My right heel was throbbing like hell. I had been having some problems with gout flare-ups and had made the mistake of drinking a beer with dinner the night before.
I was sitting in a cool dive bar in the middle of Old Town San Diego waiting for Pancho Villa. I sat by the window and sipped a Scotch and water and prayed silently that it wouldn't make my painful heel feel any worse.
Pancho was late. He usually was. I had called him by this nickname ever since we were young. Whenever we played at war or outlaws, it was the name he chose to go by. We had argued several times over which of us had chosen the best nickname.
" He died, you do know that don't you?"
" Fuck you Billy. Everybody dies. At least he went out like a man. Besides your dude died too."
We were drinking sodas and shooting pool at Big Papa's Candy Store on the southern outskirts of Paradise, California, a small farming community in the San Joaquin Valley.
"At least my dude died in the arms of his lover."
"That's a lie and you know it. He got shot in her father's bedroom by a fake friend." He pointed the pool stick at me to make his point.
I gave up. I knew where he would go next; he was gonna say that his guy was a great military leader and my guy was just a lowly outlaw, and I didn't have a good answer for that. At least, not at the time. I've come up with one since then, but it involves mythology, hermetic knowledge and quantum physics. I would have to wait until he was drunk to use it.
Pancho and I always argued, but it was never a serious issue with us. It was just what we did. It was part of the friendship package. We liked to push each other to learn new things and to develop our reasoning skills. His real name was Raymond Rios, and I hadn't seen him in over ten years. He was living in Bakersfield when his wife left him, and he moved to San Diego. I almost never got South of Los Angeles. Then my daughter up and moved to San Diego for her job, and I suddenly had a reason to go there.
I saw him coming up the street in the walking in the swaggering way that he had adopted when we were in high school.
Embarrassed, I would ask him "Ray, why the fuck you swaggering like you Hugh Hefner or something? We lived on a fucking dirt road, man, poorest side of town, neither one of us got any money. Need I go on?"
"No, You need to stop before you start running down our looks and your musical choices."
"What's wrong with our musical choices?"
"I didn't say our choices. I said your choices."
"Don't me give that shit. I'm not the one who'll listen to a twenty minute jam by Rush, then follow it with something by Tommy Bolan."
He ignored the jab, "You just need to put a little something into your stride, dude. We know we ain't got nothing, but they don't need to know." He swept his arm across to indicate that by they, he meant everybody else in the school.
"You think that they don't know?"
He stopped and he looked me square in the eyes. We were stopped in right in the middle of the crosswalk in front of Paradise High School. " I'm telling them I don't give a fuck what they think. I ain't letting none of these people get off with thinking that they are better than me."
That argument must have struck home because about a week later I developed my own swagger and started using it. He watched me struggle with it for a couple of days then told me to stop doing it. He told me it made me look like I was hearing impaired. I didn't ask.
I was on my second scotch and water when he came through the door of the bar with a big smile on his face, "Billy the Kid! What it is?" I got up and we embraced . He looked the same with his long hair hanging down in a ponytail. He was wearing the same pressed Levis and huarache sandals that he had always wore with a black Rush t-shirt under a brown leather vest. The only concession to the aging process was a touch of gray on his temples.
"How long has it been, dude, eight, nine years?"
"It's been ten, Man. Sandra left me, and I moved down here right afterwards. It's about time you came down here to see me."
"You are right, man. I should have come down a long time ago."
I went silent for a second, and he picked up on it right away.
"Aw, don't worry about it. I know you was going through some hard times with Jenny and all. I'm sorry for your loss. I wrote you a letter when I found out, but I never sent it. I just didn't want to sound stupid about something so serious. I wanted to come to the funeral, but I couldn't get away."
"Your Mom and Dad were there. They told me you were locked up. Man, what happened?"
"Being honest, it was my big fucking mouth. It was a little thing to start with, but this old fart of a judge just pushed my buttons. It started out as fifty dollar fine, and by the time I was through with him, it turned into thirty days in jail. I coulda used you holding me back and telling me to shut up like in the old days."
That made me think about the time outside of the Roundabout Bar in Hartford when I had gone to pull him away from a crowd of dudes who were threatening him. I told them that he was just drunk and didn't mean any harm, but when I reached out my hand to shake hands with one of them. The dude grabbed my hand and held it while the rest beat the shit out of me.
Ray had broken away and ran to his car. He was intending to run them all over, but they were gone by the time he came roaring down the alley in back of the bar. He got out, picked me up, and carried me to the car crying, "I'm sorry, Billy. I'm sorry."
I tried to put on a brave front knowing that it was what he would have done and cracked a joke, "You should've seen the other guy."
It didn't work because he just said, "I did see the other guy, Bro. He was kicking you in the fucking head." That's when we both laughed and on the way home argued about the need for humor in otherwise tragic situations.
I ordered him a beer and we sat back and talked over old times for about an hour. Then we decided to take a walk around Old Town. After walking three blocks west we found a bench and sat down by the edge of a park. There were a lot of pretty women walking by us.
"Look at that one, Billy. Ain't she sweet looking? I wonder what kind of underwear she's wearing?"
"What kind of underwear she's wearing? Man, you perverted."
He laughed and shook his head, "I don't think so. I mean I don't ever think about having sex with them. I don't know what it is, but ever since Sandra left, I don't look at pretty women wishing I could see them without their clothes off. I just want to know what kind of underwear they got on."
"That's still weird, man. Everybody would say so. You gotta admit that.
"I don't gotta admit shit. I just been in this weird place where I'm tripping about how most people are busy suppressing the sexual side of their nature. No one is being honest, everybody's tripping, but noone is saying what is really on their minds. That puts it all into the hands of the prudes and the government."
"The government is controlling our sexual lives?"
Yeah. They make the rules and people follow them blindly. Look, people not only cover up their bodies, but they then put a second layer of clothing over their most private parts like they're doubly ashamed of those area. Then the thing is that they often put a lot more thought into what they wear underneath than they do with what they wear on the outside. It's like a private little artistic expression that's being hidden from the world at large."
It was my turn to shake my head, "Still strange, dude. Damn. I bet that you'd run around all naked if you could get away with it?"
"Damn right I would, motherfucker. And I'm not the only one! It seems to me that the older I get, the less time I got for social conventions and hypocrisy."
"Wearing clothing makes a person into a hypocrite?"
"Hell yes, it does. People don't wear clothes because they like to wear clothes. They wear clothes because society tells them that they must wear clothes. Think about it; it's a 115 degrees outside, and you gonna put some clothes on to go the store.
"I'm guessing from all of this that Sandra complained about your sex life and told you that's one of the reason why she left you."
It was a highly personal question, but one I didn't hesitate in asking. It was completely in-line with all of the conversations we used to have when we slept out in my backyard in the summers, sharing secrets that we would carry to the grave.
He frowned, "I knew that you would figure it out. That's pretty much exactly what she said. It's got me all twisted up on the inside. I haven't dated a woman since she left me and if it's been three years. I sure needed someone to talk to back then, but I was devastated to ask. She waited until I came from work late one night. She wasn't in the house but sitting outside in the dark by the pool. Told me that she was leaving me for Ruben Montes. Remember that squirrely dude with the unibrow?"
I nodded, "I was just down the road, man, an hour away. I would have come running had I known. I didn't find out about it until three months later when I ran across Johnnie at the Taco Bell, and by that time you had moved."
"Naw. Don't feel bad. I ran away. There was really nothing you could do. It was a thing I had to go through on my own I guess. And what about you and Jennie? I know that must have been hard."
"Same thing. She wasn't happy, made my life miserable, and I I stuck it out for the kids' sake. Funny thing was that Lucy told me that they would have been better off if their mom and I had split. I blamed myself of course. The only thing that put any kind of fight in me was the day that she said that she said I wasn't good enough, and she deserved someone better than me. That finally pushed me over the edge, and I released all the pent-up emotion in a burst of rage. I left the room telling her 'fuck you and you're better than me.' I did try to copy your walk on the way out the door."
"No you fucking didn't!"
I held up my hand like I was giving a boy's scout oath, "I swear!"
He leaned into me, "Not the one where you looked all hearing impaired!"
He lost it when I said, "No. The pimp walk."
We cried and we laughed the rest of the afternoon. I knew a lot of people passing by must have saw us and wondered about the two old guys sitting on that bench, but we didn't give a damn. It was like we were fourteen-year-old kids back at the candy store shooting pool while arguing about who had the best breasts, Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.
We were still sitting there when the sun started sinking lower in the sky. We watched as a man came rolling down street behind the wheel of a cherried out 1937 two tone black and white sedan with suicide doors. Suavecito by Malo was blaring from the car's speakers.
We watched in silence as the car came to a stop before us. A young white dude with green hair and wearing LeBron Lakers jersey walking by with his wife and daughters smiled at the driver and gave him a big thumbs up. The guy raised his chin an inch and lifted the front end of the car. Someone behind us said, "Look, hydraulics," in a referential voice as if he had solved one of the great mysteries of the universe. The car then slowly turned left and made its way south down a side street.
"Fuck that pendejo," Ray murmured.
"Wha? That was a pretty cool car! I could see why someone would put all that time and effort into restoring a old classic car like that and want to take it out for a drive. It was beautiful, a piece of art."
"I can see that shit too. But did you see him nod to that kid with the green hair giving him the thumbs up? I don't understand the need to be acknowledged like that on either one of their parts, his music blaring out the ride and then the lift? I don't see working on something, no, putting your heart and soul into it, only to have your happiness determined by a thumbs up from some young, green-headed fool who ain't got near the imagination and creativity that you displayed in creating a work of art."
"Fuck, Ray, that's the nature of art, man. You want to people to feel the same way you do about something. You think that Carlos Santana doesn't get off on the crowd when he plays?"
"You think that if there were no crowds, he wouldn't play any more, or maybe he plays music for some the approval of a young knucklehead giving him a thumbs up, or that he would change the way he played if they didn't get that thumbs up?"
"I don't know, man. That shit with Rob Thomas was pretty fucking brutal, and then there's that shit with John McLaughlin."
He laughed, "You know what the fuck I'm talking about. All that I'm saying is if I met that dude on road where it was only him and me nose to nose, and he was looking for a thumbs up from me, I would just turn and walk the other way."
"In a crosswalk at midnight with only the streetlamp on?"
He grinned, "Exactly!"
"You fucking know it, Billy the Kid! You fucking know it!"
By the time the streetlights in Old Town turned on, we had finally talked ourselves out and had to go our separate ways. When he walked down the side of the same road that the car had traveled, he was swaggering, and then he turned and looked back and lowered his ass up and down like he had some hydraulics and waved.
He never even saw the thumbs up I gave him. He just knew it was there, so, without even turning around, he raised his right hand with an upraised middle finger and then turned the corner disappearing into the night lights and the gentle breezes of San Diego.
And me? I turned and limped away like a hearing impaired old fool trying to keep from crying over the throbbing pain in his right heel.