Night falls in Puerto Vallarta.
The contras sneak down from the hills to steal volleyball nets off the beach.
The tide rolls in. Skinny dogs prowl the sand in search of dinner, then drift away dejectedly to wander the streets.
In dusty shop windows stuffed armadillos confer in dry whispers, nervously pondering their fate as doorstops and bookends.
In the town square, mariachi bands preen and tune their instruments, waiting to be booked for a fiesta that never happens.
In a patch of weeds by the dried-up fountain, the statue of Pancho Villa sighs and wipes away a tear.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez bumps into Elmore Leonard, and they decide to go for a drink.
In the bar of the Maximilian Hotel, Pat the ex-pat imitates his old buddy Richard Burton reciting Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night...” His mellifluous voice wafts like smoke up to the rooftop where Maria Elena hangs out laundry to dry. Nineteen wet Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts flap in the breeze, looking like the flags of a revolution. The woman works by the faint light of the flaking movie marquee on the adjacent roof. Half the bulbs on the Alhambra sign have been burnt out or stolen. Tonight’s movie was the Spanish-dubbed version of The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton. She remembers the actor well. She even named her son after him.
Without warning, the marquee lights are turned off for the night and Maria Elena is left in the dark, holding an armload of dripping sheets and memories. Puta de madre, she curses.
La Noche de la Iguana has been playing in Puerto Vallarta since 1964. It is a cult classic to the locals, some of whom worked as crew or extras on the film. The owner of the Alhambra movie theatre helped its status along by neglecting to return the print to the distributor. Thirty years later, he was still running Iguana on Sunday nights. The black-and-white print was so old and scratched that entire scenes were almost obliterated, but audiences didn’t seem to mind. They’d memorized the story and dialogue long ago and could act it out. And they did.
Ricardo had seen Night Of The Iguana fifty-eight times. The film was released the year he was born. His mother Maria Elena once told him that he had the same blue eyes and persuasive voice as Richard Burton. By the fortieth time he’d watched the movie, Ricardo was convinced he was Richard Burton’s love child, and that his mother had surely been seduced by this ladies’ man while he was in Puerto Vallarta working on the film in 1963.
The sleepy village had changed a lot in thirty years. Restaurants were springing up weekly. Condos daily. Souvenir and t-shirt shops momentarily. Most of Ricardo’s family was doing something to contribute to the local economy. His sister sold timeshares. She and her partner would take an unsuspecting tourist in the back room and browbeat him into buying a timeshare on a condo. If beating him with their brows didn’t work, they’d play good cop bad cop. One would sweet-talk him while the other harassed him. And if that didn’t work they’d both have a go at him with a phone book. Even Ricardo‘s 13 year-old nephew Luis was working. He was in the parasailing business, starting at the bottom as a body-catcher but slowly working his way up. Some day he would graduate to wear Ray-Bans, carry a whistle and perform elaborate hand signals to the speedboat driver offshore. For now, Luis’s hands were occupied discovering the elaborate anatomy of foreign women in bikinis as they drifted down from the heavens to fall into his innocent waiting arms. As for Ricardo’s mother, Maria Elena, she had taken down the revered poster of Che Guevara from his bedroom wall and had given it to her youngest grandson to use for slingshot target practice.
With nothing sacred left, what could a Marxist do? Ricardo decided to head for the hills and join the contras. Secretly he hoped to be discovered for a Benetton ad. He went on a soul-search for the united colors, and found them right under his nose, on knock-off Tommy Hilfiger shirts, cheap and readily available at the souvenir shops. Same colors as the national flag. To be discovered, however, one needs a cause. Failing that, publicity. And what better way than a kidnapping?
Ricardo and his fellow contras practiced sneaking down to the resorts undetected to steal volleyball nets off the beach. This dry run would help refine their technique, while playing volleyball up at the camp kept them in shape. One night, as luck would have it, a vacationing American journalist was strolling the beach while the contras were conducting one of their raids. As the journalist ducked under the volleyball net in the dark, her earring became caught. While she was trying to extricate herself, the contras came along, bundled her up with the net and carried her away.
They kept her three days, thinking they might ransom her. The woman soon drove them insane with her whining about the primitive food and accommodations. One night she talked them into getting some Kentucky Fried Chicken from town. She even offered to pay for it. Two contras sneaked into Puerto Vallarta and picked up four buckets of KFC—two original-recipe and two extra-crispy coating—with three containers of creamy-style coleslaw. The insurgents scoffed at the bourgeois American fare but managed to make it disappear. There was much licking of fingers. Particularly for the extra-crispy coating.
The next morning they all had upset stomachs. Accustomed to a steady diet of rice with beans, or on a good day, beans with rice, it was a case of misplaced Montezuma’s revenge. The American journalist took advantage of the contras’ weakened condition to creep out of the camp, making her way down through the jungle back to town. It took her two days. Exhilarated by her certain brush with death, she turned her bizarre experience into a feature article for Harper’s. A week later, a New York ad agency got wind of the story. A month later, Ricardo and los insurgentes de la libertad made it into the same magazine, this time in a two-page spread for Benetton. Fashionably painted in camouflage makeup, they posed in their black berets and sombreros, gun belts artfully draped over their muscled torsos. Ricardo held a stuffed armadillo under one arm.
In the same issue was a piece on the thirtieth anniversary of The Night of the Iguana. It featured candid black-and-white photos of the cast, crew and extras taken on and off the set. There was one of Richard Burton posing arm-in-arm with his props man and the crew’s cook, identified as Pat the ex-Pat and Maria Elena. If you turned the page and came upon the Benetton ad, you might notice that one of the insurgentes, the one with the armadillo, bore more than a passing resemblance to both Burton and Pat the ex-Pat, just around the eyes.