I’ve been hired to play my saxophone at a wedding in Mazatlán, Mexico, and I decide to drive rather than fly there from my home in Boulder, Colorado. I buy a secondhand Volkswagen van from a smooth-talking salesman: a 1981 model with a fuel-injected engine, sparkling chrome, and an azure paint job — perfect for a trip through the Southwest. But as I tool around town in it, I discover it’s a lemon. My glove compartment becomes stuffed with repair bills for new fuel injectors, ball joints, steering-column assembly, clutch, brake shoes, and so on. I dub the malevolent machine “Helga the Hideous,” and, before leaving for Mexico, I have my friend Aisha, a Buddhist nun, perform a ceremony in which she chants Tibetan prayers and smudges Helga with sage. It works, and I drive trouble-free across the desert and along the steep, winding roads of the Sonoran mountains, arriving in Mazatlán with a sigh of relief.
But before I can perform at the wedding, the charm runs out, and the van’s devilish spirit returns. Helga develops a consumptive cough. On the way to the only Volkswagen dealer in Mazatlán, she sputters to a stop in a middle-class suburb. I smell gasoline and hear a crackling noise. When I look under the vehicle, I see flames. My fire extinguisher proves useless; it spews a meager mound of foam, then stops. Across the road is a vacant lot full of dirt, but I have no shovel. I have brought extra auto parts, extra tires, cans of gasoline, a full set of tools — everything but a shovel. The flames lick higher, and, worried the gas tank will explode, I grab my saxophone and my sleeping bag and watch helplessly from a distance as the fire rages. The cans of gasoline ignite, creating a plume of smoke that attracts a crowd of locals. In an impressive display of pyrotechnics, a WD-40 can explodes through a window and whistles in a broad arc, landing a hundred feet away at the foot of a newspaper boy on a bicycle. The crowd applauds.
The fire consumes the picture of my guru glued to the dashboard, then engulfs the glove compartment, burning the repair bills and all my traveler’s checks. I have only three hundred pesos — less than thirty dollars — in my pocket. I have lost all my clothes as well as a thousand dollars’ worth of camera equipment, but I am happy: Helga is dead.
The firemen — los bomberos — are tardy, and by the time they arrive, the van is a blackened husk. One of them uses a pike to pull out my still-sizzling chest of automotive tools. I feel a tug at my sleeve and turn to see an old man with skin leathered from a lifetime in the tropical sun. He is dressed like Spencer Tracy in the movie adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: broad-brimmed hat of woven straw, huarache sandals, and hand-sewn cotton pants and shirt. I can picture him going out to sea in a canoe hewn from a log. The man politely asks me in Spanish for a tool. “Todos,” I reply, indicating he should take them all. “Un regalo por tù,” I say in broken Spanish, telling him they are a gift. After the firemen have cooled the tools with water, the old man methodically binds them to the frame of his bicycle with scraps of plastic and twine and rides off, his tires almost flat from the weight of the load. I have just given him enough high-quality Craftsman tools to open an automotive shop.
Observing this, the crowd realizes I am no normal gringo. I am not enraged that the firemen are late. A petite woman with a camera steps up and says, “Sonrisa!” (Smile!) I pose with a goofy grin, and she snaps my photo. A wrecker arrives, lifting Helga the Burned-Out Hulk in its hydraulic pincers, and a funeral procession forms, led by a police car with its siren on and me in the back seat, savoring the hullabaloo.
At the motor-vehicle department, Helga the Hulk is deposited on a side street, where German tourists take a picture of me beside her charred frame. I strike a triumphant pose, like a big-game hunter next to a dead rhino. Inside the sprawling government building, a policeman marks a pile of papers with an official rubber stamp that says, “Quemado” (Burnt). Every time the cop stamps a document, we all say, “Quemado,” and laugh heartily.
The next morning I discover I’ve made the local newspaper. There’s a photo of Helga and one of me beaming like a holy fool. The caption says, “The owner? Although reduced to observing the inevitable, he appears happy because his humanity has not suffered a scratch.” I’m now a celebrity. Strangers see me and shout, “Hey, hombre!” or, “Hey, cabrón!” — Mexican for “Hey, homey!” People offer me food and beer. I am no longer a gringo but a compadre.
Because the fire consumed the receipts for the traveler’s checks as well as the checks themselves, I’m told I can’t get them replaced in Mexico; I’ll have to go to Tucson, Arizona, where the records of purchase are kept. Luckily, by the end of the day, tourists and locals have contributed enough money to get me a bus ticket.
The next afternoon I arrive at the Tucson bus depot and use my last twenty-five cents to call a friend’s mother, Miriam, who offers me a place to stay. While waiting for her to pick me up, I sit between two down-and-out Vietnam veterans, one of whom is in a wheelchair, and they offer me hits from a pint of whiskey in a brown paper bag. While we’re drinking, a bus from Los Angeles unloads, and two stylish women pass by and shoot us looks of absolute disdain. Forty-eight hours ago I was a celebrity; now I’m an unshaven bum.
Miriam arrives and drives me to her home, a modest stucco ranch house with a cactus grove in the yard. She’s an animal-rights activist, and her walls are covered with posters of harp-seal pups and humpback whales. A blind cocker spaniel and eleven cats she has rescued from the city pound live with her. After one of her cats was killed by a truck, Miriam nailed the cat door shut, and the remaining felines are now locked inside the house, prisoners of her love. When I open my bedroom door in the morning, twenty-two eyes turn to stare at me, and the blind dog barks.
I renew my traveler’s checks and fly out of Tucson for Mazatlán, still hoping to get there in time for the wedding. The plane makes an emergency stop in Sonora, Mexico, to take on a male passenger on a gurney. He’s placed beside me and tells me in broken English how he and his pregnant wife were driving on a mountain road in a torrential rainstorm when they lost control of their pickup, and it tumbled down an embankment. He got a fractured femur, and his wife broke her collarbone. Then, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, she gave birth to their first child, a boy. The baby is healthy, the man tells me; he and his wife will heal; and their relatives have donated enough money to cover their hospital expenses. He shrugs and says, “Buena suerte es mala suerte; mala suerte es buena suerte. Es lo mismo.” (Good luck is bad luck; bad luck is good luck. It’s all the same.)
With little plastic cups of tequila, we toast our futures, and I realize Helga wasn’t an evil entity but a saint who has purified me by fire and made my journey unpredictable.