These stories have all been so good. And you guys are in for a real treat tonight with Lora’s. Plus, I am glad to have a curandero introduced tonight, since we’ll need one again before this is all over.
The Nashville Lesson
by Lora Stevenson
A curandero named Urzua bought a sad guy in a bar another round.
That might make a great opening line for a joke. Except, the curandero is a male witch whose number one concern is finding a city he can live in anonymously…and that guy he bought a beer for? Well, his life’s goal is to be a star.
Urzua knew better. Every day, he closed the garage before sunset and headed to the same Nashville neighborhood pub as he had every night for the last seven months. So far, things were working out. The pub he frequented wasn’t fancy, and while it was only passably clean, that suited Urzua just fine. They didn’t refer to themselves as a “pub,” and that, too, was a point in their favor. Urzua thought of it as his place, which meant he didn’t draw stares still dressed in dark gray chinos and the matching work shirt he put on each day, no matter what city he found himself in after being forced to move the repair shop. He counted on no one at the bar remarking on or remembering his appearance. He slouched in, slouched at his stool, and tipped just enough–not so much as to draw attention and no so little as to draw ire. Another brown-skinned working guy here was not remarkable, and yet different enough from the usual white-collared after-work office crowds and rowdy college sports enthusiasts to remain apart and solitary without drawing speculation.
The Nashville musicians who frequented the bar, now, they were another story. Urzua knew them to be an unknown factor in his remaining under the bar management’s radar. He’d learned the hard way back in Austin that at times it could be impossible to tell whether some guitar player was high or happy, whether the drummer was drunk or sober. Musicians, like Urzua, tended to be comfortable on the fringe of any place they found themselves. They’d talk to poor, rich, ugly, beautiful, black, white, and every shade between. They always had an angle: to be known, and regularly worked any crowd to raise their profile. They were likely to see Urzua. That made them dangerous.
At first, that Monday night, Urzua went through his usual routine. He ordered a beer and a shot. Reviewed the checklist for closing the garage. He’d turned off all the lights inside and out. Locked the front door. Secured the bays. All that didn’t mean some lonely woman, passing by with the windows down on this cool autumn night close to All Hallows’ Eve, might not smell his work. As a result of catching the smell, as they had done so many times before, the woman would pull into the lot of Urzua’s Auto Repair, remembering a cracked tail light or the sticker the quick lube place had put on the windshield. Oh–how long was it ago? She would think. Then, she’d have to pull over a while to consider when the next oil change was due, or squint at the sticker in the corner of the windshield to make out the mileage and do the math. After that, Urzua would have a hell of a time getting rid of her again. They came from dusk all through the night, these women. Urzua could do little to prevent them. He’d barred the garage parking lot for years with gates, traffic cones; even buckets of tar. It mattered little. In Urzua’s experience, a lonely woman would move mountains to get to something she thought smelled right. They caught the scent that trailed after his repair work, and that was that. Once they pulled in, they had to investigate the heavy whiff of loamy, sweet growing things. Urzua drowned everything he ate in hot sauce to muddy that smell. Poured cayenne pepper around the garage and office. Yet they found the scent of growing things and burnt sugar that came just after Urzua’s hands had been on a car long enough to see where the manifold needed to release more oxygen, or the contaminants from hot roads had laid a film over circuit boards–oh, he loved removing that film; like the scab coming off an itchy, dry wound long healed. He left things so well repaired a machine was likely to run ten times its typical expiration date. As a result, Urzua never had to advertise or look for more clients. They found him. He just had to keep the women and the cats at bay with enough efficiency to drink and sleep in peace.
I love to fix things and I am not going to stop, he thought. It doesn’t matter about the women. It doesn’t matter about the cats. Urzua told himself again that Monday night, we’ll find the right city. Don’t give up. Nashville may just be it. The smell created by his repairs wasn’t something he could change. It simply was. We’ve gotten better—really good, in fact, at hiding odors. Maybe I should be in the perfume business. Being able to sense what needed fixing was the witchy curandero talent Urzua had been born with, though. It was life, that smell, not because he always made things better or returned them to the way they had been, but because, as Urzua had learned moving from place to place all his life and trying to repair cars and things and people along the way, healing was a very complicated but persistent effort of anything that grew.
Urzua had come north out of Mexico as a teenager, not long after the cats became an unavoidable plague. They found him everywhere, still, whether he worked at healing something or not. They were drawn to him from his birth. His padre had said they clustered outside the door of their small house with his first cry in this world. His mother didn’t mind so much, having chosen to marry an old-school curandero, oddities were simply part of the world. In the rural countryside where they had met and Urzua had grown up, the curandero was a community pillar. Every little town that had one boasted about it. A community with a specialist curandero was an even bigger point of pride. Before medicine was a profession, a male or female curandero might study and share herb lore, tobacco healing, special prayers, or even what rich Americanos would call “therapy.” Before there was a great divide between those who could afford to pay a doctor and those who could not—there were the curanderos, like Urzua’s padre, with a country garden and open door. While many larger towns counted their blessings and boasted of having their own priest, it was a Curandero rural folk relied on to keep the community well.
After his father died, Urzua and his mother had moved to town. Guernavaca was a nice place to be because his mother’s sister was there and Tia Maria was a connector of people. She found his mother work cleaning offices down by the river, even small jobs Urzua could do for hasty, tight bundles of cash without drawing the city priest’s attention. There was regular electrical power in Guernavaca, so Urzua had the opportunity to gather trash–broken toasters, radios, other small appliances–and quickly progress to more complex machines. It was in Guernavaca, not far south of the U.S. border, that Urzua found his ability to feel the wrong and incompleteness of things. Far away from official hubs of commerce and security, a used car or truck equaled status and freedom. Urzua learned to repair automobiles and discovered grateful people would simply mutter: Eh, el niño comprendes las máquinas. No one questioned if something Urzua had laid hands on kept running.
But Urzua had been caught climbing a neighbor’s fence one day. It was only the first time the cats would ruin everything. Climbing the fence was no offense for teenage boys, but drawing hundreds of cats from all over town while dangling from a tennis shoe caught at the top of the cathedral’s postern gate, was. Tía Maria had come and dispersed the crowds, but not before the presence of a Curandero had been noted by the neighborhood. It was just a matter of time before murmurs became trouble.
So, with his mother and a satchel of cash, after mending a cracked engine block and bringing a border guard’s favorite four-wheel-drive back to life, Urzua left Guernavaca behind and began his search for a city where he could fix things and also have peace.
That was many cities ago.
It’s particularly true that Monday evening, the week of Halloween, though the guy at Urzua’s regular pub seemed lost and in shock, his defenses should have been on higher alert. He remembered the guy hadn’t smelled bad or sick or drunk. Urzua got a good sense of his scent wafting its way from the bar’s overhead ceiling fans. He remembered hints of minty aftershave and a deep, tangy note of BBQ sauce hidden somewhere on the guy’s really loud, red shirt. The man’s hangdog expression was in sharp contrast to this bright red shirt. It featured parakeets and some vegetation that in the dim bar light might have been the huachera palm. Urzua, ever alert for the mystical and overlooked ordinary, knew it was unlikely some gringo dude wearing loafers with no socks and sporting a bad comb-over would be wearing a shirt covered in the sacred plant of Urzua’s own people. But it was dim. And it had been a very bad day.
The morning had begun with a “HIE! You guardians of hell!” shouted by the Professor, Urzua’s garage assistant, former patient, and, he supposed, best friend. Urzua had attempted a few college classes in Athens, Georgia. Now, that had been a good town. Good enough for his mother to stay behind in, when it came time, as always, for Urzua to move on. For better or worse, Urzua’s smart mouth had led to trying to heal his favorite professor, this guy who spoke seven languages and somehow, still, kept a sense of humor. That humor was the other side of depression, which the professor couldn’t shake. To make a long story short, Urzua had a coffee with his favorite professor one morning. A coffee that lasted all day, and ended with no more depression, but a passenger on the trip out of town. That was the last time Urzua had tried to fix a person.
That was sixteen cities ago. So, when The Professor called, Urzua left the buckets of milk he’d been carrying at the creek’s edge. It was good to have a guard for the garage, though what the thin, whispy-haired old man could do if a horde of ladies or cats decided to come in, he wasn’t sure. Leaving buckets of milk at the creek down below the shop each morning normally meant he could distract the cats long enough to open for business, get the mail, and answer a few calls.
“I’m burning some things in the front parking lot. I think the smell might be cover for us.” What, Urzua wondered, could he possibly be burning that would make a difference?
“I took some of your petty cash and paid a very amused group of local scholar- athletes for their hosiery,” replied The Professor, without Urzua ever uttering the question.
“Used socks. Rather black . . . not sure they began life that way. Very used. Socks they practiced football in. I also gave an extra ten dollars to any of them who would give me the garbage from their lockers. The reek would wake the dead.” The Professor was gleeful, and perhaps deservedly so, not because it wasn’t a bad idea, but he couldn’t help adding a warning–
“Don’t say that. Good thinking, but don’t say that.” Urzua gave the old man his best stink eye.
“Lo siento, mi amigo–forgot the season.”
Urzua slipped into the garage’s back door as they spoke. The three bays were empty, the last repaired cars sitting in the parking lot with keys and a very heavy hex against thieves laid on the ignition.
“We are too close to Halloween to be joking about raising the dead,” and with that admonition, Urzua left to open the first service bay. Unfortunately, what he’d found there was a fifty-something librarian with a wrench in her hand.
“Lady! . . . madre de . . . , Ma’am! Good morning. Can we help you with something?”
They had spent the rest of the day trying to convince the woman, of course—her name was Eleanor, that no, her Ford Focus didn’t need new tires. The engine sounded just dandy. All the belts were secure. Yes, her odometer was working . . . and so on and so on . . . He’d had to pull The Professor aside and warn him to stop flirting, and that yes, continually making veiled references to books Eleanor the Librarian may not have read but should, constituted flirting.
Perhaps Urzua was in a weakened state. He had bought the man at his favorite Nashville pub a beer, but knew—just knew—he’d used the universal male sign for “You’re welcome, now go away.” He acknowledged the man’s thanks with a nod of his head and a quick full-body turn in the opposite direction. Yet the guy had sidled up and fenced Urzua in by leaning on the bar. Next he knew, he was listening to crazy-red-shirt-guy’s story of how the Greatest Woman in the World had cheated and taken off with a car salesman. Shortly before thinking to himself, estupido, Urzua realized the man was telling him this was the third wife to go and–Urzua realized with no small amount of horror–it was an out-of-work musician he was talking to.
Dios mío, Urzua muttered under his breath, and began backing his barstool away. The man didn’t pause in his telling, though Urzua could have written the man’s story himself. He’d spent enough time in Nashville to have already heard this tale many times before.
He was supposed to be a star. But life is so unfair, and the music industry machine had gobbled up his good years on cruise ships and in late-night honky-tonks where the band’s bar tab and the night’s pay never came out in his favor. The tours had left him tired and spent, so that he lost track of time and money and other people living lives that involved trips to the dentist and the grocery store without a soundtrack or spotlight. He grew older as the new guys had come in: boys and girls in boots with enough daddy money to hire the best studio and players. Pretty enough for billboards and TV. They couldn’t play, they couldn’t sing, they couldn’t write, but they made the best puppets for crossing into pop and adding another layer of waxy shine to Disney Nashville.
And then–really, Urzua was still unsure what happened–he made another big mistake. Since he was leaving through the parking lot anyway, he didn’t stop this musician guy in the questionable red shirt from following him out the bar’s main door and across the dark lot. When he beckoned to Urzua from a restored ’87 Cutlass, how do these musicians with no cash all have sweet rides? despite of all the things that Urzua could have guessed, he found himself at the Cutlass’ passenger door. He got in and listened to THE SONG that should have been a hit. And though Urzua had only one shot and one beer, he found himself laying hands on that song. He didn’t think about the consequences. The melody sounded hurt and lame. When he should have asked more questions, like “What’s your name, red-shirt guy?” When he should have thought of the man as a patient, and done an assessment of his physical and mental health, right then and there; Urzua hadn’t. He had simply reached into the song with his heart and mind and talent. He set it to right, took a deep breath, and then reeled out of Red Shirt Guy’s Cutlass and away to his own car.
The next Urzua knew he was back at the garage, parking his ’41 Chevy in the third bay and throwing the keys down before hitting the small corner sofa in the office. He slept, long and deep, unlike other nights, somehow lighter and more peaceful as the song he’d fixed made loops on itself in his head.
“Mother-freaking cats!” Urzua heard the exclamation, followed by yowls and screeches. It was still dark out; he noted the single streetlight on Foster Avenue as he squinted through the office’s dusty front plate glass window. He paused for a moment and drew a deep breath, to prepare for blocking out the cats—and the Professor. He looked down at his watch, expecting to see “Tue” in the little window.
“Gatos malditos y puta canción!” he screamed and threw himself at the door with a roar to scare the felines. He snatched the Professor’s tweed jacket and yanked him into the office, calling over his shoulder,
“Get the radio on. A COUNTRY station. ANY country station! Ahora! Ahora! If country radio has a hold of THE SONG, we’re screwed. They’ll have it on repeat. It’s just a matter of time until someone tracks us down.”
“What?” the Professor called, even as he was jerking a radio from under the front counter and plugging it in. “What did you do? Tell me, you horse’s petard. I LIKE this town. I don’t want to leave.”
As if to echo Urzua’s words, the evening jockey from local Lightning 100 erupted in a voice that echoed into the first two empty bays–LOCAL HERO RICK JOHNSON WROTE THIS NEXT TUNE. KEEP DREAMIN’, Nashville. THE NEXT HITMAKER COULD BE YOU!”
With a heavy sigh, The Professor dropped his head to the desk and mumbled, “When do we leave? Tonight?”
“Yes. Tonight.” And with that, Urzua launched into action, grabbing blue fifty-five gallon drums from the shop’s back corner and waving to the Professor to come help remove lids.
“Scatter these potatoes and apples everywhere you can. It has to be tonight. Don’t forget to slit them with your pocket knife–they’ll absorb odors faster that way.”
“Of course I will not forget. Did I not arrange to have the barrels delivered this time? I’m not the one who forgot that people shouldn’t be fixed.”
“I didn’t fix him; I fixed a song, dammit.”
“Same thing,” was the Professor’s quick reply.
“Misterio. How the fuck was I supposed to guess that?” Urzua exclaimed, stopping to rest, hands on hips and chin thrust forward.
“Let’s head to Memphis next,” replied the Professor. “I know a blues man there. For a decent used car, he’ll probably tell you all about it.”