Bartender, this tequila is for Arturo. He was ambushed on his way back from town to buy a phone card for his mother. Eighteen rounds. His cousin Daniel, a singer from Sinaloa, heard the shots from the rancho and came running over the ridge. They got Arturo in the face but somehow he was still breathing. At the wake, Daniel told me he climbed into Arturo’s truck, squeezed his head together, and sucked the blood out of his mouth—just as he’d seen Arturo do with his beloved fighting cocks. But it was too late. It’s always too late.
Arturo loved banda, his Chevy truck, cold Tecate. He mistreated his wife, neglected his many children, had a terrible temper. Don’t want to pay up at the cockfights? Arturo set fire to your marijuana fields. Default on a loan? Arturo show up at your house and put your pregnant wife into the street. He went too far, didn’t think things through, but he was my wife’s uncle and she was his favorite niece, and now he takes his ease on a hill behind the Ensenada boatyard.
They were taking Arturo out of the hearse when we got there. Somber men in black denim and off-white cowboy hats carried the silver box with gilt edges to the first of four freshly dug graves. Two of the pallbearers were Arturo’s sons, one just three weeks back from Iraq. Two bands took turns playing and it was in the gaps between songs that I could hear the wailing of the women as they lowered Arturo into the ground. Everyone crowded around the grave to throw dirt on his coffin. I was afraid someone was going to fall into one of the dusty holes. Daniel emptied his Tecate into the grave and defiantly sang the corrido he’d somehow found the time to compose. The men went to work with their long shovels. I still have the gravedust on my shoes.
The sun beat down and the men retreated to the cool comfort of this bar while the women—except for my wife who wouldn’t leave my side or I hers—went back to the rancho to recite the rosary. For a glorious hour Arturo’s favorite songs roared from the jukebox. Daniel told the story how early one hangover morning Arturo coaxed me into drinking a cocktail of tequila, cocoa and milk straight from the cow’s teat. Everyone laughed and slapped me on the back and just like that I was familia. Isn’t that always how it goes? Soon as somebody leaves, someone else takes his place.
–An earlier version of “Handful of Dirt” was originally published as part of Esquire’s The Napkin Fiction Project. It appears here by permission of the author.