Lester and I walk into the Mexican sun, over a small bridge under which slumbers a trickle of the muddy Rio Grande. There’s nothing to it. We leave America behind us. The only thing I know about Juarez is that their rival drug gangs have recently gone on killing-sprees: forty-fifty people—bystanders, children—murdered in broad daylight in some marketplace. The government has lost control and just ceded the city to the crime cartels.
Over the bridge, we step onto a street of Juarez, and immediately there’s a dense crush of action, gnats crazing a low-rent butcher-shop, big cuts of meat dangling and dripping blood. A few sunburnt men sell gasoline from plastic canisters. Others hang around, nothing doing, sitting on milk crates. A voice around some corner whispers “ganja.” A character with a fedora slouched over his face leans on the stucco wall of a building. “Got seventeen, sixteen. Señor—fifteen.” I don’t know at first what he means. Probably it’s the price he’s trying to sell a dime-bag for: his price slips a little cheaper as I amble past him, as if walking away is my negotiation tactic. I think I’m by him when he slithers, “Younger—I have all kinds—blonde, black, Asian…thirteen, twelve…”
You hungry, Lester asks.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m hungry, too, he says.
The streets in downtown El Paso ran parallel and perpendicular, at crisp, rational, forty-five degree angles. They were on an axis with the cardinal directions: the relation of one thing to another fixed as if on a giant sheet of graph paper. The city exhibited a monolithic if anonymous order. As soon as we step into Juarez, however, the streets jackknife, zigzag, switchback. Crevices between buildings that widen into alleyways, the alleyways nudge into tiny capillary streets, and the streets congest with old jalopies broken down in the center of them like bad cholesterol. A row of adobe buildings crumbled half apart resemble bomb-craters. A maze of curves and sidewinding thoroughfares orient themselves with the border—that is to say, the undulations of the river, which has been known to dry up and disappear at times. Or flood over. I can’t tell if many of the businesses we pass are abandoned, condemned, or just closed for siesta.
It’s already past three. Lester steps into some dollar-general consignment store. A short older lady sits on a stool behind the counter fanning herself, passively staring off through the heat. Lester fingers the crystal tchotchkes, the paperweights with holograms of 9/11, placemats decorated with Mount Rushmore. He lifts a snowglobe and the tiny hairs near his knuckles glisten blonde. He goes down a hall, dematerializes through some doorway. I’m not sure if anyone buys this crap or if this store’s a front. The shelves are more empty than not. I make my way around to the back where there’s T-shirts for soccer teams, and others printed with masks of lucha libre wrestlers. I pick one up, the mask a gaudy canary yellow with a shiny metallic fabric stitched around its contours. Everything here wears some gruesome mask, anyway. I hand it to the lady at the counter. She weighs it in her hand, fingers the logo, and turns it back and front. She’s not looking for a price-tag, though, she’s inspecting the merchandise, testing it, sizing it, feeling its texture. She won’t ring it up unless I provoke her.
She puckers and looks me in the face, holds up a hand, raising three fingers. Then I look again—her hand only has three fingers. I count out three dollars, and she bags my souvenir. Out on the street Lester’s leaning against the wall, one foot perched on a bucket filled with sand and butts and a snapped off rooster head and wrinkled condoms. He’s smoking his Kools. As I walk out, the lady’s gone back to fanning herself with the same far-off, vacant expression. She must have meant three pesos.
The sun’s slipping lower. Maybe Lester has a plan I don’t know about. Maybe he has some drug hook-up. Maybe he’s planning to use me as a mule or a fall-guy. Maybe he’s thinking to ditch me here, cut back across the border with some coke or something, and sell the car. Maybe he wants to kill me—nobody’d ever find me in this rundown backwater. What does Lester really want with me anyway?
I’ve been out of work for months: a big handsome guy offers me a cig, we have a couple beers, and then he tells me I can make a few bucks; suddenly I leave the bar with him—we’re on the road half-way across the country. Stuff happens. Maybe Lester isn’t even his name. I never did see his passport. I try to swallow, but the heat’s parched a raw hole in my throat.
Lester’s pace picks up. I follow, lost. My fate now chained to his, what choice do I have? I stick to him like a shadow, time running out with each sand-grain I tread upon. Inside a makeshift window, where the bricks gum a snaggletooth aperture, seven, maybe nine men in it, crowd around a little bar, a couple waitresses snake through the silhouettes in shades of grisaille, punctured by gold-green filigree reflected off the scrolls of peeled wallpaper behind them. A spastic gust kicks up. I’m choked by grit. A small, almost transparent scorpion crouches in the road, quickens its claws, skitters off behind a pansy-colored paddle of some prickly pear. I can smell methane and chicken-droppings on the breeze. Campaign leaflets and rubbed-out lottery cards ricochet like butterflies down a broad, curving avenue. The street—little more than such fritters and dust—whips off in the dry wind.
Without a stop, we prolly could’a been through Tucson by now, I tell Lester.
Yeah, we’ll make out, he says, I gotta handle on it.
We sidewind around into some slum, not a soul in the streets, clotheslines whapping above us with lacy underwear and washed-out shirts in the breeze, billowing like agitated ghosts.
Lester cuts into a restaurant and takes a booth. A waitress plunks two water-glasses on our table. I reach for one.
Don’t drink that.
I glance up at Lester.
The Mexicans around here have immunity to the bacteria, but that’ll make a gringo like you sicker than a dead dog.
I order a cerveza and molé when the waitress comes back. Lester enjoys a cigarette, his pouty lips sucking it down to a glowing nub. The whole place is enameled in pastel Talavera tilework with hand-painted imagery of farmers, cows, and cornucopias. I glance around, try to decipher the bullfighting posters, then practice conjugating a few Spanish verbs in my head. I finish my beer. The water-glasses glint, mesmerized by the sun’s delirium. Our food arrives, piping hot, dangerous to the touch.
We wait for the food to cool off, our stomachs clenching, mouths salivating. Milkweed seeds drift by the window in a slow syrup of light and dust. The dry heat could petrify anything, turn the heart to stone. Lester stubs out his cig in a clam-shell ashtray and dumps hot sauce over his dish. Then he starts to chomp on his burrito, slurp up his slurry of beans. I dig in, as well, famished, horsing the slop in me faster than I can taste it. It’s just a bland gruel of mushy heat—calor, or is it caliente? I cram it down, blistering my tongue. Instinctively, I’m holding my water-glass up to my lips. I put it back down, push it away. I realize its empty already. I sip my second, no, third beer. Alcohol’s an antiseptic anyway. The waitress just keeps covertly setting a new one on the table, whisking the old bottles away.
Good stuff, hey? Best Mexican grub ya ever gonna eat.
Mh-hm, I respond, food dribbling from a corner of my lips. I wipe it off, fix my hair. Lester scrapes his plate clean.
Yeah. Cheap as hell, too. A sure thing. Authentic shit, man. It hits the spot.
Lester takes another shovel of beans and then he cocks his head and looks me deadeyed, chewing while talking.
My dad used to be stationed at Fort Bliss right before he got shipped out to Desert Storm, before my mother took me with her back to Toledo. I was maybe fourteen, my brother and I would steal across the border once and awhile, when they thought we were going to Sunday school. We’d smoke a joint maybe and then eat at some hole-in-the-wall like this. I mean, you never could find the same place twice: things just vanish round here, sometimes. Might be iguana or chihuahua-meat, like people say, but I don’t give a flying fuck. Goddamn taste better than any fake processed so-called Tex-Mex fastfood puke.
Right, I say. Right. Guess we needed to eat somewhere.
The waitress has left a receipt on the table, tucked between two last beers. We guzzle and pay, twelve American dollars for both of us. Lester leaves a fiver for a tip, and the waitress holds the door for us on our way out, smiling, flirty, like she knows what’s up. Outside, the sun slaps us hard again. A couple young boys shout in the street, punching each other’s arms, laughing, cussing, jumping around. The sun’s edging the horizon, . We don’t get paid, I’m not getting back home: might as well stay in LA—or here, for that matter. Lester corrals me back toward the Rio Grande, stepping quick.
We loop north through the labyrinthine trelliswork of thoroughfares, clip up to a broad boulevard, shuffle over the bridge. We go to the line for US citizens, which is empty. Empty your pockets and step through, a customs official says, a short Hispanic guy with a trim mustache and a potbelly. A police dog pants nearby, stretched across the cool concrete floor. I.D., another guard coughs, a younger woman with high cheekbones and wide-set eyes, beadwork in her long black hair, barely looking up from her paperwork. I flash a canceled credit card, angled away, my hands anticipating her asking for my passport, but we’re immediately waved through, our pale skin and Midwestern accents enough to let us cross over no questions asked.
That’s it. We’re back in El Paso, cutting through the streets like a greasy knife—houses jerrybuilt from plywood and empty storefronts. Shadows cascade from the bigger brick complexes. Our car sits outside the lip of shade by now, the sky bursting pink and cyan at its fringe over the Huecho range. The car’s just fine, the paintjob’s not even damaged by the sun. My white T-shirt, however, is stained in the pits, browned with a glittering scum. I take it off. The evening wind glides across my belly. I scratch my chest-hairs and rub my blue heart tattoo that’s divided by arabesques of flames. I put on my brand-new T-shirt, the one emblazoned with the mask. Lester squints and nods, grimaces a smile at me with one side of his face while a cig pokes out the other. He inhales from the last sweet ash, then flicks it off. He grounds the butt with his heel. We both hop in—snug inside the car. It’s the angry red and indigo of dusk, and we’re moving. The landscape blurs away. We’re two phantoms coiled in a skein of grime. Lester’s at the wheel, turning into the last thin blade of light, speeding west toward Las Cruces and beyond, toward all the lala and lunacy of Hollywood, and I say a small prayer hoping we can make it.
Photo by Adam Simmons