Juan’s Jukebox

I landed my glider on the beach, turned to the bar, and gave Juan the signal: forearms pressed together and hands split into Y-shape of a cocktail glass. This was the cue for Juan to start making our margaritas. He knew the details: Allison’s without salt; mine with.  Both on-the-rocks.

A rumor circulated the Mexican village that Juan washed the cocktail glasses in the dirty lagoon behind his restaurant. We didn’t care. His bar was closest to the landing zone and after the steep climb to launch and our flights, we were too lazy to shoulder our gliders another step. So what if just a few trudges away, crisp-shirted waiters served up meals in pretty carved out pineapples.

Like most pilots on a flying vacation, we had a routine. The top launch was good at noon, and the sock straightened out on mid-launch around 2:00. We’d take a couple flights, then wash the adrenaline down with a margarita. Sometimes two.

I shook the sand out of my wing, packed it up, and slogged over to a beach chair. Juan flip-flopped toward me in his dirty apron and our two margaritas balanced on a tray. He set the glasses down side by side.

“Gracias!”  I said, lifting my glass. I took a sip. The rock salt abraded my lips slightly. Juan’s margaritas were the best in the world–cold, salty, gritty, like the sea embodied in a cocktail glass. Allison trudged over, dropped her glider, and stretched out on the chair next to me. Out in the bay, fisherman threw nets from their boats and a flock of birds fluttered over us like a fresh white sheet. I’d never felt a more uncomplicated happiness in my life.

We drained our margaritas and I took the empty glasses back to the bar. I fished a 500-peso note from my wallet—the smallest bill I had. Juan slammed the cash box down and glared at me.

“No change!” He went on to berate me in fast Spanish.

My mood dropped like a shot pheasant.

“Fu-fuu …Forget this place!” I yelled.

While most days Juan was pleasant, one out of ten times he would mysteriously erupt like this. At first I was bewildered, then angry.

It felt unfair. We were his best customers, dropping 80 pesos a day for a month straight. We put up with his grimy bathroom facilities—the seatless toilet and the lock-less door, the scummy hand-washing barrel. We endured the love-sick ranchera riffs that wept nonstop from his jukebox. Other pilots gave up on his place long ago, swapping their flight stories next door at Domingo’s instead.

“We’re never coming back!” I yelled.

“Adios!” he said waving me off. Juan pandered to no one.

This wouldn’t be the first time we tried to boycott Juan’s bar. Usually, by day four of the boycott, our laziness would exceed our anger and we’d end up in his beach chairs again, enduring the ranchera music and quaffing down his fantastic margaritas. Juan would pretend nothing happened.

“Margaritas senoritas,” he’d say placing our glasses on the table. In a matter of days he’d blow up at us again and the cycle would continue.

We didn’t know much about Juan, but he seemed to have a soft side. Like a crusty-version of St. Francis of Assisi, he tended a variety of animals—a stubborn mule, a brood of chickens, a few caged parrots, a dog that fetched rocks, and a cat with a freakish nervous tic. He’d even endeared himself to a wild pigeon by pouring a small pile of seed on the end of his bar each day.

Unlike the other bar owners, who closed up and went home for the night, Juan lived with his two teenagers and wife in a large canvass tent behind his bar. The local villagers patronized his placed in the evenings, often staying into the night playing cards and plunking pesos in the jukebox.

Sometimes, when standing at his bar, Juan would pull the canvass door aside and we’d glimpse his private world. Inside, an old television crackled on an upturned crate. His wife would be in there watching Mexican soap operas. She never spoke. She never came outside.

This second season, I began to joke with Juan about his moods, ordering “Dos margaritas simpaticas!” or “Two friendly margaritas”—as opposed to the mean ones. He’d laugh and play along. I began to like a few of the ranchera tunes that played from his jukebox. One evening a lover and I spun around sun-drunk to the Vicente Fernandez song Estos Celos—what pain, what love

I remember Juan sitting in a chair, his head tilted back slightly and watching. He seemed almost wistful.

“Los Jovenes,” Juan said. The young ones…

It wasn’t until our third flying season that we learned that all this time Juan’s wife had cancer. Behind that heavy canvass door, between mixing our margaritas, he’d been tending to her illness.  He’d sometimes close the bar altogether, and take the water taxi ride to hospital in Puerto Vallarta where his wife was receiving treatment.

His temper still flared, but we were more patient. Now we understood he had bills to pay. His jukebox was gone that year, replaced by a small handheld stereo.  The owners of the nearby bars were complaining that the loud ranchera was putting off the tourists. Juan’s expression grew hard and serious.

He seemed to emigrate between two worlds that season—the one outside his door where we laid in the sun drinking margaritas, and the dark dank insides of his canvass hut, which may as well been a different country. The geography of our paradise—the palm trees, the macaws, the cocktails–was the geography of real life for him. Our vacation was not his vacation.

We returned for a fourth season. Juan was there as usual, tending his brood of chickens, the tame pigeon, the caged parrots, the stubborn pack mule, the stone-fetching dog, and the nervous cat. But something had changed. Weeks went by and he didn’t yell. We didn’t boycott.

We found out that his wife had passed away that winter. Though he’d cared for her with great love and fidelity, it was obvious that his burden had grown less. He was laughing with his patrons, drinking Pacificos, and playing rowdy card games into the night. I suddenly got it: all this time, Juan wasn’t jerk. He was just a person under huge duress.

“How could we not have known his wife was so ill?” I asked Allison hurling a stone into the surf for Juan’s dog to fetch.

With the Godlike views afforded by our wings, it sometimes felt like we knew everything about that place. We knew how thermals formed over the first-blooming Primaveras in March, how wind spilled over certain ridges at noon, and how to decipher wind lines on the ocean. We could see straight down into the village and all the way across to the Marietta Islands.

But our big view wasn’t always the best view. Details got lost.

It was good to arrive last season and see Juan happy. We landed our gliders and gave him the cue. He disappeared into the darkness of his hut and came out with a handful of shiny green limes to make the best margaritas in the world.

“Dos Margaritas Simpaticas!”  he laughed, setting our glasses down. And they truly were.

*originally published in the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Magazine