A couple of years back, I was sitting at Laguna Bob’s, an open-air bar on the bay side of South Padre Island, enjoying a cold beverage. From the deck, overlooking the Laguna Madre, one has a clear view of the Queen Isabella Causeway that connects the Island from the Texas mainland. Out in the middle of the Laguna, the bridge reaches its highest point. On this particular day, lights from emergency response vehicles flashed frantically atop the bridge. I immediately thought someone must have crashed their vehicle up on the bridge. Westbound bridge traffic was at a complete standstill, reaching all the way back to the Island. I mentioned the traffic snarl to the bartender and we shared a chuckle about what a drag it must be for people who actually have to leave our island paradise. It was later that we would learn the back-up was not caused by a car crash at all. Rather, it was something far more tragic. It prompted me to write this story. I was never really happy with the initial draft so I took time today to brush it off, edit it, and do a little fine tuning. I’ll now call it my final version. Hope you enjoy it.
An audible sigh of relief escaped his lips. The beast had finally grown tired of toying with him. With a guttural groan from deep within, Juan willed his legs to support his rising frame. Once upright, he stood motionless beside the bed, arms wavering at his side, fighting for equilibrium to kick in. Juan shook his head in disgust as he eyed the soiled, bare mattress that lay before him. The stain of sweat, piss, beer and filth formed a blotchy collage that resembled, he imagined, the quagmire his whole life had become.
Hesitantly, he proceeded forward. The blinding pressure that held his skull in a vice-like grip was gone. In its place, a throbbing yet bearable ache made movement possible again. With each step, his joints responded, reluctantly at first, to the demands of increased motion. Just as the rusty Tin Man would have responded to squirts from an oil can; his every stride became longer and lighter than the last.
Today’s the day.
A weak smile formed like a gash across his face as he shuffled toward the toilet to relieve himself. Finishing, he forced himself to face the reflection in the mirror. Matted strands of black hair and beard stubble outlined his once handsome features. His golden brown skin had taken on a sallow shade of yellow. His piercing dark eyes stared back through swollen, crusted lids. He felt a sudden rush of shame and remorse that he attempted to wash away with handfuls of cold water. Juan pressed his fingers tight against his puffy eyes and felt the water’s healing power.
Today’s the day.
Awake now and with a newly found resolve, Juan stepped in the shower. As the sweet-scented soap aroused his senses, he scrubbed furiously, washing off the days of caked on filth that clung to him. Like rising tide against a seawall, his resolve began to scrub away not only the dirt, but the black stain of depression inside him as well. The warm water cascaded against his face, across his chest, and down the length of his frame. Somewhere inside his head, the voice of Pink began to sing.
Today’s the day I’ve been waiting for
Tomorrow won’t come after all
Yesterday is so far away
And today is the only day
Somebody please stop the clock
Oh oh oh
Don’t ever let this day stop
Oh oh oh
I never wanna go home
No no no oh oh oh
I’mma say today’s my day
I’mma say today’s my day
I’mma say today’s my day
Juan stood in front of the full length mirror he bought from Wal-Mart at the insistence of his pretty young wife…now long gone. He shifted from one leg to the other, admiring the reflection. Freshly showered and shaved, with a clean pair of jeans a t-shirt, he could almost see the man he once was. For the first time in days, God knows how many, the voice of hunger rose strong enough to be heard. Stepping through the dirty clothes and empty Tecate cans littering the bedroom floor, he wandered the remaining confines of the tiny dark apartment. As was his ritual, Juan went searching for items yet to be determined. They would call to him from the clutter and dust if they were truly needed for the journey. After several laps of aimless shuffling, he finally settled on the basic necessities: keys, wallet, and smokes. Satisfied, he stepped 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 lit a cigarette and surveyed the narrow street for the old Chevy Blazer that was once his pride and joy. Lately, the vehicle had been left to sit for weeks at a time, tires hugging the crumbling curbside, once shiny paint gathering a sticky film of grime and salty mist. He winced at the sight of the sad vehicle but quickly choked back any thought that might prove a distraction. Today’s the day….he hummed softly as he made his way across the sandy grey dirt masquerading as a lawn. The Blazer’s door gave a rusty squall as he swung it open and folded himself inside, hoping it would actually fire after sitting so long. The engine responded hoarsely to the turn of the ignition key. Juan sat patiently, working the accelerator till the rumble of the engine began to ease with each tap of his foot. Squawking wiper blades washed aside the grime, allowing daylight to brighten his view as he threw the truck in low gear and lurched ahead, barely clearing the bumper of the vehicle parked a bit too closely in front of him. With a brief sidelong glance, he tacitly bade 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 scored him a microwave burrito and a six-pack of Dos Equis. He always drank the good stuff on special occasions. Easing back on Boca Chica Boulevard, he assumed a slow cruise, thankful that the morning rush was over. He devoured his food and cracked open a second beer before traveling a mile. It was still cloudy. The morning mist refused to yield, 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 Juan has ever known. With the exception of a few visits to relatives across the border in Matamoros, he’s never been outside the geographic area known as the Rio Grande Valley. His thoughts wandered to the time when he nearly moved away to Houston, soon after his wife and kids left. He’ll never know 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 shuddered at the memory and shook his head to clear away the thought. He cracked a third beer, intent on making this day a happy one. In mid chug, Juan glanced at his side mirror just in time to see a police cruiser coming up behind him in the left lane. He stiffened at the thought of a third DWI. Be cool now…Focus…No jail for me…Today is the day. He watched with a satisfied smile as the police car whizzed past him.
Anticipation, heightened by the warming effects of alcohol, began to elevate his senses as he reached the intersection of Highway 48. As he headed east, he grew increasingly confident that the fierce, dark grip of depression would not be coming back to claim him this day. The shipyard in sight, Juan increased his speed to fifty-five and flipped on the radio. George Strait was singing about a having a car. Yes, very true, he thought… at least I got a car. Fourth beer cracked, Brownsville in the rear view, his thoughts turned to happier times. He’s was 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 would 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 raced as he gave the accelerator a push.
Racing past the Bahia Grande and the dunes that shield any clear view of the ship channel, he sighed at his first glimpse of the western end of the Queen Isabella Causeway connecting mainland Port Isabel with his beloved South Padre Island. He recalled 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, all promising an endless day of fun. At the intersection of Highway 100, in Port Isabel, Juan made a final stop at the Stripes for more beer. Today’s a 12-pack day. He smiled at the thought.
A pang of disappointment washed over him as he made his way across the familiar bridge. The clouds were still hanging around, partially obscuring the majestic view of the island strand. Only a hint of light in the eastern sky gave promise for a better day ahead. Across the Laguna, rolling down the ramp, careful to reduce his speed, he waved at a tourist couple posing for pictures in front of the giant concrete structure welcoming everyone to South Padre Island. The painful grip was behind him now, home, home at last.
From the warm comfort of the Blazer, Juan sipped cold beer and visited his old Island haunts, lost in a happier time. Cruising the southern tip of the Island, he stopped outside the weathered pavilion at Isla Blanca Park. He could close his eyes and still remember the smell and taste of the barbacoa that was always a family tradition during their weekend trips to the Island. Many a family gathering was held under the roof of this old wooden structure that offered 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 as well as their own over-protective mother. He thought longingly about his once tight-knit family: a mother, five years in the grave, a father who disowned him, three brothers and a sister, who all still blame him…for everything.
Sitting outside Palm Street Pier, on the Laguna side of the island, he’s taken back to his wedding day and the feast they had 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. He remembers his gorgeous new wife, three months along, smiling at him; that beautiful smile that gave him the 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 closed his eyes and gave a silent prayer for their safety, wherever they may be.
Driving north along Gulf Boulevard, he is a young man again, full of promise. With a good trade as a tile cutter and a building boom on the Island, his financial future was 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, a 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 mi amigo…no sabes nada de mi dolor.
After driving six miles along the unspoiled beauty of the north island, Juan made his way back south. As he drove the final two-mile business stretch of Padre Boulevard and imagined he was one of the happy tourists that wandered the walkways. He envied the happy retired couples, walking hand in hand, oblivious to all but the warm breeze, fried shrimp, and cheap beer waiting for them at whatever bar they happened to choose today. A smiled as a group of lanky teen girls ran between cars across the five lane boulevard, obviously giddy from a day of fun, skipping school. He saw 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 drunken 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 fought the urge to turn around for another nostalgic lap. Instead, he bore right on the bridge ramp and waved goodbye to the Island of his dreams. He was drunk now but content and relaxed. He has paid visit to the ghosts of his past and ready to move forward. Up on the bridge, he looked to his 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 became lost in its beauty as cars whizzed past him, their drivers in a hurry to meet the demands of their day. As he climbed the grade to the highest point of the bridge, he spotted a patch of blue sky fighting its way through the dense cloud cover. He gave a broad smile at the sight oblivious to his driving speed that was slowing to a dangerous crawl on the busy bridge. Lost in the beauty of past horizons, he drifted right to the narrow bike lane and rolled to a stop at the highest point of the causeway. Through the windshield he took pause to marvel at the small but brilliant patch of blue sky. Blue was always his favorite color. And, for seven seconds…seven glorious seconds… the time it took to step away from the car, clear the railing, and feel the brief sting of the cold water below, he is truly alive.