’s able to convince herself that leaving is possible. It’s mostly because of the calm bravery Dario brings to every aspect of his life, it inspires her to believe she can be like him, she can venture beyond the tent, she can sally forth into the crowds, onto the plaza and dare to be normal and unafraid. “Yes,” she compels herself. “I can do this.” That was the hard part she acknowledges while releasing the last of her trepidation, a necessary and essential first step toward becoming the kind of person she wants to be. And so with that, she’s ready for the next step believing it will come easier. And it does, then that step invites another, and before long she’s ventured past the green chili jelly tent, past the next wine tent, and is easily flowing with the crowd that promenades the plaza.

Sympatico observed earlier in the day that most fiesta-goers traverse the plaza in a clockwise direction, with a quasi-uniform cadence that reminds her of growing up near La Paz, where she frequently walked the plaza in the evening with her parents and grandparents. Every young girl in La Paz romanticizes the centuries-old tradition in which eligible young ladies walk with family members, usually their father, in a clockwise direction around the plaza, while single men interested in marriage walk in a counter-clockwise direction. This tradition provides young men a chance to meet available girls while proper chaperoning is maintained. Sympatico continues beyond the security of her wine tent finding that less and less she has to think about the steps she’s taking. She’s uncertain if she should walk directly to Jake who’s across the gap, or dare to venture around the entire plaza alone. Her initial position is that she can’t possibly walk without a chaperon, it is not possible or proper.

Slowly though, she accepts that Jake and Dario are right; she can’t spend the rest of her life cowering, never finding the courage to step away alone. But then again, how can she do that? No, it is not possible. After much debate she decides to let fate decide if she walks directly to Jake or wanders around the plaza. She looks to her left, toward where Jake will be waiting. Seeing nothing that catches her eye, she looks to her right where several artist and vendor booths sprinkled among the many winery tents seem inviting. The people in this direction even seem more interesting; and equally important, friendly and benign. With that as her touchstone, Sympatico launches in a counter clock-wise rotation to see where the people have been coming from all day. The only trepidation she hasn’t been able to successfully tamp down is a deep-seated uncertainty about how she’ll be perceived for walking without proper escort.

Once she’s into the plaza and among fiesta-goers, Sympatico quickly concludes fate was correct; this is in fact the way to go. Her mood escapes trepidation, quickly forgetting about what people might think, or how scary being out on her own is. She feels comfortable and relaxed; when she reminds herself to be at least. A sense of eagerness comes over her as she begins to experience the sights and sounds of the fiesta beyond her serving station. It has been a long time since she looked with welcome toward what comes next, but as she starts slowly meandering around the plaza she can’t help but look ahead to what the next vendor might reveal. Her plan is to check out the different perimeter tents before finishing at the music tent. She doesn’t have money, but that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy seeing what the artist and craftsmen brought. It also means she has to be content to sample the food vendors with her eyes and nose. The one thing she’s not allowed to do is stop at other wine tents and sample, Jake was very clear about it being against the law for servers to sample. She would have liked to try other winery’s, just to see how they’re different from Jake’s. He promised they’d do that in the fall when they’re gathering pressings for grappa. She was so happy to hear him talk in the Spring about things they’ll do in the Fall, and can wait until then to validate how much better Jake’s wines are relative to his compadres.

At the northeast corner of the plaza, Sympatico stops at a tent filled with paintings of New Mexico wilderness in different seasons. One particularly beautiful landscape looks like it could have been done on a full moon night from their parking lot facing the Sangre’s. There’s another painting she really likes of a high mountain meadow at dawn. In the foreground a small herd of mustangs drink water at a beaver pond while in the background high altitude aspen thin out to tree line spruce. Above that, a group of mountain goats graze on the mostly bare rocks finding whatever small clumps of vegetation they can. There are spots of snow around the goats allowing them to blend in and seem to become part of the mountain itself. The artist tells her its a painting of Marquez Mountain, which is north of Taos. He then proceeds to tell her an amazing tale of life and loss, and how it’s rumored a treasure is buried there somewhere.
The tale is of a man named Kincade, who everyone called Kismet, on account getting shot in the chest but being salved by a book about Arabian Nights in his jacket. Sympatico marvels at the way the sun peaks over Marquez Mountain helping highlight the reflection of the mustangs, goats, spruce, and snow spotted mountain on the mirror still pond. She would love to visit that pond someday and thinks that perhaps this Fall, she can ask Jake to take her. She imagines what it would be like to stand beside the pond at dawn looking at the reflection of her and Jake in the undisturbed water. That is a Fall sunrise she’ll look forward to all spring and summer.

The tent next to the wilderness artist is selling Andes blankets and traditional South American pan flutes. They’re playing Andes Mountain music in the tent and while it reminds Sympatico of home, it’s not interesting; not when there are so many new things to experience. She passes a couple winery tents and pauses at each to study the way they set up their tasting lines, and how they promote their products. While one has more flare and the other is more quaint, Jake’s set up is clearly the more pragmatic and manageable. She’s already come to appreciate that aspect of living with an engineer, “function over form,” that’s one of Jake’s favorite expressions, as it was for her Abeulo. The wine tent anchoring the Northeast corner of the plaza seems to have neither form nor function as a guiding philosophy. The tent is open on two sides and the L-shaped layout makes it hard for the servers to move around. What’s even worse is their express lane is at the far end of the L, making it awkward for tasters in line at one end to get to the other end to make a purchase.

As Sympatico starts along the northern side of the plaza her pace subconsciously slows to a relaxed rhythm devoid of hurry or purpose. She stops to look at jewelry being offered by an artist who says both the silver and turquoise in his pieces were mined near his home on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation. She’s been around Santa Fe enough to appreciate that his jewelry is different, it isn’t gaudy like many Native American pieces. His stuff would probably not appeal to tourists because of its subtle intricacies and understated southwest style. However, for legitimate New Mexicans, she imagines his jewelry is quite popular. The artist notices the necklace Sympatico’s wearing, and while he didn’t make it, praises the skill and authenticity of whoever did. Sympatico admires Emelia for her good taste and appreciates that Jake doesn’t mind her wearing Emelia’s jewelry and clothes.

While Sympatico’s talking with the Navajo artist, two men busily engaged in the management of the world’s oldest profession take notice of her. It’s obvious from the way they’re dressed that they’re Mexicans. At first the two Mexicans are drawn to Sympatico because of her beauty and the possessively alluring way she holds herself. Quickly though, they realize they know her, and as she moves from the jewelry tent working her way along the plaza, the two Mexicans nonchalantly begin to follow, one making a quick call on his cell phone while the other keeps an eye on both Sympatico and the girls they’ve been assigned to manage.

By the time Sympatico passes the northwest corner of the plaza and starts to traverse the west side, the two Mexicans are joined by two other associates. On first glance the new guys appear to be New Mexican Hispanics; both by their cowboy dress and physical appearance, which in contrast is taller, lighter skinned, and having features more traceable to Spanish ancestry than Central American Indians. The two Mexicans and two New Mexicans stay apart from each other as they discretely trail Sympatico while maintaining supervisory control over their working girls.

Because the music tent has no side walls, it’s easy to deduce where everybody went when the tasting lines dwindled. Whatever salsa song Padre’s band is playing one thing certainly cannot be denied, it’s popular, the roar of applause when the song ends is so loud and enthusiastic it draws Sympatico over. She finds a small place to stand along the side of the tent about ten rows down from the dance floor. There are so many people crowded around the tent she doesn’t notice Jake on the opposite side standing more forward and slightly closer to the dance floor. Disappointed about not spotting him because she promised they’d meet, she decides to wait until the next song ends and then cross to the other side to see if she can find him.

As the applause dies down the lead singer thanks the crowd for listening to their set. He announces the name of the next group to perform and tells everyone that as the bands transition, Padre will play a couple acoustic numbers. Sympatico is excited she got here in time to see Padre perform, and watches with anticipation as he slides his electric guitar off his shoulder and move a stool to the front center of the stage. He then positions a microphone about waist high in front of the stool and grabs his acoustic guitar. He sits down and scoots the stool to a better position while adjusting the guitar on his thigh. “A lot of you know me,” he begins. “But for those who don’t, I’m Padre Paul, and as I mentioned earlier,” he adds smirking at Jake, “I’m a simple parish priest from Norte Nuevo Mexico. In addition to playing for you as the next band sets up, I want to let you know that I’m raising money today to help out our New Mexico brothers and sisters struggling with social injustice by selling my ‘Padre’s for Peaceful Protest’ buttons. They’re five dollars; less than the cost of one glass of wine or burrito; red, green or Christmas,” He jokes while grinning. “Guess how I answer the state question?” The crowd patriotically cheers and applauds as Padre references the fact that New Mexico is the only state with an official question. “I know you’re thinking because I’m a Priest I’d go with Christmas, but your wrong.”

“If you want to buy a button to show your brothers and sisters un poco simpatico, see Brother Bob here at the edge of the stage.” Padre points to a tall and rather large Hispanic man with a bald head and long beard standing at the edge of the stage behind a relatively small table that seems especially small given his giant stature. On the table are rows of Padre’s protest buttons carefully laid out by the stealth hands of the giant in anticipation of big sales. On first glance Brother Bob looks like a lifetime member of the Bandito motorcycle gang, or a ZZ Top roady, but those who know him respect his compassion, obedience to God, and lifetime commitment to helping those in need by providing whatever support or assistance Padre requires.

As Padre talks he lightly strums his guitar playing some unrecognizable piece with a definitively Spanish flare. He scans the crowd and finds Sympatico, and smiles warmly, happy she came to see him play, and even more happy she’s found the courage to venture around the plaza on her own. “You know my friends,” Padre continues his monologue. “We live in a world at the edge of transition. I feel it as strongly as I feel the Santa Anna’s. Do you?” He pauses to allow the profoundness of his assessment to sink in while continuing his unrecognizable melody. “It’s that subtle uneasiness you sense when life’s warning you that change is coming, with or without cause. And here’s the deal guys, you can be the instrument causing your change. Sometimes though, the reality is you’re nothing more than a bystander caught up in the chaos of a change beyond your control. But the amazingly awesome part of free will is that you have options. You can choose to be a part of change, you can struggle against change, but you can’t stop it. You can’t out run it, can’t out last it, and the absolute truth my brothers and sisters, is you most certainly cannot change change.”

“It’s odd,” Sympatico thinks, that Padre would talk about change. For the past few moments she’s sensed an uneasiness; at times even rising to an irrational anxiety compelling her to want to rush to the safety of her tent. Each time she feels anxious though, she’s able to deliberately work enough to convince herself everything’s okay. She reminds herself of her compelling desire to stay at the music tent long enough to listen to Padre perform and to rendezvous with Jake. However, the waves of paranoia are not only relentless, they’re intensity is increasing.

When his cell phone rings the first time, Miguel does not answer because he’s in a meeting with Ramon in a rented RV parked just outside the southern end of the plaza’s perimeter. His boss arrived from Mexico a few days ago to both preside over the weekend’s operations, and to discuss matters with Miguel that he deemed necessary to do in person. Ramon is a ruthless man quick to anger and Miguel worries answering the phone in the middle of their meeting might set him off. Miguel rented the small RV, as he does for all fiestas, to use as a facade. Under the guise of running a series of air-filled bouncy-houses for kids behind the south side of the plaza, they brought in a second even larger RV as well. The small RV’s where Miguel, Ramon, and their minions hang out and occasionally conduct some drug transactions. The large RV is where the girls they brought down from the ranch do what they’re compelled to do. After the second ring of the second call, Miguel’s boss gets irritated. “Is that one of our boys?”

“Si,” Miguel says looking at his phone’s screen.

“Well don’t you think you should answer it?” Ramon’s annoyance clearly calls into question Miguel’s management acumen.

Miguel nods as he gets up from the kitchen table and walks toward the back bedroom. A few moments later he returns calmly sitting down opposite his boss to deliver the news. “She’s left the wine tent and is walking around unescorted. I told them to watch from a distance until we get there.”

“Excellent,” Ramon responds. “You take care of this while I phone Diaz with the news.”

“Si,” Miguel says getting up to leave.

“And Miguel,” Ramon cautions, “be careful not to create a scene, we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves; not with so much at stake.”

By the time Miguel makes his way to the plaza, Sympatico is busy scanning the opposite side of the music tent for Jake while Padre is about to launch into his song. The two Mexicans are inconspicuously positioned about twenty feet behind and fifteen feet to Sympatico’s right, while the two New Mexican’s are about twenty feet behind and ten feet to Sympatico’s left. Miguel stops to talk to the two New Mexicans giving them their instructions before moving over to give the two Mexican’s their instructions. He then retreats to a spot directly behind Sympatico at the outer edge of a tent selling organic goat cheese and gluten free bread, their he awaits Ramon’s to arrive.