Tijuana Souvenir

Getting up from under the motorcycle, I stood and stretched as I looked at the setting sun. Unthinking, I scratched my left side. It didn’t help, so I scratched some more. But I knew it was pointless. Sometimes that damn scar down my side itches; no matter how I scratch, it don’t stop. The only thing that works is beer—cheap Mexican beer, any brand—the cheaper, the better.

Tonight it itched like hell, so I was heading to Frankie’s Place; he has the cheapest beer around. I rolled the bike off the kick stand and into the canvas garage. I grabbed my tools and locked them in my tool box, even though I knew they’d be safe if I left them lying on the ground; no one would steal from me.

I went into my trailer to check the calendar hanging on the wall to see if three months had gone by and I could go back to Frankie’s. He had banned me for three months because of the huge fight the last time I was there. I don’t know why, but every time there’s a fight, if I’m there, I’m blamed. Well, to be honest, it probably was my fault.

Hanging on the wall next to the calendar was my machete and tacked above the calendar was the faded Polaroid picture. Carla. Every time I look at that picture, it all comes back to me.

I had rolled into Tijuana to see the sights, drink some beer, get lucky and smoke some weed, not necessarily in that order. Nobody bothered me as I cruised into town, whether it was the Harley or the fresh tattoos on my arms and shoulder, or just the fact that I would have liked it if they did bother me, I don’t know. I walked into the bar—its name had long ago faded from my memory—expecting to meet a guy to buy enough weed to take back home. While I waited I had a beer, then another, and another, as the afternoon faded into evening. The guy never showed, but Carla did. She came in to work her shift waiting tables.

She was short and petite, but very rounded, and even though she was dressed to get tips, I could tell she was something special. She wore a ruffled skirt striped in bright blue, green, yellow and red. Her blouse was white, with short puffy sleeves; one had slid down her arm, revealing her shoulder. She had a thick leather belt with a fancy carved silver buckle that cinched the blouse in tight around her tiny waist. In her ears were big silver hoops and a row of silver bangles jingled on her left arm. Carla’s face was a heart surrounded by a cloud of wavy black hair, smooth and shiny, and when she smiled at me, her eyes flashed black fire. Her toenails were painted a pretty pink and her skin glowed copper under the dingy bar lights; I couldn’t wait to see her in natural light.

She came over to my table to see if I needed a refill. The place was quiet and we started talking. Somehow I got up the courage to ask her to meet me the next day. She was so far out of my league, but she smiled and said, “Si, I’ll meet you.”

Shaking my head to force the memories away, I walked over to the sink to wash the grease from my hands. As I rhythmically scrubbed my fingers with a brush loaded with Boraxo I looked into the shaving mirror that hung on a hook between the two tiny casement windows over the sink. My graying reddish brown hair was falling out of its ponytail and I had sprouted a red, three-day beard. Maybe I’ll shave sometime tomorrow. I examined my face, didn’t find any big globs of grease and decided I was good to go. As I dried my hands on the stiff towel I noticed the tattoo that said “Carla” on my forearm; it was less faded than all the rest. I checked my torn and stained jeans, again no major patches of grease. I grabbed a leather jacket and slammed the door on my way out.

The chains on my boots jangled in rhythm with my footsteps as I started walking down the road. I felt in my pockets, yeah I still had half a pack to get through the night; but I’d have stop at the 7-11 on my way home to pick up another pack for tomorrow. The sun finished setting and the moon rose as I walked the two miles to Frankie’s Place. As the sky grew darker the country road was lit only by the moon, at least until the neon glow of the lights across the roof of Frankie’s Place flashed “F AN E S LA E” in alternating blue and red. The cheap bastard still hadn’t fixed the lights.

I pushed past the heavy, knock-off saloon door. The crappy music hit me as I walked through the door. Frankie won’t pay for decent bands, so they always suck.

Even though it was early, the place was busy. But it was always busy at Frankie’s. The beer was cheap and all the peanuts you could eat. The tables were wiped regularly and the glasses were clean, couldn’t ask for much more as far as I was concerned.

I sat on a stool at the bar between two other guys. One looked like he just got off work; he wore Dickies and a dirty T-shirt. The other guy wore a pale green polo shirt and ironed jeans. I smiled at each guy and asked polo guy to pass the peanuts that were on the other side of him. He gave me a kind of funny smile, passed the peanuts, nodded and moved to a table on the other side of the room. I turned to say to Dickies guy, “Did you see that?” and saw that he had moved to the other end of the bar.

Frankie walked up and leaned across the bar, “Mick. Back, huh? Has it been three months?”

“Two days ago by my calendar, Frankie.”

“Okay,” he said as he walked over to get me a beer, I didn’t have to tell him which one I wanted, he knew what I started with, what I drank in the middle, and what I finished up with at the end of the night. He placed the bottle on the bar, but kept his hand on it, “Remember, no trouble, Mick.”

“Hey man, no trouble. My scar’s just itching.”

Shaking his head, Frankie walked away saying, “Funny how it didn’t itch for the three months you couldn’t come here.”

I laughed and took a big swig of my beer. The itching started to fade. Five or six of these, and it should go away completely. I picked up a handful of peanuts and tipping my head back poured them into my mouth. I put my head down and looked around the bar as I chewed. I signaled for another beer. The band was dressed like a typical country band in jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy hats and boots. They still sucked.

I finished my beer, got another and then another. I lost track of how many. I noticed that Dickies guy and polo guy both very carefully didn’t look my way. I chuckled under my breath and looked at the dance floor. It was mostly empty, but there were a few couples line dancing to the music. I watched a waitress weave her way through the tables to deliver a tray of beers; I could watch the sway of her hips all night long. She turned and I choked on my beer. It was Carla.

The same cloud of black hair, copper skin and sparkling eyes. She laughed and flirted with the table of construction workers, earning her tips. Her heart face smiled at them as she spun around to head back to the bar, and knowing their eyes followed her, her hips gave an extra swivel. She knew it worked from their ‘woo hoos’ and ‘hey babies’ as they slapped the table and whistled. Her smiled showed that she knew she had earned a big fat tip.

She couldn’t be more than twenty two, so my brain told me she couldn’t be Carla, but my heart pounded and said, “Yes, she is!”

I remembered the last time I saw Carla. She and I had left the bar; it was late, maybe two in the morning. We had spent all her time off together for the past week, and while she worked I sat on a stool and watched her work.

We walked down the street, arm in arm, and suddenly this short guy, a Mexican, leaped out of an alley waving a machete.

“Gringo!” he shouted. “Go home! Leave our women alone!” He lunged at me and swung the machete at my throat.

I grabbed Carla and pushed her behind me.

“Ernesto!” she cried out. “What are you doing?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her peering around my shoulder at the lunatic.

“Carla, you know this guy?” I shouted, not looking at her. I didn’t dare take my eyes off him as he swung wildly at me, screaming at me in Spanish the whole time. I ducked and weaved to avoid the machete while trying to find an opportunity grab him.

“He’s my husband,” she whispered.

I was so stunned I forgot to weave as I turned to her, “Husband?”

“I left him and came to the city. He must have followed…”

That was all I heard. I felt a searing pain down my left side and I hit the sidewalk. While I was down there, Ernesto kicked me in the head a couple times. I heard voices, then footsteps and I saw her pink toenails running away from me.

I lay on the ground and the blood fanned out around me. Something important must have been cut, because there was a lot of blood. The next thing I knew, some guy was standing over me, “Amigo. Amigo, you okay?”

I couldn’t answer, but I think I shook my head.

Somehow he got me up, draped my arm over his shoulder and half dragged me up the street, opposite from the way that Carla’s toenails had gone.

I don’t know how he did it, but he dragged me a block and a half, down a back alley to a guy. I won’t say to a doctor, because one look at my scar will tell anyone that no doctor stitched me up. The scar zigs and zags up my side, and rises up like mountain ridges alternated with deep valleys. But the guy did stop the bleeding and prevented any infection. He saved my life.

My amigo went back and got the machete that Ernesto had dropped. I guess he thought I would like a souvenir. I was laid up at the “doctor’s” house for weeks. I paid him the money I had brought to buy weed. He was very grateful; a lot of his patients didn’t pay him, at least not in cash.

Once I could get around on my own, I went back to the bar, but nobody knew where Carla had gone and none of them had ever heard of Ernesto. I spent a few weeks searching the streets, but eventually I had to give up and come back home. I had run out of money. So I got on my Harley and drove north. The only reminders of my time in Tijuana were a scar, a machete and a Polaroid of Carla.

For a long time I went back to Tijuana every year, one year I even went to the town Carla had told me she was from. But I never saw her again and about ten years ago, I stopped going back to Mexico. I parked my travel trailer on the little piece of land that my grandfather had left me, sold the truck that hauled it to pay the taxes and stopped traveling. When I have a license I drive my Harley to Frankie’s, the 7-11 or the Super Walmart that they built on the main drag; and when I don’t, I walk. Right now I’m walking. But I’ve never forgotten Carla or stopped dreaming about her. And there she was.

I don’t remember getting up, but I found myself standing in the middle of the dance floor and stopping her from heading to the next table with a tray of drinks.

“Excuse me, sir. Can I get by?” she asked in a sweet tone, smiling at me.

“Carla,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“Uh, my name’s not Carla, mister,” she said trying to get around me, but she was blocked by the line dancers tapping their way across the dance floor.

“Carla, I know it’s been a long time, but…” I reached for her arms, but she backed away.

“Buddy, my name’s not Carla!” her voice rose and people started to notice us. The dancers kept dancing, concentrating on their steps, but the tables near the floor all turned toward us and I noticed Frankie heading down the bar.

In desperation I reached for her again, this time I grabbed her right arm, she pulled away and the tray of drinks flew through the air. Beer and tequila showered the dancers and the drinkers. Some guys jumped up, fists started flying, people were screaming and swearing, dancers plowed into each other and ended up in a jumble on the floor, somebody dumped beer over somebody’ else’s head, someone got slapped, and a bunch of people tripped over the pile-up on the floor. But Carla and I stood in the center of this human hurricane, my large hand gripping her tiny arm.

“Look, buddy, I’m not Carla!” she screamed at me over the ruckus. “My name is Pauline and I’ve never seen you before in my life!” Then she swung her foot—I never expected her to be wearing cowboy boots—and kicked me right in the soft spot below my kneecap.

Man, did that hurt! Frankie reached us by that time. I felt this jolting vibration that seemed to go on forever and I hit the floor. He stood over me, shaking his head.

I couldn’t talk yet, but I was wondering when Frankie had invested in a stun gun. He didn’t have one the last time I was here.

“Mick, you’re the whole reason I bought this damn thing. I’m really sick of you breaking up the joint. I know you’re a little drunk, but Carla doesn’t work here. She never worked here,” he turned to look at Carla—Pauline—and said, “at least she’s a brunette like your Carla. Unlike Sarah who was blonde and Kathy who was a red head. To be honest, Mick, if Carla walked in I probably wouldn’t hire her, she’d be too old and you probably wouldn’t even recognize her.”

I was starting to get the feeling back in my arms and legs. I felt sober, too. I looked at the girl again, and realized that he was right, she’s not Carla—her eyes were brown, not black and her face wasn’t really a heart. I lumbered up to my feet and looked at Pauline, “I’m sorry, miss,” I said and hung my head.

She still looked pretty angry; she just turned and walked away. I noticed people helping other people off the floor and picking up overturned tables and chairs. I guess my electric flailing had distracted everyone else from fighting.

“Mick, you do it every time. Don’t come back for a long time,” Frankie said.

“How long?” I asked, afraid of his answer.

“I don’t know, Mick. I’m sick of this. I won’t call the cops this time; you made a mess but nothing got broken and nobody got hurt. But next time, I am calling the cops and I’ll press charges.” Frankie looked pretty angry, so I just nodded my head. “And you’re paying for all the spilled drinks!”

“Okay, Frankie,” I handed over the money and headed out the door. I stepped out into the cold and before the door closed behind me I heard that crappy western band start up, the sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses. I turned and looked over my shoulder at Frankie’s Place for a minute and then started walking.


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