Fred's dead. Or is he?

In Puerto Perdido they're still talking about the double death of Captain Hook, going buggy with machetes and the penalty for unholy hanky-panky.

Published March 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There used to a very drunken, very noisy American here in Puerto Perdido. Fred, they called him. He was about 40 years old, and he had two hooks for arms. Late in the day, and most of the night, he'd go around town and up and down the beach bare-chested, showing off his hooks -- fake arms that started at his shoulders, with straps that crossed his back.

His arms were that orange-tan of 1950s motel seat covers and so favored by orthopedic manufacturers, complete with complicated wires and belts and metal parts from shoulders to hooks. The hooks themselves were shiny, and real mean looking.

They say that Fred had been picking up trophies in Vietnam.

By late in the afternoon, every afternoon, Fred would be blind drunk, catcalling the women, offering to fight any man. Sooner or later -- mostly later -- he would pass out, pissing himself in front of the market or on the beach. Most of the Mexicans saw his rants as those of just another noisy, boiled-out gringo, of which we have so many here. For even in the year 2000, you can get a shot of mescal in the local grog shops for a dime and a liter of 111-proof "alcohol puro" in the grocery store for a couple of bucks. (In other words, despite the North American Free Trade Agreement, for some Americans, we are still living under the volcano.)

Every few years, the Friends of Puerto Perdido, a local bunch of do-gooder gringos, would take up a collection to ship Fred off to the veterans hospital in San Antonio to dry out. He would curse them roundly, but they managed to catch him when he was badly hung over, and he would surrender. For a few weeks, he'd be gone, but sooner or later he'd make his way back and start in again, pissing himself in the town square, offering to fight any man in the world, howling at the ladies under the moonlight.

One evening, after being bathed in vast quantities of whiskey, tequila, mescal and other local poisons for so long, Fred's liver gave up the ghost. They found him the next day, hooks and all, on the beach at Cipolete. At first they thought he had passed out yet again, so they didn't bother with him, but after the second day, when he began to swell up, it was decided that Fred had achieved the final state of drunken grace. They boxed him up and bought him a plane ticket to the border.

Getting corpses into the United States is usually difficult. Some people -- or what's left of them -- have to wait in the icebox in the general hospital of Juarez for months, but the veterans affairs office in San Antonio decided ahead of time that Fred was one of them, so they agreed to issue the government permit for him to pass. In Puerto Perdido, they said it would be Fred's first (and last) time crossing over completely sober.

Unfortunately, the Friends of Puerto Perdido booked him on a Taesa night flight via Mazatlan that went down in the Sierras just before it landed. The ground crew blamed the pilots, the pilots blamed Taesa, Taesa blamed the weather and all blamed the divine. Fred, as far as we know, was not implicated.

Since everyone on the flight died, my friend Tommie wants to know if that means that Fred came back to life on impact, and whether he will soon be back here to bother us again. Tom also swears (and he swears he never lies) that Fred's last name was Hook. This I never heard before, but at this stage, after his double death, I'm willing to accept anything having to do with this guy. So now when we talk about him -- our hometown hero who died in wet, pestiferous combat on the beaches of Puerto Perdido -- we refer to him as "Captain Hook."

Fred wasn't the only one done in on that flight. As with all Mexican airlines that blow it, Taesa was put out of business by the regulatory authorities. But it being Mexico, and with a hefty mordida, I suspect it will rise again, to scare the daylights out of us yet again.

Hook? I'm sure he, too, after the required 49 days of drying out in the bardo, will reappear to bother us with his rants and catcalls, to pass out on the streets, to puzzle the tourists, to cause the Mexicans to sigh with wonder.

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Going buggy with machetes

There is a chain of interdependence among families here: mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins. In the United States we call it a "support system," but it seems to me to be a network of related people who can't stand one another and yet put up with one another.

They need one another, but they never forget a wrong. They sport an antipathy toward family and friends that is born, I suppose, of the sun, the unyielding sea and the bleak, selfish earth of Puerto Perdido. It's a rage that stays submerged until the dry season, when the heat and the myriad crawling creatures rise up and drive everyone bonkers.

The uncles and cousins and fathers and sons, laughing and drinking in the cantinas, will, out of the blue, unsheath their machetes and go at each other. It must be the sun beating down on the dust of the ravaged land (and on their heads). Maybe it's the seven varieties of snakes they must contend with or maybe it's the hundreds of biting and stinging insects: malarial mosquitoes, wood beetles and avejones (fat black flying buzzy monsters that when they nip you cause you, it is said, to swell up like a balloon and lose your voice for exactly 10 minutes).

There are scorpions that like to nest in your shoes while you are sleeping, tarantulas that seem to enjoy marching down the highway so that we can squash them under the tires. There are wasps, killer bees and the borregito -- a brown worm that nests in saplings and, when you brush against it, falls onto your head to sting you horribly for disturbing its sleep.

The ones we have come to fear the most, however, are the barrenderas, black army ants that emit a vulgar stink and also are vicious biters. If you have the misfortune to find them at your doorstep uninvited, you get out of the house for 24 hours, until they are done with it. In compensation, though, they clean out all the other beasts: scorpions, tarantulas, rats and roaches. That's where they get their name -- barrenderas means sweepers.

There is, too, the boogie toad. When I was compiling this list from my workers, I asked if there was anything else that bit or stung. The dictation was fast and hot, so I missed a few (napules, chantillas, gusano de lumbre). But in the midst of them, there was the boogie.

"What did you say?" I asked Raul. I couldn't ask him to spell it out, since he can't read or write. But the pronunciation was "boogie."

I've heard of the boogie-woogie. And the boogeyman. But biting, stinging boogie? What is it? I asked. "A toad," he said, "and it bites."

"Impossible," I said.

Yet the worst stinger of them all doesn't move about and doesn't fly. Called the carnisuela, it's a bitter, ugly, barren plant that grows here willy-nilly, overnight, anywhere. Its wood is sought for its strength, but it's almost impossible to get at, protected as it is by long, poisonous thorns and the army of nervous, fast-moving, fast-stinging, ever-angry ants that live in the hot dirt at its roots. I've brushed against a few of them, and if the stickers don't get you, the creepy-crawlers will.

The land, thus, is enemy. That must be what drives these people so mad so suddenly -- an attack of carnisuelas, scorpions, snakes, bees, hornets and beetles, the creeping and crawling tropical creatures that hide in the dirt or in the leaves or under the trash (or in your shoes) and, when you least expect it, stab you in the foot, drop down on your head or crawl up your sleeves or down your back or up your pants to drive piercing, poison-dripping mandibles into your tender skin, creating instant swelling, aching fever and despair.

That must be it: the special unkindness of this land, and its creatures, and the sun, a sun so furious that it blasts the very soil with rage, that it comes to be reflected off itself, able to drive a sane man crazed -- so crazy that he suddenly rises up in fury in the Cantina Pariaso, overturning the cheap, scratched metal tables, smashing his glass of mescal on the floor, grabbing his machete and slashing at everyone within reach.

And when, two or three days later -- if he survives -- you ask him, "?Qui pass?" (What happened?) he'll say, "Nada." (Nothing.)

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the virgin's harsh penalty for unholy hanky-panky

Our local holy virgin, the Virgin of Juquila, lives up in the Sierras. The story is that she arrived from Spain some 200 years ago in the form of a statue, about 2 feet tall.

She was installed in the chapel near the town of Juquila, and many years later, there was a fire. The entire building was destroyed, except for the Virgin. They moved her into the town, but when, after reconstruction of the chapel, she was taken back to her country home, she would have none of it: She disappeared and reappeared in the church in the town. After she did this three times, they figured that was where she wanted to be -- and, of course, deep magic powers were attributed to her.

The only thing that happened to her in all these adventures was that, after the fire, her skin turned dark -- what they call morena -- like that of most of the people who live here. She is no longer one of those pale g|ero virgins out of the Iberian culture but, like the more famous Virgin of Guadalupe, has become a dark beauty. Her skin is the color of the rich brown earth that surrounds Juquila.

People come from all over for una promesa. They promise to make a certain number of visits over the next few years. In return, they ask for a miracle: that a sickness be cured, that a broken limb be repaired, that a dying relative be brought to life again, that a child be made well. They also ask for prosperity -- a bounty of sheep or goats or maize.

The visitors come sometimes by car, truck or bus but, as often, on bicycle or on foot. Since Juquila is an isolated place in the mountains, it is no mean trick to get there from the Pacific coast or from central Mexico, no matter how you do it. Supplicants often crawl the last one and a quarter miles from the entry area to the actual statue, and since the path is one of stones, many arrive with bloody knees.

The chapel is almost always filled with penitents, and on weekends, 1,000 or so may arrive. Before, during and after the holy day of the Virgin, Dec. 8, there is a terrible crush. They say that people come from as far away as Veracruz on the east coast or Puebla, near Mexico City. It often takes them a week or more to arrive, and if they are on foot, more than a month.

There are stories of miracles that occur to those who have stuck to their promesa: Sicknesses have been cured, sudden wealth arises, babies have been brought back to life. There are also tales of those who have thought or spoken badly of the Virgin, or doubted her powers, and have been involved in choques -- wrecks -- either traveling to the holy site or after leaving it.

Even worse is what happens to those who violate the vow of chastity that one must make for the excursion. One lusty, overeager couple, it is said, stopped by the roadside to engage in some hanky-panky and, presto, were changed to stone. To this day, they are stuck there, it is said, somewhere off in the mountains, belly to belly.

Once you pay homage to the Virgin, you buy a picture of her from one of the little shops around the chapel. If you come by bike, this picture is mounted under the handlebars, surrounded by pine branches. If you come by bus or car, it will leave with a picture of her, with greenery, mounted atop the front bumper.

There are smaller keepsakes, too -- key rings, jewelry, decals. I myself have many images of her around the house, presents that my workers have brought back for me. My favorite is a small, somewhat fuzzy picture of the Virgin, depicted with the letters "STMA. VIRGEN DE JUQUILA" around the image. Her face is tiny and pale, and she is dressed in an elaborate gold, red and white robe, opening up in a high triangle. It came attached to a beer opener, which I have kept even though my beer-drinking days are long gone. I have hung it on a chain, along with the keys to my car and my Swiss army knife. Thus the good Virgin of Juquila goes everywhere with me, keeping me healthy, or at least keeping me from turning to stone.

By Carlos Amantea

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

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