Good Fit

 

 

 

One of those days made of random pieces. Sophy and I had to drop the Jeep Cherokee off at the mechanic, to see if he could keep us on the road for another week or two. We need a reliable car and this piece of junk is sucking money out of my pocket on a daily basis.

The mechanic tells us we’re out of oil and that we shouldn’t drive it for another 100 feet. So Sophy and I are off walking along the road to an auto supply store a mile away. Kind of interesting, being 63 years old and walking down the road with my wife, looking to buy five quarts of oil. But for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel like I’m walking through paradise.

When we get back, it turns out that the ring on the oil filter is rotten. It’s going to take an hour to fix. We have exactly 20 pesos in our pocket (about $1.60). Instead of leaning back and holding up the wall at the garage, we decide to walk to an ATM, a couple miles away.

Once again, we’re out on the road, walking streets we usually drive down. I recommend this to anybody since you invariably notice details and gain perspectives you never experience from a moving car, like walking over a highway overpass and feeling the rush of traffic and looking out over the horizon line.

We go into a Calimax supermarket and I get some cash. Sophy has been sick the last couple days, so we head up the street to a pharmacy, where a resident doctor will check a person out for $2 and then prescribe medicine. On the way, we pass an open air restaurant selling ceviche and beer. The pharmacy is across the street.

“The last thing I want to do is sit in a room with a bunch of sick people,” I say. “I’ll wait for you here.”

Sophy laughs, “I’m sitting here with you.”

We have an excellent meal – ceviche tostadas, coctel de camarones, and a couple of ice cold Pacificos for me. While we eat, a solo mariachi serenades no one in particular. Cars gun by on the street. Every person that passes is as fully realized as a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel; if Charles Dickens was Mexican.

I once had a cat that was raised in an apartment. When it was a year old I took it outside and it flipped out seeing the trees wave in the wind and the ripples on the surface of the lake. I guess in a way I’m like that cat. I’ve been staring at a computer monitor for way too long and just being outside is sensory overload.

We finish the meal. Sophy heads across the street to the pharmacy while I sit on a bench in the sun. In my work as a travel writer, I’ve been to lots of resorts, where I sit on a lounge chair by the pool. For some unknown reason, I’m enjoying this bench in Rosarito more than any of those five-star resorts.

It has a lot to do with Sophy – that she’s across the street and in a few minutes I’ll see her dodging traffic, coming toward me.

 

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Into a Corner

There’s a sound a piece of chalk makes when dropped—a “chink” or “plink” sound. Our dogs have the same note in their bark when they see a rattlesnake in the yard. This is the sound the dogs were making when Sophy called me out of my office one night, saying, “There’s a rattlesnake in Denisse’s yard.”

I jumped up and grabbed a shovel from the shed. Twice in the past, I’ve killed rattlesnakes by slicing them in half with a thrust of the shovel’s edge.

When I got to Denisse’s yard she spoke through the window of her house, pointing out the snake. It was coiled under her car, making it impossible to make a clear blow with the shovel. The snake was poised to strike which made me fearful since I was standing in the dark driveway only a few feet away.

Sophy said, “We’ll call Martine… we’ll call Martine.”

This riled me. I didn’t want to call another man to protect my family—at least not until I’d given it my best shot.

“Don’t call him.”

I told Denisse to throw her car keys out the window. She tossed them to me and I got into her tiny and low-slung compact. I felt vulnerable, knowing the snake was directly underneath me. The car is beat up and I imagined the snake slithering inside through a hole in the floor.

I turned the key in the ignition and switched on the headlights. I reversed and there was the snake, exposed, still coiled in the driveway. I lined the tires up best I could with the snake and hit the gas. With any luck I’d break its back.

I reversed again so the headlights illuminated the yard. There was nothing there. Denisse called out that she thought I’d hit it, but if I did the snake still had the strength to crawl away. This was fine with me. It wasn’t my goal to kill the snake. I just wanted it gone.

Sophy and I went to bed and all night I dreamed of battling with snakes. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. Around dawn I heard the same dropping chalk sound in the barking of the dogs. I dressed in the gray light and outside I saw the dogs yipping and yapping at one of the dog houses. I reached out and tipped the dog house over—

The snake hadn’t slithered away. Instead it was coiled inside the slats of the wooden pallet that the dog house rested on.

Like the night before, I went to the shed. Instead of a shovel I grabbed an iron bar about five feet long—heavy, with a wedge-shaped tip. We use it for digging holes in the hard dirt.

I went back to Denisse’s yard and looked down at the snake.

If it had disappeared in the night I wouldn’t have to do anything.

Instead, the snake had decided to stay within a foot of Denisse’s front door. I couldn’t risk having her or the kids or our dogs being snake bit.

I put my back into one heavy thrust of the iron bar and—feeling like one of Ahab’s whalers on the Pequod—severed the snake’s head from its body.

It squirmed and squirmed until I put it in a bucket and covered it with dirt and stones.

Mexico 2017

 

Plea Deal

I was driving in California, through a Walmart parking lot. In the traffic island was a young man in his 30s, flanked by his wife and two kids. He was dressed in clean clothes. He held a sign:
“Need money for food and rent. I lost my job. Please help.”
His two young kids were sprawled in the grass, either sleeping or ashamed to show their faces.
I felt sympathetic, but as I passed, I said to my wife, “There was something missing from his sign. There was nothing about asking for work.”
An hour later I was across the border in Mexico. I saw an old guy standing by the side of the road, the Pacific Ocean behind him. He held a crudely-lettered sign:
“Desde Trabajo”
“Need Work”
We hired him today.
I wonder how the guy in the Walmart parking lot fared, and if he would have done better without the bid for sympathy, and instead held up a simple plea:

“Need Work.”

Of course, I have to add this:

The Mexican guy never showed up to work.

 

Buried

A funeral is a time for as much kindness as can be mustered. The lens of guilt and loss is firmly in place and allows for only loving remembrance. The love is real, but it’s only one side of the coin.  During a funeral, when a coin is flipped, it always comes up heads.

My father died last month at the age of 97. In the last years of his life he slipped into dementia, to the point where he eventually recognized no one, not even my loving sister, who visited him at least once a week in his nursing home.

Sophy and I booked a flight to Massachusetts to attend the funeral. During the flight and the days after, Sophy would look at me and say, “Mi amor, it’s all right to cry. You need to cry.”

I didn’t shed a tear. I didn’t feel sad my father was gone. If he could still have expressed an opinion I don’t think he would choose to live in such a reduced state. Maybe I’m missing something—a bedrock truth of existence that all life is sacred. In my heart I believe there’s a time to go and it was my father’s time.

In the days in Massachusetts leading up to the funeral, there were moments of connection with my family and just as many moments of separation.

The day of the funeral, at the memorial service, my sister got up and delivered a simple and heartfelt remembrance. My brother Rich, a writer, gave a finely crafted and humorous review of my dad’s life. Instead of writing anything down, I decided to wing it, although I was nervous about getting up to speak, even though I had a good idea of what I wanted to talk about.

When I walked up to the lectern, the nerves vanished—all of the people there loved my father; he was a loveable guy. As I began to speak I began to fill up with emotion. It felt like there was a bellows in my chest filling up and pushing out air. I said something along the lines of:

“As you can see from all the stories about my dad, he had a lot of courage, flying airplanes when he was still a kid and jumping off the barn with a parachute made of a grain sack and iron chains, breaking his leg. I remember him telling us that when he worked for the airlines in Venezuela, after World War Two, he would drive to work with a loaded .45 on the seat next to his, to fend off rebels if necessary. But there was one thing he was deathly afraid of. Water. He’d never go into the water above his knees. Years and years of my childhood passed and in family photos, my dad is wearing the same brown plaid bathing suit. It never wore out because it never got wet.

Years later, when I was in my 30s, the whole family was vacationing on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. My brothers and I spent whole days on the beach. Usually, the Caribbean Sea is very gentle, with hardly any waves at all. While we were there, a huge storm in the region ended up creating beautiful rolling breakers, perfect for body surfing. The first day, we body surfed for hours, getting great rides but also getting trashed, where you ended up rolling and tumbling underwater, getting ground up in the sand.

The second day—and I don’t know how he got the courage to do this—my dad came out and body surfed with us. This from a guy who never went beyond knee deep in the water. He surfed beside us, because he wanted to be with us, and he wanted to share our joy.”

Then I came to a part where I said, “…on that day he showed us he loved us.”

My voice broke and I guess I did cry, if only for a second.

Blind Eye

Sophy and I got up early to drive to the Tijuana border crossing.

Maybe it’s Trump; maybe it’s Mexico. The linea—the slow moving line of cars crossing from TJ to San Ysidro—has shifted from being tedious to an experience that is horrifying. The number of deportees is on the rise creating an even more desperate situation. There are still Mexicans of all ages hawking Chiclets, serapes, burritos, and ugly souvenirs of all description. Now the crossing is like a scene out of Bombay, with people parading their afflictions.

It’s possible to feel repelled and sympathetic at the same time. One young man was walking down the line of cars, showing his naked lower leg and foot swelled to a monstrous and misshapen size. To me it looked like elephantiasis. This boy—I doubt he was even 20—should be in a hospital somewhere, not walking barefoot over hot asphalt. When he came abreast of us I handed him some peso notes and wished him “Bueno suerte” (good luck). He looked back at me with an exhausted expression, but one without emotion of any kind. This poor guy was staring into the abyss.

Moments later, we came upon a man standing with his back to a concrete divider. Barefoot, no shirt, his hair ragged. His only garment was a filthy pair of sweatpants. The sweatpants kept falling down around his knees and his penis was exposed to passersby. He struggled to pull his pants up—really struggled—because he had no hands—they were both chopped off at the wrists. Sophy burst into tears and I was left wondering where the most basic human services were. Why wasn’t there a hospital van making its rounds, picking these people up and giving them medical care?

The Tijuana border crossing is the busiest in the world. Why is Mexico content to present this picture to the world?

Something has to change in Mexico. A foundational change.

Black Eye

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I’m sitting in a Japanese fast food joint on Santa Monica, reading the LA Times, when I look up to see a street tramp at the door – the kind you only see in Hollywood. She’s in her 50s, a former beauty, dripping with costume jewelry and wearing a black slouch hat.

She heads straight towards me, asking, “Can you spare some money so I can get some soup?”

Closer I can see she has a huge shiner under her right eye.

I pull out my wallet. “Yeah, I can spare a few bucks.”

I dig out three dollars as she tells me I have gorgeous eyes – the prettiest she’s seen in a long time. She sits down at the table next to me.  When I hand her the money I see how filthy her hands are, dirt worked into the creases of her skin and black grime under the broken nails. She wants to shake hands with me but I can’t bring myself to do it.

She notices me looking at her black eye. “You can see it?”

“Yeah, it looks like somebody hit you.”

“My boyfriend – my former boyfriend.”

She dips into her purse for a bottle of makeup and starts dabbing it over the shiner, saying. “This helps.”

I say, “Time will help.”

She tries to shake hands with me again. Jesus…

She starts talking about her former career, all the important people she knew, that she was a model and an actress – that she worked in Basic Instinct.

Then she says the one thing guaranteed to get me lurching towards the door.

“And I sold a screenplay!”

(2006)

Short Time on Earth

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One morning, when I was working at my desk, Sophy came in to my office. “Something’s wrong with El Rey. There’s blood on his ass. We have to take him to the vet.”

I figured it was no big deal. The week before we had brought him to the vet because his paw was bleeding from a thorn.

“Give me an hour and we’ll go. I need to finish this.”

An hour later I walked out to the yard. I called El Rey’s name. Instead Valiente came wagging her tail. There was no sign of El Rey. Valiente and El Rey were two puppies we’d rescued from the bushes in the hills outside our home in Mexico. They were now close to two months old.

I looked around and found El Rey under the trailer in the shade. I coaxed him out and saw it was much worse than I imagined. There was a balloon-like mass coming out of his rectum, the size of a tennis ball. El Rey’s eyes were forlorn, and his withers looked shrunken. He had been fine the night before.

Sophy walked over and I said, “Baby, this looks bad.”

We got El Rey into the car and set off. In an attempt to reassure myself, I told Sophy about a passage from Green Hills of Africa. “Maybe it’s not that big a deal. I remember Ernest Hemingway was writing about being in Africa, and he had dysentery so bad, that part of his lower intestine was coming out of his ass. Every morning he had to wash it with soap and water and then tuck it back in.”

Sophy looked out the window, worried. “Rey must have eaten something that won’t come out. He’s pushing and pushing.”

We decided to take him to a different vet. Of the five Mexican vets we’ve used, none have been satisfactory. It’s another example of the Rosarito Curse: too many people faking it until they make it. Problem is, almost none of them make it.

We parked and I carried Rey inside. Sophy spoke in Spanish to the vet, a burly mustachioed guy with grey hair. He motioned us back to the examination room and I placed El Rey on the stainless steel examination table. He lied on his side, weak and scared.

The vet took one look at the red balloon protruding from El Rey and shook his head. He said something in Spanish to Sophy and from the look on Sophy’s face it was clear it wasn’t something I wanted to hear.

“Honey. It’s the anal ring. Once it comes out, there’s nothing we can do.”

That hung in the air for a second.

I asked, “There’s no operation?”

“No. It would just keep coming out. El Rey’s suffering. We’re going to have to make him sleep.”

Instead of sorrow, I felt a rage. I kept it inside.

I leaned down and looked into El Rey’s eyes. “Oh, El Rey…”

What the vet did next baffled me. He took his gloved finger and pushed the red balloon back inside El Rey. Rey didn’t wince or yelp, but he looked distressed.

The vet walked away and came back with a needle. He injected El Rey.

I asked him, “Do you speak English?”

“No.”

I pointed to the needle. “Morte?”

The vet nodded. “Si.”

Sophy walked out of the room, not wanting to see El Rey go.

I leaned down again and looked in El Rey’s eyes and said, “It’s okay, Rey. It’s okay.”

The look in El Rey’s eyes had a question for me: Why am I leaving this world so soon?

(2016 Mexico)