By Heather King
Martin Verdugos is a fishing camp in Los Barriles Baja, north of Cabo but it is nothing like Cabo.
It is a simpler place. Full of community, trailers and dust. Hubby and I have lived here for five winters. We have a routine of morning coffee watching the sunrise over the sea of Cortez, then a mountain bike ride, lunch with friends and perhaps, pickleball.
Our next door neighbour is Old Fred, who told us that he was ninety two years old in March of last year when we last saw him. His wife died a long time ago. Recently, he befriended a Mexican widow.
Her name was Anna and she would come into Old Fred’s aging trailer once a week and clean. Old Fred would pay her and take her out to dinner, driving his ATV. Did I say that Old Fred is almost blind?
Often the ATV drive was fraught with rural Mexican dangers: herds of goats, broken Mexican cars with no working headlights, or cows who believe they own the road.
Anna spoke little English and Old Fred, no Spanish, but I would often hear them giggling about something.
Arriving back at Martin Verdugos this year, as we drive to our site, we see Old Fred’s trailer still beside us, however it leans slightly to one side. The junk of past pursuits litters his driveway – an old boat missing the motor, eight coolers, a rusted wire trellis that won’t be holding their ruby treasures of tomatoes ever again and an odd assortment of pipes and rotten wood that are overgrown with weeds.
“Oh no,” we groan. “It looks like Old Fred is still trying to stay here for the winters. Well thank goodness for Anna.”
Our unpacking, setting up the outdoor kitchen, and dragging boxes into the shed awakens Old Fred. We hear his shuffling slippered feet as he makes his way around the junk to our campsite. He wants company. I rush out with a flashlight as I don’t want him falling, although as a former special forces commander, he probably has ninety lives. There have been many near fatal events in his colourful past.
We settle him down in a chair, and get caught up on the past four months. I try not to look at all the unpacking that I still have to do before my head hits the pillow.“I lost Anna last week,” he says and drops his head down.
I’m shocked. Lost? Like, as in couldn’t find her or….
“She had an ulcer and her son took her to the hospital in La Paz. Then I went to the restaurant by myself and the Mexican ladies there all came over to me and were crying and carrying on something awful.”
Now I know it’s the bad kind of ‘lost’. The anguish of dreading what I don’t want to hear next, grips my gut.
He glances up at our horrified faces and pauses. His old veined hand dabs at his eyes. I feel mine well up too and have to swallow.
His old gravelly voice continues, “I told them that Anna was in the hospital in La Paz. I couldn’t understand what they were carrying on about.” Then he mutters: “They didn’t want to tell me. I was the last one to know.”
“Her son came with her doctor two days later. He told me that Anna was in a bad way when she got to the hospital. She was bleeding from her mouth. The doctor said that the surgeon couldn’t stop the bleeding. Anna died. She bled out.” We gasp, but he isn’t done.
“It’s been a bad week. Extra died too.”
“Extra, your cat?”
“Yeah. He was old and just died in my arms. Right after Anna died. It’s just old me now.”…
We try to comfort him with words but he has seen too much heartbreak in his life.
After a while he leans forward with his hands on the armrest and with momentum rocks his tired old frame from the chair. Still slightly bent over he peers up at us with his cloudy eyes and resigns himself to the rest of his life. However long that is. The last we see is his old man pants, wrinkled and stained shuffling along the dust to his leaning trailer. Alone…
Fred leaves us heartsick and feeling helpless. So I do what people do. The next morning I bake muffins – healthy ones with grated carrots and pumpkin in them. I’m not sure why I made them healthy. Old Fred eats bacon; he’s ninety-three years old. I regret not putting chocolate chips in them. He would have liked that.
Knocking on the aluminum frame of his trailer I see a little dish with cat food out front. My heart twists. Do I clean it up and dispose of it or let him do the final tribute to Extra?
I reminisce about Extra – the ugliest cat I had ever seen. When I asked him the year before how Extra got his name, Old Fred said, “Well I had an old cat and it wasn’t going to last much longer. So I got another cat. An extra one,” he had grinned at me.
“What was the old cat’s name?”
“Oh, I called her Gato,” the impish smile is bigger.
I grin too. That means cat in Spanish.
“What did Gato think of Extra?”
Old Fred chuckled. “Well, she was so angry that I had gotten a replacement for her that she lasted another three years!”
“Oh yes. And she beat up on Extra every minute she could even though she was half the size.”
As I reflect on that story, holding the warm, healthy muffins, the door to Fred’s trailer creaks open. Or maybe the creaking was him standing up. Then I ask him something stupid: “Hi Fred, how are you?”
In response, he says nothing and I silently curse myself. But he removes my awkwardness by putting his fingers to the inside of his wrist.
At first I don’t know what he is doing. And then I get it.
He removes his fingers from his pulse and gives me a thumbs up with an impish grin.
I sigh, and think: it’s going to be ok.