By Ruthie Marlenée
The cantina beckons me in.
After identifying my father’s body, I’ve made my way out onto the sidewalk, blinded by the Mexican sunlight and the blinking Cantina sign across the road from the morgue. I stand contemplating the windowless tavern wedged in between two whitewashed casitas. And then like a couple of strays, sadness and fear come licking at my ankles. I scurry across the road, heels clicking over cobblestone and stumble into the dank watering hole, instantly sucking in the familiar tang of sweat, cheap cigarettes, beer and tequila. Sad mariachi music — music I’ve learned to despise — blares out of the jukebox.
Undeterred, I approach the bar and take a seat on a three-legged rickety stool. When I catch my reflection in a smudged mercury glass mirror on the back wall, I raise a shaky hand to smooth back my unruly hair. As I re-apply rum-raisin lipstick, I notice how my brow furrows with stress, tiny rows raked across a field of pain. My eyes feel gritty and, peering closer, I see my sclera red as the soil of the region; my irises still the color of agave. I look around, surprised by what I don’t see. No jovenes. No young men or young women of any age. Everyone who was able has left Jesus Maria to go north long ago like my mother, brother and I did. Tucked into a dark corner sits a man, ancient as Rico Van Winkle. Behind me, at a small yellow-lacquered metal table, Cerveza painted in black letters on top, are two more mature, scrawny, milky-eyed men hunched over their beers. The skeletal tabernero, dusty as the bottles on the glass shelves, flashes a gold-framed toothy smile as he approaches me.
“A shot of your best tequila, por favor,” I say, resting my father’s belongings on the stool next to me. I stare at his personal possessions — all I’ll inherit, besides the memories buried like dog bones — including the weathered leather wallet he bought years ago when we’d traveled to Puerto Vallarta and the old, soiled white sombrero he’d hung onto until his dying day — Pancho Villa’s hat, he’d told me. Yeah, right. The family used to joke that he’d be buried with that damned sombrero, tan viejo y sucia. I pull out my cigarettes, stare at them, and then stuff them back into my purse.
Rubbing his bony hands together, the barkeeper grins mischievously as he backs away. He then twists around, creaking as he reaches up for a bottle on the highest shelf. He dusts off the jug, pulls off the wax seal, uncorks it and a dusty blue mist escapes into the room. He brings the lip to his nose and inhales deeply, the cavernous wrinkles on his face smooth out like a tumbled river stone and when he opens his cloudy eyes, I notice they’re amber, the color of the tequila he pours into two small glasses. The mixed bouquet takes me back, both the sweet scent of my childhood and the bitter odor of my father.
“We’ll drink to Joaquin Hidalgo,” says the tabernero.
“Wait, you knew my papá?”
“Si, he was a regular, pero mas antes. We used to work out at the tequila farm when we were jovenes,” the barman says, holding up the old bottle. “He gave this to me when I left to open this cantina. I promised I’d only open it when he came in to share it with me one day. Joaquin said it was only for a special occasion. And so I’ve waited.” The tabernero then hands me a glass. “I’d say this was a special occasion. You are his blood. La sangre atrae.”
“Si, I suppose the blood has called me back.” I think I’m beginning to understand.
He holds up his glass “Salud” and peers a little closer. “Tienes los mismo ojos de su papá – tapatios.”
So I have his eyes. Tell me something I don’t know. Tell me I have nothing more in common with my father than the color of his eyes. I’ll never be anything like him and I’ve never been able to understand why he acted the way he did, why he did the things he did. I’m a big fancy abogado now, but am I destined to end up like him, sharing a drink called loneliness with this strange tabernero or worse yet, alone? Will I end up loca? And then for one irrational moment, I wonder: Do I have Pancho Villa’s eyes, too? Papá used to say Pancho was his father.
Tears well, every pore in my body swells with gooey emotion. With trembling hand, I lift the glass. “Here’s to you, Papá.” Hijo de puta, Son of a bitch, I imagine Mamá uttering so crudely. Laying a hand on my stomach, I brace for the pain, bringing the glass to my lips. Expecting the warm liquid to burn a fire road down my rough throat, I gulp — surprised when it doesn’t scorch.
“Bueno?” The bartender asks.
I nod and as the next sip trickles down my throat, I think again about the first time I heard la sangre atrae. I’m sure it’s been summoning me for some time, but two days ago when I learned my father had died, it hit me in the head like a ton of bloodied bricks. The bartender pours us each another shot.
I raise my glass to toast the timeworn tabernero. “This is some good stuff,” I say spraying a blue mist.
“It’s from Los Olvidados.”
“The Forgotten Ones? “The tequila farm?”
He nods. “You should visit.”
I entertain the thought for a painful second and then dismiss the idea, but by my next swallow, tiny butterflies flap their golden wings gently along my throat, sliding down, and nesting in the pit of my stomach. And as the butterflies settle, I realize it can only be the tequila, a soothing salve lifting the weight of the crushing grief lodged in the trenches of my stomach, an unguent coating the lining of my insides. I ease into a smile and look at the nodding bartender. My pain has become phantom-like, solo una memoria – forgotten – olvidado.
This is wonderful, if only I could hang on to this feeling forever. I stare at my father’s old hat on the chair next to me and something stirs in the hollow my gut. I pull out his dried up wallet and set it on the counter where it yawns open like it’s ready for a shot of tequila. I chuckle. No money, of course — story of our lives. I feel my smile fade when I pull out a tattered black and white photo. I blink and in an instant, my childhood washes down my cheeks, cracking my tough veneer. A single tear spills onto the film, distorting the image of the little girl running through the agave fields.
In the picture, the fields pulsate with azure light, the genio azul my father used to talk about. I look around the bar to see if anyone else notices the flashing blue or my water works display. But the patrons can’t afford to pay any mind. The old tabernero has returned to the sink to wash glasses. Examining the photo even closer, this time I remember my father’s whole story – not just fragments from my dreams.
The tale is a family legend, more urban myth, I’ve always thought. Besides, Papá was loco. He’d last told the story the week before Mamá had driven us to the states, leaving him behind.
I’m ten years old sitting along the riverbank on a big red rock, dangling my bare feet into the icy, chocolate-strawberry-colored water trickling down from the mountains of Los Altos. Next to me, hat crooked on is head, sits my papá gulping from his bottle of tequila.
“Papá, why do you drink so much tequila?” I dared to ask.
He burped and the words dribbled from his lips in his sonorous native tongue.
“Hoye, Hija,” he said, blue-green eyes glistening like dewy agave.
“I’m listening, Papá.” My heart raced like an anxious caged canaria as my father threw back another swig.
He swiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Once upon a time, years after the hacienda burned down, there was an old man, guapo still with dark, rugged features and a strong jaw line. His name was Domingo –”
“Because he was born on a Sunday,” I added.
Papá narrowed his eyes at me. I shouldn’t have interrupted. “Lo siento.”
He continued. “One morning, he staggered home along the cobble-stone road through the fog which, for many years, kept the valley fertile.”
Papá removed his maroon dust-smudged sombrero and I calmed down. Settling into his story, I watched him spread his arms wide open, as if cradling the whole world. I loved when he told his stories in an accent rich as the actor, Pedro Infante — stories that made me feel special, our special bond. And the tales seemed only to get more colorful the more he chugged from the bottle.
Tequila-soaked words flowed freely from Papá’s labios. “In the distance, spiky fields of agave sprouted forth from a red soil as the fog dissolved with the rising of el sol,” Papá said, pointing across the field. “Toward the north, loomed a dormant volcanic mountain that had not erupted since before La Revolución. Through a grey-blue mist, Domingo could hear the cooing of the palomas.” Papá cupped his mouth. “Coo coo roo coo coo.”
Papá took another tragito. “Like his ancestors,” he said, combing his fingers through his dark hair. “Domingo was blessed with a luscious, thick mane, now gray and covered with the greasy sombrero he stole off a dead soldier during La Revolución.”
I peered into Papá’s pooling eyes. “The hat belonged to Pancho Villa,” Papá said, hooking a thumb toward his chest. “Mi papá.”
“Your father?” I asked, tilting my head? “Wait, wasn’t Domingo your papá?”
“Escuchame, Hija,” he said, swaying now like a river weed.
“I am listening, Papá,” I answered like a good little tabernero.
“Entonces, in the Zócalo beyond, Domingo recognized the steeple on the iglesia where he had been baptized and knew he was nearly home. He smiled, revealing a big toothless sonrisa, as he forged ahead.” My father took another mouthful and smiled as wide as el rio, wobbling too close to the water’s edge.
“Domingo’s smile was infectious before then, and with emerald eyes, not uncommon in these parts, he had been able to charm the señoritas and most of the señores of the village,” Papá said with a sloppy wink.
“Suddenly, a gust of blue-tinged wind blew off his sombrero,” Papá said, running in place now like a French mime.
I giggled, stopping suddenly when my father lost his footing. I reached out to help him up and as he grasped my tiny hand, squeezing a little too hard, I held my breath, uttering nothing about the pain.
“And as the old man held his head with both gnarly hands –” Papá paused to steady himself. “The sombrero was already sailing down the street. The bells of the Iglesia de Sagrada Familia tolled and the palomas scrambled out of the tower as the wind pushed Domingo forward, arms flapping wildly like a gallina.”
I started laughing again, mimicking my father as he flapped his arms like a chicken.
Papá took another nip before continuing the story. “Domingo picked up the pace when he saw that the sombrero had come to a halt, but before stomping on it with his chancla, the wind picked it up and scooted it along down the road. He held up a fist, cursing the pinche viento. The sombrero came to a rest once more. As the viejo reached down to grab it, he fell onto his weakened hip. Laying there, clutching his hat, rubbing his side with his free hand. The bell gonged. ‘You will not let me rest!’ Domingo yelled, raising his head long enough for another puff of viento to come along and snatch his sombrero right out of his hand, skipping it down the street. Face down, Domingo was drained. He took a deep breath through the gaps between the cobblestones, comforted by the smell of the earth, the smell of home. He rolled over and stared up at the sky, sprinkled lightly now with dimming stars and a waning moon.”
I loved hearing the part about the stars and the moon. I’d been gazing at the sky when Papá grabbed my arm. Squinting into his face, I sensed the fight or flight stress of a jaguar’s prey. I never knew what to expect when Papá drank so much tequila.
“Oigame!” He’d raised his voice.
“I do hear you, Papá,” I replied.
“You see, Domingo wanted to rest, but he needed to make it home to his bed before sunlight woke his wife,” Papá said, letting go of my arm, raising his to the sky. “Suddenly, a ray from the morning star pierced his being as if infusing him with energy,” my father said. “The church bell gonged once more.”
I took a deep breath, massaging my arm, trying to rub in some understanding.
“Struggling to get up, Domingo dusted himself off, and proceeded on his mission. And again, he found the sombrero at his feet. The wind had nothing better to do at this time of the morning than to play games with him. ‘Fine,’ thought Domingo, ‘I can play your silly games,’ and he bent down to pick up his hat. Lightning cracked in the distance, waking all the dogs, wild and domestic, throughout the valley. A draft pushed the hat away from him. Poor Domingo hobbled behind as the wind howled, mocking him. He chased it until it came to rest on the lip of a well, the pueblo’s only source of potable drinking water. The bright genio azul shot up from the well, calling him near. Domingo saw his hat was now within his grasp and took a couple of steps toward it. Tired, frustrated and teetering like a top, he tripped on the step at the base of the well and fell to his knees, releasing the hat at the same time. Lost to him once more, the hat tumbled into the deep hole. Domingo raised himself up and peered into the well. ‘Ay Dios!’”
My father’s tongue sounded heavy as a heartbreak. I strained to listen. “The church bell gonged again as the hat landed on the lower ledge. The way he saw it, Domingo did not think it was too far out of his reach and stretched his arm to retrieve it. Just as he snatched the sombrero, he lost his footing. But, on the trip to the bottom of the abyss, he was able to put on his sombrero one last time only to meet up with old San Pedro at the Pearly Gates. San Pedro asked that Domingo remove his hat before passing over.
“The church bell gonged for the last time. The pueblo’s tequila sales spiked slightly that week for it was not a very good idea to drink the water.”
Papá stared at me, captivating me. “Ves, Mija –” He chuckled before taking another sip, “Por eso tomo tequila.”
I picked up my father’s hat and handed it to him. “So that’s why you drink, but what about Pancho Villa?” I asked. “Am I Pancho Villa’s granddaughter or what?”
“Aye,” Papá belched. “That is a story for another day.”
But before he would ever have the chance to tell me about my relationship to the Mexican Revolutionary general, Mamá would pack our things to take us away, from el boracho, back to the states in the yellow Ford Falcon.
At the bar, I peer even closer at the picture, my body feeling as if it were on fire. I put my hand on my cheek and can still feel the sting. How could you? Wasn’t I good enough? Did you even love me, Papá?
There’s something about death you can’t escape. But I don’t cry now over the death of my father. I cry over the demise of my childhood; a childhood I’ll never get back. The bartender appears, handing me a napkin. I swipe my eyes and blow my nose before sliding the photo back into my father’s wallet.
And then as the bartender examines me closely with those balmy, yellow eyes, I sense a solace about him; after all, a tabernero is only worth his weight in salt if he can comfort his patrons, be a good listener. Sitting across the counter from this kind man now, I let myself bleed my story.
Copyright Marlenée 2021