The turnout was very good and amicable for this Mexican rural barbeque, a campestre. Noticeable, however, was the coolness between the Germans and the British and their allies present. When they encountered one another it was with the barest diplomatic civility. They caused no scenes. That, they left to me, as you’ll see.
I wish you could have tasted the meat the professors had cooked and everything else. Hard to admit, this was better than any Texas barbeque I’ve had. Or any other. From the mmmms and the lip smackings all around, I’d say the crowd would second that. After the first round, everyone relaxed with beverages of choice, to enjoy the music and diversions before they hit the banquet again. Turns out, Andrea and I were part of the entertainment.
She and Professor Marquina had arranged a little contest. He called us to the center of an open area, gathered their guests around us, drinking and watching. Soon there’d be cheering and jeering, and it wasn’t Andrea they were hooting.
Marquina stood between us, held up his hand, addressing the crowd. “It has come to our attention that one amongst us doubts our professional abilities and qualifications.” He rested his other hand on my shoulder and patted it, a bit harder than necessary I thought. “So we thought we should see,” more, heavier, pats, “if he is qualified to render that opinion and let all of you be the judges. Well fed and impartial, of course.”
I heard Archie and long, tall Geoffrey yell, “Hear, hear.”
“Senor Professor Collum,” continued Marquina, “has said, in public, causing our reputation to be questioned, that he can outdig our distinguished staff member, Doctor Antworth.” Cheers.
“He is implying our work is substandard and of little import.” Hoots and boos. Marquina waved his hand and went on when it got quieter. “So, we have come to this ground to see if he can shovel dirt as well as -.” The crowd roared, drowning him out. I didn’t hear the word but I guessed. Two peons rolled up a barrow, rattling with a bunch of shovels. He and his fellow removed the tools and held them points up. Marquina said, “Senor, choose your tool.”
I looked them over and took the one with the broadest blade.
They had expected that. Andrea had said, “He’s a man, he’ll take the one with the one with the biggest blade.”
Turns out they had prepared it just for me, specifically, by replacing the original blade with a thicker, heavier one and they had drilled a hole up the handle and inserted a rod of lead. The socket of the ‘new’ blade concealed their handiwork nicely.
Marquina placed us in front of an area marked out by two rows of three sticks each, the rows separated by a couple paces. “Each person will dig a proper trench two meters long, knee deep, between the wands. Choose your side, Senor,” he instructed, pointing to the ground.
“Lady’s choice”, I said. Andrea planted the blade of her shovel in the left plot. I stood at the foot of the right hand side, my shovel point also on the ground.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” intoned the professor loudly, “I give you Miss Doctor Trencher and Mr. Professor Fencepost Digger.” He raised her arm, then mine, presenting us to the mob.
She had remembered my challenge from that first breakfast weeks ago and cooked up this little show. Yes, she got the cheers, I got the jeers, even a couple thrown banana peels. I bet the Germans tossed those. Andrea rolled the sleeves of her khaki shirt up to her elbows. So did I. We shook hands and wished the other ‘good luck’. I heard her mutter, ‘you’ll need it.’
“Doctor Trencher, Professor Digger, are you ready?” yelled Marquina. We waved. “Then, go!”
It was obvious, very quickly, Andrea considered this a real contest. I had to dig hard to keep up. In short order, her sinewy, bare forearms glistened with girly glow. I was dropping sweat as fast as any horse in the stable. In five minutes, we were both standing in trenches three feet long, that is about a meter long, and knee deep, as instructed. Most of the crowd was chanting for Andrea, yelling, “An-dee”, or “Go Ditch-er!” I had a few rooters, maybe a small, polite minority. I kept my head down, shoveling hard. The crowd roared and laughed so suddenly, I looked up, not seeing the cause for the outburst. I looked around to my left and caught Andrea tossing another shovelful of dirt into my trench. I scowled and pointed to her other side with my shovel handle. She raised a hand in apology and went back to digging her trench. Me, too.
I redoubled my efforts, dripped more sweat and the leading edge of my trench pulled ahead, by one inch, two, three, half a shovel width. Spear the ground, lever the handle, dig, scoop and toss. A few more rooters deserted Doctor Trencher, coming over to the obvious winner. Her followers cheered louder, “An-dee, An-dee.” I was breathing very hard when I tossed my last shovelful to the right and got out of my trench. She was thirty seconds behind me. I offered my hand to assist her out of her trench. She declined with a little bow and stepped up and stood at the head of the hole, head held high, waving.
Marquina and Gamio strolled over and held up their arms for quiet. They conferred, walked around both trenches, examining them with much pointing and chin pulling. They put their heads together again and agreed. Marquina stepped between us and spoke to the guests. “As you have seen, Professor Digger has finished first.” A weak cheer went up. “But,” a collective groan and gasp, “Doctor Ditcher has adhered to our high standards. Her trench is straighter, square and even. Professor Digger’s trench is neither straight not tidy.” He bowed to Gamio. “It is therefore our opinion, which we ask you to ratify, that Doctor Ditcher has won.” He held my arm down and raised hers, to loud cheers. “I give you, excavator prima, Doctor Trencher.” The loud, biased mob ate it up.
OK, it was obviously a scam, and I’d learn about it later, but I’m a gentleman. I stepped in front of her, dropped to one knee, bowed my head and surrendered my shovel to her, lifted in both hands. The mob went wilder, yelling and applauding. “Hoo-ray An-dee. Hoo-ray Dig-ger.”
Yes, I got a few cheers. Marquina took my proffered shovel while Andrea ‘knighted’ me with the end of hers, touching each shoulder, right, then left. Unnoticed by the crowd, she bopped my left ear at the end, smiling so sweetly at me when I jerked up my head.
- Excerpt from Mexican Death Waltz