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The boy squats on his haunches, spits in the dust and picks at the hole in the knee of his filthy jeans, the nail of his index finger blackened and dead. He is skinny like an eight-year-old with the face of a careworn parent, black hair dirt stiff and his toffee-coloured skin streaked with a grey and grimy sweat. He can’t remember the last time he washed but he knows he hasn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before, the stale tamale his father gave him still lodged in his gut. In a month he will be 14 and there is nothing but stealing on his mind.
Buzzards circle overhead and the sun will soon rise enough to warm the man lying face down in the barranca, arms and legs splayed as if he has fallen to earth, possibly thrown from one of the planes that streak the sky, north to south, east to west, white trails like the scars that crisscross the soft flesh of his mother’s forearms. Or maybe he was hurled from heaven like the devil. The gringo certainly doesn’t look like any of the angels the boy has seen in picture books.
Let’s call him Chico: Chico Hernandez. We’ll never know his real name. Chico picks up a stone and tosses it at the gringo from his perch above the gully. It misses, hits a small boulder and ricochets noisily away. The gringo doesn’t move. Chico throws another, clips his shoulder. Nothing. The way he’s lying, his neck looks broken. He is wearing only a thin cambray shirt and the night was cold. He must be dead. Chico has seen dead people in coffins before – his grandparents, his uncle, the four miners who got trapped in the cave-in the year before last. Face up. Cleaned up. Neat and tidy. This one will have his bones picked. No one comes out here except him.
A truck sounds its horn out on the highway to the east, headed north for the border, laden with cheap goods. Chico slides down the side of the barranca and steps lightly towards the man, eyes on his boots: Cuban-heeled, exquisitely tooled, no more than a few weeks old. They will fetch a good price if he can find the nerve to pull them off. He picks up a rock, raises it, and prods the gringo’s leg with the toe of his huarache, shudders, does it again, harder this time. The gringo twitches and Chico shrieks in a way that shames him, drops the rock and scrambles back out of the barranca. A groan like an old car struggling to fire builds in the man. Whatever is lodged in his lungs, phlegm or catarrah or mucus or whatever you want to call it, eventually breaks free. He rolls on his side and spits it out, brown and glistening, opens a crusty eye and recalls the night before and the day that came with it. The drive up from Tampico to Piedras Negras, the copy of the book that the Texan woman with the big tits left behind in the bar lying on the passenger seat, pages flapping in the wind and the Chevy burning oil, his wife Dolores’s parting words ringing in his ears.
– Te odio. Siempre!
– I hate you!
– I’ve always hated you!
– I will always hate you!
Man, she gave him three translations. Her English really had come on. Not that a translation was necessary. He has known love and knows she’s never had any for him. Not what he’d call love. Then again, he has called love a lot of things over the years. The book has reminded him of that and it is rage and remorse and a terrible truth that has driven him up to the border. Who was the Texan woman? She’d flirted with him all evening in the shortest shorts, cut right up into her crotch, sitting there with her legs parted. Big fat husband sending her up to the bar for more drinks, watching her ass swing, watching the way she leaned across the bar as he prepared their cocktails, pushing her tits in his face. Asking him where the little sulky waitress was tonight. His wife? Really? Her night off. Running her tongue over her lips. Where was he from? New York? He sounded more west coast, she said, and he wondered why he’d lied. Saying he was from California wouldn’t give him away. How long had he been down here? Wasn’t Tampico a dump? I hear you sold my hubbie a couple of snakes, a lizard. Make my skin crawl. You must be very brave to handle them. To hunt for them. You’ve got strong hands. Look at him. He likes watching me, you know, with other men…
They could barely walk when he bundled them into a taxi and closed up the bar. The bag was on the table next to where they’d been sitting. He stared for a long time at the photo on the cover, got a bottle of Courvoisier and had a double, followed by another, before he dared to open it to the first page. He read through the night. Sometimes through tears. Sometimes his blood ran cold with a truth he barely recognised. By dawn he’d finished the book and the brandy and his mood was murderous. He ran down the beach and into the sea, fully clothed, but he couldn’t drown himself. He crawled back to the bar. There she was. He stood dripping and swaying before her scornful gaze. He went back to the house and changed, sobered up on black coffee and biker speed. She was flicking through the book on the bar where he’d left it. He snatched if off her.
– Te odio. Siempre!
– You don’t even know who I am!
– I don’t care. I hate you!
– I’ve always hated you!
– I will always hate you!
Not as much as he hated himself when he got to the border and saw the US for the first time in almost 15 years and knew he could never cross, never set foot there again. Never put the pedal to the floor, all the way through New Mexico and Arizona, southern California, up to LA, the Chevy burning oil, seek out that little shit and wring his neck for all the lies he’d written in the book. Lies? That was the thing. He wasn’t sure they were.
He turned the car round while he was still in the queue to cross the frontier, hurled the book out of the window and drove into Piedras Negras, parked downtown, an emptiness in him so complete he felt he might float away on the desert breeze as he stepped out of the car. He started drinking in pulque bars where gringos were far from welcome. Stared too long at hard-faced men. He flashed his money, his contempt brazen, most of all for himself. Here he was, hiding in exile, 40 years old and not a single thing left to look forward to.
Two miners befriended him and took it upon themselves to lead him out to the edge of town with the promise of music and peyote, before beating the shit out of him in an echo of Lowry’s consul. They took the pesos in his pockets but he fought back before they could get his boots off and discover his reserve stash, the credit card and keys to the Chevy down his sock. He ran off into the desert and collapsed, came round too drunk to feel the pain in his ribs from their pointed boots, the punches to his head from their shovel-strong fists, and in the true spirit of self-destruction, bore them no malice. Bewitched by the stars, he wandered off deeper into the scrub, climbed a bluff, Piedras Negras twinkling below, the border with the States just beyond. He stood and swayed and sang through swollen lips. Moonlight Drive – it was a long way to the Pacific and the moon was just a sliver but it was a wonderful, heartfelt rendition; an exquisite lament. He hopped and wobbled and threatened to topple off the edge of the cliff, howled like a coyote, wiggled his bum at the US, rubbed his crotch at Piedras Negras and took on the heroes, Elvis first, whose death still troubled him: All Shook Up, Blue Suede Shoes, Love Me Tender. His voice was a rasp by the time he launched into Sinatra. He croaked out My Way before falling into the barranca and passing out.
He struggles on to his hands and knees, crawls around, lurches to his feet. Chico Hernandez is struck first by the huge moustache, something he admires on a man, his still nothing but peach fuzz. Then by the strange stance the gringo adopts: left foot wrapped behind his bent right knee, head cocked, arms held out, wrists limp, he stares at the ground with his one good eye, the other swollen shut, lips split and his cheeks and forehead a camouflage of dried blood and dust. Chico sniggers. The man’s good eye darts up to meet his.
– Florian? He says.
A golden halo forms round Chico’s filthy carpet of hair and the man’s balancing leg gives and he crumples to the Mexican earth, the pain of the beating from the night before kicking home, along with a terrible thirst. He lies there and fingers his jaw, his ribs, his temple, toys with a wobbly incisor that will somehow cling to his gums until the day he dies. He looks up as the sun rises above the barranca and Chico Hernandez is no longer the beautiful boy Florian the exile once knew but a filthy Mexican kid with discoloured teeth.
– Agua, the exile gasps.
Chico shrugs. The exile pulls off his right boot and takes a wad of notes out of his sock, peels off a big bill and waves it at Chico.
Chico signals for him to follow. The man limps along, the wind whipping up sand devils and tortured reflections. Along a dried riverbed he has a terrifying vision of a dead cop, his baby face melting, deflating, the blood gushing from the back of his head, soaking into the floorboards of a derelict house. He feels a pimp’s blood, still warm, trickling down his chest as he runs from a bar, and he remembers while he is in exile. In hiding.
Chico shudders at the gringo’s pitiful sobs and doesn’t dare look back. They emerge from the desert on to a paved road. Ahead lies Piedras Negras. The odd pick-up rattles by. Two young boys run out from a truck stop: identical twins with red hair and skin the colour of baked clay. They thrust warm tamales at the exile and speak Spanish with an accent unlike any he has ever heard.
– Coca-Cola, he rasps.
Chico pushes them away. He is bigger, older. He takes the man by the sleeve and pulls him along.
– Donde vamos? he protests as they head off down an alley lined with shacks, a stream of foul-smelling liquid running down the middle.
– Por aqui. No problemo. Dos minutos.
– Quien? Morrison points at the two boys who have picked up stones but hesitate to throw them.
– Rusos, Chico says dismissively.
Chico digs up the two words he has always heard said about the boys and their parents who live behind the truck stop.
The redheaded twins of Russian Trotskyites, exiled to this wasteland on the border of the old enemy. He is not alone in being alone. But his loneliness will always be greater.
At a crossroads Morrison senses eyes upon him but the only sign of life is a mustard-coloured dog that slinks away through a hole in a cinderblock wall.
– Aqui, senor, Chico says.
He points at a makeshift shelter across the road, empty soda bottles lined up outside. Inside, a small man with a puffy face numbed by strong medication sits on an old car seat, his body slumped and his legs wasted. Chico helps him to his feet, hands him a stick. The man takes a feeble step forward and thinks better of it.
– Buenos dias, senor. Quiere usted algo?
The exile buys a Coke and an empanada, offers the same to the boy who looks at the man.
– Es mi hijo, my son, the man says as way of explanation when Chico shakes his head.
The Coke is warm. The exile runs his tongue over his tattered lips and marvels at misery’s capacity to follow him around.
– Sienta usted.
He accepts the offer of a plastic crate and sits. Chico’s father hovers over him, waits for him to finish the tamale, the effort to stand etched on his face. The exile wishes he would sit down.
He used to work in the coal mines of Piedras Negras, made good money, Chico’s father explains. A few years back he started to lose the strength in his legs. He’d worked since he was a young boy – hard, physical work, senor. I never tired. But this was different. He rested for a couple of days but his strength wouldn’t come back. He went to the doctor. They told him to rest some more, but how could he? He needed to work. Chico is his eldest son but he also has a younger brother and sister. Little by little, he got weaker and weaker until he could no longer go down the mines, was too feeble even to work his small patch of land, to tend the vegetables. He couldn’t support his wife, satisfy her needs, you understand me, senor. I am ashamed to admit it. She took up with another man, had a baby recently. He sleeps here in the shack, on the hard ground, makes a little money from selling sodas and empanadas, sweets to the kids. There’s something wrong with him, the doctors say, but nothing they can do, not here in Mexico. He needs money for American medicine. He is wasting away. Without Chico, he would be finished. Chico is a good boy. He makes a few dollars from guiding tourists but there aren’t many who stop in Piedras Negras, they keep on driving, north to south. There isn’t much round here to make them stop.
– Y entonces aqui estamos, he says.
And so here we are.
– Gracias a dios, Chico’s father says and collapses back in the car seat.
There is nothing to thank God for, the exile thinks. He has abandoned us, forgotten us. And who can blame him?
Chico’s father tries not to look at the cuts on his face, his swollen eye.
– What do you want? the exile says.
His voice is a rasp. He holds his hands out beseechingly.
– What can I do for you? What do you want from me? What am I to you? What are any of us to each other? Whatever we want to see. It’s all spectacle. We are watching the world, no longer living in it. What we seek is inside us. I no longer have any idea what that is, nor if I would recognise it even if I did know what it was. Do you understand me? I no longer know why I am alive, but somehow I am. Somehow I live on, despite myself.
But Chico and his father don’t understand a word the exile says because he speaks in English. They watch him dig out all the money in his pockets, every single peso and dollar. Every note hidden in his sock. He offers them. But Chico’s father won’t accept it, more money than he can earn in six months, a year, five years, sat in this hovel, a peso here and a peso there, his wife fucking another man and his body wasting away with muscular dystrophy or motor neurone disease or some other perverse joke of biology and God be damned.
– Take it, for fuck’s sake! I’ve got nothing else to give you!
Chico’s father lowers his head but the boy doesn’t hesitate. He holds out his cupped hands and the exile puts the money in them. The boy looks at his father’s bowed head.
But his father is quietly sobbing. Chico stuffs the money in the pocket of his jeans.
– El centro? Donde esta? The exile asks.
– Sigame, senor.
He follows the boy back into Piedras Negras and they wander round until he finds his car.
– Gracias, he says.
The boy stands in the middle of the road and watches him drive off. Even though the exile knows it’s just a trick of the light in the rear view mirror, a hallucination, a vision in his fucked-up mind, a blond halo once again forms above the boy’s head and he thinks of Florian. He hits the brakes and skids to a halt, stares in the mirror. But it is still there, a golden light above the kid’s head. He opens the door, pulls his boots off and places them neatly by the side of the road. He doesn’t look back as he drives off, hands shaking.
An hour south he stops off in a small town with a long name and goes to the bank. His bare feet and battered face provoke alarm but he shows his passport and credit card, elicits their sympathy with a tale of being mugged and soon has them eating out of his hand.
– Un caballero, the teller says to another bank official.
Oh yes, a gentleman.
He buys new boots and jeans, a shirt, leaves his old clothes behind in the changing room and checks into a motel. He showers and tends to his wounds, sleeps until dusk, checks out and continues to Tampico. The cocks are crowing in the dark when he pulls up outside the bar. He stands on the deserted beach and listens to the waves. An oily stench drifts in off the Gulf and the lights of passing ships burn his eyeballs as he searches the eastern sky.
He opens the bar, pours himself a stiff rum and coke and digs out his stash of Mexican gold, rolls a fat one. There’s a photograph of him and Dolores up on the wall behind the bar, taken on their wedding day.
They actually look happy.