By Pato Che
“Stay frozen,” I tell Pancho when I realize that the avalanche of memories threatens to let the tears loose. “Yes, frozen,” he replies as he hits his own heart.
It is way past 11 p.m. and the doors of the workshop remain open. Chavela Vargas’ husky voice invites us to drown yet another beer and to follow the path of another story of mechanics.
I have heard all of his stories by now, from the one about his difficult childhood in Michoacan to those about his best years as a truck driver. I still like to hear them again and again and hope that some day they will float among their peers of literature.
We are finished with most of our work of the day, however, we still need to put the tools away. It is as though, in the middle of this chaos of metal, time could stretch. I feel then his need to live again those happier times, to hold on to his memories; today, as I face this storyteller, I feel the engine of life start anew.
A mechanical heritage
This last month in Saltillo, I have worked more in mechanics than as a journalist. It may be why what I had first seen as a dilapidated workshop looks today like the classroom of an automobile engineering school, filled with every tool one can dream of and the best teacher ever.
Few of us can imagine that in the middle of all the mess of second-hand pieces, Pancho knows where EVERYTHING is, from the rear view mirror of a ’60 Beetle to the automatic transmission buried under the gigantic pile of alternators.
These are the leftovers of better times when a dozen employees used to work under the orders of “the engineer,” the very one that gave the green light to the hundreds of Volkswagen motors to get out of “La Carcacha.”
In the ’80 and ’90, when the VW fever was high, the whole Beetle fleet of the local newspaper or the vans of the postal services came to the workshop for all sorts of interventions: mechanical, electrical, straightening, paint jobs, metalworking and others.
Their business also included repair jobs and recycling the bodies of vehicles, which Pancho assures to have piled up with his own arms.
Nowadays, as time goes by, as economic crisis strike and as modern vehicles are released every day, the workshop has lost its biggest clients; however, it still stands true to its spirit. “Everything is possible” is its motto. My mechanic has also adopted it as his own philosophy of life.
And, in spite of the millions of pesos they offer to buy this precious lot downtown, Pancho refuses to sell and holds on to the light of his existence.
“How would I occupy myself otherwise, dear Che?” he asks me with pride and nostalgia. I answer that after so many years of hard work, he should sell it all and go away with his wife on a paradise island. “What about the grand-kids?” he strikes back. “We couldn’t live without them.”
The memories about his childhood resurface with our last drink, as though alcohol keeps them alive, right before oblivion. It is when I learn more about his indigenous origins, his resentment mixed with pride towards his father and what has not been said to his mother yet.
As a teenager, he fled in search of other horizons. He found them as a mechanic, as a bus driver and, above all, in workshops. I regret not having recorded his incredible tales, 4-wheel adventures that took me further than any fiction could have.
On the road, after a load was knocked-down, he met Myrna, with whom he was to spend the best years of his life. As the Mexican Bonnie & Clyde, the lovers would cross the border with the United States of America with secret goods that could get into the highest hands of power.
Later on, when they decided to have a family, they stopped in the quiet Valley of Saltillo. Unfortunately, peace is not exactly what they found there… Rather, a storm hit them when their rebel teenage son had a stroke of bad luck and had them all face the corrupted system of justice.
Years went by, time hit hard and the Kafkaesque web spread around them to the point of tarnishing the successful family business. They would come out of it with an advantage, though: through the grating, the prodigal son turned into an artis He expressed his freedom on the canvas and let it fly away through the bars thanks to the keys of a piano.
During that time, like in a Hollywood movie, his brother was studying law night and day so he could find the right ones that would take him out of prison.
The night his release was announced, there was a gala ceremony. In front of the press and the federal authorities, the governor gave the culprit the State Prize of Youth.
This revenge on life gave faith back to my mechanic but, in those times, the city had fallen to the “new” drug traffickers who, by means of blows and threats, had come into the workshop and gone with a few vehicles.
Nowadays, few of those who called themselves friends still come to the workshop. They are those, like me, who respect the man who always goes forward.
Everything is possible
“Only with you he is he that patient,” Myrna tells me trying not to correct all the stories he’s told me. I know it, we know it; with each turn of the screwdriver comes closer the hour of departure.
These last few weeks, our relationship has grown fonder. One acts as a father, more patient and benevolent than he has ever been. The other becomes a son and tries to enjoy to the fullest those few instants that he never lived with his own old man.
Our instinct speaks to both of us and we know we are going to lose anyway.
He loses the money he could have made by working on a newer engine but he adds another adventure to his fight against death.
As for me, I champ at the bit waiting to be on the road again but I know I’ll leave with more knowledge and skills as well as with another stack of stories to tell, ones that would have made any scriptwriter pale of envy.
And while we’re waiting for a spark and an explosion, our friendship gets stronger.
Chronicle dedicated to Pancho and Myrna, for all their patience and attention…