South Padre Island, during the off-season, is not for the faint of liver. The real cast-iron kidneys run free from September to February, during the grey months, when the hotels roll up their sandy stoops and bring in their umbrellas for the season. It’s during that time of year when people choose the seclusion and separation from mainland Texas to find whatever it is they’re avoiding, or run away from what they’re looking for, or might be looking for them.
This is where seasoned drunks and fishermen go to retire. People from all over the world come here to live out their Jimmy Buffet fantasies— popping their flip-flops, stepping on pop tops, and sharing the same painful case of herpes, never minding that lost shaker of salt. South Padre Island was a small collective of reclusive drunks and fishermen, traders and craftsmen, coasties, trust-funders, and drop-outs. People who scratched a living from seasonal bartending or waiting, crafting wind chimes or jewelry from seashells, and generally avoiding responsibility. It was sunburnt bohemia.
I lived there for a complete year, perhaps a few months longer, when I was about twenty-three and had nowhere to go. South Padre was as cosmopolitan as any other “northern” city in Texas, and it was just twenty- eight miles or so from where I was stuck, back in Brownsville once again.
I managed to square away a job with a local pizzeria in Los Fresnos, which opened a satellite delivery station on the island during the heyday of spring break, when the college kids flooded the place. I negotiated a deal where the owner would rent a sort of hollowed out cabaña with two bedrooms and a pair of bunk beds for all the delivery kids to sleep over instead of traveling the treacherous twenty-eight to thirty miles back to their homes in Brownsville or Los Fresnos. At the end of March, after the peak of spring breakers had hit critical mass and the highways were back within the margins of safety, I would take over the lease. I brokered this deal with no money.
This meant I had to share the small space with people I would normally have avoided. I’d had bad roommates before, so I was already much better at handling the situation over these boys who still lived with their mothers.
I was able to move in right away and immediately set out to exploring this lonely stretch of beach from the inside, enjoying the slow crawl of my 1982 Cutlass Supreme, cruising the length of South Padre Island Boulevard all on my own. I had the sense I was gliding on the surface of an underworld I’d never before noticed, one that sort of slithered underneath like an underground river.
One night, I was meandering pointlessly from bar to bar, chatting up a person or two who would more often than not respond coldly. Eventually, I found that strangers in bars in South Texas don’t acknowledge each other, let alone attempt conversation, and I ended up at the only reggae bar in Texas, or easily for a radius of about 350 miles.
The reggae bar had only one obvious purpose, really, but I didn’t understand this, in my innocence, that night. I bought a princely-priced Red Stripe—a few, actually—and had started to withdraw when I began talking to this large Aztec-lookin’ fella standing near my car, immediately outside the door. He seemed distracted, lost.
Desi was his name and he was about 6’3”, 250 or so pounds, built more roundly than barrel-chested, but you could see how powerful that form could be, if provoked.
And yet he had a boy’s face, soft with the spare down of an adolescent native, skin the reddish-brown color of ground cumin, and long thin black hair that went down to the center of his back. He encouraged the air of intimidation, you could tell, so I decided to ignore it, and engaged him instead with genuine friendliness.
Later I’d see that women really dug Desi, for some reason, but this night he’d been left stranded by one woman who hadn’t dug him too deeply, and had left him outside the KoKoMo’s Reggae Bar with a kiss and only a promise to return with a bottle of rum.
He pulled out his pocket copy of Kierkegaard and was leafing through it under the buzzing fluorescent outdoor lights, the moths fluttering wildly into his light, when I started talking to him, using the book as a conversational starter.
Though it was absurdly beyond our understanding, that he even knew of a book by Kierkegaard impressed me. The cover alone would make the point he was trying so desperately to make: I am a reader and a thinker … even if I don’t know the first thing about Danish existentialism.
Because, hey—if you’re going to be pretentious, by all means, go all out, have the flirtini.
We got to talking, him very clearly en garde at first—I would come to know when Desi was en garde pretty easily later—and me entirely transparent and eager to help, because I was just happy to have someone to talk to.
He found me funny. And that was good, as a start. Very few people did down in Texas, and I secretly prided myself as the next generation’s Mel Brooks. In full disclosure, I would speak aloud only about 15% of the jokes I made to myself in South Texas, because, well, no one “got it.” No one would get most of my references, so I didn’t venture them out.
My time outside of Texas had shown me that there was an entire world out there with people who actually “got it,” got references to film and shtick and repartee and riffing, but they just didn’t exist in South Texas. In the three months since I’d been stuck back home, Desi had been the first person I’d felt any sort of commonality with.
“So what are you doing hanging out here?” I asked.
“Some chick I was messing around with said she’d be right back with some Bacardi. So I’m waiting for her,” he said, putting his book away and swatting at the moths.
“Yeah, but that was a while ago. I’m thinking she’s not coming back.” “When did she leave?”
“Yesterday,” he said. “She said to meet her here.”
“You want a Red Stripe? I’m pretty flush; I’ll buy,” I said.
“Sure,” he said, and we walked back into the bar.
Desi was escaping to the Island as well, I found. Or I got the sense, actually: we didn’t talk specifics at first. He was from Donna, Texas, about forty-five minutes north and west, and a shithole of a nowhere town, even by South Texas standards. It wasn’t even a border town, just a lower point in a township triangle called “the Tri-Cities,” which a lot of states apparently have.
“Yeah, so I’m just hanging out, man,” he said. “Got nothing going on.”
“Here?” I said, betraying my surprise. South Padre Island was like midtown Manhattan for that part of the world; you couldn’t do it without a place to stay and full pockets.
“Yeah, there’s, you know; people here. Just hanging out. So I hang with them when I can,” he said, turning away.
I got the idea and didn’t press.
“You looking for work? Cuz our place is looking for cooks for the spring break run,” I said.
“Dude,” he says. “I’m a chef.”
“Well, this is pizza,” I say.
“I can cook pizza, man. Chefs can cook pizza,” he says.
“Well, let me talk to these people tomorrow at the restaurant. You need a place to stay tonight? I got a couch ….”
There was nothing more than kindness in the offer, in my helping someone who seemed to need it, now that I had built a soft place to land. I invited Desi to fall, too, and pick himself up again. Nothing more than that.
That’s how things were back then.
By the next evening, Desi was employed as a pizza cook at our delivery kitchen and was quickly becoming my best mate, the closest friend I’d had in a very long time, and we drove around that island in my car with the stereo booming and wondering how to fill the hours between our shifts at the pizza place, before the rush of kids came crushing down.
My grandmother had given me her old Cutlass Supreme when she had upgraded to something a little more luxurious and suitable for a black widow of her status, and so now I was driving around in a fairly pimping car of my own, low to the ground and booming of radio, which was important to me.
I put little to no money in that car, except for the stereo and the speakers. I was that kind of guy.
Desi and I could not have been more diametrically opposite in character, which made our friendship all the more interesting. He was a large, barrel-chested Mayan strongman, with long fine hair and looking like he could fit in comfortably in the Brazilian death-metal band, Sepultura. And, actually, he did play the guitar, I eventually discovered, and was very into thrash metal, as most people in South Texas who consider themselves musicians tended to be. He was particularly fond of a Dallas-based band called Pantera, while I, on the other hand, looked like the first cousin of the Beastie Boys at this point: vaguely Semitic, unshaven, with loose denim shorts, untied stinky basketball sneakers, and a thin, legitimately distressed t-shirt with a totemic image center mass, this before the style became rampant. And I played nothing but Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head on my car stereo. In short, I was City Mouse, Desi was death-metal Country Mouse. The time I’d spent outside of Texas had taught me much more than I’d ever realized.
As much fun as we were having on the Island, working and driving around and drinking pitchers of Budweiser and unsuccessfully trying to pick up girls, I noticed I knew nothing of Desi, that besides looking like Han Solo and Chewbacca when we entered a room, I knew very little about who he was, before I met him that night in front of KoKoMo’s. He could have materialized at that moment, for all I knew, because God knew I needed a buddy.
I had vouched for him for the pizza-throwing gig after knowing him 53 only a couple of days, introduced and recommended him to old man Nobles, who owned Paisano’s Pizza. Ray Nobles was a crusty bespectacled
old man, lean and salty and bitter as bitten aspirin, had ideas about the
Mexicans he lived around, and had been taken aback by my résumé when I had applied for the job of pizza delivery boy.
Nobles made a mint during spring break when the Island was jammed with college kids who ate nothing but pizza. He simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. On average, each month during spring break, eight drivers would deliver about 150 pizzas a day in that mess.
He had a son our age, Mike, who was actually pretty cool, one of the coolest cats I met down in Texas. Mike was the sort of Texan who makes Texas infinitely redeemable: a country boy at heart, but easygoing and fairly accepting of most things, who lived easily among the Mexicans of Texas. He was the jfk generation, though his father was clearly of the Nixon sort.
Mike was there when I introduced Desi to old man Nobles, and it was Mike who had swung the deciding vote in Desi’s favor. On his own, Nobles would have made for the pistol in his truck, laying eyes on Desi. Instead, he gave the man a job.
Spring break immediately picked up come late February, after my twenty-third birthday, and we were suddenly working 16–20 hour days. Tiny as South Texas was, I already knew most of the boys that worked for Noble’s pizza shop.
Besides Desi there were two other cooks, and the rest of us were drivers. There was Josh, who was a really good kid who looked like Lane Staley from Alice in Chains because of the way he wore his goatee, which was a point reinforced when this stoned Mexican chick walked into the store and stared at him blankly for about five seconds before announcing in that Brownsville dialect that manages to lilt and remain monotone, both at once: “You look like Alice in Chains.”
Josh and I burst out in laughter when she left. I’d been helping him prep in the heat so hellish, outside and within, standing next to those two pizza ovens, and when the others came in, we just couldn’t explain why it had been so funny. We were punch drunk from the long hours.
Then there was Cash, easily the least likeable sleaze ball of the group, even at twenty-two years of age. Besides the mystifyingly trashy first name, Cash and I had met in kindergarten and had hated each other ever since.
When we were seven, he had grown over-excited at something and had taken to swinging a wide arc punch at my back one afternoon during playtime, and I, more astonished than injured, jumped on him and shoved his face into a pile of dirt and then ran away crying with the whole class—teacher’s aide included—streaming behind me as I ran to the far end of the playground as tears flew from my cheeks in an Oscar-worthy performance. When I reached the end of the playground, I collapsed into a bundle and was inconsolable, a drama queen even then, as the teacher and the rest of the class comforted and cooed me back, and then sent Cash—who had received the worst of it—to the principal’s office.
Obviously, neither of us had forgiven the other, because when we were reintroduced so many years later, we both mumbled something awkward and looked away, falling into a cold, unpleasant seethe when work forced us to be near one another.
To make matters worse or seal any possible need to dislike Cash further, he was an impossible pothead and could not function without being high. He became whiny and childlike when he couldn’t get stoned 55 and would throw fits when he couldn’t get his hands on marijuana, in front of Mike and the rest of us.
Cash was slim and trailer park blonde, had a face like a General Motors car—angular, had all the reasons to work but somehow didn’t. He thought of himself as a lead singer in a band, would wear Jim Morrison t-shirts, but could not sing, would not even attempt it. I goaded him to, but he never would. He was most proud of his ponytail, this trailing, wispy pittance that barely made it to the center of his shoulder blades. It was like thin yellow smoke, hanging in a vertical line. His whole identity, I realized, lay in that ratty ponytail, like a dull and uselessly stoned Samson. All this made it easy to dislike Cash, but what made him repulsive to me was his penchant for sixteen-year-old girls. He was “dating” two of them back in Los Fresnos.
“You don’t see anything wrong with that?” I asked him once, after he had thrown a tantrum when Ronnie, another driver, had neglected to bring him a letter one of his “girlfriends” had written and tried to get to Cash on the Island.
“What the fuck you mean?” he replied.
“In chasing after sixteen-year-olds,” I said. “Dude, they’re chasing me!” he said.
South Padre Island was full of people running away from something. I was running away from the mistake I made when I dropped out of college, and Desi, as he would later divulge, was running away from an unsettled divorce and a wife he was avoiding and some other seriously creepy shit—he finally admitted to being a Tri-City Bomber, one of the gangs that polluted the Upper Valley. Troubled as he was, we would only discuss his pre-Island days after we’d had lots to drink, and then I would solve all his problems, and we’d pass out listening to loud, loud music. The Island had become a sort of mystical retreat where one could reinvent oneself from the less than stellar life one probably lived in the lower Rio Grande Valley. There was a sort of glamour here.
But it was still Texas and telescopically so: there was even less attempt at civility and disguising the classist racism when you were on a Jimmy Buffet fishin’ vacation.
Because of my fair complexion, odd affected manners, and good diction, the native Texans didn’t quite know what to make of me and regarded me with the same sort of limited curiosity they might have with an unusually large and rudely shaped vegetable.
Desi, on the other hand, brought their most disquieting racial nightmares to life. He was over six feet tall, largely if pudgily built, with straight black hair that grew easily to his center back. Desi couldn’t disguise his Mexicanism so he decided to embrace it.
I loved that about him; he was terrifically unashamed about cooking cheap peasant food at home and dropping those dripping and forceful Spanish words in conversation when English terms just couldn’t or wouldn’t carry the emotional charge for what he was describing. He loved quoting Cheech and Chong movies.
Desi had become my best friend in those four months, right before he started falling apart.
The few nights I was allowed off work before last call, I’d drive the few blocks over to a tiki-style bar called Tequila Sunset and order five beers at once and have the bartender play Paul’s Boutique for an extra $10 tip. Twelve-ounce Coors Lights would go quickly when you slugged them down, and within ten or so minutes, I was buying my second round of five beers.
Eventually, I figured out that the visiting sorority girls really wanted nothing to do with the local boys, a revelation that was welcomed by me since it freed me to enjoy myself by having beers and listening to the Beastie Boys. It meant that I didn’t have to waste my time at the bar-monstrosity next door that opened a few months a year with the single purpose of separating college students from their money and endrunkenfying them to near unconsciousness while playing loud stripper music overhead, nary a conversational exchange to be had.
So it was Tequila Sunset for me. I’d sit, listen to better music and slug beers down with Desi and talk to anyone who happened to be sitting nearby, sometimes even girls.
One night I started talking to this one bloke, a big white guy with black hair pulled back in a stumped ponytail, and we sort of hit it off, conversationally. I don’t quite remember what it was that I said that impressed Christian, but he turned out to be the bar manager for Tequila Sunset and had a really good idea how to manage a bar that was eclipsed by the seasonal temple of excess next door. I was suitably unimpressed because I had no idea what that meant.
“I run the place,” he says.
“What place?” I asked, genuinely confused after beer eight or nine. “This place,” he said.
“No, the bar. This bar. Tequila Sunset,” he says, pointing up at the rafters entwined with bras and panties.
“Classy,” I say. “Can you get them to play something other than U2?” “It’s past one a.m.,” he says. “The other bars are shutting down and pushing people out. That’s wind down music, for people who want to get one last drink in and see if they’re gonna go home with whoever they’re with.”
And, true to his experience, two or three groups of older sorority girls and their loud frat counterparts who thought their chances at getting laid were pretty good came in and spent about $100 per group, while we sat there pretending not to watch. The bar had made about $300 during a slow weeknight at the last minute.
“Huh,” I said, buying my last three beers before the bartender closed the till for the night.
“So you want to bartend?” he asked me.
“Nah,” I say, “I’m much more comfortable on this side of the bar.” “You’d be good at it. I know these things,” he said, not exactly insisting.
“You can talk to people.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” I said. “It’s the sports, and the drink-mixing. Never done that before.”
“Oh, that you’ll learn,” he said, sounding like a large and French
Yoda. “About the sports, you just got to let them talk, mostly, and listen to what they’re saying, then mildly contradict something once, then back off entirely. Don’t press your opinions on the customers. You don’t have to know anything about any sport, but if you do that, then they feel like they’ve made their point, and they buy more Miller Lites. It’s actually pretty easy.”
Christian, if you forgive the coming pun, had it down to a science. And the more I got to know him, the more I realized he knew and cared very little about sports, but could get anyone riled up and upset about anything, and then leave the bar feeling like they made their point, after having spent a fairly good amount on booze, and tipping firmly, to emphasize just how right they had been, as Christian smiled to himself and me and 59 closed his till. He was good at this and getting bored with it.
Eventually I became a bartender and quickly hated it. In Christian’s protégé status, I managed to learn the drinks, though made the mistake of asking the drunks there for help once in a while for things like a rum and coke, or a gin and tonic. Drunks like to feel superior to anyone whenever possible, and I was an easy mark then, but they soon learned to like me because of my heavy pour. I was always heavy-handed with the booze part of the concoctions, and not because I was new to the trade, but because I wanted them to shut up and be happy while I watched TV. I didn’t have TV on the Island. Once, when I was right in the middle of A Christmas Story (this was April), a large group of sunburned Iowans stood up and left in a furious huff because I wouldn’t switch the bar television to some fucking college basketball game back in their corn-based part of the world. I mean, really? The kid had just frozen his tongue to the pole, and they wanted me to switch the channel? Go enjoy your drink on the deck, for fuck’s sake. How trashy are you? Watching basketball on your vacation. Pay attention to your corn-syrup-dependent wife with the Budweiser. That one never got back to Christian, and I got to watch all of the movie, which was as close to winter as I’d seen in ten months.
Things at home had become much more comfortable, as the end of the three month layover for the pizza delivery boys had come to an end. I could tell them to scram. Desi, as my roommate, was the only one who stayed.
Though none of the other guys needed or wanted to stay, except for Cash. He had nowhere to go after he’d been kicked out by his “ma” back in Los Fresnos (home of Freddy Fender, by the way). When the end of March came and it was the very last day he had been contractually promised by the agreement Nobles had made with me, Cash simply could not bring himself to ask me if he could move in for good. We had the room and plenty more. I stood over him as he packed his miserable gym bag and left, no word exchanged between us. It was deeply satisfying. He knew what the answer would have been, and hadn’t the courage to ask the question in the first place.
I mildly regretted that I had not taken a serrated kitchen knife to that ratty ponytail as he slept, my foot pressed on his neck and then the quick, jutting slice. He certainly deserved it, but I didn’t feel it in me anymore, this need to dispense justice, border or otherwise.
Done. A generation of sixteen-year-old girls saved.
My best mate Desi and I were alone in our kick-ass dark and moldy vacation rental on South Padre Island, and things were good.
Things had come together well. Desi was growing as a person. No longer did he enter a room and suck the life out of it with his stern, intimidation tactics. He’d grown comfortable enough in himself to actually smile and pull his hair back, and be genial. He even met my mother and enchanted her. And Christian had hired him to bar-back. Which was a coup, if ever there was one.
See, Christian was still fairly northern Texan, underneath his professional service mode, and as such he was still fairly disapproving or distrustful of Mexicans underneath it all. He wasn’t racist as much as he was classist, which I totally understood: once I had him and Desi talking, Christian set aside his prejudices and saw Desi the way I saw and spoke to him, and it made me feel much better about Christian, as a person.
Though it didn’t help that one very busy Saturday night, weeks later when I had my brother Dan bar-backing in training to take my spot, some small, tequila’d Mexican guy slammed his beer bottle on the bar to get service over on Christian’s side, and Christian cut him off right then, but then made the mistake of turning his back to the little drunk guy, who then grabbed Christian by the hair and pulled him down on his back, onto the floor. I saw all this happen from across the bar, from my side. This was a big mistake at the Coastie bar. Drunk guy was immediately swarmed and muscled up against a wall, and was still thrashing and fighting until somehow I—enraged at this little fucker who’d attacked my friend—managed to quickly slip in under the tangle of military muscle and get face to face with the guy and grab him by the throat, my thumb in his larynx like Gerry Goller (my favorite ex-Marine) had taught me. The guy stopped fighting, and all the big guys just sort of let him go, and it was me and him for a second, his eyes big and scared. I said, “Alright, stay right there while we call the cops.” And he nodded. And I let go. Then he ran. He jumped through the garbage shoot and landed hard on the gravel and sprinted across the road, into a field. I heard Dan yell,
“fuck!” and he shot off after him. I thought, “fuck! Not again!” and tore off after Dan. However, we were both sober and outnumbered the other guy. We ran a good quarter of a mile in a sprint until Dan reached out with his left hand and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. The short Mexican guy was about to stop and turn on Dan when all of a sudden I was there to throw my shoulder into his belly in a very basic football tackle. The cops and Coasties were there in seconds. Dan and I stood up, walked back to the bar, safe, breathing heavy. “You could have hit him harder,” Dan said to me. “It wasn’t a very solid hit. You could have done better.” I just shook my head. Anyway, whenever Christian recounted the story in the bar, there was always a level of, “Stupid Mexicans who can’t hold their drink,” underneath it, instead of, “My friends, some of whom are Mexican, came to my rescue,” which I felt was the larger narrative. And I’ll say this again, emphatically: Christian wasn’t prejudiced, having grown up in Dallas, he was just elitist, and I really liked him.
Associating with Christian (or “le grand fromage,” as we had begun to refer to the “big cheese”) had elevated my status on the island, and I was able to quit the pizza gig and rely on bartending a couple times a week while working at the weekly tabloid, The Coastal Current, which I think might still be in publication in some form or another. I was beginning to be happy, which was unusual.
There’s this strange Mexican Easter holiday where huge crowds of Mexican families come pouring out of the interior of Mexico into the Island, which is really strange because they’re obviously well-moneyed and have that slow, nearly European elegance that you don’t find very often in border towns. They come with at least three generations of families—grandmother, parents and kids—and they’re not prone to piss- ups. They’re there, at the Island, to enjoy the beach, the surf and sun of all things. So, while the Island might be crowded, the bars are empty. I’d never seen this before. Though the ones who did drink certainly knew how to piss off the waitstaff: Dan had started bartending, and these three polished pansies, fresas, as they’re called, stood at the bar with their back to Dan and ordered drinks the whole time they were there over their shoulder, never once looking at him or acknowledging him. He had been fuming, pouring out their strawberry daiquiris.
One busy night during this weekend, two girls ran across the main unlit road on the Island and were struck by the same car, both killed instantly. The Island was in an uproar, and the emergency crews had their hands full.
Desi and I had the evening off, were wandering about in my car when we were drawn to the crowds and the lights. We made our way to the front to find out what the hubbub had been, and no sooner had we broken the line of crying, sobbing people than this five-foot Mexican cop from Port Isabel zeroed in on Desi and came right at us, night stick in hand.
“Move!” he yelled from below, holding the baton over his head in a threatening manner. He would have had to swing it up, over his own head, to hit either Desi or me, on ours. “¡Largensen!” he said in Spanish, when, in his hysteria, his limited English left him. Get out of here!
I grabbed Des by the elbow and pulled him back to blend in with the crowd, but Desi stood his ground, eye-fucking the militant little cop and said loudly, “Why the fuck you worrying about us? Go help the mother of those little girls!” She could be seen by the ambulance, wailing horribly, louder than the sirens, and pounding on the hood of the car that had crushed the two girls. A man who I took to be her husband had a hollow but nevertheless murderous look on his face and held her by the shoulder as she pounded the hood of the car, and the driver was arrested.
The cop made as if to swing the truncheon but didn’t, and Desi didn’t move, and I pulled on him and he finally budged, turned his back and followed me through the crowd. Behind us, the crowd and sirens and lights continued to ignite the night and I led us through the throng while Desi continued to fume like a steam engine.
“You see? You see that sort of shit? You see what I mean? Out of nowhere that shitty little cop came at me, from way the hell down the street! It’s always like that, man! I get that shit from everyone! From you, from Christian, from Nobles! I don’t do a fucking thing but I get targeted, man!” he yelled, now that we were in the car.
“I saw it, man. I saw it happen,” I said. I wanted to say, “You think maybe if you cut your hair and covered your tats you might not draw that sort of attention?” But I didn’t think he was ready for that sell-out sort of logic.
“You should have let him hit me,” he said. I don’t think this was bravado. Desi would have preferred the concussion, would have seen it as the appropriate punctuation to the evening. Then he yelled, “fuck!” and punched the roof of my car.
“Dude, alright,” I said. “That’s enough. Let’s just get out of here and get down to the other end of the Island and find a quiet bar and just chill out, man. Seeing those dead little girls freaked me out. Fuck that guy, Desi. Seriously, man. What is this? What did you mean when you said that you get this shit from even me, too? You’re my friend.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Just let me off here. I have to go for a walk.” I pulled over and he got out, with nothing more to say, and started walking back toward the accident, drawn to his spiral, determined to make it happen, now that he knew it was there, or could be there. He was not to be dissuaded.
Every couple weeks prior to this, Desi had endured visits from his ghosts of Texas past, visits from the sort of blokes I’d always hoped would continue walking by, in the interest of self-preservation, growing up in South Texas. But these were Desi’s friends: ex-cons with prison tats and prison muscles, locked up for shooting AK’s at rival gang members in Houston and other general unpleasantness.
These guys were creepy, and I avoided Desi while he was with them, after being introduced to the first guy who showed up and stayed with us for two days.
“This is my brother, man!” Desi exclaimed when the guy bellied up at Tequila Sunset, and I believed him, until Desi introduced me back 65 to the other bloke as his brother as well. That didn’t settle well with me because I had been missing my brothers at that point. Best friends is one thing. Brothers is something entirely different. It’s easy being friends. It’s hard being family.
“We met at the same school!” the guy had said. This surprised me; I didn’t know Desi had been to college. He hadn’t mentioned it. “Yeah?” I asked, gullible.
“Yeah, fsu!” he says.
It takes me a moment to calculate. “Florida State University?” “Nah,” he says, loudly. “Fuck Shit Up! We’re alumnus!” he says, and smashes fists with Desi, who’s laughing and getting drunk for free, but
not for long.
When Desi left my car that night, he left the Pantera playing. I had
become accustomed to it and drove to the quiet end of the Island with it booming from my speakers. I drove to the less-populated north end of the Island, darker, colder and full of rental houses and away from the bustle of the bars and the glare of the illiterate desk help in the hotels.
There was a lonely, singular Irish bar way out here that sold Guinness as far back as 1990, which was unheard of, in Texas. They paid a mint to get it delivered there, and I bought it in quantity. This was Christian’s and Dan’s and my favorite bar on the Island. It was very nearly a “pub.” We hung around the pinball machine in the back and skulked, like clever boys. This was also one of a few select bars that was open all year long. Drinking here was like drinking on Cape Cod in December or January. It was quiet, and if you were here, you were here for the quiet. And the Guinness.
I remembered another bad weekend when Desi had been feeling particularly defiant, after the incident with the drunk Mexican who had yanked on Christian’s hair. Desi had been bar-backing for me that Saturday afternoon, and this other Mexican guy who looked a lot like Desi, but smaller, had come into the bar after doing some work nearby.
“Bien indio,” Desi had said to me: “Real injun.” Desi knew Christian would disapprove of this, so Desi began feeding the guy free beers. Lots of free beers. I asked him what he thought he was doing; I didn’t care about the free beers, but how they were hitting the guy. He was getting sloppy and belligerent, under Desi’s direction.
“He’s my friend. I’m giving him beers,” he says to me, in a challenge. “Des, this can’t end well,” I said. “Cut it out, man.”
“Don’t worry, man. I got this covered,” he says back.
His shift ended and Desi sat and drank with the old Mexican guy exchanging stories in large gestures and bad Spanish while the rest of the bar shrank away from them, frightened, and Christian kept looking at me, like he expected me to do something about it.
Finally, when I could stand the judgment from the white side of the bar staring at the two, potentially explosive drunk Mexicans at the other end of the bar no more, I cashed out and walked over to Desi and his new friend and said, “Alright. Vamanos. Mas cerveza en la casa.”
I managed to get them out of the bar, but not into the car, and they stumbled off into the night for a three day binge, which ended one morning when I woke up to Desi and his new friend passed out in my living room. Desi was never asked back to work for the bar after that.
So it was to the other end of the Island I retreated, the next ugly night after the dead girls.
Some regular Island drunk was there, I could tell as I pulled in, because his black Labrador puppy was tied to one of the posts in the 67 parking lot. He mistreated the dog, tying it up like this on cold nights while he sat in a bar for hours on end. The dog was collarless, without license, just a thin rope tied stupidly around his neck. He went apeshit when I sat next to him and had a cigarette, lay on his back and produced his belly for petting as he chewed on my sneakers.
His owner was a petrified old drunk who wasn’t allowed back into Tequila Sunset until he paid off his $100 bar tab. He hardly spoke to anyone except to order low-shelf booze from them, and he simply did not seem capable of taking care of himself, let alone this puppy.
I went inside and bellied up to the bar and ordered a Guinness and nattered with the nabobs to my left and then to my right, quietly winding down the night with the gossip of the dead little girls, two miles down the road. The dog’s owner was at the end of the bar, slowly melting into his cocktail glass, and concentrating on looking anywhere but anyone else in the eye.
When I left, I decided the dog needed liberty, and a better life than this, and so I untied him and put him in my car, and he sat in the passenger seat, and as I pulled away, the dog looked at me and spat out a ten dollar bill, I suppose in thanks, and to pay his share home.
It was then that Desi had finally come apart.
He had been missing for a couple weeks now; after the night the two girls had been killed I only saw him the one time where he showed up to get fired from his job at Paisano’s Pizza. I’d stopped in to talk to Josh one afternoon when I wasn’t doing much and to introduce Josh to my new dog when Desi walked in, still drunk from the night before. It was about four in the afternoon. He was not acting his normal self, being aggressive and edgy, but also oddly funny, playing the goofball, as he put on his apron and his old shirt with the slogan “We Deliver pain,” with the word pain written on it with a Sharpie. I had done that, to his work shirt, while we had been drinking one afternoon. Mine had promised, “We Deliver fear.” I had forgotten about them.
He picked up a large metal pizza peel by the handle and slammed it down on the counter without warning.
Josh and I both jumped.
“What the fuck you doing?” I asked, now getting a little scared.
Desi gave a smile in answer, just stood there looking at us, his oppressors, man. You’re the oppressors, man. He opened the door to the cooler and pulled out a Heineken in a can and looked at me, grinning like he knew a secret that I wanted to know. Should know.
I shook my head slowly. He knew those beers were counted every night and reported back to Nobles and that Nobles would fire anyone who took one without paying for it.
Desi smiled back at me, full of the sort of hatred you have for someone who thinks more of you than you do for yourself, and he popped the can. “goddammit!” Josh yelled. “Just fucking go, man! Get out, Desi! You’re fired, you know that. Just go!”
Desi upended the can and belched at his white-man oppressor, Josh, who was so upset at this, he looked as if he would cry, who then walked back to the end of the kitchen and accidently kicked a hole in the wall. “fuck!” he yelled. Then quietly, “I’m going to have to fix that.”
Desi walked out, and wasn’t seen again.
Actually, that’s not exactly correct. He had become the stuff of Island mythology at this point, especially when he had hooked up with a German hippie who had been traveling in Mexico and was headed north, after crashing around the Island, which was unusual for South Padre Island: 69 it didn’t often attract Europeans, or dirty European hostel-types. I’d seen her on the Island of course—you come to know everyone, at some point or another, on the Island—and well, they seemed rather suited for one another, Desi and this German girl. Same hygiene, same sort of mythos around them. And she was cute.
“How did he end up with her?” Christian had asked, rhetorically.
“Hey, man. That’s not cool,” I said, in Des’s defense. “Desi could always attract girls, in his own way. He never suffered like that, even though he didn’t bathe.”
I never saw him after that afternoon at Paisano’s. The only sign of Desi was a blood trail that led from the parking lot of the apartments to my old front door, something I’d never seen outside of television. Dan and I checked to see if he was dead in the back bedroom he used, but he was gone, and we moved our things, closing that chapter behind us, which was terribly sad.
I really liked that guy, underneath. But I had my new puppy, who didn’t mind when I played Pantera as he sat on the front seat of my Island car.