Ballad of the Bad Man

First Stanza: Come a Little Bit Closer

by Buck Rawlins
as told to Henry Charles Mishkoff

 

This story was inspired by the song "Come a Little Bit Closer," written by Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, and Wes Farrell. After you've read the story, play the video at the end and listen to the song. And then don't forget to continue to the Second Stanza ("El Paso") to read the rest of the story!

THERE’S A GOD-FORSAKEN PATCH OF LAND where Texas, New Mexico, and old Mexico all come together. It’s on the other side of the river from El Paso, so it’s not in Texas. It used to be in Mexico, but it’s the eastern edge of a strip of worthless land that the U.S. bought from Mexico a hundred years ago for some reason that nobody seems to remember, so now it’s in New Mexico, which puts it squarely in the U. S. of A.

But it doesn’t really matter who it belongs to, because there’s nothing there, just dirt and rocks and the quarry that digs them up and the factory that pulverizes them and forms them into sandy-red bricks for the American Eagle Brick Company. They tell me that machines do most of the work at the quarry now, and even back then we had a Marion 6360 power shovel and a Caterpillar D9 doing the real heavy work. But everything else was done by guys like me. I’m guessing that I don’t have to tell you that rocks are heavy, but I was young, and I was strong, and I was dumb enough to believe that good things would happen to me if I worked hard and didn’t get into too much trouble.

And who knows, that might have worked out for me if I hadn’t climbed into my F-250 after work one Friday night and followed Luke and Ramon down some dirt roads, and around some bleak outcroppings of the same rock that we used to crush into powder at American Eagle, and across the border, and into Mexico.

There was no real fence back in those days. There was a border station where you were supposed to check in when you crossed back into New Mexico, but you could circle back to the west of Cristo Rey and avoid the station altogether if you wanted to. And at night, the border guards used to sit out on the porch listening to Wolfman Jack on XERF, and they would just wave at you as you drove past, if they even noticed you at all.

Nothing changed when you crossed the border into Mexico, and yet everything changed when you crossed the border into Mexico. You felt like you could do whatever you wanted and nobody would care. You could buy blindingly powerful alcohol for pennies, and you could buy all the young and beautiful women you wanted for a few dollars more. Sure, you could do those kinds of things on the U.S. side of the border, but it would cost you a lot more – and if the wrong people spotted you doing it, you could actually do some serious time. But like I said, as long as you stayed on the Mexican side of the line, nobody cared what you did.

But that same sense of sudden freedom that made it so exciting was also a little scary, even to a young fool like me who believed that he was pretty much invulnerable to the bad things that only happened to other people. I don’t think there was any such thing as a “drug cartel” back then, but everybody knew that there were a few bad hombres who controlled everything that happened in that part of Mexico, and that if you crossed them you wouldn’t go to jail, you would just disappear. So we were loud and we were brash and we drank too much and we got into way too many fights – but no matter what we were doing, we were always careful not to say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

 

BUT I WASN’T THINKING ABOUT ANY OF THAT when we drove into Mexico that night. I really wasn’t thinking about anything more than getting drunk and getting laid.

Rosa’s Café was lit so brightly that you could see it for a mile before you got there. There was nothing else around, just a short cinderblock building out in the middle of the rocks and the sand and the scrubby little bushes as far off into the distance as you could see. But Rosa’s had these big picture windows all around, so the light just poured out of the place, like it was Christmas in July. So when we pulled up, it was easy to look inside and see that everybody was having a good time – drinking, laughing, dancing, and anything else they felt like doing. They had a band playing Mexican music, and they had speakers blasting it outside, so you felt like you were having a good time before you even walked in the front door.

I parked right in front of one of those big windows, and maybe my memory is playing tricks on me after all these years, but I could swear I saw Felina through the window before I even got out of the truck. She was sitting at a small table all the way in the back corner, right next to the band. And she was leaning back against the wall with an attitude that made it look like she was in charge. It was like she was swaggering while she was sitting down.

Of course, I didn’t know that her name was Felina yet. All I knew was that, even at that distance, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Long, straight black hair, parted in the middle, hanging behind her back on one side and falling over her shoulder and drifting down the front of her blouse on the other. Wearing what I think you’d call a peasant blouse, white fabric with a row of embroidered red and green flowers across the top.

But the thing I noticed most about her what that she was sitting all alone, just her and nobody else at that small table in the back corner.

And as young and as full of myself as I was, I decided that I was just the guy to do something about that.

 

SHE WAS LOOKING RIGHT AT ME THE SECOND I walked into Rosa’s. It was like she’d been waiting for me, and there I was. And in that instant I knew that she wanted me just as much as I wanted her. I know, you’re thinking that was my ego talking. And maybe you’re right, maybe you’re right. All I can tell you is that’s the way I remember it.

I didn’t even slow down as I walked in the door, I just headed for her table. I walked right through the dance floor, which was pretty crowded, but I didn’t bump into anybody. Maybe it was dumb luck, but I gotta tell you it felt like everybody was just getting the hell out of my way.

I was only a couple of feet from her table when somebody grabbed my shoulder, it was like waking up from a dream that’s so good that you don’t really want to wake up at all. I whirled around, ready to fight, as usual, but it was just Ramon. He turned me around real quick and he leaned in close. I could tell that he had something important to tell me, and he wanted to make sure that I heard him over the music…

“That’s José’s girl,” he said.

Now you would think that wouldn’t have meant anything, right? I mean, half the guys in Mexico are named José.

But I knew exactly who he meant.

El Hombre Malo.

The Bad Man.

Even back in El Paso, everybody knew about El Hombre Malo. As soon as you crossed the border into Mexico, you were in the territory of El Hombre Malo. If you wanted drugs, you had to buy them from somebody who had bought them from somebody who had bought them from José. If you bought a girl for the night, you knew that half the money you gave her was going to end up in José’s pocket.

You wanted to buy some guns? You wanted to have somebody beaten up? Or maybe killed?

Only one person to see: El Hombre Malo.

I’d heard so many different stories about what José looked like that I didn’t believe any of them anymore. He was six foot five and thin as a rail; or he was short and fat with a beer gut that hung over his pants. He wore belts of bullets across his chest like a Mexican bandido in a cartoon; or he never carried a gun, but he was a butcher with the two knives that hung from his belt. He snarled at his enemies and they cowered in fear; or he was always so calm that it drove you crazy because you never knew what he was thinking until it was too late.

Ramon held on to my shoulder for just a couple of seconds, and he gave me a look that said that he wanted to make sure that I’d heard him and that I understood what he was saying. But something in my expression must have told him that I was going to do what I was going to do, because he just shrugged and let me go. Later, he told me that he grabbed Luke and they walked out the door and hopped into Luke’s car and headed right back across the border. They didn’t want to be there when the trouble started.

Looking back at it, I’d have to say that they were a whole lot smarter than I was.

 

WHEN I TURNED BACK, FELINA WAS STANDING next to the table in the corner, her arms at her side, like she was waiting for me. I stopped dead in my tracks, and I must have stood there with my mouth open – not because I was afraid of her, you understand, I was just surprised to see her standing there. I think I expected her to walk over to me, but instead she lifted a hand and waved for me to come over to her. “You’re too far away,” she said. I couldn’t really hear her, the music was too loud, but I knew what she was saying. “Come closer. Just a little bit.” She smiled – just the ghost of a smile, really – and I melted.

When I got close enough, she reached out and touched my arm, maybe halfway between my elbow and my shoulder. Her hand was as light as a feather, but I could tell that she was checking to see if I was as solid as I looked. “Ooh,” she said, “you’re so strong!” She looked up at me – I was probably a good six inches taller than she was, so she had to tilt her head back to look me in the eye. “And so big!” she said, like everything about me was a surprise.

She took a step back and looked me up and down. “My kind of man!” she said. She was very serious, but then she laughed, like she knew she was being silly. And I gotta tell you, I remember that I felt uneasy for just a few seconds, because even at that age I knew that when somebody flattered me like that, they were probably going to try to sell me something or get me to do something that I didn’t want to do. But when she laughed it was like we were both in on the joke and everything was okay.

“Come, sit with me,” she said, tugging on my arm in that same way, which was both velvety-soft and insistent at the same time. I remember she said something like it was going to be a long night and she didn’t want to be all alone, and she pouted like it was a big deal.

But then she laughed again, like somehow we both knew that she was only pretending to be serious, and it really wasn’t such a big deal after all.

 

WE SAT AT THAT TABLE IN THE CORNER, and we talked for what seemed like hours. I’ve never been that good at talking to women I don’t know, but with Felina it was so easy that it was like I’d known her my whole life.

I told her about growing up in Chicago, about dropping out of school and leaving home. I told her about heading south, aiming for Mexico but not quite getting there, and going to work for American Eagle instead. “But I guess I made it after all, because here I am in Mexico,” I said, spreading my arms out like I owned the place. She laughed, just a little, but I took it as a good sign that she was laughing at all.

But then she started telling me about her life, and that’s when the laughter stopped. She grew up in Santa Valleja, a dirt-poor village high up in the Sierra Madre. Her father left home, her mother got sick and died. She and her sister were passed around from relative to relative – nobody could really afford them, but they were family, so that’s the way it was.

But then one day, when she was sixteen, José rode into the village with some of his men, all of them on the biggest, blackest horses anyone had ever seen. It was a big deal, everybody in the village came out to see him, it was like a movie star was passing through. El Hombre Malo himself, right there in Santa Valleja! He spotted her and asked her if she wanted to come with him, just like that. She didn’t even have to think about it. How often does an opportunity like that come along? He swung her up behind him and they rode away from Santa Valleja on that big black horse. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone, not even her sister. She didn’t even look back as they rode out of town.

And she’d been “José’s Girl” ever since.

And it’s really not so bad, she kept saying, over and over again, like she was trying to convince herself more than she was trying to convince me. He had a big house on the beach, a rancho in the mountains, a couple of enormous apartments in a couple of different cities. There were servants who did everything she told them to do. José bought her fancy clothes, anything that caught her eye. And she could go anywhere she wanted to go…

Except that she couldn’t leave the country, of course. As long as she was in Mexico, José told her, he could protect her. But she knew that he meant that as long as she was in Mexico, he could find her.

At first, there were bodyguards who stayed with her everywhere she went. When she complained to José that she didn’t like being watched all the time, he basically just snapped his fingers, and the bodyguards were gone. But even though she couldn’t see them, she knew that they were watching her, anyway. All the time.

I feel like I’m trapped, she told me, after we’d both had a few more drinks. José ignored her most of the time, she said. And when he didn’t ignore her, he was very rough with her. “He doesn’t beat me or anything like that,” she added quickly, leaving me to imagine what kind of “rough” she was talking about.

She told me that she was lonely. Everybody thought that she lived like a rich woman, and maybe she did, but she had no friends, nobody to talk to.

She said that she didn’t like to complain because so many people had it so much worse than she did. “Maybe this is just what it’s like to be a rich woman,” she said.

She wanted to leave José, but she had nowhere to go. She had no family. She didn’t really know anybody at all. “And I can’t ask anybody to help me,” she said, with just a hint of sadness, “because José would track us down and kill us both.”

I guess I’d had more than just a few drinks at that point, because I told her that I wasn’t afraid of José. And that I could handle him. Kill him, if I had to. I would take her back across the border with me, and she wouldn’t have anything to worry about.

“Don’t talk like that,” she said, and I thought that she looked a little scared, like José was going to pop out from behind the curtains and slit my throat. But I kept talking like that anyway. We’d hop into my truck, and we’d be across the border in minutes, and I’d stop at my trailer to get some stuff, and then we’d drive all the way north to Chicago, and I had enough money saved up so that we could get a nice place and I could get a good job, maybe in the stockyards, where they could use a big, strong guy like me…

I had the feeling that she was afraid to believe me even though she wanted to. She’d probably heard it all before, so why should she get her hopes up now?

“Let’s dance,” she said. And I knew it was mostly to get me to shut up.

 

I COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT I WAS ACTUALLY TOUCHING HER. I tried to be a gentleman because that’s the way I was brought up. You don’t just grab a girl and pull her up against you, you hold her a few inches away so you can see her face and talk to her for a couple of minutes, just to be polite. Then, when she starts to trust you, you start pulling her closer, a little bit closer, and then a little bit closer, until finally she’s right up against you, but she doesn’t feel like you’ve man-handled her, if you know what I mean. That’s what being a gentleman is all about.

But she wasn’t having it. “Come closer,” she said, and I guess I didn’t move fast enough, because she said it again, maybe two, three times: “Come closer! More! A little more!” Like that. Although by that time, if I’d been any closer to her, I would have been behind her, if you know what I mean.

She started in again about how big and strong I was, and I said something like “and don’t forget that it’s a long night and you don’t want to be alone,” and she laughed like it was the first time I’d shown any sign that I had any kind of sense of humor. Which maybe it was. I get to be a lot funnier when I’ve had a few drinks. And I get to be even funnier when you’ve had a few drinks, if you know what I mean.

Her laughter was so delightful. I remember thinking that it must be the kind of sound that angels make, like tiny little bells drifting on the wind. I thought I must have been in love, even though I probably had known her for less than an hour at that point.

And so, of course, that’s when I kissed her.

Yeah, that was stupid, I know. But it was just so… I don’t know, so exciting, you know what I mean? Not just because it felt so good, holding her in my arms, feeling her squeeze her body up against mine. That was a big part of it, sure. But there was also the excitement of doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. Something dangerous.

Like I said: Stupid.

I was so lost in Felina that I kinda lost track of what was going on around me. We were dancing right next to the stage where the band was playing, and I heard somebody saying something, probably one of the musicians, but I couldn’t even hear it. It was like there was nobody in Rosa’s Café but me and Felina. I couldn’t see anything but her. I couldn’t hear anything but our hearts beating.

But that didn’t last long, because a few seconds later I realized that what I’d heard someone saying was: Vamanos. José viene. Let’s get out of here. José’s coming.

And here’s where it gets weird, because it suddenly hit me that the band had stopped playing. And when I looked at the stage to see why the musicians weren’t making music anymore, there was nobody there, just a couple of mic stands, like nobody had ever been there at all.

And here’s where it gets even weirder: I looked around to see how everybody else was taking it, but there was nobody else there. Nobody. Rosa’s was empty. It had been crowded when I started dancing with Felina, but now Felina and I were the only people in the whole café.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought until I heard somebody say: “Hombre, you are in so much trouble.”

 

WHEN I TURNED, THERE HE WAS, standing just inside the front door. El Hombre Malo himself. I have no idea how long he’d been there, but it must have been long enough for everybody to run out the back door.

Everybody, that is, except for me and Felina.

I knew that she was still standing next to me, but I couldn’t see anything other than José. It was like I had blinders on. The first thing I realized was that he was shorter than me, by a good few inches. And I outweighed him, by maybe twenty pounds. And I was sure I was stronger than he was – he had pretty thick arms, don’t get me wrong, but at that time in my life my arms were like small trees, which is what happens when you bust and haul rocks every day.

And did I mention that he was unarmed? I mean, he could have had something hidden somewhere, but as far as I could tell he wasn’t wearing any guns or knives or anything like that.

So, you’re thinking, I should have able to take him, right? Just like I told Felina?

And I gotta tell you, that was my first thought, too: I’ll walk over to José, I’ll sock him in the jaw, I’ll knock him down, I’ll keep pounding his head into the floor until he’s out cold. Felina and I would stroll out the front door, hop into my truck, drive back across the border, and live happily ever after.

José just stood there staring back at me with cold, hard eyes. Something about his expression told me that he was waiting for me to make the first move, and that he didn’t much care what it was, he knew he could handle it, no problem. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much confidence in my whole life. He wasn’t cocky, he wasn’t strutting, he wasn’t blustering – does that make any sense? He was just… He was just sure.

He knew he could handle me, just like he’d probably handled hundreds of other guys before me. Guys who were much better fighters than I was.

Guys who were probably no longer alive.

I told you that he wasn’t a big guy, right? But he was thick, solid, built like a tank. I got the feeling that I could slug him as hard as I wanted to and he would just laugh it off.

I think I flinched when Felina squeezed my arm. I was concentrating so hard on José that it was like I forgot that she was there at all. But there she was, and she was looking at me with such pleading, such hope, such… love? Sure, maybe right then she loved me, just a little.

I was going to rescue her from this… this diablo who stood there in front of us. How could she not love me? I was her last chance.

I did feel a surge of confidence right then, but it vanished as soon as I turned back to José, who stood there waiting patiently to see what I was going to do. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table next to me, almost full. I remember thinking that somebody must have left in an awful hurry. I grabbed the bottle and slugged down a few gulps. Then I looked at José again.

I can do this, I thought.

 

I CAN’T EXPLAIN WHAT HAPPENED NEXT. One second I was going to be a hero and save the damsel in distress, if you know what I mean. But a second later, I looked into José’s eyes, and suddenly I was nothing more than a scared little boy.

I heard the bottle thud on the floor, so I must have dropped it, although I sure didn’t remember doing that. I do remember being surprised that it didn’t break, I must have dropped it just right, straight down on its heel. I listened to it as it fell over and rolled away on the wooden floor. It seemed incredibly loud, maybe because the room was so quiet, or maybe it was all in my mind.

It rolled slower and slower and then it stopped. Everything was completely quiet, like nothing was moving anywhere in the world. Like time had stopped. Like everything was dead.

And that’s the exact instant that I turned and ran. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did. God help me, that’s what I did.

José was standing between me and the front door, and I remember thinking that there must be a back door, but I had no idea where it was, and I didn’t much feel like taking the time to look for it. But there was this big window, almost ceiling to floor, and I could see my truck right there in the parking lot. So I covered my face with my arms and I basically just ran right through the window. I had to jump a little because there was this ledge that I had to clear. I was trying to land on my feet so I could keep running, but that didn’t work out so well, and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back.

And man, did that hurt. There were cuts all over my arms, tiny shards of glass embedded in some of them. A few cuts on my legs, too. And one cut on my face – see this scar over here? There was a piece of glass sticking out of my forehead for maybe an hour before I realized it.

But I didn’t know any of that until later. When I hit the ground, I didn’t know where I was cut, or if I was even cut at all. Then I saw the blood on the ground. It was just a dirt parking lot, but there was a sprinkling of red spots all over it – and even though I was pretty fuzzy for a minute, I figured out pretty fast that the blood was mine. Even as hazy as I was, I remember that I was glad that there weren’t any pools of blood on the ground or anything like that, because that meant that I was basically all right. I mean, I’ve been cut before, it happens all the time. As long as I don’t sever an artery, I figure I’m okay.

What my brain wanted me to do was to get up and climb into my truck, which was only a few yards away. But my legs weren’t quite ready to do what my brain was telling them to do, if you know what I mean. So I turned my head and looked back into Rosa’s to see what was going on.

And there was José, standing right next to the remains of the window, looking down at me. I could see he was just a little puzzled, a little unsure about what to do next. The problem, from his point of view, was that the glass had shattered with sharp spikes in sort of a big circle around the man-sized hole I’d just made. And José was trying to figure out if he could follow me through that hole without cutting himself up. I’m guessing that the fact that I’d bled all over the place made him stop and think about whether that was really what he wanted to do.

And that hesitation saved my life.

 

FELINA HAD COME UP BEHIND JOSÉ, she was looking at me over his shoulder. Her face was completely blank, I couldn’t read her at all. But in that instant I knew that she was the only one who could save me. If she did nothing, José would figure out how to climb through the window sooner or later, and then I’d be dead. If she tried to stop him – well, I didn’t know if she could actually do that, but it was my only chance to get out of there alive.

But why should she help me? After what I’d done, I didn’t deserve help from anybody. Certainly not from her. I don’t know what she saw in my face – Fear? Hope? Did I look like I was begging? All I knew was that I needed her to distract him for just a few seconds so I could get away, but I didn’t see anything in her eyes that suggested that she was going to do anything like that…

But then she reached out and touched his arm. She didn’t exactly grab him, she just touched him, light as a feather, just like she’d touched me, seemed like such a long time ago.

“José,” she said, “don’t go. Come sit with me.” He paid no attention to her at all, and then she did tug on his arm, just a little. “You’re too far away, I want you to be closer to me. You’re my kind of man.”

That last line cut me worse than the glass, because I knew what she meant: She was telling José that he was her kind of man, as opposed to the guy who had jumped through a window just to get away from him and was now lying there in the parking lot, cut and bleeding.

I wish I hadn’t been looking at Felina’s face right then, because then it might not have haunted me for all these years. Her eyes met mine, and I have never seen so much disappointment. So much sadness. There was just a hint of anger mixed in there too. She’d believed me. She’d trusted me. She’d allowed me to get her hopes up. And I’d let her down. I’d failed her. I’d condemned her to spend the rest of her life in misery, as nothing more than the plaything of El Hombre Malo.

And yet she was trying to stop him from killing me. To this day, I have no idea why she did that.

“José,” she said, and suddenly she sounded impatient. “Look, I’m all alone. Don’t leave me here.” José actually turned and looked around the café, which was completely deserted. I think that I heard him laugh, just for a second, and that was the opening Felina was looking for. She put an arm around his waist and started to lead him back to her table in the corner. “We have so much time,” I heard her say. “It’s going to be a long night.”

 

I MANAGED TO STRUGGLE TO MY FEET, just in time to see Felina give me one last look over her shoulder. Her face had gone completely blank again – no more sadness, no more pain. No more disappointment. Nothing at all. Whatever feelings she might have had for me were gone. She spent the last of them on saving my life.

I staggered over to my truck, started it up, and drove away from Rosa’s Café as fast as I could.

I know that there’s no way I could have heard her voice over the roar of my engine and the whine of my tires as they spun to try to get traction in the sand. That’s impossible. I know that. So it must have just been in my head. But as I rode away, I swear that I could hear her say to José:

Come a little bit closer! You're my kind of man!

 


Song written by Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, and Wes Farrell.
Performed by Jay and the Americans.
Video by All Seasons Music.


Second Stanza: El Paso