Rancho Brava
Part 1 of 2

Charles McLeod

Gloria Inparvo, Vice President
Global Consumer Distribution SA
Research and Development Division
North American Headquarters
317 Industrial Parkway
Milford, CT 06460

Dear Gloria,

Under cover of this letter please find initial, selected results from GCD’s first Focus Group in Zone 5 (Southwest) for Product 1822J: Authentic Garden-fresh Salsa. Focus Group was prescreened and comprised of qualified members representative of respective geodemographic “groups,” per employment of my firm’s recently devised classification system, PINON (People in Neighborhoods or/and Non-neighborhoods), modeled closely on the UK-based demographics system ACORN. (This is not to be confused with the US’s ACORN, a collective of community-based reform organizations that advocated for medium- and low-income families and was destroyed through a range of controversies, nearly all of which were exacted by rich, white men.)

         Focus Group was conducted in Banquet Room #3 (the Stardust Room) of the Lubbock, Texas, Marriott Hotel on March 4, 2012. Of the fourteen scheduled participants, twelve were present. The remaining two would-be participants, each embroiled in a series of events relating to coincidence, tragedy, and pain, indicated in subsequent emails that they would like to be part of another FG in the near or far future. Light refreshments were made available by the hotel itself, and supplemented by my 0.8-mile outing to the Hitchin’ Post, a combination gas station, grocery store, and souvenir shop, and the nearest purveyor of dry, edible goods to the Marriot, where I stayed for two nights in a King Standard.

         In an effort of full disclosure, I feel compelled to mention that I am no longer with the firm for which I compiled these data, my intrigue with this part of the country growing so overt following occurrences that transpired during the Focus Group in question that I have chosen to remain here forever. Without any dependents, and following a long and painful divorce from my spouse, one in which my own uxoriousness doomed me to the title of cuckold, I find myself the benefactor of a hefty settlement and owner of a double-wide trailer in Shady Lanes Mobile Court in Levelland, Texas, forty-five minutes from New Mexico’s eastern border.

         Having been that sort of workaday suburbanite common to much of late-’90s/early-’00s culture, my desires prosaic, my needs largely met, I’ve found these recent months and weeks to be akin to standing in a large, circular chamber, its single curving wall covered fully in doors. That is, Gloria, I wake in the morning, make eggs in a pan, put on my water-repellant safari hat with adjustable chin strap, and venture out into the world, unsure of both where it is that I’m going, and when I might return. Have you, Gloria, lived days without predestination, alone in the hot wind and staring out at some distant escarpment, your smart phone in a locked drawer four counties south? What I mean to say is that it’s good to feel whole again, and it’s you and Global Consumer Distribution SA and the Focus Group in question (and the acts therein) that I have to thank.

         Before proceeding, PINON’s classification system, should you not have a copy nearby. Whereas the UK’s ACORN system accounts for all of the UK as its single, foundational demographic, PINON subdivides the US regionally, prior to classification; that is, the Southwest Model may look little (or almost exactly) like, say, the Northeast:

PINON 2012 Profile Definitions—Zone 5: Southwest*

PINON Type    PINON Groups

1.1 Suburbs with Guards and Gates   
1.2 Suburbs with Gates   
1.3 Suburbs with Implied Gates (e.g., Race, Knowledge of Blue Chips)   
2.4 Palatial Livestock Estates   
3.5 Bucolic Mountaintop Retreats   
1 Madoff Wannabes, Septuagenarians in Golf Carts

2 Gun-toting Megaranchers

3 Sangre de Cristo Trust Funders

4.6 Those Houses They Show on HGTV That You Could Never Afford   
5.7 Houses That Almost Look Like That   
6.8 Houses That Will Look Like That Soon   
4 God-fearing Corner-office Breeders

5 Ab-crunching, Work-from-home, Pagan Techies

6 Nouveau Riche Construction Moguls

7.9 Hip Parts of Town That Were Once Shitty Parts of Town, Then Gay Neighborhoods, Then Gentrified   
8.10 The Student Ghetto   
9.11 Innocuous, Curtain-drawn Split-levels   
7. New Wave Hetero Yuppies with Purse Dogs and Spin-class Memberships

8 See 1–7, 9–18.

9 De Facto Cartel Employees, Undercover Department of Justice Workers

10.12 Outdated Apartment Complexes with Names Like Villa Del Sol and Spanish Fork Arms   
11.13 Neighborhoods That Used to Look Good but Now Might Be the Ghetto    
10 Slot-machine Widows, Cactus-league Baseball Players

11 The Middle Class (Note: Currently Unclear Whether or Not This Group Still Exists)

12.14 Rusting Airstreams   
13.15 Crumbling Adobes   
14.16 Tar-paper Eyesores   
12 Failed Country Singers

13 Deprogrammed Ex-cult Members

14 Meth-smoking Oilers with Rap Sheets
F-The Doomed**   

15.17 The Desert   
16.18 Basement Efficiencies   
17.19 Abandoned School Buses   
18.20 Sewers, Caves   
15. Drug Mules

16 Pedophiles

17 Section 8 War Veterans

18 Artists, Writers, Intellectuals

*Please note that the Southwest, as a region, remains difficult to classify correctly and universally. Arizona and New Mexico, for instance, are nearly always considered the Southwest. However, Texas and Oklahoma are classified by the United States Census Bureau as the South, and not the Southwest or the West. Furthermore, all the states/regions that at least could be defined as comprising the Southwest—Eastern California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico—and are not already classified as the South (Texas and Oklahoma) are also classified by the Census Bureau as the West, thereby making the Southwest not really a region at all but something closer, perhaps, to a country of lost borders, a realm that by title must indeed be a place but also and very much isn’t.

**Please note that due to the current/ongoing recession, portions of many if not all PINON groups normally/otherwise classified as Type A through Type E may now be Type F, The Doomed.

The Zone 5 Focus Group began on time and in orderly fashion. Save for an outdated and innocuous fire exit in the far southeast corner of the room, the chamber was single entranced, with high twin doors of dark wood along its northern wall. These connected to a wide corridor that led in one direction to the spacious if sterile lobby, where at all hours one could find a single member of a rotating cast of clerks in simple black-and-white vestments common to low-level hospitality-management employees and, in the other direction, to the two other banquet rooms (the Bluebonnet Room and Rancho Brava), followed by the fitness center and separate indoor pool. I did not see the interior of either the Bluebonnet Room or Rancho Brava save for pictures on the Lubbock Marriot’s well-assembled, no-frills website, one that included virtual tours of all three banquet rooms on the hotel property. The Stardust Room was both the smallest and cheapest of the three offerings, and as implementation of the Focus Group required no more than a large table, grounded electrical outlet, and space for an old-model television set on a wheeled, mobile platform, it (the Stardust Room) was the logical and cost-effective choice.

         The carpet was a thick, synthetic blend, its primary color cobalt. Strands of reddish brown and bright gray were worked in at regular intervals meant to look random. In providing a type of carpet with this much depth and cushion, I inferred that the room was more often used for social functions than work-related gatherings, as a thinner, more industrial-grade carpet would have sufficed for the latter but not the former. At the same time, the carpet held so much depth that it would be easy for a new bride to take a post-ceremony, alcohol-induced tumble—her champagne flute breaking in her palm, a white heel snapping—and as such acts are things no father (or hotel’s legal representation) wants, ever, to see, I remained in doubt to the chamber’s exact purpose.

         Indeed, the Stardust’s Room’s only shortcoming—one that did not manifest as such until after the Zone 5 FG had begun, and could not be righted without me stopping the day’s event in order to locate a grounds manager, who would in turn have had to bring in a second hotel employee to assess and, if possible, repair the problem—was a single, flickering ring of lights on the wooden, oversized fixture closest to the room’s main door. Much like the tufts of ochre and gray in the carpet, these fixtures were spaced around the room in a pattern meant to seem random but in truth governed by precise measurements chosen in order to arrive at a specific desired effect. Totaling nine, each fixture was, by design, a wagon wheel, though it was impossible for me to tell whether or not these wagon wheels were, at one point, just that—spoked, wooden circles that sat astride some Concord’s thoroughbraces, its buggy lurching like a wounded gunfighter through the thick desert dust, toward a Sierra boomtown—and had been repurposed, or, alternately, if these wheels were new, and only designed to look as though they were antique.

         In either case, and as I have mentioned, the lights (twelve in total) on the fixture that hung nearly over the threshold of the entrance to the Stardust Room were faulty, sizzling on and off in a manner akin to poorly functioning neon tubes comprising a sign for any mode of seedy drinking establishment. Spread out over the oval table—the kind found most often in corporate boardrooms, the particleboard under a thick synthetic gloss—were my firm’s preconceived Focus Group packets, which would accompany the interview conducted by myself. Fifteen chairs rung the table: fourteen for the total number of planned participants and one for myself, though I would not sit down over the course of the day. Off-brand bottled water stood next to each packet. As the participants arrived I moved from my spot next to the television set on one side of the table to its other end, introducing myself and extending a hand, palm up, toward the folding table of refreshments on the western side of the room. Included there were two cheese-and-fruit platters (hotel bought), an array of soft drinks and sparkling fruit juices, and more bottled water of the same (non-) brand, in addition to the items I purchased at the aforementioned Hitchin’ Post. These included foil-wrapped plastic sleeves of cream-filled chocolate cookies, two packages of name-brand butter crackers, one bag of bite-sized chocolate candies (assorted), and fifteen strips of what the cylindrical plastic container next to the Hitchin’ Post’s cash register called “boar jerky,” the nomenclature declaring that the rough-hewn strips of preserved meat were indeed dried slabs of wild pig. (Upon closer inspection of the container itself, this turned out, as imagined, to be false, the jerky not that of a dead wild pig at all, but rather the flesh of cattle, the inference being, Gloria, that lies of a certain shape and size are perfectly acceptable in the realm of the marketing of food.)

         With small talk accomplished and seats at the table taken, the Focus Group pushed on to the task at hand, namely identifying what they found compelling about the array of salsa products currently on the market, in addition to their broader, respective purviews on salsa itself. At the outset, and per Global Consumer Distribution’s corporate guidelines, I read the Informed Consent Form in its entirety:
Welcome Statement

Welcome! You are here today in order to participate in a discussion about salsa. On behalf of Global Consumer Distribution SA, I would like to thank you for your participation. Everything you say here will be confidential. We will be recording this discussion. If you can take a moment, now, to sign the waiver sheet indicating that executives at Global Consumer Distribution have the right to read this material and make use of it in appropriate, business-driven ways, it would be appreciated. We’ll pause for thirty seconds while you read through the waiver form then sign and print your name, initialing where it is mandated to do so. Your participation in this focus group is entirely voluntary. Your opinions are important to us. You will not be paid.

(Thirty-second pause.)*

*This pause, Gloria, was actually much longer than thirty seconds. While I won’t include a copy of the waiver form here, you and I both know that the average individual, and even a high-functioning one, would have trouble reading with clarity and precision a three-page form in ten-point font with anything approaching lucidity in the time allotted, especially when said form is laden with byzantine legalese. Please do not understand my actions as either roguish or attempting to establish ideology dichotomic (i.e., humanism v. corporate fascism) in nature. Rather, it simply seemed to me that in thirty seconds no one was going to get this done.
After this introductory message and the signing and collecting of consent forms, and per GCD’s FG guidelines, I had each member of the FG state their name and offer whatever brief details about themselves they would like to, in addition to what their favorite type of salsa was. Personal details, in some cases, lasted as much as three minutes, and there was a direct correlation between level of faith in a Christian God and lack of brevity in speaking of one’s self. Favorite salsas ranged from restaurant to homemade to store-bought. At this point, I had FG Participants flip past the cover page of their FG packets and focus on the first question therein:

Question One—On a scale of 1 to 10, how fully do you associate salsa as being that food most emblematic of the southwestern United States, with 1 being not at all and 10 being the most representative of all foods in existence?

Responses—As anticipated by Global Consumer Distribution, responses here were high, with the average being 8.12. The highest response was a 10, and the lowest was a 3, a single member of the Focus Group arguing that salsa actually had nothing to do with the United States, and was Latin in origin, and therefore could not be emblematic of any US region. This led to the first of many tête-à-têtes over the course of the day, with the FG Participant who argued this point initially meeting harsh criticism from a second FG Participant, who contended that by saying salsa was not at all American, the first FG Participant presupposed that Latinos and Latin Americans had nothing to do with American culture. The original FG Participant defended the original point posed, adding that embedded in the retort was an implication of racism, something that the first FG Participant would not stand for. At this point, most of the other Focus Group Participants, unsure of what to think about the points raised and, in a fashion typical of the current era of American social critique and debate, went mute and grew very uncomfortable—there was much shifting in chairs and rearranging of small mounds of snacks on the paper plates in front of members of the group in their attempts to reaffirm that: a) the group has the right to be left out of participating in non-salsa-related discourse; and b) their provisions (i.e., the snack mounds) would not be taken away. For your purposes, though, Gloria, the point is moot, as per GCD’s FG guidelines, lowest and highest scores were tossed out.

Question Two—When thinking about authenticity, and how the term relates to spicy, sometimes tomato-based sauces, what comes to mind?

Responses—As anticipated by GCD, “fresh tomatoes” was the most common response. In other words, the language in the posed question did indeed do its job in functioning as mental suggestion to almost the entire FG. Exceptions to this rule fell well into the realm of logic, and included “salsa that was prepared within hours of eating it” and “salsa without preservatives” and the surprisingly informed “salsa with tomatoes that have not been heat processed,” although in many ways all these responses were an alternate way of saying the most common one. Data collected for Question Two keep in line with data collected from other Question Twos posed in other regions where the phrase “sometimes tomato-based” was substituted for “sometimes chili-based.” That is, Gloria, whatever mode of narrative is established by the perceived authority is the one maintained by the demographic in the perceived subordinate position. Nearly always, we eat what we are fed. It seems, too, that there may not be a need on the part of Global Consumer Distribution SA to include the phrase “Garden Fresh” on the labeling of Product 1822J (i.e., the salsa), as for the majority of FG Participants in Zone 5, “Authentic” seemed to connote “Garden Fresh,” and I am imagining that leaving this phrase out of 1822J’s label has the potential to be, for GCD, cost saving. To say this another way, it seems that for most in Zone 5, for something to be genuine, it must also, interestingly, be new.

Question Three—In keeping on the topic of authenticity, how important is it to you as consumers that your salsa be “authentic,” with a 1 response indicating not important at all and a 10 response indicating that you in all likelihood would not purchase and/or eat the salsa in question, were it not authentic?

Responses—Data were inconclusive, with the mean response being a 5.71. Preemptively, FG Participants began to discuss cost, the theme of the back-and-forth being that one must indeed “shell out more to get the real deal,” while the group’s counterpoint was perhaps best summed up by the phrase “but some of that store-bought shit tastes real enough.” (At this point I was asked by one of the FG Participants with a strong inclination toward the Christian God [and the most long-winded talker of all FG Participants, at the FG’s outset] to maintain linguistic guidelines that would disallow for the use of profanity amongst all FG Participants. The utterer of the profane word in turn issued an apology, and this seemed to set things right.) So, while opinion varied greatly on the importance of authenticity (which one could conclude from Question Two also signifies newness) there did seem to be agreement on the idea that the more genuine and original the product was, the greater the expense incurred by the consumer. One could apply such thinking to a great many number of products offered on the free market—say, for instance, books. One is left to wonder, Gloria, in regard to books, what type of market shift might arise were it epic novels of contemporary literary fiction that were to be placed on the shelves of big box stores and priced competitively, as opposed to bawdy romances and spy thrillers. How would the world change?

         Most importantly, and as response discussion of Question Three dwindled, much like the dulling embers of a cowboy’s dying fire as the sun rises over the desert’s red dirt, the first of a series of events (the ones I mentioned prior) introduced itself to the Zone 5 Focus Group and forever and irrevocably altered both the day’s events and my life. What happened precisely, Gloria, was that Davy Crockett walked into the Zone 5 Focus Group.

         As one FG participant concluded extolling the virtues of homemade, handcrafted salsa, and a second FG Participant countered that notion, saying that even if the food was indeed homemade and handcrafted, the ingredients used—specifically, the tomatoes, the cilantro, the chilies, the corn, etc.—were in all likelihood GMFs, and therefore grown in labs and/or corporate fields where all manner of man-made chemical was added to the water sprayed onto the already toxin-steeped soil from which the array of vegetables grew, and therefore the “homemade” and “handcrafted” salsa could in no way be seen as authentic because the ingredients comprising the salsa would not be genuine ingredients but ersatz, and would necessarily not taste anything like how salsa tasted, say during the nineteenth entry, pre-GMFs—as this conversation was winding itself down, Gloria, the lights on the wagon-wheel fixture above the door began to buzz and strobe and a younger man of Anglo descent, wearing a suede fringed blouse, ecru leggings, and a coonskin cap with a tail trailing down one side of it, much like the tassel of a hat one wears to receive a degree from an institution of learning, entered the Stardust Room.

         The room’s twin doors had levered handles on both their exterior and interior sides, but as is often the case with doors in environments such as banquet rooms (or, say, divorce lawyers’ offices) only one of the two doors actually opened, the nonopening door being both top- and bottom-latched so that the levered handle itself would turn, making one believe that they had made progress in their attempt at entering the room, only to find that the door itself would not budge. This unintentional trick is one that I have always found consternating, Gloria, not only because it mandates that for a few seconds the individual entrant is made to feel embarrassed by the fact that, as a fully grown adult, he/she has yet to master how to enter a room, but also because the exact movement that the combination of the turning handle and nonmoving door puts into play is one that has the potential to be truly injurious. Here’s what I mean: Not knowing that the door won’t move once the levered handle is turned, the average would-be room enterer continues to lean toward the door in question, while at the same time continuing to press down on the levered handle. Were the door indeed to open, or the handle itself to remain in a nonmoving and locked position, the pressure on the wrist and elbow joints of the would-be opener would be alleviated by either/both the swinging motion of the door or the stasis of the handle. However, since there is no way for the door to move, the turner of the handle is forced to continue with the motion of blind depression, forcing his or her body ever closer to the threshold until the handle reaches the limit of its rotation, at which point, often, the individual trying to enter the room has wound up in an extremely awkward and potentially painful position, his or her shoulder jammed up against the abutting doorframe, his or her wrist, turned upward, pinned to a hip.

         I mention this action in the detail that I do as Davy Crockett himself was involved in it, prior to his appearance under the flickering ring of lights very near to the Stardust Room’s entrance. The locked door’s handle turned, then turned again, and then, after a beat of one-two, Davy Crockett tried and succeeded at opening the door that would open. Crockett took three steps into the banquet room and stopped, looking around, a grin on his face, this facial expression then changing, in the proceeding seconds, to a look of confusion and minor bereavement—Crockett’s eyes pulled down, and he swung his head side to side, the tail of the coonskin cap swinging to-and-fro as though the animal for which the hat had been named had reanimated, and found the moment to be one of pronounced excitement. Suffice it to say, Gloria, that all talk of authenticity and newness in relation to salsa ceased as our group stared at the long-dead American frontiersman.

         As Focus Group Leader and temporary, ad hoc GCD representative, responsibility fell upon myself to make sure that the day’s overarching event would not be interrupted to the extent that the FG Participants misremembered why it was that they were there in the first place. That is, after Crockett failed to turn around and leave the room on his own, so that we as a group might return to our discussion of authentic, southwestern salsas, I offered up a very polite and tactful May I Help You. Crockett, staring at the partially consumed spread of food along the western wall, then looked at me, asking, Is This Rancho Brava? At this juncture, many of the FG Participants turned their heads from Crockett toward me, seemingly unsure of the correct answer. I informed Crockett (and, by extension, those members of the group) that it was not, at which juncture Crockett raised a hand in apology, spun around on one foot, and exited the Stardust Room forever.

         While on the surface seemingly intrusive, the arrival and departure of Davy Crockett from the Focus Group did, in the short term, wind up being advantageous, as the pioneer’s cameo translated ultimately to a moment of bonding amongst the FG Participants. Having collectively witnessed an event that none of the group imagined having any possibility of witnessing, a friendly camaraderie washed over the recent strangers, so much so that even a light spell of chuckling made its way around our oval table. Soon after this, the light fixture’s wiring righted itself, and the bulbs above the door stopped their flickering. I did my best to let the moment’s minor joy play itself out as fully as it could, then directed GCD’s FG Participants back to 1822J’s discussion packet.

Question Four—Turning our focus, now, to the packaging of salsa products, and specifically the sort of packaging that you, as consumers, perceive as being visually representative of “an authentic, garden-fresh, southwestern salsa,” I’d like to direct your attention to the television next to me, asking that you pay close attention to the three different salsa labels shown on the video. As you look at these three different labels, I would like you to keep mental notes of those images or portions of images that reveal themselves to you as authentic and/or garden fresh and/or southwestern. If you would like to take notes on scratch paper, please raise your hand now.

         Ten of the twelve FG Participants raised their hands, and I made my way around our table with two boxes, one containing pieces of blank, loose-leaf paper (cut in half by a paper cutter that sat, somewhat surprisingly, on a low table directly behind the Marriot’s front desk) and another, smaller box containing well-sharpened, half-length, eraserless pencils. With these implements administered, I returned to my spot next to my unused seat and, per GCD’s guidelines, verbally indicated that I would now turn on the television (though in truth the act itself would seem to indicate such just as effectively). With this announcement, a certain bristling of anticipation—one truly palpable—arose from the majority of the FG Participants, and there was much repositioning of bodies in chairs and rustling of papers and tapping of pencils against the synthetically glossed table. That is, Gloria, I had the sense that the FG Participants believed themselves, as the saying goes, in for a real treat, even though the extent of what we would be doing involved no more than staring at three twenty-second videos of salsa jars. As I type this letter, I have not truly sat down and taken in television programming for over three months, so much so that when I happen upon a television, in a restaurant/bar or department store or other establishment, I find myself, compared to my former TV-watching days, both far more repulsed and intrigued by the technology and its programs. It seems to me that not having such a machine in one’s home makes said machine seem out of place truly everywhere, and consistently I find myself perplexed by yet nonetheless drawn to the set in the aforementioned public places, though this psychological reaction may be no different, in truth, than a moth drawn to a blinking and sound-producing bug light whose singular purpose is ultimately to kill those attracted to it.

         The Stardust Room’s grounded outlet was in perfect working order, and prior to the arrival of the FG Participants, I had cued the tape to the appropriate beginning moment of the video. The first salsa jar on display was Label Model 3B: Cowboy on Horse at Sunset. To remind you, this is the same front image as Label Models 3A, 3C, and 3D, with time of day the single variable. (3A being Cowboy on Horse at Sunrise, 3C being Cowboy on Horse in Nighttime, and 3D being CoH at High Noon.) All FG Participants were attentive and respectful of the attentiveness of others in the opening moments of the video but then, Gloria, at 3B’s halfway point, an AP (Anticipated Problem) arose. The AP in question dealt with the woman’s hand descending into the shot of the salsa jar, and turning said jar so that FG Participants could view the rear “half” (in quotation marks as the jar is circular) of the label.

         As the FG Participants took notes (some copious) on their pieces of scratch paper with their uncomfortable miniature pencils, looking from the screen to their papers and back to the screen again, the AP (the woman’s hand) descended, interrupting the pristine white background in front of which the jar of salsa sat. Her skin pale, her nails unpainted, her fingers lithe if not truly graceful, the hand moved at a consistent rate, from the northwest corner of the shot to only, barely, the top edges of 1822J, never once pausing, even after contact with the lid had been made, even after the motion of turning the jar had begun, even after the hand had completed turning the jar and raised itself away from the product, lifting out of the shot at that same constant motion. It was a rate of sincere professionalism, one not fast but also not slow, a rate that understood the task at hand and also its place in the moment’s larger context.

         I hadn’t seen my wife’s hand in so long, Gloria (roughly six months), and to witness it, then, as the FG Participants cooed at its arrival, was as if my own thoughts had been transferred into the mouths of the others in the room, their small sounds of wonder not unlike the murmurs of awe that escaped my former betrothed’s lips while we stood gazing up at the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on our honeymoon. That the AP (my wife’s hand) descended into the video of the salsa at roughly the same angle that Adam holds his hand in the creation scene on that famous, frescoed ceiling in order to attain his Breath of Life from Michelangelo’s God was a truth that had not struck me prior to that moment in the Stardust Room, and while the FG Participants scribbled and buzzed, I was forced to consider, again, my past failures at love, shortcomings earned by my former self via placing belief in the dual (and sometimes overlapping) concepts of faith and union, even when such placing of belief overrode logic. That is, Gloria, I really did convince myself that my wife was fixing a male friend’s boots, when I found said footwear in her closet one summer evening, and I really did convince myself that my wife, feeling suffocated by our shared domesticity, needed “more nights out with the girls,” and I really did convince myself, Gloria, I really, really did, that upon finding condoms in the drawer of my wife’s nightstand one Sunday afternoon, while cleaning the upstairs of our mortgaged American Colonial, that there was a well-intentioned reason for the sheath of contraceptives, so much so that the thing to do, as opposed to asking my wife about them, was simply to remove the chain of condoms to the trash and never once, ever, mention either their presence or absence.

         Gloria, are you familiar with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam? On that part of the chapel’s ceiling, behind the image of God, is an open, swirling cloak, painted maroon. It was noted by a doctor in the American Midwest, some years ago, that this cloak, billowing and packed full of human figures and other shapes, is an anatomically correct picture of the human brain, with the figures and shapes serving as visual representations of all manner of lobes and glands and sulci, and the cloak itself providing the outline of the nervous system’s most vital organ. One could infer from such a notation that behind even a premiere personification of faith and belief, there must be logic, Gloria—that to wish blindly is no more than folly or curse, and to pray without thinking is the work—in the Christian tradition—of the Devil.

         The Focus Group carried on without such thoughts in their heads, invested as they were in the colors of Label 3B, and the attractiveness of the shadow of a cowboy and horse, alone in the desert at sunset. After this shot ended, the next one began, my wife’s hand descending to the lid of Label 5B (Coyote Baying at Moon) and Label 6A (Prospector Crouched Next to River), the FG Participants making their notes, a single member of the group speculating aloud, I Wonder How Much They Pay the Hand to Do That. This was met by a chuckle then a shushing, I, all the while, dying inside, and then, Gloria, for the second time that day, the lights on the wagon wheel nearest the door began to flicker.

         The mariachi octet that entered the room, accidentally serenading the FG Participants and myself, was an outfit named Mariachi Errante. I’ve seen them twice since the day at the hotel, running into the band, completely coincidentally, at a street festival in Santa Fe and later at a trilevel parking garage in El Paso. At the second of these locations, Errante’s van had broken down, though the problem was actually nothing more than a corroded distributor cap, and easily remediable. As I worked, the vihuela player and I talked a bit, conversing in that manner frequent to male strangers with little in common between them. For instance, Luis (the vihuela player) asked me if I was married, and I told him that I once was. He asked me if I had children, and I told him that I didn’t. With these questions asked (and there is a certain bravery in the asking, Gloria, a certain putting out there of one’s self in a way that appears casual but is actually suffused with risk, much in the way that a professional poker player slides his or her full stack forward, across the table’s green felt, lips set, hands calm, insides screaming from the madness of the gambit while knowing, also, that it’s the way that the game must be played) and answered, I countervolleyed, asking the identical questions of Luis, who had very different answers than my own, combining the two responses into a single, longer one that spanned the rest of my switching out of the corroded distributor cap and involved a soccer match, a long-standing family feud, a child’s finger lost to a scorpion sting, the Department of Homeland Security, a stolen trumpet, the smell of dried chilies ground with a mortar and pestle, wet sand under bare feet that the warm surf washed across in a calming, rhythmic way, coyotes of the human kind, coyotes of the nonhuman kind, a Zeta-owned cantina in Douglas, Arizona, an outmoded six-shooter that went off in someone’s hand, and a choice, made outside a supermarket in St. George, that would haunt Luis and the rest of the mariachi band forever. Wiping at my oil-striped hands with a rag that one of Errante’s violin players produced, I told Luis that was quite a story, a statement that made Luis shrug and say, It is only how life can be, Roberto.

         I of course knew none of this that day at the Marriott, the octet, one by one, entering through the single opening door of the Stardust Room (an act that with eight people really took some time, though the band began playing and singing as soon as their first member crossed the room’s threshold), and instead could only listen, as the other FG Participants did, to the cloyingly joyful yet melodramatically bittersweet sentiments of the song sung by the group, a number that they played the entirety of, and that elicited genuine applause from the FG Participants, some of whom then looked to me, assuming that I had planned the intermission. This wrong hypothesis was understood in full once the octet had restored their instruments to nonplaying positions, Luis (the unspoken but clear leader of the band) asking, Is This Rancho Brava? I informed Mariachi Errante that it was not, and in uniform motion the eight men then bowed, walking out of the Stardust Room and leaving myself and the FG Participants in a silence so complete it was as though we had just sat through an earthquake. Luis, the last band member to exit the room, turned around to face us as he closed the door, nodding his head in departure and apology. Three seconds later, the lights on the wagon-wheel fixture stopped their flickering.

         The Zone 5 Focus Group was, much to their credit, Gloria, able to regain focus after this unexpected interlude, and return once more to the task at hand, mentally filing away both the mariachi band and Davy Crockett. Cowboy on Horse at Sunset scored the highest of the three labels shown, with Prospector Crouched Next to River edging out Coyote Baying at Moon, the inference being, perhaps, that people are more attracted to images of people than images of animals but most appreciate images that contain both people and animals functioning in tandem. Alternately, Gloria, the case could be made that the FG’s choosing of the Cowboy on Horse at Sunset label had actually nothing to do with the cowboy or the horse at all, only with the sunset, that time of day when people are often the most contemplative; and, being thrust into an environment of forced contemplation (i.e., the Focus Group), the Participants were greatly affected by their immediate confines in their decision-making processes. However, if we look at current trends in other industries—say, for instance, the publishing industry—we see a clear and strong movement toward the placing of a person or people on book covers, especially in cases of bawdy romances and young-adult crossover fiction, those industry areas with some of the largest market share. Indeed, even in industry areas with very low sales, so much so that these areas are largely financially worthless (for instance, literary fiction), one can see a trend toward the placing of people on covers, perhaps in the attempt to have the design of the book lure people into buying it through something akin to empathy, the unstated belief being, on the part of the industry’s respective marketing departments, that a more figurative and perhaps “artistic” design—say, for instance, an empty banquet room, with only a TV, some chairs, and a table beneath wagon-wheel light fixtures—would be too sterile and too dissociative to hold the hypothetical consumer’s attention for long enough for said consumer to pick the book up off the big box store’s shelf, look at the cover, flip the book over to its back cover (where another human-based image would be) and decide, all in a span of five seconds, to place the book in their oversized cart, along with their food products, their toiletry items, and those products that serve no purpose at all past entertainment and whimsy. As stated prior, Gloria, we eat what we’re fed, and those items that we choose to eat are, for the most part, marketed directly toward short-term gratification, despite being in direct, ironic opposition to the indefatigable truth that if all one consumes is snack cakes, frozen pizza, and sugary, carbonated beverages, the marketer will be unable, long-term, to market toward that consumer, because, Gloria, that consumer will be dead, due in large part to the prior successes of the marketer. But the notion of the sustainable consumer, as we both know, is folly, as that consumer necessarily ages and dies, in the meantime copulating and reproducing and ultimately spawning offspring that can replace them. Therefore, the idea, on the marketer’s end, of long-term betterment of the consumer can only be a fool’s game. How do you make broccoli sexy, Gloria? You do not. There is no way on earth to make broccoli sexy.

         Gloria, here is the section of the text where I would list Question Five, that question dealing with the perceived correct viscosity of authentic, garden-fresh salsa—should it be thick? Should it be runny? How much xantham gum and sodium alginate should be injected into the vat of vegetable slurry and stirred by factory machines, in order to provide an authentic, garden-fresh salsa experience, one that will be able to be enjoyed repeatedly, even after the consumer has picked up and set down the salsa a half dozen times from a white, barred shelf of their refrigerator? An important concern, to be sure, but one, too, that was overridden by the continuing, escalating series of events that had already been set in motion prior to the FG’s consideration of how thick or not thick a salsa’s “body” should be, in order to be authentic. (Gloria, as I write this a Gila monster has perched itself on a rock, just past my double-wide’s west-facing window. It’s striped pink and brown and is nearly two feet in length and its body looks like some bit of bright, banded reef removed from the sea and set next to my trailer. I have seen, too, a horned frog shoot blood from its eyes. I have seen also a dust storm black out the noon sun, turning the world to nothing but grit, sound, and darkness.)

         As the Group centered its attention on the correct thickness of 1822J, and truly no more than seconds after I had asked the question out loud to the Zone 5 FG Participants, the lights on the wagon wheel flickered again, and the door of the Stardust Room opened. Initially, all that appeared in the threshold was a foot—more specifically, a brown and white cowboy boot with a spur attached to it. The spur—replete with rowels, chap guards, and metal buttons for straps—tinkled lightly against the Stardust Room’s synthetic carpet, the dual noises of the door opening and the bright ting of the boot’s accessory enough to steal away the attention of the FG Participants. The owner of the boot/spur, who followed his footwear into the room some theatrically long seconds after, was a narrow-hipped, Caucasian man in a tan ten-gallon hat and tan vest worn over a white, long-sleeved shirt with a banded, buttoned collar. His tan jeans were tight on his thin legs, and attached to the lapel of his vest was a large, gold badge comprised of a star with a circle around it. The man was in his late fifties, perhaps, with small, dark eyes under wide salt-and-pepper eyebrows. His most striking feature, though, Gloria, by far, was his enormous moustache.


Charles McLeod is the author of a novel, American Weather, and a collection of stories, National Treasures. His third book, a hybrid titled Ascoliasm, Zemblanity, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.