You Only Get One Chance to Be El Latigo

by Elizabeth Smith Read author interview December 15, 2005

So how’s El Latigo? her best friend Alisha asked, sharing a hoagie in the school cafeteria, their favorite, salami, three kinds of cheese, crinkled ribbons of lettuce, tart Italian dressing. Although he was supposed to be a secret, she confided to her best friend Alisha that El Latigo could kick the crap out of anyone who messed with them.

When she first found out that she was El Latigo, right away she told her best friend. Her best friend, whose mother was a doctor, said everything going on with them now was puberty, and she should check her underwear every day for spotting. She did for a week, but saw nothing. That was good, because El Latigo was a ‘50’s cowboy star who used to fight bad guys with six-gun and whip on early Saturday afternoons. He wouldn’t have a clue about tampons.

She knew she should shut up about him, El Latigo was in hiding, readying himself to save the world. But knowing you’re the one chosen to make it happen, that’s a big deal. It was brilliant of him to come to her, a pudgy girl with bottle-thick glasses and a pimple on her left nostril. No one would ever suspect. Then one day her best friend Alisha told everyone about El Latigo. Alisha was a jerk, she didn’t care, but she was afraid that everyone knowing would compromise him, force his hand too early.

She moved from invisible to weird. Jerks followed her down the hall, wrote things on her locker, said she was a freak. She held her binder close to her chest but it would tumble to the floor with her books if one of them could get a grip. El Latigo had never killed anyone, but that might change.

El Latigo had first arrived to the sound of castanets. She knew him right away although she didn’t watch the old movies anymore like she used to. She kept telling her dad they weren’t as good as the ones out now where everyone moved in slow motion and where their big guns spewed bullets all over the place. That’s not right, said her dad. Back in the day, a man could keep his gun holstered.

At first it was like she had a boyfriend, that’s what her mother thought, she had that glow. She and El Latigo did everything together, she even told him which boy she liked – the cute one in Spanish class. She knew El Latigo would never tell. She asked him for advice, although he knew more about branding irons than curling irons, more about heading off rustlers at the pass than why her mother didn’t understand her. He was smart and experienced and brave.

She wanted to be worthy of El Latigo, she ate three square meals a day, washed her face, didn’t let others cheat from her tests in Chemistry, actually tried hard in Phys. Ed. She even got up the rope climb all the way to the ceiling beam. For three days after, her inner thighs had rope burn, but that was OK, she had touched the top to the sound of castanets.

El Latigo never said much, being a cowboy, but everything about him informed her actions, especially that man-in-skin-tight-black’s panther tread, steely gaze, and whip-crack action in Episode Twelve: Trail of Justice. Her dad would watch episodes from his video collection with her, his arm around her like they were sweethearts on the couch, she dreaming of El Latigo’s whip coiling around her tormentors.

Finally there came a night when she felt ready, prepared, poised to save the world. I’m ready, she whispered fiercely into her pillow.

El Latigo must have been listening. And it is time, he said with the castanets buzzing.

She went to get ready and brush her teeth. When she came back she told him, I got my period. That spotting on my underwear just like my best friend said.

Just what I get for partnering with a woman, El Latigo said. Let’s ride.

But it’s different now, she said.

Different? he said.

Yeah, she said. She looked down. I have to change my underwear, she said.

El Latigo wasn’t around when she got up in the morning, went to school as usual. He didn’t show up when Alisha called her a loser in front of the cute guy in Spanish class. He wasn’t there when she stood alone around the swings at recess, or even when she had to phone her mother around midday to get new underwear and jeans, every girl’s nightmare. At first, it was as if she were the one abandoned, but then after a while, after someone else became the official weirdo-freak, after she started passing notes with the guy in Spanish class, after her father got a DVD player, she knew who had been left behind.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Smith is a writer, artist, and teacher living in Brooklyn. She has several short stories published in e-zines and magazines, including Starry Night Review, Terrain, Carve, and Madhatter’s Review. She has an extensive collection of pulp Westerns from the fifties, and her own writing and visual artwork often dip into the genre’s style. She has been a featured reader in New York City, and is the recipient of residencies and fellowships for her work on her novel, Loveland.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.