La Malamuerte wasn’t the kind of bar you went looking for. It was the kind of bar you just… stumbled upon. Most Puerto Ricans had never even heard of the place. It was a well-kept secret among the shadier souls of Fajardo. The air was thick and stale with the smell of fish due to its proximity to the ocean. It wasn’t very well lit. It had a few tables and chairs but no booths… nothing fancy. And the furniture they did have didn’t exactly match. The actual bar was the only thing that looked somewhat respectable. Hand carved out of caoba with intricate reliefs depicting ancient maritime legends, it was said to be over a hundred years old.
A flickering heat lamp next to a vintage cash register kept a handful of greasy alcapurrias and pastelillos from getting cold. The floor was swept but never mopped which made it sticky. The walls were covered in old pictures and advertisements dating as far back as World War II. There was a working vinyl jukebox that only played two records, one by Bobby Capó and the other by Tito Rodríguez… which would skip occasionally on “Lo Mismo Que A Usted.” A dusty red pool table rounded out the décor; it only had four balls including a warped cue ball.
“Holy shit! This place is gross!”
The denizens of La Malamuerte were accustomed to the occasional wandering tourist. Unsuspecting visitors who strayed within the establishment’s secluded walls usually stayed for a quick drink, so as not to be rude, then left. However, on this particular day, La Malamuerte became host to a group of obnoxious 20-somethings from Georgia who thought it would be fun to mock the locals and cause a scene. The four youths, two men, two women, sat at one of the asymmetrical tables and proceeded to describe their vacation using a batch of phrases to voice their whiny, entitled views.
It’s too hot. Fuck this. Let’s just go back to the hotel.
I can’t get a signal. Ew. Fuck that. I’m hungry.
It smells. Shit. The food is disgusting. I’m bored.
Why can’t they speak American? We’re gonna get robbed here. Call an Uber.
Can we go to McDonald’s? Bunch o’ pervs. Hide your wallet.
One of the young men stood up and headed to the bar when he realized no one was coming to take their order. No waiters. It wasn’t that kind of bar. With loud indignation, the young man said, “Hey, Paco! Gimme four beers. American. None of that local crap. That shit tastes like piss.” His friends laughed as the bartender quietly rummaged through one of the refrigerators. “Seriously, it’s like they have a factory or some shit where they collect everybody’s piss and bottle it. Or like… they’re so fuckin’ poor, they just connect all their toilets to a distillery.” As their laughter grew, the rest of the room went quiet.
“You drink piss?” a rumbling voice asked from the other end of the bar.
“ What?” the young man answered.
Sitting only a few yards away from the impertinent youth was a very rugged, rather hefty, old man. He was slouched over the counter with a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A half-eaten alcapurria at his side was hemorrhaging grease all over a flimsy napkin. It was illegal to smoke indoors, but no one seemed to give a shit, especially him. He chucked the cigarette inside the can of beer which made a predictable hiss. He got up from his wobbling stool, standing a full head taller than the young tourist. His hair was light gray, his skin like sunbaked leather. An intricate map of wrinkles and scars told violent tales across hardened flesh. His eyes were black as pitch. His hands were massive and callused. He wore a dirty, white guayabera and a pair of jeans that looked as worn and experienced as he did. No one living knew his real name. People just called him El Cuco… or Cuco for short.
“You said our beer tastes like piss,” Cuco said. “I was just wondering if you actually knew what that tasted like.” His voice sounded like smoke and gravel.
“Whatever, man,” the young man spat.
“I didn’t think so.”
“You gotta problem?”
“Sean,” one of the young ladies called out apprehensively.
“Sean,” the old man repeated. There was something in the way he said it that sent shivers down the young man’s spine. Sean tried to play it cool, but something stirred behind El Cuco’s eyes, a shift in his demeanor, that rattled the foolish youth to his core. The locals looked on with interest. They knew what was happening.
Though few people really knew much about the man himself, most folks in Fajardo knew well enough not to tangle with El Cuco. His past was a bit of a mystery. Those who knew him well had died long ago. He lived on a boat somewhere, but no one actually knew which one. He was the subject of rumors and tall tales, a living myth… or a bogeyman, depending on who you asked. Some claimed he was a war vet. Which war? No one could say. But the man had definitely seen death, had dealt it, felt it, probably knew it on a first name basis. Some believed he had cheated death more times than Rasputin. The stories were insane.
He’s been stabbed. Killed thousands. Drinks blood.
Fought a shark… and won. Gored. The strength of ten men.
Shot in the head… a hermit crab lives in the hole. I heard it was a gongolí.
Lives under the sea. Burned. Flayed. Buried alive.
Well over 200 years old. Punched a hurricane, sent it North. Hit by lightning.
Married once. Beat Death at a game of Dominos. Loves alcapurrias.
The only thing people did know was that he could not, would not abide rude behavior. It didn’t matter if you were a local or an outsider. If he felt you had crossed a line…
“Yeah? Well… what about you?” Sean asked, trying to feign control. “Do you know what piss tastes like?”
“Yes,” the old man answered.
“I bet you do.”
Cuco’s massive hand came down upon the bar like thunder. “Pellín,” he motioned to the bartender. “Dame un vaso.” Pellín pulled out a little plastic cup. “No, no. De cristal. Frío.” Pellín tossed the plastic cup aside and pulled out a frosted mug from the freezer. The bartender glanced at Cuco suspiciously, as if he knew what was coming, but the old man gave him a reassuring nod which Pellín accepted.
Cuco unzipped his pants and unfurled the ugliest penis in the whole of creation. The damn thing was grotesque. A pulsating mass of wrinkled flesh and veins, it looked like a naked mole rat without the teeth. The old man slumped his hideous member over the edge of the frosty mug and peed. It was a thick piss, cloudy and dark. This was not a man with healthy kidneys. He was able to fill it about a third of the way before shaking off the few remaining drops and slamming the mug on the counter. He shoved his dangling repugnance back into his pants and zipped up.
He closed the gap between himself and the defiant Sean, sliding the urine-filled mug along.
“Drink,” the old man said.
“Fuck that,” Sean answered, starting toward his table. Cuco caught him by the arm and pulled him back to the bar.
“Hey, asshole,” the other young man called. He stood up from his table and hastened toward Cuco with clenched fists. The old man pulled out an antique revolver from his jeans and shot him in the knee. The two young women jumped out of their chairs.
“Oh, my fuck!” one of them yelled as the other started crying. The wounded man dropped to the floor, screaming and writhing in pain.
“Sit down,” Cuco said to the young ladies… never raising his voice. “What’s your friend’s name,” he asked Sean who was now sweating quite profusely, wide-eyed and trembling.
“Your friend… on the floor. What is his name?”
“Tucker? That’s not a real name. Is it?”
“Jeeesus Christ,” he said. “Tucker!?”
The bleeding idiot looked up but wouldn’t stop screaming.
“Listen to me,” Cuco continued. “I know what it’s like to get shot in the knee. It hurts. A lot. But I also know your knee is not connected to your mouth. So… shut it, or I’ll shoot you in the neck.”
Tucker stopped screaming.
“Ladies, what are your names?” Cuco asked. They did not immediately answer. “Your names?” he repeated.
“I… I’m Laura,” said one.
“Kelly,” whispered the other through frightened sobs. “Please, don’t shoot us.”
“Laura,” Cuco said calmly, “Do me a favor. Tend to your friend Tucker. I… I still can’t believe that’s a name. Anyway… tend to your friend while I finish up here. Take his belt and tie it around his thigh… just above the knee. Nice and tight. It will help slow the bleeding. Kelly, I know you’re scared, and I apologize. You can all leave as soon as Mr. Sean here plays his part. Oh… and do keep your hands away from your bags. You’ll be able to use your phones soon enough.”
The old man turned back to Sean. “You come to my island… my town… my favorite bar. You insult the bartender and everyone inside, then have the balls to ask me if I have a problem?”
“Hey, man. I didn’t mean…,” Sean interrupted.
Sean kept looking from the glass to his friends to anyone who would offer sympathy… he found none. The Malamuerte crowd hadn’t moved. They were thoroughly entertained.
Cuco cocked the gun. This drew Sean’s attention back to the counter, back to the glass, back to the old man’s piss. He extended a trembling hand and grabbed hold of the thawing mug. As he brought it closer to his face, he caught a whiff of its unsavory contents. The smell was a slap to the soul. It was like sulfur and decay. It made Sean retch. “Ah ah,” Cuco said. “If you throw up, we start again… and again… however long it takes.”
Sean’s eyes welled up as he felt the glass upon his quivering lips. It was cold but the smell was hot. He decided his best bet would be to just chug it all down without hesitation. He shot back his neck… and drank. The texture was foul. The taste, even more so. It felt like rancid eggs slithering down his throat. It burned. He gagged violently but managed to hold it in. His sweat thickened. His left eye twitched as a capillary burst, and a single tear meandered down his humbled cheek.
“Pellín,” Cuco called. “Una de aquí.” Pellín nodded and handed over an ice-cold bottle of Medalla. “Drink,” Cuco continued.
Sean did not hesitate. He did what he was told. The beer went down smooth. It didn’t exactly make the foul taste of piss go away, but it did keep him from projectile vomiting all over the bar.
“Now, tell me,” the old man said. “Does that taste the same?”
Sean tried to speak but started coughing. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered.
“That’s not what I asked.”
“No… it doesn’t taste the same.”
“No… it doesn’t.” Cuco reset the gun’s hammer and put it back in his pants. He pulled out a wad of cash and set it on the bar, apologizing to Pellín for ruining one of his mugs and bloodying up the floor. He then turned to the terrified young ladies and said, “See to your friends. They’re going to need a hospital. Have Pellín call you a taxi or 911, whichever you prefer.” He knelt beside Tucker and said, “You can scream now.” He tapped the wounded youth on the knee which started another round of bawling. It made Kelly cry even louder. Sean began coughing uncontrollably as Laura kept screaming, “Oh, God. Oh God. Oh, God!” The rest of the patrons turned back to their drinks and mumbled conversations. The show was over.
An ambulance would eventually arrive. The police would be informed. No one would offer any substantial information. Cuco, like a myth, would remain unseen, teetering on the edge of that place where legend and reality converge… somewhere between truth and drunken anecdotes. For now… there was screaming.
I can’t get a signal! Somebody call 911! Please!
What the fuck!? What the fuck!!??Ahhhhhhhh! My knee!
Uugghhhh! Oh, God! Jesus! Help me!
Somebody, stop him! What’s wrong with you people?! I wanna go home!
Baaaarf! Baaaaaaaaaaaaaarf! Oh, God! Sean! Help!
I’m sorry! I’m sorry!! Baaaarf!
The old man pulled a quarter out of his pocket and walked up the jukebox. He dropped the coin into the slot and made his selection. As he walked out to the sound of wailing and fear, Bobby Capó’s “Soñando Con Puerto Rico” kicked in, drowning out the drama behind. He smiled and strolled into the salty embrace of the Fajardo breeze.
Anchor image courtesy of Amir Denzel Hall.