My friend John asked me about ‘El Protector’ over lunch one day, asked if I’d heard anything about it. At the time, there was a big police initiative to reach out to the Hispanic community called ‘El Protector,’ which we considered to be something of a sad joke. ‘Yes, we’re trying to deport your friends and family, but we also want to work with you to reduce crime in your area, so, please, call us.’
As you might imagine, this didn’t work so well.
“No, not the police thing. That thing on Charlotte.”
Well, this is how it works in Nashville, often. Everyone who didn’t speak English who lived or worked along Charlotte Pike knew about El Protector. I didn’t know anyone who spoke English as his first language, except for John, who had heard of it.
John has a friend, Joselito, who agreed to have beers with us at the Las Palmas on Charlotte. And I asked him about El Protector. He laughed and said what I said, “Who wants to call the police? They’ll just take away your friends and the problems are left behind. Better to stick with your friends and take care of the problems yourselves.”
“No, John, explain to him.”
And so John explained to him.
“Oh. That’s nothing. Just stories.”
“Yes, but I want to know the stories.”
He turned to John and they had a long conversation.
John then turned to me. “He says it’s nothing. Swamp gas. Rising out of the creek and then up the hill towards the Kentucky Fried Chicken and that there’s a scientific explanation for it.”
“Wait. He’s saying there’s a light that rises up out of the creek and heads west along the street?”
I waited for more discussion.
“He’s saying that’s not what people say, but that’s the most likely explanation.”
“What do people say?”
“I can tell you,” our waiter said, dropping off another round of beers and some more corn chips. “It is a man with a lantern. You can see the light from a long way away, clear down by Bobby’s Dairy Dip and it comes…”
“No, it comes too fast to be a man,” interjects another waiter.
“A man on a horse?”
“Oh, yes, a man on a horse.”
“It comes, just the light, this faint yellow light, down the road and you hurry to get in your car or back in the building. You don’t want to be out when it gets by you.”
“Or it will throw its giant pumpkin head at you?” I joke.
“No, no. If you are good, probably nothing. But, if you are bad, you will die.”
“Wait, El Protector kills people?” I try to clarify.
“A ghost can’t kill people,” John says, in a way that seems designed to end the conversation.
“Of course not,” Joselito says.
“Someone else kills you,” the waiter says. “Seeing El Protector up close is a curse.”
“How often does this happen?”
“Oh, all the time,” the other waiter says. “You can sit in our parking lot all night and you will see it.”
“Because I’ll be hallucinating from lack of sleep,” says John.
And we all laugh and that is the end of it.
Except, of course, it’s not.
A couple of months later, I’m having lunch with John again and he seems very shaken, but he won’t say much, except to tell me about how his kids are doing in school.
“No, really, what’s troubling you?”
“I saw it.”
“What? The light? The ghost? Up close?”
“JJ was sick and it was the middle of the night and I had to run to Walmart and you know how they’re closing down 40 at night to do repaving? So, I was coming back home up Charlotte when I saw a light coming towards me. I thought at first it was a motorcycle. But it was going too slow. And the light seemed too high up. It was just like they said. Like where a lantern would be if you were holding it out in front of you on horseback. And…”
“Did you see it? Did you see it up close?”
“No. I chickened out. When it got close enough, I shut my eyes.”
“While you were driving?!”
“I hit a dog. Killed it. It was terrible. I feel terrible.”
“Maybe it was an evil dog.”
“Oh god, shut up.”