First, let me tell you I am a cautious person. The boy stood at a corner, where a side street cut into the main road. Kitty-corner from the Iglesia de La Santa Muerte, the Church of Saint Death. He had been standing there since 1997, long before the church appeared. He was six or seven then. He stood facing the road. He did not register the passing cars. He was dirty, dressed in rags, and barefoot. He was a ghost, and still is. Time went by in five- or six-month intervals. I never thought about him until I was about a half mile from the corner. Then I would start to think about him, and I’d say, “I wonder if the kid is standing there.” Near an unfinished structure, cement blocks, maybe a little house or store. With never enough funds to finish it. Sprayed with a faded graffiti, in black paint that said, “Vale verga mal gobierno.” Roughly, the government isn’t worth shit.
It was November, when I passed. He was wearing a plaid jacket, buttoned askew – Good Will stuff, trucked down from the border, by the ton, illegally. He wore oversized black sneakers, without laces. No socks. For the first time in thirteen years, someone had begun to take care of him. I suspected the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte, right there in front of him.
I was returning from a trip to the big town, where the houses are adobe and whitewashed, except for the first four feet, which are painted a dark cold red. I had walked the square, eaten watery over-sugared ice cream under the portales, the arched covered walkways, and had even had a drink. Whisky. I never drink whisky. I never drink anything hard. But with all the cold red paint and the whitewash, and it being November, one small shot warmed my chest and raised my sense of brotherhood. And that is why I stopped the car and got out. And walked over to the boy. For the first time in thirteen years.
He took a step back. I respected his fear and veered away. I looked for someone I could talk to. I walked up the side street. A man approached. He was a shorter than me, trim and white-haired. His face was a little red. I suspected his chest is warmer than mine. I greeted him. He was curious about me. A gringo out of his car. What could it mean?
“Para servirle,” he said, as if I were a customer. May I help you?
I said I’d been driving past the boy for thirteen years, and I’d stopped for the first time. “He has a new coat and shoes,” I said, waving behind me, at the ghost. It was a question, poorly disguised as a statement.
“Sí, eso sí es,” he said – but that was it. A non-committal agreement.
I wanted to ask things. But a follow-up question would have crossed a boundary. Like, who bought the jacket and shoes for him, why now, why hadn’t he been taken care of before? Who did he belong to? He could have been the man’s child. The man could have been connected to the church across the road. Similar churches were springing up all over Mexico. There was a word associated with them. My wife had told me not to throw it around. You never knew who you were talking to.
He asked where I was from, and was I visiting? I said I was from the capital of the next state north. I was visiting friends, I said. And that was all I said. I didn’t want him to know who my friends were or where they lived. He didn’t pursue it.
“I’ve worried about him over the years,” I said, realizing immediately what I was saying. I was a man who worried, but not enough to stop in thirteen years. A man who recognized a metaphor – the boy as the vast neglected population of Mexico – and left it at that.
The whisky was losing its heating power. I decided it had placed myself in a weak position. The man sighed. He looked at the boy. He looked back at me. Both of us looked for clues. The man’s shoes were modest, the soles good. Mine were fancy nylon sandals, with thick treads for wading in clean rivers and getting in out of first world kayaks.
“His name is Jorge,” the man said. “He’s always been that way.”
“I’m glad someone’s helping him,” I said. “I’ve never tried to help him.”
“Yo tampoco,” says the man. Me either. He raised his considerable eye brows, as if he were telling me something of great significance I probably couldn’t understand. “Even God has not helped him.”
This was a mouthful. I looked kitty-corner to the church.
“Someone over there helped him,” he said. And then he put his palms over his eyes, spread his fingers, and peeked through. As if to say, let’s not go any farther in that direction. He was also grinning, and the humor seemed like it could be at my expense.
“Ven,” he said, using the intimate imperative. Come! And we walked back toward Jorge. The man brought out a paper-wrapped shape, folded back the paper, and lifted out a taco. Chunks of meat in a red sauce. Jorge took it, at about solar plexus level, and dropped his face to it, like a dog. His hands were more than dirty. He farted as took the first bite.
The man wrapped the empty paper together so the juices were on the inside. He took a few steps and threw it against the wall of the unfinished structure, where it dropped among other similar wrappings, just below the graffiti “Vale verga mal gobierno”. He walked back to me.
“I can show you the church,” he said. He saw my doubt. “It’s alright, no one is going to shoot you,” he caught my eye, “if you come in peace.” He had raised his eyebrows again, to emphasize seriousness. If you come in peace sounded like some kind of authority. I was also not sure how we had made the jump: Jorge, then going in the church.
I considered saying I had to get along. I took out my car keys. He glanced at them. “You care about Jorge. We are not always ready to help those we don’t know.” I decided we meant him and me. And that he was building brotherhood.
“No one is going to kidnap you,” he said, with I thought a priest-like smile. “I know you’re curious. They hide nothing. Over half of this village has left the Catholic Church to worship there.” He pointed across the street. I took in the preferred church’s double door, the gothic half-arch windows, the bumpy frosted bronzed plastic panes. The oversized brass door handles – low-end Southern California crematorium style, without the smokestack.
“People are beginning to help Jorge. You’re not the only one.” He opened one side of the double doors. He switched on the lights.
“It’s just us,” he said, turning back.
I pointed my keys at my car, to make sure it was locked. Its parking lights winked.
“Do you have a key for yourself?” he snorted. He was very agreeable. But his joke showed too much intelligence. His Spanish was too clear. I remained standing in the doorway.
“What’s your connection to the church?” I asked, needing reassurance. I used su, the formal possessive adjective. I wanted to keep my distance.
“It’s complicated,” he said. I backed up a few steps, beckoning to him to come back out and discuss it with me.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Well, I’m not sure what I can ask,” I said, thinking of my wife’s warning.
“Where are you staying?” he asked. And then: “Never mind, that just feeds your suspicion. I assure you, we help more people than we kill,” he said, lifting his considerable eyebrows – straight-faced. Pulling my leg, I thought, to show me I was being paranoid.
“My name is Luís,” he said. I shook his hand. It was cold. I did not say my name.
Inside, there were ten or more rows of simple benches. There was space in front for kneeling before the Santa Muerte. She was a plastic Katrina, a skeleton, with three-dimensional bones, wrapped in see through pastel chiffon. She rose up life-size out of a sea of devotional candle that flickered red, white, Virgin Mary blue, and ecclesiastical purple. She was missing one arm. A few shriveled and forgotten Purépecha women knelt before her, fingering their rosaries and praying for what? Food? That someone would touch them? See the nineteen-year old inside?
A car crunched to a stop. The door opened. A Policía Federal stepped through, his jacket too tight for more than one button. He held a small package wrapped in white paper. He glanced at the Indian women. He looked me up and down. He said something to my host. Something quick. A question, ending with ternero. Something like: Is this the missing calf?
Luís’s answer was also quick, and equally coded. “Aún no ha pastado.” Too young to graze, still at the mother’s tit.
“This is Nacho,” said Luis, with his palm out. No one was interested in my name. Luís brought three folding chairs over from the wall, and set them up facing each other. He placed a fourth one in the middle. Nacho unfolded his package on the fourth chair. “Chivo,” he said. Goat meat. I could smell it. So could the Purépecha women. Their rebozos shadowed their faces. Their head had turned, and they were staring. They did not look away.
With a little homophobic posturing – hip cocked, hand on his elbow, finger on his lips – Luís chose a bottle, from the feet of the Saint. Jim Beam.
Nacho gestured toward the goat meat. “Tómale, güero!” He handed me a napkin. I plucked out a hunk of mutton. The meat was still warm, not too fatty. He handed me an envelope of salt. We drank out of votive glasses. Mine was Virgin blue. Nacho wore gold chain under his gun-blue shirt. He needed a shave. His eyes were brighter than I liked. My hand trembled as I lifted my glass. I steadied it with my other hand.
“Qué tal los ataques contra el gobierno?” he asked. How do you like those attacks against the government?
His eyes were bloodshot. I was expected to give an answer. My chest was warm. My heart fluttered. I saw burning buses, trailer truck infernos, their drivers lying in the street. Tiro de gracia. A bullet in the back of the head. Someone like Nacho, shaved, two buttons buttoned, dark suit, standing in front of a huge Mexican flag, the presidential sash across his chest. Three years down the line.
I started to speak.
“Thirty-three municipalities,” he smacked, his mouth full of goat “They got money for sewage treatment plants, not a single one built, casas muy chillón instead, glitzy houses, built by the mayors. Feeder springs covered over. The silted lake. The water level drops. No fish. Horses and oxen for plowing. This is the pinche twenty-first century.” Nacho licked a thumb and hairy forefinger. He glared at me as if I were the cause of it all.
I felt safe. The chatty circle. Three chairs. The Jim Beam. The Indian women had turned away, too hungry to keep their bodies twisted. Like street dogs that knew they weren’t going to be fed.
“I could make a call on my radio, and 40 armed men would be here in three-quarters of an hour. Cut off the roads in ten different places. Lanzagranadas, RPG’s, granade launchers. It takes three hours for the army to get anywhere. A hundred years lost. No jobs. Shit for education. Aguacate or mariguana? How hard a choice is that? The North pretends it’s not involved. Maybe we’ll build the goddamn treatment plants. The fish will come back. Fuck the mal gobierno. We’ll kill the people who stand in the way. Send down the drones and we’ll kill your children.” I looked at Luís. Luís raised his eyebrows. At me.
I had stopped eating. I looked back at Nacho. His eyes were bulging, as if he had come to the surface too quickly. I looked at my Virgin blue votive glass. It was empty.
Nacho said pués, he had to go. He stuck out his gun leg and pulled out his black automatic, some kind of Glock. He cocked it and pointed it at my right foot. I pulled my foot back a bit. The Glock was stuck in midair, and didn’t follow. Nacho wiped goat grease off his mouth. He re-holstered the gun. He filled my votive glass with Jim Beam. He said maybe I could write a letter of recommendation for his daughter, so she could study in Chicago. He showed me a photo. A charming young woman. I imagined myself married to her, visiting Nacho on the weekends. Her name was Maricruz. The old question floated in the air. You know, like how do you get her across?
“Tunnels,” he winked. “And friends.”
I nodded. We stood and shook hands. I bowed slightly, the way my mother taught me. To show I respected him. “Mucho gusto,” I said.
“I know where to find you,” he said. I looked at Luis. He raised his eyebrows – another warning. Or jest. I couldn’t tell which. There were a few chunks of meat left. Nacho wrapped them. He glanced over at the Indian women, decided against it, and put the meat in his pocket, for later.
He stopped at the door. “I also know how to tell others where you live.” A comment I didn’t think went well with the recommendation for Maricruz. And then he was out the door. We heard the car pull away, heading back to the town.
It was very likely he had seen my license plate. He had a radio, probably a black thing, with blinking lights. The curse of Mexico is that there’s a sophisticated microwave repeater tower on every mountain top. I calculated the ease of cross checking information. It was still late afternoon. Transito could still be open. Maybe he already knew my name and address.
Luís led me out the back door, into the sweet smell of cow. A farmyard, carpeted with shredded dried manure from various animals. In a small corral of their own, two fine oxen, for plowing. A large corral, partly covered, with a dozen grey, flop-eared, hump-backed Brahman, happy to back from their lakeside grazing. A clutch of gleaming brown hens scattered before us, heads down, making lateral escapes. Slim Ameraucanas – my favorites. Pigs I could smell and hear, but not see. Probably the same for them.
“Where are we going?” I asked. He looked at me but did not answer. A bent campesino approached us from a path that led in from the marsh. A substantial haystack walked along behind him. A burro loaded with rastrojo de maíz, dried corn stalks, to the extent that the animal was completely hidden. Even its legs. We arrived at a shed at the same time.
“This is Don Venus,” said Luis.
I nodded. Don Venus looked just past me, at one of my ears. He moved his lips. No sound came out. Luis asked him to wait a moment before unloading the rastrojo. The shed was a lean-to, open on three sides. There were still some stalks leaning up against the rear wall. Luís pulled these aside and revealed an old green plastic tarp. And out from under this, he pulled what most of us recognize as the global insurgent weapon, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. It was painted a marine gray, chipped and dinged. God knows how old, or from what military. He fumbled around some more and brought a cuerno de chivo, the curved thirty-round magazine, and clicked it into place, thus completing the icon. In some parts of Asia and Africa, the whole thing for twenty dollars.
“How many have you got?” I asked, before I could stop myself.
He ignored me and told Don Venus – who had seen everything – to go ahead and unload his corn stalks. “Ven,” he said, and we started off on the path into the marsh. Right away, he pulled a pint bottle out of his back pocket. More Jim Beam. I took a swig. Then he took one. Then he dropped the bottle on a tuft of soft dry grass that the Brahmans appeared to be saving for later. “We´ll pick it up on the way back,” he said. He gave me a challenging smirk, in anticipation of a discovered deficiency – in me. “Have you ever shot one of these things?” he asked. I hadn´t. And the little warrior in me thrilled.
The path was a raised dike, formed by the dredged channel to our left. We passed a drawn up dugout – a canoa, the modern version, plywood and fiberglass – that waited for its fisherman to return. The dike widened a little. We stopped where a square – maybe six feet by six feet – had been cut out of the bog.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
I saw something in the brown water, a foot down. I stepped closer. A body splayed out, with small fish, too ravenous to flee, eating away at a vague white mass. Then I realized I was looking at a hoof, and that the victim was a calf that had been split open and staked down at each hoof. And then I thought I saw a human hand floating deeper down, below it all.
I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that Luís had the Kalashnikov pointed at me.
“You could donate your arm to the Saint,” he said. And then, with his brows raised, “For Jorge’s sake.” A smile formed. He thought it was funny.
He swung the gun away. “Let’s shoot it,” he said, and I jumped when he fired a single round at some grebes that were dunking and squeaking, in open water a hundred feet away. The birds fluttered across the water, turning this way and that. Some went airborne, others submerged. I felt pee cooling on my inner thigh.
“You try it,” he said. He moved a lever. “Automatic,” he said. He presented the gun with both hands, like an award. I held it at waist level and fired off a burst. At the grebes, farther away now. They panicked. One fluttered, then floated limp. My ears rang. I fired another burst. This one longer, and cut a path back back into the junco, a not too distant line of reeds. And then I fired until the cuerno de chivo was empty. On purpose. He understood what I’d done. His eyebrows were raised.
“Pasto para los chivos, cuernos para los cuervos.” He smirked, again as if he had discovered a small hypocrisy. Grass for the goats, horns for the crows. Or was the last phrase bullets for the cuernos de chivo -for the corpses the crows will pick at?
I didn’t understand. My mind was on the shredded calf, picked at by fish. I wondered it they were the same white fish that the tourists ate deep fried and cold. Plus, there was something else I couldn’t quite focus on.
On the way back, we stopped for the bottle. The whisky helped. I looked to see if you could see pee wetting through on my pants. You couldn’t. Don Venus sat on a three-legged stool. His burro dozed tied to the shed. Don Venus held a machete across his thighs. Luís handed him the Kalashnikov. Don Venus walked into the shed, to put it away. He carried the machete in his left hand, by its plastic black handle, and the AK-47 balanced in the right so the muzzle wouldn’t drag on the ground – as if it too were a campesino’s everyday tool.
We went back into the church. There were more women inside. One of them very pretty, with expensive shoes, an alligator handbag, and a thin-striped blue and black rebozo, to make her look Indian. I heard her smooth voice address the Santa Muerte: “Preciosa” –precious. Then she looked at me, curious, lingering. I recognized a woman of open complexity. At another time I might have joined the church, to be near her. Outside, I said she was muy guapa, very attractive. Luís raised his eyebrows and tickled the air with his forefinger – Mexican for yes. He said her husband was killed in a shoot out with Federal Police. I suspected Nacho immediately, but didn’t say anything. She had parked her new VW Jetta so close to the front door that we were barely able to squeeze out.
“A stunning woman,” he said. I thought I could hear suggestion in his voice. Like, you could have her, if you were with us. I wondered why her husband was in a shoot out. That brought up the word my wife didn’t want me to use. So I didn’t say it.
We shook hands. I wanted to ask things. The hand under the calf, for instance. Was he supposed to build a sewage treatment plant? Did he offer crystal meth to teenagers, then fuck them? And what’s the stuff with the calves?
Luís raised his eyebrows. “We’ll find her an arm from some other carbrón.” Perhaps because of the whisky and brotherhood, I shook his hand again. Maybe just to celebrate the arm I appeared to be getting away with. Maybe all they had was the hand and not the whole arm. I ignored the word cabrón as a license permitted between warm-chested friends.
“Don’t come back,” he said. “And don’t use the word narco. It just brings trouble.
“I understand,” I said. Although I didn’t.
“Don’t stop again,” he said. I wasn’t sure why he was emphasizing the point. As he squeezed past the Jetta to go back in, he looked at me and wagged his forefinger, Mexican for no.
Under the windshield wiper, on the driver’s side, I found the wrapping from Jorge’s taco. I was pretty sure he had put it there. Some of its juice had dripped down out of sight below the wiper. I took the paper out from under the wiper. I didn’t know where to put it. Jorge was standing across the road still. He was holding his hand out. I walk across the road. He stood firm. His hand moved a little toward me. He didn’t look at me. I put the wrapper in his hand. His head bobbed a little. He lowered his arm, still holding the paper. He continued looking at the road, and beyond to the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte. With the barest trip in my voice, I said, “Que te vaya bien, Jorge,” take care, and I returned to my car. I held my arm up and pointed with the key. The parking lights winked. And then I got in and locked the doors.