There comes a time in everyone’s life when no siesta can ease the weariness that saturates the mind and spirit. This day usually occurs when they realize that Ecclesiastes was right and that there is nothing new under the sun, only fading reflections of places once bright and new. Ricardo Valdez has reached such a day, and the weight of all the days now passed seems somehow all the more cumbersome, as if his dreams, once lost, have returned soaked with tears, and it is no longer possible to bare the burden under a sky which once seemed so vibrant and vital, but now is just there.
As usual he arrives at work before the others, carrying two old steel buckets of ice into the Tres Durangos, dumps the ice behind the bar and walks into the enormous refrigerated room in the back. He carefully fingers through barrels of fruit just soft enough to the touch to signify ripeness and the fact that if not used will soon spoil in the cool condensation. He carries the handfuls of fruit to the bar humming a song from his youth, of which he cannot remember the words. With slow precise cuts he renders the fruit into slices and thin circles, ignoring the juices that seep into the tiny cuts on his hands from endless days of slicing fruit and opening bottles.
“Some wounds never go away,” he mutters under his breath as he finishes the job and inspects his hands bent by age and scarred with the scaly skin of bar rot. A knock at the door turns Ricardo’s attention away from himself. He crosses the bar and lets in Esmeralda, Tres Durangos’ head cocktail waitress. As is always the case with Esmeralda, her smile is the first thing he sees. Ricardo makes an honest attempt to return her smile but he sees she is not convinced.
“Is there something wrong, Pappi?”
“Nothing, mi hija. I feel a bit weary. It shall soon pass. It always does.”
“Are you sure there is nothing I can do for you?”
“No. I need only a good rest but that will have to wait until later. Come, there is much to do.”
Ricardo walks back behind the bar and begins taking stock of the liquor. His focus, however, is not entirely on the levels of alcohol remaining in the bottles. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches her smile as she glides around the room wiping down each table. Esmeralda is a good woman, he tells himself. She is patient and kind, strong and hard working. He took a chance when he hired her, and she has repaid him in more ways than he ever could have expected. If only life had done the same.
A sigh escapes Ricardo and he walks back into the refrigerator to grab the heavy boxes of Mexican beer most favored by his customers. Once he’s returned to the bar, he begins to line up the bottles in precise rows; keeping the Coronas, Dos Equis, and Carte Blancas separated. This chore, while insistently dull to others, appeals to his meticulous nature. Tres Durangos is one of the few places that he has any control. On the streets, he is just an old man, a slave to the fates, doomed to follow the road that has been laid out before him. But here, Ricardo is king. If he does not like someone, he does not have to serve them. If he likes them, he can buy them a drink. If he loves them, he can offer them a job.
Across the room, Esmeralda’s smile continues as she walks into the dry storage room for candles. She doesn’t have to look at Ricardo to know that he has been watching her. She quickly counts out one candle for each table and returns to the main room to set them out. She pulls a matchbook from her apron and strikes a match. She reminds herself that she must be more careful. Her love for Ricardo is strong and paternal, and she fears that if she is careless, she will lose him like she has lost every man she has known. These unrequited loves have lingered like ash in Esmeralda’s mouth. Her heart, she imagines, is trapped within a destructive flame and no matter how long and hard she blows, she cannot extinguish it. The sound of someone knocking on the door reminds Esmeralda of the lit match in her fingers just in time to feel the pain of the flame burning down. Quickly, she blows it out and can only smile at the irony of the moment.
A knock has again interrupted Ricardo from his thoughts, and he goes to the door. Behind the ancient thick glass, he sees the distorted face of Eduardo.
“What can I do for you, my friend?” he asks through the door.
“A simple favor,” replies Eduardo.
“No favors are ever simple,” Ricardo says under his breath as he unlocks the door.
With the door open Ricardo sees that Eduardo is not alone. Hunched over next to his childhood friend is an old white man, whose withered arms clutch a guitar case close to his chest. The gringo has chalky, white hair that falls down his face in a long, patchy beard. The sporadic nature and the unbearable whiteness of the beard enhance the old man’s age to such a degree that one must call him ancient. The man’s eyes intimidate Ricardo. The eyes are a piercing green, reminiscent of the first blades of grass peaking through the snow in the first thaw of spring.
“Ricardo, I would like to introduce you to Mr. Tyler. I found him sleeping under my veranda. When I woke him up he asked me if I knew of any place where he might possibly be able to stay for a night or two in exchange for playing his music.”
“I have no need for another Bandelero.”
“Sir…I know many songs…and I require no money…just a place to rest my head.”
As the man speaks Ricardo’s resolve weakens. Each word seems to be a struggle. His thin chest expands and contracts with obvious effort. It does not appear that he is intended for much longer in this world.
“I don’t know.”
“Give him a chance, Pappi,” Esmeralda interjects.
“I value your opinion, mi hija, but I did not ask for it on this matter.” Ricardo stares at the man and is startled by the sorrow that seems to pour from the man’s eyes. “Let me hear you play for a moment and I will decide.”
“Thank you sir…you are most generous to give me this chance.” “I do not guarantee anything so do not speak of my generosity yet. Let’s hear you play.”
The old man lays the case on the ground and caresses the leather for a moment before taking out his guitar. He sits and begins to pick the strings with his long fingers. For a man so ancient his fingers are surprisingly dexterous and agile. His voice rings loud and clear, dripping with emotion, and it takes Ricardo a moment to realize that he is listening to the song he has been humming all morning:
“De la Sierrea Morena,
Cielito lindo, vienen bajando,
Un par de ojitos negros, Cielito lindo, de contrabando. Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores, Porque cantando se alegran, Cielito lindo, los corazones.”
“Through dark tresses, heavenly one,A pair of deep brown eyes Lower as they approach, A stolen glance. Ay, ay, ay, ay, Sing and don’t cry, Heavenly one, for singing Gladdens hearts.”
“That was quite good.” Ricardo tries to mask the enthusiasm that ripples through his body. “If you can play other songs equally as well we will make a spot for you.”
“Thank you, Senor. You shall not be disappointed.”
“I hope you are right.”
“I told you that Ricardo Valdez is a generous man did I not, Senor Tyler?” Eduardo asks as he slaps the gringo on the back. The Bandelero still sits caressing the neck of the guitar oblivious to the smiles.
“That you did…Will you be returning this evening to hear me play?” the bandelero asks.
“Of course I will. And so will the rest of the village when they hear of the gringo bandelero who plays with the soul of a true Mexican. But I have still one question for you; what will you do for the next two hours until the bar is opened?”
“I suppose I will find a quiet spot to rest.”
“You can rest in my office.” The words surprise Ricardo, as he had no intention of uttering them.
“Thank you again, Senor. Your friend was right. You are most kind.”
“Since everything is settled I will be on my way,” Eduardo says as he walks to the door. “Make sure you do a good job and make no trouble. Do not make me look bad with my friend.”
“I will do my best. Thank you, Senor Eduardo.” The Bandelero places his guitar back on the crushed red velvet on the inside of the case.
“That is all any of us can do is it not?” Ricardo asks.
“It is,” replies the Bandelero as he rubs a thin cloth up the strings removing the oily residue and dirt left by his fingers. “But sometimes it is not enough.”
“I can tell that you have seen much in this world. Later we must talk, as I am sure you have much wisdom. But now, I must work. Follow me and I will show you where to rest.”
Ricardo leads the man up a staircase to a heavy wooden door with a thin silver latch. He removes a large key ring and opens the door.
“Senor, I see that you keep many things locked,” says the Bandelero. “Please do what you can to not keep your heart as one of them. Once it is locked it is very hard to open.”
“And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“Eyes are the mirrors of the soul. In your eyes I see a heart that is closely guarded. Please believe me when I say that it will do you no good. I tried once and look at me now. The harder you try to protect your heart the more vulnerable it will become. In your eyes I see my own heart as it was many years ago.” “I still don’t understand you, old man and I don’t have any time for your riddles. If you still require rest then you may use this couch. I will be back for you in about two hours. Rest up, old man. Not all of the villagers will be as receptive as I to a gringo playing our traditional songs. You will have a lot to prove.”
“There is nothing for me to prove. There is nothing for them to take from me that I haven’t already denied myself.”
“Whatever you say, old man. I will see you soon.”
The old man lies on the rust colored leather couch, closes his eyes, and listens to the dying footsteps in the stairway. Ricardo returns downstairs to his work, but his focus is on the gringo upstairs asleep on his couch. What is this old man’s game and how is he able to pull such music out of his guitar? He wished he hadn’t been so kind hearted. Esmeralda makes me weak, he thinks. He should have listened to his instincts and turned the ancient gringo away. What benefit will come from this?
Ricardo returns to stocking the beer and quickly loses himself in the work as the minutes soon become hours. When he eventually looks at the clock he realizes that it is already fifteen minutes to opening and that he should get his new Bandelero ready.
As Ricardo mounts the steps he wonders what odd words will come from his new guest’s mouth next. Many white men had entered his bar over the years, mostly tourists trying to experience something uniquely Mexican, or college kids looking to get drunk on cheap Mexican tequila, but none of them had ever perplexed Ricardo in this way. What were this white man’s true intentions? Did he truly just long for a place to play his music and for a roof over his head, or was there something else behind those ancient green eyes?
As Ricardo enters the room he sees the old man curled up on the couch with a weathered Serape of light blue, black, and white stripes wrapped around his shoulders. His head lies on a knitted pillow of the same colors. Ricardo is surprised to see the old man’s cheeks are glistening with tears, so much so that the pillow appears a darker shade of navy blue where the tears mesh with the fabric. “Teresa,” the Bandelero whispers. “Teresa.”
Ricardo clears his throat and the old man opens his eyes, immediately wiping the tears away.
“Is it time?”
“Yes. Well, no. The bar will be open in five minutes. I will not need you for another hour or so. I thought you might like some time to prepare yourself.”
“Thank you. It does take a while to get my fingers limber.” As he says the words the Bandelero stares at his long, gnarled fingers, which look incapable of the speed and dexterity he demonstrated earlier.
“When I was younger I never warmed up before playing and now I pay the price for my impatience. Sometimes ability is wasted upon the young.”
“I could not agree with you more,” Ricardo replies. “When I was younger I could lift five boxes of beer without even breaking a sweat. It would not surprise me now if five bottles of beer brought me to look like a sweating beast. But enough of the grumblings of two old men. I must get back downstairs to open the door and you must prepare for the night ahead.”
“Thank you again, Senor Valdez. You will not be disappointed.”
“My name is Ricardo. See to it that I am not.” At that, Ricardo leaves the Bandelero to prepare his hands.
The Bandelero begins by stretching his arms high over his head, bringing his hands together, and pointing the index finger of each hand towards the heavens. He takes a slow deliberate breath and lets the oxygen saturate his lungs, before lowering his hands back to his sides, and leaning forward until his face is an inch from his knees. After he straightens back up, he cracks the knuckle on each of his fingers and splays them at forty-five degree increments with increasing frequency. He then reaches into his guitar case and places the old wooden body upon his thighs. A bittersweet melody on one string escapes the guitar, followed by a series of simple chords, and he repeats the melody and chords again more rapidly, and a song emerges. The song’s tone is so despairing that the Flor Silvestre flower sitting alone in a white ceramic vase on the desk begins to wilt, causing its petals to dip into the water.
“Have no worries, my lovely friend. Your time here is almost up and soon you will be in a far more beautiful place. Remember that Eden was a garden. Surely the Lord will have a place for you in His garden when your time on this world is done.”
The Bandelero starts a new melody full of rapid chord changes and triplet notes and the Flor Silvestre seems to rise in response.
Ricardo opens a bottle of beer for a homely woman he does not recognize. The tragedy of her visage is that individually all her features are passable. Yet, there is something about the combination of her attributes that produces a chaotic feeling in the
viewer. Her low cut dress reflects the desperation in her eyes, which search aimlessly around the bar as if she is expecting someone.
“Are you waiting for a friend?” Ricardo asks.
“No one in particular,” she replies. In that moment, Ricardo realizes that no other answer could bring such melancholy.
“This cerveza is on me then, my friend. I hope you have a wonderful time here tonight,” Ricardo smiles and hopes his words do not sound as forced as they feel.
“Thank you, Senor. I hope one day I can repay your kindness.”
“You being here is repayment enough. Just promise me that you will have a good evening.”
The woman’s smile continues as she walks onto the dance floor looking for the person who may never come. The Bandelero comes down the steps, clutching his guitar to his body as if it is the only thing keeping him grounded to the Earth. The patrons on the dance floor pause to take in the ancient gringo with more than a few questions in their eyes. News travels fast in small towns, and many have come specifically to see the gringo who Eduardo swears can play the guitar as if the spirit of Santa Ana and Poncho Villa sleep in his blood. The Bandelero ignores their glances and makes his way to the stage that stands a foot higher than the bar floor. Ricardo has already placed a single stool for the Bandelero and he takes his time sitting and placing his guitar on his lap. He leaves the guitar case open in front of him as if to encourage tips. Ricardo feels like he should warn the Bandelero of the frugal nature of his clientele but decides the old man should learn that on his own. In truth, he does not particularly want to speak to him. The Bandelero makes him quite nervous.
“My first song is the first song I ever learned.” The Bandelero begins to play a song that Ricardo has never heard before. The tempo is quick, the chord voicing bright, and the tone joyous. Ricardo is pleased to see more than a few of his customers getting up to dance. The words of the song are a celebration of life and Ricardo feels a smile growing in spite of himself. Perhaps this was a good idea.
The door to the bar opens and Ricardo is dismayed to see Francisco saunter up to the bar. Francisco is a regular in two ways; he often comes in for a shot of the cheapest tequila with a beer back, and he often comes in for a quick bought of trouble. Francisco looks up at the Bandelero with a puzzled expression that quickly turns into a stare that pulls his eyes tight into razor like slits. Who is this gringo who thinks he’s a Mexican? The Bandelero continues to play seemingly oblivious of both the dancers and his new misanthropic audience. Francisco slams his shot down, grabs the beer, and leaves his stool. As Francisco approaches the stage, the Bandelero begins to play a traditional children’s tune:
“Señora Santana ¿Por qué llora el niño? Por una manzana Que se le ha perdido Ya no llores niño Aquí tengo dos
Una pa’ la Virgen Y otra para ti.”
“Mrs. Santana Why is the baby crying? Because of an apple That he has lost. Don’t cry baby I have here two, One for the Virgin And the other for you.”
Ricardo is shocked when Francisco stops in his tracks and breaks into a smile; he even begins to clap along with the beat. Ricardo, who thought he would never see anything new in this town, realizes that every day brings new possibilities, and he resolves to thank the Bandelero later.
The homely woman from earlier walks up to Francisco, says a few words, and the two begin to dance. On a night of shocks and surprises this is perhaps the most dramatic. Ricardo has never seen Francisco dance, not even when approached by Esmeralda at the last fiesta. To show such discretion with Esmeralda but not with this new woman is yet another mystery for Ricardo to ponder. Ricardo begins to believe that there must be some kind of magic spell on the Bandelero’s guitar. Could there be any other explanation? Here is Francisco, a man who once berated Eduardo for not acting Mexican enough, dancing to the music played by an old gringo. Perhaps, if Ricardo himself could learn the nature of the magic, he too could wield some of the power.
The night is very profitable for the bar. Usually patrons have a beer or two and then vanish into the Sierras. Tonight, the customers are glued to their seats with their eyes transfixed on the frail man strumming his guitar. After the last of the customers leaves, the bar is cleaned, and the money from the night counted, Ricardo climbs the stairs to the office where the Bandelero rests. Ricardo hopes his guest will still be awake because he has many questions to ask. When Ricardo enters the room he sees the Bandelero slowly caressing the neck of his guitar with a felt cloth.
“You have impressed me tonight, Bandelero. Where did you learn to play so beautifully with such careful attention to the nuances of Mexican music?”
“It is a long and sad story my friend. I very much doubt that you would like to hear the tale.”
“Oh but I do! I’m fascinated by the way you play Mexican music better than any Mexican I have ever known.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to begin to tell you…with words that is. They leave so much out of the true meaning.”
“Well then, perhaps you could tell it to me in a song?”
“Senor Valdez, you are even wiser than I gave you credit for, and that is quite a feat.”
The Bandelero again lays his guitar on his lap and places his fingers gently on the strings. Ricardo is seated so close that he can see the thick green veins pulsating underneath the waxy skin of the Bandelero’s hands as he begins to play. And in between the words he sings, and the notes he plays which hang still in the air like paintings on the wall, a story forms.