An audible sigh of relief escapes his lips as the nagging grip loosens its hold. A throbbing yet bearable ache provides a welcome alternative to the vice-like pressure in his head as well as every other part of his body. With each step, his joints respond reluctantly to the demands of increased motion as the rusty Tin Man would respond to squirts from an oil can; every stride longer and lighter than the last. Today”s the day… He forms a weak smile as his resolve begins to gently scrub away the black stain of depression like a rising tide against a seawall. For the first time in weeks, God knows how many, the voice of hunger rises strong enough to be heard. He steps into dirty jeans and wanders the confines of the tiny studio apartment searching for items yet to be determined. Finally settling on the basic necessities: keys, wallet, and smokes, he steps out the side entrance of the aging duplex, onto the small cement stoop to plot his next move.
Shielding his eyes from imaginary sun and fighting the urge to turn around, he lights a cigarette and surveys the narrow street for the old Chevy Blazer that was once his pride and joy. Of late, the vehicle sits idle for weeks at a time, tires hugging the crumbling curbside, the once shiny paint gathering a sticky film of grime and salty mist. He winces at the sight of the sad vehicle but quickly pushes back any thought that might prove a distraction. Today’s the day….he hums softly and folds himself into the vehicle, hoping it will fire. The engine responds hoarsely to the turn of the ignition key. Today’s the day… As the engine’s rumble eases with each tap of the accelerator, so does his fear. Squawking wiper blades wash aside the grime, allowing daylight to brighten his view as he lurches ahead, barely clearing the bumper of the vehicle parked a bit too closely. With a brief sidelong glance, he tacitly bids goodbye to the only comfort and refuge he’s known since the grip took hold of him. Breathe slow…even breaths….easy now, you can do this…Today is the day. Drive.
A brief pit-stop at the local Stripes store scores him a microwave burrito and a six-pack of beer. Easing back on Boca Chica Boulevard, he assumes a slow cruise, thankful that the morning rush is over. He devours his food and cracks his second beer before traveling a mile. The morning mist refuses to budge, muting any color that might normally serve to brighten this particularly drab commercial stretch of Brownsville. This steadily growing Texas border town is the only home he has ever known. With the exception of a few visits to relatives across the border in Matamoros, he has never been outside the geographic area known as the Rio Grande Valley. He remembers a time when he nearly moved away, soon after his wife and kids left. He wonders if a fresh start in a new place would have lured them back to him. He just didn’t have the guts to make it happen. He shudders at the memory and cracks a third beer. He catches sight of a police car in his side mirror, stiffening at the thought of a third DWI. Be cool now…Focus…No jail for me…Today is the day.
Anticipation, heightened by the warming effects of alcohol, begins to elevate his senses as he heads east on Highway 48. His is confident that the grip will not claim him today. He increases his speed and flips on the radio. George Strait sings about a having a car. Yes, very true, he thinks… at least I got a car. Fourth beer cracked, Brownsville in the rear view, his thoughts turn to happier times. He’s a child again, speeding down this same stretch of highway, heading to South Padre Island where he will romp in the salty surf foam, build castles, or bury his brother in the sand. Were it not for the clouds and fog, he could see the Pearl Beach Resort by now. The tallest hotel on the Island, its green neon spire is visible from 12 miles away on a clear day. His heart races and he gives the accelerator a push.
Racing past the Bahia Grande and the dunes that shield any clear view of the ship channel, he sighs at his first glimpse of the western end of the Queen Isabella bridge connecting mainland Port Isabel with his beloved South Padre. He recalls Mama’s fear of the 2.6 mile bridge and her cry of relief each time they reached its end. He always loved the view of the island from the bridge, the expanse of colorful hotels, condos and beach stores, the promise of endless days of fun. Entering Port Isabel, he makes a final stop at the Stripes for more beer. A 12-pack day…he smiles.
He feels a pang of disappointment as he crosses his beloved bridge. The clouds are hanging around, partially obscuring the majestic view of the island strand but a hint of light in the east provides a promise for a better day ahead. Rolling down the ramp, careful to reduce his speed, he waves at a tourist couple posing for pictures in front of the giant concrete structure welcoming everyone to South Padre Island. The painful grip behind him, home now, home at last.
From the warm comfort of the Blazer, he sips cold beer and cruises old Island haunts, lost in a happier time. He stops outside the weathered pavilion at Isla Blanca Park, tasting the barbacoa that was always a family tradition during weekend trips to the Island’s public park at the southern most tip. Many a family gathering was held under the roof of this old wooden structure that offers welcome shade from the blazing South Texas summer sun. Gazing out to the channel, he could see the lean, brown bodies of his brothers jumping the rocks of the jetty, annoying the serious fisherman and ignoring the cries from their protective mother. He misses his family, a mother five years in the grave, a father who disowned him, three brothers and a sister, who still blame him…for everything.
Sitting outside Palm Street Pier, on the Laguna side of the island, he is taken back to his wedding day and the feast on the restaurant deck overlooking the calm Laguna Madre at sunset. The golden glow of an exhausted sun nestling in a bed of pink clouds gave him hope for many beautiful days ahead. His gorgeous new wife, three months along, smiles at him and gives promise of a long life together. Gone now along with three kids, a family cut apart by both resentment and the order of a heartless court system. He prays for their safety, wherever they may be,
Driving down Gulf Boulevard, he is a young man with full of promise. With a good trade as a tile cutter and a building boom on the Island, his financial future is set. There will be endless work here thanks to the rich folks from the north and the politicos and cartel bosses from the south. His boss, the patient man who gave him every opportunity, will no longer take his calls. No more work for you. Stop drinking he says..stop drinking?…you know nothing my friend.
He drives the two-mile business stretch of Padre Boulevard and imagines the lives of the happy tourists wandering the walkways. Retired couples, Winter Texans, walk hand in hand oblivious to all but the warm breeze, fried shrimp, and cheap beer that awaits them at whatever bar they choose today. A group of lanky teen girls run between cars across the five lane boulevard, obviously giddy from a day of fun, skipping school. He sees himself as a teenager, dragging this stretch for hours in the back of a pick-up. It’s Texas Week and the island is awash with drunk teenagers, coolers in tow, smoking blunts with impunity. God, what he would give to go back there…with his girl, before the kids came. He chugs a beer as a toast to the memories.
Happy in the glow of fond memory, he bears right on the bridge ramp and waves goodbye to the Island of his dreams. He is drunk now but content and relaxed. He has paid visit to the ghosts of his past and ready to move forward. He looks right, taking in the expanse of the Laguna Madre below him, stretching 116 miles to the north. the largest hyper-saline lagoon of its kind in the world. He is lost in its beauty as cars whiz past him, their drivers in a hurry to meet the demands of the day. As he climbs the grade to the highest point of the bridge, he spots a patch of blue sky fighting its way through the dense cloud cover. He smiles broadly at the sight while realizing his speed has slowed to a dangerous crawl on the busy bridge. He drifts to the narrow bike lane and rolls to a stop. Through the windshield he marvels at the small but brilliant patch of blue sky. Blue is his favorite color. And, for seven seconds…seven short seconds… the time it takes to step from his car, clear the railing, and feel the brief sting of the water below, he is truly alive,