Día de los Muertos: Chapter 12

Twelve

Sonoran Desert / 11:20 A.M.

They turned onto Mex. 2, a two-lane asphalt road that ran east toward Mexicali with more potholes than the road to hell. There were six people in the jeep, not counting Calhoun and Castro. The Guatemalan couple Calhoun had rescued, three Salvadorans, the lawyer and his two sisters, and the Palestinian kid who had contracted with Slaughter.Castro was telling Calhoun that the kid was from some kind of merchant family on the Gaza strip and had come by boat to Veracruz. Castro said the kid’s family had big money. Calhoun looked at the boy in the rearview mirror. It suddenly became important to him that he look at each of the faces in the back. He wiped the sweat off his face and adjusted the mirror, picking out the Palestinian kid first. He was in the very back, his feet up on the opposite window, playing a video game, oblivious. He was well dressed, horribly out of style, but expensively.

Calhoun moved the mirror. The three Salvadorans behind Castro were smallish. They had airs from the moment they’d gotten into the jeep – middle-class airs. They had paid full price to be smuggled into the U.S. and they resented it. The Guatemalan couple had tried to talk to the Salvadorans but they weren’t interested. The lawyer and his sisters smelled peasants and cut them dead. Calhoun moved the mirror to look at the two middle-aged sisters. They were in their forties and they looked mean. Their brother was tonsured, in his fifties and looked soft. He was extremely nervous, as if he expected his throat to be cut at any moment. Calhoun brought the mirror back to its right place. He looked at the Guatemalan couple in the back with the kid. They were holding hands. The boy had shaken Calhoun’s hand as he got in the jeep as if maybe the handshake would somehow mean the difference between success and failure.

“What do you want to hear?” Calhoun said, taking his eyes from the back.

“I don’t care,” Castro said. Castro was looking at his friend very carefully. Calhoun opened the box at his elbow, sweat pouring down his drawn face. He rifled through it till he found the Rolling Stones “Stripped” CD.

“I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be…” Calhoun sang the tune, shoved the CD into the slot. The jeep suddenly started rocking, Keith Richard’s guitar at full volume, four speakers grinding against the still late morning desert outside. The Tecate mountains rose to their left, metallic blue and wicked looking. “Hey, you think it’s really true… Mick Jagger fucked Eric Clapton in the ass?” Calhoun asked.

“I don’t know,” Castro said. “You’re acting strange today, amigo.” Calhoun ignored him, waving his hand. “My love’s bigger than a Cadillac…”

The jeep pushed on toward a small chink in the U.S. Border, just east of Palmdale, still ten miles away. The air conditioner blasted over the rock ‘n roll music. Tumbleweeds became metallic fire balls. Burning strips of barrel cactus looked iridescent, like biblical fire in Babylon. The tarmac became a viscous silver liquid. Cars that passed were meteors of glaring, roaring chrome, frightening. People’s faces were little ugly billboards with teeth and hair. Mick Jagger gave it everything he had. Calhoun’s mind started to fill things in, tried to see through the confusion of his dengue fever, make sense of the desert and the tarmac. For long moments the two lanes became blurred and dark. Calhoun tried to see through the sunlight. That’s the desert at noon, Calhoun thought, confusion with sunlight. The brighter it got, the more confusing and dark it was. His hands began to shake and he had to fight the fever’s accompanying dyskinesia.

“Are you going to tell them?” Castro asked. He reached over and turned down the music.

“Why should we do that?” Calhoun’s voice was loud, as if it too were out of control. Castro knew Calhoun wasn’t drunk, the sickness was making his partner erratic and crazy. Not on the surface, but just below it.

“I think it’s better that we do. It’s always better. You know it’s a shock for them as soon as we pull off the road. I don’t want a scene,” Castro said. “It’s not good for business.”

“No, I think it makes it worse. They don’t look like the type that you would tell. Especially those two.” Calhoun nodded to the two older Salvadoran women who were feeding their faces already, holding some kind of empanadas wrapped in foil. “They think it’s going to be a morning in the fucking country.” Calhoun smiled into the mirror and the women smiled back, disarmed by Calhoun’s good looks. It was always the same with women and Calhoun. Castro studied the women and seemed to agree that warnings would only make it worse for them. Calhoun grinned at them violently and winked, then turned the music back up.

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna to be. Love is love and I’ll fade away. I’m gonna love you night and day. Don’t fade away,” Calhoun sang. He began to bang on the steering wheel, moving his right hand in a kind of rocking motion, getting into the music. He seemed oblivious for a moment, lost in the Stones’ tune. Castro pushed his cowboy hat back on his head and looked at him.

“The turnoff…” Castro said. “Up ahead.” Calhoun slammed on the brakes and the jeep skidded for forty feet like they were on a glass table top. They glissaded over the burning rubber and asphalt and came to a stop, smoke coming up around the tires. The women had to grab their jeep straps to stay in their seats. Calhoun smiled and looked into the desert, then turned off onto the dirt track to their left.

 

“You don’t look well,” Castro said. “Maybe I should drive.”

Calhoun turned around and looked at his friend. His face was wet and shiny. His blue eyes wicked- looking. “I drive. I always drive,” Calhoun said. “You know that.” He wiped the sweat off his face and smiled at him.

“Maybe this time we should take the long way?”

“Why the fuck should we do that? It’s more dangerous,” Calhoun said. “What’s wrong with you, anyway? I got to get to the track at two-thirty. You know that!”

“Maybe today we should take the long way,” Castro said again, repeating himself.

“You mean the jump? We’ve done it a million times.”

“I know…but today…maybe we should go around. The long way.”

“Fuck no. We go around, we’re liable to get caught by the rat patrol and get into a fight…and I’m not fighting for this bunch.” Calhoun reached for his havelock, took it off, and set it next to him on the seat.

“Maybe that would be better today,” Castro said again. “I like the jump. I miss it. Everyone should jump an eight thousand pound jeep once a week over a two hundred foot vertical drop,” Calhoun said.

“All right. But you don’t look well. You’re…”

“I feel great,” Calhoun said defensively. Castro laughed. He was a brave man and in the end, fatalistic. He prided himself on his fearlessness and didn’t want Calhoun to get the wrong idea. He would rather have died than have been suspected of cowardice.

“I’m worried about you, amigo. Seriously, man…”

“Worry about yourself,” Calhoun said. He’s my one friend, Calhoun thought. Then they were quiet. There was just the vibration of the big tires on the desert track and the sun blasting everything it touched at eleven-thirty in the morning. Calhoun reached over and turned on the CD again. The Rolling Stones came back on.

“The music will make it worse.” Castro had to yell.

“Not for me,” Calhoun said. He turned it up. The lawyer made a sign that the music was too loud, covered his ears and squinted his eyes. Calhoun reached forward and turned it down for a moment.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be your pilot this morning. We are going to be traveling at speeds that will reach one hundred miles an hour over uneven, dangerous, desert country. On our right you can just make out the Sea of Cortez. There are several gangs in the area that would like nothing better than to kill us for our meager possessions. Do not worry as we are equipped for these eventualities.” Calhoun took out one of his forty-fives and waved it in the air. The Salvadorans looked at him like he was mad.

“We should be landing in the USA in approximately forty minutes…the weather is clear. Thank you for choosing our carrier services for this leg of your journey. Cabin crew, please take your seats and prepare for open desert.”

“Amigo, you are the worst son of a bitch on the fucking planet. Let me tell you that,” Castro said. He looked at the lawyer and tried to reassure him.

They hit a rough patch of hard pan. The older women were scared. Calhoun was going sixty plus, sometimes swerving the jeep, cutting the sand, holding tension. There was a constant hard bouncing now of the suspension. Castro was used to it. He glanced at the back. The cargo was white-faced, all of them except the Guatemalans. They’d left the jeep track and were in open desert now. There was no road at all.

“Hey! Please slow down,” one of the Salvadoran women yelled in Spanish. As if she were talking to a taxi driver in town.

“What did she say?” Calhoun asked. He had the music on, Keith and Mick kicking it up.

The woman leaned forward, the rolls of her stomach against the cheap fabric of a chintz dress, her face greasy with chicken, her gray hair done up with a yellow scarf, a black purse with grease stains on the leather in her lap.

“Mister drive too fast. You slowly down,” she said in bad English.

“Shut up. Silencio!” Calhoun roared. He said it in Spanish, turning down the music, glancing in the rearview mirror, fixing the woman with his sick blue eyes that were fever-wide. She looked at him quickly in the mirror, saw Calhoun’s strange eyes. Intimidated, she leaned back into the seat.

“…And charming, too,” Castro said. He made a noise and rubbed his nose.

“Next thing is she’ll want to drive,” Calhoun said.

“You have a real way with the ladies,” Castro said. “You’re no good. Look at you.” He turned away and looked at the desert. The clouds of reddish dust trailing behind them poured into the pale morning sky. Calhoun liked to feel the desert under the jeep, the roughness of it, the way it threw them around. You feel yourself less out here, he thought. You feel less of everything. You’re swallowed up in it. The impossible emptiness of it. There was just the beautiful sexual pull of the engine and the tunnel of dust and cactus. And then there was the jump. It took a half hour off the trip. But that wasn’t why he liked it; it was the going off the edge of the canyon across a divide of twenty feet over a rocky red abyss. The shadow of the jeep traveling along the canyon wall. The screams of the passengers when they were airborne. It was having the shit scared out of him that he loved. The fact was, he liked to cheat death.

“Amigo, you know what’s wrong with you…no one ever knows when you’re joking and when you’re serious. That is a bad character flaw,” Castro said, trying to engage him.

“I never joke,” Calhoun said.

“No! the problem is that you are always joking and no one takes you seriously. That’s what I mean. Who can take you seriously? You are completely crazy.”

“No one takes Mexicans seriously, either,” Calhoun said. “At least not where I come from.”

 

There was a large outcropping of rocks, an entrance to a maze of arroyos and washes that marked a change in the desert here, the beginning of the broken ground with washouts, canyons, and spiked hills like big, red, rocky thorns. It was here the trail was the worst, and for the passengers, the most frightening. Calhoun down-shifted and slowed. He looked around for a way through, shifted up, and they climbed on a rock table still going thirty miles an hour. Boulders the size of houses went by the windows. The jeep descended into a long narrow canyon.

“Look at my Guatemalan!” Calhoun nodded to the back. “He’s got balls. I bet he doesn’t say a word. He’d rather die first.” Castro turned around and looked at the young man. If he was scared, you couldn’t tell it from his face. The Salvadoran women were holding each other, their brother was saying something but it was so soft you couldn’t hear it. The lawyer leaned forward and looked at Castro and said something in Spanish. Castro explained that the driver was very experienced and turned around.

“You’re right, he’d rather die than act like that one,” Castro said. “I hate cowardice in a man. I hate it more than anything.”

“I bet you a hundred dollars I’ll make the lawyer break water,” Calhoun said. Castro turned around and looked at the little Salvadoran, then at the Palestinian kid who seemed completely at ease, enjoying the ride like it were Disneyland.

The lawyer leaned forward. “I beg you to slow down. Think of the women,” he said. The lawyer was wearing a blue guayabera. Calhoun sank his foot into the gas and threw the man back against the seat.

“Don’t talk to the driver,” Calhoun said over the music.

“What are you doing, amigo?” Castro turned and looked at his friend. The canyon here was wet from the rain, the sand darker, the traction secure. You could hear the tires hit the water some moments, hydroplane and lift. Then rumble again. Castro saw that Calhoun’s shirt was drenched and that he wasn’t well at all. And it hit Castro for the first time that they might, in fact, crash.

“I don’t like him,” Calhoun said. “Why doesn’t he just say he’s scared.” He put his foot into it again. They descended into a narrow lane that ran between solid rock walls twenty feet high. The engine roared, the Stones doing “Let It Bleed,” Richards’ guitar raunchy, the man’s eyes terrified. One of the women started to scream. The Guatemalan kid looked at his wife and took her hand stoically. They were scared now but determined.

“Guatemalans are tough people,” Calhoun said, looking into the mirror, enjoying it. “Look at them…look at the kids. They’re beautiful,” Calhoun said over the roar of the engine, “look at ’em!” He shifted violently and sloppily. The jeep seemed to stall, then start again in the narrow alley of red rock, the water more frequent here. Castro had gotten quiet. He took his cowboy hat off and set it on his lap. He was sweating, too, now. He knew that there was something wrong with Calhoun, that he was sick, not right in the head. He’d been fine earlier but now wasn’t. He tried to be calm. They were going too fast now, much faster than they’d ever gone in this stretch. If he tried to grab the wheel, they would all be dead.

“You’re right…of course they know something about life…back there it’s tough. They are tough people…admirable.” He tried to think of the right thing to say that would work. He had put his hands on his lap and watched the narrow passage seem to shrink with speed. They descended again so that the desert floor was thirty feet above them. The shadows were big here. Then, just as suddenly, the canyon started to open up so that the canyon walls were fifty yards apart, then sixty. They crossed a rill, then a creek, but the water was deeper – a foot or so deep – so that the tires were barely able to hit the sand underneath.

“Look at his woman, look at her eyes. That’s generations of guts and suffering. Right there, right now, look at it, Miguel, look at her now! Every battle the Mayans ever fought is in her eyes right now. She won’t break, I know it. Not like that chicken-eating fuck next to her. Backbone like a fucking bridge post.” He slammed his hand on the wheel. His hair was wet with sweat.

“Of course,” Castro said. He put his hat back on, raised it off his head, thinking now that they weren’t going to get out of the canyon. He felt the wobble of the tires, barely any traction left. He tried to look ahead to see if the creek would widen. Again he heard the throttle and the engine respond. They plowed into the deepest parts of the water, sheets of dirty water washed against the jeep’s windshield. For a moment they were completely blind, a kind of chocolate mud obscuring everything.

The lawyer covered his face. The women screamed. Calhoun began to laugh and hit the windshield wipers; big thick cake-batter mud was pushed off. There was a sharp turn coming up, the wall of the canyon very red in the sun in front of them. Castro watched the windshield clear. He reached over and turned down the music.

“Look at the piece of shit. Look at him. He’s a lawyer but he’ll get on welfare as soon as he gets across the line and the liberals will cry for him and…” Castro stopped listening. The canyon wall was rushing up, its reddish tone closer and closer, the engine louder against it. “I say make him break water…that’s what I say!” Calhoun shifted up, the engine noise rough, the speedometer going through sixty. “My love’s bigger than a Cadillac…”

“Vincent…?” Castro stopped talking and looked ahead at the red rock wall that marked a sharp turn in front of them, then at Calhoun’s crazed face, his hands on the steering wheel tapping to the music still playing in his head.

Castro suddenly reached over and turned the ignition off. The whole jeep lurched against the flywheel. The dead weight of the steel and tires and people flew into a pool and slowed, the wall coming at them. Almost as if he’d come out of a dream, Calhoun went to work controlling the slide through the water, bringing the front of the jeep under control. He flipped the key to on. They started again on compression, just making the turn, the wall close enough to see the grasses in its cracks. Everyone was silent. The canyon widened after the turn.

“Sorry,” Calhoun said, slowing down. “I saw something beautiful in those eyes, that’s all. Sorry. The other one spoiled it…sorry, Miguel.”

“Don’t worry, amigo,” Castro said. “Things like that cleanse the blood. They’re good for you. I am sure of it. They’ll remember it the rest of their lives.” The canyon started to diminish, the walls coming down. The water diverted to their right now. They climbed back up to the desert floor.

They were going forty now. Barrel cactus started to crop up again. Calhoun slalomed around them, down-shifting and climbing off the floor of the desert, taking a series of switchbacks.

“Are you all right now?” Castro asked. Calhoun nodded. He could tell it was over and the fever had let go some. Calhoun’s eyes were more normal now.

“Yes, all right. No past, only future,” Calhoun joked. They were suddenly out on top of a mesa and racing along its rocky edge, the whole Sonoran desert below them, the late morning sun on their left. There was a terrific sense of freedom and life. Calhoun reached over and turned up the music, the harmonica blowing. To their left was a hundred feet of nothing, to the right the vast desert plain, all the way to the gulf, shimmering and breaking up. Here and there patches of darker sand from the rains remained. The Palestinian kid figured it out first, what was going to happen. Castro tilted his cowboy hat back on his forehead and watched the edge of the canyon come racing up.

“Don’t be careful,” Castro said. Then they were airborne, just the noise of the wind against the flying mass of green steel, Calhoun’s big hands on the steering wheel, just empty blue sky and sunlight.

 

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