The hotel lobby is dark and cool, like a church. The only sound is a fountain. Arthur blazes past the bellhop and straight to the concierge and tells him the whole story, how his first love was named Valencia, how she broke his heart, how he found her online a few weeks ago, how they’ve been writing flirty letters back and forth, how she’s married and lives in Phoenix, but he still wants to win her back. Then he asks if he can buy a postcard or some stationery with the hotel’s letterhead. The concierge is so blown away by the story that he sends Arthur away with a bag stuffed with postcards and stickers and brochures.
We leave the hotel and walk to the Alamo. The tour guide says Texas is the only state in the union to belong to five different nations: Spain, France, Mexico, the United States, and the short-lived Republic of Texas.
I say I forgot Texas was its own country.
Arthur says that’s why Texans have such a requited love affair with their state.
I ask if he means ‘unrequited.’
No, he says. Requited.
We go the gift shop, where you can buy tee shirts and coffee mugs and jigsaw puzzles and other assorted schwag to help you Remember the Alamo. There’s also a jewel case with guns and Bowie knives big enough to rip out a whale’s heart.
Next we go to a Mexican restaurant on the River Walk. The waiter sees Arthur’s Hotel Valencia bag and asks if we’re guests. No, Arthur says, and then tells him everything almost verbatim from the story he told the concierge, but with the added detail that Valencia was the best lay on either side of the Rio Grande. The whole time I’m waiting for the waiter to interrupt Arthur and say he has other customers. But he laps up the story and when Arthur finishes he leaves and comes back with two margaritas in glasses the size of trashcans.
On the house, he says. Go get her, ese.
What’s ese? Arthur says.
It’s Mexican slang, I say. It means dude or man or bro.
Arthur nods and I can see him ready to work that into his next routine. As soon as the waiter leaves, Arthur passes me his margarita. He’s been sober for decades. But he drank more than cranberry juice when he met Valencia. She worked at a bar that was more or less a brothel for the El Paso business elite. All the cocktail waitresses took turns with the clients. They called themselves The Mistresses Club.
Arthur dumps out his bag and spreads Hotel Valencia stationery across the table. He practically fondles the paper. He tells me how his Valencia has a daughter about my age. He says he saw photos. She looks just like her mother.
We could double date, he says.
Too weird, I say.
Your loss, he says.
For a while, we don’t talk. I suck down my tequila ocean. Arthur works on composing a letter to Valencia. Then three guys with sombreros and guitars come over to our table, the Texas version of those violinists in Florence. I shoo them away, but Arthur says wait, he has a request.
Bad idea, I say.
Play along, he says.
Then he asks the musicians if they know a song called Nunca. They look confused. He hums a few bars, but his sense of pitch is even worse than mine and the only lyric he knows is Nunca. The musicians look confused and go into a little mariachi huddle and whisper in Spanish. I want them to leave, to hell with Arthur and his ideas. Then they break their huddle and the bandleader says, Jes, we know that song.
The song starts with a rubato guitar trill and the bandleader singing. Then the other two guys join with their guitars and harmonize. Nunca means never. And you don’t need to be bilingual to figure out that it’s a sad song. The whole time, Arthur closes his eyes and sways. It hurts to see him this way. He never got married, never had kids, and still relives the legends of the past, like all those people at the Alamo. The song goes on and on. I catch snippets of the words: soul, tears, corazón. And just when my own corazón is ready to explode, the song ends with a final Nunca, nunca.
Arthur opens his eyes and claps. The musicians take a bow and then the bandleader says the song costs six dollars. Arthur gets out his wallet, hands the guy a twenty and tells him to keep the change. I’m stunned. I’ve never seen Arthur spend so much money at once. This is a guy who steals ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.
That was my song with Valencia, Arthur says after the band leaves.
I figured, I say.
Should I forget about her?
Jes, I say.
OK, he says. But let me send her one letter to tell her about the hotel and the song. Then I’ll stop. How does that sound?
Fine, I say. What I don’t tell him is that a long time ago, I lost somebody too.
Click here for Keith Meatto's bio