He stubbed out his cigarette in a chipped bowl he was using for an ashtray. “They let you do that here?” I asked, pointing to the pack of Marlboros and Zippo lighter on his lap.
“They can tell me what to do inside there,” he said as he gestured over his shoulder to the heavy front doors of the nursing home, “but they can’t tell me what to do out here.” Out here was the front portico of the sprawling nursing home where we’d come to visit some of our relatives. David was a distant cousin of my father in law, and I chatted with him while waiting for my husband to drop off some papers with the office on our way out. David had seen better times, and indeed some of the stories I’d heard about his younger days were incongruous to his now frail frame resting in a wheelchair and wrapped in a light blanket even on this warm day.
He fiddled with his pack of cigarettes as he spoke. “Mija (daughter, a term of endearment), did you ever hear about the time I saved Marlon Brando?” I waited for a laugh or smile to confirm it was a joke, but his rheumy eyes remained fixed on me as he tapped the lighter gently.
I’d heard my father-in-law’s stories about being an extra on the movie Viva Zapata, filmed in the area and starring Marlon Brando in the early 1950’s, but hadn’t heard anything about this. “No, I haven’t heard about it. THE Marlon Brando?”
“Yes, THE Marlon Brando,” he choked as a coughing spasm overtook him. He gasped but regained control. “You remember the movie Viva Zapata?” I nodded. “They filmed some of it around here, right down there on the river.” He pointed vaguely to the south, where I knew the Rio Grande curved its snaky course. The hills of Mexico sat like a hazy mirage on the distant horizon.
“Well, I was an extra, too, just like your father in law. They fed us well, but we weren’t supposed to mix with the stars, so we kept our distance. One afternoon, though, I had an old lasso and was practicing some roping tricks while we waited for the next scene. I heard someone come up behind me, but didn’t pay any attention because I thought it was just someone from around here. I looked up and it was Marlon.”
He lit a fresh cigarette while another coughing spasm threatened to squeeze up his gullet. He suppressed it and continued. “We talked and one thing led to another and Marlon ended up meeting me and some of my friends that evening for some roping lessons. We brought the beer and Marlon brought the tequila.” He whistled weakly and shook his head while he chuckled. “We thought we were pretty tough, but hijole, that man could drink. He polished off most of that tequila by himself and pulled out another bottle from somewhere. He started on that one and still acted like he was as sober as a missionary.
“We were all feeling pretty good as it got dark and we started roping. We were out in a pasture that belonged to my uncle- lots of cactus all over, black animal holes, not too smart a place to be after sunset. I still remember how loud the coyotes were that night. We didn’t care. I had a pistol with me and we started shooting the empty beer cans for targets. I guess all that beer and tequila finally hit Marlon and he stumbled and fell, but he was laughing so hard he didn’t seem to mind.
“We all laughed, too, but my friends froze when I suddenly pulled my pistol and shot right by Marlon’s ear. Marlon stopped for a minute, and looked at me, wide-eyed. When he rolled over and saw the dead rattlesnake I’d shot right through the head, he slapped his knee and passed me another beer.
David looked off into the distance for a moment, as if the 1950’s were still faintly visible, like those hazy hills in Mexico. “Drunk or sober, I was always a pretty good shot.” He smiled. “Not everybody can say they’ve saved a movie star. Nosirree, but I have. I surely have.”