MARY OF ANGELS
First In BORDERLAND Series
Copyright 2015 Adoro Books and Linton Robinson
To see the other titles the BORDERLAND series, click .
For a guide to the characters and settings, see of this book.
You get a different impression from the daily papers in Mexico. They keep whining about all the foreigners buying land along the “Gold Coast” that runs from the border down to Ensenada. Condos going for over a hundred times what apartments cost in downtown Tijuana. Acreage set aside for jogging paths and golf courses, whitewater access sopped up by time shares and townhomes. They call realtors and retirees “the new conquistadors.” They’re as worried about us spending money down there as we are about people doing our work for us up here.
So what I’m suggesting is that we stop freaking out about wetbacks and expatriates, chill out and forget the police and military solutions. Let’s do this the civilized way, like the banks and WTO: figure out a fair Citizen Exchange Rate. Start with the peso/dollar ratio and work back.
“Reverse Oz Mosis”, Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column, Southcoast Week
Maybe we are paying too much attention to the border, or at least making too much of it. The gringos are getting crazy about it because they always need somebody to be afraid of and we are close and cheap. Our own government needs a scapegoat and wants to keep people from asking why it’s good for a country to export its own people… and whose fault it is they have to leave home to eat.
There’s a simpler way to look at it, which you can find in barrios and colonias on both sides of the fence, in buses and trolleys that move people from one side to the other, in houses where people talk about family members on the other side. It might make more sense to forget the gringos and politicos and see the frontera+] as one community with an imaginary line running across its heart.
“Destinos Enfocados”+] Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos”+]Column, Zeta
She’d only been screaming for a minute, but it seemed like a lifetime. Her angular, Indian face was flushed and torn with the force of her screams. Standing on the crumbling walkway in front of her room, leaning on the rusting railing, clutching down in incoherent supplication, Señora Violeta Camponeta poured out a stream of horrified ejaculations and petitions to God, the Virgin, and anyone else who was taking calls.
Her ragtag mob of children ran to her side just as she passed out, slumped over the rail with gaunt hands gripping at the air. The ragamuffins, whether looking at their stricken mother or at what she saw below, took up her screams, wailing in a harmonic chorus. Señora Camponeta fell heavily to the cement, her children keening around her like birds.
Barrio Lobo’s only police car idled in an unpaved alley littered with car parts, broken piñatas, and ruptured garbage bags. Cameron Cole sat at the wheel, clearing the call by radio. A beach athlete pushing forty, Cam’s rangy blonde surfer look gave no clue to his shrewd professionalism. He was still a Sergeant simply because he had always been too laid-back to care about promotions. And he’d grown to like being The Law in this ugly, forgotten borderline backwater. If it was only a bit closer to the beach.
Officer Novena Rosas glared out her window, registering her scorn at the filth and disarray that sprawled along the unpaved higgly-piggly of graffitied garages and rusted-out fence. She herself was spiffed, starched, and tailored: an attractive Chicana striving to be Super-Cop. In perfect health, muscle tone and condition right up the whites of her eyes, wrapped in starched pleats and flak jacket that couldn’t completely conceal her muscular, provocative figure. But her palpable hard-assed attitude insisted on all that being irrelevant from the start.
Cole replaced the microphone, took another scan of the garbage fence. “Not only don’t I see any wild dog pack, I don’t even see any rats.”
Rosas snorted her disgust. “Amazing, really. They must have gotten deported.”
“Okay, just report this trash situation to the county.”
“That’ll take care of that problem. In a year or two.”
“I’ll tell the caller we looked into it and…”
But Rosas snapped up a silencing hand, cocked her head to the window. No doubt about it: women and children screaming. She was out of the car in one explosive motion, sprinting down the alley to peer through the chain link fence behind the Frontera Motor Court, a graceless stucco “Spanish” motel from the fifties now disintegrated into a squalid, crumbling squat pad.
Cole had the car in gear, the microphone in hand. “What the hell is it, Rosas?”
Rosas half turned, “Around front! The Frontera!” Then she was up on the fence, flowing over the top with athletic grace and power before the patrol unit even spun gravel. Inside the fence she bounding sure-footedly down a tangle of discarded refrigerators and mattress boxes, over a rubble of broken deck chairs and onto the cracked apron of the sickly green pool.
Everything was quiet, peaceful, effortless. Welcoming. Greenish yellow light flickered in and out of fishscale patterns: nothing to hear, nothing to see but two small hands desperately clutching a rusty old engine head as it softly came to rest on the slimy bottom. The dancing green/gold patterns dazzled and merged, the light became warm and golden, emanating from beyond the cement of the pool. The light soothed, beckoned. It showed what everybody always suspected The Light would reveal: a golden, sun-kissed world where generations of family members sat at hearty meals and smiling people waved warm welcomes. He had lived seven years of pain and disappointment, but now a sweet rich world opened before him like a blossom, hung right at his fingertips. Bubbles of air escaped as Pepito Camponeta smiled. His eyes closed. His breathing stopped. His heart beat slower and slower. Twice a minute. Slower. Deeper, more golden, more bright. So bright it burned out of his chest, glorious and brave.
Then the ripples jumped into jagged jitters as Novena Rosas slammed into the water, reaching the bottom with one powerful stroke. She tried to pry the wiry little fingers from the rusty holes of the engine head then gave up on that, planted her feet and lifted it to her chest. Pushing off the slimy bottom, she reached the surface in a lunge, carrying the boy and the block of iron back to the air and the sunlight and the hard, howling world of sound.
The Camponeta clan surrounded the pool, scrawny brown urchins sobbing and thrashing against their grief and fear. They scattered as Rosas emerged from the water like a trained killer whale, a dark surge up onto the apron. She rolled to protect Pepito’s shrunken body, blue beneath his dark Indian pigment. Two swings of her arms cleared away the yowling, clutching crush of family. She bent to the task of breathing, pounding, and willing life back into the limp little body.
The family’s baying was trumped by a louder wail as Cole arrived in the cruiser, tapping the siren to draw attention away from the boy and announce the arrival of official help. Which he judged, from the appearance of the boy, to have come too late. He pulled the car up to the low wall around the pool area and stepped out, talking rapidly into his microphone. A four year-old girl wearing only soiled disposable diapers ran to him, clung bawling to his leg. Pepito’s older brothers edged away from him nervously. Señora Camponeta looked at him as if he trailed clouds of splendor, crossed herself, and shuddered through a series of wracking sobs.
Rosas’ anger had always been a dark, bloody beast inside her chest, clambering up to maim and destroy any threat or pretext. As she felt the boy’s life slipping away, she boiled inside, her beast clashing its claws in frustration. The little bastard just had to shape up and live! She felt like smashing the unresponsive young body. Pepito’s teeth were clenched so tightly she couldn’t insert her nails or steel pen between them. Blue lips peeled back from white gums, the perfect young teeth clenched in a skull grip of death. Rosas just wanted to kick and scream. “I can’t get him any air, Cole!”
Frantic, she snatched her handcuffs and prepared to smash the teeth, open the passage for air.
Cole saw her, yelled from the car. “Blow through his nose!”
Wrenching Pepito’s head back, Rosas locked her lips around his nose, blew. There was no passageway. She thrust a furious hand under the boy, arching him up from the cement. Her elbow between his thighs, his head dangling off her fingers, she blew into his nose again. Her vision tunneled down to the boy’s indigo face, her anger stomped and shook its weakening cage. “He’s dead!” She wasn’t aware that her voice was the whimper of a frightened little girl who can’t get inside. “I can’t do anything!” She wanted to throw the dead boy on the ground, kick him.
Then Cole was right beside her, his hand on her shoulder. “Clear the nasal passage.”
She sucked hard on the tiny nostrils. A wad of snot hit her palate. She spit, blew feverishly. Pepito’s chest and stomach rose, inflating with her breath. Her red brick rage subsided as she blessedly went to full automatic, the ritual rhythms of resuscitation. Cole stepped to a clothesline draped with gray laundry, grabbed a sheet, towels. He knelt to wrap Pepito up. “That’s it, Kid. Keep at it. They don’t get to die on our shift.”
Rosas kept inflating the little ribcage, pushing it down again. She worked mechanically out of duty, not hope. Pepito’s throat spasmed, but he only vomited. His clenched teeth kept the vomit in his mouth. Rosas reached for the cuffs again. But his mouth fell open, dribbling puke on her hands. She turned his head to one side, wiped out his mouth with her fingers, blew again into his nose. Pepito gasped, coughed. Heaved a breath.
That single ragged gasp flushed an exaltation of Hispanic hosannas, hallelujahs and signs of the cross up out of the Camponeta clan and a dozen other tenants who had gathered to watch the cops. Cole sagged, blew out his own breath, smiled at Señora Camponeta, who came completely unglued and swooned all over again.
Rosas continued to force good air into the tiny lungs. Pepito retched again, spewing water all over her. His eyes opened and his consciousness swam up inside them, surfaced into a world of pain and screams and shame. He looked up into the stern, handsome face of Officer Novena Rosas. He loosed a chilling snarl of hatred, clamped his teeth into her forearm, biting for all he was worth.
Rosas, stunned, stared into the fury of his face as he chewed deeper into her, growling like a dog. She grabbed the cuffs again, brought the serrated jaw up to his teeth. But Pepito’s rage washed away and he broke into harsh, heart-rending rales.
Rosas turned to Cole, Pepito squalling on her knees and arm like a grubby pieta. There was no restraining the familia at that point. They swarmed around Rosas, crying and cheering, touching Pepito, hugging each other. Sra. Camponeta waded through them, threw her arms around boy and cop. Rosas extricated herself, surrounded by adorers like a religious figure in a procession. Aunts and sisters clutched at her, crossed themselves, kissed her calves and boots. Pepito held out his arms to his mama and Rosas handed him over into a huddle of love, joy and hysteria.
Cole stepped to her, slugged her shoulder. “I can’t wait to see your shrine.”
Rosas was deeply affected, but jumbled in conflicting directions. She stared at Pepito, snuffling in the suffocating bosom of his family. “Jesus Christ, Cam. He was dead! You saw: he was cold and blue.”
“If you thought he was dead, why were you still working on him?”
“I don’t know, just going through the drill.”
“Way to go. That’s why we have drills. Keep it in mind.”
Rosas looked at him, nodded stolidly. She shook herself like a wet dog. “I knew he was dead. I felt so helpless. If you hadn’t… I felt like tearing the kid apart, get in there and fix him.”
Cole looked down at her clenched fists, gently wiped her face with a towel. “Easy, Kiddo. It’s all right now. He’s alive and you’re the hero. And look at what you learned.”
“Keep my tetanus and rabies shots current?”
“One: stay the course, stick to your training. Two: never assume you know who’s the victim and who’ll bite you in the ass. Three: no good deed goes unpunished.”
“It’s been a pretty nasty morning, Cam.”
“Beautiful downtown Barrio Lowblow,” Cole said, straight-faced. “Look at the upside: these people will light a candle to you the rest of their lives.”
“That’s the part that creeps me out most.”
“Just don’t let them find out your name’s Novena.”
Rosas watched Pepito, staring at her over his mother’s shoulder. He hated her guts. She stepped closer, holding her bruised, bleeding arm. “What the hell were you trying to pull, you little bastard?”
Jim Riles just felt like stabbing again and again with the ridiculous knife they expect you to use for slicing their signature loafette of complimentary soda bread. He wanted to smash the tiny Italianate cups made to serve six-dollar ounces of coffee, grind the jagged edges into those blithering, idiot lips. It would have been worth it to watch all these pseudo-riche, nouveau-hip Johnny Come Lattés flee screaming from the Del Mar coffee house, trampling each other on the cunning cobblestones. But maybe they’d just capture videos with their cell phones and upload them to YouTube. It was hard to figure Del Martians: it’s like they strived to invent something even more Californian than the proto-realistic underbelly where they grazed. And there sat Evan Culomme, serenely unaware of his aching need for an Etruscan bread knife in his jugular.
Instead of doing the right thing by writers everywhere, the demitasse, and the gene pool, Riles smiled at the editor of Southcoast Week. Who sat there swaddled in North County haberdashery he shouldn’t be able to afford, coddled in excess self-esteem he didn’t deserve, eating a breakfast that didn’t even make sense. There had to be a way to get inside this moronic prig’s head. And doing it by some means other than table utensils would probably pan out better in the long run. Lately Riles had been taking some guarded, sidelong looks at the long run and it was bumming him out. He was getting too old for this crap. Trouble is, he’d gotten too old for all the other crap, too. And had twenty-five years to while away until Social Security. Not that he had anything coming.
His scruffy Goodwill work shirt and unstructured waiter’s blazer suited his shifty, dissipated ruffian look downtown, people tending to see the rumple and stubble instead of the crafty eyes and residual muscle under the sloppy slouch. But out here in North he couldn’t cram it into the bohemian artist groove. Here even the bohemians wore Land’s End and Patagonia. But divergent styles was what they were here about, and he had to figure out a way to bridge, or at least blur, that gap. At least enough to get an advance out of this dickwad.
Buttering his loaflet to keep hands and knife otherwise occupied, he tried for an arch world-weariness. “What’s keeping us from resolution and camaraderie here is that you’re on this whole ‘Give the readers what they want’ parameter and I’m all about the ‘Give the landlord what he demands’ vibe.”
But Culomme had wearied wider worlds than Jim Riles. He somehow managed to be a lackadaisical martinet. “That entire ‘hack writer with the rent due’ thing is a bit trite, Jimbo.”
“More of an archetype, I’d say,” Riles said, but thought: Allow me to demonstrate the term, ‘hack’.
“Perhaps an analog. Your shtick grows shopworn. You’re not Will Vollman or that, whatsit, Hunter Thompson character. There’s a limit to how much people care about your antics in border bordellos.”
“Still gets a lot of favorable mail.” Which was true, in its way.
“So much of it in a familiar style. It’s simply no longer hip in this current climate of caution and abstinence. It’s just irresponsible womanizing.”
“The ones in this piece aren’t really women. That’s the whole point.”
“Also well-trodden ground. Our readership is maturing, upscaling. You aren’t hitting them where they live. You want a payday, bring me something less participatory. You’re not George Plympton. We’re not Jackass.”
“Kidding, right?” Riles knew he wasn’t, didn’t even know how. “I’m your crashtest dummy for industrial-strength love in all the wrong places.”
“You’re an auto-voyeur. We’ve seen it all. Tijuana isn’t about sleaze anymore. It’s ‘humanizing the plight of immigrants’ now.” Real life, James! The nittus grittus. But mainly…”
“Let me guess this one. Socially redeeming value?”
Culomme gave the kind of smile that stronger characters than Riles’ would gladly have smacked with the handy pewter carafe, shook his head with infuriating patience. “Nooooooo. Significance. To somebody other than yourself. Like, oh, say….the world at large?”
“It’s a miracle I’m still at large,” Riles muttered, focusing on the fine bluish trace of an exposed jugular that just begged for intervention.
“Then why aren’t you dangerous?” Culomme leaned forward, beating emphasis with a forkload of zucchini that any fool could see would be better off crammed right up his rectum. “We need exciting. We need realistic. Topical, we need. A bit sexy, great. But down to earth, ear to the ground. Capiche?”
“Oh, absolutely. The capeachiest. On your desk in a fortnight, dewd.” The whole thing was making him ill. Violently ill. He hoped Whatshername would still be there when he got back. At least you could still be sick and violent during sex. So far.
Culomme snapped to his feet, pounded Riles on the shoulder. “That’s the vector, my man. Gotta bounce out of here. Do the check, will you? After all, I’m the buyer.” He swiveled his lithe hips through the place, waving to other tables, and hit the street.
Riles looked at the check, wondering if they’d wrap the bread knife to go. “You aren’t a buyer if you don’t buy, schmuck. While the worker of the world gets left eviscerated and evicted. Déjà frickin’ view.” He stood, quickly shoveled a tip off a nearby table, dumped it into the charming little rush basket they presented the check in, and headed for the exit.
“So we’re looking for dangerous, socially significant, sexy immigrant issues with an ear to the ground. Not a problem, bwana.”
La Flaca pressed closer to the ground, her face indented into reddish clay as she wormed closer. A striking, hawkish profile, all taut angles, wary lines, and tough surface. She flattened her hard, lean body as much as she could, flowing forward with the surface logic of an oil slick. Those desgraciados+] in the Bronco were right up on that rise and could spot her in a hot minute. If they looked.
She slithered closer, moved her hand millimeters at a time towards the squat green device they had put there hoping the fall of her own feet would betray her to them. She had it right at her fingertips.
She had been apparently motionless for over a half hour, after an hour of creeping in through the brush and junk of the estuary where they’d hidden the damn thing. But they’d been seen putting it in place: she’d paid off her grubby little informants with kisses, cookies, and cigarettes. She could stay still all day if she needed to; her whippy body in the fine form of a working athlete in her prime. She finally got what she wanted, the little access panel on the device marked: Seismic Sensor – U.S. Border Patrol – Do Not Disturb. She popped the panel with the carefully formed piece of copper wire she’d taped to her right index finger, tapped a button and was all done. She started back, crawling on her knees and elbows. She didn’t need to be silent and vibration-free any more, but those pendejos+] in the patrol jeep might look up from their coffee and spot her. She was still two hundred meters inside the boundary of the United States.
She walked out of the stunted scrub and struggling piss elms that clogged her chosen patch of marsh, a sump where the sluggish river stagnated in soft soil to create a soupy swamp choked with tangles of tough vegetation. Perfect for her purposes. She stopped where a little copse of elm and eucalyptus provided a flimsy canopy of leaves, grabbed her leather jacket off the limb where she’d hung it and slipped back into her sturdy canvas desert shoes. She pulled off the headband that added to her Indian Warrior look, pulled her tangly black mane out from her collar. She wiped her face and chest with the bandana and tied it back around her forehead. She slung on her leather rucksack, custom-made to hug her body with one strap crossing from shoulder to hip. That sensor was only one of several hurdles she’d have to clear tonight, but it was the sticky one. She looked around, noting details of the marsh and the higher ground on the other side. Where the babosos+] in the Bronco were peering through binoculars, but not in her direction. Typical Migra+] morons. She panned the frontier again. She didn’t see it as much by day as by night and the different view gave different information and details. She was very big on acquiring information and details.
She took three steps back towards the Mexico side of the frontier and suddenly melted into what cover the trees offered. It was definitely a man and he was hiding from her. She reached to her shoulder and slid a short, businesslike machete out of the rucksack, held it with the blade concealed against her forearm. The man wore a black cowboy hat. He was whistling a Norteño+] tune. She waited him out, scanning around for more surprises.
The guy in the black hat spoke from behind the shrubs, a muddy Central American accent. “¿Qui’ubo, Flaca?”+]
She relaxed, slipped the machete away. It was just Chago, a fellow smuggler of illegals and whatever else came to his hand. He walked towards her, nodding pleasantly, a short, jolly Guatemalan Indian around Flaca’s age. He greeted Flaca with affectionate cheer and professional respect, just a couple of young indios<> working the border craft. “Gracias, guapa[+.<> +] Nobody disarms a device as slick as you. So I followed you down to take advantage. “
Behind him a half-dozen very timid Southern Indian types edged out of the woods, squatted to await the next developments. Chago and Flaca both ignored them. “¿Que transas, Chago?+] First time I heard of you taking advantage of a woman without Tequila involved.”
Grinning, Chago pulled out a plastic pint of cheap Tequila and wiggled it at her. “Speak for yourself. But really, why should I be the one to get mud on my tits?”
“Setting out a little early aren’t you? With your flock of pollos+] and everything.”
“I can hide them here as easy as in town. And they get in less trouble.”
“And you’re bird-dogging my hard work with those chingado+] motion sensors.”
“Don’t we all? Where are you taking your little chickens tonight?”
“Denny’s. By the White Horse. I’ll go straight across here, then in through The Canes.”
Chago took a quick nip off the pint, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his Metalica T-shirt. “I’m heading for the Swap Meet lot. I came down The Toboggan, guess I’ll head through the Trailer Park.”
“Bet I get there first. Head starts don’t help until it’s dark.”
“Want to make it a race? Whoever gets to the “Swop Mit” first gets to screw the loser.”
“Sorry, I quit screwing losers. How about we put up whatever we collect from the pollos?”
Chago was a pretty sporting guy, but he shook that one off.
“No, it would be irresponsible to gamble with my drinking money.”
“God forbid you should get any of it home to your wife.”
“No man has a wife when you’re around, Flaquita. Anyway, I’ll be waiting for you to drag your ass back to the culvert. Luego.“
He moved towards a burned-out Dodge van, a time-honored place to stash illegals while waiting to run them across the border after dark. His brood stood and bobbed along behind in single file. Flaca smiled at Chago and his herd. Just watch them awhile and you immediately understand why wetbacks are called pollos by the trade. They do everything but peck the ground and cluck.
She turned and moved up a trail leading towards the cliffs and Cinco Esquinas, where she could grab a bus into downtown Tijuana. She had a few other details to arrange before she met the ones she would take across into the Promised Land.
He wasn’t there as a security force, though he did a great job of that by just standing around. He was also a pretext. In time he would be called Pucho, and other names. He would have other careers besides fighting for his life on blood-splashed tenement floors or rude country pits. He was not a dog to be taken lightly.
He was still at his fighting weight and full power those days in Grupo Bravo, a muscular blend of pit bull and Rottweiler with tattered ears and scarred muzzle from piling up a winning record gnashing other dogs, murderous with the taste of their blood and the sound of their snarls and screams. Heavy shouldered, flat-bellied, and marked with old wounds, he was the showpiece of the stinking kennels stuck behind the crumbling block hovels, the one people saw when they walked by. Children shuffled across the dirt “’street” to avoid his killer’s gaze. He stared at them, wished they would come pet him and feed him. He liked people. He liked other dogs that didn’t try to kill him. He was lonely.
He no longer fought except an occasional tune-up to fatten purses with his fading reputation. He carried his experience into any pit. Other dogs had been known to refuse to fight him; cowering from his presence, signing their own death warrants by humiliating their handlers. He would stare down at their exposed throats, nudge them to get up and play. Once a dog had pissed the floor at his touch, leading to two shots fired right through its head by an infuriated owner. He had come right up out of the shallow, blood-soaked cockpit at that, mauling the owner on the ground, almost severing his hand. He was pulled off by other spectators, patted heartily and toasted with beers and jarras of mescal, a legend in his sport.
His main purpose was to guard any drug shipments that might be in the house and to disguise the true purpose of the kennel. Back in the tangle of improvised cages that took up a bedroom, shed, and burned out Dina step van, there was another breed of dog. He touched noses with them on his patrols, slept outside the cages where he could hear them breathing, burrowed into their odor. They were prisoners in smaller cells than his, but he thought of them as buddies. Even though they were the ugliest dogs in the world, they smelled okay.
The Xoloitzcuintli is not even arguably the world’s ugliest breed: a giant Mexican hairless with squirmy skin like a pig, twisted demon face, and misshapen body. But, in an almost predictable irony, they are also listed in Guinness as the world’s most expensive breed. These were the dogs of the Aztecs, and they carry that cachet in Mexico. They are rare now; not good breeders and not cultivated over the centuries because on top of being ugly, they’re not overly friendly. They are usually owned by rich Mexicans as status symbols. They were in favor for a short time with cartel narcos before they moved on to mastiffs and exotic predator cats. But they are contraband in this sense: their meat is sold secretly in certain big city restaurants.
It’s an underground taste, like blowfish in Japan. Xoloitzcuintli meat is considered a supreme delicacy and, more to the point, an aphrodisiac. In little farms around the Federal District they are fed corn and beer, massaged daily like Kyoto cattle. There are people who will go to exclusive restaurants in Mexico City and pay ten times the price for molé prepared from seeds and cacao hand-ground on stone petates by Mixteca women in braids and huipiles instead of in blenders. But they would quail from the price of Xoloitzcuintli steaks with huitlacoche fungus, or in a rich stew of black chiles.
But his pals weren’t quite so pampered. They were fattened up on dried food and kept in cages too small for exercise, destined for privately catered parties for executives in the narcotics transport industry. Whose palates were not so refined and would pay more for names and concepts than anything solid. It was a new market and his owners were just entering it, their location in the lawless nowhere zone of Grupo Bravo the ideal situation for raising contraband livestock. The caged Xolos were the first crop of puppies they’d raised for the guy with the black Urvan sporting the address of a Cachos restaurant in gold leaf on the doors. So when they took the biggest Xolo out of its cage and brought it blinking into the sun of the tiny rear courtyard, he thought he would finally get to play with this weird chum with the complex odor. Instead, he was cuffed away, but waited expectantly in the corner of the yard with tongue lolling and eyes eager for some frolic.
He watched them tape the spongy muzzle shut. That much he could understand. He didn’t understand it when they tossed the noose over the Xolo’s rear legs and hoisted it kicking and spinning from the corrugated metal roof. Kicking the galvanized tub under the wriggling dog also made no sense. Then the knife came out and slashed across the mealy black throat: that he understood completely. Blood gushed into the tub until the Xolo hung still. Another slice from anus to throat spilled the tub full of guts. They made more cuts around the hocks and neck, started peeling off the hide. Nobody had tried selling Xoloitzcuintli boots or belts to narcos, but it was exactly the sort of thing they’d probably go for. He watched them butcher his pal and toss the cuts of meat into a dirty plastic ice chest. Then they brought out another of his “family” and taped its snout.
The two men started to argue. They talked to somebody on a cellular phone, then argued some more. Finally they closed the ice chest, pulled the tape off the whining dog’s nose and returned it to its pen. He’d never even consider attacking these men. They had raised him from a pup, handled him well in fights against larger opponents, doctored him back to health each time. They were far more than pals: they were parents, Gods. But they were killing his friends. He wasn’t the world’s brightest dog, but he had learned a bit about killing over his career and could see what was going on. These dogs would go the way of the chickens and pigs whose entrails he had eaten. And if butchering dogs like piñatas was their way these days, it could come around to him.
“Ado” Siguiera stood by the door of the bus, guitar slung over his shoulder pegs-down. His hand rested lightly on the shoulder of his nine year-old son, Sebastián, dressed in his somber blue school uniform and holding a box made mostly of duct tape and full of cheap cassette copies. The xeroxed labels on the cassettes showed a stocky, broadfaced, younger man standing with several ski-masked Chiapas guerillas and a title: “Ado de Fe”. He smiled at passers by, chanting in a high, nasal voice, “[Linea, linea. _] _Directo a la linea y Libertad.“[+<> +] His professional name was “Ado” not just because Hadovan was too odd a name, but also because of a bus line in Southern Mexico: Ado made his living singing corridos+] on buses. The name was suggested in fun, but stuck. He thought of himself as one of a dying breed, an entertainer/gadfly/news medium.
In his youth he’d sung on highway buses passing through Chiapas and Yucatan, often spending the whole day getting on a bus at a railroad crossing or restroom stop, singing a few songs and passing through for coins, then getting off at another wide place in the road and heading back on the next bus through. He’d gotten into selling recordings because of the popularity of his corridos about the Zapatistas, a series of songs that still sold well. He gravitated north, by way of the inevitable Mexico City frustration, ending up in Tijuana because there was more money—and more weirdness to sing about. He worked several different bus lines in the city, including the long route out to Playas, but the profitable runs were the short feeders from Juarez and Constitución out to the “Linea” where lines of people and cars waited their turns to cross the border into California. There was just enough time to sing three pop songs or a couple of his trademark corridos, then collect as people left. No awkward moments sitting around: everybody got off at once. Then they’d fill up for a trip back to the Centro. His deal with the drivers was that he did the barking on the sidewalk, talking people aboard his particular bus instead of other ones. You could get in a lot of runs going to the Linea and back: the bus filled up fast with people coming and going to the frontier. And they were people who liked his kind of stuff.
Musicologists get eloquent about the twisty history of Mexican corridos. They descended from European story ballads, evolving into minstrel chants that served small communities as a sort of town crier or newspaper of events important to their illiterate populace. Great battles and betrayals were put to rhyme and sung in plazas or taverns by troubadours not greatly different from the Nordic skalds or Homeric bards. In the New World, the corrido form got a big boost from, of all things, Norteño music: accordion-based, polka-style Tex-Mex country singing. The immigration of Germans into southern Texas brought accordion-driven beer hall polkas and schottisches which misegenated with the string conjuntos+] playing Revolutionary and old-timey songs in Mexican cantinas.
The result was a rollicking, working-class music simple enough to dance to while blind drunk and flexible enough to be “Country” in several countries. Norteño music because in Mexico “Northern” means what “Western” means in the United States: cactus and cowboys, horses and handguns, livestock and heartbreak. It’s a format that hung on for generations and spun off descendants as diverse as sexy TexMex pop star Selena, gringo-rancheros Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm, borderline cowboy songs by Marty Robbins and The Sons of the Pioneers, and the raucous narco-corridos of groups like the Tigres del Norte or Tucanes de Tijuana that can sell out the Hollywood Bowl within hours.
But there was little gravy left for the original troubadours. People didn’t want to sit in a bar and listen to eleven verses about a massacre of peasants in El Sausal or an arrest in Loreto. The intellectuals praised the concept, but didn’t pay for tapes or concerts. Ado found his audience trapped in seats on buses: people not qualified to drive cars, people busting the border one direction or the other. They would tip him, maybe even buy a cassette of his original compositions. He made up to thirty dollars a day on the buses, six times the minimum wage. He supported a wife and three children. He was a recording artist. He was a voice of the people and thousands knew only his version of events in the tumultuous area they inhabited.
Ado wrote at home, or sometimes scrawled lyrics on the backs of newspapers when he had just heard of some outrage or spectacle. He recorded himself in his cobbled-up shack in Zona Norte, singing in a harsh, nasal voice that rang with credentials of a true hick from the sticks, accompanied on his battered guitar, sometimes with a friend on bongos or accordion. He used a microphone from Radio Shack and a cheap recorder, duplicating the cassettes at a shop downtown. He could get out a tape about an event almost as fast as the papers could cover it. And the periodicos+] were dry, fallacious, wordy, politically influenced. Ado was the straight stuff, often just out of the mouth of some drifter or failed emigrant who ran back to Mexico after watching border bandits kill pollos for the heroin they were transporting in their shoe soles.
Ado’s corridos would have delighted the musicologists (intellectually, at any rate) with their blend of strait, old-fashioned format and modern events, politics and props. Instead of horses there were pickups, instead of cockfighting tournaments there were swap meets and concerts, instead of banditry and rebellion there were drugs and border traffic, instead of the roar of sixguns there was the rattle of assault rifles.
But he avoided the whole drug trade cachet, even though narco-corridos were the new thing, like gangsta rap in Los Angeles and New York. He knew of people who wrote verses commissioned by narcos, a favorite way for these egomaniacs to live a legend and leave their names behind. Thousands of dollars they would pay for inferior corridos that didn’t even follow the rules of the genre. But Ado was too small-time and his tapes didn’t get radio play. So he picked out his living from voluntary pocket change.
When the bus was full he would step up and close the door. Sebastián would stand by the driver, looking respectful in his cowboy hat, vest and boots like his father’s. Ado would stand in the rear exit steps, brace himself against the handrail, and play an introductory riff to shut people up and get their ear. Then he would sing. His song were classic in structure, an odd number of verses beginning with a chronicler’s quatrain giving the date and location of the event, like the lead paragraph of a news wire story.
On the sixteenth of December they drove into Rumorosa
Two black pickups full of hard guys with no respect for life or law.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ado always ended his corridos with the classic despedida lines like the old fashioned ones, formal farewells that served as sign-offs as well as poetic commentaries on events and tail-end morals like the fables of Aesop and Samaniego.
Goodbye, goodbye, to the highlands of Jalisco.
Farewell, farewell, to the compadres of my youth.
I wanted more than life could offer, so I took forbidden chances.
From here beneath a foreign soil I warn the youth back home.
He used sprung rhymes, old-fashioned words, full names, flowery descriptions. His voice would rise to a keening evocation of the High Lonesome, the desolate ranchos so central to the lower class Mexican mythos. He joked, but didn’t poke fun. He gave his opinion, but didn’t twist facts to fit. He sang the stories you don’t read in the papers, the tweaky notes you don’t hear on the radio, the hidden history of the Border People. Then he would bow his head, plunking a bunkhouse coda of single notes while Sebi solemnly passed up and down the aisles, thanking people for their donations, maybe selling a tape or two at five dollars a copy. A great kid: cool-headed in business and a much nicer voice than Ado. When the people got off, he would stand by the door and start to cry the bus full again, “Centro! _] [_Directo al Centro! _] [_Tercera!”
Ado took immediate notice of that Flaca when she stepped on the bus downtown. She wasn’t your typical passenger for your typical rattletrap, brakeless, fuming Tijuana bus. Looked like Geronimo in that leather jacket and headband. He noticed her more vividly when she got off, patted Sebi’s cheek and dropped a fifty-peso note in the box as a tip. Five dollars, right there. For a corrido about all those women being killed in Ciudad Juarez. He stared at her as she walked towards the border crossing, moving with a quick, sure tread in her muddy desert boots.
She was going to straighten out a few clowns at the betting book who had collected commissions for sending her fake pollos who never showed up to cross. Small commissions, but not a thing to be taken lightly, which is exactly how she intended not to take it.
The last passenger got off, a burly mechanic with a Toluca soccer shirt. He caught Ado’s glance and laughed, “With an ass like that, she could make more money just doing shows, eh, Maestro?”
Ado looked at him, his inner news nose perking up. “More money than what?”
“Chamba de pollera, wey You don’t know her? She does the “jump”, takes pollos right through the claws of the Migra, delivers them to McDonas and gives them change from their dollar. One tough bitch, too. Nobody to mess with. She’s connected, you know what I mean? Wish she was connected to my pinga.“
Ado watched her out of sight. He had a feeling he would hear more about her. “La Pollera Nalgona,“ he thought. He imagined that he would sell a few tapes with “The Fine-Assed Smuggler” as a title track.
Pepito Camponeta enjoyed being fussed over by his family while getting examined by a paramedic pissed off for driving all the way out to a nowhere like Barrio Lobo for something so minor. As far as the medic was concerned, the most life-threatening thing that had happened to the kid was exposure to the gelid pool water and he was bygod sending a report on that to the county. He said as much to the cops and the slick, fancy-assed Chicano rights lawyer who showed up.
Victor Moncaldo, the dressed and groomed lawyer with superior airs, seemed glad to hear it. He motioned Cole to step away from the turmoil around the miraculously resurrected Pepito.
“I’m working on locating the owner, Cam,” he told him.
Cole shook his big sun-streaked head, smiling. “If you owned this shithole, would you want anybody to know it?”
“I’ve also got some calls in to various places that might help deal with this. Hey, listen. You know I’m not too maudlin about these people.” He ignored the emphatic way Cole nodded his head at that. “But I think they could use some social work. They’re obviously in a stressed situation and you know, seven year-old boys don’t normally try to commit suicide. Also, these people are hillbilly peons scared stiff at being out of their village. They don’t go around biting cops.”
“Hard to believe anybody in Lowblow would be insane enough to bite Rosas.”
“I’d crawl over broken glass for a chance, but you see what I mean.”
“Yeah. This isn’t one I’d feel good about just giving the kid a popsicle and driving off. I’m sure you’ll get the legal end nailed down and all, you know…”
“Yeah, but you agree we’ve got social stuff here, pysch stuff, maybe?”
Cole nodded a third time. “He’s not the only “wet” one in that crowd, so I don’t want any referrals to County. Can we get Alicia over, see what she can make of it?”
“Good idea. The best non-Spanish-speaking counselor in the Barrio.”
“Hey, she’s learning. She does pretty well, considering.”
“Hey, she’s also on my list of people I’m dying to chew on. And, yeah, she’s not bad. I’ll call her now. She was pulling into the Center as I left.”
He speed-dialed Alicia Childers and was listening to the phone ring at the Centro del Barrio when he saw Jim Riles step out of a unit on the upper deck, squint at the sky and perform an unsightly stretch in his unbuttoned shirt and cutoff sweatpants.
Victor watched him cast jaundiced eyes over the assemblage of police, medics, and community service. Riles’ reportorial curiosity overcame his deep-seated aversion to cops and lawyers at his door and he came down the crumbling steps, adroitly avoiding the place where the rusted iron railing had bulged into a jagged kneetrap. He walked up scratching the luxuriant pelt around his navel.
“Surf up, Sergeant Cole? Morning, Counselor.”
“Morning,” Victor nodded sourly. “Not necessarily a good one.”
“Tell me about it. I had breakfast with an editor. Wanna make my week, say there’s a few inches for me in all this. I’ve got a byline jones.”
“This is where you live now? Sort of fits.”
“Fits my so-called budget, anyway. But actually, I find La Jolla and Coronado so ‘been-done’. I’m a pioneer in this new lifestyle dynamic.”
“You’re a germ in the works,” Cole said, smiling though. “Any other station you’d be a Usual Suspect.”
“But here?” Riles spread an expansive and inclusive hand to commend not just the half-baked grunge of the Frontera, but the huddled shacks, tottering tenements, and below-mean streets of Barrio Lobo. “In these suburban environs? I’m practically a pillow of the community.”
The communal pillow identity was supported by the appearance in Riles’ doorway of a blowsy, busty blonde of an uncertain age. She liked the sight of cops even less than Riles had, and scurried down the stairs with averted face. Riles stepped gallantly to the steps for a goodbye gesture, but she hurried by him avoiding contact, her hungover expression reflecting second thoughts rapidly ripening into regrets. She made it off the patio without getting anywhere near Cole or Rojas, who looked at her as if questioning her sanity.
“Well, it keeps you close to the border, I suppose.” It was really a probe from Victor, who didn’t expect any straight answers or even clues.
“Not as close as I used to be,” he grinned at Victor, rolling with the reference to time gone by. “But close enough for ground-breaking cross-cultural journalism.” He eyed the Camponeta crew. “So is this what all that screaming was about?”
Rosas turned a cold glare on him for that. She also resented the shy smile he caught from a teenaged Camponeta daughter; cute, plump and clearly at an interested, if not legal, age. She smoldered as Riles approached Pepito and leaned over to speak to him in very serviceable Spanish. “Little swimming accident, chamaco?“ Pepito, already tiring of being pampered and fawned over, smiled at Riles, held out his hand to slap five.
“Do you know these people, Riles?” Victor asked. “We could use a few answers.”
“Sure, they’ve been here about eight months. I met this little chavito+] his first night in the country.”
Which was true. Pepito had first seen the crazy old gringo on the same night that he’d ridden the Jungle Woman like a horse in the movies. He’d seen a man peeing into the green pond at the Frontera and had gone over to watch. The loco had looked at Pepito and asked if his back was still wet. Pepito checked, but it wasn’t. The crazy gabacho+] laughed and said that after all it wasn’t a very deep river. And that was true. His father had told him that the Tijuana River was the last one, the Big One. But they had crossed much deeper water than that.
Before the politically correct multiculture vultures and irate anthro-apologists descend with claws and tongues, let me point out that this is a Mexican expression, so maybe it should get worked into their precious mosaic. What they say is: The wind blows all the trash North until it hits the fence. That’s their idea of what Tijuana is all about. And if you want to ask, they think the trash that blows through, around, or over the fences is the worst of it. Indios, farm hicks, illiterates, and peasants aren’t seen as being the flower of their country, or even totally human: just exports of their poverty, failure, and past genetic screwups. Adios and good riddance. If they just wouldn’t come back to visit, putting on airs and flashing dollars around.
“Fences Make Neighbors” Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column Southcoast Week
In Mexico goats are everywhere: in California you don’t see them anywhere. God, or whoever makes these distinctions for us, has divided the sheep’s and goats very distinctly. The Other Side is a country that works well for sheep: regular squares of peaceful field, clean grass cut neat and short, dogs to protect against wolves. Tijuana is a goat world, rough and male, where communities scramble up canyons in rocky confusion and kids graze loose in the trash. You can just drive across the border from California, walk into the ragged, free chaos of goat runs. But to go the other way, into the organized, trusting fields of sheep, is a more difficult trip that can take forever and cost everything you have.
“Borregos ∞, Chivas 0” Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos” Column, Zeta
Maria de los Angeles was the name her mother chose for her, courting some divine miracle to deliver her from the tribulations of raising ten children on a hard-scrabble ranchito in the stark uplands of Sinaloa. And in a way, her petition worked: she died giving birth to Mari. And less ambiguous boons were to come. Everybody agreed that little Mari Portola Valles was an unusual child. She had the same lean frame and narrow features as the rest of her family, and most people with blood from the Tarahumara tribe. But her hair was a fright: a wild nest of tangles always falling into her face like a private thicket from which she regarded the world with wide, round eyes. As a baby, her oversized eyes gave her a cute doll look, but by the time she could walk they had taken on the searching gaze of an owl. She liked to climb trees, or scramble up the raw rock above their split-cane shack for wider views down the steep, scrubby walls of the barranca+] where they lived. She built little nests in the lookouts she liked most.
She worked as hard as her ten siblings; weeding, watering and burning the pitiful patches of vegetables, beans and corn. But then she’d be gone and if you looked up to some impossible place she’d be there with her big luminous gaze. Nobody really cared: it was fool’s work anyway. Mari’s widowed father, Rosindo Portales, was as poor as they come: a hardpack, crusty old mountaineer who grew a few straggly tobacco plants on the side of the ridge, cured the leaves in the baking heat of an abandoned pickup cab, and smoked them rolled in corn husks, mixed with cuipotchli moss or volunteer marijuana.
The family were what people called iguaneros: so poor and isolated that when the summer rains made the treacherous trails of the Sierra Madre impassable, they had nothing to eat but the meat of iguanas. Mari excelled at catching the big lizards, which grew to enormous size in those parts. They would scramble upward through the green, jungly tangle over the sharp red scree, thinking themselves safe, but she would fall on them from above. The Portales kids were wiry and active, not particularly marked by intelligence. But Mari had something: you could see it in her posture, and lurking back behind those big eyes.
No surprise that it was her eyes that caught the first glimmer of the innovation that would bring relative prosperity to the family after generations of living like rats burrowed into the hill. What she saw coming from a long way off was a gray pickup truck. A shiny new one, unheard of in the canyonlands. With two strangers, possibly the first Mari had ever seen.
The strangers clattered their truck up the washboard track and sat still for a long time, inscrutable behind darkened glass windows, pumping out Sinaloa’s own music, the lilting tuba-driven two-step of the banda sinaloense Banda el Recodo, Mari’s oldest brother Esteban told them: the original banda. He’d been down the mountain to Mazatlán and Culicán, so he knew these things. When the entire family was in front of the shack, staring at the pickup, the two strangers got out. They wore Resistol hats, pointed boots, jeans and plaid shirts, wide belts with huge buckles. One buckle said, “Los Dos Plebes“ over a marijuana leaf and automatic pistol. The other buckle showed an embossed AK-47 assault rifle, what everybody in Sinaloa called a cuerno de chivo because somebody once thought the curved magazine looked like a goat’s horn. No doubt at all that these were narcos, dope cartel grunts. More welcome than the police or army, at any rate.
They nodded to Rosindo and his brood with country politeness, but they had a dismissive quality about them, too. It would not be a good idea to anger or startle these two, that was obvious to everybody. The family squatted on their heels, waiting to see what would happen. Even out in the sticks like this, you heard things. Some of the things that might happen were truly horrible. People got run off their land because the narcos wanted it, families got slaughtered, entire villages got emptied out.
But these guys pulled a seis of beer out of the truck and came to offer Pacificos to Rosindo and the older boys. They had some ideas to discuss. Rosindo said his house was theirs. They offered him a cigarette from a pack of Faros, but Rosindo rolled up one of his cornhusk stogies, sat in his hammock to smoke with these drug cowboys and hear their proposition.
They didn’t have to state the underlying terms of the proposition. Which were the standard narco contract: plata o plomo. Silver or lead, amigo: you take our money or we take our shots. But there was no need to get into all that. They just wanted to buy cash crop from Rosindo and would help him out getting it started. He should burn down a lot of those woods over there, perfect place to plant ampolla: the opium poppy. Sinaloa is the Golden Triangle of the hemisphere, its leading producer of heroin and right up there in the top ten marijuana crops. They wanted Rosindo to get with their program. They’d heard he was a straight-up guy and they paid cash for crop.
Rosindo had a few polite questions, mostly dealing with his downside. He wouldn’t have to worry about the police, they told him. As if there had ever been a cop up this neck of the ravines. And if the army comes? That was a different matter, but the two strangers had the obvious answer. You run. Melt up into the hills until they leave. The worst they’ll do is burn your place with the crop and if they do, we’ll help you out. But tell the truth, the Army is getting on the payroll, too. Which left the worst threat, bandits. A cash crop can be stolen and there are people who do that. Not people with very long life expectancies, was his implication on that one. The strangers would take care of that, just so they didn’t worry. Burn out those trees and get ready to plant. We’ll bring you seedlings, equipment…and some cuernos de chivo for nosy neighbors.
That sold the boys on the project. As though anybody really had a say in the matter. Rosindo accepted as graciously as if he’d thought it over and couldn’t think of any of his many options that pleased him more than starting an opiate plantation for these fine caballeros. And muchas gracias for the cervesas: would they like to stay for dinner? The strangers, foot soldiers for a minor local narco-funcionario named Silverino Crespi, politely declined. Picking their hair-raising way down the mountain in the pickup they laughed about having turned down a nice iguana roast.
They were back two weeks later: there was new ground to plant and a huge pile of fresh firewood, and one more of the thousand small opium plantations in the Sinaloa hills was under way. It made a lot of extra work for Mari and the boys.
Pepito’s family had avoided roads in some of the rough areas—their group mostly made up of females—and waded across the sluggish streams to bypass places like San Pedro Sula. Then they had set out from Puerto Cortez to enter Belize without documents. That was one of the worst. The weight of the family had settled the weather-beaten old panga, discarded as unreliable for fishing, so deep in the water that there were only a few inches of boat above the waves in the Gulf of Honduras. They had huddled together like mice out in the water beyond sight of land. And the men with the boat were ugly and talked bad, especially to his older sisters. Then the motor stopped running.
They huddled even closer while the men pulled the motor into the boat, which made water come in. The men talked ugly to the motor, to the sky, to the whole family. They spilled gasoline in the boat, a smell that made Pepito throw up. Which made most of the children throw up. The men got really angry about that. They said they would throw the children into the water. There was no food, only two little bottles of water. The men had more bottles, but they didn’t share. Then it got dark.
The men yelled in the dark, drinking from their bottles and breaking them. Finally they went to sleep. Pepito leaned out of the boat, watching the stars and the sleek flex of the water. It was quiet out on the water. Except for some of his sisters crying. His father started telling them stories. It was the same story he had told them before when they were dark and hungry and wet. Beyond the water was a new home where they would be safe and have a lot of food. They would have shoes and toys. There would be work and music. They would have money. It might seem far right now, but once they crossed all the water they’d be in a place that sounded to Pepito like a golden dream. Then the light came on.
It was a very bright light, as if the moon had pulled up beside them in the water. They could see nothing but light, so bright it hurt. Pepito’s little sister Miriam held up her hands: she thought they had gotten to heaven. The light spoke to them, at first in some strange language, a private language of light, maybe. Then in the language people speak. It was a grown man talking to them, but he spoke like a child. He didn’t know all the right words. A rope came out of the light and Pepito’s father tied it to the panga. Then the light went out, but there were other, smaller lights. It was another boat, but much bigger than theirs.
There were four men on the boat, men with black skin. Even blacker than the carpenter in his village that everybody called “El Negro”. The men said they’d been fishing all night, but never expected to catch such big fish. These black men laughed a lot. They came from Belize to catch fish at night. They would pull their boat to Belize because they didn’t want to leave them out here alone in the dark. The black men were good; very happy, laughing men.
The big boat pulled the small boat for awhile, but it was scary. More water came into the panga and it was getting very low to the sea. Finally the men stopped and pulled them in on the rope and made them get out of the panga into their big boat. There was more room on board, and it smelled like fish instead of gasoline and vomit. Pepito’s family stood close together in the back of the big boat and watched the small panga sink down into the water. The men with the panga didn’t like that, but they didn’t talk rough and ugly to the black men. They shared their bottles with them. They wanted to go back to Guatemala, where they lived. But the black men said they were going to Belize. When they got to Belize it was day. There was a village by the water with a long pier. They walked down the pier to the village. The black people there laughed at them and gave them food. Pepito thought this might be the place they were supposed to come to, but one of the black men told his father that he had been very lucky. And still had a long way to go.
When harvest approached, another pickup appeared at the Portales ranchito, this one even newer and grander. A Ford Lobo with four-wheel drive, crew cab, a rearing chrome bronco ornamenting the hood, and a bright red custom paint job, it pulled right up to their shanty. One of the same narcos got out of the crew cab with another soldier they hadn’t seen before. They had cuernos de chivo with them. The Portales clan stared, open-mouthed. Mari inched closer, examining the firearms with her widescreen stare. She also scanned the glossy pickup with its free-spinning wheel hubs. It could have been a space craft for all she knew. When Silverino Crespi stepped out of the cab she was staring right in his face.
Crespi was not dressed for the country. He wore crisp new black Levi’s and a satin shirt that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Grand Old Opry stage. Likewise the elaborate band of lizard skin and gamecock feathers around the elegant crown of his black Stetson Frontiersman. His two inch oxhide belt was festooned with scabbards for cell phones, at the small of his back was a chrome Ruger .44 Automag with pearl grips encrusted in gold filigree and the Mexican Eagle with a snake twisting in its beak.
This was his last trip up into the Sierra and he wasn’t at all unhappy about that. He was moving up in the ranks of the Sinaloa drug cartel and was there to delegate a new underling to the task of overseeing the cowboys who actually rode the high acreage of poppy and pot. Besides, he’d heard of Rosindo and wanted to see the old guy. A former bandit and leftist guerilla, he’d heard. An old cuss who would have ridden with Villa in a hot minute if he’d been born fifty years earlier. But the Portales who really captured his attention was little Maria de Los Angeles.
Just turned twelve, Mari had gotten really tall, as lithe and weightless as a stalk of grass. Her loose rags showed the slim grace of her strong legs, the first small swelling of breasts with wide nipples. Her big eyes were widening pools of wonder, following him like a radar. Her hair was typically post-tornado, with a hawk feather tucked into one snarl. She looked like a wild creature living among people for some arcane purpose, ready at any minute to leap over the cliff and run through the trees, shedding her clothing and her few civilized trappings as she loped. She was beautiful, unique and unspoiled, a feral cat of a girl. He just had to have her.
He kept an eye on her as he introduced the New Guy, passed around bottles of very young Tequila and tacos he’d bought in the last town below. As the pickup’s stereo blasted Los Tigres del Norte and El As de la Sierra into the primal canyon night and Rosindo’s liquored-up sons tattooed the cloudless skies with their new machine guns, he watched the deft, elfin way Mari moved, the way she watched him watching her. He mentioned her to Rosindo, who swung smoking cornhusk splifs in his hammock, half in the bag, but well aware of the eyeball game between his new patrón and his youngest daughter. Crespi expressed his admiration for the girl, wondered about her prospects out here in the ass end of nowhere. Old Rosindo grunted. She was a good girl, very clever. But basically one more mouth to feed. God knows who he could ever marry her off to in this chingado roost. Silverino said he liked her looks and Rosindo said he could tell she liked him, too. By three in the morning, with Rosindo’s boys and Crespi’s gunsels passed out in the dust and Mari eyeing the situation from a perch on the roof, a deal was struck.
This third family miracle brought Rosindo a well-used chain saw, an American twenty dollar bill, and the bespoke construction of a sturdy new shed with bedrooms attached in exchange for all rights to Maria de Los Angeles. The only restrictions on the deal, which Crespi solemnly swore to respect, was that he treat the girl decently and that he not bring her back. With all her belongings in a small sisal pack, Mari rode down out of the canyons in the back of the red pickup with two passed-out gunmen. She didn’t know the name of the man who was to be her common law husband.
That night on patrol, he padded by the Xoloitzcuintli cages three times. Finally, around four in the morning, he touched the nose of the pal they had spared, smelled the residue of duct tape. He knew what kept the cages closed, but had never examined it before. He could see the stick through the rings that held the door shut, but had no idea how to pull it out. He mouthed it, tasted sweat and old paint. He gripped it in his powerful jaws and started crushing it. Angered, he thrashed his head, worrying the stick the way he would worry a bone or an opponent’s leg. The stick broke and fell to the ground. The cage swung open.
His pal didn’t come out, just backed to the rear of the cage, intimidated by this sudden exposure to a big, scary dog. He watched his would-be buddy cringing on the filthy floor, then went to another cage and chewed off the stick. The other cages were another story. They were closed with bent pieces of rebar, which he couldn’t chew. He could have merely pushed them up with his nose and they’d have fallen away, but he couldn’t figure that out. He watched the Xolos inside pace, restive and worried as he tried to come up with a course of action.
Then the first dog came out of the cage, made bolder by the other Xoloitzcuintli. The two sniffed around nervously, retreating every time he came near them. They touched noses with the dogs still trapped inside the hog wire cages. Then they started barking; a strange, high-pitched yelp. That wasn’t good. He snarled at them, which only created more barking and whining. A light came on behind a grimy window. He could hear the men moving inside.
He leapt at the other dogs, scaring them half to death. He drove them out through the cluttered tunnel to the front yard. Trapped inside the fence of wire and broken cinder block, the dogs milled in fear, yapping. He cornered them, got their submission without a fight. He made it clear that he was the boss dog and they should follow him. Then he wheeled, jumped up on a wrecked motorscooter frame, and continued in an athletic leap over the fence to the street. The other dogs had no idea what to make of this, whirling and barking in the yard. He grabbed the gate latch in his teeth and tore at it. It was a flimsy gate, vinyl pipes wired together: he’d been the real security. The latch tore away in his mouth and the two Xoloitzcuintlis tumbled out the gate.
The men ran into the yard behind them so he barked at his pals and lit out up the street in a surging lope. They ran behind him, surprisingly fast for such awkward, sedentary dogs. With no idea of any other place to go, he kept moving in the same direction, North. They all three luxuriated in the exotic new smells and forms as they trotted out of the built-up area. They stuck to the scrub, away from buildings and roads as they moved towards open ground. Just before dawn they shouldered through a torn fence and crossed into United States territory.
He lost his first companion almost immediately. The route they took through the fence was a favorite of illegal entrants, and led into one of the few family farms remaining on the outskirts of Barrio Lobo, currently devoted to raising sod for golf courses and landscapers. The family was fed up with having wetbacks tramping through their yard every night, cutting fences, trampling their turf, abusing their dogs. They’d become touchy, even combative. When the farm dogs caught the scent of alien canines, they went completely berserk. The farmer stepped onto his porch expecting to see the Mexican army marching in. He leveled his pump shotgun, flipped on a monster floodlight, and saw no humans, just a dangerous-looking dog accompanied by two black mutant fiends from hell. Quickly jacking out the shell loaded with rock salt, he capped off the second shell, a standard bird shot load. The next shell had buckshot in it, but there was no need. The first black demon dog was hit in the face and killed instantly.
The scarred enforcer mutt was already out of range by the time he’d pumped the double ought shell into the chamber, followed closely by the smaller of the black beasts. The farmer approached the dead dog very cautiously. His dogs were more than a little worried, as well. What the hell is this thing? Finally he put the body in a metal trashcan and lashed down the lid. In the morning he called a reporter to tell him about the monster he’d killed. Was this one of the legendary chupacabras A Chihuahua mutated by steroids and toxins in the river? He sent a picture to several national tabloids, but they’d seen Xoloitzcuintlis before and didn’t get back to him. Finally he put the carcass in a trash bag and dumped it at the landfill. But he was still telling people about it years later. If they’d listen.
Meanwhile, he’d sure spooked the surviving dogs. After that they avoided buildings completely. They moved along the border to where the river came in from Mexico to create some semblance of a natural border if anybody had wanted to draw the border based on actual terrain. It was a bit of a swamp, and offered little to eat. But they laid low and they got by.
Guasave is a harsh, grubby little town in the Sinaloa foothills. Its sheer ordinariness seems odd to visitors familiar with its national fame as a drug center. Home of Caro Quintero, the most celebrated drug lord of them all. “Uphill from Guasave, the only law is having more firepower than the next plebe.” Caro Quintero’s imprisonment—with the scandal he created by living in a cell block by himself surrounded by women, guns, money, gold bathroom fixtures and sophisticated radio gear—did nothing to end Guasave being “His” town. They will tell you that he paved the road in from the highway at his own expense, and point to the pavement. They’ll tell you he bought the police force new Topaz patrol cars, and show you the cars in question. It’s a gateway from civilization to the Sierra, where the narcos rule.
Guasave bears it’s other claim to fame less proudly than its heritage of heroin and marijuana: its citizens are reputedly of legendary stupidity. Guasabenses are the Pollacks, the Newfies, the Aggies, the Blondes, the village idiots of the region’s jokes. Two Guasave guys are in the back of a pickup when it goes into a river: they drown because they can’t get the tailgate open. A Guasave highway crew paints less centerline every day because it’s getting further and further back to the paint bucket. A Guasave house-painting firm offers servicio al domicilio. Locals tiptoe across railroad tracks so they don’t wake the sleepers. But whether they find it a place where Town Idiot is a rotating office or a lair of death-dealing opiate entrepreneurs, visitors seldom find Guasave an imposing or pleasant place to live or visit. To Maria de Los Angeles it was a wonderland.
There were dozens of streets full of stores and big houses with toilets and running water inside. Everybody had their own television. There were cars, not just rusty pickups, and many of those cars were sleek and new with dark windows and chrome bulls or eagles on the hoods. There were stores that sold nothing but candy. Or dresses, or shoes, or music disks. There was a cinema that showed films every night of the week. Restaurants served beef and hamburgers and Chinese food, even fish and shrimp from the ocean. You could turn on the radio at any time and hear music: big swaggering bandas, nasal narco-corridos, or hot tropical cumbias perfect for dancing around her huge new house in her nice new dresses.
Instead of working hard from dawn to dusk, she rose late and spent the day playing with her dollhouse full of Barbies and other expensive, imported dolls Silverino pampered her with. The first time he came home and found her playing with dolls on the floor like a little girl he laughed, but she could tell he didn’t like it. She made sure she wasn’t playing dolls when he came into the house. Married life seemed to her like living in a super dollhouse on some peculiar television show.
The most peculiar parts came when Crespi was home, and she accommodated without much concern the odd things he liked to do when they were in bed. He enjoyed himself with her and she thought he was fun. She watched telenovelas and imitated the amorous behavior of the stars, which Silverino seemed to like. He brought home some videocassettes of other people doing things in bed, and she imitated those, too.
She learned other things about being married, a state she much preferred to anything else she had known. She learned to bathe every day, to dress up like a showpiece drug moll. She learned to handle firearms. She already knew how to cook and clean, but fortunately no longer had to. Servant girls came in to mop the tile floors, wash the white walls, dust the shelves of macho bric-a-brac, do the laundry. They treated her like a dreaded authority figure. She lorded it over them a bit, when what she would have really liked would have been to sit around the table with them, eating, drinking and telling jokes about boys.
Crespi was often gone, up in the hills taking care of his business interests or down in Culiacán reporting to higher-ups. He liked to take her out at night, parading her on the dance floor at a local centro nocturno or driving around in his Suburban with his gunmen and partners. In his absence there were men around the house, but they would seldom speak to her. Mostly they fiddled with guns and watched TV out on the wide porch under the jacaranda trees. They would turn up the radios in their pickups and listen to ranchera music.
Once Mari brought bowls of ice-cream out to the porch for them and they seemed embarrassed, didn’t touch it. Almost crying, she told them it was her birthday. She had turned thirteen and nobody was around to have her birthday with. The three gunmen told her to get some ice-cream for herself, then sat at the table eating it with her and laughing, telling jokes. They sang her “Las Mañanitas” and fired bursts into the air from their assault rifles. She showed them a new outfit she had bought for her favorite Barbie: pants, sweater and skis.
All told, it was a very nice period in her life, even when her husband’s ambitions and success in the business caused them to move to Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa and often termed the “Marseille of the Americas” in reference to its prominence in heroin agriculture, processing, packaging, transshipment, and general management. And that reputation had been earned even before the advent of Columbian cocaine passing through, the true heyday of the region.
Each move was an eye-widening jump in the scale of Mari’s world view. Culiacán was big, a state capital, and everyone they knew was rich, with houses that could have held her Guasave house in their garages. Or her father’s house in a closet. She got a very good look at some very hard, fast, loud men. Men who dressed like her husband—slick cowboy chic with exotic leather boots and belts and hatbands—but somehow more so. Who commanded other rich men as though they were little boys in the goatpen. And they all had women. Sometimes she and Silverino would party with these men and their wives, other times with the same men and younger girlfriends. For some reason Mari was the only wife who was included at both gatherings. Mari studied these women, who were even more glamorous and self-assured than the telenovela stars. She bought clothes like the girlfriends wore: either skintight jeans with jaunty Stetsons and blouses with cutouts to expose her shoulders, or super-frilly frocks with lots of satin, gauze and daring darts. She longed to flatter a swelling bosom, but in the first few months of her teens she had little to show for her sexual status. She compensated by being sweet and perky, but was dying to master the blasé sophistication of the girls who smoked cigarettes, lacquered their huge bangs, and wore underwear openly visible. One of the girlfriends took her to a mall and showed her a lingerie store called “Victoria States”. Mari went wild in the place and rubbed Silverino’s nose in black lace and cutouts for a week.
Ado didn’t see the border world as separated between North and South or White and Brown, like a humble cake with a layer of rich icing on top. The division he saw was defined by the people who listened and gave him money, as opposed to those who would never hear him. His people were the poor and uneducated on both sides, the illiterate, the old-fashioned and unfashionable. Exactly the sort that got nudged north over the border by the pressures of money and politics or south for legal nonconformity. And of course the border denizens that went back and forth, equally homeless on either side. That’s why they rode the Linea bus.
When you looked at it hard, what was the North/South division all about? From his perspective, most people on El Otro Lado were Mexicans, anyway. Just if they sneak up there, we call them mojados. And if they immigrate to live there, we call them pochos. If they’re born up there they call themselves Chicanos. Or they say not to call them Chicanos. Or not to call them Hispanics because it has “panic” in it. Or don’t called them Latinos for whatever stupid reason. They don’t know who the hell they are up there. But if they quit worrying about the words, aren’t we all the same people?
For that matter, there were gringos that listened to him and even bought his tapes. One day a tall young gringo got on his bus at the linea, headed into town. He had a beat-up backpack, obviously a seasoned traveler. And a guitar slung over his shoulder. He listened to two corridos avidly, tipped him well, was highly enthusiastic. He bought both tapes and wanted more. Furthermore, he wanted to talk to Ado on tape, interview him for a book he was writing about corridos. For an American publisher.
They went to Ado’s house, where he bought four more tapes, some of them very amateurish stuff Ado did before he got better at recording. He got out his guitar and played along with Ado, singing the choruses in very good Spanish. They drank beer and played more songs: the gringo knew a lot of them. This man knew the sensibility of the corrido, the tonality and attitude. He even sang some very old ones Ado hadn’t heard. He said they were early corridos from the Texas border, collected by music professors who preserved historic songs. Which is what he was trying to do, himself. He’d written books before, about old songs of the negros in the American South. He told Ado that his songs were history, a link between times and between peoples. And this man was educated, had lectured at universities. It had been a proud moment for Ado, glowing as his wife and children heard about how significant his work was. Something he’d known, but never heard put into words before.
The visitor took an expensive tape recorder out of his pack and asked Ado questions about his life, his work, his songs. Ado was very modest. He wasn’t the only guy keeping this music alive. There were guys who had big hits with corridos: that one about Hurricane Paulina and all that stuff about the huelgistas and clashing machetes in Atenco. But he just sang about gossip, really. And he refused to write narcocorridos—glorifying the drug trade—even though that’s where the money was. Those songs like “The Little White Powder” and “Lord of the Skies” weren’t really in this tradition, he thought.
The writer told him that he was a walking newspaper, a commentary program for the masses in movement, a chronicler of the place and time. Well, Ado wasn’t really a reporter, was he? He didn’t go see these places and interview the people. He was careful that his songs always make that clear.
They say there were four policemen dead
When the shooting stopped in that little restaurant
But if you ask around you hear there were just two
Along with the waitress and her little boy.
Working the buses cut both ways, he told the microphone. The people hear me, but I hear them. Anybody riding a Tijuana bus between the Centro and the Linea is coming from somewhere. Maybe they’ve been on the Otro Lado, or maybe they’ve come hundreds of miles to go there. Or they come down from remote colonias where the streets turn to rivers and the houses have cactus fences and coyotes come around at night. Or where they have gunfights at the voting booths. The stranger nodded enthusiastically at that one: he’d heard Ado’s “Bullets and Ballots.” On the campus radio station in Austin, Texas!
The writer said that it proved Ado’s idea: his audience wasn’t a matter of race or nation, it was a horizontal slice of society, people that lived below the screens and airwaves and demographic radar. Ado nodded, proud and impressed as he’d ever been in his life. He sang to a community, he told the writer’s microphone. A community living on two sides of a line drawn by men, not God.
The writer seemed quite moved by that. He picked up his guitar again and started playing Ado an old-timey Mexican song called “Dos Arbolitos”. His little son Sebastián, called Sebi, had been sitting listening all night with his eyes shining. He was a budding musician, and knew the words to “Two Little Trees” so he sang in a high, clear voice and the man who was going to write about Ado’s songs in a book smiled approvingly and wove lank, plaintive guitar notes around the vocals. Ado’s heart soared right through the roof, hovered in the air above the little shack huddled up against the border fence, and throbbed with joy and pride. It was the finest night of his life.
If Culiacán was a bright urban flash into Mari’s eyes, Tijuana burst in her face like a thermonuclear test. Bigger than “Culichi”, maybe the biggest city in the entire world. Brighter, darker, meaner, more beguiling, more like a foreign import than anything she recognized as Mexican. Tijuana had alleys bigger, more detailed, and more populated than Mari’s native canyons. It didn’t display its wares; it ran out and grabbed you, shoved them into your face and insulted you into picking them up. A throbbing, shrieking, homicidal hubbub is what she saw around her, a warbling night siren of unfulfilled desires and undesirable imagination.
She would come to see Tijuana as something like a cannery that scoops in pigs or fish or cattle at one end, stuns them, guts them, flays them and processes them into something standardized, conveniently stacked for sale and consumption. It had one way of doing it to American tourists, another way for girls from the country.
But the claws and cogs of that machine didn’t reach out for Mari when she stepped out, intimidated and avid, into the menacing anthill of the cavernous new bus station. She had traveled under the protection of Agusto Talarines, a Crespi underling who wore his own protected status like a badge. Mari was already learning to read the language of clothing, manners, and pose: this man is connected to something you don’t want to fool with. Silverino had already made the move to the border and was up to his elbows in new aspects of the Business. He sent Talarines down to close out the Culiacán house, wrap up loose ends, and provide transportation to Tijuana for Maria de Los Angeles.
Who was supposed to come as far as Mexicali in the comfort of the express train that everybody called the Bala, but actually steamed in on the slow, wretched local Burro, because Talarines drank up all the money Crespi had sent him. She eventually understood this as a fairly typical Mexican male behavior. If they enter a bar, they won’t leave until all their money is gone. If kids at home needing food would not cause them to leave sooner, who would let fear of their boss cause them to change that pattern? After many years she would learn that part of the problem was genetic: Indian blood. There was a song on the jukeboxes, “Mi Sangre de Indio.” Of course I screw up: this Indian blood runs in my veins. Her own veins, too, she knew all too well. She came to see alcohol the same way she saw men. A pleasant but treacherous affliction requiring constant vigilance and harsh discipline.
Silverino had already picked out a five bedroom house in Lomas Chapultepec and furnished it with a collection of chrome, glass, heavy beveled mirrors, black leather, and paintings of everything from the Virgin of Guadalupe to Al “Scarface” Pacino scowling from behind a machine gun, to a face of Don Quixote cleverly formed from characters in the story, to a profusion of jungle cats on velvet. Every room had a fountain on the wall, little drops of oil running down nylon strings. From the bedroom balcony Mari could stare down on everything from suburbs of walled homes and nice cars to squalid squatter barrios without lights or water, to the vacant slash of Border lit up all night for miles like a serpentine athletic field, and even into California, a mythical place she couldn’t even form vague impressions of. Miles of golden fields of blonde superhumans stretching to a city whose very name exerted a personal fascination: Los Angeles.
They owned three cars and Mari was learning how to drive them. More or less. On her fourteenth birthday, Silverino threw a massive bash at the house with gold foil piñatas, inflatable trampolines for kids, clowns, and a whole banda. Mari had never realized that bandas existed outside of radios or records and was dumfounded by the array of tubas, clarinets, trombones and percussion. She kicked up her heels to the oompahpah of polkas about the narcotics trade, which she had come to understand was “The” Industry, like none other. Around two in the morning she was in the kitchen eating ice-cream while the same three pistoleros and their gaudy, coke-jazzed girlfriends sang her “Las Mañanitas” a capella. She laughed herself to tears and kissed them all.
The timing was unfortunate. She was just starting to get a handle on what being a sophisticated Tijuana woman was all about, shopping in the malls at Plaza Rio and Las Playas, dancing in the luxurious gloom of Capistrano, going to a gym with saunas and jacuzzis. Riding through the Fellini scenario of nighttime Avenida Revolución looking at stupefied tourists and sexpunked American kids through darkened windows of a Suburban pumped full of the shitkicker polkas of Sinaloa. Tasting a glass of wine in La Mansión, then nodding for the suave chilango in his white jacket to fill her glass. Nibbling lobster above the thrashing sea in some exclusive, criminal roadhouse. Then her entire idyll was abruptly derailed.
When Mari and one of her svelte new girlfriends came home from the gym, the maids had left. Mari decided to microwave some frozen shrimp puffs for a snack, and walked into the barnlike garage where they kept the freezers. She turned on the lights, but only one came on, selectively spotlighting the middle garage door. Somebody Silverino stepped on in his rapid ascent of the cartel ladder had responded in kind.
They’d wanted to make a picturesque statement, so they rented a nail gun and compressor for the job, the first of a copycat wave of what the papers called [_ pneumo-narcrucificions_]. Spread-eagled naked on the garage door by box nails through his hands, feet, scrotum, penis and left ear, Crespi had been tortured at length with burning objects and electricity. Then pumped full of over 200 AK-47 rounds. At each side of him were the bodies of two of his minions, nailed to the door upside-down and similarly brutalized. Both wore their penises in their mouths. It was later said that they had misconstrued a shipment. What Mari would remember longest was the smell in the room: cordite, ozone, burned flesh and the sour motes of terror and death.
She stood staring at her husband’s body until her girlfriend came looking for her, went into hysterics, and fled. Mari found Silverino’s ostrich skin phone book and called every name she recognized, but nobody would come near the place. Finally she called the police, probably her worst option. At the sparsely attended funeral she wore black crotchless panties and bustier under her clinging mourning outfit. Earlier in the day she had stormed out of a store because they didn’t carry little black grief outfits for Barbies.
Ado worked alone in the mornings: barking, singing, and selling the occasional tape. But school let out at two, and when a big BlancoAzul bus snorted up to the curb at Second and Constitución, Sebi would always be there to meet him. The boy would loiter across the street in front of the McDonalds while waiting, or sell cassettes under the arcade of the old City Hall building where the legless harmonica beggar sawed away on the same tuneless song all day. If Sebi sold a tape, he would always toss some coins into his grimy cap. Ado always gave the boy a big greeting, but formally, not to treat him as a child in public. This kid worked, paid his keep. So Ado restrained his constant impulse to hug this wonderful boy to his heart and kiss his forehead.
Sebi stood holding the cassette box and motioning towards the door as his father sang out the destination. The buses had routes painted on their windshields, but they parked close together and not all their potential passengers could read. Ado, his guitar promising live entertainment on board, ushered them graciously up the steps into the grottos the drivers created. Inside lighting replaced by blacklights, dashboards obscured by acrylic fur, windows dangled with fringe, hand-tooled leather boots stitched around the gearshifts, posters of everybody from metalflaked suffering Christs to TV comedians to Scarface to the Virgin to PowerPuff girls. As he hailed them in and smiled them aboard, he asked Sebi about his day. The usual school patter, then the boy remembered, “The teacher sent you a note.” Never a good thing, but not to worry, Sebi was a good boy, never in trouble. “So read it to me.” He came to wish he’d never said that.
There was no way to disguise their purpose at the IMSS hospital from Sebi, who had read the note about observations by staff indicating he should get a checkup right away. An appointment had already been made. They walked in past the gigantic bronze IMSS logo: a fierce, stylized Mexican Eagle sheltering a woman and child under it’s vast wing. Ado wondered, as he did every time, Where is the man in this picture? You had the State protecting mother and child, but where is the father? It always bothered him.
The examining doctors were friendly and professional, but said that Sebi would have to stay for more tests. Since he was so young, his mother could stay with him. But not his father, Ado thought. Sebi said it was all right, he wasn’t afraid to stay here alone. It would be fun. Ado brought him a hamburger, candies and comic books. Then he went home and sat noodling on his guitar, trying not to think of little Sebi alone in the ward, being examined for God knew what. He started writing a new song, “¿Y El Padre?”
I may not be an eagle, I’m probably just a chicken on the ranch
But I sired my brood and love my chicks as much as any brave bird
If I can’t feed them and take care of them, who can?
Why does the Eagle care for kids and women, not the man?
He could see problems with a song called “What About The Father?” so he left it and brooded about Sebi. Finally he decided that doctors and eagles aside, it was in God’s hands and there was no point in worrying. He went to bed, but didn’t sleep much. He came to wonder if he’d worried enough.
Or if God had slipped up somehow. Three doctors told him the same thing, one after another. This beautiful, perfect child had cancer of the lymphatic system and would not see another birthday. They left him alone in a small white, windowless room to absorb this new order of the universe. Ado stared at the wall for an hour before any words came into his howling, sobbing mind. The words were, “So this is where they put the Fathers.”
The last doctor, much older than the others and marked by his decades of lacking the tools to assuage the pain of ravaged patients and families, came back to the room where Ado sat frozen, not wanting to make any movement that would start time moving forward again. The doctor wanted to make sure he would remember what he told him in hushed confidence. He wrote a phone number on a piece of paper torn from the examining table, using a plain block print. He looked into Ado’s vacant eyes and softly told him that medicine doesn’t know everything. There are clinics in the city that offer unorthodox treatments. Many are charlatans, many are deluded do-gooders. But this man might hold out help for you and your boy. He tucked the number into a pocket in the numb Ado’s leather vest and left him alone with his misery. Then walked silently through the halls for an hour, coming to grips with his own.
He had only been in Tijuana for an hour when he saw the bruja. This new city, which Pepito mostly saw through bus windows, was the biggest place he’d ever seen, an enormous, rushing uproar. As the big third-class bus heaved down into the smoke and noise, which seemed to stretch out forever, Pepito stared from the windows at strange sights. A house ten stories tall shaped like the Virgin Mary. A scorpion as big as the bus perched on top of a bar. A huge cave, crawling with dinosaurs, where people in nice clothes stood in line to get in. A building that was nothing but a big white ball, like it could just roll away. A Mexican flag as big as a futbol field. A glass building with an airplane sticking out of its side. A fat boy in an apron, as tall as four men, holding up a huge hamburger. A statue of a naked woman shooting a bow, another of a pair of scissors five stories high, a balloon in the sky that showed cartoons. This was not a normal place. He had the feeling they were close to the land they were looking for.
The bus stopped and the driver pointed one way and told everybody, “Centro”, then pointed the other direction and said, “Linea”. Pepito’s family stepped out, blinking in the dry, pungent sunshine. Across the street was a blue and white bus where a man with a guitar was singing out, “Centro, Centro Tercera.” They sat on the bus while it filled full of people. His father pointed to where the man had said, “Linea”. That, he told them, was a line of people waiting to go Across. The same place they were going. But they couldn’t just walk over because they had no proper papers. They would go another way. Pepito asked if they would go across more water to get there and his father said, Yes. That’s the way it’s done.
Then the bruja got on the bus. Nobody paid attention to her except some of the men. Maybe witches were common in this area. Pepito could believe anything about Tijuana by then. He watched her come down the aisle towards him. She was small and very thin. She had a long, hooked nose and sharp chin, but was attractive in an odd, tingly way. She dressed all in black and was covered in ornate silver chains and medallions. Her fingers were completely covered in metal. She had eyes on the backs of her hands. Her hair was sleek and black, held back in intricate knots woven into strips of shining cloth. She walked like a deer.
But mostly it was her eyes that showed that she was a witch. She looked at Pepito and knew everything about him in a single glance; past, present and future. She walked by him, her eyes seeking everyone on the bus. Nobody in his family looked at her. He didn’t know if they could see her at all. He tried to ask Juanes, but she was staring out the window at nothing, wouldn’t answer him. His mother stared straight ahead, hands on her beads. The witch sat right behind Pepito. She smelled like a thousand different things, some intriguing, some scary, some just alien.
When the bus started to move, the man with the guitar came down the aisle. He stood in the steps, two seats in front of Pepito, and started to play and sing. Pepito stared. The man wasn’t trying to sell anything like a lot of Mexican bus guys. He wasn’t playing sugary songs about women. He was telling stories about Tijuana. And the stories were what he would have expected: rough, jigging rhymes about outlaws and shooting and government betrayal. Pepito listened to the man as they slid into the downtown, passing signs in English and Japanese, past blocks of stores that repaired car bodies, past farmacias that occupied entire blocks, past stores full of life-sized elephants and giraffes and whales, a schoolbus on top of a restaurant, a Cadillac perpetually crashing through a wall, zebras on the sidewalks, naked women in the sky, rows of plaster statues of Bart and Sponge Bob and Dalmatians and Porky and Jesus and Mascara Sagrada and Fidel and Snow White.
Which reminded him to look around at the witch. She was looking directly at him. He quickly turned around to watch the singer, who smiled at him. The man stopped singing and started walking down the aisle showing people a tape cassette with his picture on it. People gave him money. One big guy in oily mechanic clothes bought the tape and the singer took out another one as he walked down the aisle, holding out his hand and thanking people. Pepito wished he had money to give him: he sang really good songs. He felt a tap on his shoulder. It took a lot of nerve for him to turn around. The witch was holding out her hand for him.
He saw a coin in her fingers, a big silver coin with an eagle on it. Not a Mexican eagle. But he knew it was money. He made himself hold out his hand. The witch nodded towards the singer and laid the coin in his hand. He took it, staring at her. She smiled at him. He knew then that she was not a bad witch. There must be other kinds of witches. The singer was beside him now, moving sure-footed through the lurching bus. He held out the quarter and the singer took it, ruffled his hair with calloused fingertips. He said, “[Gracias, chavito. _] _Vaya con Dios.”
He winked at the witch and said, “Gracias, Doña Doralicia.”
The bus stopped and the singer got out and starting calling, “Linea, Linea, a la linea y Libertad.” The witch stood up and passed him, moving towards the door. She stopped and held out her hand again. Pepito stretched out his palm. She placed her hand, elaborately ringed in silver rings and chains, on his. All her eyes looked at him. She moved her hand away and he was holding a small glass vial of clear liquid. The label said, “Legítima Agua Espiritual” and [“Sanctísima Muerte”. _] It had a picture of a baby hanging on a cross. The cross said, “_La Cruz de Sacrificio que Salva el Mundo”. Pepito stared at the bottle, then back at the witch: The Cross of Sacrifice That Saves the World! She raised her hand in an odd gesture, waved as she stepped away. She said, “Cruces bien, mi’ijo.”[_ _] Pepito stared as she stepped off the bus, then gazed into the water in his vial. She had known that he came here to Cross over, and gave him a gift of water. This bottle of Holiest Death water was her protection, her blessing. He knew that for sure. He stood up and his mother grabbed his shoulder, told him to throw the bottle away.
He refused. He ran between the legs of the other passengers, ducked out on the Tijuana street. His brother Marco squirmed off the bus and caught him before he’d gone ten yards. He looked up at Marco, his eyes pleading. He stuck the vial in Marco’s pocket, threw himself forward to hug his brother around the waist. When his mother made it off the bus she was on him instantly, like a hen on a bug. She demanded the bottle of Satanic witchcraft, calling him Jose instead of Pepito: she meant business. He clung to Marco, shaking his head and crying. Marco pointed to a trash receptacle at the bus stop and said he’d tossed it away. His mother searched him thoroughly, even looking in his mouth. Satisfied, she kissed him, wiped his tears and nose. While they walked the streets looking for a place to sleep, Marco gave him back the vial. He told him to think it over, though. That thing had already cost him a lie to his own mother.
The cars and furnishings seemed to disappear by magic as Mari blundered around, a fourteen year-old widow alone at the border. Coltish, but previewing the slim, chiseled perfection that her body would reach in another five years, broken in sexually and carrying a subliminal underworld cachet, Mari was one of the most coveted of Crespi’s physical possessions when the cartel crows flocked in to pick his carcass. There were certain personnel shakeouts involved, but they were settled quickly and with less expenditure of ammunition. Three days after her discovery of her own personal Calvary enactment, Mari renewed her acquaintanceship with Agusto Talarines.
“Gusto” had weathered the downsizing mostly due to family connections in Sinaloa. He was a lowly sergeant in the ranks of the Business, but took an inside edge by claiming to have had carnal knowledge of Mari while bringing her North. At that point she was seen as less desirable and possibly even a jinx, so the superstitious drug lords with their odd medieval moral codes left her to Agusto by default.
He walked into her bedroom that morning and pulled open the curtains. Mari stirred, looked at him and said, “¿Qui hubo, ‘Gusto?”
He looked at her, laying up on one elbow in peach chiffon on red satin sheets. He smiled. He told her, “We’ve got to get you out of here. Get packed, I’ve got the Suburban downstairs.”
She looked up at a lanky, dour cowboy type, leaning on the wall with his thumbs in his belt loops, folding Buck knife in a rough cowhide holster at one hip, two cell phones in reptile leather cases on the other, a blaze of gold necklaces at his throat, hatbrim rolled up in the Sinaloa style. She sat up, cross-legged. “Where am I going to live now?”
“You’ll stay with me for now. We’ll get you sorted out.”
“I was wondering. If Silvi is dead, am I still married?”
Talarines stepped over by the bed, looking down at her. He could see her hard body through the peach haze. Big dark aureoles, tight curved tummy, almost no pubic hair. He placed one hand on her cheek, fingers in her lank, wild hair. “You’re with me now, see?”
She looked at him then put her hand on his. He was surprised at his instant excitement from just that small touch. “Will you promise me something?”
He sat down on the bed beside her, still cupping her cheek. “Promise what, nena?”
“I don’t care if I’m with you or married or a widow or whatever. I want a quinceañera.”
Five months until she was fifteen. She didn’t know anybody who’d actually had a [quince. _] They were big expensive parties, a combination of Sweet Sixteen, coming out, and Bat Mitzvah for _Mexicanas. It didn’t occur to her, as it didn’t to most girls, that they were also an advertisement of nubile availability. But Talarines smiled at her and nodded his head. “A great big one. With a banda.”
The smile she returned twitched his heart and pants at the same time. He leaned forward and kissed her on the lips, gentle but deep. Mari responded, noticing the differences between the only two men she had kissed. Interesting. She leaned into him, making the most of new discoveries. She rolled up onto her knees, arms around his neck, tasting with her eyes closed.
Talarines hand moved over taut, smooth surfaces, velvety depressions, hard twitching coils of muscle. He lay back on the bed, looked at her kneeling there, grinning like a kid playing a fun new game. He made a motion with his hand and she pulled the peach chiffon over her head, tossed it across the room like a scudding pink fog. She sat back on her heels, letting him look. “There’s plenty of time,” he said.
“Can we go eat breakfast at Sanborns after?” she asked. He nodded, reached, pulled down a squirming pile of giggles and energy.
Talarines was absolutely delighted with Mari for a few weeks. He had thoughts, time, and energy for little else. Mari didn’t reciprocate the delight, however. He was a brusque and inconsiderate lover, if that’s even the word. His personal habits were questionable and he didn’t treat her all that well. Silverino hadn’t exactly been a sensitive NewAge Romeo, but her new man suffered even by that comparison. Though Mari wouldn’t have put her attitude into words, even to herself. You get what comes, was her experience. But still…
There was the matter of reduced lifestyle, as well. Talarines was a third-level narco, and didn’t keep her in the fine manner Silverino had shown her. He expected her to cook for him, for one thing. But criticized her rude country fare. Her shopping adventures were a thing of the past and she didn’t get to run with the fast women at Baby Rock and Capistrano any longer. She wasn’t permitted to touch an automobile. She wasn’t permitted to touch a lot of things. He wanted her home alone, keeping house, until he arrived whenever he arrived, and at that point wanted her on the bed, face down, legs spread. For a few minutes.
He was getting tired of her, back to chasing dancers and whores at Manhattan and West Fargo, coming home drunk and abusive. One night he came in almost too drunk to walk, enraged for losing all his money at the jai alai betting book, and she made the grave mistake of trying to distract him from his anger by mentioning plans for her quinceañera. He slapped her off her feet, tugged off his heavy python skin belt and lashed her a dozen times before he threw the belt in her face, bloodying her lip, then stomped out of the house. It wasn’t the last time he beat her, either. After the third time, something happened inside Maria de los Angeles, a deep change not predictable by anything in her blood, past, upbringing, or sexual history. She decided to take action to control her own life.
Doctor Cesario Robles Velarde was the soul of empathy. You would not find a more sympathetic listener or heartfelt witness to grief than the charismatic young Dr. Robles. He often said that the success of his clinic was due only in part to his medical discoveries, but had much more to do with his insight and comprehension of the most obscure organ of all, the human heart. He listened to Ado’s situation with more commiseration than any confessor in the church. He had seen for himself what a beautiful boy Sebi was. He could deeply appreciate the limited financial resources of a street performer: he himself had once had little to his name and the shame of society’s poor rewards to artists was proverbial. He was sickened by the idea that he had the power to save this boy’s life, but couldn’t do it for the shabbiest and most shameful of reasons.
“A human life—a bright and young human life—measured against mere money,” he said. “It’s disgusting, a symptom of a deeper cancer throughout our entire society.”
Ado looked at him stolidly, unable to conjure hope. Just to look, listen and wait took enough out of him. Robles easily diagnosed him as a walking shock case, shutting down the switchboards to avoid calls from reality that would not be put off. Robles went on, “But there it is. Things cost money. I’m not a wealthy man. I can’t just pay rent and hire technicians and buy supplies to treat people for free. There are endless dying children but only so much money. The price I quote you for this treatment is exactly what it costs me to purchase the chemicals and nutrients the treatment requires. I’m sure you see a man of stone, sitting here in white with my diplomas, quoting a price on the life of your son. But I am not unfeeling. There is only so much I can do.”
Ado started to speak, then stood. He looked at the doctor for a long moment, found no fault in his gentle gaze. He looked through the glass wall of the office, into a gleaming professional clinic. He looked into a bottomless, gushing wound. He went for the door.
Dr. Robles hurried to open the door for him, touching him on the shoulder in an empathetic way. “There is still time,” he told him. “As long as we live there is time and hope. Be strong, have faith in whatever you have faith in. These times that terrify our souls are calls for us to take stock, to look upwards for help.”
Ado involuntarily looked up at the acoustic ceiling of the immaculate clinic. He would have welcomed the swooping fold of bronze wings. He would gladly have disappeared, let the eagle preserve his child. He looked at Robles as if from a great distance, trying to focus on the white figure in the closing black tunnel. He heard a wonderful duet singing the corrido he would never write, “¿Cuanto Vale Su Vida?” But he already had the answer to the “How Much Is His Life Worth?” question. Just over five thousand dollars, an amount Ado might make in five years.
After some reflection, Mari decided on just the right cop. He’d caught her eye at Patudos, a bar favored by narcos where Talarines had showed her off for the first few weeks after he picked up her option. She could tell he liked her and read in him a good mixture of basic decency, complete corruption, and genuine toughness. He was a big, rough guy from the sticks with a country accent. She took a taxi to Los Patudos and waited for him to come in for his usual drink. Nobody in the place made eye contact with her, even the waiters in their sleek black shirts avoided her. She sat alone with no beverage on her white-draped table. But when Officer Bernal arrived she smiled at him and he came straight to her table.
He ordered a tequila for her and asked where she was from. She knew he meant what pueblo, not what state. This was a guy like her fathers and brothers. And not a guy who quaked in fear of low-level narcos. She liked that. She liked Bernal in general. He’d do.
“I need a favor,” she told him over her second Tequila.
“From me?” he asked, making big eyes that couldn’t even pretend to be innocent of anything. “And what would I get in return?”
She looked at him, sat just so while she studied his eyes and lips, looked at his hard hands hanging off the edge of the table. She said, “A much bigger favor.”
Bernal smiled. He liked this country muchachita more all the time. Too bad she was hooked into the narco crowd. They’d chew her up and spit her out, wasted. But if she wanted something that they couldn’t do for her? There was a lot more going here than having a drink with a pretty kid.
“What could a simple man like me possibly do to deserve a favor that big, guapa?”
“Just your job, really.”
“Pos, let’s put it down here between us,” he said, “Chew the bones a little.”
“I don’t want you to kill him,” she said.
“Easy enough to not kill somebody,” he smiled. “Not a favor at all. So what did this tipo you don’t want killed do to you?”
“He beat me. But it’s not so much that.”
He already knew what major crime had been done to her, but she was still working on it. He waited her out.
“He shamed me.”
Bernal nodded, then she surprised him by adding, “He made me feel like I’m not anybody. Not a person.”
That’s how it works, honey, Bernal thought. He snorted emphatic disdain. “So he’s an idiot. I can see from here it would be good to make you more of a person.”
“I want him to be ashamed. I want him to feel like he’s just meat and you don’t care about him, can do anything you want with him. Oh, and I want him to be afraid.”
Bernal grinned, deeper than he had in a long time. He raised his glass to her. “I know just how to handle it. Let’s make sure we agree on who we’re talking about here.”
It was a shabby motel that the new road to Rosarito had passed by. The stucco was coming off and the faded sign advertised a price in old pesos, sixty thousand for a single. Bernal backed his cruiser up to one of the doors in the dusty court. He opened her door without speaking. He showed her into the room without payment or check-in. It was better than it looked from outside: a rosy glow of pink tile from the bathroom, cable television, clean white sheets. An air conditioner! Bernal closed the door, placed a bottle of Tequila on the bedside table, “Widow of Sanchez” brand. He sat down in a chair, didn’t speak, didn’t make any move towards her. Just watched her, his face and posture blank but his eyes friendly.
She poked around the room a little, unsure of her protocol. She went into the bath, but couldn’t think of anything to do there. Finally she turned back the bed and started to take off her clothes. She didn’t try to make it sexy like Silverino had liked, just undressed and laid them on a dresser. She turned and looked at him, a skinny teenager wearing a mature temptress’ racy underclothes. She said, “Do you want me to take off your clothes?” Silverino had liked that, too.
Bernal said, “Oh, I can undress myself just fine, chulis+]. How’s the bed?”
She sat down, wriggled around a bit, did a little bounce to test the mattress. “Not bad, Copper.”
She lolled on her back, tossing around, then snuggled in under the covers. She pulled a sheet to her neck in feigned modesty, humped around underneath it, then tossed out the lacy bra. She plunged under the covers, stuck out a hand waving the wispy panties at him. She peeked out at Bernal, grinning. “It’s nice. Are you afraid to jump in?”
Mexican men don’t, as a rule, spend much time worrying about arousing or satisfying women. The thing is to get in, get off, and get lost. Bernal wasn’t that great an exception to that rule, but he was a man who could recognize special circumstances and step up to what was required of him. A half-hour later Maria de los Angeles was out of her mind.
She’d had no idea; shacked-up widow or not. She writhed and swooned in his hands, tasted it, begged for it. Twenty minutes later she experienced her first orgasm. It embarrassed her. She vaguely felt that women weren’t supposed to act like that. It frightened her, too. Did that come from inside of her? What other devastating ambushes did her body hold? It lulled her into a sweet trough of utter sensation, laying shivering and stunned, lovingly stroking the brute, unlovely body of Alonso Bernal.
She kissed the tattoo on his left pectoral, a wide-winged, swooping owl. She did something else she’d never done before, took him into her hands. She held him between her palms like a girl at prayer, cupping and pressing. Like patting out tortillas, she thought, giggling. She rejoiced to feel him stiffen again, to feel him pull her to him and again lead her into the frolicking, heaving dance up to the place where the world fell away beneath her feet and she drifted among angels. She’d just had no idea, that’s all.
Mari lay disheveled and lax among the tangled sheets, peering through her wild hair at Bernal. “You’re married, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “Of course.”
“Why are all the good ones always married… to somebody else?”
“Oh, I’m not all that good, you know.”
“Seemed pretty damned good to me.”
“Well for one thing, I screw around with other women.”
Mari shook her head with incredulous shock, then giggled.
“And for another I take sinful bribes to commit crimes against the very peace I’m sworn to uphold.”
“Well I hope things will get more peaceful afterwards.”
“Well, sure. After the usual adjustment period.”
“You talk like a cop.”
“You fuck like a hick.”
“So show me the way. Show me how to fuck like a man.”
And she came to me, Bernal thought. I didn’t have to do a damned thing.
At many levels, Bernal was a fairly calloused example of the Tijuana cop. He’d killed for money, he’d been bribed by unwilling sex, he’d run whores, he’d punched women deep in the stomach, he’d watched a man’s eyes change while he twisted a knife in his guts. He was no stranger to young girls, either, even younger than this skinny Sinaloa brat with the big eyes and crazy hair. But he saw something special in Mari, and had enjoyed her more than any he could remember. So he returned her favor with special care.
He could have just accosted Talarines on the street and kicked the shit out of him. Instead he waited until the guy stumbled out of a bar in the Zona Roja, staggering along the dark end of Revu looking for somebody to pistolwhip. He cut the drunken asshole off, pulling up on the sidewalk in the dented, stolen van the Department gave him to drive. He stepped out and flashed a badge. Talarines laughed in his face. You know who I am? was a question he repeated several times. We buy and sell you, was his attitude. Bernal shrugged a big fist into his midriff, bent him over puking up Tequila and tripe tacos. Bernal heaved him through the door of the van, a quivering heap on the floor. Bernal slid the door shut, got behind the wheel, eyeballed the bystanders. Nobody saw a damned thing.
Talarines came to in a mini-storage unit, taped to a chair. Only one light, but it was a bright one and right in his face. He blinked, squinted, saw only a slight blurring as an old-fashioned flatiron slugged into his eye, exploding him back into a flame-shot dark hollow. He woke up gasping from the Tequila in his nostrils, and another iron punch cracked two of his ribs. He spent an unpleasant half hour suffering unseen blows out of the blackness. He screamed like a bitch, but made no sound. He didn’t want to know what was in his mouth, but had suspicions. He lost himself in the helplessness that a good professional beating bestows. By the time they took the thing out of his mouth he was beyond humiliation, beyond hope, beyond caring. He blubbered for it to stop. Or at least to know why it was happening. It could only be some ghastly mistake. They must not know who he was.
He was stripped naked and laughed at, manhandled into compromising positions. The disgusting toy that had been in his mouth was inserted in his anus amid laughter and stinging blows. Then back in his mouth. He begged, he pleaded. He said that yes, he liked taking it in the ass, he liked the taste of his own shit. Just no more, no more, no more. He told them things about his Business. He mentioned names. He was beyond fear of the future. Then the light went out.
A little white square appeared in the darkness, a foot in front of his good eye. The square showed scenes, spoke in his voice. He saw himself grovel, heard himself betray not only himself, but people who would make these events seem like a fiesta playera by comparison. Watching the video, he saw for the first time the man inside himself. He was shocked, terrified, nauseated. But the unseen antagonists didn’t care. They had their own agenda and at least they weren’t hurting him anymore. He might even live. For now.
When he returned home from the hospital, Agusto Talarines didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to think about it. He certainly didn’t want to talk about it with a perky, ponytailed Maria de los Angeles. But he couldn’t do much to stop her from talking to him as he lay bandaged and splinted on the couch. Telling him that he had just gotten a sample of what could happen to anybody who ever, ever fucked with her ever again.
Without admitting it to himself, Talarines knew he would never fuck with her again. Or even be able to. That inner decision lingered around him even when he was back on his feet, starting his precipitous decline in the narcotics industry, where inner weakness has a smell all its own. He caught a glimmer of what was happening and tried to fight off his descent with sheer Dutch Courage. He became a swaggering, vindictive guy, always on coke, always on the muscle. He made a few moves to show he still had plenty of balls.
But he didn’t look up that damn cop who’d taken him to that place with those men. He saw the films every night in his sleep. He took wary notice that many of the names he’d mentioned were turning up in the newspapers below gory photographs or in sidebar commentary on indictment and extradition. His decline culminated in another violent death, this one so spectacular that it rated two full pages in the “Sol de Tijuana”. “NARCOGRAM” was the banner headline. Smaller photos detailed the cryptic writing carved into his body and the proof that he’d been fed to dogs while still mostly alive. Mari found a copy of the paper on her doorstep the following morning, weighed down by a single gladiolus placed in a “Widow of Sanchez” bottle. She studied the pictures, smiled at the gladiolus. She put it right by her bedside, where she could enjoy it.
The worst one had been the Rio Hondo. They had to cross it in the woods because they were not allowed to go into Mexico. They walked through little trees and saw a place where there were big square stones lying around, stones bigger than Pepito’s father. He said they were very old. That they had been a temple for the people from long before. They crossed the river easily and kept walking in the woods, trying to find a town where they could catch a bus. Instead they found soldiers.
They were different from the soldiers in Honduras, but they had guns and boots and they all wore the same clothes. And they were just as mean. They wanted paper from his father, but he didn’t have any paper. So they threw them all on the ground and walked around scaring them and kicking them. This is what soldiers do. These were Mexican soldiers and they thought his family was sneaking in from Cuba. But after talking to his father, while slapping and hitting him, they decided they were from Guatemala. Just as bad, they said. They didn’t say how bad it was to be from Honduras.
They took away everything that his family had left after the boat ride. They didn’t believe there wasn’t more money. So they made everybody take off their clothes to look for more money. They laughed at the family standing there naked in the wet forest. They searched all over the girls and his mother. Then took his mother into the back of their truck, which had a canvas tent around it. And also his oldest sister Juana Ines, who they all called Juanes after the singer. His father tried to stop them from taking them into the truck, but they hit him and stuck a gun in his mouth. Another soldier poked a gun in his rear end and they laughed at him. In the truck his mother and Juanes were screaming and crying. Pepito could see what needed to be done, but nobody was doing it.
So he ran to where the soldiers had left guns leaning against the truck. He snatched a gun and turned around to point it at the soldiers. They would have to do what he said. But they didn’t. They ran towards him, yelling. He tried to make the gun shoot, but it wouldn’t. He tried to stick it in a soldier’s mouth, but instead it hit him in the throat. He took the gun away and started beating Pepito. He rolled under the truck, but they kept trying to kick him and hit him with the guns. Pepito knew he had to run into the forest, go find somebody to help. He jumped from under the other side of the truck and ran, naked, towards the woods. But then an army car, the green kind with no top or windshield, was there, heading straight towards him. He couldn’t get out of the way because it was moving too fast. So he just fell down and pulled his knees up to his chest and closed his eyes. Nothing he tried to do was working and the soldiers would kill him and his mother and sister.
But the car stopped and he heard a man step out. He was a short, slim man, but he yelled at the soldiers in a big voice. Pepito opened his eyes. He could see the man’s shiny boots. And he could see the soldiers all lining up in a row. Three or four more jumped out of the truck, putting on their pants. The line of soldiers stood without moving or looking around. Pepito wished he could get the gun and make it work: they were all lined up and still.
The man in the boots spoke to him, but Pepito said nothing. He picked Pepito up and set him on the fender of the truck and looked at him. He wore clothes like the other soldiers, but better. He had shining metal on his shoulders and hat. He wore glasses. The soldier told Pepito to get dressed. All of you, he called out, get dressed. He walked to the back of the truck and Pepito thought he was going to climb in the back where his mother was. But he stopped and spoke to Pepito’s father. He asked him if he was all right. Pepito’s father said yes, more or less. The man told him to take the women’s clothes to them in the truck. Get them dressed. Bring them out. Nobody would hurt them. Not even, he screamed at his men, a bunch of cowardly gangsters who think they are soldiers.
When Pepito’s mother came out of the truck, he ran to her. Juanes wouldn’t come out until his father and his brother Marco carried her. She looked different. And she acted different. She was never really the same after that day. She went into hiding from the world, was what Marco said. She didn’t think everything was funny the way she used to. His mother hugged him, and all the children. They were all crying now. His father asked the man in the boots what would happen to them next.
The man didn’t say anything. He told the men to get their guns and they stood there in their line holding guns. Pepito didn’t like the looks of that. But then the man took the guns away from the men who’d been in the truck with his mother and gave them to the man who drove his car for him. The man put the guns in the back of the car. The man spoke to a soldier named Sargento and slapped him in the face. He told the man who drove his car to get in the truck and drive it back. The truck started up and left with Sargento alone in the back. The man talked to the soldiers, very angry. He told them they were not soldiers, not men, they were cowards. He made them empty their pockets on the ground. He said the men didn’t deserve to ride in trucks the people paid for. They could walk back. Maybe they would get there by tomorrow. If not, he didn’t care. He told a man named Cabo to take the men home. The men turned all at the same time and walked off after the truck.
The man stood by his car, looking at Pepito’s family. He didn’t say anything. Finally he said that he was sorry. He knew that didn’t help. They had no right to be where they were, but they had the rights of human beings. He couldn’t help them, but he would not take them away. He told Marco to pick up the money and things the soldiers left on the ground. He took out his wallet and gave them the money that was in it. He pointed to a path in the woods and said it led to a village called La Lucha where the people were Mayans and would not do them harm. He told them to go to the next village, Ojo de Agua, then to 21 de Mayo. They could follow the old jungle track to Ley del Fomento and Dzibailito. Beyond that there would be no more army. He wished them luck. He looked at them some more but had nothing else to say. He got in his car and started it. He picked up a bottle half full of water and tossed it to Marco. Then he turned the car around and drove away.
Years later Pepito knew that the family had been incredibly lucky that they weren’t beaten so badly they couldn’t walk, or even killed and dumped in the river to warn other mojados to stay out of Mexico. But at the time he just wanted a drink of water. He wanted for Juanes to stop crying. He walked to where the soldiers had stood in their line and looked at the ground where they had emptied their pockets. He saw a knife that Marco had not picked up. It had a gold scorpion on the side of it. He put it in his pocket. They had crossed more water. They were in Mexico now.
Mari’s second bereavement confirmed her status as a jinx in narco circles. In fact, it was only her tender age and assumed innocence that kept her from getting a visit of her own from men with black Stetsons and cuernos de chivo. Fifteen and a half and without protector, Mari decided she’d be better off on her own than looking up another man to take care of her. She assessed her resources and came to realize that she’d already learned something valuable to a girl in her position; to barter her body for her needs. Her next step was so obvious that she experienced neither hesitation nor shyness about it.
At first she dressed in spandex, miniskirts, and pushup tube tops like the other girls in the street of the Zona Roja, a tight sausage of thrusting body parts topped off with a brassy blare of cosmetics. She was aware that it wasn’t a look that suited her, but decided not to buck an obvious market trend. She stepped out of a cab and walked through the hundred bar/hotel/whorehouses of the Zona, looking for her logical spot. Which was in the alley off First, between the Capirucha and Valentinos.
The three main streets of the Zona were a downscale Vegas of flashy mirrors and neon, with bands on the sidewalks to back up drunken singers, carts selling tacos and oyster cocktails, taxis pulling up to drop off horny tourists and businessmen or whisk couples from the high-end joints like Adelita’s or Chicago to hotels with government condoms and hourly rates. The alley featured two long lines of girls leaning on the walls and hooking onto passers by. There was an area for every taste, but she picked a spot in the middle of the Underaged Hotties Zone and started looking available. She was a smash hit right off the bat.
The other girls were more voluptuous, but there was something about Mari that drew a man’s eye, even across the street. She was alive. She didn’t apologize for being a whore by denying a guy simple pleasures. She eyed them not like an attraction barker, but like a fifteen year old babe cruising for a hot boyfriend. She started charging more than the other girls, and the traffic sprung for it. It was the higher price, not the amount of action she grabbed, that drew attention, then resentment, then intervention.
He called her out directly and crudely, a big strapping guy in a Raiders warm-up and imitation snake boots. She tagged him as a Sonora hillbilly immediately and told him to leave her the hell alone. He leaned down intimidatingly and said, “So far, so good, bitch. You’re too young and country to know how things are done here. But don’t show up on my block again until you’ve made the necessary arrangements. Give me the test drive and I’ll tell you about my cut.”
Mari laughed in his face and hailed a taxi. The other girls, who pretty much unanimously hated her, laughed about her turning her overpriced tail and running back to the Sierra. But that wasn’t where she told the driver to take her.
The next night one of the big, expensive cabs pulled up right in front of Valentino’s and Mari stepped out wearing knee-length white vinyl boots with five inch heels and a tube of white spandex without frivolous trappings like panties or bra. She threw a disdainful look at the other girls and stalked over to the wall they were cooling their rumps against. They moved away involuntarily and she took the empty space on the wall as her due, turned to the sidewalk with a bored expression. An American sailor was all over her immediately. She asked him for forty dollars, five more than she had asked the night before, and he agreed immediately.
The Sonora Kid started down the block as soon as he saw her. He stepped in front of the stairs up to the hotsheet rooms, cutting off Mari and her date, oozing trashy menace. He stared at the sailor, muttered, “Where joo going wi’ my wooman, ese?” The sailor was young and inexperienced, but he knew enough to get his ass out of there, pronto. Mari looked at Sonora angrily, tapping the metal tips of her boot. “You’re bad for business, guey. You owe me forty dollars.”
The Sonora pimp smiled, enjoying himself immensely. This was going to be really fun. He told her, in a voice meant for the other girls as well, “You forgot to make arrangements to be here, bitch.”
Mari matched his feral smile and upped it a little. “Al contrario.” She put two fingers up to her lower lip, pinched it and gave a piercing whistle. Sonora moved closer to her, pivoting slightly to power the backhand blow that would put her at his feet. But the quick bleat of a police klaxon and rumble of a big American motorcycle turned him around. Bernal nosed into the curb on a Harley Davidson festooned with the gear and Regalia of the TJPD, stepped off, examined his gleaming boots a second and gave the Sonora pimp The Look. He strode over purposefully, on him so quick there was no room to maneuver.
The pimp stepped back to the wall, scattering yelping girls. He pulled out a TJ Special switchblade and held it in front of him, dousing and dodging. Bernal slapped it out of his hand almost casually and kicked him in the kneecap. Yowling, the pimp slumped over, but Bernal hooked him a left uppercut that slammed his whole body against the wall. His head bounced off the cement into a pile-driver right jab. Bernal kicked his feet out from under him, dropping him on his ass. He leaned over and shook his finger back and forth in front of the pimp’s eyes, the definitive Mexican “No-no”, and savagely punched the kid’s head back into the wall for the KO.
Mari casual and cool, stepped up to examine the ruined Sonora pimp. Miming disgust at touching him, she fished a roll of bills out of his pocket and peeled off forty American dollars. She dropped the rest in his lap. Turning, she handed twenty to Bernal and tiptoed to plant a cute, chaste peck on his cheek. Bernal leaned over to take the money from the pimp’s lap, spit on him. Then he touched his cap at Mari, swung onto the cycle and revved it up, did a classic Pedro Infante exit. He putted down the alley without looking sideways or back. Another big lesson Mari drew from her mid-teens: you don’t have to be bigger, stronger or tougher if you can influence men who are.
A father and son team of clowns had the whole bus laughing, but Magdalena Siguiera didn’t hear them, didn’t look up when they came by her seat for a tip. She usually gave as little something to bus performers since her husband was in the same business.
But today she crawled off the bus as if the world was a fragile egg that could unexpectedly shatter underfoot and spew all its life and nutrient and future out into the empty dirt and careless winds. In fact, that had been her recent experience.
She was always a woman of light and even spirits, leading everyone to call her Mago instead of Macarena or Magda. She was Ado Siguiera’s wife, the newly stricken mother of her own little Sebi. Which had brought her to this unsavory neighborhood to seek the counsel of Doña Doralicia. She was not of religious persuasion and saw no advantage to what counsel The Church might afford. And certainly not the ministrations of doctors. Doña Doralicia was not her last resort, but her first. She had heard of her curing worse things. There was a rumor that she had brought a young girl back from death itself, a bargain in blood. But you heard these things about curanderas and brujas, especially if they looked the part as smashingly as Doña Dora did. When she entered the shop, there were no customers: the woman and girl were restocking the shelves with candles poured into tall glasses screened with portentous names like “Holiest Death” and “St. Michael the Warrior”. She stood smelling the magic incense and peculiar herbs until she caught their eye. Doña Doralicia turned her hawkish nose and penetrating gaze on her, motioned towards two chairs in a dark rear corner.
Where Mago sat to tell Doña Doralicia what had brought her. Her darling child invaded by cancer. How this could be, what could be done, who could she petition? She was not a rich woman, but would give all she had if this sentence could be lifted from her child, her life. And her husband would write a corrido praising her for their deliverance from this obscene joke of death.
As she sobbed out her plaint, Doña Doralicia looked at her curiously, as though somebody had somehow entered without her seeing them come in. She moved to stand behind Sra. Siguiera and hugged her. She held her, face resting on her coarse head scarf, until she stopped shaking and finished her plea. Then she sat down facing her and stared into her face for a long time. She could sell a lot of material and sessions to this woman. She held her heart in her hands. She was used to that.
She waited until the right moment, when the grieving woman looked up at her, bottomed out in her despair. Then she said, “The boy will live. Everything will be fine. Trust me on this. The more you trust me, the less pain you will feel. I personally promise that the boy will live to see his birthday. Go with God.” She stood and walked out into the light end of the shop, leaving Sra. Siguiera to collapse into a mass of relief, hope, tears and, inevitably, doubt.
Mothers, Doña Doralicia thought as she dusted the vials and parcels on her shelves, are the worst pain of all. She touched the curly hair of her helper and the girl smiled up at her. Despite appearances, there was no blood relationship. She had rescued the child from the street.
A year into her career of commercial carnality Mari was well beyond the alley, working out of Mexico Lindo, a quietly plush bar at the other end of downtown from the Zona, just off the Revu strip by the Jai Alai and the forbidding police station called “El Ocho”. She was asking between a hundred and two hundred dollars a throw. And was throwing quite a few. She still had a bit of the wide-eyed country kid inside her, but she was no longer naïve to urban ways and her exterior presentation was radically different. Part of that was the maturation of her breasts, now hard melon halves that slid easily on her contoured ribcage. She’d lost what little babyfat her face had ever had, accentuating the lean, hawklike look and angular bone structure. Costly conditioners had done for her crazed thicket of hair what her sisters’ brushings had never accomplished.
She was the youngest woman working Mexico Lindo by at least five years and the other high-priced takeout workers there regarded her either as a spoiled, dangerous interloper or a kid sister to be protected and brought along. One of them told her that her angular face would look like a witch by the time she was thirty, but in the meantime would serve her well.
Mexico Lindo was not the international working class romp zone she had been used to. It was a sitdown place with leather and indirect lighting, much of it directed through a massive collection of liquor bottles glowing like lumps of amber on the wall. Men here wore coats, even ties. There were a lot of foreigners and Mexican executives who tried to act, dress, and talk like foreigners. She glided among them, aloof. She listened, rather than talking, giving the men an intense, studious attention that most found erotic. She was interested in them, wanted to hear about their businesses. Once in their swank hotel rooms, she was direct and businesslike. In bed she often took initiative, was diligent in making sure her clients enjoyed themselves to the maximum possible. She’d intuitively realized the potential of repeat business. She was firm about condom use and quite capable of kicking the balls off anybody who tried to force the bareback issue. She didn’t use phony words or faked vocals, she let her body language convince them that she was also enjoying their time together. Which she sometimes was.
She’d ditched the lycra gladrags, and now presented a long, flowing line that showed a lot of leg and back, but only insinuated the disturbing glide of her breasts, unbound beneath draped fabrics. Rich fabrics, in Continental cuts and styles. She favored linens and raw silk, materials seldom seen in Tijuana, never in the demi-monde. Her tamed hair was now devastatingly coifed, framing her lean face with shadows in which tiny diamond earrings dangled. She wore Italian sandals, sometimes went barefoot in the club. She was a gypsy contessa with haughty carriage and the depth of despoiled generations. It was a transformation initiated and largely orchestrated by an unlikely consultant; rough, bluff Officer Alonso Bernal.
After four days working the alley and taking in some appreciable money, Mari had walked to the taxi corner and found Bernal sitting there in a late model Nissan with crumpled bumper and starred windshield. He told her she needed another favor and he would collect in advance. She agreed, grinning. On the drive to the old motel, he told her she was a sensationally great whore and they should talk about the next step in their relationship. She didn’t like the feel of that, but chattered with him about local gossip until they were in bed.
The more other men she had to compare, the more she liked screwing Bernal. She felt that he knew her inside and out. He was a homeboy. And she liked the way he did her, strong and controlling but not pushy or violent. She liked the way he talked. But she didn’t like his ideas about forming a long-term business relationship with him. She didn’t know all the ins and outs, but had a fox nose for traps.
“I decided that no more men are going to own me.” She didn’t know where that had come from, but she knew deep down that it was absolutely true, and vital. “Why can’t we just do things like this? Trade-offs when we need to?”
“Well, it’s like a lot of businesses: you have to have steady relationships you can rely on. You need assured supply, you need protection. A lot of those girls have pimps who do nothing but take their money away by force.”
She rolled on her side to face him. He stared straight up at the ceiling, waiting her out. She slid her hand under the sheet, took him in hand. “But I won’t let people force me. Not any more.”
He appreciated her touching him like that, the perfect balance of promise and threat. What a kid! “Well, the only way I’ve seen you deal with it is to come to me for help.”
“That’s right. That’s why you were breathing so hard a minute ago.” She tightened her grip just a little, chose her words carefully. “Don’t take this wrong, okay? But there are other guys around. Guys who are bigger and badder than you are.”
Bernal smiled. He removed her hand, keeping her wrist pinned in his. He rolled on top of her, grabbed her other wrist. He worked down between her legs, held her helpless under him. She grinned at him, kissed the owl tattoo on his chest. He said, “Yeah, there are. But can you find them?”
She wriggled against him, feeling his reaction. “I don’t think I have to. I just sit there looking bored and they come up and want a favor from me.”
He laughed out loud. Definitely a keeper, this one.
“You learn fast, nena But you have to be careful whose hands you fall into in.”
“What do I know? I’m just an [_iquanera. _] Just a hillbilly gal in the big, scary city. But I think I can always find some guy to help me out.” She slid against him more firmly, channeling him between her buttocks. “But listen. I like you. You like me. We’re friends here, aren’t we?”
“I’m feeling entirely friendly right now.”
“Then why can’t you just live with that? We scratch each others’ backs. And whatever needs scratching. One hand washing the other. [_ Amigos._]”
Bernal gave her a smile she’d never seen before, leaned down to place a very gentle, almost fatherly kiss on the side of her throat. The touch made her tremble. He shifted, completed their connection. He whispered, “I think I can live with that just fine.”
This time he didn’t roll off her when he finished. He found a position that let him stay inside her without putting his weight on her. He lay with his face in her blown nest of coarse hair, breathing softly into her ear.
She clasped her hands in the middle of his back, idly rubbing her wrists on the hard muscles there. She murmured, “Actually, I like you a lot, mi placa I’d almost fuck you for free.”
His laughter rippled across them both and he muttered, “Free? Have I taught you nothing?”
She giggled, gripped him quick, one, two, three, inside her. “I said, ‘almost’, didn’t I? Too bad you’re married.”
He pushed up on his arms, looked at her quizzically. “Why? You’d want to marry me?”
“It wouldn’t be so bad. We get along, understand each other. Have good sex.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be owned? Be just a wife.”
She thought that one over. She was still getting straight on the difference between thinking and whatever your brain does when you have a man inside you. “You’re right. Wives just fuck husbands.”
“And fucking husbands is boring?”
“Only when they’re your own.”
He rolled off, feeling a slight, unaccustomed tristesa when he slid out of her. He bent to kiss her tight stomach, waved his hand to fan a breeze across her sparse pubic hair. He reached for the bottle and took a swallow, offered it to Mari.
Who passed, but said, “Okay, now it’s your turn to do the favor.”
“I thought I just did.”
“Don’t be a deadbeat. What did you say I needed from you?”
“I’ll take you to talk to a couple of guys. Just business.” He caught her look, chuckled, “The business end of business. The guys up at BARECAF.”
Mari knew where the office was, up over one of the dingier “date bars”. But had only a vague idea of what it was about.
“I forget what it stands for, bar and café owners something. What it is, it’s the union of whorehouse owners. You join, they let you work inside the clubs, you make a lot more money, put up with less shit.”
“But they take a cut.”
“It’s not like that. More like union dues. And before you even ask, yeah, I get a taste of it, too. As far as they’re concerned, your ass is mine. But there’s no reason you have to look at it that way.”
“I pay them so I can make more money in their places?”
“Just like cabbies and waiters and everybody else. It’s unions, the Mexican way.”
“It’s enough extra money to be worth it, you’re saying? And they don’t control me?”
“You get a lot for your money, actually. They buy off the cops. Ever wonder about that?”
She shook her head and he tweaked her nipple chidingly.
“That’s what keeps your ass out of jail. You think men controlling you is bad, how’d you like to belong to some big black dyke with a really smelly one?”
That one got through to her. She stared at him. He could see he had her full attention, went on. “They buy off politicos so the places stay open. I don’t know if you pay any attention, but the PAN beat the PRI in the last election. The Virgin Do Good party. But they didn’t shut down the Zona, did they?”
Again, Mari realized she’d been skating on thin ice above deep, uncharted water. She longed for a day when she could be up on a roof or mountain and see the whole landscape herself.
He went on, “And they give health inspections, all that stuff for your license.”
“License? Health inspections?”
“Hostess license. You’ll be a union member, a worker. Qualify for Social Security hospital coverage. Monthly tests for SIDA.”
“You’ve never heard of Sindrome de Imunodeficiencia Acquirida? The VD of death? You know what VD is, don’t you?”
“No.” Death, even. She was trapped below the treeline, menaced by unseen enemies from all sides. Unconsciously, she reached for Bernal under the covers.
“¡Hijole!<> You’ve got a lot to learn, chamaca. Short version for now: use condoms.”
“What are those?”
¡Hijo de la chingada! Look, ask the other girls. Seriously. Really, really seriously. You have to know this stuff. Your life depends on it.”
Mari sunk into silence, gauging the depths of her own ignorance. She talked big about running her own life, but look at her: a baby frisking blind in the jungle. She was appreciating Bernal even more, but had to find a way to make all this data her own.
“Okay. No more working the street until I figure this out.”
“You know it girl. You realize it puts anybody who’s with you at risk? So I’m telling you, no bullshit. Use condoms.”
“Okay. Now how about that politicos part? You’re saying they get some of the money somebody pays to screw me?”
“Yeah. They screw you out of what people pay you. “
“The Mayor? The President?”
“You’re really a rookie, Country. You’ll figure all that stuff out. But for now there’s only one thing you really need to learn. Without it you can’t get a handle on jack shit.”
“What? Tell me!”
“Two things, really. Read and write.”
Within three days Mari had cornered a young woman physician at a neighborhood clinic and found out everything a working girl needs to know about sexually transmitted diseases, the female reproductive cycle, and the government condom program. She also enrolled in basic literacy classes at a missionary school in her neighborhood. Then she went with Bernal to meet with BARECAF. They were just two very ordinary, dried-up old guys sitting at dusty desks in a sparse office over the bar, playing dominos and listening to Sixties songs on an American radio station. Their immediate concern was her age. Bernal told them she was eighteen, a pretty obvious lie.
There was discussion, documents were signed, accommodations arrived at. She would pay more dues, for one thing. And a little more to Bernal. On his recommendation she started work the next night in Chavelas, a ranchera taxi dance place with cribs upstairs. Half the guys who paid a buck to dance bouncy quebraditas+] with Mari ended up paying the freight to take her upstairs and deal with the urgency her taut body and wild look engendered. After a week everybody was convinced she was top grade and she moved over to Adelita’s, the top bar in the region. And working under another refinement Bernal had suggested for her: she now called herself Angeles.
When she’d first walked past the police guard in front of Adelita’s and ducked inside the curtains over the door, she’d stopped in her tracks, stunned by what she saw. There were probably a hundred girls in the place, just standing around. And they were all gorgeous, incredibly sexy, and built like the girls in those dirty comic books. She wandered through a forest of silicon breasts and buttocks, nipple cutouts, full body fishnet, sweatshirts hacked off just below the aureoles, molded hotpants, mini-thongs, foot-tall Lucite shoes, arrangements of tinsel string holding together three tiny cups of red satin. Big, bawdy black girls from Acapulco, fifty false blondes, willowy Veracruz girls, American redheads working without legal papers. Every cosmetic technique, surgical enhancement, seamstress trick, artless display, and inviting peek-a-boo known to womankind. She was overwhelmed, a Disney character stumbling into an animated porn reel.
One woman was dancing on a small floor with disco lights and machine-made smoke. The floor was lined with seats full of men, who held American bills in their hands. The woman danced to a hot salsa beat, naked except for a g-string and frilly black garter stuffed with dollar bills. She approached a man waving a bill, let him grope her as he slid it into her crotch. Mari/Angeles stared as she tugged the g-string away to let a man plant a kiss on her slit to the roars of his friends. She stepped onto a table and was immediately wrapped in groping hands. She jumped free, tearing off the g-string as the song ended, dumping two dozen bills to the floor. She picked them up, bending from the waist and peeking back at the men who craned to get that view of her. All Angeles could think was: how can I compete with this? Within fifteen minutes a man approached her. He agreed to fifty dollars to go upstairs so quickly that she knew she should ask more from the next guy. She walked out the door with him, ten feet down the sidewalk to the hotel stairs. The sidewalk was lined with men, standing there to watch the girls walk by and up the stairs. It hit her just like that. She was part of Tijuana; a tourist attraction.
Drawn by odors, movement, and their unfocused, hopeful drift towards unexplored territory, the two surviving dogs gradually gravitated to the flat sandbeds where the Tijuana river, after a fairly short, confused, degrading career, oozes into the Pacific. The low beach dunes, spotted with patches of scrub, broom, and cachanilla+], were a fine place to run and teemed with wildlife, most of it edible and much of it unwary enough for them to get a piece of it. A half hour after they moved out onto the playa they spotted a Peregrine Falcon eating a freshly killed jackrabbit. Jubilantly, they woofed in to take over the carcass. The dog who would become Pucho chased the hawk down the beach a ways, barking with joy, faithful Indian companion pelting after. Then they tore the rabbit up, worrying the bloody remains around with savage growls before eating it, exulting in hot blood. The next day they nailed some terns on a nest and ate them, the eggs, the shells, and parts of the nest. At night they chased sand crabs and herons, yapping in glee. They’d stumbled onto the beach annex of Dog Heaven. It took them about a month to clean out all the easy game.
They were getting hungry and peckish by the time they saw the horses. They were both astonished. These were the biggest dogs they’d ever seen, and they had their own people. The horses cantered up the edge of surf, splashing out a rainbow spray. When they saw the dogs, they drew up, nervous. Horses and canines are ancient enemies, brought into uneasy co-operation by men. These dogs smelled like blood, guts, and trouble. And looked worse.
The riders wore exactly the same clothes. One was very pale with yellow hair and spoke in a male voice. The other was extremely dark, with long black hair, a warm woman’s voice, and a sweet, tangy odor. She nudged her horse towards the two dogs, who sat with tongues lolling, taking in the spectacle of people on huge animals with lots of butch leather. The dark woman leaned down to examine them, chatting them up with soothing nonsense. They grinned and wriggled, but stayed clear of the horse. Who was giving them a very wary eye. The pale rider also came over, laughing.
“Perfect, Dessa. Two more adoptees for your flock.”
“No, four is enough,” the black woman said. “Too bad, this black one is so ugly he’s almost cute.”
“The other one cute, too? He’s obviously Mexican.”
“Nah, he’s just plain butt ugly. Seems nice and friendly, though.”
“We ought to take him in. He’s probably illegal. Think he’d give us his real name?”
“Be the first one ever did. Nah, they probably belong to some farmer up there. Or slipped over from Playas and’ll head back for dinner. Meanwhile…” She reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a paper bag. She tossed four ground beef tacos in front of the dogs, who fell on them voraciously. Pucho polished his off in two gulps and looked up at Dessa, licking his chops. She laughed at him. “You’ve done handled some shit in your time, haven’t you, Biggie? Just a junkyard dog all over, huh?”
She dug back in the bag and threw them the rest of the tacos. She winked at the big dog. “Us black folk gotta stick together, huh, Pooch?”
“Watch your mouth, Dess. We’ve got enough problems without getting dog racism involved.”
“See right there…white male disses black Latino mutt. Wait’ll I call the “Week”.”
“You have to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise, we’d be out of a job.”
“I hear that. Well, let’s go patrol that line, make sure nobody stole it. Buy me lunch?”
The white rider laughed. “How about some Gainsburgers?”
The horses wheeled and headed back towards the border fence. The black woman turned as she rode. “Be cool, Niggah. It’s a jungle down here.” The tacos were the last food they found for five days.
Finally the Xoloitzcuintle, who wasn’t very good at killing and had been force-fed most of his life, succumbed to the heady fumes of a rotten mackerel washed up on the beach trailing five feet of leader from the hook in its guts. Pucho watched, worried, as he wolfed down this suspicious, bone-filled carrion. Then cavorted around him frantically, barking but helpless as the Xolo died from the hook ripping his throat out from the inside. He barked and bullied the other dog in its death dance, then licked it as its blood ran down into its stomach and it howled into death. He stayed at the body for the rest of the day, unwilling to write off his last friend in this exciting, murderous new territory.
Two days later the Border Patrol riders spotted the body and rode over to see if it was a seal or a human, neither type of corpse unheard of around the mouth of the Tijuana River. The one called Dessa looked sadly down at the bloated, hairless body. Her partner said, “You thought he was ugly before.”
“Shit. Didn’t live a week, did he?” She stood up in her stirrups, scanned the scrub and sand for the big black mutt. Under her breath she said, “I told you to keep your black ass cool, motherfucker. You call this cool?” She pulled the horse’s head around and walked it knee-deep in the waves, heading South to the fence. Fool dog.
His black ass was now the Lone Ranger of the swamps and flats. He ranged wider, no longer slowed down by the less gainly Xolo. He ate frogs, nailed a ranch rooster now and then, though he’d seen reasons to avoid farms and settlements. He found places where people parked cars at night, scarfed up fast food they’d tossed out their windows. He was jumped by a pack of German Shepherds from a farmhouse. He killed one and severely savaged two more. He hesitated, but ended up eating his kill. The border was no place for niceties and sentiment. He was leaner than he should be, but in fine shape and full combat mettle. He was one extremely lonely dog.
One evening his nose led him to a meal of delicious roasted chicken. The chicken, rolled for hours on a spit under gas flame, then wrapped in newspaper to go, was in the hands of a group of people who were eating while sitting on a fallen tree trunk, lined up like birds on a fence. They were pollos from Colima, and had been sitting at that spot through the heat of the day, without food and water, waiting for their pollero to come back and lead them across. He finally showed up, sipping Tequila from a plastic bag, and passed around the chicken, beans, rice, little sacks of salsa verde, and gallon bottle of water. They fell to the skimpy meal enthusiastically, but then the dog from hell burst out of the trees and headed straight for them, slavering. They dropped their chow and ran off in every direction.
The pollero whipped out his personal weapon, a half-meter length of rusty angle iron hacked off to a jagged end by a welding torch. He was by no means a seasoned professional, but might have salvaged the situation if he hadn’t crouched to face the dog, who advanced trying to wag his non-existent tail. The combative crouch and brandished slasher club brought up the dog’s hackles and dormant aggression issues. He stopped, chewed-up ears laid back, and gave a growl that the pollero loosely interpreted as the knell of doom. The man ran into the trees and turned to see his toothy nemesis trotting behind him, whereupon he ran back to Tijuana and bought a lot more Tequila. Which left the matter of chicken, still warm and fragrant on the ground, to be decided. The decision was to wolf it down happily. He also ate the beans, but his experimental lap of green chile yielded negative results.
As well-fed as he’d ever been in his life, he sniffed around the tree trunk for more, tagging the individual odors of peasants. Too bad they had left so soon. The food was great but sometimes a dog likes a scratch behind the ears or tugging and growling at an old piece of tire or some such. What the experience left him with, other than a prickly mouth and burning thirst for several hours, was the realization that people passed through this part of the estuary. And had food with them. He quickly redrew the map of his daily patrol.
Ado’s wife couldn’t do anything. Finally it was Sebi who got him back to work. He had lain around the house for a week. Knowing they would need to pay the rent in ten days. Knowing there was no food in the house, no drinking water. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t think. He lay still, barely breathing. He was trying to cut a bargain with Death, but he had no taker. Sebi came home from school and walked into the bedroom, where Ado lay in the same clothes he had worn to the clinic. Sebi was wearing his cowboy hat and vest, carried the box of cassettes. There were only two left: the boy had determinedly hawked the rest to keep the family afloat while his father came adrift. He told Ado, “I feel fine.”
“Let’s go work,” he said. “We need the money.” Ado looked at him, standing there waiting for his father and guide to get it together and be a man, and his heart blew to pieces. With nothing left inside him, there was no reason not to stand up and change clothes. Shave and brush his hair. Put on his hat and fringed vest and vaquero boots. Pick up his guitar. Get his grieving ass back to work alongside his doomed son. They took a bus downtown: Ado stood up and sung some stupid rancho lament. Sebi collected almost ten dollars worth of coins. The people seemed more than usually moved by the song.
On the third run from Constitución to the Linea, a well-dressed, handsome man with a slim aluminum attaché case that looked like a Star Wars prop listened closely to Ado’s corridos. He was a smooth, well-groomed Zona Rio type, not who you usually see on the Blue and Whites. He was the last one off the bus, and approached Ado diffidently. He liked his songs, a real flare for story-telling and rhymes. And it was good to see strict respect for the old forms in this day of narco-trash and Negro rap. Ado thanked him absently, waiting for him to go away. He stood with his hand over Sebi’s shoulder, touching his thin chest, pulling him lightly against his body. He couldn’t stand not touching the boy. He wanted to wrap around him in a huge hug, fall into a deep hole and pull it in behind them. He nodded at the suave businessman absently. Then he felt Sebi stiffen under his touch, looked down to see him staring at the man, then at him. He wrestled his attention to what the man was blabbing about. Which was seventy thousand pesos. More than six thousand dollars. More than…
Hope and fear blasted into Ado like a white-gold blowtorch, burned him like dry ice inside. He took off his hat and spoke to the man softly. “I’m very sorry, but I wasn’t paying attention to you. I have a lot on my mind. What is it you want from me?”
The guy waved off the apology, smiling. He said, “A straight commission. One corrido. You keep all performance rights.”
After that, there was a lot to say, and to ask. He had a client who wanted to commission a corrido. And no, he was not a narco. The man chuckled, “Narcos pay fifty, sixty thousand dollars to commission these songs, you know.”
“But not to me,” Ado replied. “What I mean is, they pay famous guys who sing on the radio and at big palenques+]. I just sell my own crappy tapes on the buses.”
“It doesn’t matter. He just wants a good song, not those fawning tributes they write for those drug assholes.”
Ado looked at him sharply, glanced down at Sebi, who was grinning. He said, “Well, if you like my work, let me give it a throw. Who’s the corrido about?”
“Nobody. It’s about quayinos.” He snapped open his high tech briefcase and brought out a manila envelope, handed it to Ado, who stared at it. Sebi reached up and took it.
Guayinos were a distinct civic feature, though less picturesque than the cable cars of San Francisco or the open pulmonias of Mazatlán. They were big old American station wagons operated on routes around the city, charging a few pesos for as many people as they could cram inside, picking up more fares as they careened out the Boulevard or up into the colonias. They were the storied Tijuana Taxi. There were probably ninety routes operating in the sprawling Tijuana area, each route identified by the color of the cars’ paint jobs. Over a thousand old beaters carrying a hundred thousand or more people a day, the city’s largest transportation system. Ado opened the envelope, which was full of newspaper clippings and photocopies. They were all editorial and governmental outcries against the outmoded, dangerous guayinos and stories detailing accidents and loss of life blamed on their faulty equipment and untrained, wild-assed drivers. The paper right on top showed a picture of a little girl whose leg had been cut off when a clutch spring failed, leaping the car forward and slamming the door on her.
Ado leafed through the stories, already mentally tacking things together. He’d never thought of it before. A man of the streets and people, yet he needed this slickster to put him wise to a major social disgrace and maimer of women and kids. Look at this, a driver had pulled into a barranca and sexually molested two little boys coming home from a soccer game. A driver arrested for selling crack on the run to San Antonio de los Buenos. He looked up at the man, who now seemed more handsome than before, more elegant, more good and wise. He almost seemed to stand in an aura of healing light. Thanks to Mary, Ado thought, thanks to the Angels. Thanks to God almighty and his son Jesus Christ. He would deliver a cassette of the song to the address on this card and be paid in cash.
The guy with the briefcase watched as Ado loaded the bus and stepped in. He could see him standing in the stairwell as the bus blatted and fumed towards the Centro. He didn’t really understand. Even if the guy was a great singer, which he wasn’t, he would have done the damn song for a hell of a lot less. He shrugged. I just carry out the orders, he thought. Nobody wants my opinion.
She thought she heard some sound, indistinct but portentous. She glanced towards the door of the shop and some trick of outside light illuminated the glass storefronts. Then she saw the slim figure step inside and gave her the fullest attention. Silhouetted against the afternoon sun was a woman who radiated change and dripped portent. She stood as simply and arrestingly as Venus on her shell, Guadeloupe on her half-moon. There was Holy Family around her, blooded avenger, Good Thief, airs of Transport. All this in language wide open to interpretation. Doña Doralicia was about to meet someone special. She stood up, moved towards the door.
Angeles stepped inside the metaphysical apothecary and looked around curiously. She didn’t have to read labels or flyers to get the picture. This was a small outpost of a major substrate of Mexican life: wildcat animist belief systems. A Mexican president had once said that Mexicans only truly believe in two things, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. He wasn’t president anymore: the Revolution had reformed his beliefs for him. The result tended to be a sweeping acceptance of any possible belief that wasn’t ruled out by one of those two deep-seated and politically created entities. She herself had needed to learn that airplanes don’t work by supernatural force, that disease is combated easier by medicines than by colored rags and whispered candles, that pregnancy is not caused by interactions between holy spirits. Her own spiritual ideas recast by her years in the narcotics and flesh trades, she could see the value of belief, even of superstition. But she could also see how unstructured credence could be harmful to inhabitants of the mechanized, lusting, clanging world outside the door. Which is why she had come.
Doña Doralicia was in front of her almost immediately. Angeles sensed, and was wary of, a marked deference in the way this elegant witchywoman treated her. She had no intention of getting sidetracked: her mission was too important. Doña Dora, eyes always on hers, addressed her with what could have been a shrug or a bow. Without asking her name or business she ushered her to the table in the dusky rear of the store, sat looking across at her with a respectful calm. She said, “How can I serve you?”
Angeles was somewhat put off by the way the curandera+] was looking at her, intensely attentive, but as though she was staring through her at something else. She kept her face expressionless, but took a brusque, stark approach. “I’m a whore.”
Nothing but a polite nod from the bruja+], as if she’d said she was from Nogales. “I work with other putas right down the block. And I think you might be harming them.” She was going to add something about, I know you don’t mean to, but Doña Doralicia spoke immediately without a flicker of reaction.
She just said, “Tell me how.”
“You sell those little envelopes of powder?”
“I sell envelopes,” Doña Dora said, then called softly, “Ximena, could you bring me one of each of the packets of Legitimate Powerful Powder?” The girl was at her side almost instantly, placed a double handful of small paper envelopes on the table; cheap brown paper packets the size of restaurant sugars, garishly silk-screened. She left them alone without a word or glance.
Angeles thumbed through the pile of packets, all promising success, love, and escape from fear. One of a half-dozen love philters, called “On Your Knees at my Feet”, showed a man kneeling in front of a temptress. Angeles held it up to show Doña Dora, smiling. She got a slight smile in return, but didn’t feel like she’d broken any ice.
She found what she was looking for, the only packet on black paper, with red lettering. The brand name was “Woman X”, shown by the silhouette of a prostitute leaning on a lamp post. She fingered the envelope, reading aloud from its blurry print. “Who is more guilty, she who sins for pay or he who pays for sin?” A famous quote from the nun poetess Sor. Juana Inez, but obviously charged with significance to the various Brand X women who would buy the packet. Next a quote from Christ himself, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” Comforting words to the professional adulterers in the alley.
“And on the back,” Angeles went on, “It says that the Holy Church has told us that sin is original, not earned by works.” She leaned forward, displaying the black envelope, and read “So firm your resolve, go ahead. But put on this powder before you go to work.” Doña Dora regarded the packet, and Angeles, with level anticipation.
“I’m a hick from the barranca,” Angeles said, “But you seem like a woman with education. I learned about this a week after I started work. You know what SIDA is, don’t you?”
Doña Doralicia nodded. Ah.
Angeles caught her comprehension, watched her carefully. “Do you believe that this… brujeria+]… can protect these girls from getting el SIDA? From spreading it to others, from dying of it? From passing it to their children?”
“No, I don’t.” she said calmly. Angeles’ face tightened and she started to speak, then leaned back and looked at Doña Dora, awaiting her full answer.
“I believe in powers of the spirit,” she told her. “There are things that have power. There are things that have power if you believe they do. Belief is the most powerful force in the universe. But the world has it’s laws and you can’t prevent that infection by faith. Those girls want this powder. They seek it out. So I sell it to them. We all sell what other people want to buy.”
Angeles slowly smiled at that remark. This time she felt some ice break. “They are hurting themselves out of ignorance. The young girls from the country who come here to raise money to cross. But I think this makes it easier for them to be ignorant.”
“You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Which embarrasses me. Ximena?” The girl was with her at once. “Please take these packets back, but remove all the black ones and throw them out. Wait, better to pour the powder out, then burn the envelopes.” Putting out trash in Tijuana just means tossing it on the sidewalk to wait for the occasional trash truck or, more frequently, scavengers.
She turned back to Angeles. “Thank you for bringing this matter to me. The powders are also sold in the botanica<> in the market. They will not be as easy to convince.”
“I think I can persuade them.”
I think so, too, Doña Doralicia thought. “Good luck to you. My name is Doralicia de la Torre. May I ask you a question?”
Angeles nodded. “My name is Maria de los Angeles.”
“Are your parents still living?”
“My mother died ‘giving my light to the world’. I haven’t seen my father for six years. Or heard of him.”
Doña Dora nodded. Whatever it was, it was still in the making. “Thank you. And thanks for coming.”
“I had an idea,” Angeles said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Al contrario Please tell me anything you like.”
“What if you still had little black envelopes like these, but instead of powder inside there was a condom? And a little paper telling how to be safe? Maybe Jesus or some nun or Pope has some helpful advice on that.”
Doña Doralicia smiled for the first time, a wide-open smile that came as a revelation to Angeles. It was no longer possible to see the forbidding dark witch after that smile. She glanced at Ximena, out in the shop. This was a mother woman, Angeles could suddenly see that.
Doña Dora said, “That’s an excellent suggestion. I promise to look into it at once. Let me ask you something else. Are these country prostis your friends?”
“No,” Angeles said. “They bore me and don’t like me. But I’m one of them, anyway.” She stopped and thought for a moment. “They have nobody who cares about them enough to protect them.”
And it was true that she had made many contacts but few friends among the other putas, as she referred to her profession. They were insipid and mulish. They had so many excuses for spending their lives on their back, crossing themselves and chewing gum until some man got through plunging them. The young ones were all trying to get money to go to the Norte, nobly help out their families with remitted money orders. The ones over seventeen always had babies. I only do this for my chiquilla, who needs medicine: unlike all those other sluts who just spread their legs to get nice clothes or support some worthless boyfriend.
Some of them were funny to eat dinner with, a couple of girls in outrageous outfits grabbing tacos or tortas in the little stalls between the bars, oblivious to passing leers. Or shopping in the Zona store that sold their kind of clothes. You don’t just go into Dorians and buy plastic high heels you can put little goldfish in or stretch pants with gaping holes down the sides to show most of your legs and your lack of underwear. And trying the stuff on was good for laughs. But mostly they bored her stiff. She preferred the company of men and even in Adelita’s was meeting some interesting ones. And she kept moving up, reaching deeper, seeing wider.
But Doña Doralicia had already achieved deep reach, was born seeing wider than others. She thanked Angeles again, ushered her from the store with the warm respect seen between colleagues and intimates. She stood at the window watching the statuesque figure glide through the shabby toss-up of First and Niños, idly arranging Ximena’s curls as the girl stood beside her. “Not so many years before I come to you for help, guapa.” She spoke softly to Ximena. “And we’ll be selling little medallions with her picture. It will be fascinating to find out why.”
Within a year, Angeles was at the top of the game. She was charging more than any other woman in Mexico Lindo, the most expensive pickup place in town. She paid her full percentage to the house, to BARECAF, and to Bernal. She wanted them to prize her, and they did. She was an earner and they made more off her as an independent agent than they could have coerced from her.
She was meeting a lot of gringos, men with money who came from a world she could barely fathom, but were giving her little snatches of the picture while lying around luxurious hotel suites. She knew what a bidet was at that point, what a mutual fund was, how the municipal government functioned, why the United States fought their wars in places with petroleum, why the maquila factories on Otay Mesa were losing business to the Chinese, how to use search engines and iPods. A man in a suit she thought of as Los Hermanos Brooks would pull out of her trance long enough to ask what it would cost to take her out for dinner and hotel inspection. She’d tell him straightforwardly. He’d be shocked: “But that’s twice what the other girls ask!”
“I know, it’s ridiculous. I can’t see any reason anybody would pay a rate like that. Can you?” They generally could.
Meanwhile she was making and maintaining contacts around what in most cities would be the underworld. Every now and then she’d show up to do a sultry semi-strip dance on the stage at Patudos or West Fargo or Manhattan. Her new look, which the narcos thought of as international, along with her previous associations and reputation as being hazardous, made her a fairly hot property in those circles and a few of the lieutenants of The Industry competed to top the price paid to take her somewhere lavish; always making it clear that it had been money well spent because of certain special treats she shared only with them and were impossible to describe to the less inititated.
In less than two years, before reaching her seventeenth birthday, she was working her own individual style, making more money than ninety percent of Mexican men, and on the top rung of her profession. Which, she kept reminding herself, was the flesh trade. And she was in an excellent position to observe the progress and decline of flesh. She knew it wasn’t going to last forever and kept her eyes wide open for her next move. She had a feeling it would move her in the same direction her life had moved her so far: towards the North, towards bigger and bigger cities, towards more money, towards some destiny that only hinted to her when she slept. Often the big eyes would open suddenly in the middle of the night and she would see it coming, all laid out in front of her. Then it would vanish, leaving only that feeling. Carried to The North.
“She’s young enough to be your daughter!” they say. And I say, So? She’s not my daughter to the best of my knowledge. I don’t want two-headed grandchildren any more than you do. But, again, So What? Is she not free to choose her companions? Maybe not wisely, but she could do worse. And I’m not afraid to talk about girls younger than eighteen either. You examine the entire population of the world. You examine the whole of human history. And what you find is that women are considered nubile in their mid-teens. Generally paired up, knocked up or at least shacked up by that age: the age of their most intense attractiveness to men. Did God design them to be sexual no man’s land? So lay off the “monster”, the moral outrage. You can make anything illegal by just voting in a law.
Which brings me to a few other laws that are causing a lot more trouble for us than teenagers getting laid. Like laws against drugs and guns. Ready?
“Statutes of Limitation” Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column Southcoast Week
Let’s not let our recent civic pride fool us. Tijuana exists on this spot for only one reason: this is a place where you can walk a few yards North and be in a place where the laws are different. There is no other reason for a city to be here. Do you see transportation terminals around? Seaports? Farming? Natural resources? No, what you see is the result of Americans coming here to get what is against the laws they voted for themselves.
Once it was liquor. And still is for gringuitos under the age of twenty-one. Then it was gambling (which is now legal there and not here.) And of course there are non-prescription drugs and commercial sex and cheap waterfront. And assembly plants with special tax status. We import poverty and desperation from the South to ship North. We import money and appetite from the North and hope to squeeze it dry. And it’s all legal.
“La Linea Legal” Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos” Column Zeta
Jim Riles was always confident in his gutter wiles and sociopathic powers, but this Lupe Ortega piece was tougher than he’d figured her for. Little MexiMinx was new at playing men, but her moves were almost as good as her body, which was damned good, indeed. Bursting with creamy baby fat and tense new curves under that dewy-soft caramel hide. Quick learner, for a teenaged dropout, Riles mused as further advances neither furthered nor advanced, knows how to play her cards nice and close to the doorknob. He was getting a little frustrated, blue-balled, and ridiculous, but figured it was in the bag one way or the other. In fact, she was telling him the way.
“Oye,“ she sneered, “The only reason I got into this old beater is you said you could get me some. So far you don’t got shit, viejo[+.<> +] And now you getting’ all… that way. I gotta go home.”
Riles sighed. They started being mercenary so young. The only thing that changed later was that they weren’t as direct about it all. “I’m gonna get it, cutie,” he told her. “Where are we going right now, huh?”
“We’re going nowhere, wey. Just sitting here fucking around.”
“I like to drive around with people who are friendly. Which you aren’t, particularly. Maybe I should just take you home.”
She laughed, “Shit, you pull this thing up at my house, they’d shoot it full of holes. And your old goat ass, too. Look, just go in, put down the money, we’ll go somewhere and check it out.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about. We’re on our way. I live to serve you. So why not slide over here a little, treat a guy like a mammal?”
Whatever snotty little jailbait answer Lupe would have had for that, it was rendered null by a stutter of blue and red lights in the rear window and the quick bleat of a police siren. Riles and Lupe yelped, in chorus, “Oh, shit!”
Riles pulled over, squinted into the glare in his rearview mirror. “Worse yet. It’s Rosas. With her usual hard-on.”
Lupe slumped, pouting. “Aw, fuck. Not that placa bitch.”
La Flaca stood beside the periferico highway, staring across the dark of the river valley at the wash of San Ysidro’s lights and the vivid line drawn across the landscape by the huge floodlights of the border fence. She idly kicked a rock off the shoulder of the road: it spun out into space, hitting outcroppings a hundred feet below. The fence might be the international border, but this roadside best reflected the nature of the brinco from Mexico to the United States: a deep natural divide, a cliff so steep it almost amounted to free fall, a decent into darkness and emergence into light.
This was a popular staging area for incursions across the border. It was served by the suicide buses to Mirador and Playas and offered access to several of the most notorious eroded ravines favored by smugglers for generations: Goat Canyon, Smuggler’s Gulch, the Toboggan. As many as a hundred people would stand here, look over the edge, then take the plunge. The site had it’s own nightly “community”. Regular crossers, some with jobs on the other side. Polleros, dressed like cocaine cowboys or in grungy T-shirts to blend into the U.S. ambience. Drug runners, mostly trying to look like inoffensive hick pollos. The pollos themselves—small quiet people shabbily bundled against the Southern California nights that they felt as painfully cold—were completely intimidated. Most squatted on their heels staring out into an alien night.
There were even three taco carts set up between the crumbling asphalt shoulder and the abyss, serving border crashers their last Mexican meal. A trio with accordion, guitar, and snare drum worked the crowd, hiring out for farewell ditties about country, family, and escaping a life of poverty by leaving all known life behind. Little boys walked through the crowds selling liquor, cigarettes (“They cost four times as much en el otro lado,+] compa,+]“) flashlights, pirated music cassettes, various Guadalupana and Zapatista bric-a-brac, and plastic bags to pull over your feet so as not to show up in American with telltale soggy shoes. A wrinkled old crone with patchy white hair crowned with a black mantilla moved from group to group, her forearms festooned with leather and plastic pendants. They held pendants with portraits of Juan Soldado, Tijuana’s unofficial Border Saint. One of the appeals of this location was its convenience to the old cemetery that had grown up around the place where a firing squad once killed a soldier accused of child rape. His innocence was later established, at least in the minds of the angry mob that burned the City Hall. Then his bloodstains mysteriously reappeared, he answered prayers, and he was petitioned to protect illegal border crossers.
Flaca shook her head at the pollos who bought the medals, kissed them, hung them on their necks. Many had come here by way of old Juan’s tomb, now a chapel with a plaster bust being eroded by kisses, tears and stroking hands. Tijuana is amazing, she thought, they’d rather worship bandits and rapists than the saints in the church. Not that she had much faith in those, either. She stood aloof from the nervous, waiting pollos, toeing an abrupt edge where the pavement had broken off and fallen because the weather had undercut soft clay banks. She wondered how long before the arterial highway would no longer be usable. Nobody plans very far ahead around here, she thought. No wonder they’re richer Over There.
She turned when she heard a passenger car pull off onto the crumbling overlook. An official black and white Tijuana police car, rippling a palpable wave of fear across the ranks of pollos and freezing them into stoic squats. The car sat still for a moment, as if deciding which plump chicken to gobble up, then the door opened and a big, rough-looking cop stepped out, oozing corruption and menace. He wore his hat in a crush like a bush pilot, could almost pull off a Pedro Infante thing, but looked too mean for the part. This did nothing to soothe the nerves of the pollos, but they squatted passively, inured to hoping for the best but getting the worst and not being able to do a damned thing about it. He walked up to La Flaca, who waited for him calmly, heels on the brink.
He stood facing her for a long beat, building dramatic tension for the benefit of the pollos, then stuck his face right into hers. She kissed his cheek in greeting like Mexicanas do, he brushed her cheek and touched her elbow affectionately. With the tension of their confrontation blown away, it was obvious to anybody that they were intimate. The big cop stepped beside her to eye the frontera and she turned to share the view. He spoke to her in a growl, with Guerrero inflections.
“¿Que onda,+] Flaquita? Where are all your pollos?”
She looked around as if she’d somehow mislaid a herd of illegal emigrants. “I guess a fox got them.”
“You have to watch out for that,” he nodded, “Zorros fronterizos”
“If only somebody would bring me some more so a poor working girl could make a few bucks tonight.”
“Well, chulis…” He tried for an avuncular smile, but just wasn’t constructed for it. “Do you believe in Santa Clous?”
La Flaca looked back at the darkened windows of the police car. She couldn’t see in the back, but could tell there was another officer in the passenger seat, not usual during these extracurricular cop gigs. “You brought all four?”
“Just like we agreed. Now let me think, what else did we agree?”
She smiled and pulled a roll of bills from an inside jacket pocket. She didn’t often pay for pollos, but these were special. Big money on delivery. The cops had relieved a trafficker of them after he’d hauled them all the way up from Michoacan. These were chickens of gold, two normal-looking middle-aged couples. Somebody’s kids had made out pretty well on the Other Side, all right. She said, “You know I don’t get any money until I get them across, right?”
“Oh no, I wasn’t aware. I decided that shaking down criminal emigrants for every scrap of information is too intrusive into their human rights.”
“Bicho,” she laughed. “Okay, then. The rest when I get back.”
“I’ll be waiting to welcome you back with open legs.”
“Dream on, copper. Hey, what if I just stay over there? Keep the money and live in American Luxury? Become a spoiled gringa bitch? Then what?”
“Instead of a saucy Mexican bitch?” he turned towards the car. “Then who’d take care of your little petting zoo?”
“Those kids can take care of themselves.”
“And who would take care of, you know… that?”
She dropped her eyes to her crotch, seeming surprised to see it. “What, that? It can take care of itself, too.”
He stepped close, laid a hand on the smooth, hard ass under her jeans. She slapped his hand playfully, pushed him toward the car.
“Fuck off, mordilón. I’m not that kind of girl.”
She paused a beat then the two of them chimed in unison, “Anymore!”
He shook his head, obviously despairing of her. “Fucking amateur.”
The straight chair facing Cameron Cole’s desk at the Barrio Station was not particularly comfortable, but it didn’t really matter: Riles was much more put off by the intense attitude focused on him by arresting officer Novena Rosas. Her disapproval and desire to rectify was so pungent it threatened to spontaneously ignite. Riles squirmed in the chair, trapped between Rosa’s deathray glare and the tough look on Cole’s normally mellow Beach Boy face. Nobody had said a word yet. So he decided to break the ice.
“Can I call my attorney?”
“You’re not under arrest,” Cole said flatly. “Mister Riles.”
“Mister, huh?” He tried to read Cole with no luck. He’d already scanned Rosas and considered her a fairly inflammatory read. “So maybe just for kicks. The call.”
You could feel Rosas about to go off, like the little draft before coals doused with new fuel burgeon into flame. But Cole raised an admonitory hand and she remained still, though surrounded with a sort of barometric pressure drop. “What would we book them for, Rosas?” he asked her. “What have they done? Are they in possession of anything?”
“You know what.” But she was already slipping into resignation, the dull throb that always hit her when the steel springs inside her realized that they wouldn’t be lashing into obvious evil and setting it right by trial of pain.
Lupe, sitting on a broken-down couch just inside the door, had been carefully keeping quiet, but finally lost faith in Riles dealing with this shit. “¡Chale! I wasn’t doing anything wrong, you bitch! Just sitting in a car!”
“Offering a kid a ride home from school,” Riles offered. It was all Rosas could do not to clock him right in the chops. Cole warned her with a suffering look, patted the air in a calming gesture.
“Look, Nova, why don’t you haul her over to the Centro?” She made no move, so he leaned forward, raised his eyebrows. “Alicia will still be there for her classes and might talk a little sense into her.”
Rosas nodded, but couldn’t stop glaring at Riles. Cole threw her a bone. “And, you know what, Mr. Riles? Maybe you should call that lawyer of yours. Unless you have something more pressing at the moment?”
Riles immediately thought of a really cute answer to that one, but not with Rosas still around. You never when the frayed little strings inside those mad dog types were going to snap all the way loose.
Before Flaca got to the squad car the front door opened and a very young, nice-looking cop got out and glanced around. She was impressed: just tall enough, barely in his twenties, clean-cut, athletic build, an air of confidence and innocence. She glanced at the older cop: he’d take care of the innocent bit soon enough. The kid opened the rear door and helped a middle-aged woman step out. Handed her out like a queen, Flaca thought. He held the door for the woman’s husband, then for another very similar couple, obviously from the same extended family. Probably inbred down in lake country, she figured. He popped the trunk and handed three backpacks to the men and one woman. Flaca cued in sharply at that. Was there something wrong with her, she can’t carry a pack? She glanced at the big cop, who shook his head. “She has trouble with her neck and shoulders,” he told her. “She can walk fine. And he’s strong. Could carry her.”
She laughed, “I should have you check out all my chickens for me.”
“These are still mine until you pay up. Don’t lose them, okay?”
They were both laughing when they reached the car and told the two couples she’d be taking them across. They didn’t like it. They looked at the cop, but didn’t want to say what it was so obvious they were thinking: We’ve come so far and spent so much money and now for the most dangerous part we’ll be in the hands of a woman? Flaca was used to this. She crossed her arms on her chest and stood too close to them. She said, “I’m as good as they come. I’ll get you there, don’t worry about that. Make me not worry about you. Why don’t you have a pack, Señora?”
The cop stepped in smoothly. He explained about her shoulder problem and asked the lady to tell Flaca that she could keep up and wouldn’t endanger anybody. Put on the defensive, the four swore that she would do fine. They were in good shape and not stupid. The cop said, “Good. As you can see, this woman is in perfect condition and she’s smarter than all four of you put together. And she’s not going to try to rape half of you and rob the others like some guides I could name for you. There will be people hurt tonight. And arrested, and robbed. Right down there where you can hear them scream. But that won’t happen to you because La Flaca doesn’t let things like that go on.”
She saw the young cop watching her, obviously impressed. As was she. A couple of handsome, healthy young people working dangerous jobs. The older cop caught the looks and smirked. “You like my new partner? He’s too cute to be a cop, huh? I have to practically wipe his ass, but he’s coming along.”
“Oh, I’d say he’s exactly cute enough.”
“Forget it, you slut. He’s in love with a rich blonde.”
“From Playas or Chapu?”
“Oh better than either. From there.” He pointed across the slash of light in the valley. “El otro lado. She’s a porrista no less.
Flaca gave the younger cop a pitying look, “A rich blonde gringa cheerleader? Wow, I admire a young man with impossible dreams.”
The kid was embarrassed by all the byplay, so Flaca bailed him out, “I’ll bet these folks want something to eat. We’re not leaving for a couple of hours and we could be walking all night.”
He led the foursome to a taco cart, got a few for their police escort as well. She stood watching him, then turned for more border surveillance.
The Sergeant lit a cigarette and smoked quietly for awhile. “I kid him around, but he’s the right kind. You call him, he’s there. If he needs to shoot, he shoots them dead. Great partner.”
“I can imagine.”
“I’ll bet you can. Look, be careful tonight. There’s extra patrols down in the rushes. I could take all of you up to the Soccer Field.”
“No, I saw the ones you’re talking about. Two on horses, four of those fucking four-wheeled motorcycles. Man, I hate those pinches+] motos.”
“You’re the expert. Just take care. I wouldn’t want you after you spent a few years doing lesbians in gringo prisons.”
Bernal’s partner came up, carrying a foam container with six tacos de carne asada, just in time to catch that last remark. Taken aback, he stared at the two of them. Flaca laughed heartily, brushed her palm down his cheek.
“We’re just screwing around, cutie. Don’t worry. If I ever saw a reason not to be a lesbian, you’re it.
Barrio Lobo’s police station, however rude, was a hospitality suite compared to the decrepit furniture, dingy walls, thrashed equipment and unqualified construction of the Centro del Barrio. Underfunded, politically betrayed, popularly disregarded, and festering with burn-out, dead-end futility, the Centro still managed to keep a lid on the more pressing problems of a neighborhood comprised of virtually nothing but homegrown problems diluted with an influx of imported problems from towns and countries even more impoverished and neglected.
A gloomy waiting area suggestive of government offices in some African Marxist/cannibal post-nation were littered with shamefully abused chairs. This was where public meetings and informational lectures about things like frauds and AIDS were not attended, and where a clinic diagnosed grubby, sickly kids twice a month. One door led to the Legal Aid office, where Victor Moncalvo had established an enclave of books and leather and fairly professional atmosphere, at his own expense. Well, at least not at public expense.
The other office was Social Services, where Alicia Childers held fragile hope. She’d tried to make it cheerful, but had succeeded only in creating an atmosphere her non-English-speaking, non-gringo-acculturated clientele saw as frivolous and dippy. Alicia was still attractive in her thirties, but the job and its underlying issues were eating away at that a little. Her basic stance was that she was the only who had no choice but to be at the center, so she took the brunt of its tattered melancholy. She sat on her desk, trying to get through to the intransigent girl seated in her swivel chair. Rosas, arms folded and face locked down, leaned against the wall watching in pointed silence. Lupe Ortega did not hold with silence, herself, especially when being unfairly hassled by authority. And she’d never been fairly hassled in her entire young life.
“Even ‘Cole Slaw’ said I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why you doggin’ my ass?”
She addressed Rosas, but Alicia was always wounded by implications of “doggin’ ass”. Rosas stared Lupe down. “So why were you in that guy’s car?”
“Like he said…” Lupe began, but Alicia jumped in, eager to weed Jim Riles out of the conversation if not, she could but wistfully hope, her entire life.
“Anything that man said is almost certainly a lie. What do you say? What do you want, child?”
Lupe resented the “child” and showed it by retreating behind childishness. “Nothin’.”
“You’re a pretty girl, Lupe. You have a lot to offer a man. Or to throw away on nothing. End up a welfare mom like your mother. Or a hooker like your sister.”
Lupe liked that even less and Rosas knew she was going to go off about it, so she leaned in with the full force of her intimidating power and ever-simmering rage. “Question is, what does he have to offer you?”
Lupe didn’t explode on Alicia, but she didn’t buy into Rosas, either. She pouted, stuck out her tits, said, “Nothin’.”
“Bullshit,” Rosas snapped. “What’s the attraction here? Drugs? Is that what’s going on, pendeja?”
Rosas was surprised that it would be that button that blew Lupe’s cool, not the reference to her family album. Alicia was simply surprised when Lupe surged out of her chair, fists doubled. She faced Rosas, even threw a gang sign or two. “Chale+], puta And fuck you, too. I’m not into drugs. Give me a test or something, prove it. And get off my ass.”
Rosas scanned her face impassively, glanced at Alicia.
Who said, “I believe you, Lupe. And that’s not the main issue here, Officer. I don’t like you badgering this girl like that. This isn’t the station, it’s a service agency.”
Rosas didn’t like that much, but stood down a little. She gave Lupe another searching look. “Look, kid, what are you trying to do here?”
“Just have a little fun. You should try it, Rosas. Be such a tightup bitch.” She turned to Alicia, suddenly calm and demure. “Ms. Childers, can I go to the bathroom?”
Her pollos were getting itchy and fretful. She was used to that: they always want to dash off right away, get the waiting over with. Even though that’s the worst way to do it. There were very few people left in the roadside “community” at this point. The taco carts were breaking down and cleaning up. One was being loaded into a pickup truck. Stray dogs snuffled through, picking at scraps. Flaca had spent several hours squatting with them, waiting, mostly talking to the man who seemed to be the de facto leader of her quartet of clients, gleaning what shreds of information about them and their families might be helpful. Finally she stood up and turned to the whole group.
“The reason the big wave of guides and customers left at eleven is because that’s when the Migra changes shifts. We waited because this puts larger groups ahead of us. Any that get caught will tie up some Migra, muddy the water. By now lots of officers are back there doing paperwork. We move in behind them, the way you follow somebody who’s cutting a trail through cane, entienden?”
The four pollos nodded, but remained apprehensive. She spoke in very calm, soft tones, “Listen, you don’t have to worry. I’ve done this hundreds of times. But pay complete attention to this: do whatever I tell you to, immediately.” She caught their eyes, burning it in until she saw acceptance and a fragile faith. Then softened. “And you’ll be with your family tonight.” She stepped to the cliff, said, “All right then. Vamonos.”
She turned her back on them, stepped over the edge and started picking her way down the gully. The four looked at each other, gave reflexive glances back at the Tijuana lights, then hurried to the edge and followed her down into the shadows.
Still enjoying the rude hospitality and low opinions provided by the cop shop, Riles leaned his chair against the wall and accepted the amused, superior regards of the suave, business-suited Victor Moncalvo. Victor made a bit of a show out of opening his tailored coat to remove an elegant pen and Riles smirked inwardly. Thinks he Luis Frickin’ Miguel, doesn’t he? Well, he was his lawyer. Sort of. Victor lolled, scribbling something on a sheet of typing paper as he spoke to Cole.
“You’ve got a good memory, Sergeant. I was his appointed defense and he reported to me for parole. That’s unusual, but they’re overstaffed and I’m, well…here.”
“So you’re still his tail? For how long?”
“Actually, his parole is over. He was such a model citizen for three years that they figured he didn’t need any more supervision. So I’m really not involved in his casework anymore. Thank God.”
“Well, thanks for coming over, anyway.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. I find Mr. Riles professionally fascinating. For one thing, just see how innocent he looks. He does it really well.”
“Maybe because I am?” Riles asked rhetorically. “Come on, Victor, where is this boogie-woogie going?”
“See? I wish I could tap off his store of innocence and bottle it for other clients who actually are innocent but look like desperados.”
“Bit of a specialist in ‘victimless crimes’, as I recall,” Cole tossed out.
“Exactly. Of course that’s not the same as innocence. Because actually there are victims.”
“Like underage girls, for instance.” Cole was serious on this bit, Riles could tell. “They really don’t need you dribbling over them. And they definitely don’t need whatever you’re using to entice them to have anything to do with you.”
“Exactly,” Victor piled on. “And smuggling dope also has its victims, even though they are accomplices in their own damages.”
Heard that line at some Chamber of Concerned Beaner Bloodsuckers banquet, Riles figured. He pushed a pawn. “Dope smuggling?”
“No conviction in this country, of course. But don’t play cute with me. I was your counsel, remember? Anyway, it’s nothing compared to the side effects of running guns into Mexico. Second hand victims are still victims.”
“You got me.” Riles held out his hands for handcuffs. “I give. Me and the girl were having kinky sex on a big pile of AK’s and smack when Officer Interuptus happened by to save the world from us.”
Victor smiled appreciatively. “Let me tell you a few interesting points on how renewing your probation can affect your daily life. And your rights. Like you won’t have any. Again.”
“I keep coming back to what law did I break?.”
“There’s a gray area between obeying the law and having to keep your nose clean,” Cole told him. “And running around with kidstuff is a big black booger, if you catch my drift. I’m suggesting you stay squeaky clean. Or you could have me setting up camp on your ass. And Rosas, don’t forget. Tell her that teen-aged bag whores aren’t victims.”
“Then can I go? Get back to doing nothing illegal?”
“Frankly, I was looking forward to Victor patronizing you some more.”
The two couples, older than most working-age line-jumpers, took longer than she would have liked to reach the bottom of the cliff, but Flaca pushed them across the narrow flats and down to the edge of wetlands too slow-moving and choked to be called a river. She motioned them to stop at the opening of a large culvert, let them take a breather while she walked through the dribble of sewage and sludge for a long scan of the river/swamp area. She listened as alertly as she looked. She could hear the hated FourRunners buzzing and blatting a few miles upriver. She wished horses made loud sounds like that. Well, sometimes they do.
Returning quickly to where her charges were sitting on a tree trunk half-mired in silt, she pulled a handful of plastic bags out of her jacket pocket, along with the elastic bands girls use on their ponytails. She handed them around. “Just slip them up over your shoes, then tie them really firm at the ankles. No, Señor: as high up your shins as you can. Nothing quite says ‘wetback’ like wet shoes.”
Bags in place, all five stood up. Flaca listened again, sniffed the air. She led them into the culvert. The man she’d corrected looked down at his feet, covered over the ankles in stinking goop. “See?” Flaca told him cheerfully, “No problem. No talking from now on, no sound at all. Obey me immediately. Let’s move.”
They group took two steps towards the river and a man burst out of the brush ahead, running directly towards them. One of the women screeched in fright, Flaca stepped in front of her, crouched into a defensive position, and whipped the machete out of her pack.
The running man saw Flaca and stopped so fast he almost pitched over forward. He threw his hands up, waved at her sheepishly. He motioned behind him with an “aw shit” expression, and plunged on by, further freaking out the two couples. Flaca turned to them radiating glacial calm.
“That was Fonso,” she told them. “He’s another pollero… uh, guide. Like me. The Migra caught him and he ran away, left his clients to be captured.”
That comment had a far from soothing effect on the couples. They looked at the dark, soggy wilderness around them, regarded Flaca with a certain amount of tension.
“He’s a chickenshit punk,” she said. “I never work with him. I won’t abandon you like that. If they do catch us, they won’t hurt you or rob you. They’re gringos. And now they’re all taking those people in to the vans and cages, so we can slip by.”
Her candor and confidence settled them down. They nodded slowly, buying it.
“Señora,” she said gently, “I asked you to be silent. Please don’t scream like that again. No matter what happens, noise will only make things worse.”
Shamed, the lady nodded remorsefully and Flaca nodded her acceptance. “No problem. We’re understood, right? All ready? Good. Over this way.”
She led them off at an angle through the trees and rushes. Five minutes later they could hear a scene of mass confusion to their right. Yells, commands, motorcycles arriving. Flaca turned, stopped her clients and winked broadly. Their reassurance was palpable. The men both smiled. She motioned for them to follow, thrust her arms into a screen of reeds, parted them with a breast stroke movement, and walked deeper into the dark marsh. They followed her. Single file like chickens.
On the other side of the river, where the swamp fades into thickets of cane, several Border Patrol officers gathered to discuss interdiction strategy and the usual bullshit session that cops the world over love so much. Laidlaw and Rodriguez straddled idling four-wheeled motorcycles, Dessa and Grindle sat easily on horseback. This is coveted duty, especially horseback. Cops like macho and there are few American police beats more macho than riding armed on horseback through wild country, chasing down wily owlhoots. They even get to wear wide-brimmed western hats. Laidlaw and Rodriguez, wearing helmets with badge decals above the visors, were fairly typical Border types: typical cops, for that matter, but working one of the lowest paid beats in the country. And absolutely the most fruitless and frustrating. But neither one cared. They got paid for blitzing around trails and mud puddles on motorbikes. They were happy campers.
Dessa and Grindle, astride big, well-curried chestnut geldings, were much less typical. That Dessa was a Black woman was unusual, that she was attractive was practically outré. She was often nominated to head up a Playboy piece of “Girls of the Border Patrol”, but there weren’t enough other candidates to make up a decent spread. Grindle was as emphatically not female or Black as he could possibly make the matter clear. He cherished his red neck as much as his big body, built like an interior lineman a decade past his playing prime. The Border Patrol is not exactly a hotbed of political correctness, but Grindle’s pronouncements stood out even in such company.
He kneed his horse along the trees and reeds lining the landing, glaring at the windrows of discarded plastic bags floating in the water and blown up against trunks and brambles. “Fuck, look at this. How many tons of camel-humper crude go into protecting the precious footsies of beaners crashing our economy?”
Rodriguez could see a major Grindle moment coming on. “Good thing they don’t actually wet their backs, huh, Grizz? They’d need bigger bags. Hefties.”
“Fuckers need body bags. Look at this mess. It’s like a buncha used condoms shitcanned after an international gangbang.”
Dessa laughed throatily, “Now, I definitely gotta jot that one down.”
“The man does have a way with words,” Laidlaw said. “What did he call you last week, Dess?”
“Oh, you mean ‘Blue Gum’? I’ve never been so flattered. He never falls back on stale stuff like the “N” word.”
“Is that worse than ‘redneck’?” Grindle bristled aggressively. “Is it?”
“Of course not. Nothing’s worse than that.”
“Sure there is,” Rodriguez snickered. “Grindle’s moonlighting as a Minuteman.”
“Sooo against regs,” Dessa said, wide-eyed. “Where do I drop my dime?”
“He’s a minuteman, all right,” Rodriguez said, “One minute he’s KKK, one minute he’s Gestapo, next minute he’s the Seventh Friggin Cavalry.”
“According to his old lady,” Dessa stage-whispered, “He’s one minute horny, one minute later asleep.”
The laughter made Grindle even grumpier.
“Ah, fuck the works of you.”
“Oh, well put,” Laidlaw said, “Hey, have you got squaw blood in you? Or did the Grindle family maybe immigrate from somewhere else?”
“Yeah, like Middle Earth,” Dessa added.
“You can all lick my piles. I’m the only one of you gives a shit about the job, the country, anything. It’s gonna be “Don’t Walk” sign for taco-benders tonight. You watch.”
He spurred his horse into the shallows, galloping downriver in a curtain of splash. Dessa steadied her horse, watched him go. “Hi ho, Silver.”
Rodriguez pulled down the visor on his helmet. “Pity the fools.”
The nasty alley behind the Centro del Barrio was deserted, quiet except for the scurry of rats and some alarmingly big cockroaches. Riles sat behind the wheel of his degenerating, primer-splashed Monte Carlo wondering if it was time to just write this one off. Then a small upper window opened and a shapely pair of female legs slowly extruded from it. Riles watched in a lecher’s rapture as a very sassy pair of panties came into view, displayed to increasingly good advantage as her skirt hiked up while she slid out the window. Ever the gentleman, Riles pulled forward, placing his hood beneath the dangling feet.
Lupe let go, falling a foot to his hood. She brushed her skirt and blouse back into place, squatted salaciously to peer through the starred windshield. Riles mugged and waved, Lupe laughed and twitched her skirt up for a flash before jumping off the hood and scrambling into the front seat.
“Andale+], Jimbo! Way to go, ese+]. Let’s get out of here. That Rosas is a psycho!”
Riles agreed full-heartedly as he touched the gas and got them out of there. With the night still young, spirited and looking for trouble.
Doing some quick cornering to get further from the Centro, the Station, and the attentions of Rosas and Cole, Riles drank in the flush of excitement on Lupe’s face as she looked over her shoulder, laughing at her escape. Then she remembered her goal for the evening. His hadn’t been out of his mind for a second.
“Okay, Papi. One more time,” she pouted at Riles. “Did you get me what I want?”
“Are you kidding?” Riles continually wondered just how aware these kids were of world realities. “Have you looked at your tits lately?”
He pulled a bottle of Tequila from under his seat, pretended to blow off years of cellar dust, displayed it like a [_ sommelier_]. Her eyes lit up and she snatched it from him. Pumping a little reality into his wine snob pantomime, she examined the label. “Couldn’t have got Sauza or something, huh?”
Sixteen year old illiterate, but a connoisseur, Riles thought. He went into the lecturer mode that seldom lurks very far below a writer’s facade, “Look, I did the math. You know, the stuff you’d learn if you went to school? Jimador’s the best buy: more blast for a buck, more hueso<> per peso.”
Lupe showed him a hand to talk to and cracked open the bottle. She took a long swig for such a little girl. She wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist. “Aja! That’s the stuff.”
She pounded another major slug, then passed the bottle to Riles. She moved a little closer, gave him an elbow in the ribs. “Could you believe that cop?” She spat scornfully. “Drugs? Ay, por favor!”
“Don’t knock dope, kid,” Riles intoned seriously. “Made me the man I am today.”
The women ran in wide-eyed, nostril-flared terror. The men ran with a grim resolve, herding the women, trying to aid them as all four plunged through the thrashing brush in a roaring, pulsing panic. Flaca ran effortlessly in front of them, directing them like stampeding sheep into her chosen paths. A garish light, bluer than white, splattered through the dark around them, the relentless sound of rotors hounded them, the downwash was an avenging storm that turned the woods into a weaving, flashing Halloween set, a surrealistic foxhunt.
Flaca ignored the helicopter: it couldn’t come down and touch them. She willed it out of her ears, listening to the breaking brush behind them. That was where the real danger was. At least she didn’t hear any of those damned motos.
Twenty yards behind them, Border Patrol Officer Richard Grindle spurred his horse furiously, forcing it through the stinging limbs and treacherous footing. In stretches without elm branches he stood up in the stirrups, scanning the slashing brush for sight of his quarry. He followed flashes of light blue: a wetback’s backpack. He saw them veer to the left, laughed and jerked his horse’s head around to intercept them.
Flaca stopped in her tracks, spreading her arms wide to arrest the feverish hurtling of her pollos. She gathered them in, scared and gasping, and pushed them into the brush. She motioned for them to stoop and move under a big, malignant-looking overgrowth. The first woman resisted, but her husband sternly pushed her forward, leaning to bow her head down under the thorny limbs. He followed her into a damp, hollow place, then turned to help the other woman. All four of the crossers flopped inside.
It was the rusty, grungy body of an old automobile washed down into the delta by some cataclysmic deluge years ago, grown over by everything on earth. The moldy seats had been torn out and replaced facing each other, like a lounge in some burrow for giant, bohemian rabbits: this blind had been used before.
Flaca knelt in the door, peering around at their faces. She held her flashlight in her fist so it emitted only reddish rays through the flesh of her fingers. She motioned for silence, gave them the two-finger “just a minute” sign, then carefully transferred the light to a man’s hand, leaving them a twilight as ruddy as a dying fire. Then she ducked away. They heard her lope off into the woods. Just seconds later they heard the mucky tattoo of hoofbeats pass just outside. They sat clutching each other. The woman with no backpack looked around distastefully at the décor.
Rosas stood in the doorway to the Centro’s grungy Institutional Green bathroom, glaring at the open window. Chumped by a dropout. Her disgust knew no limits.
Alicia came up behind her, saw the window, her surprise immediately turning to a betrayed hurt. Rosas turned to focus some surplus frustration on her. “You’ve got a lot to learn about this Barrio before you start giving anybody any advice.”
Alicia controlled the massive intimidation Rosas always smothered her with, returned her glare with level gaze. “Not everything is about the “barrio”. I had no choice but work here, did you know that? I can’t help it if I don’t speak fluent Spanish and Gangbangese. But I’m a professional. I’ve worked with lots of kids.”
“Did they all face you out like this?”
“Some yes, some no. She’s not a child, you know. You have to talk to her where she’s coming from.”
“Well, right now she’s probably coming in that shithead’s back seat. Think it’ll be a growth experience for her?”
Alicia drew a deep breath. Without losing her focus on Rosas, she pulled cigarettes out of her coat pocket and lit one. She took a deep drag, blew it out towards the window, and gave Rosas a look much different from the harried do-gooder she’d always seen before. Rosas remembered a few things about Alicia Childers. One of them was that she wasn’t incapable of violence, herself. The other was that she had been known to put the welfare of children ahead of her own. She dialed off some of her mad.
“I don’t bleed for them as much when they’re old enough to make their own choices,” Alicia told her coldly. “I don’t have that much blood.”
She stepped aside, allowing Rosas to leave. She turned back to the window, stared at it pensively. She reached up to close the window, stepped out of the bathroom, switched off the light. Her face gave the impression that she might be bleeding just a little after all.
Out where the Monte Carlo was tucked under a stand of trees by still waters, Riles took a grateful pull off the Tequila bottle, half empty by then. Or possibly half full, from his perspective. Lupe, mellowed from her share, reached out for the bottle.
Riles grinned. “Oh yeah. Come to papa, baby.”
Grindle had lost the scent and wasn’t at all happy about it. He leaned low over his saddle, poking at the brush with his baton in search of the vanished wetbacks. There was an indistinct sound off to his left. He snapped upright, stared over there, spurred towards the sound. He broke into a small, sandy clearing just in time to see Flaca run out of sight on the other side of it. He immediately kicked his horse after her. He had his radio in his hand, but put it away. It was that hot fucking Indian bitch. The one that had piled him into the cactus that time. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on her.
It was a desperate chase through the grabbing, lacerating brush lit up by the garish cinemascope flutter of spotlight. Flaca leaned into leaves and withes as she ran, straining to keep ahead of the thundering horse. Grindle punished his gelding, ducking branches as he closed on her. He’d bulldog her right on the run. Hogtie the cunt like a rodeo roper. After that, who’s to say? She’d run up quite a bill and he was hot to collect. But, shit, where’d she go?
The next stride of his horse brought him into another clearing, this one a dark tunnel of high, matted branches with a few inches of black water underfoot. The Indian bitch was right on the other side of the water, leaning against a tree, heaving for air. He had her ass now! She saw him, leaned against the tree,and covered her mouth with her forearm. She let out a whimper of fear. Grindle smelled blood, laughed out loud. Then the dog started barking.
Flaca was as surprised as Grindle. She stared at the bank to her right, where a big, tough-looking, battle-scarred mongrel was barking at the horse cop. He bayed in a deep hoarse note that sounded like heavy business, but she could see the stump of his tail wagging. Flaca jerked her eyes back to Grindle. His horse, alarmed by the dog, was shying sideways. He used sheer power to force the horse back under control, muscling the reins and slapping the horse on the head. He leered at Flaca’s helpless pose and spurred the horse forward into the shallow water.
Where it foundered. There was no firm footing there, only a bottomless alluvia of stinking, fertile mud. The horse pawed desperately, straining towards the bank, but only mired deeper into the treacherous sinkhole.
The dog who would become Pucho barked at the struggling horse, then sat down, fascinated by the action. These people played rough. The horse plunged and screamed in fear, sinking in a nightmare swamp of wind, light, chaos and barking wolf-dogs. Grindle cursed and struggled for control. Flaca tossed a leafy branch into the horse’s face. Its panic doubled and it sunfished, trying to flop to solid ground. The unexpected move shagged Grindle into the filthy water, where he flailed around fruitlessly, gave up on getting to his feet, and swam through the turgid muck to where he could get enough purchase to heave himself out to his knees. Swamp Thing rising. Humiliated, winded, gagging from his dip in the liquid compost, he turned to see Flaca laughing merrily at his plight. In a blind, ruby rage he drew his pistol and pointed. But she waved a stinging goodbye and vanished into the jittering, strobing woods.
Cursing, he grabbed the reins and pulled the horse’s head down tight. The poor beast continued to fight for footing. Muddy, frustrated and just generally rabid, Grindle put his quivering barrel in the center of the horse’s forehead. He held it there, white knuckled, then slowly lowered it. “One of these days, you oatbag asshole,” he growled.
He turned to glare after the departed Flaca and saw the dog sitting, regarding him amiably. The dog would have loved to romp, been playmates with this big, muddy guy smeared with interesting smells. He tossed his head, his tongue lolling out. It looked like he was laughing.
So Grindle swung the gun around and fired. The dog spun off his feet, sprayed blood across the leaves and muck, landed in a sprawl, and lay still. Grindle glared at him, leveled for another shot. But his radio went wild. Shots fired? Situation? What up? Grindle snarled at the motionless body, “Fuck you, mutt. And the horse I rode in on.”
At the sound of the shot, consternation fluttered like flushed grouse through the couples in the old car. They dithered in rigid tension, awaiting more shots, already wondering what they would do if The Guide Woman didn’t return. They froze in fear when they heard motion outside the gaping doors of their hideout.
Then Flaca was with them, motioning for silence, touching each of them, smiling in a confident, cheerful manner. She motioned them to follow her. They crept out into this threatening, foreign night and heard commotion to the east. Flaca calmed them with a gesture, pointed North. She struck a quick pace and they hustled behind her.
Riles’ beater was parked in what appeared to be a popular “lovers’ lane”: several other darkened cars parked around a little clearing that demonstrated no visible attraction other than being dark and remote. Scrubby trees surrounded packed dirt littered with bottles and beer cans, a dense break of cane and reeds walled in one side, footpaths led off into the bulrushes.
The car exhibited a certain amount of animation for a vehicle on its last legs. It shifted weight, rocking gently, then more violently. There were giggles from inside, but also grunts and slaps. Suddenly the door blew open and a very disheveled Lupe erupted from the car. Hot, bothered, drunk and wild-eyed, she wiped her mouth on her forearm. Riles, also completely deshabile, tumbled out of the door behind her and crawled to his knees, holding out hands to her in a supplicating, grabby gesture. A man tantalized beyond his limited ability to withstand, he beseeched her, “Jesus, kid. Make up your low watt mind.”
Lupe scowled at him, adjusted her clothes. She preened a little, tittered. Riles pulled himself up, sat sideways on the front seat with his feet out the door. “Come on, kid. I gave you what you wanted. How about a little tit for tat? So to speak.”
Lupe glared at him as she would any other pathetic beggar. “Get real, you pervy old goat. You didn’t even get another bottle.”
“Well, if that’s the only problem, no problem,” Riles said, “But hey, look.”
He rummaged in the seat and produced the Tequila bottle, in which a finger of limpid liquid still shimmered. He held it up by his face, supporting it with both hands like a product model. She returned her rotten little pout. Uncapping the bottle, he sniffed, mimed intense pleasure, swished the liquid around in the bottom, took a small sip, and pursed his lips in pleasure while beetling his eyebrows at her. Mmmm, good.
Lupe smiled in spite of herself. “Well…” She shimmied back to the car, a parody of sexual catwalk. Riles smiled blissfully as she undulated up to him. It was about time for this evening to turn around. He’d had a shitty day. Wouldn’t something nice be fair? Even just a hand job…
He held the bottle out to her. “Let’s drink to intergenerational co-operation.”
She smiled sexily and undulated closer. Riles wanted to just tackle her and bury his face in her cleavage, drink in her fragrant young heat. But she snatched the bottle out of his hand and sprinted away shrieking with laughter.
She paused at the opening of a footpath, turned to taunt him. She stretched her neck, thrust her breasts out, took a swig from the bottle. She dipped her finger in Tequila and sucked it off. She held the bottle out towards Riles, simpering.
He cursed, then pulled himself together. Straightened his clothes, brushed his hair out of his eyes, lurched towards her. She laughed and turned to “moon” him. Which, since she’d forgotten that he’d managed to get her panties off and hang them on the inside mirror, was even more lacerating than she knew. She vanished into the reeds. Riles ran two involuntary steps after her, then stopped, realizing the futility of pursuit.
He turned back to his car, sloshing with embarrassment and frustrated aims. He half-expected the semi-circle of parked cars to burst into laughter and applause at his expense. But no, they had better things to do. Unlike himself. What, exactly did he have, after four decades of taking up space? The scrophulous black mutt of depression, dogging his roguish insouciance as always, rose up and savaged him in its scabby maw. He’d hit rough spaces before, but it was getting late in the game to be this far behind. He had no money. His only source of legal income had whizzed in his face at breakfast. He was washed up as a criminal, looking at some serious time if revoked. And now he stood there in some God-forsaken dryhumpers’ hellhole, lonely and horny and ridiculous and outwitted by a dimbulb teeny-bopper who’d require special tutoring to get back into junior high. He sat on the hood of the Monte Carlo, knowing himself as a total shambles. A fragile boat driven on the rocks of reality by a shitstorm of circumstance.
“Jimbo” Riles was far from a spiritual man. But in the exposed foxholes of quotidian life stauncher men than he are driven to petition the void. To spread their hands to heaven and ask, Why Me? Or perhaps, Can I Get A Break?. Too far gone to respond to this Vegas-style conversion, Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep himself from a supplicating stance and mindset. He’d hit bottom: now what? With an involuntary impulse that is probably genetically engendered, he tilted his head back, looking upward. He spread out his hands, he opened himself to the Ultimate Possibility. And was answered by a blinding light from out of the darkness, by a roaring as if of a great wind.
The immense wash of air blew the canes and grass insane, the light screamed and battered and snatched knife-edge shadows from concealment, the deafening chop echoed off a dozen cars that instantly fired up and peeled out of the lot, jockeying for position and careening into one another. Amplified, incoheret commands echoed off the tangle of fleeing cars.
Riles reviewed his gesture towards heaven. He made a very Mexican sign, fingertips together as if the hand were a pouch. It’s a cultural equivalent of, “Niggah, pleeeease.” As a secular afterthought he flipped a double finger to the helicopter. Probably time to exude. As he opened his door he gave one last wistful look towards the opening of the trail where Lupe’s luscious bare ass had presented, then absented, itself.
Just as Flaca, extremely fetching with her breast heaving from exertion under a damp shirt, burst out into the clearing. She looked around the parking area, saw only the last flicker of brakelights, and cursed obscenely. Riles froze, thunderstruck, whispered “Yea, though one door closeth, yet shall another open unto thee.”
He did a quick unmuss on his clothes, slicked down his hair, prepared a smooth approach to this sudden apparition. Who immediately blew his whole set by striding directly toward him, looking right in his eyes with no uncertainty whatsoever, and saying, “Want to make four hundred dollars, quick and easy?”
Riles boggled. “Where’d you come from? Reverso World?”
Lupe broke out of the reeds by an abandoned fruit stand, a relic of a time when the border area had just been countryside, instead of no-man’s land. The bottle was empty. She threw it up in an arc that smashed it to pieces on the shreds of blacktop still left from the old road. There’d been nothing hard enough to smash it on out in the marsh and Lupe had never finished a bottle without breaking it in her life.
With no more alcohol, no car to ride in, nobody to torment, Lupe was starting to think she might have played it all wrong. It was miles back to Lowblow from here. She had no money and she just wanted to lie down and sleep. Shit! Puta madre! Etcetera!
Then she heard a sudden gust of rollicking ranchera music, unleashed by somebody rolling down a car window. Over there, hidden under the canopy of the old roadside stand, a purple glow bathed the ground in a sci-fi wash, like a spaceship. Then the motor turned over and a shiny El Camino with canopy back slid out into view, creeping towards her at a slow, somehow feline pace, the cruising predator effect of the violet neon umbra spoiled somewhat by the yodeling clodkicker music. Lupe stood waiting, striking a pose.
Surprise, surprise, the driver was a Mexican guy in his twenties. And shockingly, he had a creased straw hat and black shirt with pearl snaps on the pockets. His compa was the exact same article. She made them for raiteros+] immediately. They’d been back there waiting for mojados+] to stumble out of the Canes and offer them an expensive lift to somewhere safer—which was almost anywhere. She’d known a few of these vatos+] and they were unreliable scum. Two guys whose sisters were in her classes had specialized in collecting money for “raites” from the naive “border brothers” then driving them up by Chula Vista. There was a ramp to I-805 where you could pull off and see a blaze of city light between two hills, and a big green Interstate sign: “LOS ANGELES: 187”. They’d point to the name and drop the tarados+] in the middle of nowhere to bungle around all night before being picked up by the Migra. They came on just like these jerks, as a matter of fact.
The driver was too cool to even give it any polish or sweet talk. He eyed her up and down, smiled wolfishly at her. Lupe gave him a dubious look, glancing around as if she was engaged in other things at the moment. The buddy leaned over, grinned at her, and held up a full bottle of Tequila. Good Tequila, too: Orrendain Ollitas. The driver took the bottle and shook it in front of her, tipped it up as though taking a guzzle. She was furiously angling the thing out; her tired, still-drunken brain spinning its wheels.
The buddy opened his door—no dome light came on—and stepped out, motioning her into the door. Just an invitation, but she realized they could make it stronger than that if they wanted to. She walked to the driver’s window and leaned in, elbows on the sill. She took a good long look into the driver’s face. Not bad looking, actually. But mostly, she figured she could handle him. She’d sure turned that Jimbo inside out. She walked around and sat on the seat regally while Buddy held the door. She swiveled her legs in, knees together but flashing some major goods. She slid over near the driver and held out a hand for the bottle. He gave it to her quickly enough and she opened it as his pal slid in and closed the door. She took a ladylike sip, then a healthier one. She handed the bottle to the pal, who was hiding his delight behind a bored cool expression. She said, “I have to be in Barrio Lobo in a couple of hours.” They both nodded. Of course, nena.
“Well,” she said, “Let’s go there.” The driver smiled and slowly accelerated. Lupe reached out to the radio and punched in 104.5. The switch from rowdy ranch rumble to smooth, sexy romanticos was like dropping into an air pocket. She relaxed and snuggled into the seat. Hijole, what a messed-up night. But she felt good at the moment. She leaned her head against the shoulder of the buddy. She could almost fall asleep right here. But not yet. She reached for the bottle and it came readily to her hand.
Riles, poleaxed by the latest fillip of fate’s fickle finger, stood staring at the sexy woman who’d appeared from nowhere like a genie out of a bottle. Flaca felt a bit more urgency. “Yes or no? All you have to do is drive me and my friends to an address. But now.” She stepped closer to him, vital and insistent, “Right this fucking minute.”
“Not exactly a legal proposition, am I right?”
Flaca made a mouth, gestured at the helicopter and approaching clamor.
“Well, leaving would be good,” he ventured. “And you’re definitely invited.”
Flaca spun around and gave a shrill whistle. The four illegals moved out of the cover of the trail, tentative and frightened. She motioned for haste and they broke into a run, one of the men supporting the woman with no pack. Riles jumped in and started the engine. Flaca opened the back door, stuck her head in. “Open the trunk!”
He had to slam the release four times before the trunk grudgingly popped open a rusty, squeaking inch. Flaca quickly loaded the first couple, making them lie down across the the floor in back. Riles said, “You know how many cabs you could get for four hundred bucks?”
She threw open the trunk and helped the second couple in, the wife with no pack starting to look a little haggard, then shut it firmly. She jumped in the passenger seat, slammed the door. “Vamonos.”
Riles headed for the narrow dirt road that led into the area. He saw no reason to drive slow and careful. He glanced in his mirror at the two people plastered to the rear floor. Probably more comfortable in the trunk, he thought. “You know, I don’t charge any more for business class.” Flaca gave him a look.
He spun dirt, careening up the one-lane road towards the realtime transportation grid. He glanced at Flaca. Not much of a chatterbox. “I take it I’m now in the illegal alien transportation business?”
Flaca regarded him coolly. “Does that scare you?”
“I’ve run scarier stuff. Hell I can’t lose on this one. I can always sell the story.”
As they neared a widening triangle of dirt that accessed a blacktop road, Flaca scrunched down under the dashboard on her side of the car. Riles looked down at the attractive face so suggestively positioned. “I can tell you’re my kind of girl.”
Flaca scowled as she caught his drift, then laughed at his beaming innocent take. “Just get us to the pinche freeway,” she commanded.
They were coming to a crossroads with stop signs. Riles slowed down, looking around for potential dangers. He was glad he did, because the cross street was blocked by a big green Bronco with Border Patrol insignia. The officers inside were giving his car the once-over. He dimly realized that a rusty Monte Carlo in this area was almost like a bumper sticker, “Honk if you think I’m a Mexican up to no good”. When he stopped at the sign, a spotlight came on, blazing at him from the Bronco’s roof. Flaca muttered, “Easy. Remember, you’re legal. At least I hope you are.”
Riles stuck his head out the window, brandishing his whiteness for all the world to see. One look at the non-threatening, somewhat befuddled whitebread face and the Migra flipped off the light. The driver smiled at Riles, motioned for him to proceed. He almost imperceptibly started to move his foot from brake to accelerator when Flaca spoke quickly. “It’s one of those four wheel jobs, right? Don’t drive by them. They’ll be able to see down in the back seat.”
Riles smiled affably back at the Officers, waved them across in front of him. The officer responded in kind. Oh, no, please, you first. “Christ!” Riles said under his breath, “After you, Alphonse. How many years can I get for Cop Politeness?”
Finally the “Migra” truck pulled across in front of him and Riles gratefully took the left and headed up towards Dairy Mart Road. And the lights of civilization. Once those lights started filling the windows, Flaca uncurled herself and peered over the bottom of the window. She slipped cautiously up into the passenger seat. She turned to check on her customers, but gave them no instructions to sit up.
“You plan and prepare,” she said to Riles conversationally, “But you just never know how it’s going to shake out.”
“Tell me about it,” Riles said, rolling his eyes. “I sort of gathered I wasn’t your ‘plan A’ for the evening.”
“But see, there you were.” She extended her hand, “You can call me Flaca.”
“You can call me Sugar Honey Bone Daddy,” Riles replied. But my name’s Jim Riles. James, Jimbo, Dream Lover, whatever.”
Flaca chuckled, “Yes, you look like somebody’s Blue Prince, all right. See, I usually deliver my people to a raitero there at The Canes and he takes them from there. But I have to go collect on this one.”
“The guys who give ‘raites’, you know. But the ones I usually use got scared and blew me off when things got noisy. Bunch of big chickenshits.”
“Okay. I think I follow. So. Are we going anywhere in particular?”
“Denny’s. But we want to come in from the north, so head over on the connector, then south on I-5.”
“What, they’re importing their own busboys these days?”
Flaca shook here head dismissively. “Of course not. I’m meeting these people’s family. They’ll pay me for bringing them over. Then I’ll pay you. Unless we get caught. Then nobody gets paid. Understand?”
“All too well,” he said. “Contingency paydays are a sort of a theme of my life.”
When he pulled down the ramp onto Interstate 5, Flaca relaxed another few notches. She looked at Riles closer. “So where did you learn Spanish?”
“Required subject in the Border Scum Academy. I don’t discuss my résumé much. If you catch my continental drift.”
She laughed. “I’m just a Mexican smuggler, what can I do to you?”
“Where shall I start?”
She was still for a minute, looking at him and mulling it out. “What I think, you’re a drug trafficker. No, wait, a gun-runner.”
Riles gave her a pained look, but she went on. “That’s it. And you learned Spanish in prison. That’s why you say ‘placas’ for policia and ‘chiva’ for heroin.”
“Okay, you’re hot stuff at What’s My Line. Not that anybody asked.”
Flaca shrugged, “Just observations. You don’t have arrest orders for you or you’d be living in Mexico. Oh, of course… you’re on parole.”
Now that actually freaked Riles a little. He stared at her in the pulsing light of the freeway standards. “I was going to give you a shot at an affair, but not now. You’re too damned spooky. Want me to try reading your tea leaves?”
“Hell with it. Actually, for a reporter, I’m not all that nosy. Curiosity kills.”
“A reporter? Now, see, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
“It’s not widely accepted as my source of income.”
Man this was too much to take in. Totally hot chick, psychic or something. And wanted to give him money. Riles put down the surge of a feeling he knew, but not well enough: the turn of the tables. At some point all tides reverse. Like any gambler indentifying the subtle signal of being on a roll, Riles felt it possible that things might turn for him. But didn’t wanted to scare it off by acknowledging it.
In the Denny’s parking area, Riles leaned on his battered hood, watching Flaca deal with the Family in a big station wagon across the lot. She’d played it all very close to her fascinating chest; went over alone to speak to them, wouldn’t let them get out of their car. Then she went over with the guy from the back seat. Then sent him back to get the rest of them. This time Riles had been forced to bash the trunk release with his heel before it opened. When the four of them got back to the wagon, it erupted a half-dozen kids. There was a lot of hugging going on; exclamations, tears. The obvious relief of the four from his car looked like it might spill over into hysteria at any time. Amid much love, warmth and general awkwardness, Flaca managed to get them all wedged into the car. Except one Latino guy who’d been driving. He spoke to Flaca and reached into his pocket. She touched his arm, shook her head, led him back to the car. He sat, closed the door. She leaned in the window. Riles could see a slight movement of her elbows, counting the bills.
Then she withdrew and the whole mob pulled away, tearfully waving at Flaca. The kids crammed backwards in the tailgate seat even waved to Riles as they passed. Except one little snot who stuck out her tongue at him. He showed her an obscene gesture as Flaca walked back over to him. She already had his money counted out. Riles did a quick fan. Eight fifties. He put it away quickly.
“Four hundred as promised. Say, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Mama.”
Flaca nodded idly, sat on the hood beside him. “We should talk more about that.”
Riles was thrilled at that. Could this really be The Roll at long last? “We should talk business and pleasure. Like a herpes-free weekend in Ensenada. Or possibly my back seat.”
Before she could answer that one a huge red SUV, jacked up a foot higher than factory, bucked into the lot. It was a lot of ride for a driver of more enthusiasm than ability. Riles was alarmed when it vroomed right over, pulled up in front of them, throbbing like a purring rhinoceros. The blackened window whispered down and they stared up into the beaming face of Santiago Adolfo. Flaca admired the truck and smiled. “Nice ride, Chago.”
He hit a button on the wheel and a small airhorn bleated out the opening notes of “La Cucaracha”. Flaca laughed out loud. He did it again, rendering “Toda La Vida”.
Immediately a back door opened and two short, swarthy Indian hillbillies stepped out and started urinating on the side of a nearby car.
“Still got your cargo, huh?”
“Yeah, que desmadre+],” Chago groused, “We got trapped at the Bajadita before I could get to the car. We had to hide in this weird public toilet half the night.”
Flaca nodded at the two hicks watering somebody’s tires. “Those two didn’t take advantage of that opportunity?”
Chago leaned out, confidential. “Fucking Oaxacos. Barely housebroke. So I’m too late to meet their guy. Can’t figure out what to do with them.”
“I should have bet you after all.”
“I thought we did bet. You win. Come claim your prize, mamacita.”
Flaca shook her head, “No good. You still have your pollos, so it isn’t even the finish line yet.”
Riles could refrain no longer. “You were racing?”
“No,” Flaca said acerbically.
“Sure we were,” Chago chortled. “It’s always a race, in a way. I do that a lot. I could tell you some stories…..”
Flaca interrupted what was sure to be an ebullient Chago’s Story Hour. “Where’d you get those chingón+] wheels?”
Chago expanded with pleasure. “Same place. My favorite. I steal this bitch every time I come through this way. Dozens of times so far. Want a ride?”
“Ever wonder if the owner notices he’s running up hundreds of miles while he’s asleep?”
“I probably should pay his insurance or something, huh?”
“You think he’s got insurance?”
“I hope so, there’s so many thieves down here by the border.”
Riles thought this was a ridiculous waste and Chago an obvious idiot. “Why don’t you just drive the thing home with you and be done with it?”
Chago gave him a blank stare. “What good would it do me over in Mexico?” He scoped Riles out for a moment, then stage-whispered to Flaca, “So who’s the gringo?”
“His name’s Jimbo. I found him by the roadside and he keeps following me around.”
Chago scanned more judiciously this time, shook his head. “Well be careful. He looks like a snitch to me. Look at his mouth. His eyes, for the luvva god. No character.”
“Good enough for us smugglers and car thieves, I’d say. I’ve decided gringos are perfect for raitero work. They look like they belong. Why didn’t anybody think of it before?”
“Because nobody did it before. But seriously, this guy looks sidoso”
Riles looked blank, turned to Flaca. She kept a straight face. “He thinks you have SIDA.” That didn’t help.
“You know…AIDS.” She pronounced it “Ides” but he got it. He gave Chago a scan of his own, thought it out a beat, came to a decision.
“You know the difference between a straight Mexican and a queer Mexican?”
Chago liked jokes. “I give. What?”
“About four beers.”
Flaca hid her smile while Chago sat impassive, pondering it, weighing Riles. Then he cracked up. Laughing uproariously, he jerked a thumb towards Riles.
“Muy buena! You get that, Flaca? The difference between me and some faggot is four beers. Hilarious.” Suddenly he stopped laughing, grasped at something. “Wait a minute. Who drinks the beers?”
“We do,” Riles said. “I’m buying.”
Grindle had extricated himself from the quicksand sinkhole, although covered in mud, slime, mung and worse. But his gelding was still hopelessly mired, in spite of a complex lash-up of ropes he strung to nearby limbs, many of which had broken off when the horse fidgeted. The poor animal rested still, but the big eyes rolled around helplessly and Grindle read reproach in them. He had, after all, ridden the nag into this trap, and now he couldn’t pull him out. He met the horse’s eye boldly, however. “ I wish you were a stallion,” he confided in the panting animal. “So I could shoot your balls off.”
He was equally petulant in his remarks to his radio, which was displaying low battery warnings because of his earlier stream of correspondences. He kept his temper this time, but surveyed his dismal situation with subdued rage.
“Yes, I still have that little problem I had hours ago,” he explained to the unsympathetic radio. “A half ton of horsemeat in quicksand doesn’t just reset when you push a button.”
He glanced up as the horse resumed it’s desultory struggles, then returned his overtaxed attention to the radio. “I told you three times where I am. What should I do, send up a flare? Do you savvy smoke signals?”
He listened, restrained himself at cost to his blood pressure from throwing the radio across the water in a grotesque parody of those serene Mexican beer commercials. “Well get somebody down here this week, will you? Could you please do that? Before this walking dog food dies of old age? And learn some fucking English!”
The last phrase came after the click-out, so it didn’t have a chance to be misunderstood by the Hispanic woman who handled the dispatch—much to Grindle’s chagrin and completely frying his sense of irony. “They keep hiring those Third World twats for communications. Why do I even bother trying to hold the line here?”
His hypothetical question went unanswered. Dispatch was sick of his guff, the wetbacks were probably applying for welfare by now, the horse had justifiably lost faith. The only one who’d wanted to interact with him was the dog, and he’d gunned the dog down. “It’s the loneliest job in the country,” he muttered to himself. It was a favorite refrain. He’d quit saying it was the first war to be fought on American Soil because some smart ass like Laidlaw or that Jemima-assed Dessa would always bring up 1812 or the Alamo or Pancho Fuckin’ Villa. He sat alone in the dark and liked it that way. He was afraid if the helicopter came back he’d shoot it down.
There were two coffee cups and a half-dozen beer bottles on the table in the corner booth at Denny’s. Flaca and Riles watched, as much impressed as repelled, while Chago devoured a cheesecake with disgusting gusto. Riles had been fooling around with that little wordplay without coming up with anything he could hang a sentence on. As Chago pushed away the speckless plate and belched like a little boy, Riles tried to crank up the anecdotes again. There was some paydirt somewhere in all this rubble. “Like ethnic American cooking, you say?”
Chago rubbed his stomach appreciatively, digging around in his molars with the tip of a very vicious looking sheath knife. “That stuff is riquisimo,+] compa!” But his brow clouded in thought. “But listen, it’s obviously not cheese. And it’s not a cake. So what’s with that?”
“Inscrutable gringos, you know,” Riles told him. “Anyway, you were saying…”
Chago looked at him, a blank slate.
“About the two brothers you met in Adelita’s?” Flaca prompted him.
“Oh, yeah. Right. The classic race, really. The older brother, like I said, he has papers, mica+] pasaporte, the whole picture. But the kid just came North, so naturally he’s got dick.”
“But they both have job offers,” Riles put in, “At the same place.”
“Exactly. Some horse-riding ranch up almost to Orange County. So anyway, we have a few drinks, grab some ass, kiss some tit. Then Big Brother grabs a cab and heads for the linea. And I take his carnalito+] through the Soccer Field.”
“Ah. A race of legal entry against illegal. That is classic. They should have one every year like the Boston Marathon or Running of the Bulls.”
Chago lit up over that. “A pamplonada? Great idea, cabrón!”
Flaca said, “The Running of the Wetbacks,” in English, laughing.
“Like I said, classic. So we creep the Soccer Field, I work around La Mesa, grab a car. That same one, come to think of it. Why settle for less?”
“When Chago finds a good thing, he sticks to it all the way down,” Flaca said.
“Hey, why not? Anyway, piece of cake. We make it to the ranch, we’re standing there for them to open this damn iron gate.”
“Oye, Chago,” Flaca said quickly, “There’s somebody by your truck. Talking to your pollos.”
“Hijo de la chingada! Oh, wait. It’s the guy! With the money for those monkeys. See? It’s all about professionalism.”
He bolted for the door.
“Did he set that up to avoid the check,” Riles asked Flaca, “Or because he didn’t have a punchline for his story?”
“I’m sure you can guess it. They’re knocking on the gate and here comes the hermano, walking up the drive.”
Riles liked it. That was the sort of thing he could use. “So it was faster to come in illegal than to do it right?”
Flaca gave him a superior smile, “So which way is ‘right’, then? Huh? But yeah, that was the point. It’s like, ‘America: No Waiting’. “
She glanced out at Chago putting his client through his usual dog and pony show, shrugged. “It’s a living.”
With the migrants disposed of and Chago gone off into the night blasting dent-popping banda music on the truck’s stereo, Riles and Flaca were just driving around, heading back towards the border but taking their time, listening to the radio. She was lost in her own thoughts, but Riles’ consciousness hovered over her every second, wringing its hands and licking its lips. As they approached San Ysidro she spoke up.
“What did you mean when you said you could get paid for a story about this?”
“What, you can’t divine my pathetic writing career the way you did my aborted incursion into the projectile dispersion device racket?”
“I can’t understand half what you say. You must be a periodista You write for some sort of revista, right?”
“Some sort. Mostly I sell to local rags. The only one that pays anything to speak of is Southcoast Week. When they pay anything. That asshole is so tight he needs a prune juice enema.”
“A weekly newspaper? Like Zeta in Tijuana?”
“Sort of, except nothing they print is factual and they have about a hundred times the ad revenue.”
“And you think you could sell them a story about something this common? Just transporting illegal hicks into your country?”
“Absolutely. It’s kind of hard to explain. You don’t really have Yuppies in Mexico, do you?”
“We have Juniors Much worse.”
“Well, long story short, we have people with capitalist incomes and liberal outlooks and they’re the all-time perfect advertising sluts. ‘Immigration’ is an activity that gets Americans all jumped up, but they don’t know shit about what really goes on.”
Flaca stared at him a moment, thinking it over. Then she said, “Now that’s really interesting. Are there other things they want to know about?”
“Definitely. But I don’t know who Tiffany Spears is sleeping with or who knocked up Paris Hilton.”
“But about pollos. How the business works?”
“No doubt about it.”
“What about… I don’t know… Maybe the lives of the pollos? Where they come from? How they got here? Where they go? All that boring stuff?”
Riles gaped at her. “Holy shit. That’s really brilliant, sweet thing.”
“How much do they pay for stories?”
“A lot. A couple thousand dollars for major features. Small items, maybe five hundred or so.”
“I can show you stories,” she said. “Like you never imagined. For a share of what they pay you.”
“Did I say they pay thousands for features? I meant hundreds, actually. Thousands of pesos.”
Flaca chuckled. “I like men who make who me laugh. I don’t get to laugh that much. So we’ll work together, all right? Giving rides to my little chickens and telling you stories to sell to your little yuppies.”
Riles was going into a cerebral overload. The Roll was definitely abroad in the land and he was riding it like a one-legged snowboarder. “You really know how to make a guy’s night.”
“And you know how to be in the right place at the right time. A valuable skill.”
One of Riles’ immutable laws was, When On A Roll, Press It To The Max. He edged his arm towards her along the back of the seat. He had a feeling she knew more about making a guy’s night than he had even begin to plumb. She shifted in the seat, moving away from his hand. But it crept towards her as he pretended to look elsewhere.
Finally she grabbed his wrist. In a hard grip. And threw it into his lap. “Oye, Riles. Do you know what? Half the people in the world are women.”
Riles nodded with bittersweet awareness. “And yet…”
“And every woman alive has a panocha+] between her legs. It’s not some big deal.”
“Well, not if you have one, it isn’t.”
She shot him a reappraising look, snorted a harsh laugh.
“Okay. I see you now. And it figures. But listen, I’m not every woman alive. Understand? We can do business. Which sounds better to you, sweating on me for five minutes? Or being friends and making money?”
“Well, when I get a choice like that, I generally try to play it into getting both.”
“I’ll bet you do. How often does it work?
Riles eyed her reproachfully. “Don’t get me depressed, now.”
Flaca suddenly pointed. “Pull into that parking lot there. On the right.”
Riles obeyed, dazzled that she’d directed him into a motel. This raised his hopes considerably. He treated her to the maxi-ogle, but she was more interested in surveying the cars in the lot.
“There. Pull in right here.”
Riles looked at the room number, then turned his fancy to Flaca. “They like you to check in first. I’ll handle that while you freshen up. Go halves on the room?”
Flaca looked, saw where he was at and laughed. “No, I brought my master key.”
Riles nodded understandingly. “Frequent dallier, huh?”
Flaca swung around in the seat, held his eyes intensely. “Look, we’re going to do more business, right? You’re going to come talk to me in the As Negro?”
“You know it, baby. But first let’s, you know, seal the deal. Press some flesh. Put it on the line.”
Flaca smiled and bailed out of his car. She stepped to the nice Thunderbird coupe beside them and withdrew a bodyshop dent-puller from her pack. She quickly inserted its business end in the key slot, screwing it in tight with strong wrist movements that popped out cords on her forearms. Then she slammed the dent-puller, racking it like a shotgun to jerk the core right out of the lock. Riles stared as she daintily inserted a fingernail to pop open the door. The sedan’s alarm screeched and warbled as she slid behind the wheel.
Screwing the dent-puller into the ignition, she pumped it again, jerking out the guts of the lock. She finger-fucked the gap for a second and the car started up, alarm still crying bloody murder. She blew Riles a kiss, burned out in reverse, did a Highway Patrol turn to peel out of the parking lot trailing a hubbub of electronic screaming and bitching. Riles stared after her, his doors completely blown.
He sensed movement outside his window and turned. To stare right into the navel of muscular black stomach hastily wrapped in a white motel towel. Not too taken by this manifestation, Riles looked up into the irate face of the presumed owner of the jacked ‘Bird, a tough-looking young Marine far from reticent about his displeasure.
“Yo muthafucka!” Was his opening gambit. Followed by a series of pertinent questions. “Where my car at? What the fuck happen my ride? Goddaaam. Hey, asshole, you hear me talking at you?”
Riles smiled weakly, shrugged noncommittally, and started to back out. The Marine was having none of that. He leaned in the window and grabbed a handful of Riles’ shirt. “Stand and deliver, White Boy! Where my muthafuckin car?”
Riles cleared his throat before answering. “You know how they say that the way you dress makes a statement?”
The Marine stared at him, utterly nonplussed. “Say what?”
“Well, the statement your outfit makes is: For a Negro, I have a really tiny dick.”
The Marine glanced down at his inadequate towel wrap. “Ah, shit.” He released Riles a second to rearrange his coverage and Riles stepped on the gas, fishtailing out of the parking lot in reverse.
Out on the highway, he headed back to the Frontera with the radio tuned to Young Country 105.3. When a Dwight Yoakum number came on, he turned it up. The more he sorted out the night, the more he liked it. The more he saw the spinning cherries and tumbling boxcars of The Roll. He grinned a big, lotto-hitting, corner-cutting, undeserving, unrepentant grin.
Back in his room he stripped off his clothes, tossed some small white pills in his mouth, washed them down with a slug of cheap Mexican grain alcohol, rinsed the rest around his mouth and spat. The preliminary jitter hit as he saved his story the first time. He mugged a kiss at his reflection in the grimy eight-inch screen of his salvaged portable computer and swept into the loopy narration that would resurrect his career, just as the sky showed the first tentative light of what he would always think of as the first day of his “Get Over Period”.
We think of them as foul-mouthed, but you look at half of their cusswords and they’re about farm animals. While we talk about fucking mothers and sucking cocks and bending over. You don’t see films with the f-wordcount of Scarface in Mexico.
We think they’re lazy. They work twelve hour days for under five bucks and see us featherbedding and driving cars to the gym.
We think they are dirty and sexually lax. They think of us as AIDS-ridden perverts. You don’t see smut stores like F Street in Tijuana, you don’t see girls dancing on stage naked with their legs open. Well, maybe in the gringo joints.
We think they are childish and simple. They look at us running around in short pants, playing with our toys, thinking we are the Good Guys, aghast to think that powerful men sleep with interns.
“Who you callin’?” Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column Southcoast Week
Mexicans do get crazier and more insecure the closer we get to the frontier. It might be the fences, or the sight of richer landscapes on the Other Side, or just the fact that they are Up There and we are Down Here below them.
Mexico is smaller, poorer, weaker, though we have other strengths. But what do we see glorified? Being more like gringos than the gringos in order to feel superior.
What is the big payoff of all those narco films; three guys in a Hummer with machine guns? Why have they crossed the border, shot up the Migra and FBI, massacred their own countrymen? Why? To get a cool foreign car and access to blonde panocha.
We exploit the gringos’ weakness in order to indulge our own. Just like the girls down in the Zona Roja buy nice clothes by accomodating gringo appetites.
Well, it’s a fun fantasy of turning things around. But who gets screwed in the end?
“Chingando y Chigado“ Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos” Column Zeta
By no means did this guy belong in Mexico Lindo and the few women who let themselves notice him didn’t wonder where he came from, just how long before he was ushered back out to the gutter. He was a total “naco“, could have posed for the cover of that book, “El Naco: Y Como Criticarlo”. A hick with the dust of Chiapas or Campeche still on his grubby tennis shoes. Homemade haircut, front teeth outlined in steel, a festoon of fake gold religious medals inside the neckline of the new rayon “silk cream” shirt. Breathing with his mouth open, big eyes for the goodies.
He stood in the door, staring at the beauties inside until he had to move to let another customer in. Then he wandered, standing too close to these women he’d seen the likes of only in magazines and calendars, eyeing them in a shameless gleam of awe. He creeped out every blonde in the place without even scoring eye contact. Then Angeles strode out of the restroom and he forgot his golden dreams. Sometimes something comes along that’s so far beyond your fantasies that you don’t understand it, but know it when you see it. Since he was a teenaged tomato truck driver he’d dreamed of having a woman with that elusive quality: categoria, estilo…clase. And here came classic class gliding toward him like a President’s mistress in a telenovela+]. Tonight he was finally going to buy those fantasies off.
She walked right up to him, wrapped him in an odor far too complex, exotic and sexual for a stubby brown nose accustomed to cow manure and exhaust fumes. She smiled archly, a burst of beauty that damn near tore his fly out. And she delivered the perfect fantasy line, “Hola, soy Angeles.” With clodbuster gallantry he waved his broken nails around the room, “Son todas angeles!”+] Angeles smiled again: Ridgerunner hits the city of angels. She asked if he planned to buy her a drink or just stand around drooling.
He had to show her the money to get her out of Mexico Lindo and into a second rate downtown hotel the cabbie recommended to him. He fanned it proudly, a big swash of cash that made the other girls hate Angeles even more. That damn kid could spot diamonds in a pile of pigshit, was their impression.
He was besotted with her, almost afraid to touch her. He rattled on about himself and his current mission. He’d come up from Oaxaca on a trial run, escorting a truckload of sheeplike neighbors trying to get across to Los Angeles; already calling it “Los” like the locals. So here he was with a big stack of money. The transport money from his flock of sheep, actually. In his hands for safekeeping.
Angeles couldn’t resist a smile at that concept, and Sr. Naco de Oaxaco laughed with her. Yes, he was embezzling, violating their trust in him in order to do what he’d always wanted to do at least once in his life; have a high class, beautiful woman. Angeles told him it wouldn’t be the last time they got violated, or the last time he would screw somebody on trust. And that she would be deeply flattered to take his money.
She sincerely found his tribute, and the role it elevated her to in one man’s arid mind, to be rather touching, and tried to live up to a lifetime of unreal expectations. She succeeded pretty well, rendering him practically comatose and ready to die happy at any moment. But when he revived, instead of jollying him out the door and hitting him up for cabfare back to the club, Angeles invited him to have coffee with her at Sanborns. She’d heard him babble something during his nervous hornylogue, and wanted to hear more.
The Tijuana Sanborns is a road company version of the venerable Mexico City institution, but it was enough to wow the freshly ravaged Oaxaco. He gaped at the long rows of exotic chocolates and truffles, gawped at the golden gallon bottles advertising expensive perfumes, gawked at the counters of gleaming watches and pens and titanium male accoutrements, geeked at the big, high dining room full of socialites, mistresses, and suave businessmen. He and Angeles drew some more subtle rubbernecking themselves: slender, feral teen fatale slithering through the tables in a slubby Egyptian cotton sheath that had a few highly turned-out women making notes of the cut… on the arm of a stumpy, staring, shitkicking “negro.” Angeles had an iced Kahlua frapuccino, her midnight plowboy had Mexican hot chocolate, two slices of lime pie and one of tres leches cake. The waitress was very polite to him, winking at Angeles. Who led him back to the subject of his trek North.
The problem was simple, but no simple solutions occurred to him. He had brought them to meet a certain pollero, an experienced trafficker of Southern illegals known to the naco’s family. But that experience had proven inadequate and the guide was now in the Federal jail in San Diego awaiting deportation. His little flock consisted of twelve people, all known to him for years, some of them young women. He had no illusions about his limitations: he was afraid to trust the local polleros and not up to trying the crucial “jump” himself. The “brinco“ was a matter for specialists, he realized, but he didn’t know any. Maybe she did.
She pried deeper, learned that the pollos in question were semi-bespoke: their families would pay half of the fee on delivery, two hundred dollars apiece. So yeah, maybe she did know somebody. She’d get back to him at the crumbling toilet of a hotel where he’d stashed his charges while trying to line up transportation and relieve himself of a lifetime of unrequited wetdreams. She made her excuses and walked the block back to the club, leaving him alone with his cake, his silken memories, and the tab.
They’d been delivered across the last river by angels, who had burst them out of the world Pepito had known and shown them a new, alien landscape, a life in the movies. Then left them there.
The angels came to them in a city called Tijuana, the biggest place Pepito had ever seen; an enormous, rushing uproar. They stayed in a hotel room, much more expensive than they were used to but nicer. It was solid cement so there were no animals inside except cockroaches and ants. Nothing that would bite. The water didn’t work, but the toilet had been poured full of cement so nobody would use it. There was a toilet in a closet off the lobby. Also a drain with a hose where they could wash. There was a brick hearth on the lobby floor, so you could make a fire and cook. It was warm inside. The cold bothered Pepito’s family, but the people here wore T-shirts and shorts. There were mattresses to sleep on. Pepito knew they wouldn’t stay there long.
His father took them up on the roof and pointed North. He could see bridges and concrete ramps, but no water in what his father said was a river. The last river. To the West, the river spread out into a scrubby forest, then there was the Sea. Pepito stayed on the roof a long time, looking at the Sea. He was up there when his father brought the angel to their room.
Ester came to the roof to get him. Their father had found a guide, who wanted to see them all. Pepito came down the stairs and into the room. His whole family was sitting on mattresses, staring at the Junior Angel. She said her name was Jazzi and she took Pepito’s breath away. She was a beautiful girl wearing pants and blouse so white they seemed to shine in the dim room. She wore shiny white leather shoes. She was Alive. He looked at her, then at his sisters. They looked like farm animals compared to this girl. She sparkled and smiled, looked at whoever she wanted to, laughed. She had come to see them because his father had talked to a man in a sidewalk bar on the Plaza Santa Cecilia, gateway to the Zona Roja. She was finding out how they could pay to go across the river. She winked at Pepito and tousled his hair. Her father talked to her, she talked to a pocket telephone. She counted them, talked more. She was using that little toy thing to talk to their Uncle, Teoforo, who lived in California. California was where they were going, the golden land that had drawn them across so many rivers. She counted eight people in the room and laughed. She said they would need a big ride.
That night Jazzi came back and counted them again. There was a policeman with her. By the time the policeman was in the lobby, it was empty. He stood in the door and looked at the family and they were terrified. Juanes made noises like she was getting sick. Jazzi came and touched her, told her it was okay, this cop was a friend. He was big, fierce, greedy-looking man: Pepito couldn’t imagine him being a friend to anybody. He told them to get everything they wanted to take and come out front to the red van. Nobody moved. Jazzi laughed and said not to be afraid of old “Oso”, he was just a big, old bear, wasn’t he? She punched the cop on the shoulder and he snarled at her. Then they both laughed. He said, “Come on. I’m taking you where you want to go. Aren’t I, Jazmín?” She said he’d better and laughed.
They went out to the street and climbed into the back of the red van. The van had bullet holes in the windshield and through the front seats. The seats had dark stains on them. The driver was another cop, a young handsome guy. Jazzi got them all inside, then kissed all the children goodbye and wished them good luck, told them to mind. She kissed the old cop on the cheek and patted his arm, then went around to the driver’s window and flirted with the young cop a minute. She stepped back and blew a kiss to the young cop, an image Pepito would carry with him forever. A beautiful angel standing in the filthy street full of drunks and angry cars, blowing a goodbye kiss as they set out for the last river.
They pulled off a highway outside of town, perched on a high cliff. Pepito knew the lights in the sky marked the river, that the big darkness over there was the Sea. They got out of the van by a cluster of taco carts, where dozens of people stood, waiting and looking North. The other kids stared at the waiting people, or across the lights into California, but Pepito kept his eyes on the two cops. So he was the first to see the Senior Angel, the one he came to think of as the Jungle Woman. She walked out of a cleft in the rocks and approached the cops. She wore canvas boots and a leather jacket with a band around her head like Rambo. She had a machete in her hand, slicing a mango against it and eating the slices off the blade. She was an angel, too, Pepito could see that. She might have been a sister to the other one: she was beautiful, too. But she was older, bigger, tougher. She looked like Indiana Jones. A dark angel of the Jungle, of the Templo del Perdición. Or the Ultima Cruzada. Pepito called her Jungle Woman. She offered the cops some mango. She called them Omar and Alonzo. They called her Angeles. So he’d been right about the two of them: angeles de la frontera. He turned to look at the border and felt no fear, only joy. He was ready to go, had been all his life.
Matter of fact, Angeles had known quite a few guys in the pollo racket, who could pass the naco’s pullets to the Other Side, do the “brinco”. The Zona was a clearing house for clandestine immigration schemes: so many of the hicks hitting town to jump across, were first interested in plumbing Tijuana’s notorious pots of flesh. The trouble was, none that she knew warranted her trust for longer than it took spit to hit the floor. But she knew where to look for the more professional caliber of brinquero, and thought she could trust her proven luck and justly famous eye to pick out the man of the hour. She dressed in jeans and loose sweater the next afternoon and told a taxista to take her up into Colonia Crucero, a bar called La Dichosa.
Colonia Crucero isn’t the place they photograph for all those travel magazines saying that Tijuana has turned into a sophisticated mecca for moderns. It was the crappiest Tijuana barrio she’d seen—but she hadn’t been to Grupo Bravo yet. The buildings looked like post-bombing Beirut, grubby brats played in an open sewer running down the middle of the unpaved street, scabby dogs sniffed excrement. Most of the cars had California plates: shiny, new, and covered with decals concerning stereo equipment, loose women, and drug violence. But that was all offset by the defining feature of Crucero: it sat directly above the California border and offered sniper-eye views of the Migra jeeps and facilities, the steep gullies down to the fences, the fields on which the whole game was played out. Crucero was the smugglers’ roost and the Dichosa was their “union hall”.
Angeles walked right in, the only woman in the place. She got used to the gloom, already used to the way cantinas look inside: dark, male, dingy, stripped down to the basic task of providing places to sit while taking in alcohol and listening to sorry music about kickass men and no-good women. She spotted the group she wanted right away and walked over to them. They didn’t know what to make of her. Until she told them she wanted somebody to take some pollos over for twelve hundred dollars. Two hundred when they showed up at the border, a thousand on delivery to a motel in San Ysidro. Angeles would collect twice that, of course, less than the going rate, but tailored to what their leader had left after certain recent indulgences
They were all interested—until she got to the part where it was her deal, so she’d go along to keep an eye on the pollos, collect and pay off. At which point the men sneered and went back to their beer and convoluted discussion of the national soccer selection. Except for one.
Santiago Adolfo—“Chago” for short and “Ch—Go” in the graffiti he happily scribbled all over Southern California—was a lifetime border jumper. He’d come in from Guatemala at the age of two, part of the wave of Indians fleeing the Sandanista genocide, and first crossed into the U.S. at eight. He played on both sides of the border as a child, at home in the hazardour labyrinth between two world, and had been wetting backs professionally since he was twelve. He was nineteen when Angeles met him, two years older than her, but she immediately saw him as a cute, rambunctious little brother. He was a mercurial joker, active and fun-loving as a chipmunk. He recommended that she to go to bed with him immediately, took her elaborately polite refusal with a laugh, then asked for the details of her pollo deal. The other smugglers thought he was out of his mind and suggested that he discuss it with her elsewhere. Chago insulted them until they laughed, then took Angeles to an intimidatingly filthy taco joint down the “street”.
In between Chago’s relentless come-on and irrepressible joking, they hammered out the details of the deal. Angeles, who had grown up without seeing money, then gotten swept into a credit card-fueled bubble economy, then never haggled except with men who’d been drinking and drooling over her, knew she was no artiste of deals. When she ran out of objections and patience she told him fine, that would do for an introductory package, to see how he worked out. The main thing was, he was working for her and she would pay him for a good job safely pulled off. That sent Chago into a bubbling stream of sexual double-meanings proposing her as the honoree, but he accepted the deal. He didn’t have a lot of macho ego, he explained. He was just in it for the money, laughs and whatever stray pussy might come his way. Hint, hint.
Chago seemed like the perfect guy for her project but she ran his name by a few whores and drug guys to check him out. Flying colors: his only flaw, from the prospective of a puta who knew his wife from grade school out in El Florido, was that when he delivered people to San Diego or “Los”, he flipped out and blew all the money before he got home. A larger sum of money just meant more cocaine and blondes, more horsetracks in L.A. or cockfights up in Barrio Lobo. He’d show up shitfaced with a present for her: a tourist T-shirt, flowers, some useless chrome auto accessory. She got back to Chago, got back to the naco, took a night off from Mexico Lindo, delighting the other women and bumming out the taxistas. She bought a leather jacket and a pair of sturdy work shoes. She also “rented” a snub-nosed .32 revolver from an old colleague of Silverino’s who liked to keep in touch. She instinctively trusted Chago, but let’s be realistic.
His nonchalance about traipsing across rugged terrain stalked by human predators under the nose of the Migra with a beautiful woman in tow stemmed not from any great confidence in Angeles, but a bottomless reservoir of faith in his own devices. Though he quickly respected her intelligence and authority as they wound down the eroded gulches from the soccer field to the California flats. Not to mention her mountain girl sure-footedness and nerve. In those days before double fencing, electronic monitoring, and “Light Up The Border”, Chago’s entry was a walk in the park. They arrived without making contact with anybody. Angeles realized that much of this was because of curious behavior on Chago’s part: taking circuitous routes around likely areas, squatting for fifteen minutes in a culvert keeping an eye on his watch, hustling everybody through a copse of manzanita for no apparent reason. Beside a stretch of unmarked highway through a shallow canyon, the color and condition of the blacktop announcing that it was in San Diego, not Mexico, he hid the group in bushes while Angeles sat at a bus stop. When the bus stopped she stepped to the door without looking back and by the time she moved up the two steps to the fare box Chago was at her elbow, dumping in handfuls of quarters to pay for them all. The bus stopped right in front of the motel. But there was nobody there to meet them.
Angeles sat listening while Chago grilled the Oaxacans, finally coming up with some phone numbers. He herded them all into the dim back booths of an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet while he and Angeles worked the pay phone out front. As he’d predicted, the relatives had given up while the flock hovered in Tijuana awaiting a guide unto the wilderness. He vetoed waiting for the Long Beach branch of the family to mobilize a van and drive down to the border. Finally they accepted his offer to deliver their loved ones to their door for a thousand dollars. The usual rate is three hundred a head, he told Angeles, but what the hell, they’re here, we’re here, it’s an extra thousand to give them a raite to Los.
They left their “chickens”, scared but not so much that they didn’t glut out on noodles and egg rolls in the Chinito place, and went to boost a car. Chago handled that as offhandedly as he’d handled the jump, Angeles watching his every move, asking him questions and getting interesting answers along with a barrage of easy entry and key-in-the-hole double entendre. They dumped some unlucky electrician’s gear and inventory out of the pilfered van, packed it full of chowmein-stuffed illegals, and simply drove it up to Los Angeles. Chago hid in the back and let Angeles drive through the checkpoint at San Clemente. She smiled at the customs guys and wasn’t stopped. Angeles didn’t fit any known profiles. Of anybody.
In Long Beach, Angeles collected thirty four hundred dollars and tucked away five hundred for her self. She already had five hundred the naco had given her in Tijuana. And the other two hundred he’d paid her for his dream date, come to think of it, but that was a separate transaction. Chago offered her half of the thousand for the L.A. leg of the trip, but she said that had been his deal, not hers. But she’d driven through Ex Cremente, he reminded her, so she accepted three hundred. Then Chago said she should take a look at the city.
And that she certainly did. They drove through the warm rush of L.A. night—Venice, Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, Melrose, Figueroa Street—stopping to check out whatever caught the attention of either. Angeles was urbanized by then, but it staggered her anyway. She wanted to come back and figure the place out. She wanted to climb up somewhere and see the whole thing at once. She mentioned that to Chago, who came through with his usual insouciance: she got a great big piece of the picture while standing beside him on the van roof in the parking lot of Griffith Observatory, high above Hollywood, one of those epiphanies that blows off all previous perspectives and re-structures subsequent consciousness. Staring out in wild surmise at mile on mile of structured light show, the accreted glow of those millions of souls, the horizon-wide spew of pattern and signal, she whispered, “At last I’m here.”
She leaned out and spoke in a slightly louder voice as if addressing the deaf, “Hello, I’m Maria de Los Angeles.”
Chago laughed, “Beats the hell out of Maria de Tijuana.”
But the night was still young. She watched the impressive/depressing spectacle of Chago blowing his wad on drinks, drugs and frivolity, amused and appalled. I shouldn’t have paid him until we were back in Mexico, she thought. I should have given it to his wife. She sat in a folding chair in some cholo+] after-hours club in Echo Park, nursing a lukewarm beer while watching Chago pay tattooed chicana gangster girls to dance on his lap, thinking that over. By the time she left him, blotto and broke in the van in front of La Dichosa, she had formulated the basics of a new business plan.
It was his first commission ever, so Ado kept things very simple and straightforward in writing “El Corrido del Guayino”. He started off with the date and location of what he chose as his central image, two children who’d been run over and killed by a drunken quayino driver, who then piled the car into a roast chicken stall, injuring seven people. It had happened four days before Christmas.
On December Twenty-First out on the route to Mezquito
The green and gold guayino was driving way too fast and wide
Just seventeen years old, the driver couldn’t handle liquor
And he couldn’t keep the fat old car between the lines.
Paco and Yuli Rosales, aged six and eight, no older
Thought they were safe by the roadside waiting for their ride
They didn’t know about old metal and broken suspensions
They didn’t know that there was no one to smell the driver’s breath.
Eleven verses of condemnation for the unsafe practices and antiquated equipment that hurtled through the streets with four people in the front seat and springs bottomed out from the weight of nine more in back. Why wasn’t something being done about this? Was nobody paying attention? It ended in a classic despedida
Adios, adios, I have sung for far too long.
You are safe here in your seats for now and I am on my way.
But I can’t help but think of others who meet danger on their road
Of cars too old and men too young and laws to blind and deaf to care.
Ado wrote the song overnight, fueled by indignation salted with guilt that this had caught the eye of others, but not his. Oddly, it had a higher body count than all his other ballads of border shootings, police massacres, and drug wars. It was a scathing condemnation from a man whose concern for young life had been rubbed fresh and bleeding, made even more damaging by the slightly detached observer’s tone. In the early morning hours he sat at his little recorder, squinting at the words he’d scrawled on the manila envelope, his voice hoarse and strained, his guitar work blurred and common.
He was waiting at the address on the card when the office opened, an oddly anonymous little place in the back of the upper level of a shopping center in Colonia Veinte de Noviembre. The briefcase guy showed up an hour later in a late model Lexus. He showed no surprise that Ado had written his song so quickly. He asked his secretary to give Ado coffee while he opened a combination safe set into the floor and brought out a zippered pouch with the Banamex logo and a stack of pink five hundred peso bills. He listened to the cassette on a sleek German stereo that emphasized the poor quality of the recording. He asked if Ado had made copies, then sent the secretary out to make ten copies of the cassette. In her absence discussed the song with Ado, nodding his appreciation for the lapidary lines.
He gave Ado back his original tape and eight of the copies. To get him started selling it, he said. Remember, you have all performance rights. He pulled out a prepared contract and handed it to Ado, who read it with difficulty. He explained in plain language that it did not impede his cassette sales or performance rights, but gave the commissioning parties the right to copy the song, make professional recordings of it, and submit it for radio play. Ado couldn’t see any objection there. Especially not while staring at the pile of pesos that had been sitting on the desk in front of him for over thirty minutes. He signed and the guy handed him the money and shook his hand. Pleasure to meet a true artist, all that.
Ado was out the door as soon as politeness permitted. He didn’t bother with the bus, just grabbed a dispatch cab directly to the Robles Clinic in Las Playas. The therapy worked on a very special cellular nutrient developed by Dr. Robles, along with some detoxifying procedures. The treatment would run for six months. The Doctor had every confidence that the boy would live out his full share of years. He told Ado to count on it. He guaranteed the success of the treatment. Don’t worry, just sing.
The Camponeta family didn’t realize it, but their crossing would be uneventful; a stroll in the park, as the Jungle Woman said. She arranged them in an order of march, young ones near their parents, his older brothers bringing up the rear, herself in the lead. She told them how it would be, told them they needed to keep quiet and obey her instantly if she gave them orders. The older cop had laughed and said they’d better listen to her. But she was serious now, on the job. She led them down from the cliff, walking in furrows eroded into the rock and dirt. It wasn’t an easy walk, but they tumbled out in good shape at the bottom of a rock draw, stepped out onto a smooth sand playa where a tall link fence ran out of sight in both directions. Their angel walked to a certain place in the fence and looked exasperated. Pepito came up behind her and saw that the fence had recently been repaired with shiny new links. He looked at her, at the fence. He pulled out his scorpion knife and started cutting at the chain links.
Jungle Woman smiled at him, then touched his hand, motioned to put the knife away. She reached into a bag that hung down her back and pulled out a pair of bolt cutters with sawed-off handles. She quickly cut the links in an “L”-shaped cut that allowed them to open it like a door and step through. When they passed, the hole fell shut, wasn’t noticeable. The sandy patch led into scraggly brush. Pepito knew this kind of brush meant there was river ahead. He was an expert on rivers at the age of seven. Jungle Woman gave them plastic bags to tie on their feet so their shoes wouldn’t get wet. She picked their way through the brush and marsh and shallow skims of water without meeting anybody or saying a word. It was here, moving on wet trails through black vegetation, that Pepito saw that she was The Jungle Woman: her silent panther moves, her twitching nose and ears, her big eyes staring right through the dark.
There was more business with fences, some crawling through and under things, but the trip was nothing like the scary stories they’d heard. Pepito realized that not everyone was lucky as they were. There were probably only so many angels to go around. They were in some sort of town, seeing cars and people, and nothing had happened. They’d made it. Pepito exulted. Then disaster swooped down on them.
The family had entered a sort of tunnel, five feet wide, between a chain fence around a place where people lived in trucks and trailers, and a long wall of corrugated sheet metal marked, SWAP MEET SATURDAY, SUNDAY and, TIANGUIS, SABADO Y DOMINGO. Pepito, still ecstatic at crossing the last river, told his brother Mateo, “These people aren’t so bad. Look, they made this path for us here.”
Jungle Woman laughed and said, “No, they just got tired of people like us cutting their fences, so they gave up a little right of way to protect their property.” And at that moment, halfway through the “tunnel”, is when it happened.
There was the roar of a horror monster and a fierce round wind. A blinding light came out of the sky to pin them to the ground by their own hard-edged shadows. The family froze, too terrified to think. They stood staring up into the smiting light from the sky. Just like chickens.
Jungle Woman didn’t even look up at the helicopter that jacklighted the family. She looked quickly at the ends of the passageway. Sure enough, Pepito could see that there were uniformed men at both ends, pulling up on little motorcycles with four wheels. He saw all at once that the hospitable highway he’d commented on was the perfect trap. His family was in a dither as the Migra moved in from both ends of the tunnel, big men with helmets and batons. Some of his family squatted down, some ran or jumped in fear, crying. Juanes was at the point of fainting. Pepito looked for a way to crawl over the fence, but realized they’d never make it before the men with clubs caught them. He reached into his pocket, found his scorpion knife. He glanced at Jungle Woman. She was the angel here: could she possibly cope with this?
Even as the thought crossed his mind, she was in action. She pushed his father and older brothers, yelling at them to move, to run toward the closest group of Migra. They balked: it was crazy to charged armed men. She yelled at them, swatted them to move. Pepito lurched forward, his knife in his hand. He ran screaming toward the Migra, who stopped, startled. His family, spurred by his move, ran behind him. Jungle Woman pushed them on. She even slapped Juanes’ face and pushed her into a stumbling run. They ran right at those police soldiers, everybody screaming in fear.
Jungle Woman sprinted into the lead, running past Pepito, who charged on stubby legs, his scorpion sting held out in front of him like a cavalry saber. About thirty feet from the Migra, who were standing still, staring at them, she snatched the back of Pepito’s shirt and swung him up on her back in one smooth, powerful motion. He grabbed her shoulders and hung on. Her leather pack was like a saddle for him, he could feel hard objects inside it. He was definitely a mounted lancer then, pointing a thirsty blade towards the uniforms. Then Jungle Woman grabbed a section of corrugated metal and pulled it out from the wall as she ran forward. It peeled away until the end hit the other side of the “tunnel”. She spun and snatched a handful of the chainlink fence that was behind the galvanized steel. It opened, another of her magical doors into new worlds. Behind the chain fence were hundreds of cars, parked close together in the darkness with their lights off. The cars were all watching a movie.
The family blundered through the hole into the drive-in cinema and stopped, stunned by the sheer weirdness of it. Row on row of motionless cars, all pointed at opposite ends of the walled lot, where two enormous screens showed soundless movies. One screen showed animated Disney figures, leaping around in the sky frenetically. The other was a five story woman, naked, kneeling over a man in bed, writhing in emotion. They stared at this spectacle. In the cars, people stared back at them.
The Jungle Woman yelled for their attention. She was leaning against the section of wall she’d jammed across the pathway: men were pounding on the other side of it. She pointed, “Go over there where the lights are and wait for me. Everybody go a different way. Run. RUN!” The Camponetas ran towards the refreshment stand, scattering among cars full of startled movie-goers. The men behind the wall section ran into it in unison and it slammed shut. She lifted her feet and the impact threw her through the chain fence into the drive-in. She steadied Pepito on her shoulders as she ran after the family. The smallest children were in their parents’ arms, the older kids were dashing and turning like wild goats. Pepito turned his head to see the Migra pull the steel outward and come into the huge collection of cars, running behind them. He looked up at the helicopter, veering inside the cinema and swooping overhead, shining glare down on them like God’s own flashlight. Even carrying Pepito, the Jungle Woman was faster than the others, and she headed straight towards the pop stand.
Pepito felt her hard back surging between his legs as she loped through the lot, rounding cars, sometimes pounding across a hood if there were chairs or viewers in the way. He was impressed beyond his ability to conceive of it. She had shocked him with a display of daring and superhuman strength, ripping the steel away like wallpaper. Then he saw the cutaway and was even more impressed. Better than strength: she had been ready for this unforeseeable attack. She’d planned in advance, had known the path was a potential trap, had come here at night to cut these wires and work the fasteners loose. Pepito was awed, felt like peeing his pants. Which he fortunately didn’t because he was still clinging to her rippling back, riding her like a movie cowboy.
The Camponetas provided a bit of distraction and unbilled entertainment bonus for the drive-in customers: a ragged bunch of wetbacks fleeing through the gaps between cars. They blundered into folding beach chairs crammed full of children. They kicked over a barbecue where big, beer-swilling dads were grilling chorizo and chicken wings. They plowed into a little girl with three huge boxes of popcorn, flushing clouds of white palomitas+] into the air. The helicopter dodged around above them, spotlighting them for the pursuing officers. The movie audience didn’t like the helicopter, whose light blotted out the screen images and wiped out their night vision, any better than the Camponetas did. Clusters of children atop cars cried out in fear, confusion and delight. Horns started sounding all over the lot. People leaned out to scream at the sky, shoved obscene gestures upward. A group of sailors in a convertible threw beer bottles at the swerving chopper. One of the bottles fell onto the windshield of a “low rider” car. Four cholos in head rags and wifebeater shirts erupted from the ranfla cursing. One of them whipped out a pistol and fired at the helicopter, which jumped straight up like a flea, peeled off and juttered away towards the freeway.
Most viewers had no idea why their film pleasure was being disrupted until a ragged kid or angry patrolman tore by their windows. People applauded the gasping Camponetas as they plunged through the cars, wide-eyed as spooked horses. Horns beat out Mexican beats, including the “shave and a haircut” riff, which to Latinos says, “Chinga tu madre…cabrón”. A guy handed a hotdog to an amazed Marco as he stampeded by, then a stick of cotton candy to the traumatized Juanes.
Doors opened in front of running Migra, piling them up. One stocky father stepped from his car and shoved two stiff arms into a charging patrolman’s chest, knocking him off his feet. Winded by the run and the blow, the officer reached gasping for his gun but the father, a tattooed barrio tough, stomped on his hand. Then his nose. Other officers gave up on the chase to rescue their fallen colleague, but the tattooed father was defiant and when a group tried to subdue him, people boiled out of surrounding cars and swarmed all over them, yelling in Spanish. The ensuing rhubarb drew in all of the Migra officers and over fifty movie-goers. It was featured in newspapers and TV news. Four officers were injured badly enough to miss days at work, three were disciplined. The theater threatened to sue INS. Several Chicano gang-bangers started wearing T-shirts showing a pistol aimed up at a black helicopter quartered in red crosshairs. No charges were ever filed.
But the Camponetas didn’t see the events that made them anonymously notorious: Angeles formed them up at the refreshment stand, counted them quickly, and led them out through an exit with hinged steel spikes in the ground to prevent unpaid cars from entering. She herded them down the short driveway to an access road. They could hear the two-stroke whine of the Migra FourRunners. Unconcerned, she hustled them across and into a ditch where a grate barred access to a five foot culvert. Whipping the bolt cutters from her pack, she slammed the husky brass padlock. The lock, pre-softened in preparation for such an event, popped open and she pulled the grate out so the family could slip into the dark, moist shelter of the culvert. Pulling it shut behind her, she reached out and popped the lock back in place. Bent at the waist, she trotted down the echoing tunnel with the family strung out behind her.
At the other end she had her way with another lock and led them out into a brushy sinkhole. She let them rest and relax, told them to take the bags off their shoes. The family looked around this leafy bower, then back into the black pipe they’d emerged from. Their breathing slowed, their postures softened. Marco said, “Now we’ll never know how the movie ended,” and everybody laughed. Pepito watched the Jungle Woman size them up, then pull out another pocket phone and make a call. All she said was, “Now. La Pipa.”
Within five minutes they heard a vehicle stop up above the brush, stand there with the motor running. Pepito snuck along behind Jungle Woman as she went up to check it out. She told him to wave the others up. When the Camponetas crawled up to street level, Pepito was already sitting in the open rear door of a rusty old panel truck, motioning them to come to him. Jungle Women held them up, fed them out in groups of two. They huddled together in the dark of the windowless truck, smelling old fish and machine oil and traces of marijuana leaf. Pepito sat near the curtain at the front, listening while Jungle Woman and the driver chatted and played Radio Ranchito.
They were only in the truck for thirty minutes. When the doors opened, they spilled out onto a cement patio. They stood looking around at a two story stucco structure with parking spaces and numbers on all the doors, like a hotel. On the roof was a very old sign with broken neon tubes and the name, MOTEL FRONTERA – VACANCY. The truck driver was a short, powerful man with shoulder-length hair called Gacho. He wore knee-length shorts and a dirty shirt that said PADRES. Jungle Woman handed him money and he gave her a salute.
A slim man got out of a big new car and approached her. She counted the money he gave her and nodded to him. She waved her arm at the family: take them, they’re yours. His mother and father ran to him, calling him Teo and hugging him, but the kids stayed put. The small ones had never met Tio Teoforo before and the older ones knew he didn’t much care for children or displays. He waved at them in welcome and they filed by to shake his hand and thank him for paying their passage to California. He showed them into their new home, a room on the upper floor with a number seven on it and a discolored place beside it in the shape of a number one.
Pepito hung back. He walked back to Jungle Woman, who was talking to Gacho about money. He stuck out his hand to her and she shook it solemnly. She asked to see his knife. He pulled it out and showed it to her. She examined the cheap little blade, gave the boy a long look. She smiled and shook her head, handed the knife back. She said he was a brave, crazy boy, to be careful here in The North. She patted his hair, then suddenly squatted down and hugged him. Then she stepped up into the truck and Gacho started it and they drove out of the parking lot into the night. The Jungle Angel, the Pony Woman, had brought him here to thrive and left him to the task. He put his knife in his pocket and looked around his new world.
The only person outside was an interesting old gringo standing beside a large basin of murky green water, pissing into it. The man nodded to him and held up a bottle with a little gold liquid in the bottom. He said, “Bottle in one hand, dick in the other. Easy come, easy go, huh, kid?”
That was pretty deep, Pepito thought, a symmetry he’d never thought of before. The old gringo who could speak the language asked if his back was still wet. Pepito checked carefully then shook his head. The hairy gringo laughed and shook himself off.
Pepito explained that they had no home and had come to find money and a fine place to live and the man said, “Welcome to the club.” He taught Pepito how to shake hands. People don’t hold your hand here: you stick out your palm and they hit it. The hairy loco went to a room up the stairs. His family went to a room downstairs. It was a big room with a big bed and a place to cook and another place to wash. There was a small room to hang clothes in and that’s where Pepito would sleep.
They had crossed the last water. This was the land of honey, of their legends and lullabies, their new home and life. Everything would be wonderful now. He told his father that he was welcome to the club, that he knew the handshake. So now he belonged in America.
Less than thirty-six hours after La Flaca and Pepito galloped through the drive-in up in San “Yskidrow”, Ado was singing about it on the afternoon Linea runs. He’d heard the story three times from bus passengers by then, each time with more embellishments. His wife laughed at the story, then quickly cleared away the remains of their dinner so he could start writing about the incursion through the autocinema baffling the Migra. She added some funny flourishes to his account, resulting in something he rarely did, a comic corrido. This approach was not unheard of: even the Tigres del Norte had humorous hits like “Las Gueras de Califas” or “Vivan Los Mojados”. But both of those drew from long-standing sources of Mexican humor and myth: California Blondes and Long Live Wetbacks were almost more graffiti than nuggets of humor. But Ado’s latest, “El Show dela Migra” drew its humor from an actual event, with the Mexican pride and genetic hatred of the Border Patrol as a side dish, rather than main course. Instead of broad, cantina clown slapstick, Ado was sly, telling it straight-faced as an epic battle to let the absurdity of it pull its own weight.
They laid their ambush with a helicopter
And a dozen men with guns on motorcycles
They would trap these sneaking pollos
Who tried to see the main feature without tickets.
But ten minutes after midnight the critics were enraged
There was enough popcorn and Pepsi and McPollo for all
And in the spotlights of Hollywood
The people who watch movies in cars all want a happy ending.
The song kicked the collective butts of Linea crossers and straphangers: the first time Ado sang it he made over twenty dollars in tips. He immediately produced fifty cassettes with the single song on them, and sold them out in two days. His wife wanted him to spring for two hundred tapes, get a price break, but Ado told her these quick passions had a way of blowing over as quickly as they started. She laughed and told him she much preferred the slow type of passion that a woman had to stoke for six months before she could get a man to quit fooling around with his guitar and pay attention to her. “You see,” Ado told her, “That’s the sort of thing that you can rely on in the long run.”
Two days later they heard the gamecock crow on Radio Ranchito, the signal of a song of special interest, followed by a digitally enhanced cut of “El Show dela Migra.”
“Okay, okay,” Ado told his smiling wife and son, “I’ll go make a few hundred more. We can always tape over the ones that don’t sell.” In the back of his mind he was already hearing a sequel to the song. Not a Part Two, his competitors would do that. No, something focusing in on that skinny pollera with the fine trasero He’d start asking around, get more information. Radio! Think of that!
Angeles had not only seen the future, but also the preparation it would take. She realized that the problem was not so much getting people into California, but getting the money back to Mexico. She saw an organizational need that she could fill and cash in on. But she’d have to learn the business from the bottom up. Her hotel visits had left her with a very respectable bank account by then, living in a cheap apartment up “on the rock” in Colonia Mexico where she could scan the entire downtown and miles of the floodlit border. She kept on working at Mexico Lindo, but stopped buying new clothes and did a bit of strip-dancing in Los Patudos and the Zona just to show her flag and renew contacts. And a couple of nights each week she was crossing the border without benefit of documentation, abetting others in the same.
She learned the ropes from Chago, coming to him with clients referred to her by waitresses, bartenders, and whores because she gave good commissions. When Chago got nailed driving through San Clemente drunk with a fat farmgirl on his lap and spent a month in jail on the other side under the name of another trafficker who had pissed him off, she took a few runs with other polleros. She learned a few things from them, but mostly that she could do as well as they could. So she did.
She had her working kit together by that time: a contoured pack for her machete, bolt cutter, 619 area cell phone, metal flask of spirits, halide flashlight, the card of a public defender out in Barrio Lobo named Victor Moncalvo. But for her first solo run she also rented the .32 again. She thought of it as sort of like a life vest or parachute. She took four pollos down through Goat Canyon, up along the flood plain, and over to the deserted swap meet in “San Y-skidrow”: a thousand dollars up front. A piece of cake. Her second trip she ran into border bandits: three junkies armed with driving need and carpenter’s tools demanded money as well as private conversations with Angeles and the thirteen year old girl hiding behind her parents in terror. Angeles invited them to fuck off.
Drug addicts are not noted for taking good advice: they moved on Angeles, not even spreading out, just swaggering over with their backward baseball hats and cases of the shakes. Angeles pulled the gun and the flashlight. She flicked the light on quickly, showing them the nasty little snubbie pointed at their balls, then used the glare to blind them. Then she held the gun ready while battering them with the back edge of her machete, giving a few good cuts on their arms and thighs for good measure. They staggered off into the woods, bumping into branches and screaming threats. She quickly herded her awe-struck clients off in the opposite direction.
She was realizing inside that growing, stretching predator compartment behind her owl’s eyes that she hadn’t needed Bernal for that one, or even Chago. Or steenking badges. She registered that she had felt no impulse to actually shoot the junkies. But neither had she noticed any disinclination to do so if she needed to. She ended up buying a better gun, a featherweight S&W Ladysmith in .38 Special. But after a few months she didn’t feel she needed it along on her runs.
For one thing, she’d figured out she could handle things just as well with the machete. She’d analyzed the situation, based on the border bandits she’d seen so far, and realized that she wasn’t going to meet anybody with a gun or even much more than a chisel or club. Addicts don’t hold on to expensive ordinance for long and any bandit with a gun could find more lucrative prey than economic refugees.
The gun was just a way of handling things without anybody getting seriously hurt and she no longer cared if these slime got hurt or not. She had seen a scumbag or two in her time, but had a special reservoir of scorn for men would who rob and rape their own countrymen, fleeing from their own poverty. They were stinking junkie garbage and she didn’t care if they all died in agony, frankly.
She realized that the isolation and anonymity of this blurry international twilight might be perfect for robbers but also decreed an open season for killing. She could hack some rapist’s head off if she wanted and if he even came to official attention afterwards nobody would care. She could operate with total impunity, a law unto herself. It was a moral environment she was quite comfortable with.
There was enormous potential of trafficking in wetbacks, or mojados as the Mexicans call them, meaning the same thing: arrived wet. She could make anywhere from three hundred to a thousand dollars a head. With the groups of four to eight pollos, the size she felt she could handle, that came to a lot more than she was earning letting guys in expensive aftershave sock it to her in nice hotel rooms. She did both, alternating nights as clients became available. And had more money than she knew what to do with. That had also been true when she was married to Silverino, but this was different. It’s not so much that the money came to her directly, but that she was in control of its use and furtherance. She spent a night with an American financial planner, and made more dates with him, the last one for free just so she could pick his brain. He was a nice guy to lay around with, and definitely a smart cookie. And a real quickie: half the time he got off before he even got inside her. She took that as a compliment.
He provided her with food for thought, as well as almost a thousand dollars cash, but one tip that made a lot of sense to her and was immediately viable was his advice not to pay rent. Hell, she lived in Tijuana, how much could some damned hovel cost down here? Turn some of your life overhead into equity. After some thinking and exploration, Angeles settled on a likely area for investment residence. East of Crucero towards the desert, a backwater even of Tijuana’s slums, was Grupo Bravo. Hemmed in by the municipal garbage dump on one side and the border on the other, it was isolated, the law was very loose, and property was cheaper than trash. “Bravo” sloped down to where the river entered the fault valley that divided its sliver of Mexico from an equally estranged American backwater called Barrio Lobo. It was another smuggler’s nest, among other things. It was originally a squatter colony, so water and power supply was iffy, but that also meant lax political control. Angeles took her Ladysmith with her when she explored the shacktown that made even Crucero look like a spread in “Casas” magazine.
She found a place, though; perfect for her. It was on the highest point in the Grupo, a windy ridge that sloped down to where Barrio Lobo slumped up from the river on the other side. It was a cement box without windows or doors, but a cracked patio commanded an aerie’s view of the border and it was a short walk down to the market, bars, and cantina/bordello cluster that made Grupo Bravo a community rather than just a rubble of scrapwood shacks tossed down the hill. She paid eighteen hundred dollars for the place, including a five hectare lot, and started her building project.
She ordered wrought iron scrollwork for the windows even before putting in sash and glass. She installed a bulletproof steel door and strengthened—some might say fortified—the existing walls. After installing water, gas, a rudimentary kitchen and a rude bed, she started surrounding the house with extra rooms, all with second floors. She used pollos for labor, doing the rude cement work and laying cheap concrete blocks for reductions in their fares while awaiting transportation. If she ran into any talented workers, she kept them around by paying above the Mexican Federal minimum wage of five dollars a day. Plus room and board. She pilfered and swapped for supplies, drove misappropriated tarpaper and Salvation Army plumbing fixtures across in vehicles she had stolen to run pollos. The house lurched into being, a thrust of growth on the crest of the ridge, like a refugee ship riding a big wave towards the American beach.
The building project had become something of an obsession for her. She poured time, sweat and money into the house, which would continue to grow and mutate for decades, eventually becoming Grupo Bravo’s distinguishing landmark. The first three upstairs rooms, served by a spiral staircase inside the original house, had wide, barred windows and doors onto the original roof; now a covered porch with an international view. She added two garages, or at least windowless rooms with steel cortinas, like the kind that pulled down to protect shop facades at night. She put an old Barcalounger from a landfill in one of the “garage” rooms, along with a cable spool table. She would roll the cortina up in the evenings and sit watching the lights come on across the valley, where Barrio Lobo’s sprawl of shanties, block apartments and hovels slogged up the hill through its main town of two story cement, on up to the enclave of fine homes, blue pools and green playing fields on the Mesa above.
She thought she was adding space to stash waiting customers, but went on building and furnishing even after that became an obvious fiction. The upper rooms got smooth floors of sky blue tile. The kitchen had ovens and gas refrigerators that could have served a restaurant. She had pollos make a huge trestle table and scoured up enough plastic beer company chairs to surround it: seating for twenty. She was seeing the shape of something, but still hadn’t realized what it would be.
When Chago got out of jail, leaving his rival with a five year federal probation that would carry a year or so in jail if violated, he returned jubilant and bristling with new jokes from the pollero clearing house the MCC had become. The huge Federal jail was actually the Metropolitan Corrections Center, but more widely known as the Mexican Country Club. His favorite involved a Migra officer questioning a little Indita girl he finds standing near the frontier, the always tricky task of differentiating Mexicans from Chicanos. When he asks, “Are you Latina?” she replies, always in a blurred backhills accent, “No, I’m La Lupe. La Tina already got a ride to Los Angeles.” Then there was a series of jokes involving two hapless pollos continually trying to get across the border. One has retired to the bushes on a mission of nature when the other is braced by the, who ask if they have papers. A voice comes from the bushes, saying, “No, man, we’re having to wipe our butts with leaves.”
He immediately went back to work, increasingly relying on referrals from Angeles, who had realized what the confused tangle of border transportation most needed was vertical integration and consolidation of leads. If a prospective mojado approached a bartender or B-girl about getting Over There, the chances were becoming likely that he’d be put in touch with Angeles. Who cruised through the Zona at the end of each night, picking up leads. At first she referred them out to Chago and her growing string of polleros. Most of whom were machista+] Northern types who massively exhibited the male ego lacking in Chago, with his residual mellow manner of the Indian South. They would never have admitted it, but they were becoming dependent on Angeles’ referrals. She cut deals with cops and politicians in Mexico, organized a network of transport and safe houses on the California side of the line. It was innovative work that had eluded the grasp of many, but she got a ground floor feeling from it, like laying foundations.
Pepito Camponeta had to be the only person alive who looked up to Jim Riles. His life on the Other Side had not panned out as the gilded glory he had imagined and he often felt like some sort of halfling spook, even sheltered from the full brunt of American culture by the ad hoc ghetto that was the Frontera Motel. The runt of his own brood, he got little respect from other kids who’d been around long enough to speak a little English and know about the music and dress and cool of the environment. His journey had hardened something in him and he reacted to hazing with violence, which didn’t help him get into the clique. Outside the Frontera he was just one more grubby, illiterate urchin.
Riles, however, who Pepito had spotted from the first as a fellow outsider and an initiate to the lower levels, had treated him decently—even as an equal—from the first moment they met. “Jeembo” had been his welcoming committee to the United States and always spoke to him in passing. He tossed him candy and comic books at times, gave him soft drinks. He’d handed him an open can of beer once but his Mama, responding to her maternal radar, had boiled out of the family rathole and rained all over that bit of fraternization. Riles was an old white guy, but spoke Spanish. He answered Pepito’s questions, though he had reason to wonder about many of the answers. He often mulled them over like oracular pronouncements, trying to make heads or tails out of the information.
He found it completely believable that gringos were lighter because they ate white bread instead of tortillas. His brothers agreed that gringos were richer because they knew how to walk up to walls and take money out of them: they had witnessed this. His brothers doubted that gringas were hornier because they ate hotdogs and Pepito was having a little trouble deconstructing the concept of the government of the United States being run by cartoon characters. Although he noticed them wherever he looked. And here those characters spoke English instead of Spanish, so they were obviously smarter than he was. He rejected as absurd the proposition that The Terminator governed California or that Americans visited Tijuana for a good time.
But basically he considered Jimbo a major player, a hot source, a kindred spirit, and an adult to be trusted. One of the few. He liked to hang around when Riles was lounging on a broken chaise by the fetid green pool, or sit at his door listening to him play oldies stations and curse while he worked at his computer. He was the only person Pepito knew who had a computer and knew how to use it. That alone granted him mythic powers. Riles often talked to him in English, which Pepito greatly admired and strived to live up to. He wasn’t aware that what he was hearing was often a stream of scatology and obscure puns: he picked up on the tone of voice, like any stray mutt who’s been kicked around a little.
Once Riles took him to a nearby supermarket, an almost mystical experience for the young Hondureño. It was the biggest building he’d ever been in, except for maybe a Cathedral or two. But it wasn’t dedicated to weird statues, it was overwhelmingly about food! Meter upon meter of stacks upon stacks of food. All of it new and clean and brightly packaged. Everything in stock, the vegetables fresh and crisp, the fruits gleaming. Anything you wanted—soup, soda, salt, cereal, ice-cream—there were dozens of different brands, different flavors, different pictures on the containers. For a boy used to little grungy shops and bustling markets, or more recently to the truck that came around every day to sell food to Hispanics too afraid to go to the stores, it was a wide-screen, technicolor, multi-story, orchestrated orgy of chow. Riles bought some very weird items, fortunately including an exotically delicious chocolate bar for Pepito, then didn’t even pay for it. He showed the woman a card and she actually handed him money!
Furthermore, Riles had on several occasions gotten work for his brothers, usually helping somebody move furniture or load heavy things at a swap meet. He’d even arranged for Pepito to make a few bucks pulling weeds out of a garden at the incredible house of a rich woman with white hair and beautiful clothes. She and Riles had been inside the house the whole time and when they came out they swam: the house had a stone pool with clear water like a stream! They told Pepito he could come in the water, but he declined. For all his experience as a wetback, Pepito couldn’t swim. Anyway he preferred to sit and look at the garden and house. The woman kissed him on the forehead, gave him money and cookies.
When he added it up, Pepito realized that most of the good things about living on The Other Side revolved around Jim Riles and most of what he knew about his new life came from the same source. He wanted to be more like Riles and saw him as a prophet in his own country.
Angeles abandoned her idea of vertically integrating the border-crashing industry after an interview in a sleek, sterile attorney’s office high up in those silvery towers out past the Hippodrome on the Boulevard. She had a vision of streamlining what she saw as an inefficient snarl of independent operators, like the travel industry before there were travel agencies. The way it was working, a ragtag collection of local truck owners and bus guides would round up emigrants in the poor southern provinces and provide them transportation to the border areas. Oddly, this was the least secure leg of the journey for many. Mexican cops and highway patrolmen would spot them and haul them in. It’s illegal to leave Mexico without permits. They would then “sell” the pollos to other transporters who’d sell them again to mass importers working for American agribiz.
Once at the border, these illiterate hicks would cower in some ugly, scary town like Tijuana or Reynosa, or Ciudad Juarez with its lurid history of murdered women, until they could arrange for a “jump”. Once across the line they were in another dangerous zone, where they stood out like goats in a sheep pen and were subject to being arrested and deported. The immediate border zone was like a loading dock where new supply was dumped awaiting transfer to warehouses. There was a loose network of raiteros, who’d drive them away from the border to destination cities like Los Angeles or San Antonio, or to safe houses called clavaderos because that’s the name of a henhouse, where one would expect pollos to roost.
A single firm offering “all inclusive” trips from Chiapas to Los Angeles would make a lot of money and actually save money for the pollos. And it wasn’t a matter of buying anything, building anything, or hiring anybody, just organizing the half-assed criminal flakes who were currently doing it piecemeal. Angeles had learned something from her affluent johns in Mexico Lindo: the real money and power is not in making or doing things, but in management and structuring. Her next step would be to secure “supply” from the huddled masses of the Mexican heartland. She started making her usual incisive inquiries.
And within a week found herself invited to the gleaming office, talking to two gleaming lawyers with gleaming teeth and shoes. They made it clear that they knew all about her activities and admired her, at several different levels. As a young, attractive, female pollera, she was a unique artifact of the ever-transforming frontier world, a feathered kangaroo they told their friends and colleagues in other cities about. She was doing Mexico itself a service by getting these dumb indio shitkickers over the line to start remitting money instead of being a drag on the general economy. They said all that, then called out for coffee, which turned out to be espresso in bisque cups, brought in by a stunning young woman in a mannish business suit. Then they gave her the real message she’d been waiting for.
The slicker and better-looking of the two attack lawyers, the one who seemed to have a fetish for his spaceship metal briefcase, graciously informed her that there would be no vertical integration, at least not by her. There is almost as much money in smuggling people, they told her, as in smuggling drugs. Powerful interests were moving into something sort of like what she had planned, but with their own proprietary twist. They didn’t like for it to appear that there was organization, or that there was anybody big behind it. Angeles was potentially high profile and there were enough problems in exporting Mexican labor without newspaper articles about organized wetbacking. And there was no room for anybody else setting up business in the South, selling one-low-price tickets to El Norte. She was welcome to whatever she swept up from the gutters. They hoped she’d come by again, maybe have a few drinks with them at Yuppi Sports sometime.
Angeles looked at the two mild, tailored abogados telling her what to do. She smiled at them pleasantly. She thanked them for the coffee and said she’d keep in touch. She took the elevator to the lobby and hailed a cab on the Boulevard. That, she told the uncomprehending taxista, was that. She’d done pretty well, but knew her limits. She was glad she had learned of those limits from a couple of dickhead lawyers trying to be Mexico Moderno while representing corrupt, powerful monsters, instead from the monsters themselves. She’d already seen how that worked.
Strictly low profile, she thought as the cab left the pavement to head, very reluctantly, into Grupo Bravo. Strictly local. Strictly small time. Just friends and family, she thought, and laughed bitterly. But when the taxi left she stood motionless at the cortina with her keys in her hand for a long time, not seeing the shifting slant of sun slipping up through the barrio across the river. The next day she went into downtown Tijuana and visited a bank, then a caseta+] for making long distance calls.
It took two hours to get through to the old guy at the store at the bottom of the canyon. He knew who she was but didn’t refer to the fact. He said it would take three days to deliver her messages and that he would trust her to pay him for his troubles.
Three days later the old guy called her back only an hour later than he’d specified. He had gotten the message to her cousins and they had managed to pry her older sister out of the hills under pretext of attending a dance in Jubiri del Rio, the nearest thing that could be called a town. And the nearest place to catch a bus. He had shown the girls the “giro“ Angels had wired to them, an amount of money that made them blink. He’d read them the message from Angeles that he’d copied down and read back to her word for word. Then he asked them for the hundred pesos she’d promised him.
The note made two references that made it clear that it was from their sister and cousin Maria de los Angeles, now a well-to-do widow in Tijuana, apparently. They could cash the giro at the bus station and immediately buy tickets on the next bus North. There was a kicker, though. Don’t go home, don’t tell anybody where you’re going. Just get on the bus and head for Tijuana. The girls were flabbergasted, terrified, exhilarated. They jabbered about the racing excitement of a life beyond the hills where any young man not working narcotics had left for the U.S. as soon as he could. They whispered darkly of the traps and horrors of the border, especially for young women. Especially for naïve young country women who didn’t look too shabby when cleaned up, and who, let’s face it, ’manas were pretty desirable dishes. They argued the move hotly, but the whole debate took place on the way to the bus station in the flats below. They wondered how Mari had taken to married life and how she was bearing up under young widowhood.
The bus trip was the defining experience of the Sinaloa girls’ young lives. Even Maria del Rosario, Mari’s twenty year old sister, had never been further downriver than Jubiri and the cousins, who lived up another no-exit canyon almost as remote as the Portola spread, hadn’t even been that far before. They didn’t go to school, they went to mass at the country store three times a year. Now they were going thousands of miles beyond that, the bus rolling through hallucinatory desert by day, dark fantasies at night. Past hundreds of cars, thousands of houses, uncountable people, people, people. The girls shrank as the bus rolled, becoming a smaller and smaller part of what they were beginning to see was a bigger and less intimate world than they had ever imagined.
By the time they stepped gingerly down from the bus into the enormous, echoing, sinister Tijuana station, the Sinaloa girls were completely cowed. One scary look would have panicked them back up into the bus. And they were getting looks that were pretty close to invitations to bolt. They stood together, touching each other, as the bus unloaded, staring around at a big, grimy world that seemed at the same time threatening and indifferent. They looked at the people milling in the terminal. Gringos with bright-colored packs. They had never seen a foreigner before. One foreigner was a Negro: nor some swarthy guy from Guerero, a real one, like the rappers and basketball negros. There were short black people from Guerrero, tall laughing girls from Veracruz, Chinese (real Chinos!) and every kind of bizarre clothing. The girls stood motionless, a tense Three Graces parting the streams of people moving around the wide world. Three separate men had taken notice and moved towards them.
Alone in the alien terminal, they were abandoned in space and time: dumped into a new geography, a new century. They were frightened, felt menaced by predators, had to pee. Which is when Maria de los Angeles strode purposefully back into their lives. Miraculously reborn as a tall, glamorous sophisticate with expensive clothes, hair straight off the tele screen, and artful make-up that framed those same sentinel eyes with the face of a movie star; she emerged from the swarming mob and waved at them. The girls only avoided falling over in their tracks by pressing towards her, squealing. The aloof poise fell away and Mari embraced them, teasing them like the old days. They hugged and danced up and down, frantic with pleasure and relief. Then Mari, currently Angeles, took each one of them by the cheeks and gently kissed their foreheads. Like a mother picking up her kids from a trip out of town.
The predators that had sighted in on them had moved on, except for one that Angeles recognized as a recruiting pimp, even if the girls didn’t. She stared at him a moment. He stared also, taken aback but on his mettle. Some rich bitch facing him right here in the camionera, wey? He stood in front of the group as they walked out of the bus bays into the chaos of the main salon. But before the group of girls had to do something to either avoid or deal with him, a friend dragged him aside. Are you loco? That’s Angeles, man. Don’t fuck up. The girls were mightily impressed, and at that point completely under her wing. She led them out into the sunlight and a waiting taxi.
Pepito, draped in an overly large T-shirt displaying a botched picture of Guns’n’Roses, stood at the end of the Imperial Beach pier, stretching on his tiptoes to peer through the brass, coin-operated telescope. He scanned the West resolutely, methodically. He wasn’t distracted by the copper/violet prelude to sunset nor by the Filipinos casting lines for bottom fish and grapples for the mussels on the pilings. He didn’t pay any attention to the low-riders and cholos smoking up in clumps behind the baithouse. Or his parents’ impressions of the Pacific Ocean or his sisters giggling around the oily flirtatiousness of the crazy old gringo they all called “Jeembo”. He was searching just to be sure. When the quarter ran out and the ocean clicked into flat black, he stuck his head between the slats of the guard rail and did a wide-angle scan. He was absorbed by the view. This was an expanse of water beyond even his experience. What would it take to cross it? What realms of wealth and wonder would lie beyond it?
Then he saw something that riveted his eye: a gigantic boat heading out to sea, backlit in a blaze of gold as it cleared the shadow of Point Loma and steamed out into the sun. He stared, then ran to Riles, holding out his hand for another quarter. Riles, a fount of all blessings in front of the girls, dropped a coin in his hand and scuffed his burrhead. Pepito dashed back to look at the ship. The scope showed him men on the deck, tiny points of white. Even the huge boat of the Belizean fishermen could have been hauled aboard this monster and hung like the lifeboats. More incredible, there were airplanes on the ship! Pepito stared until the quarter expired, then ran back to Riles, who had treated the family to this beach outing for reasons probably completely altruistic and charitable.
“Where is that boat going?” he demanded, tugging at his trouser legs urgently.
Riles turned his attention from the Honduran jailbait and squatted down to Pepito’s level, smiling like a kindly uncle. “Out into the ocean, on a patrol.”
Pepito digested that a minute. On patrol like police? “Why?”
“It’s a warship, Pepe.” One of the things that endeared Riles to Pepito was that he never addressed him in diminutives. He talked to him like another adult. He thought this was a special recognition by this obviously sage gringo, not realizing that it was simply because Riles had no idea how to deal with children. “Those are war planes. Fighters. Cazadores you know? Top Gun.”
That gave Pepito a lot more to think about later, but meanwhile… “Will they go fight against Mexico?”
“No, we already lost that one. It’s going to Asia, probably.” That drew a blank so Riles tried again. “To China. They’re taking those planes to scare the Chinese.”
“China.” Pepito looked back at the ship, which he now saw as laden with screaming demons of death. He’d seen the movies on television. He’d seen the Chinese planes destroying ships in Hawaii, and how they’d gotten what they had coming for that stupid stunt. He looked at Riles, aware that he was losing his attention. “The same China you told me about?”
“There’s only one China, mi chavo. Even Taiwan signed off on that one.”
As usual, Pepito gleaned a skiff of information off the top of the mostly inexplicable murk of Jimbo’s utterances. What was obvious was that he was talking about the same China that he’d mentioned weeks before, as they sat on a broken couch by the green pool. It gave Pepito a flush of affection for the huge ship, a common cause. It also explained a lot about his current state of misery and despair.
Because the last six months had been far from the honey-dripped life he had anticipated once his family had slogged across enough water. Things had been all right at first: his uncle got his father and two of his brothers work in a huge plant that silk-screened designs onto T-shirts. There had been money for tasty foods, new clothes (in addition to the mounds of blemished T-shirts they all wore) even for luxuries like the used television and a GameBoy. His mother made tamales that his sisters sold around the Frontera and surrounding neighborhoods. Life really was good on this side, and they were just getting started.
Then the screen shop closed. So did the plant where Juanes had been assembling nylon ropes for water-skiing. Worse, it seemed that lots of other plants were closing and not only were the Camponetas unemployed, but many others around them, so they sold less gorditas and tamales to the neighbors. Uncle Teo couldn’t help them. The older males went to stand all day at certain intersections and parking lots where people came to look for workers, but they didn’t look as big and strong as many of the other men from Mexico and Guatemala, and their skins were darker. The family was plunged back into economic insecurity, the search for work and money taking up much of their time. They cut back their already thin standard of living. It was actually more painful, Pepito realized, to be poor over here where others had so much. He became very interested in why there was no money, why there were no jobs here in the golden lands.
“Jimbo” Riles was not only the sole Anglo adult he knew, he was virtually the only person he talked to outside of his family. He didn’t go to school, as much because they needed the money he made scrounging up aluminum cans and returnable plastic bottles as because of the paperwork and various traps that schools entailed. The other kids at the Frontera were Mexicans, who spoke odd Spanish and made fun of him for not being Mexican and for being so negro. He saw Riles as a very wise and wily old guy and asked him to explain things. Which Riles, when not in one of his collection of weird moods, was glad to do. For various reasons, he also found it hard to get up a decent conversation around the building and was often too bombed to go anywhere else. He rather liked Pepito’s earnest, uncritical discussions and saw him as an angle for ingratiating himself to the plump, dark sisters.
So he’d sat and heard about maquilas+] in Mexico and sweatshops at the border getting “offshored”. He asked what that meant and heard the world “overseas”. He’d always thought of “ultramarino” as meaning imported goods, but now was getting an image of people who didn’t have to undertake the harrowing crossings his family had endured. They sat home on their lazy, cowardly asses and the jobs were sent across the seas to them—including the jobs that his family had relied upon. This seemed so craven, unfair, and dastardly that it took him awhile to really wrap his head around it. And where did these arriviste scumbags live? Where, specifically, had all the jobs been sent? Riles had shrugged westward and said, “China.”
So Pepito Camponeta was all in favor of those men in white suits sailing across the ocean and shooting up as many Chinos as they could set their sights on. But would that really help? He looked at the deepening purple of the Pacific, the golden glow now shrinking towards the Western horizon. This was water beyond his imagination, he could tell that. The very fact that it required such large boats was a major clue. The more he looked, the smaller and weaker he felt. How could he cross this expanse of depth and darkness to get to the light? The sense of despair and betrayal that had been building in him for months came down on his skinny shoulders as he watched the carrier’s wake basting golden stitches across the indigo sea. He sensed Riles behind him, dropping a quarter in the telescope for the benefit of his sister Anibel.
He turned to Riles, but extended his arm to point to the horizon. “That’s where ‘overseas’ is? Where China is?”
Riles nodded, intent on Anibel’s rump as she bent to the telescope’s eyepiece. He watched the girl as she swung the scope around, motioned for Juanes to come take a look. Juanes refused with a tense shake of her head. She stayed away from men as much as she could. Shame, too. She just needed a little male attention to loosen her up a little, Riles figured. He glanced down at Pepito and burst into laughter.
The little guy had dropped his pants and thrust his penis through the rail. His face was hard as he urinated off the pier towards the gilded horizon and everything that lay beyond it. The Chicano delinquents toking crack and mota+] in the sunset saw his defiant piss at the sea and joined Riles in laughing. It didn’t faze Pepito. He kept pissing on China until his mother spotted him and ran over to snatch him up and slap him silly. She glared at Riles and the cholos as she dragged Pepito away from the rail. As she whisked him past the bait shack towards shore, they saluted him with beer bottles and approving finger signals. Pepito ignored the cuffs and indignities, but smiled at the barrio dudes. He liked their tough clothing, their patina of tattoos. These guys didn’t take shit from mamas or gringos or Chinos. They pissed on the world and got away with it. And they thought he was cool. Bring it on, Pepito thought, wide and deep. I can handle it.
The girls were delighted with the Grupo Bravo house and started feminizing it at once. The spartan space exploded into giggles, new fabric, radio music, and cooking smells. Each upstairs room had a new single mattress with nice new sheets, a stack of plastic drawers, a chair and student desk, and a cheap full-length mirror. There was a giddy week of long meals, tours of the city, and recounting of diverse histories—Angeles’ highly revised and scrubbed up. When the girls started looking around, wondering what they were to do next, Angeles brought them in on her new program. The first part was learning to read and write.
She had books and cassettes for them, and a retired teacher dropped by three afternoons a week to help out. The girls complained at having to listen to lessons and “Ingles Sin Barerras” instead of idiot pop idols and cowboy accordions, but they didn’t mean it. This made it clear to them that there was a plan, that Angeles was looking out for them. That their lives were pointed in some direction instead of seeping away into the sparse soil of the Sierra. Angeles made it clear that they’d better be able to read a newspaper by the Easter holidays. And within a year speak English well enough to watch Mel Gibson movies with the subtitles turned off. And this: no men in the house. There was a patio for that, including an outside toilet stall and washstand that the workmen used. No men in the house.
The Sinaloa girls—her sister Maria del Rosario and two teen-aged cousins named Yessinia and Jazmin—were as fit and wiry as Mari, capable of hard physical work and walking for hours through rough terrain. Sinaloa isn’t Spanish for “rough terrain”, but it could have been. And beneath their country reserve and timidity, they shared something of Angeles’ adventurous nature. Or they wouldn’t have gotten on that bus to Tijuana to go see some relative they barely knew any more. They were part of her new organization plan. They would all three become apprentice polleras.
She took the girls on runs with her, showing them the routes, the waits, the geo-political topography of the border. They picked it up even quicker than she had, because she’d been learning whereas they were being taught. But it wasn’t Angeles’ plan to set her teen-aged relatives—for whom she was building a deep fondness—out on the night paths by themselves. What she wanted more were lieutenants who could take the pollos to the field, stick with the polleros, and control the money. This enabled her to cash in on chickens whose payment awaited on the other side, the most lucrative clientele. When she thought the girls were ready she took them on runs with polleros, letting them state the deal and handle the money. Then she started sending them out on their own.
But on sixteen year-old Jazmin’s first solo run, the pollero intimidated her and snatched the money. [_ ]He was careful not to insult or outrage the girl: he knew all about Bernal and about Angeles’ cold-eyed fury. But he took the money himself and pocketed it, told the distraught Jazmin that he’d square things up later. She was at the point of tears as he tucked the money into his pocket. He turned away from her just as Angeles stepped out from behind the ruined farm shed where the _pollos had been stashed while awaiting guidance, slipped past Jazmin, and swung a rusty old shovel off her shoulder. She took a powerful cut that hit the pollero across the middle of his back and knocked him right off his feet. She handed Jazmin the shovel and said, “Tell the guy never to fuck you around ever again.” She told him in exactly those words, but Angeles wasn’t hearing the rock-bottom conviction that wins hearts and minds.
“Do you think he understands?” she said.
Jazmin examined the pollero, who was on his knees, taking deep, ragged breaths. “I’m not so sure.”
“Then make sure.”
Jazmin swatted the guy a second time, but not that hard. Like a girl. Angeles shook her head. “Make sure.”
Jazmin gave the guy another swat then, suddenly furious at having been dominated so easily, swung the shovel up over her head to deliver a solid shot in the ribs that made the guy scream. Angeles said, “The money?”
Jazmin lifted the shovel again, said, “The money.”
The guy was having trouble moving, but managed to get the money out of his pocket and cough up. Jazmin bent to take the bills.
“How’d that feel?” Angeles asked.
Jazmin grinned. “Fantastic.”
“You don’t have to take any shit off them,” Angeles told her in the tones of a patient teacher. “They’re only people, like us. Just without cute titties.”
The girls came to be accepted as Angeles’ hands and eyes, known to be hooked in with means of punishing those who messed up. One pollero, drunk on the job, lost his temper and slapped MariRosa. He didn’t work again for two months, traceable to a visit not only from a grim Bernal, but also Angeles at the top of her avenging angel form. The guy considered himself damned lucky to be alive. When he could get around well enough to handle the hikes through the canyons he came to Angeles and MariRosa and apologized, asked to work with them again. He had realized that not working for Angeles was getting to be the same as not working at all. She was scooping up every pollo on the frontier. The Sinaloa girls were also working as barkers, threading through the Zona to pay out commissions and pick up leads. MariRosa graciously accepted the apology and welcomed the erring pollero back into the fold. Behind her he saw Angeles’ big eyes on him with a message needless to speak aloud: Screw up again and your ass is out, but good.
Ado’s follow-up to “The Migra Show” was “La Pollera Brava”,+] a rave about La Flaca as shamelessly heroic as any song about a flamboyant drug lord. He’d compiled it from snatches of gossip about the dashing, shapely border-jumper and embroidered it with wry commentary. It was eventually covered by Los Tigres del Norte, the top of the heap in border corrido artists, and brought Ado some serious royalties. He even played on stage with the Tigres during a show in Tijuana two years later: one of the high points of his entire life and probably the ultimate musical garland any street performer in Mexico ever achieved.
There was even talk of basing a motion picture on it, along the lines of other megahits puffed up from border songs, like “Lola La Trailera” and “La Camioneta Gris”. Just talk, but it was pretty serious talk. But that came later, months after Ado released his latest six song cassette. The stupefying commission that had saved his son’s life had come with a restriction. The guayinos song wouldn’t be aired for the public for nine weeks, on a set date. In the meantime, Ado decided to write some more songs to accompany it, release a whole album like the major artists did. He would include “[_La Pollera”, _] which he saw as a sequel to the popular piece about the drive-in fiasco. He had a few other ideas, too.
When the stipulated release date finally arrived, Ado started doing the guayino number on almost every trip, and the sales of his mini-album were startling. What was even more surprising was that the new songs started getting radio airplay immediately. Mostly the taxi song, but also plenty of air time for his musical tribute to La Flaca. Street musicians popping on to the radio was bizarre and unheard of. Maybe down south, but not in a big city like this, where listening tastes had been molded by the slick border style and California stations all over the dial. Ado was a little insecure about the sudden deference and naked envy other bus buskers turned on him. They all wanted to know how he’d done it (each of them fundamentally convinced that they were better at this game than Ado was) and telling them that he had no idea how the songs hit the airwaves did little to mollify their envy. How could he not know? Ado was subtly moved into a sub-genre among the bus performers. People had been observed passing on a departing bus and waiting ten minutes to be on the one where Ado was appearing live.
But meanwhile, the six-song cassette he’d called “Corridos En Transito” was a smash, possibly the best-selling self-distributed cassette in Latin America. Ado lost count of how many he’d hastily duplicated. He was even wholesaling them to music stores. And the radio just ate it up. The guayino piece got the most play, but most people liked the two cuts about Flaca better. That didn’t keep “El Corrido del Guayino” from having major impact. It was mentioned in newspaper articles calling for reform, gruelingly commented upon by all those stiff-faced journalists and cultural flacks that speak on the television discussion programs, mentioned on posters of protest in front of public buildings. It was a social upheaval all in itself.
One song that got no radio attention at all was “La Guia” a heartfelt homage to Doña Doralicia. His wife had insisted he write it: not only as a propina+] to her for the salvation of their son, which she firmly believed bore the curandera’s hand, but also for the deluge of money and success that had come in the wake of that miracle. Ado agreed with her, as he almost always did, and composed one of the more unusual border corridos ever written. He cleverly compared her to a pollero, guiding travelers across a difficult, scary frontier into the world of spirits, causes, and circumstance.
Some say that nobody can change human fate
And that we are bound by our own destiny of birth and flesh
But who would say these things cannot be known?
And to know what lies ahead is why you seek a guide
The result was a flood of business for Doña Dora, not entirely welcome. And a song that bus passengers frequently requested. Ado started to see the song as something on the order of a Buddhist prayer wheel, that spun out blessings the more often it went around. One thing was not in doubt: every day that he sang the song his blessings increased. Whatever one’s persuasion, Ado often said, it’s hard to argue with the truth.
Own your own home, work with your own family, know your limitations. These were ancient business lessons that Angeles placed alongside more modern tips she had garnered from Mexico Lindo clients and her own investigations. But her next move into horizontal integration came from a lesson she picked up from observing the maquiladoras. Tijuana is the third largest city in Mexico, and among the largest generators of money. Incredible for a town that is located where there is absolutely no natural resource, advantage, or other reason for it to exist. It’s even less probable than Phoenix… except that it’s on an imaginary line arbitrarily drawn by a mapping committee so unimaginative that they drew a straight line that crisscrossed, rather than following, rivers and natural divides. So prosaic that it named two newly created border cities Mexicali and Calexico. Tijuana came into being as a border node, and prospered over the years by exploiting the difference in legality between the two sides. There is almost no aspect of Tijuana’s infrastructure that doesn’t owe itself to charging toll for osmotic movement created by United States law.
During the Prohibition, they came to Tijuana to drink: many Americans have the impression that Tequila was invented there. The Margarita actually was. Probably. Those too young to drink in California still flock there. Before Las Vegas—and the idiotic post-revolutionary ban—the rich and famous came to TJ to gamble. People come for prostitution: in San Diego it’s illegal for a naked dancer to come within five feet of a client and they mark it right off on the floor. In Tijuana people have sex right at, or under tables. You can buy drugs in Tijuana that are restricted in the States, buy switchblades and fireworks, drive motorcycles on the beach, have sex changes without any questions asked, pursue unorthodox cures for cancer, purchase pirated music and films. But one of the biggest windfalls for the area was the creation of maquila zones where foreign goods can be assembled and shipped into the States without origin duties.
There are areas where blank streets are lined with windowless factories the size of airplane hangers, sitting like blocks of baker’s chocolate with big names on their facades: Sony, Mitsubishi, Sanyo, Sego, Yamaha. They hire thousands of workers to assemble everything from calculators to motorcycle exhaust pipes to pre-silkscreened T-shirt panels. And they hire only women.
When Angeles asked why, she got the answer that she and everybody else already knew before they asked: the Mexican male work ethic sucks. The men drink, they fight, they ditch their family and move somewhere else on the spur of a moment, drink or fight. There’s a factor to be considered in Mexican labor called “San Lunes”. “St. Monday” is a national holiday because the guys don’t come in, commemorating hangovers earned by drinking and watching soccer matches on Sunday. The women don’t present these problems. They show up, do the work without making any trouble, and take their check home to their kids. And, of course, to their husbands’ drinking, drugging and gambling needs.
Angeles thought about this awhile then paid a call on Chago’s wife Ezdoboza, a short squat woman of unmistakable Mixtecan heritage that Chago knocked up for some reason. She worked in a maquiladora to support a family whose nominal head collected thousands of dollars a week. A fat, prematurely aged squaw with whining brats hanging on her ragged skirts, she didn’t know what to make of Angeles, as she cleared clutter to make room for the tall, slim, glamorous prostitute to sit down without dirtying her elegant dress. By the time they’d drunk two of the beers Angeles sent one of the kids out for, and eaten a few of Ezdoboza’s molé tacos, they were the nucleus of a sisterhood.
Polleros didn’t go out of their way to introduce their wives, and there was no Wetback Guides’ Ladies’ Auxiliary. But all of Angeles’ string lived in the small, cruddy confines of Colonia Crucero, so they knew each other. And they all knew Yadira, wife of smuggler Hebán “Bambo” Gomez. They envied her because she was the only one of them who ever had any money. She had inserted herself in Bambo’s business and got the money up front. When Angeles asked why Bambo went along with this, Ezdoboza and a small circle of her friends that had gathered to listen to Angeles all shrugged: He’s a wimp, I guess. Not so much of a man.
Angeles clued them in on why their husbands had been making all that extra money lately, news to most of the wives. That’s right, hermanas, a woman has been setting them up with clients. And collecting the money. But what I want is for you to collect the money. It wasn’t an easy sell to a bunch of docile, abnega+] Mexican women, but Angeles was able to set up a ring whereby she referred clients to a restaurant in Crucero, where one of the wives’ group would talk to them, settle them down, get information on payoffs due upon delivery… and collect. They could easily call families and employers to verify payment because Angeles had given them a couple of cellular phones with San Diego and Los Angeles numbers. Crucero perches right over the border at a height, line of sight to cell towers, but nobody had ever thought to use California phones in Crucero before. The wives were getting a lot of respect for Angeles’ smarts as well as her blatant lack of fear of men.
The new ring, with its confiscatory economic policies, created a boom in life-style for pollero brats. Overnight, families blossomed into nice clothes from Sorianos and Pasitos, previously grubby urchins were in private schools, houses were painted and de-loused, diets improved. There were rumors of exotic lingerie in the barrio. The women were much happier with this situation than the men were. But whatever they said, they found it easier to take referrals from Angeles’ machine than to hunt for themselves like they used to. They were working more, which kept them out of the house, anyway. If they tried to break off from the ring, their wives nagged them bitterly. Which led to some hard feelings.
Angeles had suggested to the women from the start that they be generous with the money they collected. They would stash it somewhere while their hubbies were crawling over the border, but when they returned immediately give them enough to go get drunk at the Cuernos or Dichosa. Much cheaper, Angeles pointed out, than having them roaring around Los Angeles with loose change in their hands. But gradually she was moving toward more control of the pollo money by the wives. She had not become a great believer in husbands. Those hard feelings cropped up when men demanded money and refused to be denied. This led to a certain amount of black eyes that the women had known to expect. But they got the same treatment when the men weren’t working, so they toughed it out. Because things were different now.
The first wife that called Angeles about being shaken down—actually beaten into giving up the money, then sodomized for having threatened to hold out sexually if he took the cash from its hiding place, but she didn’t get into all that—heard the word: within forty-eight hours. Actually it took less than twenty for her husband to stagger out of La Dichosa with some of his buddies and find himself confronted by a big cop sitting sideways on a motorcycle. Bernal ignored the buddies, just walked up to the husband, a hapless fool from Ensenada named Carlos Esteves, and punched him right off his feet without preamble. He wordlessly kicked Carlos around the scummy sidewalk while his cuates gaped. The first one that made a move got his lights turned out so quick he never saw it coming. Bernal had boxed for a few years, and was a punishing defensive end on an American-style football team in school.
Bernal never mentioned the problem that had come to his attention, but the word got around. Don’t beat up your wives. Or rob them. Once realization dawned, there was a certain amount of backlash against the Angeles regime. She handled that by calling a meeting of all her polleros on the Crucero soccer field, staging area for many an incursion. She drove up in a late model Ford SUV with California plates, and stepped out in her headband, boots, and leather jacket. She leaned against the car casually, hands in her jacket pocket and wide-brimmed hat on the back of her head, and said she’d heard there were questions about the obvious advantages of not impoverishing families and hurting women.
The polleros snuck looks into the SUV to make sure there was no hidden squad of pro-femme SWAT cops in the back, and voiced their displeasure. Angeles said money was negotiable, but she would only pay the wives and would not tolerate any mistreatment of the women she gave it to. Punta final.
Nobody liked that much, but it was the one she’d known it would be who walked up and confronted her, a scumbag named Heraclio with a nasty drug habit. Any given drug. Tried to bully her, actually. Who the hell was she, anyway? Was she always going to have her pet cop around? What was to keep him from just grabbing her right now, bitch-slapping her, and giving her a good solid fucking while he was at it?
Angeles entertained those questions, then told him that she doubted he’d ever given anybody a good fucking in his life and it would be pretty hard to slap her around with his arm in that sling. Heraclio laughed out loud, and the men behind him backed it up. He spread his arms wide and stepped so close she could smell his breath, not a recommended experience. What fucking sling, bitch? Angeles had her hand on the Ladysmith before he even moved. She pulled it out smoothly, shot Heraclio through his upper left arm, and re-pocketed the pistol so fast most of the polleros never even saw it. It was like a lightning bolt had smitten down Heraclio, thus refuting his propositions. Angeles snapped her fingers and ordered Carlos Esteves to put some pressure on the wound so the dickhead didn’t bleed to death. She was obeyed immediately.
She told the gaping Heraclio, between whimpers, that a sling would be the best way to deal with this thing, and some codeine wouldn’t hurt. She pulled a bottle of pills and a sterile battle dressing from her other pocket and tossed them to Carlos. That was probably a bigger sign to the men than the pistol shot. This morra was in control. She thought things through and had things dealt with that hadn’t even happened yet. And she didn’t seem to be somebody you should cross. Besides, she paid. Angeles had recalled an important tenet of the narco business plan: Plata o plomo. Heraclio turned out to be the only pollero to require a helping of each.
Heraclio’s recovery after treatment for the gunshot—which he told doctors at the Social Security hospital had been the result of a freak drive-by shooting from parties unknown, probably narcos—was made more bearable by regular payments to his wife from something nobody had known about until the time came. Angeles and the wives had been holding back a percentage of the take from running pollos, creating a slush fund for use in emergencies like hubbies being injured or jailed. The wives heartily approved of this Antisocial Security Fund, increasing their bond with Angeles. The fund moved into other applications in time: Angeles had reinvented the credit union.
Prosperity continued and portions of Crucero gentrified. Rooms were added on. Mothers-in-law imported from the south. Freezers and even washing machines were seen. Bambo Gomez moved across the border, renting a little house out towards Barrio Lobo with a garage that could be used to stash mojados once they were across. He started handling raitero work and made runs to the big cities. Yadira filled the post that Angeles had greatly wanted to install: she was the collector on the North end of the pipeline. Families and businesses that wanted to pay for crossings paid Yadira and she funneled the money back to the Wives’ Club. Angeles kept an eye on the whole thing, backed by Sergeant Bernal and her jolly Sinaloa girl mafia. She was learning a lot about the workings of prosperity and community.
Ado’s lyrical tribute to the miraculous interventions of Doña Doralicia was never heard on the radio, but it was appreciated by a highly select audience. A listener with a view, so to speak, since he lounged on the top floor of the sleek towers above the Tijuana country club. It was a severe, minimalist office, a style almost Japanese in its simplicity and somber rebuke of laxness or unfocus. But even the expensive decorator had been forced to accommodate people on leather sofas instead of grass mats or raked pebbles or whatever he might have had in mind. The office was screened for feng shui compliance as well as a great many other possible intrusions. Davíd Otero, lounging elegantly on one sofa, fit right in, as did his sleek metal briefcase. He was listening to Ado’s song about Doña Dora and laughing much more heartily than he usually did.
The owner of the office was a study in expensive foreign minimalism himself. His unobtrusively lush suit could have been tailored in Hong Kong, Tokyo or London. And that’s the main statement it made. As powerful millionaires go, Don Aquiles Altamira de las Ronches was fairly anonymous and faceless in Tijuana. He was scion of a notorious family, dispatched to man this lucrative outpost of their Mexico City manufacturing and political empire, but he himself had little reputation. That would change very soon, and Don Altamira was polishing every tiny cog of the gears that would drive that change. Average-looking and healthy at forty two, he was ready to make his move for leadership of his region, his political party (and the drug cartels associated with it), his government, and even his family. And right now his main attorney was laughing at him.
He had to smile, himself, as he listened to this sincere hick going on about the powers of a modern witch for the urban unwashed. One thing you saw around Tijuana was that Mexico could get richer and slicker, but it was always a vessel bobbing on a sea of superstitious Indian peasants. He refrained from smirking as he heard how she divined and seduced the higher powers to change and even save lives.
Otero didn’t refrain at all. As the song ended, he controlled his laughter enough to tell his boss, “It’s not only touching, you should secure the tape as evidence that you’re on the side of the angels.”
“I make no claims to supernatural origin,” Altamira said. “Although I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think of me as a ‘higher power’.”
“Who answered a simple man’s prayers.” Otero did a fawning turn that Altamira thought was pretty good. “Snatched his kid back from beyond the ultimate veil. You should think about commissioning a shrine.”
“I did. You just listened to it.”
“Would you accept a sainthood? Or would that be a demotion?”
“God moves in mysterious ways.”
“How true. What’s mysterious to me is why you moved so complexly on this one. You could have just paid that indio to write as many songs as you wanted. Without all the mumbo-jumbo of doctors and clinics and such.”
“But that would have been a job. This way it’s what you’re hearing: a holy offering. Totally heartfelt and genuine. That comes through on the tape, but even more so ‘live’ on the buses.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Riding that rattletrap to contact him was a real experience. I wouldn’t do it again just to hear how much he adores you.”
“What he adores is serving social justice and protecting people. Campaign rhetoric phrases like that. And look what it’s done for the economy already. Those doctors at IMSS get a little extra for their valuable work…”
“Sure. They can screw their nurses on hotel sheets instead of gurneys for awhile.”
Altamira gave the pained look he turned on vulgarity. Otero knew it meant he enjoyed it. The deadpan look was the one that meant he didn’t. “And Robles picks up a few thousand dollars to further his crusade against cancer. Imagine the places it will trickle down.”
Otero laughed. “Well, he won’t spend it on women, that’s for sure. The way I hear it he doesn’t even get it up for women who don’t have cancer. Or think they do.”
“Is there a difference between suffering from cancer and thinking you are?”
“Not in the case of that troubadour’s kid.”
“So you see.”
“Ah, yes master. As always, your wisdom is sublime. What I don’t understand—and the only reason I’m asking is so I will comprehend the workings of your mind—is why I was involved. Going down there talking to a street guy when you have so many possible approaches available.”
“That one’s easy. And it leads up to what we’re going to be discussing tomorrow with Guille.”
“With Guille? You mean this tape was a campaign thing? Are you courting the witch vote?”
“I haven’t shared much of this with any of you so far, but a main issue of the entire campaign will be transportation. Public transportation is one of the most powerful processes that actually lets a city be a city. It’s going to transport us, so to speak, into the Palacio.”
“So you’re going to be the Taxista Mayor? “
Altamira stood and walked over to the full-length windows looking down on the Boulevard and border, the sprawl of Tijuana out along the Zona Rio. “It’s going to be the wedge. You’ll see. The first step was undercutting those old taxis. Within a few weeks there will be a public feeling against them. And I will announce my campaign with a solution to the problem. And to the bus routes. And plans for a new border crossing, which the government over there will reject, making me look visionary to the average citizen of the class that rides buses and colectivos.”
“Chingada madre, you amaze me again. But why deal with him from such a high level? Especially since he doesn’t even know who we are.”
“That’s not what’s important. What’s important is what I told you. That it came from me. Nobody else knows about it. Nobody below the level we represent right here. It’s too political to delegate.”
“Beyond political. You’ve crossed over into the mythical.”
“Politics is more about myths than any other one thing.”
“Bueno, as long as you can keep them separated out.”
“Al contrario, I plan on fusing them together seamlessly.”
Otero laughed in delight, shaking his head. “You’re overqualified for Tijuana Mayor.”
“It’s a beginning.”
“Beginning a political career at forty. A step down for you, really. You’re in total control of this region. Your family controls the PRI, has the senate wrapped up. You take in millions a year on drugs alone. Why condescend to be Mayor?”
Altamira smiled in what Otero thought of as his “We Are Amused” mode. He said, “Try to understand it terms of mid-life crisis.”
Otero laughed again. “I thought only gringos had those.”
Altamira pointed out the window. “Step up there and see if you can feel it. Standing on the bridge of a ship plowing North into the First World. Soon the most humble Mexican will be able to have crises and ulcers and junkie children in college.”
“I can hardly wait. But that reminds me. Do you want to acquire that property across from Grupo Bravo? I’m talking to that Gaspar character this afternoon, and his lawyer.”
“Yes, we could use that place. And please be polite. He’s useful.”
“He an ignorant thug who got some power through sheer brutality.”
“Power on the other side of the border, Licenciado.” Altamira turned away from the window and walked towards his desk, a long, low affair of polished Yucatan hardwood that held several austere black electronic devices, but no paper of any kind. “Could you send Srta. Basto in as you leave, please.?”
Responding smoothly to the dismissal, Otero picked up his briefcase and moved to the door. “Basto. Is that Carmelina?”
“Yes. I enjoyed the tape, by the way. You know, that Ado has a certain something, after all. I can’t put my finger on it. Faith, conviction…”
“He’s real. There’s no point buying anything that’s not real.”
Angeles no longer worked as a prostitute at all, though she kept up enough presence in the Zona and Patudos to stay in touch, and retain her general mystique of desirability and mystery. She realized that she didn’t really need to work the border herself any more. She could do fine as chief executive of the unique co-op she had founded. But she liked traipsing the canyons and swamps at night, sneaking into cars and running past checkpoints. She liked keeping close to the action. And besides, she told the chuckling MariRosa and Yessinia, the exercise helps me keep trim in spite of all that fattening hillbilly food you chowhounds are always loading onto the table.
And she was right: the running, the crawling, the scrambling, even the adrenaline rush of urban theft, all helped her maintain the lithe, whippy figure that had led to the border scum to give her a [nombre de guerra. _] Everybody in Mexican crime works under some sobriquet or another: the highest gangsters, labor thugs and _cartelistas have names as silly as Breslin Mafioso and the flakiest streetcorner dealer or “ant burglar” is always called something, usually relating to his appearance or mannerisms. So she was the Skinny Chick, Slim: she was La Flaca. The border buzzed with the name.
There are almost no women in the pollo trade, especially not working the brinco itself. And whatever other polleras there might have been lacked her looks, build, attitude and general star quality. She was exactly the sort of person other people talk about, and polleros are as dedicated gossips as any other criminals. Did you hear what The Skinny One pulled off the other night? I personally saw Slim being chased by a horse cop, then she does this fancy juke and the Migra ends up piling into this huge biznaga+] bush. That Flaca has big balls for a bitch. You’re trying to bring your wife up to join you in Fresno? You should talk to La Flaca. You want somebody to lead you past the worst spots, creep under the mud to disarm those damn sensors, hold her water when the “Migra” gallops overhead on horseback, drive through the checkpoint on two wheels, dodge bullets, fight off rapists and robbers in the ravines? La Flaca is the name to count on. She had come into her own completely, dominated her field. She was La Flaca, the Angel of the Border. And she was about to discover that she was more than all that: she was famous.
Jazzi and MariRosa were cooking dinner the first time they heard it, coming in on a half million watts from the La Poderosa antenna just across the reservoir from their house in Grupo Bravo. They stared at each other for a second, stunned, then started whooping and whinnying with laughter. Yessinia ran in to see what they were going out of their minds over, just in time to hear the fourth verse:
The Migra can’t believe she’s female, because she’s got such stones
But it’s pretty obvious to anyone who cares to take a look
She knows how to use those boots of hers, but I just have to say
She also knows a thing or two about how to wear tight jeans.
All three girls went into full body spasms of laughter at that, hooting so loud they couldn’t hear the next verse. Then Angeles came in from the patio, and one look at her was enough to send them reeling against the furniture and lying on the floor to kick their feet and howl themselves hoarse. Angeles stood tapping her toe, hiding her smile at the exuberance of “her girls”. They pointed to the radio, speechless, and she turned it up a little. Just in time to hear the fifth verse:
That fat Migra horseman thought he could ride her down
But she’s a twisty as a coyote on those canyon trails
So he ended up thrown into the thorns of a biznaga
While La Flaca led her chickens to roost on the other side.
The face Angeles turned to the girls blasted them into even more violent volleys of laughter. Jazmin was holding her sides, MariRosa was thrashing her head, tossing aside tears, Yessinia just oscillated and banged her fists on the floor. Angeles stared at the radio in shock. How had some singer heard about her finessing that border cavalryman into the biznaga patch? How did he know any of this stuff? Her thoughts hit a sudden speed bump: did they know who she was? Certain people seemed to know enough to call her into offices. What would this do to her business? If she was going to be famous, she’d rather do it anonymously.
The girls swarmed all over her, howling with laughter and ragging her around like puppies. For the rest of the day and half of the night they couldn’t go fifteen minutes without cracking up. They kept yelling out comments that put each other in stitches. Would there be a follow-up song about Las Polleritas? Would they be in the video on MTV? Swept up in the heady currents of airwave notoriety, they sang improvised verses, called Angeles SuperEstrella, made tacky remarks about her jeans fitting her ass. By the time the Tigres’ version was all over the charts, they were blasé about it all.
The following year Ado made more money than he had made during his entire previous life. So did the chicas from Sinaloa.
Eventually the Tigres del Norte version of “Pollera Brava” was followed by several copycat songs, including “Angela Fronteriza” by Los Relampagos dela Cuahuila and a gritty ranchero called “La Flaca Manda, sung in nasal hick accents imitating the style of that gunned-down troubadour of badass, Chalino Sanchez.. It even spawned a crappy movie full of shoot-em-ups, cleavage shots, and shitkicker music. The part of La Flaca was played by a young hottie who didn’t look like she could find the border if the map was nailed to the fence, but went on to score good roles in TV serials. Maria de los Angeles, doing business as La Flaca, had become a legend at the age of nineteen.
Jim Riles, wearing only skinny green sunglasses and ratty cutoffs, lounged in a broken plastic lawn chair on the cracked pool apron talking to a grungy, elaborately mustachioed biker everybody called Gacho. He waved a beer bottle at a giggling gaggle of girls hanging wash on the fence on the other side of the crusted green water of the pool, “Now there’s a vision for you, pal. Plump little pollas cackling around pretending they don’t see us. Lord have mercy. Amen.”
Gacho tugged at his Dos Equis, wiped his other hand on the oily blacktop sheen of his jeans, and spat into the pool, probably improving its content. “Inditas,” he muttered. “Ignorant backwoods trash. Where are the blondes?”
“Who cares?” Riles sighed contentedly. “You like all those anorexic, peroxided California witches because you figure you can’t get your hands on them. Look at your hands and think about why. I’m a big supporter of the right for indigenous third world peoples to freely express themselves politically, artistically and sexually. Or all three at the same time.”
He turned to regard Pepito, who as usual was perched nearby, trying to pick up on anything Riles laid down. “How about you, Pepín? You like inditas?” Which was kind of liking asking a fish if it liked scales. Pepito nodded, looked over at his sisters and neighbors in a new way.
“Why don’t they just string up a rope for their laundry?” Gacho asked. “Bunch of pinches estupidas.”
“Duh. Because there’s a big cee-ment pond of water in the way. They tried to get me to talk the owner into filling it in so they’d have room to air their wash. I got behind it because I’m not a big fan of malaria and other mosquito-born diseases. Also because I like seeing their undergarments out in plain sight. It’s like a good omen or something.”
“You talked to the owner of this shithole? He admitted it?”
“He got hold of me. Some gibberish about the rent. He’s talking like four months back. He needs to catch up with current history if he expects to make a go of it. Anyway, I laid it on him. It would be great, get rid of The Sump here and have a place to barbecue, kick back.”
“He should just put in a dryer, make some money off the deal.”
“Are you serious? They’re Mexicans! Or even worse. They’d break a dryer in five minutes.”
The idea that Hondurans and “Guatamalnacos” were worse than Mexicans didn’t even catch Pepito’s attention. He’d already gotten that during his trek across Mexico. He just listened to Riles ramble.
“Why do you think there aren’t any self-serve laundries in Mexico? Shit, they’d be warming tortillas in them, using them to dry off their kids and steam tamales. These are clothesline people. They’re also ‘pound your clothes with rocks down by the river’ people, but even they know better than to try that in this water.”
“Yeah, not a bad idea. Fill it in, put a gate here so they could leave their snot-nosed chivitos safe while they work and fuck around.”
“I told him I could get it filled in for three hundred bucks. Get some mouth-breathing wetback burros to do the work, split the money with them.”
“Three hundred? Shit, it wouldn’t be code. Wouldn’t even be safe.”
“Code? You kidding? You think it’s code to put a stove and fridge in a motel room and rent it out to like twenty people? And how safe is it now?”
“Not even. You can’t even see the bottom.” Pepito walked over for a peek and sure enough, it was just a translucent green blur, like skuzzy lime jello.
He turned back just in time to hear Riles say something that he would come to regret even more deeply than the hundreds of other stupid, harmful remarks he’d uttered during a life full of such moments. Pepito stared at Riles, fixated. What he’d heard was a statement of thunderbolt clarity; a delineation of a crossroads of the type marked by an X, where burdens are labored off to God, deals are cut with the Devil himself, invisible distinctions suddenly become as clear as a beam of white light cutting through the oppressive ambiguity of night. He stood staring at Riles, trembling. Riles didn’t notice but Gacho looked at the kid and offered him a beer.
Typical liberal idiot: he just wants to give money to banana republics so their people won’t be poor and have to come to the United States. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or barf on my huaraches.
I’ve got a better idea. Cheaper, too. Instead of pumping our landscape full of “frijoleros”, why not just send our jobs down to Salvador and Chiapas and those God-forsaken hellholes so the people can stay home and make a living and maybe even come to like us a little bit, instead of shipping them to China and India where they damn straight don’t like us and can’t wait to slamdance on our graves?
And it would work at that end, too. We’d just send some liberal public sector agency sluts down to make sure they work efficiently.
“The Don’t Care Package” Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column Southcoast Week
On the bottom line, we probably don’t qualify to be so heavily influenced by the Northamericans. Oh, certainly you and I can handle it. We read, drive cars, have air conditioners, drink Scotch. But is it really a good idea for rancho people to have iPods that show Madonna dancing naked? To want to buy a stereo that can shake the metal of an automobile? And come to think of it, my parents and grandparents lived in the same house I do, right here in Olivos. Why didn’t they need a car? Or need to know the rate of peso exchange? Or who is winning the NFL tournament.? It might not be a case of being too simple for gringo culture contagion: we just might not be able to trust ourselves to cope with it.
“Bajo La Influencia” Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos” Column Zeta
I’ve had a night or two in my checkered-ass career, Jim Riles thought cheerfully as he climbed up to his litterbox at the Frontera by the ragged light of false dawn, happier than a cockroach in a dumpster full of bean dip. But this one was definitely a hall of fame contender.
He kicked through the clutter to click on his computer, checked to see if they’d disconnected the phone yet. Ah, a dial tone. It was amazing they managed to stay in business. He ran hard, smelly San Diego tap water into an enamel coffee pot so crusted with alkali build-up and residue it would barely hold two cups. I oughta take that down to the lowrider shop and get it bored out, he thought, turning on the hotplate and hunting in the cabinet for his Twinings Tea canister full of pills and baggies.
Lessee, a crosstop for energy. Let’s call it two. Coffee for stamina, a valium to cushion the chair, a toke or two for creative license. Show time, dewd.
Hammering the keys with a sweaty excitement that expanded and mutated as his loyal staff of “helpers” careened around his bloodstream, he committed the pertinent portions of his night’s adventure to a WinWord file. It took about thirty minutes for the story to kick in. Then he swooped, rolled and fandangoed, giddy with the task. This was his real drug of preference, right here at his fingertips. The subtlest, most recently evolved, and most naively exuberant cells in the human brain tumbled out to play.
Flaca stopped at the top of the draw to catch her breath. It didn’t take long. She turned to look back at California, hazy in the smeared anticipation of true dawn, and shifted the dead weight of the bleeding dog to her other shoulder. She walked briskly towards the random jumble of homes sprawling down the barranca above the old road. Her hair was a wild, unfettered nimbus because she’d used her head band to staunch the dog’s exit wound. He’d fallen right on it in the mud, which had probably saved his life, but would make serious infection a solid bet. His heartbeat was steady as she lugged him towards the chaos of houses piled on top of each other, shapeless cells of cement, rock and block, discards, cardboard, and offhand ingenuity. At the first corner, an obtuse angle of lath and corrugated steel houses, she was nailed in the beam of a single headlight. She hadn’t paid attention to the row of wrecked cars by the remains of asphalt. She was cornered.
Unwilling to drop the dog and run, she turned her back to the wrinkly iron and waited, hand behind her in her pack. An engine caught and the one-eyed vehicle lurched towards her. Squinting, she could see it was a rusty Ford mini-van with the front end crushed and a fender missing. It stopped in front of her, biding time like a cruel cat. Flaca breathed slow and deep, preparing for action.
The door opened and she could see the shadow of a large man. The headlight went out and she blinked rapidly to clear her eyes of dazzle and see who it was. None else than Sergeant Alonso Bernal. He wagged a finger at her. “Getting careless, Flaquita?”
Flaca relaxed, didn’t smile. She looked at the van disdainfully. “Did you lose your pretty new police car?”
“Off duty,” Bernal said, no sense of irony that his “duty” had consisted of shuffling criminals around all night and his “off duty” had been staking out this defile hoping to punish a pack of robbers who preyed on pollos. “They gave me this, though. Looks like shit but it runs good.”
He stepped to the front and pointed out a bumper sticker: Support Your Local Police. He and Flaca laughed. “Stolen in California last week, cracked up on the Rosarito road yesterday because the thief couldn’t drive, smoke crack and get a blow job at the same time.”
“Was his name Chago?”
“His name’s mud down at the jailhouse. The lip servant wasn’t female.” He walked up to her, examined the dog incuriously. “Bad enough you take in all those stray kids, now you nab dogs?
“Hey, this fellah took a bullet meant for me. I ditched a perfectly good Thunderbird to go get him. The kids’ll love him.”
“Yeah, it’s good to have animals around children. Give them contact, protection. Instruction in the physical side of life.”
“What they give is love. Good, simple love that won’t betray them.”
Bernal gave his cynical snort. “Get your dead mutt and glorious ass in the car, chulis. I’ll haul your love beast back to Bravo for you.”
“Thanks, copper. The girls will love you for it.”
“You think so? Maybe I could stop in awhile.”
“No men in the house. You know that. Especially you: I try to instill a respect for law in those nippers.” They both chuckled.
“Well, how about coming out for a little ride later? In my sharp new van?”
Clutching the dog to her shoulder with one hand, she turned to examine the rear of the mini-van. No seats, just a disreputable mattress on the floor. “You always know how to make a girl feel special.”
“Maybe I should stop and pick up a bottle.”
“Stop at that veterinarian in Libertad. He’ll be awake.” She flashed him a grin. “And don’t let the girls see the bottle. We have to be their role models.”
“I thought that’s why you got the dog.” They both laughed, creeping along the old road back to the highway while the sky warmed and lightened around them.
The shift had ended just after first light, but Grindle dragged back to the horse barn late, covered with mud, bleeding from scratches and lacerations, and dripping wet. Most of the shift was still there and some of the new shift as well; getting briefed, fooling with saddles. So he had an audience. Having to be pulled out of the swamp had put him into a fine fettle and he was trying to hang it on anybody in the stable, but they were having too much fun to give him a clear shot.
“It’s not funny, goddamit,” he snapped. “They aren’t some poor, cute little victims out there, dipshits. They’re fucking vermin.”
“Well, I’ve never seen one verm,” Laidlaw replied with wide-eyed mildness. “Have you caught them vermin’ out there, Ryan? Or even squirmin’ ?”
Ryan thought, and replied brightly. “I busted one with vermicelli once. He was just lost, is all.”
“Assholes, I’m making a point here!” Grindle would have happily handcuffed them both, then cuffed them by hand. “It’s not a small thing. It’s like those mice in the stable. Cute, cuddly little fuckers so nobody wants to set traps, get a cat. Just let them eat up federal grain. Shit in the horse chow. It adds up.”
Laidlaw’s response to that was interrupted as Dessa entered, leading her horse. One look at Grindle’s condition and she lit up with mischievous glee. “Oh I can tell somebody prevented some major terrorist incursions tonight. Was it heroic or just herculean?”
Grindle blurted to beat Laidlaw and Ryan to the punch. “Fuck you, Dessa. I got jumped.”
“Was it that Indian chick you’re always chasing?” His face—and his colleagues beaming nods—gave it away. “Oh my God,” Dessa trilled in delight. “It was, wasn’t it? Oh no, children. Grindle got dumped by a chick. Can you believe it?”
“I find it easy to believe,” Laidlaw told her, all earnestness.
“Who gives a shit?” Grindle yelled at them. “It was a gang of the bastards. That’s how it works, you stupid fuckwads. Goddam pack of varmints.”
He suddenly stiffened, glaring at the rough pine walls of the stable. “I can’t believe it!”
“But you were there, Grin,” Ryan said. “An eyewitness.”
“Not that, oddwad. Look at that fucking mouse, right under our noses!”
Sure enough, a foolhardy mouse had emerged from behind a manger and was moving along the rough pine planks, twitching its nose in provocation. Finally finding a legal outlet for his fury, Grindle pulled his gun in a very smooth gunfighter motion that ended with the deafening report of an overloaded .357 cartridge. A man not without rough spots, but no slouch with a sidearm: the mouse was instantly converted into a patch of fur and blood surrounding the splintered edges of a hole in the wall.
His fellow officers screamed at him, with their hands on their ears.
“Jesus, Grindle! What the fuck you doing?” Laidlaw yelled.
Ryan, closer to the explosion, was rubbing his ears. “Don’t shoot in here, you shithead. Or I’ll shoot back. Shit!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Grindle muttered, carefully not showing any of the shock to his own eardrums. “Whine and snivel. But it’s one less vermin eating up our oats, right?”
Dessa had one hand on her near ear, the other tugging at the bridle, controlling her frightened mount. Glaring at Grindle, she pulled the horse back out of the barn.
She was back instantly, straining to keep a straight face. “Congratulations, Shane,” she enthused. “You just saved the government two bits a week in grain and killed a fifty thousand dollar horse.”
You always have to come down: the ultimate sad lowdown of even the highest of highs. The story sputtered, started tapering down to an ending, the iridescent shimmer of the words gelling back up to mere black against white. Perfectly timed, Riles thought. He’d been wise to split that second upper. The weekender amphetamine was being cancelled out perfectly by his long vigil of wakefulness, bodily fatigue, and post-creative tristesa. The second valium and third beer were probably also significant factors. He put the story to bed, as people used to say. Or, as people say these days, he hit “Send”. Let that pompous ditherdork editor get his face down into the earthy redemption of that little pièce de maux-faux, he smirked. Stripping down to his hairy unloveliness and tossing off the last finger of tequila in the mug, he sprawled on his permanently unconverted convertible couch and slipped into sleep, savoring images of last night. What’s Latin for “Seize the night?” he mused. [_ Carpe Nocturne_] or something? I got your night seized right here, sucker. For the first time in months, he slept with a smile.
But then who comes by to wake him up just two hours later? And not in the least politely? Victor Goddam Moncalvo, that’s who. Jimbo burrowed deeper into his soiled pillow and erotic dreamscape, but Victor hammered away, persistent as a bench warrant, until he opened up. One peek outside at that unaccustomed hour and he dived for his shirt, clawing the pockets for sunglasses. Turned out in cheap shades, scrubbly beard, grayish boxers, and one aged rubber sandal, he stepped back to the brutal onslaught of the morning sun and Victor’s sickening cheerfulness.
“Darling, you’re repulsive in the morning,” was Victor’s opener.
“Go ahead, revoke me again. Fuck it.” Riles was in no mood. When he remembered the entire roller coaster of the previous night and its hope for happy endings, he might lighten up. But for now, “Knock yourself loose. Life on the outs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, at Folsom you get to sleep.”
“This isn’t about revoking parole,” Victor told him. “Society sends its regrets. Man you’re a major mess. I hope you had a good time getting into this condition.”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Riles said. Then realized that he didn’t quite believe it himself. He left Victor to beam sharkishly on his doorstep while he hunted up his pants. Sure enough, four hundred bucks. Cool! “It’s okay,” he said, “Things are looking up. The madness is ending. Coffee and pie are just around the corner. Blue skies from now on. What the hell are you doing here?”
“There’s a little something you could help us with.”
“I can’t think of anything called ‘us’ that I owe any favors to. If it’s about that girl, I never laid a finger on her. Well, a finger maybe, but nothing enjoyable, I swear.”
“You swear? Well, that settles it. No listen, you’ll love this. Get dressed. Brush that grunge out of your eye there. It’s gross. We’ll stop for some coffee on the way. Just around the corner, you were saying?”
“So we’re doing a road trip now?”
“A friendly get-together down at the station.”
“Oh, well, the police station. That’s different. Let me lay out my flannels. Hey wait, didn’t we do this just last night? We did. You guys were abusive. And that damned Rosas…”
“She’ll be there. Also Cole, Alicia. And your landlord.”
“Holy Christ! There’s the Four Fucking Horsemen for you. Why don’t we invite Beelzebub, bin Laden, and the Grim Reaper while we’re at it? How the hell did you find my landlord anyway?”
“He’s helping the police with their investigation of The Wettest Little Wetback thing.”
“Does it have to be Rosas? I’m secure in my masculinity, you know. I’ve done time. As you also know. So it doesn’t threaten me to admit that she scares me to death.”
“That’s why they hired her. I’d keep the chatter steered away from underage Latina nooky if I were you.”
“I’m starting to question the wisdom of that hobby myself. Hell, come on in. You diddle the goldfish while I look for underwear that are still all one color.”
“Don’t go to the trouble, there’s no strip search planned.”
“Nobody ever left home expecting a strip search. But they happen, don’t they? Not to you maybe, but I could do a book on them.”
“Let me know, I’ll write the forward. Just get dressed, all right? This banter and riposte is tiring this early.”
“Grab a beer outta the fridge.”
“Brother Riles, I think there’s hope for your soul yet.”
“If only my ass would follow.”
Alicia Childers always felt conflicted in situations like this one right here at hand, sitting beside the hastily planked-over pool, across from this heart-wrenching little boy, and unable to communicate with him. In a way it was one more installment of the daily slap in the face this community handed her. She was only halfway through her court-ordered community service here and still had very little handle on Spanish, much less on this culture. These, cultures, she reminded herself. God knows what differences there were between this Honduras kid and some kid from Chiapas or Tijuana that looked just like him. Maybe suicide is a common diversion in Honduras. The big thing was the differences between her and Pepito, and she saw them as an uncrossable gulf that made her presence in Barrio Lobo a mocking jest. Well, she thought, wasn’t it supposed to be punishment?
But at the same time Pepito, shyly playing with Mexican wrestler action figures she’d brought him, was a rebuff, he also tugged powerfully at the internal springs and gears that had drawn her to social work in the first place, instead of being an executive or broker in her father’s securities firm. He was hurting somewhere and she should be able to fix it. She wanted to take him home and smother him with fix. How could she get that across to him? Pepito looked up and broke into a happy grin that lifted her heart. Then she turned to see where he was looking and her own smile withered. It was Jim Riles, giving the kid some sort of crypto highsign as he came down the stairs with Victor right behind him. She shot Victor a reproachful glance and quickly stood as the two men approached her. No sense giving that Riles animal any free upskirt or downblouse shots. Riles engaged Pepito in a ritual of trick handshakes, the boy beaming and chuckling. He could get through to the kid. Did that suck?
“Who’s minding the shop?” Victor asked as he walked up, finding a way to touch her somewhere, as usual. “Are the Centro doors closed to la Raza?”
“I left a note.” She caught Victor’s raised eyebrow and stiffly said, “It’s just a picture of a clock saying eleven thirty, okay?”
“Fine with me. Look, why don’t you come over to the station with us? We found the landlord and we’re trying to figure out what to do about this whole thing.”
“I don’t care about the landlord. I just don’t want this kid to kill himself.”
“Then we should try to get to the bottom of it. Cole’s conducting a sort of inquest into the whole matter. Come on. He’ll be okay. His sisters don’t let him out of their sight now, you notice?”
“I noticed. Okay, let’s head over there.” She glanced at Riles. “I’ll take my car and meet you.”
“It’s sort of a multi-disciplinary task force,” Riles told her in chipper tones. “The kind that really get things done.”
She spun and stalked off. No point saying goodbye to Pepito: that Riles scuzzbag was all over doing that.
She felt something crunch under her foot and raised it carefully. It was a glass vial with a lurid label. She bent to pick it up and examined it. Even she could figure out “Legitimate Holy Water” and “Cross To Save The World”. Well, the Frontera was as good a place for superstition as any she could think of. She looked around for a trash receptacle, then laughed. That’s what the whole place is, she thought as she walked towards the sagging gate.
Victor came up behind her, silently as usual, and looked over her shoulder. For some reason she covered the little bottle with her fist. “Find a clue?” he asked?
“I doubt it. Something I picked up over by the pool. It’s just a little vial.”
“Just a little vile?” Victor chuckled. “I told you you’d get used to the local ambience.”
She gave him a blank look. Another of his opaque commentaries. She retreated from the presence of undesirable admirers. And, no. She wasn’t even close to getting used to it.
It took Riles a few minutes, perching on a spindly old chair as far from Rosas as he could sit, to figure out that the lineup was not aimed between his eyes as had so often been his experience. Better yet, it was aimed right at the balls of his landlord, a predictably venal loser named Daryl Rogeway. Being in such a setting, but not under the gun, was so refreshing that he sat back to enjoy it. He especially appreciated the number Victor was running down. Where had that rapier vision and crusading zeal been back when he’d public-defended Riles?
“I’m sure you have some idea of the problems you could face on the civil side of things.” Victor could see that Rogeway, a white-haired, whitebread chiseler in Dockers, boat shoes, and button-down oxford cloth, was clearly aware of his possible exposure, but he was just warming up. “Torts, we call them in the trade. I hardly know where to start itemizing the neglect and attractive hazard aspects. The boy’s family alone…”
Rogeway, like a beleagured badger with poor instincts, darted into a very unfortunate corner. “They’re illegal wetbacks. You think they’re going to be able to get a lawyer?”
There was a moment of silence to let his words rattle around the room a little. He could literally feel the radiation from Rosas and spared himself the glance at her that would have shriveled his genitals. Alicia’s take was bad enough. Cole and Riles glanced at each other and let smiles slowly spread. Stick a fork in this guy.
Victor licked his chops. “They already have a lawyer.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“What do I look like, Mr. Oblivious? “
Riles always liked to stick an oar into mischief. “And he’s nobody’s sweetheart, believe you me.”
“If you had any idea the depths of scummery that guy’s all about, you’d realize what a compliment that was,” Victor said before going to trumps. “But the important thing to know is that he’s James Riles, a writer for Southcoast Week. Is the term “muckraker” still in use, Jim?”
“One man’s muck is another man’s social crusade, Victor. As you know so well.” Riles was definitely enjoying himself by then. “And this one? Whoa! I’d say the mother lode of muck is struck. The whitest guy in the world drowns a po’ lil refugee boy just because he’s too greedy to fill a water hazard. Prize-winning stuff, I’m thinking. And you couldn’t get together an unprejudiced jury in the whole county.”
“You’d be asking the same sort of questions I’d bring out at a trial, right? Like, ‘Do you have unfenced pools of toxic water on your other properties?”
Riles nodded judiciously. “Properties where white folks live?”
Victor sighed, commiserating with the hapless Rogeway. “It’s a sad irony of our times that tragedy is regrettable, but discrimination is where the real money is.”
Rogeway looked around the room as though expecting somebody to stomp him like a cockroach. This just wasn’t fair. He’d be lucky to get out of it with his Jaguar still in hand. Some tax shelter.
But Victor hadn’t finished the torment yet. “So that’s where you stand with civil law and the fourth estate. Nude, screwed, and tattooed, basically. And I haven’t even gotten around to the actual criminal charges you’re exposed to. Where you’d face actual arrest. By actual unsympathetic cops.”
“Me, for one.” Rosas’ first comment clearly spelled out the slow smolder she’d been banking. Rogeway did look at her then, and she curdled his blood. She could make you believe they used to cut out living hearts down Mexico way. He turned to Cole, one of the most laid-back guys in the barrio, but at the moment fronting a stony glare and cracking powerful fingers at the end of muscular athlete’s arms. He looked at Riles. There had to be somebody here who wasn’t trying to cook his goose and bugger it.
“Oh, I’ll be a little late with the rent this month.” Riles said.
“This is where you say you want to call your attorney,” Victor said. “That would be Caswell, Godwin, Reese, right? Oh, wait, they dumped you when your last check bounced.”
Rogeway looked back at Victor, mainspring of the solid steel trap he’d bungled into. He patted down his hair. “Oh, I think I’ll find a lawyer to talk to. I’m up to my asshole in them, actually.”
Victor smirked, “It’s all about location.”
Rogeway pulled out a cell phone, but didn’t open it. “Look,” he said, scanning the room, “I just want to say something here. I’m not some evil asshole. I’m just a business guy trying to get by. The place was how it is when I bought it. I made improvements. How was I to know some psycho kid was going to try to drown himself?”
Rosas and Alicia were both so affronted and infuriated by that remark that they couldn’t unlimber their anger quickly enough. So the strained silence was broken by Riles, of all people. “Not strictly true, Daryl. I told you twice you better fill that pool.”
Everybody looked at this unexpected source of help and ammunition. Victor glanced back at Rogeway, barely keeping a straight face. “In other words, you were informed of a hazard on your property but did nothing?”
“Bullshit,” he blustered, “I never hear from this guy. If I did maybe I could trouble him for his back rent. And he never…”
“Hey, Daryl, that dog won’t hunt. In fact, what it will do is crap in your shoes and piss on your tires. There were witnesses to me telling you about it.”
“About what, specifically?” Cole asked in a low, firm voice. Riles glanced at him and recognized one of those moments where you dropped the grabass and played the straight stick.
“The obvious thing. It was dangerous. I told him the same thing I told everybody: some day a kid’s going to drown in that sewer and their parents will end up owning the whole dump.”
This time the silence that greeted his remark was so deep and pregnant that Riles lost a little composure, glanced around the room. Every single face was pointed right at him, wearing expressions he assocated with tragedy and hurt. Like many sociopaths, Riles was shaky at reading emotions in others that he didn’t experience himself. Christ, what had he said this time?
Almost in a whisper, Cole asked, “Did you ever say it in Spanish?”
Riles looked at him quizzically, then his face went slack. “Oh, shit! Oh holy fucking shit.”
They kept staring at him, just to check out his reaction. Even Rogeway was intrigued.
“Yeah, yeah,” Riles muttered, as discomfitted as he’d been in decades. “I was talking to Gacho about it. And yeah, the kid was sitting right there. Aw, fuck.”
Many people would think of Riles having no heart, conscience, or any of the burdens that line us up alongside fellow members of the squirming mass. The actual situation was that his heart had become overwhelmed and switched off early in life, then in recent years simply atrophied like any muscle that doesn’t get the opportunity for healthful exercise. He just didn’t have that much call to use it. But the Pepito thing slipped in under his radar and carpet-bombed his vestigial mensch within.
He looked at Alicia, then Rosas, almost pleading. “Look,” he said, “You know I didn’t mean to. Christ, it’s just a common expression. You know… somebody’s gonna own the place. I didn’t think…”
“No,” Rosas snapped. “You didn’t think.”
“Come on, Nova. He’s right.” Cole spoke quietly, but Rosas stopped and nodded at him sullenly. “Not his fault. And he’s helped us out here.” He swung a look around the room. “Anybody doubt we just got the whole picture on what happened yesterday?”
Rosas was unmollified, but nodded. She turned her attack dog look on Rogeway who wriggled beneath it as if looking for a rock to crawl under. He could see that having found The Truth was not going to cut him any particular slack around here.
Riles stood up and paced, antsy and jittery. “Man, that poor little fucker. He thought… Look, I had no idea he’d take it literally.”
Everybody looked at Victor when he spoke up. “No, Jim. You couldn’t have. But I think maybe we should take it literally, too.”
Rogeway felt their attention move to him. He stared around like a doe at bay and said, “What the hell do you want from me?”
“Let’s think about that a little,” Victor said, with a smooth affability Rogeway found obnoxious and threatening. “Don’t you think so, Cam?”
“Yeah, I’d say so.” Cole gave a curt nod to Rogeway, who read it as the casting of some dire official die. “Let’s all talk again this afternoon. After we make some calls and sort things out.”
“And explain things to that child,” Alicia stuck in forcefully.
Cole nodded. “Above all. The main thing is, we don’t have to worry about him being suicidal.”
“He’s a little hero is what he is. He’s just…” She gave Riles one of the dark looks he’d collected so many of, “…Misguided.”
Rogeway hated to say anything to bring the scrutiny back around to himself, but was hot to get out of there. “Good, yeah,” he blurted, nodding rapidly. “Fine with me. What time should I come back? I’m as anxious as you are to…”
“Let’s make it simple,” Rosas said flatly. “Why not call your attorney and ask him to come in… when, Cam?”
Cam looked at Victor who shrugged, “Let’s call it around two.”
“Two, then,” Rosas went on. “Meanwhile, why don’t you stick around, Mr. Rogeway? You can be very helpful to us in the meantime. Any objections to that plan, Mr. Rogeway?”
Rogeway wasn’t stupid about cops: he nodded politely. “Uh, no, no. Fine.”
“If your attorney wants to confer with you first, we’ll arrange a private space for you to talk,” Cole added.
“So you’ll have plenty of time to prepare,” Victor added smoothly.
“Prepare for what?” Rogeway was thinking in terms of securing vaseline, but Victor grinned disarmingly.
“To do the right thing.”
Cole stood up, as a signal that everybody should get the hell out of his office. “So everybody’s back here at two?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Riles said gleefully. Usually you couldn’t buy being a fly on the wall for the real nut-cutting. This was going to be quite a story. On top of the one he’d just filed.
“I’m going back over there to talk to the Camponeta kiddo,” Alicia said. “And his parents.” She looked a question at Victor, who smiled apologetically, gesturing at the officers and his briefcase. She nodded, accepting a familiar torture of this barrio. She was turning to walk out when Riles spoke.
“You don’t speak Spanish, do you?”
No, Mister Baby-raper Drug-runner Asshole, Alicia thought. But I’d love it if a bottom feeder like you could rub it in a little.
“Look,” Riles said hastily, not encouraged by what he saw in her look. “I can help you with that, maybe. I get along with the little sucker pretty good and… Well, if you want me to translate or anything I’ll be back at my apartment.” He looked around the room. “If somebody will give me a ride back.”
Rosas, Cole, and Victor looked elsewhere.
Alicia was examining Riles closely, surprised at her own thoughts. There had been no mistaking his horror and remorse when he realized how his remark led Pepito to try to save his family. And he was genuine about wanting to help her. He actually gives a damn about something, she thought. Wonder of wonders. What is it about kids? When they’re not breaking our hearts and balls they’re reaching down to dredge up whatever humanity we have left in us. If we could just save enough of them, maybe they could save us all.
“Come on,” she said, already halfway out the door. “I’ll give you a lift back.”
For once, he called back at a convenient time. The trouble with a guy like that, you can’t tell them you’ll get back to them or return their call when you aren’t in the middle of somebody. But this time it worked out fine. Victor’s siesta hour had already been productive and he was lying in bed with a cigarette, right by the phone. He picked it up in mid ringtone, didn’t even wake up his “nooner”, a young Sonoran woman who was simultaneously trying to locate the husband who’d dumped her when he came North and fighting her own deportation. She stirred, but kept on sleeping sweetly.
Victor smiled down at her slim ass, leaned to kiss it lightly, then found his note pad and pen. She rolled over, murmuring in blurred Spanish and Victor watched the soft rise and fall of her breasts as he listened to the phone. In lieu of fee, he thought, smiling. For value received.
“Then it’s completely go?” he asked, ready to jot. “Funds in place, all that?”
He scribbled. “Two P.M. Correct. Why don’t you just have a cashier’s check messengered to me here? Ah. I understand. Well, that’ll work, too. I drew everything up last night. It’s a low price per square foot, but it’s also a piece of …” He stopped, listened, as the girl stirred, frowned, rolled onto her side. He was very attentive to this call, but watched her with a connoisseur’s admiration.
“That’s a very good point. And I think I already have the perfect person for the job.” He paused, rolled his eyes upward, spoke carefully. “No, of course he wouldn’t know anything. But he’d be a very useful guy to have a line on, actually.”
He saw a little shiver run through the girl and knew she’d opened her eyes. She would be staring around, trying to figure out where she was. Putting off turning to face him.
“Reliable?” He almost laughed, caught himself. “You’re joking, right?”
She turned, saw Victor sitting up against the headboard, phone to his ear. There was a flicker of fear in her face, then something he interpreted as sadness with a wash of wistful accommodation.
“A better word might be ‘malleable’. Exactly. I should have the whole thing wrapped up by this evening.”
He put the pen down on the bed and reached to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand. She stared at him like a trapped rabbit.
“Who, the family? Exactly. From Honduras, actually. But no, they’ll be no problem at all.” He hung up the phone, still touching the face of the Mexican girl beside him. He eased himself down, lay beside her, facing her. He figured he had an hour before he had to go do anything important.
Tears glistened in her eyes, then spilled out down her cheeks. She hid her face in the pillow. Perfect, Victor thought as he gently stroked her throat and lowered his lips to her breasts. Just so damned perfect.
Jim Riles’ naptime phone session didn’t have the attendance Victor’s did, but there are things in life as pleasing in their own way as midday sex. Drugs, for instance, and gloating, better yet. So Riles was also enjoying lounging on his couch holding a cell phone to his ear and keeping the grin out of his voice. He rolled up to a sitting position, phone cradled by his shoulder, and reached into the strata of crazed crap on his distressed coffee table. “Let me put you on the speaker here, Evan.” He would have liked to put him on a worldwide webcast, but just needed both hands free to roll a joint. Pretty much required after his long night of helping people sneak in to help build America, wee hours of ingesting potions and fumes to create one of his stream-of-unconsciousness articles, and a morning dealing with cops and lawyers. He bonged a deep draft and lolled luxuriantly on the spongy couch to entertain himself with the newly unctuous editor of “Southwest Week”.
“It’s just amazing, James,” Culhomme gushed, “I can’t believe this driver guy let you interview him.”
“Well, he’s a mercenary criminal,” Riles reminded him, “Resourceful and dashing, but still somebody who money talks to. Speaking of which…”
“Oh, absolutely. I’ll have that advance in the mail this afternoon. I’m moving this up to run in two weeks.”
And cook up some stupid new title for it so you can pretend you were part of it, you phony buffoon, Riles thought. What he said was, “He’s a jewel in the rough. I think I can get several more stories out of him and the girl.”
Culhomme’s gush increased to Niagaran levels. “Oh God, yes. This ‘Slim’., the smuggler. I keep seeing her as the young Lauren Bacall.”
“Good eye. She’s pretty close to that. In a tough, savage, Indian sort of way. Her information on how the pollo business runs checks out completely, by the way.” Like you care about facts or could manage to check if it’s raining out or not, he mused privately.
“Ah yes, pollos. Chickens, right? Like Pollo Loco? So that’s why she’s the “coyote”?
“No,” Riles said ponderously, “She’s the Road Runner. And they call themselves ‘polleros’.”
“Fascinating. I was thinking, how does “Queen of the Chicken Hawks” strike you for a title?”
As inured as he was to Culhomme’s dropdead idiocy and aplomb, Riles stared at the phone and choked off a guffaw. “You don’t know much about homosexual slang, do you?”
“Well, no…” Culhomme stammered, taken aback. “Why, is that…?”
“Shocking,” Riles muttered. “But listen, there is a lot more where this came from. We should consider talking over that regular contributor thing again.”
“Oh, absolutely. Show me a few more like this and it’s a done deal. Listen, I have to ask: did that horse patrolman really shoot the dog?”
“Now there’s a great title, right there,” Riles said with a straight voice. And in fact the front page feature hit the street with a large headline, “Why Shoot The Dog?” Culhomme explained it to Riles as something that had just come to him, an example of a “left-handed” headline that was piquant and removed while tilting the reader towards unexpected conclusions. Riles drove all the way to North County to pick up the check and take it straight to the bank.
By the time the piece ran as a cover feature he’d made three more runs with Flaca and some comprehensive interviews with Chago and three families of illegal entrants. He’d smiled at Culhomme and said, “See, that’s why you’re the editor and I’m the writer.” Riles loved comments that were lost on the recipient. He had three thousand dollars in his savings account by then. And the roll kept right on rolling.
“We went through this whole buck and wing this morning,” Daryl Rogeway groused half-heartedly. He was sick of the cop and lawyer scaring him, but mostly what he didn’t want any more of was that damned Rosas sitting backwards in a chair watching him as if she would explode all over him at any given moment. He didn’t need a lawyer to tell him whatever the Latin is for “You’re fucked”.
He glanced at Polidor Ballesteros, the only attorney he could get to come down to this Fort Apache outhouse after three hours of calling around. The guy looked shabby and probably not too careful about his personal appetites, but he seemed to have a handle on what happened to anglos who messed up down here in the barrio. He looked around the room: the cops, that Andy Garcia-looking lawyer, the fuckable but too butchy social worker, whatever segment of the thing Riles represented. He held up his hand to stop Victor’s looping, jazzy riff on where his ass was going to end up out of this. He said, “What the hell do you want from me?”
Victor gave him a big, happy, dentist smile. “Just have a look at these papers I’ve prepared. That’s all.”
Rogeway nodded sourly. How’d I guess? But he actually felt a little puff of relief. That motel had been nothing but a pain in the ass. He had only one question, “I walk out clean, right?”
Victor just nodded, pointing to the papers. But the way Rosas said, “Depends on what you mean by clean,” raised the hair on his neck. He started reading.
When he finished, he looked at Ballesteros, who had skimmed through his copy of the six sheets of barbed wire boilerplate. He raised an eyebrow questioningly. Ballesteros gave a brisk, humorless laugh. “Are you fucking serious? Sign the goddam thing.”
Thanks for my two hundred buck’s worth, Rogeway thought, and started sticking his name wherever Victor had put his smug little blue checkmarks. Finished, he passed the papers to Victor, who scanned them quickly, dropped them in his briefcase, leaned back and spread his hands. “That’s all, folks,” he stuttered brightly ala Elmer Fudd.
Rogeway stood, gave Ballesteros a bleak look, and walked out the door. He skirted both Rosas and Alicia, but shot Riles a reproachful look as he passed him.
Riles, grinning, stood up and moved to follow his ex-landlord through the door, but when he turned to nod goodbyes to all present, he saw Victor’s upraised hand. Aw, rats.
“Stick around, Riles. We’ll get to you.”
More disappointed than shocked at this perfidy, Riles glanced at the cops for confirmation. Rosas was an easy read: What part of ‘stick around’ and ‘get to’ don’t you understand, scrote? But Cole gave him a wry smile and shook his head. “You’ll like this, actually.”
Riles rather doubted that, but it turned out that for once a cop was right.
“Come on,” Victor said as he brushed past him, snapping his briefcase locks. “Alicia’s going to bring the Camponetas over to my office. We can talk on the way.”
Alicia watched Pepito’s father help Violeta Camponeta out the back seat of her BMW while Rosas stood by, arms folded on her bulletproof chest. Two years ago, she thought, these third worlders crawling out of her jaunty suburban ride would have been a real culture clash. But now her once svelte Beemer had acquired so many of the dents, defeated suspension struts, gang graffiti, and general attitude of the Barrio that it almost looked expected. How much more battering until I’m “down with the hood”, she asked herself in the mock interview tones always adopted by the still, small mocker inside her.
Rosas moved over beside her as she opened the door to the Centro del Barrio, unconsciously escorting the Camponetas like perps and not translating Violeta’s babble into English. Her stolid presence made Alicia nervous, as it always did. She maintained a guarded co-operation with her because they both had a job to do and could help each other out, but still. Poland probably felt the same about being beside Russia, she thought. As the Camponetas stepped up on the curb in front of the Centro storefront, she had a sudden impulse and reached out to touch Rosas’ arm. Her tricep was taut as a truck tire under the uniform blouse, twitched as the young cop turned to her.
“Hey, could you translate something for me right now, before we go in?”
Rosas glanced at the door, shrugged. Sure, let’s have a bilingual conversation out here on the parking lot. She held up her hand in a gesture that was gentle for her, but stopped the Hondurans in their tracks.
“Could you tell Mrs. Camponeta there’s a restroom inside so she can freshen up before we meet with the attorney?”
Rosas conveyed this in so few Spanish words that Alicia wondered, but caught the word “baño”. Nodding her thanks, Violeta surged past Alicia and Rosas, withering Riles with a glare as she swept past him. Alicia immediately turned to Sr. Camponeta, motioning to Rosas as she spoke. In three sentences, trimmed and succinct from years of writing agency reports, she told him that his son was not suicidal. And why he had tried to kill himself. Her voice got a little shaky at the end. When Rosas rendered the translation, longer this time and a pretty good imitation of human interface, she was surprised to see tears well into the eyes of this normally stoic, undemonstrative traveler. He extended his hand in an oddly courtly, old world manner and squeezed hers when she took it. Rosas didn’t translate his thanks: there was no doubt about it.
“He’s not going to try it again, is what I’m saying. What he is, is a little hero. ”
Sr. Camponeta nodded warmly and she basked in that human contact, the touch that dissolves the barriers of class and culture. It’s the drug of choice for social service types, and savored best when served with side orders of gratitude and humility. She went on, Rosas echoing her phrase by phrase.
“I didn’t mention this to your wife myself. Because, you know…”
Rosas passed that to him and he chuckled, reached again to Alicia’s hand. “Of course I know. I’ve had her twenty years.” Even Rosas smiled at that one.
“You have a very amazing kid there, Mr. Camponeta. I just wanted to set your mind at ease. And let you know just how wonderful he is.”
He leaned his head back when Rosas told him that, closing his eyes and touching his hands to his heart. He looked back at Alicia and spoke to her. Rosas translated, “I’ve only had him seven years, but I know that, too. Thank you for knowing it, also.”
He filed past the two women, into the Centro offices. Rosas pointed him in to where Victor was waiting to rock his whole universe. She gave Alicia a look; not a smile or anything like that, but it wasn’t a scowl. And a tense nod. It was Rosasese for approval, Alicia realized. A definite first. And she still had three years to go in this place.
Even Rosas and Riles, the two reigning hardcases in the room, were warmly gratified at the spectacle of the Camponetas’ astonishment, wonder and praise as Victor managed to drag them to awareness of the fact that they were owners of California property: just sign here, here, and there. Sra. Violeta was more voluble in her wonder and praise, but there was something about the way her impassive husband just sat there staring back and forth from Victor to the papers in front of him. Slowly, diffidently, he reached out for the pen and signed the papers. He handed the pen to his wife who invoked a whole pantheon of benevolent deities as she scrawled on the documents. Her signatures complete, she was suddenly struck dumb by it all, gaping at her husband, clutching the papers. Sr. Camponeta patted her hand and asked Victor if they had to do anything else before they went back to their new motel.
Yeah, fill the pool and pay big bucks to code up, Riles thought, but Victor whisked the papers out of Violeta’s stunned hand and replaced them with another, more weighty and intimidating sheaf of legal-sized paperwork. Sr. Camponeta picked up the pen and looked for the line to sign. Victor sighed deep inside. He isn’t even going to read it. He trusts me and will sign whatever I tell him to. Oh, send me more like him, please Lord. He laid his hand on the papers and Sr. Camponeta put the pen down immediately. And Victor told them the rest of the deal.
It was a steal, actually. A fraction of the value of the Southern California real estate, alone. To the Camponetas it was The Bank. It was Wildest Dreams, Fabled Fortune, Eternal Plenty, Mysterious Ways. All this money just for signing that paper. The motel was now theirs, this half-gringo abogado had told them, and they weren’t disposed or even qualified to doubt him. And if they signed this it would not be theirs anymore but they would have that amount of money, written right there on that paper. All those thousands. All those dollars! All those millions of lempiras it was worth. And only because… well, it’s seldom wise to question those Mysterious Ways. They had put their faith in moving North, had reached out supplicating hands to God. And the light-eyed, golden God of the North had slapped them a high five that stung their minds. Yes, they told Licenciado Moncalvo, they understood. Well, no, they really didn’t understand. Did they need to?
Not strictly necessary, Victor assured them. Nor even desirable, he thought as they scribbled in their names. He took the papers, checked them, and reached in a drawer for the bank draft. When he laid the “giro” in front of them, they were once again stunned into blessed silence, the shock of the blue paper and machine-stamped zeros sinking in. The celebration of wonder and thanks had been before, at the idea. The sheer reality belittled words and gestures. The couple was out of the office in five minutes, escorted by Rosas to a bank that would advise them on how to safely possess and transport their bonanza. Victor leaned back and looked at the two contracts he had drawn up earlier in the day. With a little pussy break in between, he thought happily. It’s true what the Camponetas said, I am wonderful and wise and a fountain of goodness, blessings and potency. He glanced up at Jim Riles, sitting on a bookshelf and giving him that rogue eye of his.
“You’re still here.” Victor said. “Why?”
“This is the way you talk to your new property manager?” Riles was not permanently disabled by the bouts of feeling the Camponetas had aroused in him, you could tell. He was onto something in full weasel wear.
“Not ‘my’ property manager. The new owners.”
“But I won’t be taking a lot of meeting with said owners, will I?” Riles slid off the bookcase and slumped into a chair with a knowing smirk. “I’ll report to you, didn’t you say?”
“Not often, I hope.”
“Me neither. I’m sure Señor Gaspar has better things to do than take face with the grunts.”
Victor showed a poker face, though he’d been taken by surprise. He’d forgotten what a wily snoop Riles was. He said only, “Señor Gaspar?”
Riles made a disappointed face. “Come on, counselor. That Gaspar? Single-name brand in imported and domestic narcotics? Wholesale, retail, no-trail?”
“A man who dabbles in crappy motels inhabited by snarky, endangered dirtbags?”
“Come on, Victor. You work for the guy. I figured that out the first month I moved here. I just want to know if I’m on his payroll, too.”
“You consider free rent and a few bucks a month ‘payroll’? Pathetic. But more to the point…” He gave Riles the smile of a sleek little cat that knows it can trash the big scruffy dog that’s barking at it. “I have two questions for you.”
Riles also smiled, swept his hand like a prince. Beg a boon of us.
“First question is, What the fuck are you talking about?”
Riles nodded waiting for the whole gambit.
“And the other question is…” Victor continued in a tone that changed slightly, not so much hardening as dropping in temperature and timbre. “Why the fuck do you think it’s a good idea to talk about it?”
Well, Riles thought, you put it like that. But he didn’t cave in. “You hear things around.”
“You hear things, do you? Well, you’re a journalist aren’t you? More or less?” He sat erect, then stood. Looking at Riles the whole time, he walked around his desk. “So you’re sort of in charge of what people ‘hear around’, aren’t you?”
He stood in front of Riles, that critical few inches that makes a person “too close”. Riles leaned back to look up at him, a face still smooth and handsome, but now tightened into something much harder and compelling than his usual gloss. “You’re, you know, instrumental. Like playing a violin or something, if that particular metaphor means anything to you. Well, tell me this.”
He leaned down, face close to Riles, who held firm, waiting. “How much of what you write in those papers can you back up? How much would you say is truthful?”
“Well, what can I tell you?” Riles went into his defensive dance, as drilled-in and elusive as a boxer’s bicycle or the dissembling of a cornered raccoon. “What is truth, is the thing. But, in fact, beauty? And beauty, but truth? I’m a beautiful guy, really. So, hey, QED.”
Victor almost never put his hands on other men, but he reached forward and laid his hand along Riles’ jaw and throat, cupping his ear. In a perfectly flat voice he said, “Truth can be ugly, too.”
“Let me tell you how I interpret that,” Riles said nonchalantly. “I hear you saying that the first thing is getting some cheap illegal labor to fill that pool, then slap lipstick on the junction box and trash area because the inspectors are going to flock like pigeons as soon as those paramedics file their report. Then maybe an inventory with budget for compliance. I think I can save ‘somebody’ major money on that. Anything else?”
Victor straightened and leaned back against his desk. His smile was back to the politely cynical geniality he usually wore for the world. He said, “No, I think we’ve covered everything that’s really important here.”
In the burnished bronze slant of the California evening, the entire Camponeta family milled around the parking lot, piling luggage and bags of hasty purchases into the waiting yellow taxis. They were like a swarm of bees around the cabs; kids darting away to take leave of their playmates, Sr. Camponeta trying to direct the maneuver, Sra. Camponeta dashing back and forth to cuff kids, tamp parcels into the trunks, lavish emotional farewells on anybody in sight. Victor and Alicia watched them, safely out of range.
“It’s like an invading horde in reverse,” Victor said, smiling at the hubbub around the cabs.
“Road company enactment of the Sack of Rome,” Alicia offered, but her smile was less superior. She mused on the exodus, then said in a lower voice, “It’s really kind of sad.”
“Sad?” Victor was somewhat stung that she failed to appreciate what he had accomplished for these hapless vagabonds. “How? They’re going home with more money than they’ve seen in the history of their entire family tree.”
“Yeah, but… you heard what they went through to get here. They risked their lives, worked like dogs, walked halfway across the hemisphere.”
“And all just to help us build America. And we didn’t even thank them. Just made them rich.”
“To become Americans. And now they have to leave just because they don’t have the right piece of paper.”
“That check was the rightest piece of paper they ever imagined in their miserable lives.” He turned and gave her the supercilious look she just hated. “Listen, Ms. PC. This isn’t tragic. And it isn’t fascist corporate Amerika screwing over Native American Immigrant Martyrs. Look…” He broke off and turned towards the family circus around the harassed cabs.
He called out, “Señor Camponeta. Ven, por favor.”
Sr. Camponeta approached him with all the reverence and deference due to one’s savior, but with a little trepidation visible around the edges. He knew down deep, and from long experience, that what had happened to them was too good to be true and somebody could come snatch it away at any time. And the ones who snatched things away often looked a lot like Victor Moncalvo. Hat literally in his hand, he almost bowed before them. “Mande, patrón?”
Speaking more gently than he usually did, Victor asked him, “Porque vinieron ustedes a esta país?”
That was such an obvious question that Sr. Camponeta figure it was a trap after all. Eyes down, he said, “Pues, por eso. _] [_Nuestra sueño.”
Victor turned to Alicia, the smirk back in place. “He says they came to this country because it was their dream.” Alicia liked that, and smiled warmly at the newly wealthy peasant.
Who went on, emboldened by her smile. “Y con su ayuda, ya podemos comprar casa en nuestro pueblo. Mil gracias.”
“The dream of being able to own a house in Hondura,” Victor translated. “And it came true.”
Camponeta grabbed Victor’s hand in a sudden impulse, bent to kiss it. His wife, never one to settle for second place in kissing and gushing displays, ran over to throw in her share of benedictions, praises, and hystrionics. Alicias turned away, somewhat disturbed by the whole thing. She hadn’t seen Cam Cole standing behind her.
“There’s another way to look at it,” he told her, too softly to be heard by Victor or Rosas, who surveyed the scene wearing an unaccustomed smile. “You came here in disgrace. Community service, okay, but really exile. You hate Barrio Lobo, don’t like the people.”
Cole held up a hand in front of her. Officer Friendly stopping traffic. “You came to the same place they did. What are you making of it?”
As soon as Cole started talking to Alicia, Rosas strolled off to give them privacy. She didn’t know exactly what was between those two, but it was obviously something. Carefully avoiding the sloppy effulgence of Sra. Camponeta, she came up behind one of the cab drivers, cursing under his breath as he tried to wedge a cardboard box full of dresses and tzotches under the rope that held the tailgate down. He turned to see a cop behind him, with her usual forbidding stare. He shrugged.
“Yeah, it’s illegal to have it open like that. So bust me and put me out of my misery.”
Rosas shook her head, slightly lightened her usual doom face. “Not a problem. Just don’t go up on the freeway. And be sure you take them right to the border. That load zone by the turnstile. Not the stop at the discount center. I don’t want them getting robbed.”
“Yeah, sure.” Just when he thought this fare couldn’t get any worse he runs into Chicana RoboCop.
“And could you make sure they get one of those kids with the shopping carts to help with their stuff?”
“I looked at my job description the other day, lady. Not a thing about babysitting wetbacks.”
Rosas froze over, the chill radiating to the cabbie. “Maybe I’d better follow you down there, then.”
“Nah, that’s okay. I’ll watch out for them until they’re on their merry way.”
“I appreciate it.” She pulled off one glove and dipped into her pocket, grabbed out a crumpled twenty, and handed to him. The driver accepted it, tucked it away, grinned. He gave her a mock salute. She glowered until he got back in the cab and tooted his horn.
Rosas had miscalculated. The touch of the horn brought on an avalanche of Camponetas, swarming for the car and clamboring around Rosas. They kissed her hands and arms, clutched at her, babbled like happy poultry. She tolerated the adoration with an uncomfortable shifting and looked over their heads at Cole and Victor, who were laughing at her discomfiture. The clan parted and Sra. Camponeta swooped through, propelling a stunned Pepito. Planting him in front of Rosas like an offering to an altar, she leaned over to her son.
“This is the woman who saved your life, Jose. What do you say to her now?”
Pepito stared up at Rosas, awed at her robust, starched presence in spite of himself. He asked, “What’s your name?”
Rosas squatted down on her heels to look into his face. “I’m Novena, Pepe.”
That disclosure caused an outbreak of cross-making, gasps, and Dios mio’s: Rosas had just crossed over from heroic savior to cult idol.
Gravely, Pepito stuck out his hand. “Gracias, Novena.”
Rosas shook his hand, looking around for inspiration. She realized that something was required from her, but didn’t know what. She spotted Victor, who smiled, nodded and made a gesture of out-flowing from his chest and mouth. She took Pepito by the shoulders. “You’re a brave little boy, Pepe, but you were very lucky. From now on your life is a gift from God. He wants you to protect yourself and use your life well.”
Amid the chorus of hosannas and notices to God, Christ and the Virgin that elicited, Pepito spotted the tooth marks still visible on Rosas’ arm. He shrugged out of his brand new survival pack and rummaged inside it. He produced a band-Aid with a picture of Spiderman on it and opened it carefully while everybody watched. He looked up at Rosas, who extended her arm so he could press the bandage over her wound. Touched, she ruffed his hair and bent to give him a quick kiss on the forehead.
Embarrassed, Rosas fled to the squad car, She watched through the windshield as the Camponeta brood piled into the cabs, which headed out of the motel and turned towards the southwest. She fired up the car, put it in gear, then stopped. She carefully peeled the band-aid off and pressed it firmly onto the visor, rubbing it down so it would stay. She looked at it and smiled, then moved out of the motel lot. At the street she turned the other direction.
Two blocks up, Rosas turned into an alley she liked to patrol for drug use. She poked along the dumpsters and refuse, scanning for trouble, then braked to a sudden halt and piled out of the car. Pistol in hand, scanning her surroundings, she moved in on what she’d seen—a pale, naked foot sticking out of a dirty blanket rolled up behind one of the dumpsters.
Just as she reached to touch the foot, hoping to hell it wouldn’t be as cold as it looked, the foot spasmed, the blanket roll humped like a spastic caterpillar, and she heard the sounds of vomiting. She relaxed, holstered her pistol, pulled rubber gloves out of her back pocket, and tugged them on, her face a mix of relief and disgust.
Alicia had just gotten back to her office at the Centro when Rosas booted her door aside and strode in with a blanket-wrapped body over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry. She lowered the bundle into a chair and stood back. Her head lolling, her complexion the color of old bathroom grout, obviously naked under the ratty blanket, Lupe Ortega gave Alicia a weak, shaky smile.
Rosas pulled her gloves off, snapped them, and tossed them into the trashcan. Sweeping a hand at Lupe, she said, “There you go, Ms. Childers. Social work that,” then stalked out the door.
Dressed in greying clothing from the charity bin, nibbling at a piece of pizza, and feeling worlds better though still very much on the rocks, Lupe was actually listening to what Alicia was saying. Which was: “I’m not going to tell you things don’t happen to educated people, Lupe. Sex and alcohol are rough playmates. But look at you. If you don’t finish high school, what else do you have going for you?”
Lupe tried to think about that, but it wasn’t much use. “I dunno, what?”
“Look, think about it like this,” Alicia told her earnestly, “If you can’t read, you’ll never have anything together. You’ll just be dumb meat for the world to chew on.”
Lupe nodded seriously, freshly aware of that concept.
“But if you can read, you can learn anything you want to. Just from that one thing. Don’t sweat the other stuff. But get back to school and learn how to read and write. Graduate. It’s not that hard. How many total morons do you know who graduated?”
Lupe smiled a little less tentatively. “Yeah. Maybe so.”
“You’re just a kid,” Alica pressed on, “You’ve still got a chance at a life. Go get it.”
Lupe nodded even though it made her head feel wumpy. “Get a life,” she said. “Go for it. Chido.” She looked at Alicia. “Chido means ‘cool.”
The sky was that proprietary South Coast shade of deep violet as Flaca stood just inside the metal turnstiles leading from San Diego County into Tijuana, gathering the usual guarded attention. There were also some eyes for the slender teenager who stood beside her, wearing jeans and boots like Flaca’s with a nice white peasant blouse and wide-brimmed white cowboy hat. Two of the men casing the young women were officers of the U.S. Border Patrol, stationed at the gate pending the transfer and release of a busload of illegal entrants nabbed, processed and now being returned. Flaca had positioned herself and Panchita so that the younger girl’s face couldn’t be seen from the other side of the fence.
Panchita had come up on the bus to “visit MariRosa”, but nobody really thought she was going to go back down to the Sierra del Nowhere anytime soon. The chicas had taken her on a whirlwind dazzle around town, then Flaca sat her down and asked her what she planned on doing with herself. “While waiting for some rich pendejo to knock you up and marry you,” Jazzi had added.
Although, actually, getting pregnant had acquired an emotional stigma around Flaca’s expanding house in Bravo, mostly due to a field trip she’d organized as part of her general program of tutoring, education, and literacy. She’d taken the girls to watch a woman Flaca knew, actually a former compañera from the Zona Roja, give birth. The process, which involved a tricky presentation and a lot of sweating, screaming and gory mess, had shaken the muchachas. “No way I’m ever going to go through that,” Yessinia had blurted out as they left the midwife’s. “Well, maybe someday.”
Jazzi had shaken her head, shuddered, and said, “I don’t know. That was pretty damned awful.”
MariRosa and Panchita had chorused, “¡Bárbaro![+”<> +]
Whatever her plans regarding childbirth and its contributing causes, Panchita was highly motivated to join Flaca’s pollo operation, and brought to it the same happy energy, unimaginative work ethic, and solid nerves that the other girls had shown. She’d been around the Zona, met several of the polleros… and their women. She would work as a roper at first, recruiting potential “passengers”, before going into the field. She wasn’t learning her letters all that well, but was progressing. She showed a remarkable aptitude for firearms and weapons in general and learned how to drive quicker than any of the other girls, possibly because her father actually owned a pickup down in Sinaloa.
Now she studied the streams of people crossing the border, listening to Flaca explain how to read them and approach them. She ignored the day tourists: chubby midwesterners sweating through their pink skin, Japanese tour groups bristling with cameras, shady-looking gringos probably headed for farmacias without prescriptions, flocks of families already getting fretful and confused. She knew Flaca’s remarks only applied to the Mexicans in the swarm. And now she could see the line of returnees, filing off the Border Patrol bus under the eyes of several big, uniformed Migras with batons and sidearms. They were hicks from the hills and ranchitos, she could see. Like she was, herself. They stood docile and wary, looking through the fence rails at their jilted home country. Some of them clowned around a little, but they were abashed.
“They feel stupid because they got caught,” Flaca told her. “I doubt any of them was across the border for two days before they got nailed.” Panchita peered under her hat brim at the failed immigrants and could see she was right. Flaca looked boldly at the setup. Her face was already known. They just couldn’t do anything about her.
“More than half of those people will head North again as soon as they can manage it. And half of those will be able to pay.” Flaca pointed to a half-dozen men in the yellow shirts of the baggage handler’s union, waiting with handcarts for people with too much stuff to carry the hundred meters to the taxi stands and waiting Blue and White buses. “Stand over there by the maleteros,” she told Pancha. “They won’t bother you. Neither will those immigration guys.” Pancha realized that the uniformed Mexicans she’d seen by the gate were not police, but Mexican immigration officials. Waiting to accept those poor losers back into Mexico, she thought.
“Just stand there, modestly. Speak mildly to them. Speak to the women first. Just ask if they want a guide back North. If you catch their attention, tell them good guides don’t get caught.”
“And the ones that can’t pay?” Panchita asked. “What happens to them?”
“You already know. You see them on the streets every day. Wandering around trying to get the money or the contacts to get back across or maybe get back to Chiapas or wherever. Maybe next time they’ll get lucky. Maybe next time we’ll get that money.”
Panchita nodded, studying the returnees and the crowd pushing through the turnstiles, like a slurry being pumped across the national membrane by big steel paddlewheels. She heard Flaca grunt in surprise, looked a question at her. Flaca nodded at a big family group struggling through the turnstiles with maximum confusion and baggage, clotting up both portals while the crowd backed up behind them, muttering and jeering at the spectacle of the Camponeta family trying to clambor out of the United States.
“I brought that group over,” she told Pancha. “Did you hear that stupid corrido about the auto-cinema?”
Pancha had definitely been played all the corridos about La Flaca and stared at the Hondurans whose drive-in welcome to the Other Side has inspired songs. It was like they were soap opera stars, out in the open. They finally made it through the turnstiles, which were once again clicking rhythmically as people passed through. Their luggage was being sorted out by two yellow-jacketed maleteros who were already regretting coming into the service of Violeta Camponeta.
“Should we see if they want to try it again with us?” she asked Flaca.
“There you go: return business is important to us. Might be twenty percent of our work. However they got grabbed, they know it wasn’t our fault. And they saw some of the other polleros at work.”
She shifted slightly, so the Camponeta clan could pass, strung out like an invading army, without seeing her face. “But not them. Look at their stuff. Lots of stuff. All of it new. They’ll probably get jumped by the aduana+] down there at the checkpoint. They made it somehow. They’re going back where they came from. Salvador, somewhere. I don’t remember exactly. That’s a pretty cool little boy, there.”
Pepito had been scooped on his father’s shoulder to keep him from wandering among the border crush, and he looked back, directly into Flaca’s eyes. He jolted with recognition, staring at her. Panchita had the impression of a heavy hook-up between them as the kid got hustled off towards the taxis. He raised his hand and waved at Flaca. She smiled and with the measured, gracious motion of a beauty queen on a parade float, blew him a kiss. He nodded solemnly and returned the gesture. Then disappeared into the huddle at the Customs post. Flaca had been right, they were all over the Camponeta baggage train and Sra. Violeta was all over them.
“He remembered you,” she said to Flaca. “He was kind of a cute little plebe.”
“He’s got a long way to go home,” Flaca said. “And I hope he can stay there this time. But you never know.”
Panchita looked at the border fence, the gangs of people tied up in crossing one way or the other, the whole chokepoint of the dam between two countries. And here she was, standing here looking across at The Other Side. A long way from home.—if it was even “home” any more. Flaca was right, as usual: you just never know where you’re going to end up or how you’re going to get there.
They think NAFTA will put San Diego on the international trade map because it’s close to Mexico. And therefore they can sell more real estate and raise more taxes and build more crap and float more defaulted city bonds. Wrong. Tijuana and the Baja are nothing commercially. The train runs to Mexicali and on up to Los Angeles. This area is a backwater spur for both countries. San Diego will keep on being a tourist town, a navy town, a beach town. Tijuana will keep on being whatever the hell it is. But this is not bad news if you are a regular citizen rather than a booster/vulture. These backwaters are the place to be if you’re more interested in a decent life than in making big bucks for somebody else. For instance, it’s much more fun swimming and canoeing in the eddies by the shore than out where the main stream plunges towards the powerhouse.
“Backwater Smack” Jim Riles
“Freeze Frame” Column Southcoast Week
It’s not about his family or his wealth or his involvement in drug traffic: it comes down to this, he’s hardcore PRI. He’s from the bloodline of Dinosaurs, born into the inbred, corruption-fed, greed-led machine that has enslaved and impoverished us for so many decades.
The victory of the Foxistas didn’t destroy this monster, just took over part of its swamp for awhile. And of course, they want it all back. So they run a millionaire for Mayor of Mexico’s third largest city. Money, power, and family. The same old PRI. They don’t even try to pretend they are anything else.
The PAN might be too conservative and Catholic to lead this country after Fox. But the PRI is just too evil to tolerate. Vote for anybody or don’t vote at all. But if you care about Mexico, don’t vote for him.
“Votas, Botas, y Pelotas”+][_ _] Blas Espinosa
“Espejos y Espejismos” Column Zeta
There is never an ending, happy or otherwise. Sooner or later we sleep, then wake to a different world in which things have moved off in new directions. And the things that stay the same have built up pressure to suddenly shift tomorrow. These people will continue to lead their lives. Which it is to say their lives will continue to lead them.
There could be no better future for Ado Siguieros than the present, life as an endless bus ride singing his now-famous songs with Sebi, whose singing keeps on improving as he grows up. There is more to know about music and playing a guitar than Ado will ever know, but the amazing increase in his cassette sales and royalties make lessons possible and Sebi will soon be a much better musician than himself. But will he really share, or even understand, the complex social, cultural, and even political elements of these corridos, these newsstand sermons that pose as hillbilly ballades? Time will tell, of course, but Ado has plenty of time. And, of course, so does Sebi.
The first baby will be a turning point for Mari/Angeles/Flaca and the girls in her house. A young working girl making ends meet by doing some light hooking in discos on weekends can’t be expected to deal with pregnancy, much less raise a baby. She’ll have few options, and just through luck run into Flaca, have a few drinks and spill her troubles. She won’t stay in the house much longer than it takes to see the pregnancy out, but what will become of the baby girl? The answer would seem to lie in the fascination and charm the new arrival holds for the muchachas from Sinaloa… and Flaca’s sudden realization of something she’d been moving towards without knowing it: that girls should have a safe, caring home and that she is in a position to provide it.
That baby will be the first of many children taken in from uncertain fates, transforming the ever-growing ridgetop house into a dormitory/nursery full of cooking smells, baby sounds, birthday cakes, dress-sewing parties, laughter and irate yells. Cats and dogs, girls of all ages… but no men. That will always be the rule. With one exception, actually almost a technicality.
The happiest and most devoted individual in Flaca’s growing menagerie would have to be the dog who will become known as Pucho. Recovered from his gunshot wound and free to romp in the wild, open land of the ridge as well as a house of bountiful kitchen and playful girls, Pucho would appear to have landed in Dog Heaven. As the house fills with children, he can effortlessly step up to providing animal comfort and unconditional love to the rejected, put-upon, and emotionally needful. While still offering his formidable presence and decisive intervention should problems arise in areas of security or protection.
This place just gets better and better all the time, would be Pucho’s thought if he could think. Although his experience, like so many others, might indicate that you never know when or how change will crop up or what and where it will deliver you.
Pepito’s family, flush with the jackpot that gushed out on them from the American Dream, shouldn’t have any problem making their way safely back to Honduras, buying a nice house with land around it, and becoming instant aristocrats in their old village. They were always the kind of people to share their wealth with others so it will be Don Camponeta. With Violeta relishing her new status as a sort of first lady of the boondocks and Pepito emerging as leader in his age group not only because of family fortunes, but for his courage, will and new bedrock proof of his own worth and resolve. The whole future of the family seems assured at last and their esteem a beacon to the community. So of course when the rebel guerillas come, they’ll come for them first.
Jim Riles will live to be a hundred, according to his happy calculations. Because no matter what or who tries to torpedo him, even himself, he just won’t go down. The Roll just keeps on rolling along. This is a guy who will always fall a step short of total ruin, stroll along with the slings and arrows thunking into the wall just behind him, beat the big raps, reap crops he never planted, loll in the catbird seat tossing off a drink with one hand while the other displays an uplifted finger to natural order and the law of averages. But he had better watch out about getting too involved in stories about Mexico. Especially the politics.
Don Aquiles Altamira will be a slight underdog the week before the mayoral elections: before the thunder, shock, and carnage of the big guns held in reserve. Scandals breaking in the papers daily, video proof on television of perfidy and avarice in the opposition camps, then the tragic crash of two guayinos full of people on the road in from San Antonio de los Buenos.
The transportation issue, artfully raised and carefully nurtured, had been a main theme of the election; an issue the people cared about more than the rich, chauffeured politicos realized, coming in under the radar and suddenly crying out for a strong solution. Which Altamira had offered in the form of redrawing routes and modernizing equipment, sparing Tijuana the embarrassment of all those old American cars running around, the dangers so great that people sang about them on the radio. Increased safety standards for the protection of passengers was a plank in the platform that mostly drew bored nods… until thirteen people burned to death right in the middle of that bad curve by the old dairy. Aside from the tragic elements, it was seen as an extreme stroke of luck for the campaign in most sectors. In others, it was seen as something a little darker.
The impactive lesson? Altamira will be a mayor who prevents that sort of thing. He will be a mayor who makes Tijuana proud, who has the pantalones to stand up to the narcos and kidnappers and other delinquents, who will see to it that there are jobs and shiny new buses and winning futbol teams. And most of those predictions will actually be true. And the narco thing will at least look like it’s true. Which is a great deal more important. So, how long before he’ll move toward being Governor?
Lupe Ortega, precocious jailbait dropout, will be amazed to find that she actually goes back to school and starts floundering to catch up. Teachers will not miss the fact that she has a different, more settled attitude and willingness to strive. They’ll mention it to Alicia when they see her. The kid might get her life straightened out after all. Alicia would be hard-put to hide the glow a rare salvation job can bring and will only say that Lupe’s life is a life-long project, but we’ll see how long she lasts next term.
Officer Novena Rosas will never understand the relationships that unfold around her. A great guy like Cameron Cole seems to be involved in some way with that insipid Alicia Childers. Victor Moncalvo works in Lobo when he could be downtown driving a Ferrari if he wanted to. Jim Riles is allowed to live among us, and even prosper. A gang is taking over the barrio and nobody is allowed to do anything about it.
The one she’ll never stop to wonder about is why a beautiful, powerful young woman would strap herself into a flak jacket and gunbelt, spend her free time in gyms and dojos and firing ranges, carry a chip on her shoulder the size of the Mesa, and have no interest in sex or love.
And life in Barrio Lobo and its “sister slum” Grupo Bravo will continue in much the same way. Drab boredom and careless decay salted with the noise and color of children and celebrations, broken by the occasional bright splash of violence, nurtured by that secretive and apparently bottomless reservoir of the human capacity for coping with any given environment. The line that divides them on people’s maps will become more visible and important at times, at other times melt away in common cause and the skein of family, love, and enmity. They will remain the sort of places where nobody wants to live and have families. But people will keep coming to them and having children.
+] – literally, “to the contrary”, but most often used as a polite way of saying “Oh, no, YOU…”.
+] – self-effacing (as in English word “self abnegation”). Widely considered a good quality in the womenfolks.
+] – literally “let’s go”. “Come on”, “get a move on”, “you got it.”
+] – a play on Latin church term auto da fe, meaning and “act of faith.”
+] – Customs agents. Collect duties on any imports. A corrupt group, much hated.
+] – literally, “drooler”, but any sort of dumbass.
+] – Sinaloa state’s contribution to popular music in Mexico and much of Latin America. Huge bands that back up singers, accordions, and guitars with clarinets, trumpets, multiple drums, and huge sousaphones. The music—which is the official soundtrack of the narcotics industry—is basically polka, pounded by maximum oom-pa-pa.
+] – or Que barbaro! Literally “barbaric”, applied like “how awful!” or “gross!”, but also used like “way cool” or “outasite”.
+] – canyon, gully.
+] – two names for neighborhoods.
+] – a large, very prickly, spined cactus.
+] – means not “brave”, but wild and fierce, obstreperous and aggressive. Signs warning about dogs say Perro Bravo in Mexico.
+] – The “jump” across the border: brinco has the sense of jumping off of something—a brink—so it gives that sense to border-hopping. A brinquero is a specialist in doing that jump from one country to the other.
+] – “Witch” +]—Witchcraft.
+] – literally “goatish” but generally a multi-purpose insult like “asshole”. In some countries carries suggestion of being cuckold.
+] – a desert shrub common in northern Baja—and therefore a slang term for residents of that area, or of Mexicali.
+] – term refers to “of the same flesh”, means “family” (in this diminutive case, “little brother”, but also used with friends, like “bro”.
+] – a booth, in this case for making long distance calls. Traditionally located in urban stores with banks of phones, currently more frequently used in the 7-11-like “Oxxo” stores.
+] – literally “hunter”, but the word applies to jet fighter aircraft.
+] – wide variety of translations, such as “oh, come on”, “nah”, “forget it”, “no big”, “bullshit”.
+] and +] – both terms for little boys.
+] – from chula”,meaning “pretty”, a good approximation of “cutie”.
+] – Chingar doesn’t mean exactly “fuck”, but it’s close enough. So, among the many, many applications, this one means “fucked up”.
– Fucking and getting fucked.
+] – highly cool, “bitchin’ ”, “the shit”.
+] – punks, thugs, tattooed gangbangers of a certain Latino mode. More commonly used in U.S. than Mexico.
+] – literally “goat sucker”, a mythical beast in northern Mexico as entertaining as the jackalope, but more sinister: an evil vampirish beast that sucks blood from goats or whatever it can.
+] – short for compadre, meaning a very close friend. Used as we might say “pal” or “buddy” in direct address.
+] – Means “together”, refers to a small group of musicians, a combo.
+] – what we would call ballads: songs that tell a story. But more specifically, a format of verse that recites events or tales. A recent innovation, the narcocorridos, are musical stories about the drug industry and its more spectacular events and individuals.
+] – literally “healer”, but carries the flavor of naturalist or spiritualist healing.
+] “screwup”, “clusterfuck”, etc.
+] – means a “goodbye” or “farewell”, but in this specific sense is a formal ending to the old-school style corrido.
+] – literally “that”. Derived from ese vato, meaning “that guy”, but currently used to refer to anybody… including direct address, like “man”.
+] – disgraceful ones, essentially, jerks.
+] +] – “Destinations in focus”.
+] – “Mirrors and Mirages”. Column title.
+] – literal translation of “beaner”. Generally used satirically in Mexico.
+] – border, frontier.
+] – a Northamerican. Same as gringo, basically.
+] – nothing to do with “gyrate” or spiral, it refers to money orders sent by mail or wire.
+] – attractive, pretty. Used as adjective or noun for “hot woman”. Male “guapo” means “handsome” or “good looking guy”.
+] – a guide.
+] – in Mexico, a specific word referring to sons of politically powerful men. Children of privilege, the abuse a virtual total impunity from the law.
+] – from imigracion, meaning U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration, ICE, or any such organization.
+] – literally, “soaked” or “wet”. Direct translation of “wetback”.
+] – La linea is what Tijuanenses call the border… or at least the crossings where cars and pedestrians line up for hours to cross. Libertad (ironically meaning “freedom” is a colonia near the main crossing, running up the hill by the border, offering a commanding view of the crossing areas.
+] – Literally “then”, but hasta luego means “see you later”, and therefore luego is “later” in our same slangy good-bye sense.
+] – macho means simply “male”. The weight it has in American speech is eqivalent to Mexican terms like machote and machista—somebody over-dedicated to maleness.
+] – porters. From maleta=suitcase.
+] – nothing to do with “hands”, it’s a shortening of hermano/hermana, and thus “sis” or “bro”.
+] – to send, and thus to give orders. La Flaca Manda means “The Skinny Girl Commands”.
+] – factories, but with the special sense of big assembly plants in the NAFTA border strip, allowing cheaper import of goods put together there, rather than in China or Hong Kong. They employ female workers because management, often Asian, finds men unreliable and troublesome.
+] – “green card”, so called because it’s enmicado: laminated.
+] – the most common word for marijuana; “pot”.
+] – word for a certain kind of flashy geek, a kind of disco duck oblivious to the fact that his cool boots and necklaces aren’t impressing anybody. The “como criticarlo” in the book title means “and How to Put Them Down”.
+] – A huge concept in Mexico. Not “narks”, but the drug biz personnel themselves, as in narcotraficante. Terms like lo narco or narcocultura hint at the huge social impact of this activity, permeating Mexican society like Mafia in old Sicily.
+] – “girl”, more affectionate than niña, applied to little girls or said to women one’s own age.
+] – “Northern”. In Mexico that means what “western” means in the U.S.—cowboys, shootin’… and shitkicking music.
+] – “the other side”, common border parlance for the U.S. side of the invisible line.
+] – “Listen” or “listen up”.
+] – an ancient tradition of festive gatherings. Classically a sort of state fair, but recently often referring to only aspect of that—cockfight tournaments.
+] -- popcorn. (Poetically enough, literally means “little doves”.
+] – literally, semi-refined cane sugar sold cast into cones…the conical shape suggesting the slang meaning, “pussy”. Which meaning is so universal that the sugar is now referred to as piloncillo.
+] – literally “pubic hairs”, but wider meaning very close to gringo slang, “stupid assholes.”
– Periodicals—newspapers in particular. Journalists are [+periodistas].
+] – the standard bad adjective. Where Americans would say “this fucking thing” or “that goddamed thing”, Mexicans use pinche.
+] – one of the scads of slang terms for “penis”.
+] – literally “badge”, but a major slang term for “cop”.
+] – another term for a little kid… but has a more major usage in Sinaloa slang, which is the root of narco industry slang: meaning “thing” in the sense that somebody might say “hand me that puppy” referring to anything.
+] – Since “wetbacks” are pollos, those who “herd” them are polleros, and this feminine form would apply to the extremely rare female human trafficker. Chamba means “job”, in a slangier sense, like “gig”.
+] – Nalgas are buttocks, so essentially mean “butt” or “ass”. In the Spanish way that augmentatives comes to mean “characterized by”, nalgona refers to somebody with a large or otherwise remarkable rear end. The song title means something like, “The Fine-Assed Smuggler Babe”.
+] “chickens”, but the universal human smuggler’s term for the clients being illegally run across the border.
+] – cheerleader.
+] – a tip, like to a waitress.
+] – “whore”. From prostituta.
+] – pretty direct equivalent of “motherfucker”.
+] – “What’s up?” one of the few survivals of sixties slang in which onda, meaning “wave” and thus “vibe” was much used.
+] – Slang form of “whats up?”
+] – a dance step, sort of cowboy twostep with some fancy variations like swing dancing. Generally done to country/ranchero music.
+] – slang slur of Que hubo? one form of “What’s happening?” Flaca means thin or skinny, so her smuggling nickname is like “Slim”.
+] – Raiteros provide local transportation from the north side of the border to safe houses or other destination. Because raites is a lift from “rides”.
+] – a Chicano word from back in the Zoot Suit era, referring to a “jalopy” or “beater”, but occasionally adopted to more contemporary barrio automotive weirdness.
+] – A magazine.
+] – superlative of rico, which is the Mexican word for “tasty”.
+] – a person with AIDS, Spanish initials SIDA.
+] – “You’re ALL angels!”
+] – “retards”.
+] – or just novella,a TV soap opera.
+] – from atras, meaning “back” or “behind”, most properly refers to the trunk or “boot” of a car, but slyly used to refer to “backside” or “booty”.
+] – basically, “guys” or “dudes”.
+] – Votes, Boots, and Bullets.
+] –“old man”; used literally, or in the sense of “he’s my old man”.
+] – “border foxes”.
The BORDERLAND books are adaptations, originally born as scripts for a television series. So the book series tends to follow the pattern familiar to people who watch fine contemporary shows like “Orange is the New Black”, “Breaking Bad”, “Nashville”, or “Scandal”. There are stories resolved in a single book and other “arcs” that continue over the entire series. Some characters might not appear in any given book, others might suddenly take center stage, some might be visited at previous times in their lives.
The hope is that you, the reader, will follow the events for the pleasure of reading them. To help you out, this “bible” (as television production people call the background information on a show) mentions the major players and a little of the background and setting. Hope you find it useful.
BORDERLAND is set in a unique environment: nowhere else in the world do two large cities, one third world and one first world, border each other as do Tijuana and San Diego. Action is largely centered around two neighborhoods across the California/Mexico line from each other: “Barrio Lobo” (or “Barrio Lowblow” to locals) and Grupo Bravo, the smugglers’ colonia on the Mexico side. Factors from wider areas on both sides play a part, but most of the action takes place in the dusty shacks of Bravo and the clustered migrant ghetto in Lobo.
There are certain focal points. The deteriorating Centro dela Raza is a struggling attempt to provide social services, including rudimentary medical, legal and social work. The rundown police precinct is the smallest and least-funded in the county, and only has one patrol car. The border itself is a nightly battleground, guides attempting to smuggle illegal human traffic across and to safe locations.
More on the setting, along with pictures .
Some of the more recurrent characters in the border adventures are listed below. You can view pictures of them .
The greedy, debauched, womanizing Riles ties a lot of the stories in BORDERLAND together. Star writer for the weekly “Frontera” he covers the border with equally prodigious feats of literary talent and venal corruption. A self-described sane observer of an insane world, Riles has a way of putting events into motion…with very mixed results. He glorys in being a loose cannon and one-man vice wave but often ends up doing good for bad reasons. His collaboration (or collusion) with Blas Espinosa, his counterpart on the Tijuana weekly “Zeta”, is a main thread tying together the two sides of the border.
Officer Novena Rosas
Marksman, martial artist, and athlete, she has a blindingly intense dedication to the law based in her belief that breaking the rules will plunge her back into the gutter she came from. Her childhood in the migrant jungles is cloudy, but emerges as a source of her hatred for drug traffickers, especially if they are Hispanic males. Her performance is being undercut, however, by the confused sexuality she has buried under physical exertion. After a coke ring sting in a lesbian bar, she develops a compulsion to beat up druggie women…and ends up finding out what is behind the guilty excitement it gives her.
Eduardo “Poker” Cabrales is a veterano of Chicano gangbanging, an old school warrior who leads the lowriding, drug-dealing La Neta gang largely due to attrition. New, more powerful forces entering the barrio battlefield are forcing him to start thinking out of his cholo box, however: will he step up to new challenges of politics and sheer firepower, or preside over the death of his “homies” and way of life?
Gaspar, “one name brand for imported narcotics” rose to his “Godfather” status in the barrio through the ruthless energies of youth, but has become more complex in time. He has a concern for his community but becomes, without ever deciding to, a prime fulcrum in a violent battle that has already caused deaths in the neighborhood, and shootings of his own staff and family members.
His short prison term becomes a catalyst for change in his life, precipitating divorce, remarriage to the remarkable Nan, a stay in the intensive care ward, and a new position in the border power flux.
A blue-blooded, over-educated WASP, Alicia is blatantly out of place doing social work for El Centro del Barrio… but remains there by court order, due to exploding into shocking crime several years before when she worked for Child Protective Service. That earlier experience has marred her own sexual response and given her a vicious hatred for child abuse. But she is finding that her early distaste and cynicism for the job and community are changing into grudging respect and desire to help.
An earlier fling with Cole still smolders and she is hotly pursued by her colleague Victor… and most of the men in the barrio.
The legal side of aid from El Centro del Barrio, Victor is as suave, passionate, and compulsive in defending the poor as he is in pursuing women… but his early dedication to his people is becoming cynical as time passes. This is almost certainly because of hidden secrets: his rise from barrio backwater to district representative comes because of sinister outside influences that he can neither control nor accept.
Sgt. Cameron Cole
Decent and personable, Cole’s understated leadership is a force for normality among the otherwise troubled types in Barrio Lobo; a California beach jock who sees his mission as keeping things mellow. His presence in a backwater like “Barrio Lowblow” after 15 years of service, however, is due to his surfrider attitudes towards authority…and his weakness for women.
Born Maria de los Angeles, the tough, resourceful smuggler is a legend in the Tijuana demimonde, both as female smuggler in a man’s world and for what she does with the money: continually building on to her huge, ramshackle house to shelter abandoned street kids. And that was before her father became a patron saint of the narcotics trade when his grave produced miracles. Bringing these three elements together, La Flaca forges a vertically structured “railway” for moving illegals and improving the lives of kids.
Nan stands out even among the contradictory personalities around her. A beautiful, high-priced call girl who married drug lord Gaspar out of convenience, she has a fierce loyalty and affection for him. Authentically sweet-natured and kind, she reacts to threat with a cold-eyed, homicidal efficiency. Desiring nothing but peaceful sleep, she is most responsible for detonating the violent warfare between her husband’s patron’s cartel and the wild interlopers from Central America.
Lt. Raymond Mobley
Ray-Ray Mobley, hardened homicide detective recently promoted to (or punished with, if you ask him) the newly created Border Crime Division, smoothes out the demands of a thankless job in foreign territory where he doesn’t even speak the language with a sly “ghetto” sense of humor and a crafty sense of creating and preserving alliances.
Ascending to leadership of the latest generation of one of Mexico’s “ruling families,” the shadowy, omnipresent Altamira is a regional force: combining political lineage, control of narcotics cartels, and deep roots in international finance. He wants to be Mayor of Tijuana, which hinders him in crushing the attack of the “Truchas” gangs from Central America, and to exercise control in California politics as well. He is the stuff of paranoia, everybody’s boss…and his motives are unfathomable.
Bernal and Reyes
Bernal is mentor to the rookie Reyes, both on the Tijuana Police Department and the secret squad within the force composed completely of alumni of a local high school football team. The “Tecos” are dedicated to cleaning up narco-corruption on the force and fund that drive by executions and seizures. Clean, dedicated, and completely in love with a wild California cheerleader, Reyes walks a fine line between heroism and outlaw violence. But what if the Tecos are actually working for Altamira without knowing it?
Young Central Americans hardened by Los Angeles gang crime then deported, unwanted, to El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Truchas survived urban wars, genocide, and military extermination campaigns to become some of the wildest, most savage fighting clans in the world. Illiterate, drug-addicted punkers with short lifetimes filled with rejection and rage, they organize and move northward, too crazy to buy in and too violent to subdue. Drawn to the rich border drug trade, they come into conflict with “Old School” Mexican mobs and bring it on in their usual style: jungle rules with nothing to lose.
A big, tough Rottweiler with ultra-violent past fighting for his life in pit fights, this dog of many names and “owners” has a way of continually turning up in different lifestyles while switching sides of the border—and of getting shot and stabbed while doing it. A fearsome killer, all he really wants is be around people who treat him nice, and play with children.
Linton Robinson has been a professional writer for over forty-five years, and lived most of the last twenty-five years in Mexico. Before moving to novels and screenplays, he wrote for newspapers and some of the top magazines in the world. He has written for several publications in Mexico, as well.
This book, drawn for years of living at the Border, was originally a TV series which is in development with a major Hollywood producer.
More of Lin’s books, several set in Mexico, on his
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Lives intertwine at the Californa/Mexico border. Smugglers, immigrants, cops, lawyers, journalists, politicians, predators... and the various residents of barrios on both sides, a community with an imaginary line drawn across its heart. Drawn from the scripts for the television show, this first book in its series focuses on several lives: Ado sings ballads on buses until his son is stricken down, Riles' sorry appetites suddenly come together for his stories and his ill-gotten gains, Pepito crossed all the water between Honduras and California, and now it's all fallen apart, Pucho goes from fighting pits to the border beach to a home in the smuggler roost, La Flaca married out of the hills at twelve, and hit the streets before finding her true calling. This is border life unvarnished and undramatized... but human drama of its essence.