It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.
This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.
You just never know.
I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.
We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.
Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.
The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.
The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.
I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.
“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.
“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.
He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”
“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.
“No, it’s not.”
“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”
“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”
“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”
“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.
“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”
“Your phone must be broken.”
“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.
Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.
Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.
“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.
So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.
I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”
“You’re kidding,” I say.
“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”
“They fried it.”
“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”
“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”
And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.
“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.
“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.
“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.
“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”