December 4–11, 2003
Four Regular Season Games Remaining
I’m sitting on the porch of a bungalow on the Yucatán Peninsula with lit cigarettes sticking out of both my ears.
I like to go swimming in the mornings. When I first came to Mexico I liked to go drinking in the mornings, but after I got over that I took up swimming and I discovered something. I have unusually narrow ear canals. Go figure. I discovered this while I was trying to sober up, paddling around in the lukewarm morning waters, and found that my ears were clogged. I tilted my head from side to side and banged on my skull, trying to dislodge the water, but no luck. I plugged my nose, clamped my mouth shut, and blew until it felt like my brain might pop out of my ass. No good. I crammed Q-tips up my ears, prodding at the blockage. That’s when things got really bad. For a few days I walked around half-deaf, feeling like my entire head was packed with waterlogged cotton. Then I went to a doctor. I have a habit of saving doctors for a last resort.
Dr. Sanchez looked in my ears and informed me of the tragic news: unusually narrow ear canals. The water was trapped deep inside and my irresponsible Q-tip use had sealed it in with earwax. He loaded a syringe the size of a beer can with warm mineral water and injected it into my ears until the pressure dislodged the massive clogs of wax and washed them into the small plastic basins I held just below my ears. He gave me drops. He told me never to stick anything in my ear other than my elbow, and laughed at his own joke. He nodded sagely and told me the solution to my problem was quite simple: When my ears became clogged, I must stick a cigarette into each one and light them. The cigarettes, that is. Then he handed me a pack of Benson & Hedges, told me they were his preferred brand for the task, and charged me a thousand pesos.
So. I am sitting on the porch of a bungalow on the Yucatán Peninsula with lit cigarettes sticking out of both my ears. The cigarettes burn and create a vacuum in my ears, sucking the moisture into the filters. I have a towel draped over each shoulder to catch the hot ash as it falls. I’ve been doing this a couple days a week for years and it always works. Of course, I do now smoke two packs of Benson & Hedges a day, but there’s a downside to everything in life.
The sun has dipped far in the sky behind my back and the reds of the sunset are reflected in the perfect blue sea before me. A soft breeze is caressing my skin and I adjust my sarong so that it can waft higher on my legs. The heat of the cigarettes has become intense. I reach up and pinch them out of my ears, careful not to squeeze so hard that the waxy fluid trapped in the filters leaks out. I dump them into an ashtray near my feet, slip the towels off my shoulders, stand up, and start walking toward the water. The beach is pretty much abandoned. A ways off to my right I can see a small group of local boys covered head to toe in sand, kicking a soccer ball around on their homemade field. In the opposite direction, the silhouette of a pair of lovers kissing. When my feet hit the wet strip of sand near the water’s edge I give my sarong a tug. It falls to the ground, leaving me naked, and I walk down into the gently lapping waves. The beach slopes away so shallowly that I can walk upright in the water for almost fifty yards before it will cover my head. I walk in the water with the sun sinking behind me, hearing the soft slap of the tiny waves quite clearly in my unclogged ears. I’ll probably have to do it all over again when I get out, twisting the cigarettes into my ears, lighting them, and waiting patiently while they burn down, but it will be worth it. I want to take one last swim today. I’m going home tomorrow and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to come back here.
Machine guns wake me up in the morning, but they’re just in my head. I have my backpack ready by the door, the waterproof money belt draped over it. I go to the bathroom and stand under the showerhead. The water is a gentle warm sprinkle, not the thing to snap you out of a nightmare. Still sleepy, I close my eyes. Pedro explodes past me backwards, his torso stitched open by a cloud of bullets. My eyes snap open. I walk out of the shower and drip water across the bungalow floor to the boom box. I search the CDs for something loud. Led Zeppelin? Something fast and loud. The Replacements. I put in Pleased to Meet Me, the opening chords of “I.O.U.” blare out, and Paul Westerberg starts screaming. I turn it up.
I finish my shower, pull on a pair of cotton fatigue-style pants, grab keys, sunglasses, my papers, and a hefty wad of pesos. I check the money belt, make sure the extra passport and ID are where I can get to them easily, and strap it on. A tank top, short-sleeve linen shirt, a pair of trail sneakers, and I’m dressed. I grab the backpack and sling one strap over my shoulder.
—Come on, cat.
Bud leaps from the comfy chair, walks over to the kitchenette cabinet, and meows.
—Sorry, Buddy, no time. You can eat at Pedro’s.
He meows again. I walk over, grab him by the nape of his neck, and put him on top of the pack.
—Fresh fish at Pedro’s. Trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.
I turn off the box, take a last look around. Did I forget anything? I mean, other than not to fuck up my life again? Nope, all taken care of. Back door bolted, storm shutters padlocked. Good enough. I walk onto the porch and set Bud and the pack down next to the door.
I’m pulling the tarp off the Willys when I see a white Bronco turn off the trail a quarter mile down the beach and come bouncing across the sand toward me. Could be they just have a few more questions, but I don’t think cops roll up on you at dawn to ask questions.
I drop the tarp, wave, and point to the bungalow with a big smile on my face. One of the Federales in the Bronco waves back. I walk to the bungalow, grab Bud and the pack, step inside, lock the front door, go out the back, and dash across the sand into the jungle that is my backyard. All I have to do is get to Pedro’s and I’ll be OK. Unless the cops are there too.
This is how things get fucked up again.
Once every three months you walk to the grocery next to the highway and use the pay phone to call a guy in New York. And this one time you call, and he tells you about a story everyone back there is telling.
—Say you’re a guy and you’re out taking a walk and you get thirsty and it’s hot, so what you really want is a beer. Thing is, it’s really hot, August hot in the City, with the garbage piled up and stinking, and the people with dogs that they don’t pick up the shit after, so you don’t want a beer from a deli, not even one of those sixteen ouncers from the bottom of the ice barrel the places put right out on the sidewalk. It’s so hot and the street stinks so much from garbage and dog shit and piss, what you want is a cold beer in a cool dark room. So fuck the can from the ice barrel, you’re going in this bar right here that you know it’s a bar ’cause out front is a neon sign that says BAR.
You tell the guy you get the point and wonder if maybe he can get to the payoff. You hear the gurgling sound of a bong over the long- distance line. Then he starts talking again, in the unmistakable voice of someone trying to hold in a gargantuan lungful of smoke.
—So you go in and it’s just what you hoped for, cool from the AC, dark ’cause the window is tinted. There’s maybe something good on the juke like Coltrane, “My Favorite Things,” but not too loud. And not crowded ’cause it’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week; just the bartender and a couple regulars.
There’s a huge whoosh over the phone as the guy lets the smoke out, but he doesn’t cough. The guy you’re talking to hasn’t coughed on a hit since he was maybe twelve; he would consider it unprofessional at this point is his life. The thought of smoke knocks against something in your head and you dig in the pocket of your shorts for a cigarette.
—So you sit down and the bartender puts down the paper he’s looking at and he comes over and he’s never seen you and you’ve never seen him, but he gives you a little nod and you nod back ’cause you know you’re each other’s people ’cause he’s working in a bar in the middle of the day and you’re coming into one at the same time. You tell the guy, Bottle of Bud, toss a twenty on the bar, he opens the fridge, grabs your beer, pops the cap, sets it on the bar, takes your twenty off the bar, and walks to the register.
—Bartender comes back, drops seventeen bucks in front of you, which, three bucks ain’t too bad for a bottle of Bud in New York these days, so you feel pretty good about that. You guys do the nod thing again and he goes back to his paper. You wrap your hand around that bottle and take your first sip. It’s coooooold. Bartender reads his paper, bar hounds over there, one is doing a crossword, one is just chain-smoking and making his Old Crow last. You drink your beer, listen to the music and you’re having a pretty good day, figure you’ll stick around that place and drink the rest of that twenty.
You know what he’s talking about. You’ve had days like that.
—And that’s when the door bangs open, some dingleberry comes in, orders a fucking margarita so now the bartender has to work and he sits down right next to you and starts with the fucking chatter. There goes your mellow, right out the window.
You think about the pack of smokes sitting on the little table on your porch at home. Down the phone lines, the bong rips again, and you know this story isn’t getting any shorter.
—This dingleberry, he lives in the place, but you can tell by the way the bartender doesn’t give him the nod and the way the boozehounds turn their stools away from him a little that they all wish he would fucking move out. Right now he can’t believe his luck, a new fucking face in this place he can chew the ear off of. He starts right in with, Hey my name’s so and so and I do such and such and ain’t it hotter than a bitch out there and this bartender he can’t make a good margarita to save his life and here’s the secret to a good margarita. And the questions. What’s your name anyway? Ain’t seen you here before, you from around here? You never been here before, you don’t know about this place? Everybody knows about this place, how can you be from around here and not know about the old M Bar, the old Murder Bar?
You stop worrying about the cigarettes.
—Yeah, the dingleberry calls the place the Murder Bar. It’s that place, you know the one. They had it closed for a couple years? Well, now it’s open again. So he tells this story about the place, how it’s not really named the Murder Bar or even the M Bar, that’s just what people from the neighborhood, people in the know, call it ’cause they were living here when it happened. He tells you, Feel around under the ledge of the bar, the wood there, you can feel the holes that are still there from when they shot the place up and killed all those people in here. And he’s right, the holes are there. They sanded them down so you don’t get any splinters, but the holes are there, man.
You hear the guy on the phone take a quick drink of something and you know exactly what it is. You can almost smell it, the warm bite of Tullamore Dew.