By the light of the moon, the last thing Javier thought he’d see in the middle of the Arizona desert were all these empty water bottles. No humans for miles, except his group tramping in loose single file behind their guide who picked a steady path through the cholla like the lead cow of a herd heading back to the corral. But there was a ton of refuse strewn across the landscape. The heat and hard terrain trying to reclaim it, bottle after bottle, along with whatever else travelers had shed, lost, or could no longer carry; plastic bag suitcases stuck to prickly pear and low brush; sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt lay lumped as if some wicked witch had melted away inside them; a sock spiked onto cactus needles; low mounds of food wrappers moldered near a discarded camp site. Scorched earth.
Michoacán had its deserts too, but not this desolate. And Javier didn’t go walking in them for hours on end.
He trudged past a soda can, a toothbrush, a car battery.
There were problems with waste management in Mexico too, including foreign pollution from Americans dumping loads of tires and other hazardous materials over the border. But coming from humid, fertile Uruapan where the Cupatitzio River rippled through the city with its spring, “The Devil’s Knee,” sprouting in the center of town and coursing its way to the tourist spectacle of waterfalls, Javier took having water nearby for granted. Clean water was a different story. And his uncle Arturo was always declaring how their family weren’t going to live like a bunch of “ditchwater Mexicans,” referring to the people so poor they drank and bathed and shit in the polluted drainage ditches.
Javier was thirsty now, but there were no drainage ditches here to tempt or degrade him. He was running low on the regular and salt water he carried, saving what was left for rationed sips, hoping they’d stumble across another water station. As he passed two molted sleeping bags looking like giant rotten cocoons, he wondered how many “ditchwater Mexicans” had been responsible for this desert debris?
Were there “ditchwater Americans?”
Javier knew his uncle had meant more than the literal drinking of rank water, alluding to the mentality of an almost feral class of people in his country, the hordes of uneducated, unskilled, homeless, whose minds could only concentrate on short-term survival, no sense of advancement, and would thereby perish in there own pestilence.
Don’t worry, Uncle Arturo, Javier thought, knowing how upset his uncle would be when he discovered his nephew had left his home, job, family, country. I will bath soon, inside with a bar of soap. I will gulp water at a tap tinged with the taste of chlorine. I will not become uncivilized or lose the advantages our family has struggled for. I will make a better future for my wife, Alma, for my children, Alfredo, Isabel and Petra. But unlike you, I will not allow my family to be murdered by the cartel.
What do you call someone who thought only of prosperity and had forgotten about survival?
“We will all go,” Alma had told him, agreeing that they were in a desperate situation but that they should face it, for better or worse, like their marriage, together.
“We don’t have the money. All our savings went into the avocado orchard,” he had reminded her. “And it’s too dangerous.”
Aside from being caught, possibly separated, and deported, Javier worried about dehydration, as well as dying lost in the desert. Not to mention the stories he had heard of crossings that included rape, murder, and children being sold as sex slaves. Michoacán had the largest migration from Mexico to America, half of those born in the state had relocated to the US for work, but because of the booming agribusiness of the avocado fields and his uncles’ insistence, Javier’s family had eluded traveling north. Alma, however, had relatives leave for America. Some disappeared. Not just working and too busy to call home. Gone.
They had friends and neighbors who were “unlucky” too. Gruesome rumors prevailed. Facts surfaced. The Zetas had intercepted a group of almost two hundred migrants, and for sport, took them to a ranch where they made the captives fight one another to their deaths like gladiators, arming them with machetes and hammers. Many had stories too painful to be recalled. Most remained unsolved, unearthed. None had funerals or headstones. And because the cartels were currently having disputes over the territory of their human trafficking business, they had been killing even more groups traveling to America, like burning a farmer’s crop or slashing the tires of a competing car lot. Recently, a busload of seventy had been taken to a motel and slaughtered. Their bodies piled into one room.
“But no danger for you, my action hero?” Alma asked.
“I will have a easier time alone,” he tried to show as little fear as possible, because what good would it do?
“Alone? Is that why you have a family?”
He could feel all their recent arguments coming to a head, the ones about disciplining the children, their homework, the housework, the avocado farm, his uncles, her relatives, sex, coming home late, selecting movie rentals, not standing close enough to the toilet.
“I can cut a deal and find work faster,” he said. “I can save quickly, and send for you.”
He looked at his wife in her faded flower print dress, her bra visible through the thin fabric. Sexy, but unintentionally so. Regarding clothing, Javier didn’t know what to buy her as a gift, so he purchased household luxuries like an oscillating fan. Alma rarely shopped for herself. She went without. She eyed store windows, but the ones she entered were to buy for the children.
“You know what can happen to women and children out there,” he pleaded, trying not to imagine his wife and children caught up in the crimes the cartels were committing.
“I know what happens here,” she said, and the home they had built together suddenly seemed to Javier flimsier than her dress.
“They will come for my uncles first…” Javier said, thinking there will be time for Alma and the kids to get word, then hide at his best friend Miguel’s house.
“Can’t you give them your share and stay?”
Was she worried that he would go to America and then leave her? There were those stories too.
“These aren’t reasonable men, Alma.”
“Your uncles or the Templarios?”
He was trying to make the best of a bad situation. He had done nothing wrong.
“I guess I have no say. I remain at the mercy of unreasonable men,” she said, and Javier had long become familiar with her ideas of gender politics, having not yet found sound enough argument to deny many of her radical notions. They seemed to have grown and matured as things deteriorated in Michoacán and the general violence towards woman increased, proving her more right with every mutilated body. She had always been a reader, one of the things that attracted Javier to her back in high school, and found time now to scour the internet for articles and information, also taking the kids to the Gertrudis Bocanegra library in Pátzcuaro on weekends. She was even looking into taking classes at the university.
“You have a say,” Javier said, thinking how much he respected Alma’s intelligence and intuition, her being so proactive. He felt like a failure for not pushing himself harder to go to college after graduating from high school. They would have more options now. But nobody in his family had gone to college. Finishing high school was a privilege provided by his ambitious father and his mother’s sacrifices. Then his father had died, and his uncles told him to work. Worse, they gave him a job. Forget the facade of the avocado fields and his uncle’s promises of paving his way into management, and now “ownership,” he knew he was just one shaky step up from being a ditchwater Mexican. He was a ditch digger.
But he had always tried to listen.
“I love you,” he told Alma.
“That is why I have a say? Because of your love for me? And because of my love for you, I have to honor and obey?”
She held up her hand, indicating her wedding ring as if she were giving him the finger.
“We created a union. Now we have a fifty-fifty vote. But surprise, when it matters most, my vote becomes less than equal.”
Javier lowered his head, trying to think of a reply.
“You think you are right, so you will make the decision, just like them,” his wife continued. “And you will act on it. What else can you do? You are a Lopez. You are a righteous man like your uncles. Like Calderon. Like El Chayo and his bible. Like the priest who told me to say those words when you put this ring on my finger. And that righteousness has made you just as unreasonable as them.”
He began to nervously spin the wedding band on his own finger. Can you act reasonably in an unreasonable situation? Was marriage an argument of circular logic? Rings and circles. Cycles and loops. His father had left, not by his own choice, but he knew the hole it bore in his mother’s heart, and his children’s lives.
“Go my action hero! Save me!” Alma said, mockingly, turning from him towards the noise of their children. “I have a family to raise.”
Javier thought, I do too.
He slogged on.
The backpack dug into his shoulder, calves cramping, and his right hamstring shot a streak of pain into his upper hip. He looked at the horizon and felt the sun rising at his back. His shoes and pants were thrashed from the sharp rocks and cholla biting at him. Was there a plant out here that didn’t have a thorn? At night they had not been allowed to use a flashlight, their guide too worried that a helicopter may detect them. The stars and moon were luminous enough, even during the darkest hours, to follow the person in front of you. But he felt like a lemming about to walk off a cliff. They dodged snakes and stomped scorpions, the natural defenses of an over-protective landscape. He didn’t want anything from this earth, but passage.
To keep from falling or falling asleep or thinking about his family, he imagined he was an astronaut roving an inhospitable planet, exploring the bottom of a great lake that had dried up, evaporated to reveal the last remnants of a species that worshipped at a polyethylene alter. Intelligent life? Would an advanced civilization suffocate itself in synthetics?
For the first time in his life, Javier wondered, “Where do all the plastic packing trays for the avocados go?”
Someone in his group discarded a gallon jug that bounced twice with the sonorous thump whump of a primitive drum.
Ditchwater Mexican, Javier thought.
A chuckwalla skittered at the sound into the crevice of a rock pile.
Would a reptile litter like this?
Maybe, if it could, Javier answered himself. If its brain were bigger and it had thumbs. Store its brittlebush and snacks of insects inside neat squares of airtight plastic. It would have to evolve beyond humans not to toss it away like a fast food wrapper when it was finished.
In the predawn light, they passed through an area where garbage bags lay burst open, spewing enough clothing and supplies for forty field workers. There were no bodies, although they could have been twenty yards away decaying and Javier would not have seen them.
Robbery? Mass murder?
“We’re close,” their guide told them, and Javier realized they were the first words he’d heard him speak all night.
For fear they would become too close to the guide, to each other, Javier thought. Or simply human. Instead of a cluster of indistinct, drifting shadows. A spirit world that held more darkness than light.
But this is what binds us, Javier was beginning to understand. This arduous journey to another country that used to be ours. And why we treat this land roughly, as rough and indifferently as it regards us now, before it can reject and expel us again. This is our collective experience. Our hope to reassemble better lives by traveling uninvited to a promise land where we are not welcome, wanting our shame to diminish and dissolve along the way as we punish ourselves for breaking up our homes that are already broken by a corrupt system that we created, one that can only devour itself, rape and kill, further dehumanize us until we are all criminals. Or victims. We leave what we love on the verge of destruction to dreamwalk with our guilt and our disgrace. This is our Via Dolorosa. But no sin will be washed away, even if at the end of our path we are crucified.
Javier thought about Jesus.
He was certain that many Christians before him had remembered His suffering as they made this brutal passage and it enabled them to keep going. A test of faith. To do what? Escape and replicate what had brought them here? He had never believed in heaven. He didn’t want, or need, a reward for trying to live a moral life. That was his worst confession. His unpardonable flaw. He possessed a fretful and uneasy spirit even after countless sermons, prayers, candles and crosses. Maybe he wasn’t a Christian anymore if he didn’t believe in the reward?
Along with Alma, he was beginning to doubt many things. Not the existence of God or some of the church’s ceremony, but the purpose. The stories. He was certain that man didn’t need a fresh start free of original sin, so much as to evolve in some substantial way. And if they couldn’t grow an organ or gland to produce greater empathy or intelligence, a more balanced conservatory nature, then a new set of interpretations for the stories had to be written that could lead them not from temptation but from extinction.
Somebody mumbled something that sounded like a prayer.
They had found another water station that hadn’t been destroyed.
As they drank and refilled their plastic bottles, Javier noticed he was the only one who seemed to be traveling alone. The others were in pairs or threes. Nobody younger than fifteen. The oldest, sixty? One woman for every third man. A few Hondurans by their faces and garbled accents, a couple with indios blood. They ate and rested together. All his companions seemed poorer than he was; more resigned to hardship. They had shabbier clothes. Although nobody was sporting their Sunday best, the women seemed to be intentionally wearing unflattering, oversized clothes. Hair wild. No make up. Still they drew looks. He was right not to have taken his family. Aside from all the other risks, he and Alma would have had to carry Isabel and Petra. They wouldn’t have been able to keep up. Having been paid, the coyote loped at his own unflagging pace, not caring if anyone fell behind or lost their way.
And then, Javier had a vision.
This is how the world would end. This is how he would die, without his family, walking in a desert full of garbage with a clutch of strangers. He could be dead already, killed by a malo at the border and now because he questioned heaven, he was doomed to this hell. Displaced. On an endless desert march.
He felt a pressure in his head. Another notch of heat and a different sort of sweat broke out over his body. A secretion of fear. His stomach buckled and he felt tears welling. His heart fluttered, then pounded. He wanted to kiss his children. Feel his fingers parting the hair in front of their beautiful faces; touch the soft skin of their arms. Hear them laugh. See the immaculate love in their eyes. He wanted to hug his wife. He wanted to hold them all, like they sometimes did in a happy dog pile on their bed. What if he never saw them again?
Why did he leave?
He saw a flat rock near him and wanted to sit down, but he knew if he did he would not get up. The others would leave. And he would parish. Heat stroke? The reality of climate change colliding with a terrible decision? The wrath of a God admonishing him for the blessed gifts he had received and not fully acknowledged?
He took a long drink and some salt water.
Two in his group scoured through a pile of leftovers, but the scraps had been there too long; decaying, fetid versions of what they already had.
From a torn sack, Javier saw the sun-bleached face of a cartoon tiger looking up from a box of breakfast cereal, “They’re Gr-r-reat!”
What was El Tigre telling him?
At the bodega back home, his daughters Isabel and Petra begged for Zacaritos, obviously the same flakes in a different package. Same smiling tiger. “Shilling for sugar and diabetes,” Alma had said about many of the clowns and cartoon spokesmen printed on packages of kids cereals and cookies. Alfredo was old enough to know their father wouldn’t give in. How could he? Alma would go berserk if he did. He tried to explain to his daughters that the cardboard container was more nutritious than the contents inside. If there was truth in advertising, he told them, the tiger would be warning, “Don’t eat this poison!”
“But they’re Grrriquísimas!” Isabel roared, mimicking the advertisement.
“They’re Grrriquísimas!” Petra repeated, mimicking her big sister.
“Your riquísimas,” he said, scooping them up in his arms and pretending to eat them with a hundred nibbling kisses.
Super tasty. Rich. Scrumptious.
He stood dumbly, looking down at the cereal package. Even if he was starting to doubt his religious teachings, Catholic schools had made certain his Spanish was fine. His English had always been awful. What did “reat” mean? Or did you drop the tiger’s growl entirely and emphasize “eat?”
Javier took a last look at all that had been discarded; now trying to figure it for a crime scene. Most likely, he decided, it had been a pick up spot and the coyotes had told this large group there was no room for their possessions in whatever limited transportation had been waiting. It was probably someone’s job to rifle through the remains as soon as the passengers loaded up. Another way to skim money.
Javier worried he wouldn’t get to keep his backpack. Before leaving, his buddy Miguel, who swore to look after Alma and the kids and hide them if the cartel came for his uncles, had given Javier a vial of Chapstick.
“For your trip.”
“No sunscreen?” Javier asked, with a small laugh.
“A bottle of sunscreen wouldn’t fit up your ass,” Miguel told him.
He showed Javier that the little Chapstick canister had no lip balm in it. And that folded money could fit into the vial. And the vial could fit up your ass, so only someone inspecting your hole would find it. Not casual robbers.
“Don’t say I never gave you anything,” Miguel said. “But you’re on your own hiding it.”
Javier tried a practice run. Previously, nothing had been up his butt but a dab of hemorrhoid cream or during sex, the first knuckle of Alma’s finger. It was strange to insert the small canister with a coat of Vaseline. Less clinical, more masturbatory. He rocked back on his bed, legs in the air, jeans and underwear hanging around his ankles, dangling above his head. He tried to loosen up. Inserted, halfway there, then swallowed. He rolled off the bed. In a weird sort of way, he felt like a new man, another frontier conquered. Pulling up his pants and moving around the room, he tried to get the feeling of what it may be like to travel with this hidden inside him, stepping high to simulate climbing. He jogged in place. At first, he thought he could handle the niggling in his lower colon in exchange for knowing he would have money when he crossed into America. After a couple of minutes though, the small cylinder caused him to shit like he had overdosed on a laxative.
He bought another. This one he put in his backpack, in a zippered pocket with a few other small toiletries as a bluff. Inside it held two hundred dollar bills he got at the bank in exchange for a stack of pesos.
Maybe he should check through the discarded clothes in the bags near the cereal to see if there were any Chapstick vials?
A car engine.
Javier swayed slightly, from weakness and an imaginary breeze as feint as that from a butterfly’s wings.
A vehicle rumbled towards them, headlights on.
The coyote stood, watching it approach. So did two men from the group, who had been with Javier since outside the church in Agua Prieta where he had met his connection, a military man, who had collected money and introduced them to the coyote. The two men slipped off their packs and waited, apprehensive. The others scattered into the desert, lost in the haze of the horizon, almost hovering before they were gone. Others had vanishing points that were tiny orange blurs. How many more days would they travel? Who would guide them now?
Javier watched the last one disappear.
“They should have paid the extra money,” the coyote said. “Stupid fucking pollos.”
The driver got out of the dented cargo van. His partner exited the other side. They both had tired faces, as if they’d walked to this connection point too instead of drove. The driver wore a bandana, the other a red baseball hat with a snake on it. Arizona Diamondbacks. Javier waited for them to say something or pull guns, tell him to strip and bend over. But they just stretched their legs.
The coyote nodded at the driver who took a thin folded envelope from his back pocket and handed it to him.
Why would the driver pay the coyote too?
Why did the chicken cross the border?
Too late for questions. Or jokes.
“Piss now if you gotta go,” the driver told them in Spanish.
“We ain’t stoppin’,” his partner added in English.
Welcome to America, Javier thought, unable to discern what the second man had said.
They swung open the side door of the van. The coyote was given a jug of water and a Kentucky Fried Chicken bag. He beamed.
The driver made a motion and Javier understood they wanted him to follow his two fellow travelers into the back of the windowless vehicle. He looked down at the flat rock where he had thought he might sit down; willfully stop his participation in this madness. He felt himself floating away from it, hoping to never see it again, although he thought he might rest there on some future day as indifferently as a basking lizard or the way dust rises and falls from a boot.
He ducked his head not to hit the doorframe.
It was hot inside and he wondered if it would get hotter. If it did, how would he breath? There were some tools and oily rags. He passed through the opening in some elastic netting that kept cargo from moving around, then crawled across carpeting that had been carelessly laid over the metal floor. It curled at the side edges. There were stains. A splatter. It looked like blood.
The door slid shut.