JR STANDS ON MY PORCH. He leans against a wall. Beyond him the sun sets, and the light creates a kind of halo around his body. I crouch down and take his picture. After a moment he turns and grins at me. He is a stocky man, grizzled, beginning to go to flab. His eyes seem almost yellow, like a feral tomcat’s.
“This is it, my friend!”
He spreads his arms, like a man on a cross.
JR AND I WERE IN AN ABANDONED house a few kilometers below Manzanillo, Mexico, south of Puerto Vallarta. Beyond us were coconut trees, a slight rise, and then the Pacific Ocean. JR was waiting for Jesus. While he waited he slept on my porch, in a hammock strung between pillars. In the evenings he smoked marijuana and thumbed through his worn Bible, showing me the passages that had brought him here. I myself had come down on my motorcycle from California, over the northern deserts, past Guaymas and Mazatlan and Tepic, pulling off the road at night to sleep in dry stream beds, behind copses of stunted trees, even once in a cave carved by the wind in a granite outcropping. I met JR one afternoon in Manzanillo’s plaza. I told him I was looking for another place to stay, something besides the Hotel Savoy where I was paying almost $4 a night. I was writing a novel, I told him, about a strange man — a dreamer — crossing the Ethiopian deserts on an old motorcycle. I needed to hole up for a couple months. JR nodded sagely; he knew just the place.
It was an ugly building, concrete and stolid, littered with trash. The wind blew off the ocean, sometimes so hard it whistled past, gritty with sand. The owner was Bonnie Lee, a fat and slovenly American woman. She seemed always to wear the same torn T-shirt, gray and dingy and shapeless. She and her daughter Susie had fled America a few years earlier. They’d settled in Manzanillo, and arranged to have the house built. They spoke no Spanish, and really knew nothing of Mexico. The construction took twice as long and cost twice as much as they were told. Their first month living in the house, they were broken into five times. They huddled frightened in their beds listening to thieves cursing as they dismantled Bonnie Lee’s car in the garage below. The wheels were taken, then the carburetor, the seats, everything that could be removed. Once Bonnie Lee awoke to find a man seated at the foot of her bed, a knife in his hand. The moonlight glinted on his teeth. He grinned at her, plucked her purse from the nightstand, and left. During the day young men took to swaggering past, leering at them. Susie was 13 or 14 then, a strangely beautiful girl with a harelip, one bulging eye, and a partly caved-in face. The main reason they left America, Bonnie Lee confided, was the way everyone made fun of Susie. Susie came home from school in tears. She was terrified of the other children, who taunted her. When Bonnie Lee’s husband died, they took the insurance money and headed south. In Mexico no one seemed to mind Susie’s face. I myself, strolling with Susie on occasion through the town, never saw an untoward glance. By this time she was in her late teens, and spoke perfect Spanish. She wore lipstick and eye make-up and tight skirts, like most of the Mexican girls. Her long blonde hair floated behind her. The effect—this strangely distorted face done up to look like a Mexican chica—was a bit startling. It was a bravura performance. But there was a wan sadness to her too. I’ve never had a boyfriend, she told me one day. No one, she said, has ever kissed me.
They were driven by the burglars out of their new house in less than six months. They moved into a couple of rooms at the edge of town. They seemed grateful for my interest. I gave them $50. For three months the house was mine.
THE FORLORN ISOLATION of the house stirred something in me. I swept and cleaned and organized. From a distant neighbor’s well I ran a garden hose to reach into the bathroom. Since there was no electricity I bought candles. Every morning I walked or rode my motorcycle to Chantilly’s, a café on the plaza, where I worked on my book over cups of rich coffee. On Sunday evenings I stayed in town for the paseo, where the boys and girls paraded around the plaza. The girls were like flowers, and the boys, someone joked, like bumblebees. I often found JR there, and we’d spend a pleasant hour chatting. One evening he asked if he could move into the house with me. He’d been staying in a hostel, he said, for a buck a night, but was running out of money. I welcomed his company. The next day he walked over, carrying his few belongings in a single bag. He strung a hammock on my porch, and spent most of his time there. At night, illuminated by the moon and soothed by the slap of waves on the nearby beach, we shared stories. I reminisced over a life spent wandering around the world, rootless. JR talked about his own travels. He read me passages from the Bible, and told me what they meant.
Then one evening he turned to me.
“I gotta tell you, my man. I was once the biggest dealer in the Pacific Northwest.”
“Dealer in what?”
“You name it,” JR said, “I sold it. Coke—weed—everything but heroin. Made a fortune, buddy. I was the drug lord of Seattle. You wouldn’t believe the life I had!”
His favorite tales dealt with what he called the coke whores, women who would do anything—“I mean it, buddy, anything!”—for a toot of JR’s nose candy. He loved to drive down the freeways at night, in his open Cad convertible, a woman’s face in his lap. JR would whoop and holler and bang on his horn, weaving all over the road as he climaxed. But over the years the business changed. The Columbians moved in. Crack hit the streets. His clientele had been mostly lawyers and housewives and business people, nice white collar folk, but everything got sleazier, and vicious too. One night he was awakened in his mansion in the hills by an explosion. He smelled smoke. When he ran to the front door, people began firing automatic weapons. Windows shattered. The fusillade sounded like thunder. JR leaped out a rear window and tumbled down a steep ravine. Thorny bushes shredded his pajamas and sliced his skin. He huddled bleeding in the cold while ashes from his burning house drifted around him, like snow.
That was enough. He cashed it all in—sold everything he had—and carried his fortune to Amsterdam. He bought diamonds, a passel of them, all one-carat flawless.
“See this?” he said. “See these holes?”
He pointed at his ear.
“Studs, man,” he said. “Turned them diamonds into studs—and wore ‘em in my ears.”
One-carat diamonds in his ears, and a bunch of gold chains around his neck. When he needed cash he’d sell one. The money took him to Australia, then Hawaii, and finally Mexico. Somewhere along the line he found Jesus—or Jesus found him. It was a message, he told me, as clear as a bell. Jesus had something for him to do. It was a sacred mission, a special task. JR didn’t know quite what it was, but he followed Jesus and the Bible and signs and omens across Mexico, to Manzanillo, and finally to the porch of my house. By then he was down to his last gold chain, and he was having trouble selling it. He was so broke he scavenged for food—coconuts picked off the ground, and ripe mangoes from a nearby tree. He ate so many mangoes, he broke out in hives. He’d stopped going to town—this porch was where Jesus was coming, he figured, and he didn’t want to miss Him—but I’d bring back vegetables or an occasional sandwich for him. I was going broke too, and getting worried about JR, who was becoming short tempered, perhaps because he could no longer afford the marijuana that mellowed him out. In the evenings the waves continued to roll in across the Pacific, but the weather was turning hot and muggy, the coconuts were getting scarce, and the mangoes made him itch. One day I came home to find JR stamping up and down the porch, swearing. “It’s all bullshit!” he cried, thumping at his Bible. What a fool he’d been! He’d gone from being one of the richest men in Seattle, Washington, to one of the poorest in Manzanillo, Mexico. And for what? Jesus wasn’t coming, no one was coming. He swore at the friends who wouldn’t buy his last gold chain, he swore at Bonnie Lee and Susie just for being there, he swore at Mexico, and he wasn’t too happy with me, either. I offered to buy him a bus ticket to Tijuana. He could walk across the border, I said, and hitch a ride to San Diego. The idea infuriated him. What good would that do? he cried. He couldn’t arrive in San Diego broke. He needed a car, new clothes, an apartment. He couldn’t live like a bum in California! But finally, to my relief, he sold his last chain, for about half what he figured it was worth. The next day he was gone, heading north. I left a few days later on my motorcycle, my novel finished. Before I did, I looked up Bonnie Lee and Susie, and thanked them for the use of their house. Bonnie Lee was in the same ragged T-shirt, and Susie, as far as I knew, was still un-kissed. On the long trip back, the old Honda purring like a contented beast, I pictured JR traveling these same roads in a Tres Estrellas bus, his wizened face at a window. I never found out what happened to him in San Diego, but a few years later I returned to Manzanillo. The house was still there, still forlorn, still empty, but Bonnie Lee and Susie were gone.
I TOLD THIS TALE RECENTLY to Amanda, a young American woman in Hemet, my home town. We were in Olivera’s Cafe, sipping coffee. For a moment she seemed puzzled.
“So,” she said at last. “You don’t know what happened to JR or the two women.”
“Then what’s the point of the story?”
“Look,” I said, “it’s life, not a story.”
“Yeah, but shouldn’t there be a point? I mean, a lesson?”
“Like a fable?”
“I always imagined JR ending up as a used car salesman in El Cajon. Does that help?”
“I don’t know—“
Amanda was a pretty girl, with carefully painted lips, and I liked her.
“Think of it this way,” I said. “JR, the two women, and myself all went to Manzanillo to chase a dream. The two women were looking for a peaceful place to call home, JR for Jesus, and myself for a new novel. Well, Bonne Lee and Susie found no peace—and Jesus never came—“
“But you wrote your novel.”
“It was even published.”
“So you’re saying that dreams—“
“Dreams are dreams.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Mexico attracts dreams, as often as not crazy dreams. But who can tell the difference?”
“Your dream wasn’t crazy—“
“Hell, my dream was as crazy as anyone’s.”
She shook her head.
“What do you think happened to Susie?” she asked.
“I picture Susie and her mother in some border town, Juarez maybe. Bonnie Lee stays in the house all day, in a darkened room, still wearing that dirty T-shirt. And Susie—well—“
“I don’t like this story.”
“I guess we’re lucky it’s only a story.”
Amanda watched me for a moment.
“Are you writing this all down?” she asked.
“So now I’m part of this story, too.”
“I’m not sure I like this. Are you finished with your coffee?”
“Let’s go, then.”
I put down the cup. We got up and walked out.
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