The hot breeze sailed over the scrub desert and into the open blue door of the dockside cantina where we sat drinking beer. Stephen and I were heading toward the Carmen Islands -- a detour on our way to the Yucatan. By this time we had been in Mexico five weeks and our travel had become desultory. We moved from town to town more like itinerant peddlers than tourists. We traveled indiscriminately, going anywhere as long as it was someplace we hadn't seen before, someplace new to experience.
The next town was a drowsy place, a few shanties, a church and this cantina. The cantina was like so many we had seen in Mexico -- concrete floor, aquarium-colored walls and a slow-moving ceiling fan. There was an amazing assortment of wall calendars, some with pictures of Jesus and others with pictures of scantily clad women -- as if Heaven and Hell were vying for souls in the bars of Mexico.
Heat lay heavy on the town and the ferry to the islands wouldn't leave for another hour, so we sat at a small oil cloth-covered table nursing Tecates in plastic glasses.
Someone a few towns back had told us that the short voyage to the Carmen Islands could be rough. Because I was 22 and naive, I had downed a Dramamine -- actually, I had taken two for good measure. Now, as we sat drinking beer, I noticed the world starting to get wonderfully vague, as if the other customers were merely stage actors and all of us were in some kind of production playing passengers waiting for a ferry in a Mexican cantina. While Stephen and I chatted idly about Mayan pyramids, a blind woman walked in.
She was in her 30s, plump, wearing a soiled cotton dress; her bare feet were dark brown and leathery as if years of want had forced them to become shoes. Her eyes were pale blue marbles. At first I thought she was a beggar who had come in to sing for pesos, for along with a large sack, she carried a guitar.
But no. She sat down at one of the tables and from the sack pulled out a doll big as a toddler, a doll of good quality, made of bubble gum-color rubber and with blue eyes and blond hair. But the doll, also wearing a soiled cotton dress, was old and the rubber skin was dirt-stained and the nylon hair sprouted from its head in matted patches.
The woman sat the doll on a chair next to her and, strumming her guitar, began to sing. Perhaps it was the beer or the Dramamine, but at once I fell in love with this woman's singing. Her voice was low, resonant. And as she sang, it became clear that it wasn't for money. She was just waiting for the ferry and comforting herself with songs.
Time passed. A black mutt lying on its side yawned, letting out a kind of squeal. A few more passengers strolled in: somber men in black cowboy hats; housewives carrying plastic baskets of food; an old woman bent over like a nail hammered wrong; a teenage girl with gold teeth carrying a net bag of vegetables; and a short, chunky man in his 40s with a grizzled face.
We were all sitting in the cantina quiet as churchgoers when the owner brought us two more Tecates. The bright red cans frosty and cold shone like Christmas. "I'm sorry," I said, "but we didn't order these."
"Don't worry," he replied with a backward nod. "Seqor Gringo, he is buying for you."
We looked toward the table in the corner and saw that the chunky man was raising his glass in a silent toast to us.
We smiled and lifted our fresh beers in return. "Gracias, Seqor!" we called across to him.
Taking that as his cue, the man stood up and walked over to our table.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked in a Southern accent.
"Please," we gestured toward the empty seat across the table. "Please join us."
"Sure," Stephen said. "Where are you from?"
"What are you doing here? Going on to the Yucatan?"
The man drank the beer long and deep from his glass, then
chuckled. "No. I live here. Lived here for 20 years." He paused. "I'm
the deputy sheriff."
"Wow!" we both said. Then, as if to impress us even more, the
man added, "Well, actually, 'cause the sheriff 's off in Campeche right now,
I'm the sheriff."
"I didn't know a gringo could be sheriff in Mexico," I said.
"Hey!" he laughed, "I didn't either!" He hit the table with
his fist for punctuation and we laughed together, then agreed how good it
was to be talking to someone in this boondocks place who was from the
For the next 40 minutes or so while the blind woman continued
to sing, we listened to this man tell his story. It turned out that he had
come to Mexico in the '50s to evade the draft for the Korean War.
"But why here?" Stephen asked.
"Shrimp. My family were all shrimp fishermen in Louisiana and
it's something I knew real good. I came down here, bought a few boats and
set up a shrimp-fishing fleet. My brother came down for a while to help
"Did he stay too?"
"No, didn't have to. My brother could go back. That son of a
bitch! He wasn't a draft dodger!" The deputy sheriff laughed loudly. We
laughed too and hit the table too. We were feeling pretty good and we
laughed as if being barred forever from your own country was the funniest
Then the man told us how he'd gotten pretty rich from shrimp
fishing down here and his wealth had made him a power in the town. He had married
a Mexican woman about 20 years ago and they had a son. The townspeople
liked him and called him "Seqor Gringo," and eventually he became deputy
I was enjoying the whole story, though I couldn't talk much because I
was feeling pretty sleepy. So I just listened to his smooth,
Southern accent and let the blind woman's songs waft gently over
We were all feeling really good. Seqor Gringo ordered us three
more beers and kept on talking. I don't remember all he said, but I do
remember that after a while he remarked, casually as can be, just merging
it in with the rest of his banter, that last month his only son,
21 years old, had been shot at a party in town by God knows who.
"Why?" Stephen asked.
"Some stupid argument about girls. Hey, you guys got any kids?"
"No way. We just got married! This is our honeymoon."
"Congratulations!" the deputy sheriff crowed. "You're a cute
couple. Let's get some beer to celebrate!"
We drank yet more beer and talked about nothing in particular
but laughed a lot. How amusing it all seemed, stoned as I was on Dramamine
and beer and the lazy heat. Growing drowsier by the minute, I no longer
picked up whole sentences, just individual words that my brain couldn't
quite connect. As I fought to stay awake, it seemed everything was slowly
evolving into a dream. The deputy sheriff's voice seemed to have gotten
quiet as a mourner's. The glossy turquoise paint of the cantina walls
appeared to sweat. The dog looked dead. And when I glanced over at the
blind woman, her eyes had become doll's eyes, opening and shutting in that
"I sure am feeling weird," I said and the deputy sheriff pulled
out his gun and aimed it point-blank at my face.
"You know," he said quietly, "I could kill both of you real easy."
I was staring up the nostrils of a .38-caliber handgun. Yet it
seemed distant and kind of like a slow-motion scene in a Peckinpah movie.
Then I heard Stephen say carefully, "I'm sure you wouldn't want
to do that."
"I'm the law here," he answered in a low voice full of rage.
"Nobody in this goddamn place could do anything about it and you know what?"
"I could kill you both right now real easy."
There must have been truth in that for not a soul in the
cantina made a sound. Well, he was the deputy sheriff and we were still
talking softly, so maybe from across the room it looked like he was just
joking. I don't think people were paying us any attention, but I didn't
dare look. A gun is great for focusing attention and I kept my eyes on it
as if it were a wild animal about to pounce. Stephen was sitting right
next to me and I didn't dare look at him, either, but I could tell he was
agitated because he got real cheery.
"Well, you wouldn't want to do that! Of course you wouldn't! No,
not a nice guy like you! Not a respected deputy sheriff! Killing fellow
Americans! Ho ho! Now, why don't you just put the gun away? Yeah, that's
right, put it away and then we'll have some more beers. Our treat!"
In my stupor I sensed that the deputy sheriff didn't care what
Stephen was saying or about anything else. But I couldn't figure it out.
Why was he suddenly so angry? Weren't we all having a good time? Had we
said something to offend him? Slowly the deputy sheriff looked at us, then
he sighed and put the gun back in his holster. He looked really sad then
like he was going to cry. And pathetic, too, like a kid who has to put his
toys away because he's been naughty.
"Yeah, let's have some beer," the deputy sheriff said to no one
We never ordered the beers. As he started to mutter about how
fucked up everything was, we heard the ferry arriving. The people in the
cantina began moving out to the dock. Baskets of fruit, ragged string-tied
boxes and plastic suitcases were plucked off the cement floor. The dog
jumped to his feet, and the teenage girl held the elbow of the blind woman
as she guided her toward the boat. Stephen and I hastily stood up as Seqor
Gringo kept talking -- talking -- talking -- as if he were trying to hold
on to something. Then I figured it out -- he was trying to hold on to
us. We were leaving him. We were going on to anywhere we pleased, leaving
him in some bad dream.
We boarded the ferry; the ride was smooth as glass.
For 25 years I've told the story about how this sheriff
pulled a gun on us. It's a great anecdote at parties and over the years it got better as I emphasized how drugged I was, and how scared I was, and how
scared Stephen was, and how much danger we were in -- how we were almost
killed! In a Mexican bar! Ha ha!
Each time I told it, the story grew
scarier and funnier, yet I never understood what it was about. Not
until this year did I finally understand. The story was about grief --
how grief could be a bad drug, turning hopes to dust and hearts to steel.
And it was about love. A parent's love. How a parent's love is both tender
and terrible. Fierce. Fragile. Cruelly private. Crazy.
It seems so obvious
now, yet for more than two decades I never fully understood. Not until this
year, when my son turned 21.