Todd Robert Petersen (Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Critical Theory, Oklahoma State U) is a former Associate Editor of the Cimarron Review. His work has appeared in Cream City Review, Third Coast, Mid-American Review, Dialogue, Sunstone, and Pleiades. He is currently at work on a non-fiction book called Weatherscapes.
You are driving north from the borderlands in a yellow Dodge with dented Chihuahua plates. It is high noon on your fourth day of driving. The road slithers ahead of you. It is a strange surprise to see the mountains floating impossibly in the distance like giant barges—a surprise, though it shouldn't be. In the open, where there are no people, no buildings, it is hard sometimes to tell that it is no longer Mexico. Perhaps in some way you are now in the United States simply because of Rio Bravo or because of the history no one seems eager to recall.
In the same way, perhaps, Mexico is not really Mexico. Perhaps something exists beyond the scope of the maps. For you, the language of New Mexican road signs is at least half yours. But the radio is full of hard-vowelled gringo music. The cars are in better repair—something has changed. You hear the booming of military jets out over the white sands. This is the landscape's future.
Later, in Las Cruces, you buy gas with hand gestures and some of the pale, crumpled dollars you have brought along. Everyone in the gas station is tight-lipped. Their eyes dart away from you and back again like the eyes of dogs. You make sure they spot the scar on your cheek, the folding knife on your belt. They can draw their own conclusions. Out here hatred flows in two directions: against and across the river. But if you go back far enough, no one can claim the high ground.
You drive another two hours. The air is on fire. It almost does not matter that you have the windows down; the roar of the wind through the car sounds like a blast furnace.
A bus appears out of the blazing heat with yellow wheat stalks on the license plates. You recognize the words "church" and "Christ," which are painted on the side in blue. As the bus passes, the rumble of its engine explodes, then becomes silent again, the bus growing small in your mirrors. Bundles of white plastic pipe have been tied to the top of the vehicle. There are probably tools and work gloves inside, small video games. It is another batch of missionaries from the North who want to buy devotion with clean water. They hate the fact that Mexico is already full of Catholics, and they don't know which is worse, you or the Indians.
You reach into your shirt and draw out the medallion of Saint Christopher that belonged to your grandfather. You stroke your thumb across the raised image of the infant Jesus on the old man's shoulders. Just then, a cluster of small, white crosses zooms past. On one, a wreath hangs crookedly.
You drive for another few minutes and see a large dual-axeled pickup truck pulling an even-larger boat. As it draws closer, you ease over toward the shoulder to give the trailer more room. The turbulence pushes your car around like a grocery sack. You correct your swerve and drive on. The lack of police around here makes you progressively more and more nervous.
In the distance, you see a car torn by the heat into ribbons of wet color, which coalesce as you draw closer. The hood is up and a man is lying underneath. You slow and engage your turning signal. The man's feet twitch like mule's ears. You pull off the road in front of him, where a puddle of half-dried coolant has spread across the pavement. You are three steps away before he notices you.
"¿Qué es el problema?" you say. The man doesn't understand, so you point to the pool of coolant and say, "¿Necesitas agua?"
He nods and says something in English, but you do not understand. His face and knuckles are covered in grease. He smiles and motions for you to follow him. You lean across the radiator together; he holds up a ruptured hose. The split is as long as your thumb.
"Necesitas más ayuda que yo te puedo dar," you say, shrugging your shoulders.
He shrugs as well. You motion for him to come with you to your car. He follows.
"No tengo aire acondicionado," you say. "Lo siento."
The man says, "Gracias," and gets into your car.
As you pull back onto the road, it occurs to you that the missionaries and the man with the boat have passed this man up. Your father used to say that in the desert it is an unwritten rule to always help someone who is stranded. Seeing this man here by himself along the interstate infuriates you. You start hoping that the missionaries themselves will break down in the middle of nowhere, that they will become haloed in a coil of vultures, and that their children will start crying at the sight of the gangly birds. It would serve those people right for vacationing among the poor.
You look over at the man. He is dressed worse than you are. His sandals were fine ones once, his pants, too. But they have been cut off above the knees. He is unshaven, his hair as long as a woman's, and it snaps around in the wind. He is smiling. After a few minutes, he looks over at you.
"Hablo español un poquito," he says. "Aprendí en la escuela."
"Bueno," you say.
"Donde está tu casa?"
"En un pueblecito en Chihuahua." You begin to tell him about your village and the poverty there, about the drought and the crops dying.
"No entiendo," he says, "pero habla más, es como música."
It feels strange, at first, to speak this way with an American, but you grow accustomed to it. You tell him about forging the work visa, about how much it cost, then about how you heard of the "coyotes" and how people are caught by the border patrol in the middle of the night and sent back with less money than they had before. Sometimes they are killed. Sometimes they just die. It happened to your uncle, Guillermo, who drowned trying to cross from Tijuana into California.
These are stories you didn't know you had in you. Telling them calms you down. The man just smiles, his head bobbing slightly as you drive. You tell him about the girls in your village leaving for Mexico City and the cruise-ship ports of the West Coast, how no one stays at home, how the old ones die and how there are no babies to replace them. As you talk, you confess your fears of being caught and sent home, of dying broke and childless in a small, desert village. You tell him about the work to be found in the Yakima valley picking apples. You feel better just saying the words, even if the American can not really understand them.
When you pause, he looks over. He is happy and unashamed of it. Strange for a gringo. You tell him as much, but he just nods. When you pull into the gas station outside of Socorro, the man gets out, reappearing suddenly in the open window. There is money in his hand, and he thrusts it at you, smiling. "Támalo," he says, "Washington es lejos. Lo vas a necesitar para el viaje."
You refuse the offer, ignoring the flood of his bad Spanish. It is funny that the man has said nothing about the fact that socorro means aid, la ayuda. You laugh a little, and even though the man looks hurt, he struts around the front of your car, reaches into the window, and shakes your hand. He has palmed the money and tries to slip it to you as if you were a Nogales policeman.
"Gracias," he says.
You leave the bill in his hand, and he is alarmed. "This is for—you know," he gestures to the gas station, "for getting me here," he says. When you shake your head and refuse the money, he lifts your wiper blade from the dusty glass. "Send it home if you want to, but don't worry about it. It's a gift, el regalo." When the blade snaps back down, the twenty dollar bill is pinned underneath. The man turns quickly and walks away so you will have no time to protest.
You honk once, but he ignores you.
You honk again, but he is inside.
The wind flaps the bill against the windshield. You make the sign of the cross and reach outside for the money. This is good fortune. In fact, it does not occur to you to think of this as a parable or as a problem of language. You are now in the North and on the lam. You must accept providence, whatever form it takes.
Let us say that you and I are brothers, that I am older by a few years, and that you and I are often mistaken for twins. Let us also imagine that you have become tired of this town before you could understand it. We were born here, but you have always hated it. I admit that it is small, that there is no privacy, but it is a good town. The people here are honest. Perhaps it's the honesty that bothers you. In your last year of school, you told me you were restless, and I could see, almost as soon as you said it, that within a season you would be gone.
Then, suddenly, you were.
You asked our old man for your inheritance, the money left in trust, money granddad set aside for us to build homes. When the old man gave it to you, you disappeared like lightning into the darkness. He said he knew you would wait for a storm like that one to boil across the mountains so you'd have the veil of high drama to cover your escape. In a way, he sounded jealous. But that's over now. These days, he just sounds defeated.
It has been years since you disappeared, but Mother acts as if you have just gone to town for the afternoon. She has kept your room, stripping the beds once a week, washing the linens, dusting your trophies and the window sills. The old man talks about you like you were dead, when he talks about you at all. We have, in our own ways, grown accustomed to your disappearance.
In the meantime, I have covered for the old man's lapses, taking charge of the books, the hiring of hands, the purchase of adjacent property, the securing of water rights and grazing allotments. Under my care, the ranch has finally tasted some success, but the old man says nothing about it. He just stares out toward the mountains like he was looking into another world. I say nothing about it to him, and we hear nothing of your doings. So your return, after so long, is a shock to us. The old man is elated. He throws a party for you, roasts a pig, and calls in the neighbors. Later, he scolds me for my bitterness, calling it a poison.
Suddenly it's my turn to stare out toward the mountains as if I were looking into a different world, and I am—it is a world where I have grown obsolete, where the ranch dwindles back into its jerry-rigged, inefficient ways, where I am unnecessary, where the wind blows dust across everything and our cattle just lie down on the range and expire.
Now, let's say that after you have settled in again, I am approached by our father and asked to forgive you for your foolishness. And let's say that I bend to him and comply, though I do it with a reluctance that means I am not really complying, which will be worse for me, the old man says, in the long run. He will look me in the eye and say I have become a proud man. I'll say that he is right, if proud means being realistic.
He will turn away then and disappear into the house.
Eventually your humility will take center stage, and I will be subjected to the wisdom you picked up on the end of a needle. The old man will grow even older, and he'll become obscenely happy. Mother will sit in the kitchen among her grandchildren, feeding them until they swell like watermelons. My rage will fade to contempt, and you will smell the poison as it pumps through me during the spring inoculations, leaching out of my skin like cyanide. Eventually I will come around, but it will be as our father lies dying in the bed in which he was born. I will climb the stairs and apologize to you and to him and to our mother, who will be a widow by nightfall.
And this is how we will practice our religion.