Ballad of the Bad Man
Second Stanza: El Paso
by Buck Rawlins
This story was inspired by the song "El Paso," written by Marty Robbins. After you've read the story, play the video at the end and listen to the song. But if you haven't yet read the First Stanza ("Come a Little Bit Closer"), do that before you read this stanza!
You have no idea how SURPRISED I was to see Sheriff Apodaca sitting there when I walked into my trailer that afternoon.
I’d seen the patrol car out in front of the trailer park on my way in, but I figured that it was probably one of his deputies, there was never anything important enough to require the personal attention of the sheriff himself all the way out in Anapra. And I also figured that it didn’t have anything to do with me, I assumed that the deputy must have been visiting with one of my neighbors.
The county cops came out to Anapra occasionally to serve warrants, or to do skip tracing, or to help settle custody disputes, stuff like that. But I was the kind of guy who never got into any trouble, except maybe a speeding ticket every once in a while, and maybe your occasional bar fight, just like everybody else. Nothing that would bring the Doña Ana Sheriff’s Department all the way down from Las Cruces just to see me.
And so I wasn’t expecting to even see a deputy in my trailer, much less the man himself. But there he was, sitting at my kitchen table, leaning back, smoking a cigarette, flicking ashes into a coffee cup that I hadn’t bothered to wash after breakfast that morning.
“So,” he said, “I finally get to meet the guy who threw José out of the window in Rosa’s Café.” He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but his photo was on the front page of the Sun-News two or three times a week – so even though I didn’t have the slightest idea why he was in my trailer, I knew exactly who he was.
He motioned for me to sit across the table from him. I walked over to the table, but I didn’t sit. I hadn’t thrown José out of any kind of window, as you know – but if Sheriff Apodaca believed that I had, he might have thought I was some kind of tough guy, and he might have come to my trailer looking for trouble. So I wanted to stay on my feet in case I needed to cover a lot of ground quickly, if you know what I mean.
After the incident with José a few years earlier, I was a minor celebrity for a while. Remember, the café was empty, so nobody knew what had really happened except for José, Felina, and me. But you know how stories start to spread, and by the next day half the people in Doña Ana County thought that I’d thrown José out of a window, and the other half thought that José had thrown me out of a window.
El Hombre Malo, they called him. The Bad Man. But like I say, that had been a few years earlier, and I hadn’t heard his name for a while. I’d begun to think that all that was behind me.
And the truth, of course, was that I jumped through the goddamn window just to get away from José. But I wasn’t eager for that information to get around. So whenever anybody asked me about what happened, I just said that I didn’t want to talk about it. The people who thought I threw José out of a window thought I was a hero, and I was happy to let them go on believing it. But here’s the funny part: The people who thought José had thrown me out of a window thought I was a hero too, because they thought I was the only person who’d ever stood up to José and lived to talk about it. Everybody figured that I must have had some huge cojones to do something like that, and I sure wasn’t going to tell them any different.
But when Sheriff Apodaca said that I’d thrown El Hombre Malo out of a window, he sounded like he was being… I don’t know, sarcastic? Like he knew that it was just a big joke. Except that he wasn’t laughing.
I never found out his real Christian name, everybody just called him “Happy.” But I gotta tell you, I don’t think I ever even saw him smile, so I don’t know why they called him that. He was never mean or nasty to me or anything like that, don’t get me wrong. He was just serious. All business. All the time.
If he was happy, he kept it to himself.
Anyway, back there in my kitchen, he took a long drag on his cigarette, blew some smoke in my general direction, flicked some more ashes, and motioned again for me to sit down.
“I’ll stand,” I said.
“Felina needs your help,” he said.
I sat down.
I’m gonna tell you what he told me as close as I can remember it. But I’m thinking that some of this is stuff that I figured out on my own, later. And I don’t know which is which. From the first time the sheriff said Felina’s name to the time this whole thing was over, a lot of what happened is pretty much of a blur to me, especially after all these years. But I’m going to do my best to tell you exactly what happened. Just don’t go pulling out no Bible and asking me to swear on it, because I wouldn’t be able to do that, as God is my witness.
But keeping all that in mind, here’s the way I remember it.
Sheriff Apodaca told me that he and José were kind of in business together. José controlled all the drugs in Chihuahua, which is sort of a state over on the Mexican side of the border. He wanted to sell it in the U.S. (just weed, the sheriff assured me, no hard stuff) because Americans paid a whole lot more for it than Mexicans did. (It is a weed over there, I remember him telling me. I’m surprised they pay for it at all.)
But getting his product into the U.S. was a problem for José because he was afraid to cross the border. There were warrants out for him not only in New Mexico but in Texas and Arizona as well. If he set foot in the U.S. he could be arrested, or maybe even killed. Sure, there were warrants out for him in Mexico too – but if some Mexican lawman was actually stupid enough to arrest him, not only would José be out of jail before the sun came up, the lawman’s career would suddenly be over. And probably his life as well. José might have been able to wiggle out of jail in the U.S. too, but it was a chance that he was simply not willing to take.
So José’s problem was how his people could smuggle his weed across the border without getting caught.
And that’s where Sheriff Happy Apodaca came in.
José had LOTS OF buyers lined UP in southern New Mexico, mostly in Doña Ana County. Whenever he was ready to send a shipment across the border, he would get word to Sheriff Apodaca, and the sheriff would make sure that none of his people were anywhere near the area where the deal was going down.
“What’s in it for you?” I asked him.
I regretted it as soon as I said it. The sheriff’s conversational tone had relaxed me too much, and I’d probably just said something that would piss him off and land me in jail.
But my new buddy Happy Apodaca kept talking like I’d asked him about the weather. He explained to me that sometimes José had problems with a particular buyer. Maybe he thought that the buyer had cheated him. Maybe he found out that the buyer was dealing with other suppliers. Or maybe he just didn’t like the guy, who knows. But every once in a while, José would not only tell the sheriff when a deal was going down, he would tell the sheriff that he wouldn’t especially mind if that particular transaction didn’t go so well. “It would be too bad if these guys got busted,” he would tell the sheriff. Que lastima. What a shame.
Anyway, you get the idea. Sheriff Apodaca and his deputies would stake out the site, wait until the buyers were there, swoop down and arrest them, and “confiscate” the money as evidence. José’s problem would go away. “And very little of the evidence ever gets back to the evidence room, if you know what I mean,” the sheriff explained, with the closest thing to a smile I ever saw on his face.
But suddenly, that whole arrangement was in danger. There was a new player on the scene, a tall, skinny Yanqui. He talked like he came from New York, but he walked around in boots and a cowboy hat and a leather belt with a fancy design and an enormous buckle. He was a wild man, drinking and swearing and fighting all the time. He was rumored to be deadly with a gun in his left hand, so everybody started calling him El Zurdo, which is sort of “Lefty” in Spanish.
At first, everybody thought he was crazy. He didn’t seem to mind, because if people thought he was nuts, nobody would give him a hard time, because there was no way to predict what he was going to do.
But word soon got out that maybe El Zurdo wasn’t so crazy after all. It turned out that he had lots of people and lots of money behind him. He was building an organization, maybe even an empire. He let everybody know that he had sources of weed high up in the mountains of Mexico, and that he could sneak it into Texas and bypass José’s people entirely. Buyers had to choose: They could deal with him, or they could deal with José. But they couldn’t do both.
“And that’s not good,” the sheriff pointed out. “Not good for José. Not so good for me neither.”
So why didn’t Sheriff Apodaca just get rid of El Zurdo? Threaten him? Throw him in jail? Run him out of town?
“He’s too smart,” the sheriff said, with what sounded like grudging admiration. “He stays over in El Paso, where I can’t touch him. And he kills anyone who crosses him, so nobody does.”
That’s when Sheriff Apodaca folded his arms on the table, leaned forward over them, and stared me right in the eye from maybe two feet away. “And that’s why Felina is going to be dancing at Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso every night,” he said. “And that’s why El Zurdo is going to wind up at Rosa’s sooner or later,” he added. “And that’s why you’re going to kill him.”
That doesn’t make ANY sense, right? I know that’s what you’re thinking, and that’s exactly what I was thinking too.
But it turned out that José and the sheriff had actually hatched a pretty clever plan. It was like a big trap, and Felina was the bait. Or maybe it was a big puzzle, and I was the missing piece. Hell, I don’t know what it was, you can call it whatever you want. All I knew is that once again, Felina needed me – and once again, if I wanted to help her, I was going to have to kill somebody.
Here’s the way the plan was supposed to work.
Everybody knew that El Zurdo liked to hang around in the bars of El Paso at night. His M.O., the sheriff said, was that he would find a bar that attracted lots of pretty women, he would hang out there for a few nights, and then he would move on to another place. So José’s sister built herself a bar in El Paso, named it Rosa’s Cantina, and…
“Wait, wait,” I said. I think I actually held up my hands, because I needed him to stop for a minute. “Rosa’s? Like the place in Mexico?”
“That’s Rosa’s Café,” he reminded me, rolling his eyes like he was talking to an idiot. “This is Rosa’s Cantina. José’s sister owns both of them, but it’s an entirely different kind of place.”
Then it made sense. “So José has a sister named Rosa,” I said, pleased with myself.
I could see that it took the sheriff a lot of effort not to roll his eyes again. “José’s sister’s name is Marisol,” he explained. “Nice girl. You’d like her.”
This time he did roll his eyes again. “I don’t have even the slightest idea why she calls both of them Rosa’s, okay?” he said. “Maybe she just likes the name, I don’t know. We could sit here and try to figure it out for a while. Or I could explain to you how you’re going to save Felina’s life. Your choice.”
The most important part of the plan, Sheriff Apodaca told me, was that José had promised that, if I killed El Zurdo, he would set Felina free.
You can’t even imagine how I reacted when the sheriff said those words to me. I made him repeat them at least three or four more times. But that was definitely the deal: If I would kill El Zurdo, Felina would no longer be “José’s Girl.” She’d be free to do whatever she wanted to do. She’d be free to go wherever she wanted to go.
She could go to Chicago with me.
We could get married.
The genius of the plan was how simple it was. I would do something that José wanted me to do. In return, José would do something that I wanted him to do. A trade. Simple.
Of course, there was always the possibility that I could get myself killed. The crazy gringo might shoot me before I could shoot him. Or he might have friends in the cantina who would shoot me either before or after I killed their friend. Or I might get caught trying to get away, and either get myself killed or arrested. Or maybe I would get away, but a few days later somebody would track me down and arrest me. Or kill me.
Sheriff Apodaca assured me that none of those things were likely to happen. “I have everything under control,” he said, waving away my objections with a trail of cigarette smoke. “Sure, there’s some risk,” he pointed out. “There’s always some risk. You just have to decide if Felina is worth the risk, son. It’s your decision.”
I’d spent the last three years of my life feeling haunted by the way I betrayed Felina. Yes, betrayed is exactly the word for what I did to her. I promised to take her away from José, but instead I jumped through a window so I could get away from him as fast as I could. I don’t know how I managed to live with myself after that. And if I failed her again… well, that’s what I thought about, over and over again, every night, as I worked up the courage to drive over to Rosa’s.
I had to go through with it. I had to kill El Zurdo.
If I wasn’t prepared to do that, I might as well stay home.
At some point, the sheriff gave me a gun. “It’s clean,” he said. “Untraceable.” Of course, it occurred to me later, he wanted to make sure that the gun couldn’t be traced back to him. A cantina full of people were going to see me shoot the guy, what difference did it make to me if the gun was clean?
What the sheriff didn’t know was that I was probably the only person in New Mexico who had never fired a gun. I wanted to join the army during the war, but I was too young, still in school up in Chicago, and the army wouldn’t take me. So I dropped out of school and headed south – I heard some fool story that you could go to Mexico and get a phony ID and then you could come back across the border and sign up for the army. But I never got a chance to find out if that was true because the war ended the day before I was going to cross the border.
And then I got a job at American Eagle, and that’s where I worked for something like five years, with no plans to ever go anywhere again. Until Sheriff Happy Apodaca let himself into my trailer one day and changed all that.
The first time I drove up to Rosa’s Cantina, I was mostly surprised that it was there at all.
I used to drive past that exact spot every now and then, and as far back as I could recall, it was nothing but an empty lot. It was right there on Anapra Road, which I think was probably the only paved street in Anapra. There was a rickety old bridge that took you across the Rio Grande, I used to drive that way sometimes when I was heading for El Paso. And like I say, I was pretty sure it had always been an empty lot.
But now, all of a sudden, it was Rosa’s Cantina, a gray cinderblock building in the middle of a small dirt parking lot right next to the river. I couldn’t help but notice that it didn’t have any windows – I guess Marisol wanted to make sure I couldn’t wimp out so easily if I changed my mind.
Yes, that’s a joke. Sort of.
By the way, last time I was back there, I noticed that everything has changed. The town isn’t even called Anapra anymore, it’s got a fancy new name, “Sunland Park,” can you believe it? Rosa’s Cantina moved clear across the river, and there’s some kind of store where Rosa’s used to be. Looks like it’s the same building, but now it’s the “Carousel,” which sounds suspiciously like “Marisol” to me, you know? And they even added a few windows, makes it look completely different.
But anyway: The strangest thing about the original Rosa’s Cantina – and this is important, so listen up – was that even though it was on the west side of the river, it was definitely in El Paso, which meant that it was definitely in Texas. Everybody had always told me that everything on the west side of the river was New Mexico, but this short stretch of road, maybe fifty yards on the west side of the Rio Grande, was actually part of Texas. Probably still is.
This was a problem for Sheriff Apodaca, because he had absolutely no authority there, so he couldn’t help me if something went wrong.
But it was a necessary part of the plan, because El Zurdo wouldn’t set foot in New Mexico, because he knew that the sheriff was a friend of José’s. So Marisol had built Rosa’s in a spot that was definitely in Texas, but that was close enough to the state line so that I could be in New Mexico in half a minute if I needed to.
And I wouldn’t have to cross any goddamn bridges.
The sheriff said that I should get to Rosa’s at about eleven if I wanted to get a good seat. But when I walked in at eleven straight up, the place was just about empty, leading me to wonder if the sheriff really knew what he was talking about. I picked out a table in a dark corner, ordered a Dos Equis, and leaned back to wait and see what was going to happen.
What happened was that the place started to fill up. Fast. Rough crowd, lots of bikers, lots of leather. It got loud, especially around the pool table, mostly a bunch of really happy drunks, but also a few arguments – a couple of times I expected people to start swinging, but they never did. Nearly all the customers were men – the sheriff had told me that El Zurdo liked to hang around in bars with lots of pretty women, but that didn’t seem to describe Rosa’s. So again, I had to wonder whether the sheriff actually knew what he was talking about.
It was pretty much full up by the time midnight rolled around. I remember that a couple of big biker guys asked if the empty chairs at my table were taken – they were surprisingly polite, I felt like I could wave them away and they would slink off. But I didn’t really have the guts to do that, so I told them sure, have a seat. They grabbed the chairs and turned them away from the table, looking toward a small stage in the middle of the room. The stage was empty, but half the people in Rosa’s were staring at it, so I figured that something good was about to start happening there.
At midnight, the lights went down and somebody pulled the plug on the jukebox. You could feel a ripple go through the crowd, like this was what they were waiting for. Somebody made an announcement on some kind of P.A., you know, like: “Rosa’s Cantina is proud to present…” and then some girl’s name that I can’t remember. I was expecting them to say “Felina,” and I was so relieved when they didn’t, because she didn’t need to have all those guys looking at her in that kind of way. But then I thought that it would be her anyway, and that she was just performing under a different name.
A girl stepped up on the stage – tall and slim and Mexican, just like Felina. But, thank God, it wasn’t her. The music started up again, and a spotlight came on over the stage. I remember how the room suddenly seemed to fill up with smoke – but of course, the smoke had always been there, I could just see it better now that it was drifting in and out of the spotlight.
Then the girl started to dance.
The way all the guys were hooting and hollering, you’d have thought you were in a strip joint. For a few minutes, that’s what I thought, too. I thought that maybe Felina would be the next girl onstage, and she would take off her clothes, and the guys would go crazy, and I’d know it was all my fault. I wondered if that was why I was really there, if José just wanted to humiliate me after all these years just to make some kind of point. I thought about walking out, but I didn’t want to have to push my way through all the bikers, so I just slunk down at my table in the corner.
But the girl just danced. Even fully dressed, I thought it was the sexiest dance I’d ever seen in my life. She was swaying, so smooth, like she was made of water. And then she whirled like she was on ice skates. And then she stopped and stomped her feet, sort of a like a cross between a Mexican hat dance and tap dancing. I can’t really describe it very well, but I can still see her dancing, even after all these years. Took my breath away.
Anyway, she finished her dance and climbed down off the stage. They announced another name, and a new girl took her place. They went through maybe a dozen girls like this, one after the other, and when every girl took the stage I expected it to be Felina. I mean, if she wasn’t dancing, why was I here?
After maybe an hour, the spotlight went out and didn’t come back on again right away. Everybody started to cheer and stomp and holler. I must have been the only guy in the whole place who didn’t know what was going on.
When they turned the spotlight back on, Felina was already up on stage. It must have been deafeningly loud in Rosa’s, but I couldn’t hear a thing. It was like she filled up all my senses. She just stood there for a minute, shimmering. She was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see her face. I wondered how much she knew about the plan. Did she even know that I was supposed to be in Rosa’s? How would she react if she saw me?
They started playing her music, but for a few seconds it was like she didn’t hear it. The music was pretty soft at first, and I noticed that everybody quieted down, like they wanted to make sure that she could hear it. Then she started swaying, mostly her hips, back and forth, so slight at first that I wasn’t sure if she was actually moving or if maybe my vision was blurry because of all the smoke. And then she…
Well, hell, I’m not going to tell you how she danced, that’s a memory I’d like to keep for myself, if that’s okay with you. I’ll just say that she danced for two songs, one slow, one fast. By the end of the second song she was whirling so fast that I got dizzy just watching her. The crowd was absolutely wild by the time she finished – but even when the guys in the crowd were cheering and yelling and stomping their feet, there was a certain respect for Felina that held them back and kept them from rushing the stage. Or maybe I was imagining that, maybe it was the three-hundred-pound Mexican guy standing off to the side holding half a pool cue and keeping an eye on things that actually kept everybody under control.
Did she see me? Probably not, but I couldn’t be sure. She was looking in every direction at some point, but I was sitting in a pretty dark corner, and I don’t know if she could have seen me even if she’d been looking for me. Her expression never changed from the time she appeared on stage until the time she left the stage and walked through a curtain into what must have been a dressing room. I figured they must have told her I was going to be there, because it would have been important that she not look surprised if she spotted me.
Anyway, I hung around a while to see if anything else would happen, but people started to drift out, so obviously the entertainment was over for the night. I finally left and drove home.
I did the exact same thing every night for maybe two weeks – well, not every night, because Rosa’s was closed on Sundays and Mondays, but you know what I mean. The schedule was exactly the same every night – there were different girls and there was different music, but the show always started at midnight, and Felina always took the stage about an hour later. Other girls came and went, but there was only one Felina.
One strange thing was that the same two guys sat down at my table every night. No matter what table I chose, they just seemed to wander in a few minutes later and asked if anyone else was sitting with me. I was surprised at first, but after a few days I figured that they must be José’s men, stationed there to keep an eye on me – and, hopefully, to help out if I got myself into trouble.
I hadn’t heard from Sheriff Apodaca since the day he showed up in my trailer, and I was starting to get the feeling that he’d miscalculated, that Rosa’s Cantina was a waste of time and money, that El Zurdo had other plans, or maybe he’d caught wind of the trap and he was staying away.
But then one night, everything changed.
It probably was less than An hour from the time I first set eyes on El Zurdo until the time that I killed him.
I knew who he was the second he walked in the door, he might as well have been wearing a sign. He looked exactly the way the sheriff had described him. He was tall and lean and he was dressed like a cowboy: cowboy hat, western shirt, leather vest, blue jeans, big belt with an oversized buckle, cowboy boots made out of some kind of fancy leather, maybe python, something like that. Instead of just walking into Rosa’s, he kind of oozed his way in.
It was after midnight, so there was already a girl dancing on the stage. He watched her dance for a minute, then he looked around the room to figure out where he wanted to sit to get the best view. Finally, he walked up to a table and said something to the two guys who were sitting there – I don’t know what he said, but they got up and left, and he sat down to watch the show.
The sheriff had told me that El Zurdo was loud and obnoxious, but I didn’t see him say anything at all except when he ordered a beer from the waitress. Some people seemed to know who he was, because they started whispering to each other and pointing to him. Once, he turned his head at just the right time and caught somebody pointing at him; he tipped his hat, and the guy who was pointing turned his head away as fast as he could, like he’d been caught doing something that could get him in trouble.
Even though I couldn’t see his face, I could see that his entire attitude changed when Felina came onstage. He sat up straighter, and his body stiffened. He stopped sipping on his beer and just stared at the stage. I could see his head turn just a little as Felina moved around the stage, like a cat watching a bird through a window. She did her usual two dances – I thought she might have been a little sexier than usual, if that’s possible, but that could have been my imagination.
I looked for any sign that she knew who he was, but she didn’t seem to be looking in his direction any more than she was looking in any other direction. Sheriff Apodaca had told me that Felina would know exactly what was going on, but that she had to act like she didn’t – so if that’s what she was doing, she was doing a really good job.
She finished up her last dance and walked off the stage, through the curtain, and into the dressing room. The lights came back up, the jukebox got plugged back in, and Rosa’s Cantina came back to life. Maybe half the customers started to leave all at once, which was fine with me, because I didn’t want to shoot any innocent bystanders. And it would also be good if there weren’t as many witnesses.
As soon as Felina was gone, El Zurdo raised his hand and snapped his fingers, something I’d only seen done in the movies. The waitress was at his table in seconds – although frankly, I think she would have ignored anybody else who tried to summon her like that. He asked her something, she shook her head. He pressed some money into her hand and asked again; she smiled and walked off through the curtain. She came out again a minute later, dragging Felina along behind her.
Dragging is a little strong, but she was holding on to Felina’s arm, and Felina looked like she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to be there. I realized that I’d never even caught a glimpse of Felina in Rosa’s unless she was onstage – following the waitress through the maze of tables, she looked small and out of place.
When she got to his table, El Zurdo stood up a pulled out a chair for her. A real gentleman. He said something to the waitress, who walked off and came back with a bottle and two glasses. They started talking – or rather he started talking and Felina started listening. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but his arms were moving all over the place, and he kept laughing like he was cracking himself up. Felina smiled thinly every once in a while, but she wasn’t laughing at his jokes. I got the feeling that she was trying to relax, but that it didn’t seem to be working out too well for her.
I could have shot him at any time, but the sheriff had said that it would be better if I confronted him – it should look more like a fight than an assassination, was the way he put it. I kept trying to think of what I could do – maybe I could walk past him and bump into him, maybe I could sit at the next table and start talking loud and acting drunk. Maybe I could fire my gun up in the air just to see what he would do.
But then he leaned over and reached out and grabbed Felina by the back of her head and started pulling her toward him and she started to struggle and suddenly I didn’t need to find any kind of excuse anymore.
“Get your goddamn hands off of her,” is what I said, as I got to my feet and pulled Sheriff Apodaca’s gun out of my belt. Rosa’s didn’t exactly go quiet, because the jukebox was still playing, some kind of Mexican song, I don’t remember what it was. But everybody in Rosa’s stopped talking, and they all turned to look at me. Everybody except El Zurdo.
I could see him stiffen in his chair, like he really didn’t appreciate being talked to that way. He did take his hands off Felina, just like I told him to do, so at least I knew he’d heard me. But if his hands were no longer occupied with Felina, he could be reaching for his gun, so I had to be really, really, really careful.
He pushed his chair back slowly, like he didn’t want to give me an excuse to shoot him. Then he stood up, raised his hands in the air, and turned to face me. He didn’t seem to be at all surprised that I was pointing a gun at him. “What seems to be the problem, fella?” he asked. And the sheriff was right, it did sound like he was from New York, which didn’t exactly match his outfit.
I was concentrating so hard on the plan that it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had to make a choice. Not an easy choice, but a simple choice just the same.
I could kill a man. José would set Felina free, I would take her up to Chicago, we would get married and live happily ever after. That was a fantasy. That was a dream. And to make that dream come true, I would have to live the rest of my life knowing that I killed a total stranger who had not threatened me in any way, just so I could get what I wanted.
Or I could not kill a man. Felina would go back to being Jose’s Girl, and I would have to live the rest of my life knowing that I’d betrayed her not once, but twice.
I had a split second to make a decision.
And so that was the exact instant when I decided not to kill him.
“Just get the hell out of here,” I said. I’d never pointed a gun at anyone in my life, and I could see that my hand was shaking just a little. I remember feeling relieved that it wasn’t shaking any worse than it was. “Just walk out the door and keep on going,” I added, hoping that my voice wasn’t shaking as much as my hand was.
El Zurdo grinned, like this was all some kind of big joke. He had the whitest teeth and the biggest smile I’d ever seen, it was almost blinding. “You can see that I don’t even have a gun,” he said, which didn’t make sense because I couldn’t see that at all. He lowered his hands slowly like he was going to pat his belt and his hips to prove to me that he was unarmed.
It was like I was watching everything in slow motion. I knew that he was left-handed, of course, so that’s where all of my attention was focused. His hand slid under his vest, which I knew was where he wore his gun. Don’t do it, I thought. Please don’t make me kill you.
He was so smooth that I would have been dead if I hadn’t been ready for it. And still I waited another fraction of a second, hoping that maybe he would change his mind.
And then I saw the glint of the butt of the revolver in his hand.
And then I shot him. Right in his chest. Right through his heart.
He was so fast that he actually managed to get a shot off anyway. I heard it hit something, maybe a table – I don’t think it was a person, because nobody made a sound like a person who’s been shot, if you know what I mean. I remember thinking it was a good thing that the bullet hadn’t hit a wall, it could have bounced off the cinderblocks and ricocheted around the room. And I also remember thinking that none of Rosa’s patrons were the kind of people who were likely to testify to the timing of the shots, so I could claim that he drew first and that it was self-defense. It’s amazing what strange thoughts run through your mind when you’re under so much stress.
He dropped the gun and sort of slumped – first he went down to his knees, then he kind of rolled to his side on the floor, then he didn’t move at all anymore. I wasn’t going to check for a pulse, if you know what I mean, but I was pretty sure he was dead.
Part of me was glad that it was over. But I gotta tell you: A bigger part of me was disgusted at what I’d just done. I had killed a man! Think of that. I just shot somebody who had never done me any harm, not ever, not once in his whole life. And now he was dead.
Sure, he was a drug dealer. And sure, killing people was just the way he did business. But I felt foul just the same. Evil.
Maybe I’d be able to shake that feeling someday if everything worked out and José turned Felina loose. That’s what I was hoping, anyway. But right then, back in Rosa’s, all I knew was that I had to get the hell out of there, fast, before anybody decided to be a hero.
I looked around the room. Everybody looked back at me, wondering what I was going to do next. Remember the two guys I told you about, the bikers who kept sitting at my table? They had taken up positions by the front door, and they were looking around the room, as serious and sharp-eyed as they could be. The big bouncer was standing in the middle of the room, doing the exact same thing. That was when I knew for sure that they were José’s men, and that they were keeping an eye out for me in case I had any problems getting away.
Which reminded me that it was time for me to get away.
I pretty much flew out OF Rosa’s back door. You could say that I ran, but I wouldn’t want to swear that my feet hit the ground. All I knew was that I had to get out the back door just as fast as I could, because that’s where my ride was waiting.
For some reason, I was thinking that there would only be one motorcycle out by the back door, and I would hop on it and ride away. What was I thinking? There were dozens of bikers hanging out in Rosa’s, so of course there were dozens of bikes out back. Which one had been left there for me? I was afraid that, if it took me too long to figure it out, somebody would come out the back door looking for me. And then what would I do? Shoot them? Kill somebody else who had never done anything to me?
Most of the bikes were Harleys, like you’d expect. And most of them were chained up. But one bike stood off to the side, all by itself, with no chain in sight. It was all black, not only the frame but everything, even the engine, even the gas tank. The sheriff had said that they were going to leave me a fast bike, but I wasn’t expecting the fastest production motorcycle in the world: A Vincent Black Shadow. I’d heard of them, I’d seen pictures of them, but I’d never seen one in person. I didn’t even know there were any in this part of the country. But there it was, big as life. This was obviously my ride.
I was startled by a click behind me, and when I turned I fully expected to see somebody standing there pointing a gun at me, hammer cocked. But it turned out that it was just the back door clicking open, slowly – somebody was checking to see if I was still there. I fired my gun into the air to prove that I was, and the door clicked shut. But if people were looking for me, I had to get the hell out of there, and fast.
I hopped on the bike, opened the chokes on both carbs, and gave it a couple of kicks. It roared to life and started to rumble under me like it couldn’t wait to get away. Some of the controls were a little strange, but it didn’t take but a couple of seconds for me to figure them out enough so I could drive the goddamn bike, and then I was gone. I think I heard a couple of bullets zip past me, but it was a dark night, and nobody would even be able to see me in a few seconds, much less shoot me. And I sure as hell didn’t have to worry about anybody catching up to me, not as long as I was on a Black Shadow and they weren’t.
I was probably out of Texas and into New Mexico ten seconds after I rolled out of the parking lot, no lie. That’s how close Rosa’s was to the state line. And after what I just been through, I have to admit that it was comforting to be back in the jurisdiction of Sheriff Happy Apodaca.
Before I hopped onto the bike, I noticed that it was outfitted with knobby tires, which was probably a first for this particular model of motorcycle. I was heading south on Brickland Road, and if I kept going in that direction, I was going to wind up in Mexico in a few minutes. I knew that I needed to head west and go off-road into the badlands before that happened, so I was glad that the sheriff had given me the exact kind of tires that I was going to be needing.
As it happened, I knew Brickland Road better than probably any road in New Mexico, because American Eagle was at the end of the road, and that was the way I drove to work every morning. It felt a lot different on a bike than it did in my truck, and in the dark it looked different, too – even with a strong headlight, I still couldn’t see very far up ahead, and I have to admit that I was a little spooked.
As I got closer to American Eagle, I started thinking that maybe I’d keep going and circle around to the south of Cristo Rey – but what was I thinking? That would take me into Mexico, and if I wanted the plan to have any chance of working, I needed to stay right there in Doña Ana County. I probably should have turned west half a mile up the road and circled around the north side of the mountain, but it was too late for that now – I didn’t know if anybody was chasing me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to backtrack and find out.
I swung the big bike around, pulled up to a stop, and thought about my situation. The river was to the east of me. Mexico was in front of me. God-knows-what was closing in behind me. And if I headed west I’d be riding over some rugged terrain and up the side of a mountain.
Riding up the mountain on a motorcycle wasn’t something I especially wanted to do, but I knew that people had done it before – and if they could do it without the extra motivation of possibly being chased by a lynch mob, I sure as hell could do it too. And it wasn’t like I had much choice, you know?
So I took a deep breath, gunned the engine, popped the clutch, and headed off into the foothills of Cristo Rey and the badlands of New Mexico.
Turns out that there were some trails between American Eagle and the base of the mountain, which made the going a little easier than I expected it to be. I figured that they were probably abandoned mining trails – so I should have figured that there would be some abandoned mining pits to go with them. You have no idea how close I came to running over the edge of one of them and down into the pit, which would have been the end of the story – they would have found my body five years later, and the only way they would have been able to identify me would have been from my bike. But I swerved at the last second and decided that maybe I needed to slow down and be just a little more careful.
Mt. Cristo Rey is more of a big hill than a real mountain, but it’s a tough ride on a bike just the same. Lots of dirt and rocks and scrubby little bushes. But then every once in a while there’d be a wall of rock – or maybe you’d call it a ledge, if you were coming at it from the other direction. Not very tall, not very steep, but just tall and steep enough so that there was no way you could handle it on a bike. So you’d have to go around. And then sometimes you’d go around a couple of them and you’d realize that you were in some kind of little horseshoe canyon and you were right back where you started. So I had to ride down the hill a little way and then start back up from another spot.
More than a couple of times, I thought that maybe I should just take off – rev up the big bike, ride down the west side of the mountain, and just keep going. Hell, I could have been in Tucson by mid-morning, and all of this would be behind me. I could do that, and I would probably get away. Probably. But Felina wouldn’t be with me, so what was the point? The sheriff’s plan was dangerous, but it had worked out pretty well so far. If I could just force myself to stick to it, Felina and I would soon be far away – and the best part was that nobody would even be looking for us.
So I kept riding up the mountain, higher and higher. I did a lot of what I’d call traversing – back and forth and back and forth, because most of the mountain was too steep to ride straight up, although there were short stretches where I could do just that. I stuck to the south side of the mountain so I couldn’t be spotted from the north side, which is probably where the cops would be waiting for me. I was guessing that they wouldn’t launch a full-scale search until sunrise, and there was always the chance that they wouldn’t look for me at all. A drug dealer had been murdered, probably by another drug dealer. Who cares? Let them kill each other off. I figured maybe that’s what they were thinking.
By the time I reached the summit, I could see that the sun was thinking about coming up. I switched off my headlight, not only because I didn’t really need it anymore, but because I didn’t want anybody to be able to spot me from the roads below. Not yet, anyway.
I rolled the bike over to behind the statue…
Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s a humungous statue of Jesus right at the very top of the mountain? Christo Rey means “Christ the King” in Latin or Spanish or something. That wasn’t the original name of the mountain, but they renamed it when they built the statue.
Jesus hangs up there on his cross, He looks out over the Rio Grande, He gazes down peacefully on El Paso. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but with a good pair of binoculars he probably could have read the license plates on the bikes chained up in back of Rosa’s.
I walked around to the front of the statue. Some kind of feeling washed over me, and I fell to my knees. I looked up at the statue and I started to pray, to ask for forgiveness, but then I thought: How can I ask Jesus to forgive me when I’m not even sorry? In fact, if I had to, I’d do it all over again. I stood up and sort of shrugged my shoulders, like I’m sorry, Jesus, but what can I do?
As the sun came up, I could see a couple of cop cars way down there in Rosa’s parking lot, and I knew those would be El Paso cops or maybe Texas Rangers. I figured there were probably cops on all of the bridges, and maybe they had set up some roadblocks over on the El Paso side of the river because, as Sheriff Apodaca had told me: “They’re gonna feel like they have to do something. I’m not going to let them cross over into New Mexico, but if somebody gets themselves murdered in their jurisdiction, they’re gonna feel like they have to do something.”
As quiet as it was at Rosa’s, there was a lot of activity maybe fifty yards to the west in an empty lot at the corner of Anapra and Brickland, which I now knew was on the New Mexico side of the state line. I counted maybe half a dozen cop cars, probably half of the Doña Ana County fleet. Maybe another half dozen trucks pulling horse trailers, with a few horses already unloaded and grazing by the side of the road. And I think I spotted a few motorcycles, although it was hard to be sure from this distance.
I figured that this was what the sheriff had called his staging area, where he would gather his resources so they could start looking for me when it was light enough. “Maybe somebody will have seen which way you went,” he’d said. “Or maybe we’ll spot some tire tracks.”
He didn’t smile, but I guessed that this was his idea of a joke. Because, of course, he knew exactly where I was going to be.
Until the very last minute, I wasn’t sure that I could do it.
I kept thinking, over and over again, that I could just hop back on the bike and get the hell out of there. Like I said, I could head west across the desert and just keep going until I reached Arizona, where probably nobody would be looking for me. Or, it occurred to me, I could go south into Mexico, where José’s people would probably take care of me – after all, I’d just eliminated José’s main rival, and that had to count for something.
Of course, if I cut out now, I’d probably never see Felina again. But at least I’d still be alive.
On the other hand, if I stuck around and kicked off the next stage of Sheriff Apodaca’s plan… well, sure, there was a good chance that I might wind up with Felina. But there was also a good chance that I might wind up dead.
In the end, I decided that I had to go through with it. If I didn’t, I’d be second-guessing myself for the rest of my life. And I’d been doing enough of that since I jumped through the window to get away from José, back at that other Rosa’s.
I walked around to where I’d left the Black Shadow behind the Jesus statue, hopped into the saddle, kicked the big bike back to life, wheeled it around to the front of the statue, and pointed it down the hill. I revved the engine a few times just to listen to it roar. I could see that the crowd at the bottom of the hill had started to show some signs of life – there were men walking around and talking to each other, there were men straddling their motorcycles, there were men on horseback. I couldn’t hear a sound, but maybe I was too far away, or maybe the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.
Even at this distance, I could see that some of them were cops in uniforms, probably Sheriff Apodaca’s men. And some of them, including most of the guys on horseback, were just plain old cowboys, probably local civilians who had volunteered to join the posse just to be able to start off their day with a little excitement.
I positioned myself so that my shiny black motorcycle was framed against the shiny white base of the statue, which was already gleaming in the morning sun. I revved my engine a few more times to see if I could attract some attention from down below – but if I couldn’t hear them, they probably couldn’t hear me, either.
But then somebody must have spotted me, because everything changed in a heartbeat. People were yelling at each other – I could even hear a little of it all the way up on top of the mountain. Instead of milling around and drinking coffee, everybody started moving like they had a purpose. Some people jumped onto their horses. Some people jumped onto their motorcycles. Some people jumped into their cars or into their trucks. And all of them, all at once, headed for the mountain.
I knew that there was a crude dirt road that ran partway up that side of the mountain before it turned into more of a path than a road – the cars and trucks probably couldn’t make it all the way up to the top of the mountain, but the horses and the motorcycles wouldn’t have any trouble at all.
Just to make it a little easier for everybody, I started rolling down the hill toward them. I felt both brave and stupid at the same time. I forced myself to keep thinking about Felina, about how I would soon be with her if all of this went well. And I tried not to think about what would happen if all of this did not go well.
Now I should tell you that, just because there was this thing I’m calling a road, it wasn’t exactly a straight shot up or down the mountain. The road, or path, or trail, or whatever it was, it wound back and forth, around some major outcroppings of rocks, through some narrow gullies, up and down some pretty steep hills. There were lots of times when I couldn’t see them coming up at me, which means that there were lots of times where they couldn’t see me coming down at them, either.
But then I rounded a curve and rolled up over a berm, and started down the hill again – and suddenly, there they all were. They had split up, probably thinking that I wasn’t dumb enough to head right on down the center of the road, which was exactly what I was doing. I spotted maybe half a dozen of them down the hill to my right, and maybe a dozen more down the hill to my left. Some of them were cowboys on horses, some of them were cops on motorcycles. All of them were hooting and hollering like it was some kind of goddamn rodeo.
They were still a good distance from me, maybe a few hundred yards down the hill. But I knew they could close that distance in a hurry. And from the sound of the bullets I heard whizzing past me, I knew that some of them were already shooting at me. Which, by the way, was not part of the plan. But if a bunch of cops and cowboys are carrying guns, and if you tell them to chase somebody, that’s what’s going to happen.
They weren’t likely to be able to hit me with a handgun at that distance, they were way out of range, especially if they were mounted on something that was moving around under them. But if enough of them shot at me, one of them could get lucky.
And just as I had that thought, a bullet dug into my side. It hurt like hell, although actually it wasn’t as bad as that one time when I cracked a rib in a bar fight, so I figured that maybe I wasn’t hurt too bad after all. But it sure made it hard to steer, and the next thing I knew I drove right off the road and my front tire sideswiped a big rock and the bike fell over with me on it.
Luckily, I managed to pull my leg out from under the bike before it was flat on the ground. And then, for some reason, I stood straight up and looked down the hill.
Everybody had come to a stop, all the motorcycles, all the horses, all the cops, all the cowboys. They were all talking to each other and pointing at me. I figured they were puzzled about why I was just standing there – it’s not as much fun to shoot a guy who’s standing in the middle of the road as it is to chase somebody who’s speeding along on a motorcycle. And they had to figure that I was armed – after all, I’d shot somebody to death just a few hours earlier. So maybe they were having second thoughts about getting close enough to me to be able to take a good shot.
But just then a lanky guy swung himself down off his horse, strolled over to the middle of the road, stared at me for a few seconds, and lined me up in the sights of his rifle. A puff of white smoke drifted out of the barrel. And then, even before I heard the crack of the shot, a bullet hit me square in the chest and knocked me clean off my feet.
And the last thing I remember thinking was: Goddamn, Sheriff Happy Apodaca sure is one hell of a good shot.
“He’s waking up,” somebody said. It sounded far away and watery, like I was at the bottom of a well and somebody was calling down to me.
My head hurt. My side hurt. My chest hurt. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I did, slowly.
Three people were standing over me, staring down. They were fuzzy at first, but then they started to swim into focus. Felina, bless her, looked worried. Sheriff Apodaca looked… well, he had the same flat expression he always had. And José…
José! What the hell was he doing here?
My brain cleared as fast as if somebody had thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. And I immediately knew that the whole thing had been a setup. I killed his competitor for him, and I would get nothing in return. Felina was still José’s Girl. And always would be.
I was the biggest chump of all time.
“Hey, tough guy!” José sounded happy, almost excited. He reached down to slap me on the shoulder, then thought better of it when I winced in anticipation. He seemed to be in a very friendly mood. I was missing something, but I didn’t know what.
“You never cross the border,” I pointed out to him, because that’s what the sheriff had told me, and because that was the only thing I could think of to say.
He laughed. “Special day,” he said, choosing his words carefully, as if his English was not very strong. “Special day. I must thank you in person. So… Gracias amigo. Muchas gracias.”
He stuck out his hand. I reached up and shook it. This was very weird.
He turned to Felina and spread his arms wide. She walked over and hugged him, looking like she was about to cry. And once again I wasn’t sure that I really knew what was going on.
But after a quick hug, José kissed Felina on the cheek, like he was her brother. “Vaya con Dios,” I heard him say softly. Go with God.
He walked over to the Black Shadow, which had been sitting there off to the side the whole time, idling, and I hadn’t even heard it, even though it’s not exactly a quiet bike. There was another guy sitting there on a smaller dirt bike, just waiting. José mounted the big bike and started following the other guy around to the south side of the mountain. He was probably back in Mexico ten minutes later. And that was the last time I ever saw El Hombre Malo.
Then it was the sheriff’s turn to walk over and stick out his hand, but not for me to shake. “I’m gonna need that vest back,” he said. “And the gun. You must be pretty sore, let me help you sit up.”
I grabbed his hand and pulled myself up to a sitting position – and he was right, it hurt like hell. My side was just sore, like somebody had punched me. But my chest felt like somebody had hit me with a hammer, pulled it back, and slammed it into me again.
I pulled the gun out of my belt and handed it over to him.
“You were only supposed to shoot me once,” I pointed out, as I stripped off my shirt so I could slip out of the bulletproof vest. “What was the point of the other shot?”
“That wasn’t me,” the sheriff said. “And it damn sure wasn’t any of my men. I think that was just some cowboy out having himself a good old time.”
I could tell that he thought it was funny, but I couldn’t think of anything other than how close I’d come to dying.
But what the hell, it had been that kind of day.
“So here’s the deal,” the sheriff said. We were in what you might call a “bowl,” a small depression surrounded by berms and tall rocks, like we were in a crater on the moon. I must have rolled into it when the bullet knocked me backwards. So none of the cops or cowboys farther on down the hill could see what was going on with the sheriff and Felina and me.
I’d picked a good place to get shot.
The sheriff pointed to a van that was parked just down the hill from where I was still sitting in the dirt, putting my shirt back on. It looked like an ambulance, but I hadn’t been paying any attention to it. “We’re going to load you into the meat wagon…”
“Meat wagon?” I was confused, and I have to admit that I was still a little suspicious, maybe because my brains had been rattled, maybe because being suspicious of Sheriff Apodaca was a good way to be. “You’re going to take me out of here in a hearse?”
“Everybody thinks you’re dead,” he explained, with exaggerated patience. “Actually, nobody knows who you are, but everybody thinks that the stranger who shot El Zurdo is dead. So we need to drop the dead perp off at the morgue.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I think I probably waved my hands in the air at this point, because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You’re going to kill me and drop me off at the morgue?”
“No,” he said, pausing for a few seconds, like he couldn’t believe that he was having to explain all of this to me. “There’s already a stiff in the meat wagon, about your height and weight. He’s going to ride up to Las Cruces with us. You don’t mind sharing the hearse with him for maybe an hour, do you? Anyway, we’re going to drop him off at the morgue. We’re going to drop you off at the bus station on the way to the morgue. Which reminds me,” he added, as he pulled an envelope from his pocket, “here’s your bus ticket. All the way to Chicago. Just like we talked about.”
The envelope felt kind of thick for a bus ticket – and when I opened it, I was surprised to find a wad of cash, maybe a few hundred dollars. The sheriff must have seen the surprise on my face, because he answered my question before I asked it. “We bought your truck,” he explained. “We couldn’t see any good way to get it up to Chicago, so we just bought it from you. And with the money you got from the bank when you closed out your account a couple of weeks ago, you probably have about a grand to work with. That should keep you for a while.”
He knew that I closed my bank account? And he knew how much money was in it? On the one hand, it was scary that he knew so much about everything I did. But on the other hand, it was comforting that he seemed to have everything under control.
But I still had some questions…
“What about my trailer? It’s only a rental, and they’re going to wonder…”
“We took care of it,” he said.
“What about American Eagle? When I don’t show up for work they’re going to…”
“We took care of it,” he said, calmly and firmly and convincingly.
But I was still having trouble believing that there were no loose ends. “They’re going to know that the guy in the hearse is the wrong guy,” I insisted. “I was shot, twice. That guy” – I gestured vaguely toward the meat wagon – “that guy wasn’t shot at all. Was he?”
“No, he wasn’t,” the sheriff conceded. “But he will be.”
That actually made sense, in a disturbing kind of way. “But the coroner can tell the difference between somebody who was shot while he was alive and somebody who was shot after he died,” I pointed out. “Can’t he?”
“The coroner works for me,” the sheriff said. And that was that.
And that’s when it FINALLY hit me. Bus ticket. Not bus tickets.
“Wait, wait, wait.” I’m pretty sure I actually waved my hands back and forth in the air again. “That’s my bus ticket, I get it. But I need another one. For Felina.”
“I have to take Felina back to Rosa’s,” the sheriff explained, still in super-patient mode. “If she doesn’t keep dancing for at least a few weeks, people might get suspicious.”
This sorta made sense, but I was still confused. “So then how’s she going to get to Chicago?”
And then Felina spoke, the first time I’d heard her speak since I woke up on the mountain a few minutes earlier, probably the first time I’d heard her speak since I jumped through that window three years ago. Very quietly, almost a whisper. I had to ask her to repeat it, either because she spoke so softly or because I just didn’t want to believe that I’d really heard what she’d said.
Because what I thought I heard her say – oh, so very softly, and oh, so very sadly – was: “I’m not going with you.”
“Of course you’re GOing with me,” I said, more shocked than I’d ever been in my life. “That’s the plan!”
Felina just stared down at the ground and shook her head. “I tracked down my sister. She lives in Los Angeles. She started her own garment company. She wants me to come out there and help her run it. I told her I’d be there in a few weeks. José bought me a bus ticket, he said it was a going-away present.”
I was speechless. I felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut. I looked over at the sheriff as if maybe he could help me, but he’d strolled off, apparently something had come up that demanded his immediate attention. This conversation was strictly between me and Felina.
“But I just killed a man for you!” I said. Felina flinched. Maybe that was a little too strong?
“Look,” I said, desperate to find the right words. “I know I did a terrible thing to you a few years ago. It’s haunted me ever since. I’ve had to live with my failure, every day and every night. I’ve felt completely worthless, like I didn’t even deserve to be happy because of the way I betrayed you. And today, I finally made it right! Today, we can start our new lives together. We can… we can…” I sputtered to a stop.
“Yesterday, I was José’s girl,” Felina said softly. “Now you want me to be your girl. I just want to be my own girl. I haven’t known what that feels like since I was sixteen, back in Santa Valleja. I want to be myself again. I want to be free.”
This is the worst day of my life, I thought – but I must have actually said it out loud, because Felina was suddenly angry. “No,” she said, sharply. “Don’t you dare say that! This is the best day of your life! Today you have set me free! How many people in the whole world ever get a chance to do something that good for another person?”
Her volume dropped back to a normal level, and her voice suddenly became almost unbearably tender. “Don’t you see? You don’t have to feel worthless anymore! For three years, you’ve had to think about what a terrible thing you did to me, about how you condemned me to being nothing more than José’s Girl, for the rest of my life, for all you knew. But today, you didn’t just set me free. Today you set yourself free as well.”
She knelt down next to me, kissed me on the cheek, stared into my eyes. “Yesterday you were nobody,” she said. “Today you are somebody. You can carry that with you for the rest of your life.”
“But… but I love you so much…”
She shook her head sadly. “You don’t even know me. You thought you fell in love with some drunk girl that you met in a bar. You promised that girl that you’d set her free. And today, that’s exactly what you did. It took you three years,” she said, with the hint of a smile, “but you did it, and that’s what counts.”
She could see that nothing she was saying was having any effect on me, but I guess she decided to give it one more shot. “I’ll always love you,” she said, so sweetly that I almost started to cry. “You did more for me than anyone else has ever done. You did more for me than anyone else will ever do. I’ll always think that you’re the most amazing” – she struggled with the English for a second, but then she worked it out – “the most amazingly wonderful man I’ve ever met. I’ll never be able to thank you enough. But now it’s time for me to go. Thanks to you, I’m free. And thanks to you, you’re free too. Don’t you get it?”
I had to turn away just then, because her dark eyes were too intense for me to bear, and because she was saying things that I just didn’t want to hear. But as I turned away, I found myself looking right up the hill at the giant statue of Jesus. And He was looking right back down the hill at me.
I was raised as a Methodist, and I believe in God and Jesus and all that, but I’ve never been an especially religious person. But when I looked up at Jesus, a wave of peace just washed right over me. I don’t think it was anything supernatural, but I do think that seeing Jesus looking down at me gave me just the little push I needed to finally be able to hear Felina, to accept what she was trying to tell me, to believe that she was right, to believe that I’d done something wonderful. To believe that I could be happy without her. To believe that I had to let her go.
I’m not claiming that it was any kind of divine intervention, if you know what I mean. I’m just saying that the surprise of seeing Jesus staring down at me gave me the jolt I needed to move me from the place where I was, which was feeling sorry for myself, to the place where I needed to be, which was being proud of myself and feeling joy for what I’d done for Felina.
When I turned back to face her, she must have sensed the change in me, because she smiled.
I looked her straight in the eye, and I tried not to cry. I reached over and touched her cheek. “Vaya con Dios,” I said. And then, in English: “Go with God.”
She didn’t exactly start to cry, but I could see that tears were welling up in her eyes as she hugged me and she leaned toward me and our lips got closer, closer…
One little kiss – and Felina, goodbye.