Mark Tiger Edmonds is what I guess you would call a "throwback." He's like a reminder of what some of us thought we would turn into, if we kept on going the way we were going, back fifty years ago or so. Of course, most of us didn't keep on going that way. We got sidetracked, had kids, moved to suburbia, became corporate, got tired, sold out in one way or another. But Tiger never did any of those things. So now he's a kind of feisty, wind-weathered, aging hippie with long hair, leather boots, and a heart of gold.
Tiger is from the Midwest; he's retired after 25 years teaching English and Creative Writing at a small college in Central Florida. But back in the 1990s he and another member of the English faculty set out to drive from Tampa to Belize in a 13 year old Bronco. They made it, but not without a series of misadventures that made the trip a lot more interesting [see below].
If you enjoy this story, you might want to check out Mark's books, including, "Longrider: a Tale of Just Passin' Through," and "Tales of Scootertrash Past," Both are as good a narrative about the road (and what it's like to see a million miles of it on a motorcycle) as you're ever likely to read.
Tiger's books and CDs are available at his very own "Web Nest:"
Breakdown...a long way from home
by Mark Tiger Edmunds
Frigate birds and pelicans soared and wheeled out over the Gulf of Mexico. Coconut palms lined the shoreline. Scarlet royal poincianas, orchids, bougainvillea, hibiscus in more colors than I knew they came in, and a whole bunch of other flowers I'd never seen before were in bloom alongside the road. The fragrance of these tropical flowers and the smells of the sea alternated around curves. The bananas were ripening on the other side of the road.We were two days and about six hundred miles deep into Mexico. The sea was a deeper blue than the early August sky. The gentle mountains were covered in lush green colors. Occasionally flocks of parrots would burst through the jungle growth, breaking the greens with flashes of bright color.
The early morning sun was shining, the road was clear, if seriously in need of repair. We had enough gas to get to Vera Cruz, a full thermos of coffee, and Arlen Roth on the tape deck. We'd had breakfast at a place on the beach a ways back. I'd had ham and eggs, because I didn't know how to say bacon or sausage in Spanish, and Tom had eaten a portion of what we later determined to be octopus. We had walked the beach briefly after breakfast. Life was good.
That's when the wheel bearing went out and sent us down a long, gentle ditchbank, past the goatyard, past the dirt courtyard and the main dwellings, where a dozen or more people looked up from several large containers of boiling goat milk, past the junked out old 1951 Ford pickup truck, where it turned out Uncle Octavio lived, and finally to a real wobbly stop under the palm tree where the burro and the rooster were tied.
Me and Tommy just looked at each other. "Well, f***!"
Sometimes life ain't real good for real long.
"There was a wrecker parked there at that bar back twenty or thirty miles. Right after we went by that nuclear plant."
"Yeah, I saw it. I think it was farther."
"You reckon these people will take us back there?"
"Not in that Ford pickup."
We both looked up in the empty air for telephone wires that weren't there.
"You or me?"
"You go, Tiger. You're better at this than me."
"Yeah, right. I'll say 'ham and eggs' to 'em."
I grabbed the Spanish phrase book, approached the gate in the adobe wall, and introduced myself to Antonio Arellano and his extended family. Best I could come up with out the phase book was something about a broken gearbox and needing a wrecker in order to get to a garage. Pretty complex.
My announcement was met with excited and animated responses. All the various Arellanos began talking to one another as they continued to look me over. Occasionally one of the by now twenty or more people there would look at me and say, "Americano," or "Old Gringo," and then the whole group would laugh like hell. We'd been getting a lot of that the past three days. As Tom has observed in Matamoros as we crossed the border, "Man, we are the objects of great merriment here."
The Arellanos had less English than I did Spanish, but they had all put down their machetes and were all still smiling. Apparently they had determined that we were not the dreaded Banditos Norte Americano. Just loco Gringos. Antonio smiled the most. He had about five teeth all together, each of them framed in gold. He smiled and gestured to the coconut husk fire over which the goat milk simmered. Antonio smiled his gold-framed smile and shrugged his thin shoulders. There was nothing he could do. The goat milk must boil.
I looked helplessly around for help. Most of the two dozen Arellanos still stood smiling at me. Most of them were barefoot or wore sandals, and most wore those white pajama suits you always see the Mexican peasants wearing in cowboy movies. I could see others looking down at me from the windows. Several chickens approached. A couple nondescript dogs huddled under a porch and growled softly. A small pig wandered by, followed by a goat.
A beautiful young woman, still a girl really, walked into the courtyard from the far side. She wore a plain white cotton dress and had a colorful serape over her head. With great grace, she carried an ancient and rusted galvanized iron bucket, the bail of which had been replaced with a leather strap. The beautiful girl stopped about three steps into the courtyard, looked me over closely, then turned and left the way she had come, scarcely stirring the dust with her barefoot steps. A parrot began screaming from one of the windows. The dog growling escalated. It was all getting pretty surreal.
For a brief moment I thought about the Federale who had been in on the border crossing back in Matamoros. We had decided, correctly, that the thing to do would be to cross the river real early in the morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, at the end of the graveyard shift. We were right. Those folks had worked hard all night, and we just got a real lethargic and perfunctory check of our various papers, and an even more superficial search of the Bronco. The senorita in charge of looking over papers, and the senor in charge of stamping them, and the Federale who accompanied them cleared us to cross the line and stepped away so we could get back in the Bronco.
The Federale, who looked just like they always do in the movies, made serious eye contact with me. He had no English, we had already determined that. But he had a question. He patted the .45 in the holster at his hip, then pointed to me and asked, "You, senor?"
I had shook my head no and held my denim jacket open to emphasize that I was unarmed. The Federale looked concerned, and then he looked over at Tommy with the same quizzical expression. Again, I shook my head. His concerned look turned to something between disbelief and pity. He said something to his two civil service companions, and they all laughed all the way back into the building. That was the second time we heard "Gringos loco."
And now here I was, still unarmed, several hundred miles from the border, and even farther from anyone who gave a damn about me, surrounded by more people who were laughing at me. I hoped the pretty woman with the bucket would return to giggle, but she didn't.
About then, an old, crippled man, barefoot, with a huge sombrero, approached from across the dirt courtyard. He walked with the aid of a long staff. It gave him an almost Biblical bearing. He was very old, and it took him a very long time. The crowd hushed. Uncle Octavio. He got up very close to me, removed his sombrero, made a move somewhere between a bow and a nod, and smiled up at me. I nodded politely, took off my own cap, and tentatively tried a "Buenos dias, Senor" on him. His smile broadened briefly, then he scowled at the giggles of the surrounding Arellanos. Silence. Then again the smile.
"Buenos dias" he replied as he glanced at the phrase book in my hand.
"Senor, you...NO Espanol?" he struggled.
I smiled back and tried an experimental "ham and eggs" on him.
The crowd exploded in laughter. Several of the younger Arellanos fell to their knees in mirth. They all pointed, and I got another round of "Old Gringo," as they repeated my "huevos y hamo" and then laughed even harder. Many were wiping tears from their eyes.
Even Tio Octavio had lost his composure, and he was bent over in helpless jocularity. I could hear more laughter from the windows above the little courtyard, and I was pretty sure the dogs had quit growling and were now chuckling. I was also pretty sure that these folks didn't have a radio or a tv or much else in the way of entertainment. Just when I thought they were done, one of them would say "ham and eggs" and the laughter would begin anew."Gringo loco." This went on longer than I thought it should. Then I reflected on there were no electric wires out here, and that these folks really didn't have a radio or a tv. And then suddenly there was silence.
I glanced toward the gate to see Tom walking in waving a fist full of colorful Mexican money around. "Hey, can we get a damn wrecker or a ride to one or what?"
Three minutes later me and Antonio and his wife's sister's son-in-law, Jorge, were in a beat to hell old Datsun pickup truck running back up the road for help. The boiling of the goat milk was now supervised by Uncle Octavio. The broke down Bronco was watched by Tom. Tom was watched by the burro and the rooster and a dozen or so Arellanos.
As Tommy and I had separated, we looked at one another over the hood of the Bronco, and each of us patted the pocket with our jack knife. It was like we had been practicing it. Then we laughed at one another, for having brought a knife to a potential gunfight.
"Guidebook say anything about this one?"
"Don't drink no water, and don't get in a card game with nobody named 'Doc.'"
Antonio smiled as we sped up the road. Jorge stood in the back. Driving in Mexico, at least for Mexicans, is an adversarial process. They drive at blinding speeds, sometimes at one another. Some of it put me in mind of a bullfight. Left turn signals are used frequently, indiscriminately, and often for no apparent reason. The only thing a left turn signal does not mean is that the driver is going to turn left. Rear view mirrors are used only to hang religious medals and such as that from. As a seasoned and wounded veteran of Florida roads in the wintertime, when they are full of lost tourists and senile retirees, I actually had been handling Mexican driving pretty well. At least until Antonio took the wheel.
I was so amazed at the fact that the Datsun was running, I forgot to be afraid for awhile. The truck had one red door and one white door. None of the instruments worked, so I really don't know how fast or how far we went, other than quite far and very fast. The truck had a decided tendency to veer off to the left. During one of our stops down the way, I checked the wheels and tires. There was a bad mismatch on the front end.
Antonio had to drive it left handed because his right hand was busy holding it in gear. He had to double and triple clutch it to change gears, and even then it sounded like a dog chain in a food processor. Smoke poured from around the seams of the hood and from every leak in the exhaust system. It was hard to tell if Antonio and I, or Jorge in the back, got the worst of that deal.
Antonio talked and gestured as we rocketed between potholes, speed bumps, livestock, and hairpin turns. Jorge undulated back and forth behind us in the bed of the pickup. He seemed to think his leaning and swaying was necessary to the operation of the truck. Hell, maybe it was. Anyway, Antonio drove, Jorge swayed and helped, and I fought to keep my door closed. This would, it had been explained to me, be my job. The porto, the rojo one, it turns out, would not cerrado. My Spanish was improving.
Eventually we came to where I had seen the wrecker parked earlier. It was a small, squat adobe building with bars but no glass in the windows. The tow truck was still there. Antonio pulled up, smiled, and looked expectantly at the pocket he'd seen me put Tom's money in. I tried to explain that he should stay put while I checked this out. I believe I said, "Stay! No go! No voy! No adios," and "No vamoose."
Then I reached over and turned off the truck and put his keys in the same pocket as Tom's money. I had been watching very carefully as Antonio drove. In the twenty or more miles we had driven from his place to here, there were just exactly two other houses, and I couldn't tell if either was occupied. I know a good thing when I see it, and I wasn't about to lose Antonio. By now I had grown some fond of Jorge as well.
The bar was dim and deserted except for one guy. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark. It took longer for me to realize that the mass at the table was just one guy and how very big the one guy was. He was huge. Not just regular huge, enormous huge. You could have hidden several of the many Arellanos in his mustache. He was wider than the table he sat at. He loomed even though he was seated. There were six or eight empty Carta Blanca bottles and a two-foot tall pile of fishbones on a plate in front of him. The dishes and utensils all looked like tiny toys in his hands. Tortillas looked like poker chips. His fingers were bigger than the beer bottle which had disappeared in his fist.
I stood a polite and careful distance off, near the door. He put his beer down and looked over at me.
"Pardon, senor." I bowed like Uncle Octavio. "Hablo Ingles?"
He laughed and the whole building shuddered. Then he shook his massive head, muttered "Americanos," and then said, "A leetle."
I pointed to the doorway, then to him. "Is that your wrecker out there?"
"Si." He sound suspicious, even in a foreign language. He narrowed his eyes and shifted some of his weight a little, and I decided he was one of those huge men who can move way faster than they should be able to.
So I fought back and dismissed my first impulse to run over and hug him, and instead I opened the little phrase book and tried for awhile to find the words to express my gratitude and relief.
"No. Official only," he replied. Again the building shook, bottles tinkled musically.
I tried Tommy's trick and waved a few thousand pesos around in the air. He snorted and chuckled, so I dug some more purple and pink money out of my pocket and tried again.
By now he was beginning to look some peeved, and while I might be dumb enough to be broke down in the bowels of rural Mexico, I know better than to piss off people who are four times my size.
I stepped to the door and hollered for Antonio and Jorge to come help me. They stopped short in the doorway when they saw the giant. And from that respectful distance they discussed my situation with the big man at the table. For some reason it pleased me that they too were intimidated by the behemoth.
Antonio and Jorge talked with him for about ten minutes, neither of them leaving the doorway the whole while. I understood a little bit of their conversation. The big man worked for the nearby nuclear plant, which was government owned and operated, and the wrecker was for Official Use Only, no matter how much colorful cash money I offered.
He told Antonio and Jorge that there might be a tow truck farther back up the road at a village, which was some kind of truck stop, beyond the cane fields of Benito Roja. Then he hollered, "Mas cerveza!" to someone in the back room. Then he dismissed us.
Antonio and Jorge and I all backed out of the bar, thanking the kind driver of the Official Only wrecker. I surrendered the keys to Antonio. He slid behind the wheel, Jorge jumped into the back, and I held my door shut as we continued back up the road.
Another thirty miles of high speed potholes, curves, and speed bumps, and I was talking to, sort of, Armando Echavaria, who would, for an as yet undetermined number of American dollars, perhaps rescue the broke down Bronco, and take it to the garage of his daughter's father-in-law's brother, a mechanico in Cardel.
Armando suggested we could drink a cerveza while we sat in the sambra and discussed the matter and the money. I got three. I wasn't about to let Antonio and Jorge loose until the Bronco was on the hook and headed for the garage of the mechanico. And I was learning more Spanish at every stop.
Some time later, each of us, including Antonio and Jorge, who now sat in the front seat holding the porto closed, clutching a new, cold cerveza in their hands, headed back toward Antonio's and Tommy and the broke down Bronco. Antonio and Jorge led the way. I rode with Armando in the wrecker. His wife's sister's brother-in-law, Joaqin, stood in the back of the wrecker.
The wrecker was in worse shape than Antonio's Datsun, almost as bad as Uncle Octavio's old Ford. It reeked of diesel fuel and beer and an unfamiliar odor I later identified as about two hundred pounds of bananas gently rotting in the back. The whole dashboard had been torn out. There were huge holes in the floorboard. The seats had been replaced by two old mismatched chrome dinette set chairs. The windshield was opaque. Tools and beer bottles rolled around in the back, sounding like dysrhythmic glass and metal maracas.
Apparently, while I was securing the new round of cervezas, Antonio and Armando had discussed strategy: Antonio would lead the way back, driving as he always did, at great speed, dangerously. Armando would follow much too closely, driving in the same manner as Antonio, and trying to run him down at every opportunity.
I tried to look at the tropical blossoms and lush mountains. I tried to watch for frigate birds and parrots. But that was real hard to do at seventy and eighty miles an hour downhill, only inches from where Antonio's rear bumper would have been if there had been a rear bumper on his truck, and gaining and closing. It seemed a much longer ride back, but we eventually returned to the home of Antonio Arellano.
Armando skillfully pulled in front of the broke down Bronco and backed the wrecker expertly into place. Joaquin squirmed under the Bronco with chains and cables. I walked back toward Tommy.
"Watch that chicken!"
I looked around to see the rooster puffed up and poised for attack, his beady eyes glinting malevolently. I backed off and walked around the Bronco to Tom.
"Tiger, I was beginnin' to think they'd taken you a long way off and killed you, and was wonderin' when they were goin' to come do me." He meant it.
"Yeah, me too. Look, I gave Antonio that money, but you should give him some more. It was an ordeal, man. The wrecker guy is named Armando. He wants sixty-six, I think, American dollars. I promised him a bonus if he got us to a mechanic who could fix this." I lit a cigarette and leaned on the Bronco as Armando lifted the front end off the ground. The left front wheel wobbled obscenely.
Tom walked into the courtyard, where the goat milk was cooling, to find Antonio. I watched Armando and Joaquin finish getting the Bronco ready to go and listened to the giggles and "Old Gringos" from the courtyard. Tom returned smiling and we headed for the wrecker.
"Watch that f***in' chicken!"
We all piled into the wrecker, Armando behind the wheel, Joaquin in the back, Tommy on the kitchen chair I had earlier occupied, and me on a tool box in the middle. The Arellanos were gathered at the gate smiling and waving. That pretty girl with the white dress and old bucket was among them. She was smiling and waving at Tom.
Cardel was twenty-five or thirty miles from where we had broke down. It isn't on the Rand and McNally map of Mexico you get in the back of your U.S. Road Atlas. Armando, slowed by the weight of the towed Bronco, drove as if angered at being so held back. It took about an hour to get to the first place we tried in Cardel. Nope. Cerrado. The guy at the second place had, I'm pretty sure, gone fishing. Again, my Spanish was expanding. Finally we were towed to a place deep in the bowels of Cardel, where we were delivered into the hands of the mechanico Chicho Montero.
"Don't give Armando no money until Chicho gets it up in the air and says he can fix it."
That all happened very quickly. Yes, the parts could probably be found here in Cardel. Besides Armando and Joaqin and Chicho, there were another four or five other guys trying to help with the translations. And, yes, Chicho could, with the right parts, perform such a repair. All this while the broke down Bronco sat with its front end jacked up in the temporary shade of a small, lone tree beside the curb across from the dirt lot that was the garage of Chicho Montero.
Chicho was short, like a lot of Mexicans, big through the chest and shoulders and stomach. His white t-shirt was stretched taut across his back. He looked twenty, but might have been thirty or more. He had tight, curly black hair, a trim mustache, dark black Mexican eyes, and a dazzling smile. He bounced when he walked. He was all compact muscle. They use no power tools at the dirt lot that is the garage of Chicho Montero the mechanico.
Joaquin slithered out from beneath the Bronco with cables and chains. Armando reeled in his lines. Chicho had disappeared, I thought to go after parts. A small crowd, maybe six or seven more people came out from under cars, and under trees, and under cover, to join us there in the street.
Tom and I looked at one another.
"Hell, I guess so. Stay friendly with Armando in case this don't work out, and we need him again."
Tom laughed and handed Armando seventy-five American dollars, thanked him a lot, tried to tell him he was a savior and a saint. He even tried to persuade Armando to hang around for another cerveza, long enough for Chicho to get back anyway. Chicho's absence bothered both of us. Tommy spoke to Joaquin too.
Armando and Joaquin boarded the tow truck and drove slowly off. Tom walked back to me and the broke down Bronco. The crowd was down to three or four. It was getting hot, and there was little shade. I checked. It was high noon.
"Kid asked me could he keep the beer bottles. I told him yeah."
I looked over Tom's shoulder to see Armando backing the wrecker back down the dirt street toward us. He drew alongside the Bronco, dispersing the crowd, which was now down to two people, and explained to us that Chicho the mechanico had now gone to have his mid-day meal. Then he drove off.
Tom and I stood alone in the street. We'd both read the part in the guidebook we got with our Mexican auto insurance about how the main meal down here occurred at mid-day, leisurely, followed by a siesta. We hunkered down in the little bit of shade the lone tree provided.
I think there's still some of them stale peanut butter crackers. Want some?"
"Warm water with that?"
I fired up the propane camp stove and made some coffee. An hour or so later Chicho returned and began removing the wheel. Apparently he hadn't read that siesta part in the guide book. We watched him work. It was something to watch. He improvised. When he didn't have an Allen wrench, he used a small Phillips head screwdriver held in a vice grip. Where he needed a power wrench to loosen the lug nuts, they'd been put on with one, he used a six foot cheater bar on the lug wrench and moved the lug nuts with muscle and leverage. He was much more a blacksmith than an auto technologist. Just who we needed.
Chicho worked in the dust at curbside in the hot mid-day sun. He got dirty and greasy and sweaty. He cursed. I learned more Spanish. Periodically he would bellow, "Nino!" and a small boy would appear, listen to Chicho, and run off to the lot across the street and then return with a different tool. Chicho wiped each tool clean before and after he used it. The nino cradled the tools in a shop towel back and forth across the street. Dust rose in the empty street with his every stride.
Tom and I stood nearby in the sun, intently watching Chicho and the nino. He was a little kid, seven or eight, filthy and underfed. Grease covered him from feet to fingertips. His black hair fell across his eyes, and a radiant white smile contrasted with the dirt on his face. You couldn't tell where his high top black tennis shoes stopped on his thin ankles because his legs were so caked with grease and dirt. His pants could easily have stood without him in them. But he was a hard worker. You could tell he took his job seriously. He paid real close attention to Chicho's work, even asking him an occasional question.
Eventually Chicho got the wheel and the hub loose and carried them across the dusty street into his lot. Generations of oil and grease had packed the ground into a kind of crumbly asphalt. Huge shade trees kept the sun off the ground and the six or eight cars in the lot. Toolboxes and cabinets lined one wall, the outside wall of an adjoining building. Workbenches were built between some of the trees. Old parts littered the ground. It smelled like every other garage I have ever been in.
Two other mechanics, apprentices of Chicho's we found out, worked under the hoods of cars. Chicho put the Bronco's hub on an old semi-tractor wheel, which was mounted on cement blocks in the crotch of a tree, and served as his anvil. When he had it positioned correctly, he began beating the broken bearing out of it.
People appeared suddenly. They emerged from the dappled shade of the trees to watch him. A soft breeze came up briefly. Both apprentices, the nino, and four or five others, some of whom I had seen earlier, materialized out of the shadows. Tom and I figured out that they had been asleep in the cars, sleeping off drunks most of them it looked like. As Chicho hammered on the bearing, several taxicabs arrived out front.
Most had only a driver, but one of them had a passenger as well, a man in white trousers, a gaudy red and gold Hawaiian shirt, and many gold chains around his neck. He sang and danced his way from the cab to the crowd around Chicho's makeshift anvil. He brought a festive air with him, an aura of good humor surrounded him. He was drunk. And I'm not talkin' middle of the day, post-siesta drunk here. No, this man was God's Own Drunk.
He sang and danced his way from the cab to the crowd around Chicho's anvil. Chicho and everyone else paused and looked up and watched the man dance into the lot. Everyone laughed, and a few joined him in his song, others invented and employed improvised musical instruments. He was a mobile party. He danced and sang and told jokes we couldn't understand but laughed at anyway. Once in awhile he would look over at us and say "Americanos," and everyone would laugh like crazy, me and Tommy included.
"Man, if this level of jocularity continues, I am beginning to think we should be proclaimed as national treasures."
"Yeah, we do seem to be the punchline pretty often."
We never did figure out who this cheerful guy was. He left and returned three or four times during the course of the long afternoon. Each time, he was a little drunker, but his enthusiasm and happiness remained constant. He spoke to us directly several times, about what we never knew. But he sure was fun to be around. One time he brought a portable radio with him, and organized a singalong there in the shade. Mexicans, it turns out, are a very musical people. If you give a Mexican two objects, a nickel and a fifty gallon oil drum for example, he will beat one against the other in Latin rhythms until you have lost your old Gringo mind.
But we never did ascertain who this merry gentleman was, or exactly how or where he fit into the local social scheme of things. The men who were hanging around Chicho's lot and the taxi drivers all deferred to him and treated him with respect. Chicho apparently deferred to no one, at least not in his lot. The happy man in the Hawaiian shirt may have been the alcoholic clown prince or the drunken mayor of Cardel. Hell, he may have been Chicho's borachon daddy for all I know.
I do know that all of us, maybe Tom and I especially, looked forward to his appearances, and were very sad when we realized that the last time was the last time. He would return no more that day. He was finally just too drunk for one more show.
Eventually Chicho straightened from his work at the anvil and yelled for the nino, who appeared with a shallow pan of gasoline. Chicho bathed each part of the wheel bearing assembly, cleaned and dried it off, and passed it to the nino who held them in a shop towel like a handful of broken jewels. I dropped a couple of the mishapen bearings in my pocket for souvenirs.
Chicho spoke sharply to the boy who turned and presented me with the shop towel full of junk parts. Then the kid sort of bowed and backed away. As he stepped back, Chicho ran about three minutes of rapid fire Spanish at us, smiled and walked off to another car and began working on it. We were dismissed.
Tom and I did another one of those slow takes at one another. We must have looked like Abbot and Costello or a cartoon with slow, dimwitted dogs being outsmarted over and over. Tom got a bad look in his eye and started toward Chicho. Before he could get far, a young man I had been trying to talk to earlier stepped out from the shadows and stopped him. He had more English than we did Spanish, and he explained to us that we were now to go and get the necessary parts to fix the broke down Bronco and return with them here to the lot that was the garage of the mechanico Chicho Montero.
This kid spoke more English than any of the others there, may-be more than all the others. He enjoyed taking with us and practicing his English and learning more. So I grabbed him and held him and questioned him as to where these fabled necessary parts were to be located and obtained. He eventually made us understand that it was hoped that the parts could be found here, in Cardel, but if not, a journey to Vera Cruz would be required, and failing that we would have to FAX inquiries back to Tampico and perhaps even to Villahermosa.
"A FAX machine!? A f***in' FAX machine! This guy don't have electric1ity or a goddamn roof here, and he's talkin' about a f***in' FAX machine?!" The small crowd regathered at this tirade.
Again the young man with some English stepped in and said he would take us to his brother, who had a taxicab. The brother would then take us to search for the parts. We wondered if this was the regular drill around here. We wondered if they were dispatching us for parts in order to avoid some sort of Mexican taxes. We even wondered if they were sending us off to an eventual bad end. We wondered if this was a ruse and they were going to steal the broke down Bronco while we were chasing Ford parts in Mexico. The kid with more English than the others tried to assure us that Chicho Montero was an honorable man, an hombre sincero, and that the Bronco would be safe, as would we.
Tom stayed with the Bronco again. I went off with the kid who knew more English than I did Spanish in pursuit of parts. Tom and I didn't want to separate again, but we saw no other choice. So he remained once again with the broke down Bronco while I headed off into the Mexican unknown. The kid took off and came back shortly with his brother in the taxicab. He introduced us and then went back to his place in the shade. A few minutes later I was once again hurtling through Mexico, being driven by a man who spoke no English.
But he was a real nice guy, and he smiled a lot, and he tried to help as much as he could. It took the better part of two hours, and three trips into the festive area of Cardel near the town square where all the auto parts stores, which are really open fronted stalls, not unlike lemonade stands, are located.
And five different parts stores got involved before I finally returned with all the ingredients. It was quite a mix and match deal; I had genuine Ford parts, Japanese parts, German parts, and a couple pieces in plain brown wrappers. And while I never did really figure out Mexican money, I honestly don't think I got bad cheated at any of the places where I had to do business.
When this ordeal was over, our mission was complete, and we finally had all the parts piled neatly beside the empty Bronco hub on Chicho's anvil, I tried to pay the helpful taxi driver. But no, he would take no money. It took him awhile, but he finally made me understand that he didn't care if I insisted, that it was a small favor to the broke down Americanos from him and his brother, the young man with some English.
"Mucho gracias, amigo."
"De nada, Old Gringo."
We saw neither of our benefactors again. In fact as the day got hotter, we saw fewer people generally. What we did was make a nice tidy pile of the boxed new parts beside the old, broken ones there by Chicho's makeshift anvil. Then we waited a half-hour or so until he got the timing right on the car he had been working on. Then he wiped his tools and his hands off and walked over to the anvil in the shade and began taking the new parts out of their boxes. He matched each new part with the old, broken ones, care-fully checking each out. It was quite an inspection.
"Bueno," he finally announced when he had the whole assembly together.
"Good deal. Bueno." I couldn't resist showing off my improving Spanish.
"Yeah." Tommy smiled.
Then Chicho began putting the new parts into the wheel hub. He dropped the bearing race in and stopped and frowned. He peered into the hole and stuck his finger in and moved things about.
"Shit! I knew it. It was too easy with getting the damn parts. I knew it was too goddamn easy."
"F*** it was. You wasn't there."
I joined Chicho to frown and peer into the hole in the hub where the bearing race sloppily wobbled around like a marble in a shotglass.
"No bueno. That's no shit, man."
Tom joined us. He asked, mostly in sign language and mechanical gestures, about just going ahead on and putting it all back together the way it was.
I asked about getting a whole new, or maybe a used wheel hub. I had learned more Spanish at my trips to the parts stores than I'd realized. Chicho looked impressed, but, alas, "No bueno." Then he made that FAX to Vera Cruz reference again.
"No bueno. F*** that." This time from Tommy.
Chicho sat back on his heels and studied the problem. He moved the various parts around into various combinations and con-figurations. He frowned at the hole in the hub. He swore. He got up and walked out to the street to study the axle on the broke down Bronco. Then he walked back into the lot that was his garage and gathered up some of the new parts and returned to the street with them to ponder the axle again.
"Nino!" The kid appeared. Chicho spoke to him, and the kid ran back into the lot to get the other new parts and the hub. The kid had to drag the wheel hub. By the time he returned, Chicho was already in one of the several taxicabs there at curbside. He took the hub and the other parts from the nino, and then motioned for me and Tom to join him in the cab.
"Tiger, I'm goin' this time. I can't stay here no more.
Whole damn town is beginning to look deserted anyway." It was true. The streets were empty in the dust and the heat.
So we both abandoned the broke down Bronco, and joined forces with Chicho in the taxi. Off we went, into portions of Cardel I was unfamiliar with. We stopped several times along the way, twice for air for all the tires of the taxicab, once for some cigarettes, once more for matches.
Then we came to a machine shop at the edge of town. The mountains looked much closer. We all spilled out of the cab, with the new parts and the hub, and Chicho talked to two men in the shop for what seemed like a long time. They passed the parts around. They all looked at the hub. There was much gesturing. Then they would stop briefly, look and nod over at Tom and me, and mutter "Old Gringos" and laugh awhile before going back to their discussion of the hub and new parts.
"I should have stayed with the Bronco. There's a big lizard, an iguana I think, in the shade under it now. He kept looking at me, but he didn't laugh at me none."
"He might could have been. How do you know when a lizard's laughin'?"
Chicho called us over to the meeting, and they all tried to explain what was going to happen. Again, it was mostly gestures. And I never did understand all the finer points of it, but between us, Tom and me did figure out that they were going to weld the bearing race to the inside of the hub, that when it all got put back together, we would have a three, rather than four-wheel-drive, Bronco, that it would cost us one of those purple fifty thousand peso notes, and that it would take about una hora.
"No problemo." Time had become real cheap, fifty thousand pesos was around sixteen dollars, and I was learning Spanish at a Berlitzean clip.
Back to the taxi, two stops for air, a stop to pick up two old women and a small girl who we took somewhere, and then back to Chicho's garage lot.
Back beside the Bronco, which had remained unmolested, as the sun shifted further west, in the increasing sambra, we checked the time. Three-thirty. The dusty streets were empty. Even the breeze had given up, and the palm trees looked tired and limp in the heat.
"So, what do you figure, 'una hora' is roughly sometime manana?" Tom's Spanish was improving, too.
"Yeah, but I'm pretty sure that it refers to sometime in our lifetime."
"Wonder if we will have to stay in the Bronco, or if one of the other cars will be made available to us."
"Let's walk on over that way and smoke a cigarette. I think this street dead ends at the river."
His geographical skills were apparently improving along with his linguistic abilities. I cocked a skeptical eyebrow.
"All the sewers run that way."
So we walked to the sluggish, muddy rio, and then out onto the railroad tie footbridge that spanned it. We smoked our cigarettes, watched the slow water pass beneath us, and said "Buenos dias" to a few dozen pedestrians, all carrying something to or from Cardel. A few had shoes. It looked like rough barefoot travel across those railroad ties.
Tom and I discussed living in the Bronco that night, and how good the huevos and pulpa had been way back that morning by the sea, and how easy this trip had been up to now and how much worse things could be, and what real fine people we had encountered so far. We longed for the singing, dancing drunk to come back and put the soldier hat on sideways and tell jokes and laugh at us. We watched the river below us run to the Gulf some more. We were greeted by more local pedestrians.
"Buenos dias." Then they'd discuss us in Spanish as they went on, laugh, mutter "loco gringos," turn around to look at us again, and laugh some more. "Americanos."
We returned to Chicho's lot as he slid out from under an old pickup truck he was working on. He smiled, pointed to his wrist where there was no watch, and announced, "Una hora."
"Could be a trick. A hoax."
"Ain't been so far."
We all climbed into a different taxi and once again raced through the streets of Cardel back to the machine shop. There were three stops along the way, and even though Tom and I were both pre-sent and paying attention, we couldn't figure out why. The part wasn't ready, but they were working on it, and twenty minutes later Tom handed the guy there one of them purple fifty thousand peso bills, thanked him, and we headed back to Chicho's. Two stops on the way back, one for air for all the tires, and one for some bearing grease for the Bronco.
Once again Chicho assembled the old and new parts beside one another and then began putting the new parts into the welded hub. He showed us how the bearing race no longer wobbled in the hole.
"Si. Muy bueno."
About an hour later we were all once again beside the Bronco at curbside as Chicho began the last phase of the repair. It began to grow cooler as the sun dropped behind the jungle and low mountains to the west. Shadows lengthened. The breeze picked up slightly and rustled the palm trees for the first time in hours. Mosquitos and the local indigenous inhabitants of Cardel now came out in great number. Chicho, oblivious to the bugs or the growing crowd, worked on.
He inquired did we have a lampa. The flashlight worked for awhile until it got dusk dark. Then the nino was summoned to rig an extension cord with a light from a nearby building. Chicho worked on. People, mostly children, came and went. The streets soon filled with wandering pedestrians.
The two apprentice mechanicos finished their work. One had somehow cleaned himself up and changed into his evening disco at-tire. His hair glistened in Chicho's light. The other hunched over near Chicho and watched him work. The nino ran back and forth and gathered and wiped tools and put each away in its place in the locking tool cabinets. Chicho worked on.
The wind came up harder and drove the mosquitos away. The children remained. It got much darker; low clouds rolled in; lightning, then thunder raised hell on the far side of the river. The wind increased even more and blew dust and debris around us. Chicho worked on.
A few fat, heavy raindrops fell.
"Esta lluviendo." This from the nino.
"Kid's got an airtight grasp of the obvious there." Tommy tugged his cap down in the wind.
"Nino, rapido...." and then a description, maybe the location of a tool he needed. Chicho worked, unconcerned and unhurried by the lluviendo. The rain slacked off some as he took the new tool and crawled back under the Bronco. He was having some trouble getting the lockouts in the final hub assembly for the now three-wheel drive together.
One of the kids in the crowd, he was about sixteen probably, offered some advice as he got in Chicho's light. I have no idea what he said. But Chicho looked up at him and frowned and told him to shut the f*** up and stay the hell out of the way. Again, my Spanish had improved measurably that day.
"Calle libertad, man." The kid smirked as he said it.
Chicho didn't say a word. He straightened slightly, I could see the muscles in his back bunch up. And the boy bolted off into the dark faster than a barefoot kid should have been able to. No, this was not a free street. This was the street of Chicho the mechanico.
The two apprentices gathered there beside him, I think to report what they had done that day. The disco dandy ran a rapid-fire brief report past him, stood and walked away in a hip rolling gait down the street. He occasionally looked up at the rain clouds as he beat a rhythm against his leg with one hand.
The other apprentice asked Chicho a question and got a long response. As I said, my Spanish had improved considerably in the past twelve hours, and I am pretty sure the kid asked Chicho what was the problem, and why didn't he just slap it all together somehow. It was dark, it was about to rain, it had been a long day, and f*** the idiot Americanos.
And I think Chicho lectured him about how that wasn't how a good mechanico works. He finishes, correctly, what he has begun, and then he cleans his tools. He does these things with great pride. Then Chicho looked down the road in the direction the disco dandy had gone and spat and cursed.
Sometime later, Chicho snugged the last lug nut tight and kicked the hubcap into place. He barked at the nino and lowered the Bronco down off the jack. A sudden huge flash of lightning illuminated his smile as he turned to us and flourished his shop towel like a cape.
He was wiping his hands as he smiled, "Feenish." He bowed slightly and gestured to the Bronco as he said it. It was like the finale to a good magic act, like he had timed the whole thing.
Tom and I applauded. The nino laughed. The remaining apprentice began to put the cord and lampa away. The children who still surrounded us also laughed. The lightning popped again.
"Finished? Es verdad? No shit?"
"Si. Es verdad. Is fix." He smiled more broadly as the rain began to come down hard.
No one seemed eager to move. We were afraid to break the spell. Finally Tom asked how much. Chicho shrugged self-consciously and continued to smile and wipe his hands. He sort of shrugged again.
I asked him did he want American money or Mexican money.
"Dinero Mexicano, por favor."
"OK, how much?"
He looked down and shyly asked if fifty thousand pesos would be reasonable. Sixteen dollars.
"Jesus Christ!" Tommy muttered as he pushed past me to give the man three of those purple fifty thousand peso bills. I gave him another one.
"Mucho gracias to you Chicho."
We all shook hands and smiled at one another as the rain fell harder. Tom and I fought back an urge to hug Chicho. Tom asked him if he would like to come along with us, continue on to Belize. He laughed and shook his head no. We asked him several times if that was enough money. He assured us that it was most generous. The rain increased.
Then we were back in the Bronco and moving again. It was real dark, and it was raining hard now. The nino scurried to put the last tools away. Chicho grinned and waved adios in the rearview mirror as we crept up the street. The night had become darker than the eyes of the Mexicans there. The windshield wipers were losing the battle with the rain. The windows of the Bronco condensed over.
"Ho ho, Cisco."
"That might be some premature, Pancho."
"Do we know how to get out of town?"
"No, but I can get us back to the square where those part stores were. I think I can figure out a way back to the highway from there. There ought to be some signs to Vera Cruz. I suspect we might have to go by that machine shop, so keep your eyes open for that."
Pretty stupid. Neither of us could see as far as the hood.
"You remember the first two rules in that Sanborn Guide Book the guy at the insurance place back in Brownsville gave us?" That book had been hard to read and even harder to use, but once Tommy figured it out, it proved to be correct about damn near everything, and hence pretty helpful.
On page one, in big letters, it had listed the two main rules of auto travel in Mexico. Don't drive at night. And don't drive in the rain.
"Seems like it was don't drink the water, and don't pick a swordfight with nobody named Zorro."
"How far you think it is to Vera Cruz?"
"Twenty-five or thirty miles, once we find the highway."
Tommy wiped off a window, then rolled it down to look out at the dark sky. "Looks like to me that this here lluviendo might slack off some."
It was raining so damn hard I could barely see the road. It was hard to tell if the headlights were on. I told Tom I hoped he was right.
"Aw hell, let's just do it, Tiger. I'll buy you a steak in Vera Cruz if we can find one."
We found two, and a drunk waiter named Pepe' who took one look at us across the dining room, laughed and hollered, "Americanos" as he danced to the door to greet us.
At dawn the next morning we had coffee and watched teams of men pull nets miles long from the sea east of Vera Cruz. Maybe in the place Cortez burned his ships. We had determined the night before that the repair job on the Bronco was a good one.
The frigate birds wheeled out over the Gulf. Lower down, lines of pelicans glided across the top of the surf line. There was a place down the way where we could get ham and eggs. Life was good. And Chicho Montero is, indeed, an hombre sincero.
(c) Copyright 2001 by Mark K. Edmonds