As I breathed even still the settling dusts of that violence, I burned to scribble of it. Still even there, sitting amid the scene of the conflict, on that bus, my aggressor some few seats behind me, I craved to scribble it down. But I had descriptions still to gather of countryside passing beyond the windows. And a few hours, I thought, yes, a few hours might give me a little perspective, a little calm.
I was right.
I was wrong.
I sit now in a Mazatlán restaurant waiting for the waiter to look up. I raise him now. I order a dessert of ice cream, a post-prandial coffee. It is 7:20 p.m. Hours have passed since those events. With the passage of the hours the perspective I expected has come. There I was right. I can propose even a kind of philosophical context for the attack. But the calm. My calm. I was wrong concerning the calm. I was calmer even as it was all unfolding than I am now. Shaken, I am now. Shaken. A belated swell of unspecific emotion rattles me. I dread now the scribbling of this testament. I resist now the unrolling of these words.
This the philosophical context: Money is not an end for me. Money is a tool for me. I do not value money per se. And fear I rebuke. Fear I battle. I believe there is very little to fear. The attack happened because this is how I see the world. I no longer have to rationalize these ideas for myself. They are how I think. The attack happened because I could not value this man's money, because I could not cow to this man's intimidation. We follow two opposing gods, I and he. For some reason he was unbendingly determined that I bow to his. But I was impenetrable. I would not bow. In frustration he insulted me. In frustration he threatened me. In frustration he threw against me his own physical body.
"Puto! Pendejo!" he roared. Unreal it was. Even now it hardly seems to have happened. "You're inept. Idiot! You write lies!" But it did happen. The unsteadiness of my hands reminds me.
It began inconspicuously enough. Already I was placed in my seat some six rows back from the bus driver when the man boarded. He was the last passenger to board. I would be seeking descriptions of the countryside between Guadalajara and Mazatlán on this trip. And I only had one opportunity to gather them. So, when these late arriving eyes fell down the aisle in search of a seat, and then fell to the left, to me, I said a short prayer. I did not want company. The late passenger made his decision, however, and my prayer was refused. With a lordly and self-satisfied sigh he leaned back next to me, situating a laden plastic bag between his feet. In his late thirties, handsome, sporting five o'clock scruff and a shiny black ponytail, he wore sunglasses. Through this whole encounter I never once saw the man's eyes. He turned to me. He asked me in English if I knew the duration of this trip to Mazatlán. Cordially I reported eight hours. Then, the bus finding its pace, my attention shifting outward, his attention shifted elsewhere. I heard him offer a grandiose beer to each of three teenage Mexicanos sitting directly behind us. I heard the young Mexicans eagerly accept. The plastic bag rustled between my seat- mate's feet then. He pulled the bottles forth. And as he began chatting then volubly with the young Mexicans, I felt somewhat relieved. It seemed to me he would let me be. I began scribbling my notes on our exit of Guadalajara.
Even later, later after the bus had stopped for fuel, later after this man bought eighteen more bottles of beer, and then, with some convivial fanfare, consumed a half dozen of them, later after he finally began elbowing his way into my consciousness, even then, even that late in the encounter, he was not really offensive. His indecorousness had a bold devil-may-care aspect to it. It made him interesting. And he spoke colorful phrases worthy of mental notes. And he spun a buckish tale. A small plane pilot, he presumed to be. He had "flamed out" near Monterrey. He had to get to Sinaloa. There he would hold up for a few days. The man was vital--vital like a person on the run. Charged, he seemed, and in a way that gave his story credibility. And on edge. He seemed to thrive on this edge. The man claimed ownership to two homes in Los Angeles. The first was worth a million dollars, he said. The second was worth a million and a half. His ex-wife was a podiatrist, he said. His genius son caught up in the internet. He talked the big talk.
It took no genius to infer what was being left out of this big talk. If the ingredients he offered were authentic, this late-arriving passenger was a bona fide drug-trafficker. The "flame out" and the money and his flight to Sinaloa suggested it. As did his warning to avoid Culiacán. He promised that only "with his protection" could I survive more than two hours in that city of kingpins. And his brashness... And his flash... And his impudence... At one point he held forth on how "alive" he felt when police helicopters circled his LA home. And he claimed as his nickname "the pilot light." My eyebrows rose. "You figure out why, amigo," he challenged. But before I could even attempt to: "Because I can snuff you out!" he barked.
But I was loath to do more than make inferences. I had work to do. I needed to work. I wanted to look out the window. So I did not encourage this man's monologue. That irritated him. He kept dangling before me hints, hints that in polite conversation one might curiously pursue, hints that if pursued would turn our encounter into dialogue, into conversation. But I kept just letting the hints dangle. I kept just thinking about my work.
He said, "You should come hang out with me sometime. That would give you something to write about."
And I nodded.
He said, "You wouldn't believe my life."
And I nodded.
He insisted, "I'm a very complex person."
And I nodded.
My refusal to take up these hints was the initial wound, I think, in which his later outbursts festered. It was my first affront, his first umbrage. He was trying to impress me. But I was not reacting in kind. I was friendly toward him, yes. I smiled at him--respectfully, even. But when a break came in his streams of megalomania, instead of edging him on, I would just look back out the window. We approached Tequila. I wanted to see the countryside between Guadalajara and Tequila. That I preferred this landscape to his derring- do was hard for him to stomach. That I was benignly unimpressed by his vaunted wealth was hard for him to stomach. To him, in fact, such inattentions could only be insults. We unconsciously became two religious armies positioning ourselves on a field of battle. The air around us was thickening with the dust of our restive steeds. Soon we would join.
I hate to scribble this encounter. This encounter is the exception, not the rule. An anomaly. Ten years I've traveled Mexico and nothing even vaguely similar to this has ever happened to me. I told the man this. I told the whole busload of Mexicans this. Quite loudly, I told them. In almost the same breath I called the man then "el peor de México." The worst of Mexico. I checked in myself the word "basura." But how true it tasted in my mouth! Garbage. But how incendiary! The Mexicans might have agreed with me, but they would not have condoned so provocative an epithet at that volatile moment. Aghast, they were, at the man's wanton attack. I saw this in their eyes. For in the midst of the duel I appealed to them. I stood and I said to them, "I did not do anything, right?" And every one of their attentive alert faces nodded to me. I took it a step further then. I said to them, "And you are going to support me when I go to the conductor, right?" But their sympathetic eyes found then sudden alarm. Heads shrank behind the tall bus seats. An old man turned away. The teenagers gazed on me with trepid entreaty. I would have thought myself alone were it not for a thickset young man just one seat behind the teenagers. Already he was poised at the edge of his chair, his eyes meeting mine hotly. He was ready to come to my aid. With a nod some twenty minutes after those crucial moments, I thanked this young man. Both he and his wife nodded back. Their expressions showed to me how sick they felt, how righteously incensed they were at this intemperate beast's assault. I say all this so that it is quite clear that every Mexican on that bus was on my side. Morally they supported me, even if physically they might not. I knew this, of course, even before I made my appeal. That, in fact, gave me the courage to make my appeal. What this brute did was decidedly un-Mexican. And if the rest of the Mexicans shied from intervention I think it was as much in fear of exacerbating the situation as it was in fear of exposing themselves to the uncertainties of the clash.
I've set the encounter up so far as a kind of banter become argument leading to fisticuffs. If it were as rational and cliche as that it would not be half as unnerving. There seemed to be, in fact, in the moments it played out, no rationale behind it at all. And what build-up there was in tension came quickly, over a brief stretch of minutes. Suddenly, unexplainedly, the storymonger became antagonistic, the merrymaker turned bully.
Shadows of the storm had come and gone, had passed and repassed, had surged and retarded as beer bottle after beer bottle the man pulled from the plastic bag between his feet. The hints he had dangled before me; those hints I had declined to take up as I worked; those hints from which I had turned, unimpressed, to examine the landscape passing beyond the windows, came now with greater and greater swagger. There was a goad to them now. They seemed to say, "Ah, not impressed? Well, how about this!"
He said, "You wait till we Mexicans catch up. Give us Mexicans fifty years. The Japanese will help us..."
He said, "Culiacán is the place that the FBI people don't come back from. Come with me there, I'll protect you..."
He said, "At 23 I had everything. At 26 I had everything. At 30 I had everything...."
He insisted, "I am a very complex person."
This goading was his trumpet call, I think, his warning. The conflict loomed. For the more the man tried to take possession of my attention, the more tenaciously I clung to my work. With every opportunity now, sometimes in the middle even of one of these harangues, I would turn to the window and begin to watch the landscape and let him drift away. But uncannily, as if reading even the very progress of my thoughts, every time some beauty from the landscape began to distill within me, some word, some phrase, some insight, the man would nudge me with his elbow. He would say, "Hey!" and abort that resolving word, that resolving phrase, that resolving insight. "I hate who I like!" He would blat, or something else just as vile, just as drunken. I would smile. I would nod. I would watch his pride and arrogance swell and suspire and expel itself.
After some time of this, I relented. I gave up on my descriptions and I just sat back and really beheld this sottish tyrant. Why was he here imposing himself on me? From where had he come? And as I considered these things, as I looked at him, I felt a sudden philosophical detachment. Of all the seats on this bus this man picked this seat right next to mine. Of all the idle time he could be wasting this man is wasting my time which is not idle. I leaned my head back against the window. I observed the man's gibbering as if from afar. I counseled myself: Be above this: Do not get sucked into it. Never once did I really think myself superior to the man. But the situation was too unreal to approach with a normal state of mind. So I had to think of myself as separate from him. It was too weird. It was as if he were all the ideas I oppose, come to me, incarnate, and furious. And then, suddenly, I felt this great sense of benignance wash through my faculties. I was outside the situation. I saw the man as a boy, as a sick and lost boy. It must have showed--in my indulgent smile, perhaps, in my avuncular nod. For it stopped the man cold. The man glared at me dead in my face. The man said to me: "I don't like what you're thinking." And the unreality of the scene became then just that much more acute. My benignance shattered. His monologue shifted gears. The tension began to mount.
He started talking about life and death. About how death is a part of life and life a part of death. About the circle of life and death. About how easy it would be for me to die. About the tenuousness of life. About how in the next instant suddenly I could be dead. He went on like this, repeating himself, restating himself, reformulating the same ideas for a long time. He rambled until his avenues of expression exhausted themselves. Then he looked at me. He looked at me coldly.
"Are you a good writer?" he asked me.
I thought of Hemingway. I thought of Shakespeare.
"No," I answered.
"How long have you been in Mexico?"
"So your Spanish is perfect, right?" And he chuckled to himself menacingly. He glanced around us. An old man in the seat across from us had a newspaper open, already hiding behind it. "Here," my aggressor said to me, and he pointed at the old man's newspaper. He commanded, "Read that headline."
It was here that the conflict finally found its outward form. It was no longer my privately resenting his intrusions. It was no longer his privately resenting my subtle rebuffs. It was tangible now. It had escaped our consciousnesses. It was outside of us, in the open, alive. We could not now escape this duel. We could only now plow through it. He had tired of my not playing his game. I had tired of playing his game. And so we began.
I read the headline. I answered the man in Spanish. "No entiendo."
"Ah," and he barked a scornful, contemptuous laugh. In a loud voice he addressed the roof of the bus, so that all could hear. "He does not understand! He does not understand the words 'money laundering.'" And he laughed again with great malice. A few nervous chuckles answered him.
"No," I rejoined, almost as loudly. "I do not understand how this man speaks." It was a clear reference to his slurred speech. My reply was answered with real laughter.
And that was it.
Our religious struggle matured.
This man's faith is one of bombast and bluster. Mine is one of reserve and inwardness. We both brought to the contest our weapons. His, mockery and insult. Mine, silence. My objective became simply to make him leave me alone. It was perhaps the wrong objective. But even sitting here hours afterward, in this restaurant, I cannot imagine another course I might have taken. I completely withdrew. To be amiable and friendly only fed the man's virulence. To engage him, it seemed, was to provoke him. He was pouncing now on every word I spoke, on every scrap of personality I loosed. He was pouncing on it and mocking it. So, very simply, I stopped engaging him. I stopped giving him material with which to toy, material to mock. I ignored the man. I pretended he was not there. I turned to the window. I was silent. I responded to none of his questions, to none of his gibes, to nothing until he became physically violent. This was my last futile attempt to forestall the building aggression.
In reflection, I see that I could not have struck more deeply at this man's ego. He was a drug-trafficker. He was a man whose means of relating to people, whose means of impressing people, whose very livelihood even, was governed by fear and money. I was not impressed by money. And I did not respond to fear. Never once did I fear him. Not until he actually started pitching his body against mine, not until he pretended to punch me with his fist did I really think something of that sort might happen. And even then, as he pretended, I did not believe that he would in fact do it--not there. He knew I did not fear him. A gringo in his country, alone on a bus on some lonely highway between cities and he could not get me to shrink from him. It was infuriating to him. But if you truly believe you are in no danger. Truly. There is no fear. And I truly believed I was in no danger. So I felt no fear. And his money was nothing to me. At one point, in the heat of those last taut moments, he took a wad of dollar bills out of his pocket and fondled them in front of my face. "Do you have money?" he baited me. "I have money. Do you have money? Do you have money?" Repeatedly, he said it. I did not care. It meant nothing to me. It means nothing to me. This is what broke him, I think. This is what drove him to throw himself at me like a child, what brought him to such desperate infantile tantrums.
"Smile!" he barked at me. "Frown, gringa," he barked. "Are you a woman, güera?"
We had arrived at insults. Still I did not respond. Finally--the threats.
"At the next stop I am going to beat you up!"
But I did not believe him.
"How many ribs do you want broken, güera? Three? Two? We'll rough you up. We'll teach you how to write. Why..don't you think we can beat you up? You're lucky you're not getting off in my town. In minutes. Snuff! They call me the pilot light! Think about what that means! I'm the pilot light!"
This continued apace. His agitation grew. The tension became incredible. And then finally, finding all his efforts stymied by my silence, he snapped. The man raised himself up out of his seat a few inches. He planted his right foot. And he threw his body against mine. A moan rose from the people behind me, around me, from all the other passengers on the bus. He barked provocations. He hurtled feminine epithets at me. Then he threw his body against mine a second time. Then he threw his body against mine a third time.
Until, "Déjame, señor!" I finally erupted.
And the climax came.
The man looked at me. He stood up. His eyes were wild. His eyes blazed with a drunken hatred.
I stood also. My knee was in my seat. I braced myself against the window. I turned to the busload of people. I said to them, "I did not do anything, right?" And they all nodded assent. They all were alert and aghast at this sudden violence. But they were all with me. I saw this. The thickset young man was at the edge of his chair.
"I am a man of peace," I said to them. "I have sat myself here to look at the country and this man attacks me without reason."
The man feigned to punch.
But louder then, sharper, "Déjame!" I commanded. I said it before his arm could uncurl. And finally one of the two bus drivers heard something happening behind him. This was my moment. I had to seize it. The bus driver was my only recourse. Even louder then I repeated, "Déjame!" And I looked at the driver severely as he turned. And I addressed the driver directly so that he could not turn back away.
"Señor, this man has threatened me. He has threatened me with death and nothing less." The driver became motionless. "He has threatened me with death!"
"Calumny!" my aggressor spat. "Lies. Liar."
But he was stunned. I had stunned him. He must have expected I would either forever submit to his taunts or fight back physically. That I had risen and appealed to his own countrymen stunned him. That I raised the stakes by saying he had threatened to kill me stunned him. That I belted it all out in Spanish stunned him. He protested abusively, but then fell silent. The momentum now was mine. He sat down in his seat. Quite defiantly, he sat down, his chin raised, indignant. But the momentum now was mine. He crossed his arms across his chest like a lord.
At a volume then that all the passengers to could hear I repeated, "I am a man of peace. I have come here to see the countryside and without reason this man attacks me. He threatens to beat me up. He threatens to kill me."
My aggressor barked. From behind his pompously folded arms he barked, "I did not threaten to kill you! I do not have to threaten!" And he cleared his throat. "If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead. I have money." And then he spat, "Puto! Pendejo!"
I looked down at him from my standing position. I said to him, "Eres el peor de México." And I checked the word "basura."
He scoffed. "How do you think you can get away with that!? 'The worst of Mexico!' You are a foreigner!"
But I said nothing more. For I had not said the words to insult the man. I had said them for the sake of the rest of the Mexicans on the bus. He did not realize the words were a wedge. He did not realize I had just driven a wedge between him and them, that I was giving them license to come into my camp, that I was turning them against him.
I said to the driver, "Ask the people here. Ask them. They have seen it all. He has attacked me for nothing."
But the driver did not ask the other passengers. The driver only requested that my aggressor move to another seat on the bus. My aggressor refused. His arms still folded before him, he said, "This is my seat. Here I sit." The driver requested then that I move to the front of the bus. I agreed. My aggressor leaned back then that I might pass into the aisle. "Pasa, mi amor," he said to me then, this his final insult.
As I found my seat I felt a chill flush over me. As I found my seat toward the front of the bus, I felt a slight trembling in me begin. But the flush and the trembling passed. They were tension releasing. For I had not acted until I had been forced to act. And then, when I had acted, I had acted on instinct, with great suddenness, summarily. The words had come to me with immediacy, like inspiration. I had used them powerfully, faultlessly.
The bus driver shook his head as he watched me take my seat. He seemed to say to himself, "Jesus Christ! How could such a thing happen?" I asked the driver if I could transfer to another bus going the same direction, if I would have to pay again to transfer busses. The driver said that I would have to pay again. Then he shook his head again, with that same regretful look.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at Tepic, a small quiet town well west of Tequila. The bus drivers took a fifteen minute rest there.
I asked one of the teenagers as he passed my seat to deboard: "Amigo, do you think I should take another bus?" But both he and an older woman said it was not necessary. The older woman said that the man was a bad man and a drunk man, but that he would not attack me.
"He was joking," the teenager said.
"But those were strong words for a joke, no?"
"He was drunk."
"And I did nothing," I said.
The older woman replied, "Everyone heard. Everyone knew he was the aggressor."
This was a comfort. Again I felt the Mexicans supported me. I did not feel quite so alone.
The young thickset man then reboarded, the one who sat at the edge of his seat. We exchanged our knowing nods. And then I heard an old man standing outside the coach address the bus driver. "Mal," I heard the old man say simply. "El es mal." I did not recognize the old man's face. But obviously he had witnessed everything. His words were an unequivocal judgment on what he had seen. He was telling the driver that my aggressor was "evil" or "bad." That's all the old man said. Then he paused for a moment. Then he reboarded the bus. The old man did not look at me as he climbed the steps, as he passed me by. But still I was comforted by him. And I burned then to scribble this testament. I burned to scribble it down. But I did not. I waited.
The bus continued on.
I have just walked back from the restaurant. I sit now on my hotel bed. I ordered my meal tonight freely, thinking little of what I spent. For two and a half hours I sat at that round table scribbling these words. An imposition, no doubt, on the waiter. Not until after nine o'clock did I signal for my check. I tipped him very well.
I do not know what this experience will mean to me later. I do not know what it means to me now. But I do know that I feel uncommonly affected. More than once this evening I've had to repress quiet tears. It's no blubbering, mind you. It's just a swelling of some unspecific emotion, or some crowd of unspecific emotions, a swelling that tries to fight its way out of me as tears. I didn't feel this emotion on the bus. Even sitting there just a few seats in front of my antagonist, in the very aftermath of that storm, I felt relatively calm. I was a little discomposed, yes, but I went on with my work. I looked out the window. I collected my descriptions. It was not until I arrived here in Mazatlán that it came to me, the emotion; not until I settled here into my hotel room that I encountered it, this emotion; not until I found myself here securely alone that it overwhelmed me, like a flood. I went to the restaurant to escape it. I had to write it all down to escape it. Now I've returned. Again it is here. I am unnerved. I am unsettled. I feel shaky.
More than once my eyes met those of the bus driver's as I sat there collecting my notes. The driver would glance up into his mirror. I would glance up into his eyes. And then we would both look back to our windows. Because of our positions this rapport may have been natural. But it made me wonder what the driver was thinking. Regret? I seemed to detect it. And the rest of the passengers, what were they thinking? As I said, in the bus I did not yet feel this shakiness. Did I appear to them strong? It was a volatile situation. I faced it completely alone. Did I get lucky? Did I say just the right things? Did I seem wise then? Or did I blunder? According to the temperament of spoken Spanish the volume I adopted in addressing the bus was basically a shout. This was part of what stunned the man, I'm sure. Suddenly I was unpredictable. Suddenly I was as aggressive as he. But how did the shouting appear to the rest of the passengers? Cowardly? Irrational? One of the Mexican teenagers later made an effort to catch my eye. He smiled at me. And when I debarked the bus for good that same teenager assertively said "Adiós." I wonder if he questioned his own behavior through those changeful moments. I wonder if he felt an unwarranted shame for not doing more to diffuse them. And then, as I passed through the Mazatlán bus station, I noticed one of the bus drivers watching me. He leaned against a ticket counter. He watched me call for a hotel room. He watched me move out toward the taxi stand. The motions of finding a taxi and hotel come to me automatically now. I carry them out without thinking. And, again, I did not yet feel this shakiness. Was the driver amazed? Did the driver wonder how I could face such a scene and remain so unaffected? It is strange for me even now, feeling as I do now, unraveling here, unbalancing here, to look back on the stillness of those hours after the attack. A long period of limbo, it was. A period of suspension. I continued on because I had to continue on. Naturally, I did. And then I arrived here. And then I found my hotel room. And then it came to me. This unfixing emotion came to me.
The driver's handling of the scene was a study in the impassive. He moved toward the two of us. Already I was standing. Immediately I coaxed him. Immediately I urged him ask the people what they had seen. And immediately I expected his sympathy. He would stalk into my camp, I expected, forthwith. But he did not. The driver's long face drew a blank. Expressionless. Wordlessly he looked at my attacker. He made a slow gesture with his thumb and pinky finger that simulated drink. He made a second slow gesture that suggested "no more." My aggressor curtly nodded. Very calmly then, very quietly then, the bus driver asked my aggressor to move to another seat on the bus. My aggressor curtly refused. "This is my seat. Here I sit." Very calmly then, very quietly then the bus driver asked me to move to another seat near the front of the bus. I acceded. And that was all, the end. Cease-fire. With two gestures, with a few quiet words, the driver ended the war. He sorted out nothing. He took no sides. He made no judgment on what religion ought prevail. He simply divided the combatants. The tension dissolved. His calm had stilled us.
I bought a small bottle of water on the way back from the restaurant to my hotel room. I bought a grapefruit drink also. I will splash some rum now into a mixture of these. After a late dish of ice cream and a 7:30 p.m. coffee I doubt it will help much. I won't be able to sleep. But I am three days ahead of my schedule now. I will tender one of those days tomorrow. Tomorrow I will do nothing, just collect myself.
Stepping out of the hotel lobby earlier I could smell San Diego. Stepping out of the restaurant then a little later, I could smell San Diego. Mazatlán has that same fresh ocean air. On my way back from the restaurant I stood and gazed into the blackness of the night sea. A sailboat leaned on the shore. Nothing is more romantic than a naked mast on a lonesome boat. I will exercise along the beach tomorrow morning. I will sun bathe and swim tomorrow afternoon and try to shake off today's happenings. All this I will do so that I might work well the following day. I have a pair of gray pants that have not been laundered since the detergent affair. I will cut them off now for swim trunks. Then I will drink some rum. Then, hopefully, I will fall asleep.
I am longing for a woman.