Every year my back goes out. It’s like a special anniversary, which I celebrate by groaning a lot and walking around like Groucho Marx with his tie caught in his zipper. This year it happens to me in Mexico, where I rent a large, brand-new, slightly leaky, four-bedroom house for sixty dollars a month in the medium-sized town of Jerez de Garcia Salinas, about eight hundred miles due south of El Paso, Texas. The house, since I have only the upstairs, might better be classified as an apartment, but it is too big for me to call it that. The living room itself is larger than any apartment I have ever rented. The front patio is longer than the living room. My only furniture is an inflatable mattress, two plastic chairs with the Corona-beer logo on them, and a small plastic table. I have no TV, no radio, no telephone. I keep thinking I will furnish the place, but no money is coming in. I am living on money saved, and it is running out.
When my back goes out, there is little I can do about it. I have no diagnosis. I can’t afford a doctor. It usually lasts three or four days. Sometimes I can barely walk; other times I can do a passable imitation of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This time I can’t even get out of bed. I have to use all of my imagination and many fabricated tai chi positions to find my way up after twenty minutes flopped out on my belly on the floor. An inflatable mattress might be a terrific swimming-pool accessory, but it is the last item on the list, just below “tackle-football scrimmages,” for the maintenance of good back health. Gradually, with prayer and swearing and other types of secret guttural whimpering, I manage to make it to my knees. Then, with one bloodcurdling scream, I rise to my feet. Once standing, I can marionette myself about the room. A hot shower doesn’t help (never does). It takes me another twenty minutes to put on my pants. I decide against shoes. After sitting in a chair for a while, I find I can’t get back up, so I slide to the floor and crawl back into bed.
The next morning, it’s raining. Between the middle of June and the middle of September comes the rainy season. The rest of the time it is bone dry and blue sky and enough dust from the unpaved roads to keep all the maids in Guadalajara busy for a lifetime. My back is no better. It takes me half an hour, grabbing window ledges and propping myself against walls and yelping like a little coyote pup, to stand. Fortunately, I am still wearing my pants. I look in the mirror; my left hip is kicked out like a freeze-frame photo of a hula dancer. I fry a quarter pound of bacon and eat it with black beans and scrambled eggs, then go back to bed.
I dream and salivate and long like a lovestruck teenager for blue ten-milligram Valium tablets. From the time I was eighteen — when I first injured my back trying to lift eighty pounds of wienies off an electric cart and ended up in bed for four days — Valium has been the only agent, besides time, that can alleviate my condition.
To get Valium legally in the United States, you have to make an appointment with a physician, pay a minimum of sixty dollars for an office visit and prescription, resist the recommended battery of tests, and stare up into a face that doesn’t trust you because you’re probably a hypochondriac intending to file a malpractice suit; and by the time the appointment comes around, the problem has gone away by itself.
In Mexico, though you can supposedly buy anything you like over the counter, pharmacists are generally leery of a strange gringo asking for drugs often regarded as recreational, even if you stagger into the place in the shape of a pretzel. Besides, the farmacia is too far to walk while half paralyzed, and my Spanish is lousy. So I give up on the idea of Valium and decide to get drunk instead.
Putting on my shoes is no less formidable a task than placing both my legs behind my head. Laces flopping, I teeter about five hundred feet through the rain to my local modelorama, or liquor store. The signs in front of most Jerez liquor stores, including this one, say VINOS Y LICORES, even though 90 percent of these stores, including this one, do not sell vino. I have no explanation for this except that if you open a liquor store you must compete with all the other stores, which don’t have wine either. I hobble into the small, open-fronted store and say hello to the girl who runs the place. She smiles and squints at me. Apparently, my Spanish sounds to her like a moronic Bavarian child in lederhosen talking after inhaling helium. The comedy is undoubtedly compounded by my crooked posture and untied shoes.
Whenever she gets the opportunity, the liquor-store girl nicks me for two or three pesos. She earns the minimum wage of thirty-five pesos a day (figure a peso to be roughly the equivalent of a dime), so, though it doesn’t warm my heart to see her steal from me, I don’t object. Lately, I have even begun tipping her, rewarding her for her dishonesty. This is a fainthearted and futile American strategy called “reverse psychology.” To be honest, though, since I live on the rotund sum of ten dollars a day, I really don’t mind supplementing her daily income of approximately $3.50. Today I buy a half liter of El Presidente brandy (thirty-two pesos) and a pack of Benson and Hedges menthols (twelve pesos), tip her two pesos, say farewell in my baffling Spanish, and stumble back home with my goodies in the rain.
I drink the brandy slowly. I don’t want to get drunk too fast, and especially don’t want to throw up. (Kneeling at the toilet would be a hard position to maintain.) My power goes out three times, and after the third I just leave my digital clock blinking. The rain is leaking under the door, and a new water stain has appeared in the kitchen wall. I have already fixed one leak — a crack in the skylight — with Elmer’s glue. My brand-new house is also developing cracks along the walls and ceiling. The landlord has told me with no particular concern that the floor is weak. Few things in Mexico are built to last. Too many revolutions.
The brandy seems to help my back a little. It at least improves my mood — so much so that I begin to sing. My great, empty, cracked, leaky palace of a house has wonderful, haunting acoustics. I wish I knew some Gregorian chants. After I’ve sung all the songs I want to hear myself sing, I take a gulp of brandy and lie down flat on my back on the cold tile floor.
Late in the afternoon, my doorbell rings. My house is positioned like a fortress behind great, unscalable walls and two automatically locking black steel doors reminiscent of the entrance to a bank vault. This is typical for Mexico. Everything of value is shut up tight behind wrought-iron grating and roll-down metal gates and locked steel doors. There is little crime in this part of the world except for theft. Everyone in Mexico worries obsessively about being robbed. This is what happens when you’ve had your country stolen out from under you several times, and you’re still not sure if you’re the fifty-first state of the Union, or a possession of Spain, or Chevrolet.
At the sound of the doorbell, I work my way deftly to my feet in about ninety seconds. I should be drunk, but it’s amazing what agony and disfigurement will do for your faculties. The doorbell rings again. I flounder out the first metal door and crab my way down the stairs, certain that whoever rang will be gone by the time I make it down. I think my caller might be one of the three young local women who have begun to visit me in the evenings.
Mexicans are very healthy people as a rule, but I sometimes wonder about the women’s vision. Any American woman will tell you I am no catch — passive, poor, bland in appearance, and way too old (forty-three) to be on TV, except in a commercial for garden products or bran flakes. But these girls swoon and send me notes. They drop by in the evenings and ask me to translate things for them. Elva, who is eighteen, rings my doorbell in the daytime and dashes away. Seventeen-year-old Xenia, who adores John Lennon, arrives in a miniskirt with her guitar in hand to sing me Beatles songs. Margarita, twenty-one and stuck with a seven-month-old daughter, would like a husband who will not leave her. I have told them all that I have no money, but they still giggle and make eyes at me. They recognize that even as a cabdriver in America, my income would exceed the gross national product of Portugal. Most of the healthy, eligible Mexican men are working construction, factory, or restaurant jobs in LA or Chicago. Many of them will never return. The female-to-male ratio here is something like three to one, and any warmblooded, half-witted American bachelor between twenty and fifty arriving fresh from the States will feel like a sailor on the HMS Bounty landing on Tahiti.
When I open the door I find, not a pretty young Mexican girl standing patiently in the rain with a Backstreet Boys song for me to translate, but my friend Ismael. Ismael is sixty-nine and looks like Anthony Quinn. Though he was born thirty miles from here, he spent most of his life laboring in the U.S., and his English is excellent. As a U.S. citizen, he is entitled and desires to live in America, but like many others so entitled to and desiring, he doesn’t have enough money. “What’s wrong with you?” Ismael says.
“My back is out.”
“Are you going to play poker?”
Though I decided earlier it would be impossible to play poker — not only because I can’t sit for longer than ten minutes without becoming the Lincoln Memorial, but also because there is no one in the city of Jerez I know well enough to ask to tie my shoes for me — the brandy and the prospect of lying gnarled and fetus-like in an empty house staring at the spreading water stains on the walls have changed my mind. “Just a sec,” I say, and I crawl back upstairs to grab my raincoat and bottle of brandy.
In my humpback state, I can’t get into Ismael’s old green Dodge pickup. My head won’t clear the top of the door, and the body won’t bend without oaths issuing from the mouth. The rain keeps coming. Rainfall in the daylight hours, even during the rainy season, is unusual here. It almost always rains at night, to the delight of sleepers and corn farmers alike. I remain wedged in the truck’s open doorway, my legs hanging out, getting wet. I need someone to come along and give me a good, swift kick. Finally, with a little howl, I manage to punch myself through. The girl in the modelorama watches me mildly, wearing her usual “what is the gringo doing now?” look.
We drive through the sweet and peaceful little city, with its misty corn-tortilla and cooking-onion smells, past tiny corner grocery stores frozen in time and butcher shops with cow carcasses dangling in the windows and dozens of law offices with lawyers inside who have nothing to do. The police don’t have much to do either (they need a few hundred thousand more laws to enforce, like their clever neighbors to the north), though every now and then they get to ride around in their patrol car with the siren on. A kid in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt strides toward us in the rain with a chicken under his arm. A dog with pointed, duct-taped ears barks at us from a rooftop. Ismael stops at a little store and buys two liters of orange pop.
We play poker at Les’s house. Les was an international safety inspector and trouble-shooter before he retired to Mexico. He has many fascinating anecdotes about bulging railroad cars and exploding ammonia factories. A native of Oklahoma, he played football for the University of Alabama alongside Bart Starr, fabled quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. Les lives out on the edge of town on a dirt road with his little dog Lady in a house just slightly smaller than mine, for which he pays forty-five dollars a month rent.
Two more retirees, Joe and Tomás, are already seated at the table. Tomás, who is eighty, an ex-welder, ex-pistolero, and San Francisco bar owner for thirty years, still remembers a sign in front of a Texas restaurant in 1943: NO DOGS OR MEXICANS ALLOWED. Though he pretends to be crusty, his pockets are always jammed with candy for the children. Joe, the quiet American from Boston, is threatening to move with his sister-in-law to Florida. We have been trying to talk him out of it, but he has been away from America too long and has forgotten about tollbooths, traffic jams, four-dollar cigarettes, school massacres, gangs, graffiti, and the 720 million NO PARKING signs.
I lean against the kitchen counter, take a slug of brandy, and watch Tomás unwrap a Bimbo panque, or pound cake with nuts sprinkled on top. Bimbo is the name of a Mexican bakery whose products are similar to Hostess’s. Joe is sipping a forty-cent Corona and smoking a Mexican cigarette called a Boot. Mexico might be the only place in the world where you can encounter two men at a table, one eating a Bimbo and the other smoking a Boot.
We draw cards to see who will deal. Ismael wins. I am equally in pain whether standing or sitting, so I sit. Whenever I stand up, I remain in the sitting position, barking at the table. This is amusing to my fellow poker players. Pain and grotesquerie are the two secret ingredients to good comedy. We play for five hours. It rains the whole time. The gods of luck smile down upon me. I can’t reach the pots I have won. I struggle to deal the cards. Les gives me some kind of pill that I hope will prove synergistic with the brandy and knock me out cold, but it doesn’t seem to help.
After the game, Les, Ismael and I go out to eat at a great restaurant with no name. The house specialty is pozole, a tomato-based soup with pork (usually from the head of the pig) and hominy, served with limes, chopped onions and lettuce, fresh oregano, and crisp corn tortillas, all for a dollar. The place is open only at night. The waitress is brusque and sweaty, just like an American waitress. A girl with Down’s syndrome patrols the aisle all night, smiling and swinging her purse, just missing the heads of the customers.
I drape myself in the doorway and watch the rain come down. The streets are flooding. My sockless feet are soaked. Trini, the woman who makes the pozole, comes out from the back to say hello. She makes great pozole and is a sweetheart, but frowns constantly because she is puzzled by Americans who actually want to live in Jerez and come to eat at her restaurant twice a week. She says that she also had back trouble recently, and the doctor gave her a shot that fixed her right up. I ask Ismael if he knows a doctor. All I really want, I tell him, is some Valium. He says he knows a good doctor at a farmacia not far from my place and will take me there in the morning. Les orders a plate of tacos de papas — tacos filled with mashed potatoes. Ismael and I have the pozole. None of us gets hit in the head by a purse. Though I don’t feel the slightest bit drunk, I tell the waitress I love her. The bill, including beer and cola and 15 percent tip, comes to less than five dollars.
The next morning, I limp with Ismael over to the farmacia. He laughs at me and then apologizes, still grinning. He can’t help it, he says. I tell him it’s all right; maybe one day he will be in the hospital and I can come up to his room and laugh at him. The pozole is unquestionably a great hangover remedy. I feel as if I didn’t drink a drop of brandy last night.
It’s hot today, and I am sweating by the time we get to the farmacia, my left leg tingling and tired. The doctor is forty-five or so, a serious woman with gray streaks in her hair, who sits in the cool dimness behind her long glass counter. All around her are fascinating, nostalgic drugstore items — everything from notions and toys to little handmade dresses and cigarettes. My Spanish is not good enough to explain my problem, so Ismael fills her in. She nods, asking many questions, then comes out from behind the glass counter and lifts my shirt to poke around. She asks me if I have pain in my leg. I say I do. Then she goes into the back room and returns with an armful of drugs, including three syringes and six vials of something honey-colored. It looks for a moment as if I might have to take these needles home and stick myself with them. I explain that I can’t give myself injections. This seems to amuse everyone. Then she takes me into the back room.
For all the drugs (no Valium, but a skeletal-muscle relaxant called Norflex Plus, and some anti-inflammatory pills), the office visit, the three shots, and scheduled consultations over the next three days, the bill is twenty-five dollars. I may even have been given a diagnosis, but since my Latin is no better than my Spanish, I don’t know what it is.
A few hours after the first shot, I am able to walk upright. By the second day, the knot of unruly back muscles has unsnagged, and most of the pain is gone. On the third day, I can do a one-and-a-half gainer with a twist off a thirty-meter springboard. I return to thank the doctor with an effusive gratitude she is probably accustomed to by now. Then I buy a pack of cigarettes, which she is happy to sell me. Where in America can you get your back fixed for twenty-five bucks and buy a pack of cigarettes from your doctor? This is what I love about Mexico: la calidad de la vida. The quality of life.