The Secret of El Arenque Rojo, Chapter 2: Magic Numbers

by Jason Toon

If you bought our Woot 2012 Calendar, you may have noticed that each month sports a different QR code. And if you've scanned that code, you've gotten a message telling you to wait until the first of the given month to read a new installment in The Secret of El Arenque Rojo. And then you probably wondered what we were talking about. Chapter 1 appeared in January on the Woot blog. Read on for this month's installment, Chapter 2...

It would never do for a man in Don Fausto’s position to wear glasses. He’d wrenched a fortune out of the dust of Durango by the force of his will, the keenness of his wits, the strength of his sinews. How would it look if the savviest caballero on the Mexican frontier admitted that his faculties were beginning to fail him? His enemies would strike without mercy. Everything would be lost. He may as well castrate himself...

So when Don Fausto looked into the horse’s mouth, he pretended to inspect the animal’s teeth like he had hundreds of times before. He couldn’t let the ratlike little horse trader know that through his aging eyes, the horse’s teeth told him nothing. They just looked like teeth. Of course, Don Fausto could walk away, refuse to buy. But he liked what he could see of the rest of the horse. And Don Fausto was a man who tended to regret the chances he’d missed, not the ones he’d taken.

He stood back, almost sneering, and barely shrugged. “Si,” he nodded, as if this trifling exchange was a matter of supreme unimportance to the great Don Fausto.

He didn’t know that the trader had seen him “reading” a newspaper upside-down at a cafe that morning. After he handed the man 2,000 pesos and took the reins of the horse, Don Fausto didn’t see the furtive little man remove a set of false teeth from the old nag’s mouth.

And after the horse trader ducked around a corner, pasted on a false mustache, and put on a white coat, Don Fausto didn’t recognize him anymore. The trader, now wearing a sign around his neck that said DENTISTA, began an impromptu, fumbling examination of Don Fausto’s teeth, right there in the street. After a few minutes of jabbing and poking and yanking, he had sold the aging Don a set of false teeth – the same ones the horse had worn. And the horse trader was another 12 pesos richer.

That was the first time it struck Roy Odom. 2,000 pesos plus 12 pesos. 2012.

Since he’d found the mysterious box in the back of his video store, Roy had watched every videotape in it, over and over. Every one was a silent comedy. Every one appeared to be made in Mexico – title cards in Spanish, bullfighting and shootouts, men in serapes and sombreros, ladies in frills and flowers.

And every one starred an actor with huge, darting eyes, a pointed profile, and a clumsy grace that seemed to embody, in the most mundane movements, all the pathos and ridiculousness of the human predicament. The man’s name, Roy deduced from the credits, was El Arenque Rojo. And in Roy’s estimation, he had no peers among silent comedians this side of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

Which made it strange that Roy could find no information about the man or the movies. Not in the dozen heavy, well-thumbed film encyclopedias he kept behind the desk at Diabolical Video. Not anywhere in his personal library at home, which filled a room that the real-estate agent had called “the nursery”. Not even in IMDB or anywhere else on the Internet. It was as if these masterpieces existed only on these videotapes.

That was crazy, Roy knew. We’re talking about Mexican silent films here. Of course there were gaps in the historical record. He’d figure it out eventually. Maybe he’d go to the library. Maybe he just wasn’t searching for the right terms in Google. Anyway, learning about the movies didn’t seem as important as watching the movies.

But that day, as he watched El Arenque Rojo’s little horse trader swindle the pompous Don Fausto in Sotretas Para La Venta for perhaps the twentieth time, the number jumped out at him. 2012. This year. Huh.

And it wasn’t the last time. Every time he sat down to lose himself once again in El Arenque Rojo’s world of delicate Doñas, scheming street peddlers, and bellowing banditos, there it was. The flophouse hotel room where the hayseed stayed on his first night in the big city: 2012. The number on the train that the traquero had to keep outrunning, laying tracks right in front of its wheels: 2012. The final score of a soccer match played between a team of upper-class glamour boys and a motley gang of zinc miners and street urchins with a flyblown burro tending goal: 20-12.

It was never gratuitous. The movies never went out of their way to cram a “2012” in where it didn’t belong, or to call undue attention to it. It was just there. Over and over and over.

Roy found himself growing more and more uneasy when he watched the movies. Where before he’d been riveted by the timeless clowning of El Arenque Rojo, now he was drawn to the strangeness at the margins. A glowering face in a window. Two roosters pecking at an old shoe in the street. A hand resting on the back of a chair, its owner eternally out of frame. He had marveled at how universal such old foreign films could be. Now he felt the distance – geographical, temporal, psychological – that these movies must have traveled to wind up in his video store.

And yeah, about that… how had they gotten there? Where had that box come from? All those 2012s couldn’t just be coincidence, could they? Was he losing his mind? Should he see someone, even check himself in somewhere?

No, Roy thought. He didn’t need a psychiatrist. He needed a film scholar...