I put down the phone and all I could think was that my brother was an idiot. His plan was that I ask Rafael for money to get to Guadalajara, and then once there get the rest of the money to somehow make it to Tijuana. It sounded simple when he laid it out to me on the phone, but then all of a sudden the whole plan depended on me asking Rafael for the money. Though I could already hear his excuses ringing, I threw the lock on the door and went down to his dump of an office on the first floor. I found him laid out on the armchair, holding the remote and flipping rapidly through the stations. When he saw me he set the remote on the little table and took another bite of whatever it was he was eating.
“I just got off the phone with Sergio,” I said. “I need to get to Guadalajara.”
He squinted his eyes. He knew why I was there.
“I’m not going to lend you money.”
“I swear I’ll pay you.”
“Not a chance.”
I stayed where I was, in the same position—me looking at him, he looking at me—calmly.
“Fine,” he finally said. “One of these guys needs to go to Guadalajara anyway. Let me see what I can do. But money, not a chance. I don’t have it.”
“Sergio said you could lend me something.”
“Sergio isn’t here. And even if he was here he wouldn’t have the money he owes me on rent.”
He stood off the chair and flicked off the television. Standing up I saw how much taller and bigger he was then me.
“In fact you both owe me.”
He breathed in, deeply, as if about to hold his breath, then exhaled. He waved his hand like he was trying to scare something away.
“I’ll see what’s going on about Guadalajara. I’ll let you know.”
I went back to my room and spread marmalade on two pieces of bread. After eating I lay down and started thinking about the trip, about Sergio and the moment we’d see each other again. I wondered how he’d look. Two years is a lot with nothing but his voice, which I had just heard again over the phone, to give me an image of him. In my backpack I had an old, yellowing photo in which even I had trouble picking out his face amongst all the others looking at the camera.
I got up to pack up a few more of my things which were scattered around the room. I had so little that everything fit into just one backpack. In a little baggy I put the sheet with the info Sergio gave me on the phone, as well as two 500-peso bills, which was everything I had.
By midnight, after not hearing from Rafael again I lay back down and started thinking about the trip, as well as other things. I imagined my reunion with my brother, imagined our life together in the US: working hard enough to be able to buy a car, maybe even a house. All we needed was work. Nothing else. I don’t know how much time passed or if I slept a lot or hardly at all as the next thing I knew someone was banging on the door. It was a friend of Rafael’s who I’d seen around his office drinking and playing dominoes.
“It’s you that’s going to Guadalajara?”
I said it was me.
“Good. Go get your stuff.”
Outside a car was waiting with the engine running and the lights blinking in the darkness. I put my bag in the backseat and then opened up the shotgun door and settled in, still feeling half asleep, but just awake enough to enjoy, or nearly enjoy, the beginning of the voyage.
“Put your seatbelt on,” the guy in the driver’s seat said. “And sleep if you want to. It’s a long trip.”
We left the house behind, crossed the city and then got on the highway. When we’d reached cruising speed, the guy lit a cigarette and turned on the radio as if saying that it was time to relax. I was tired but I couldn’t sleep, so I stared at the white highway line, the shadows along the shoulder and the near complete absence of other cars. In the first toll the guy asked me if I had money. I opened the bag in my backpack and gave him a 500-peso bill. I did the same with the rest of the tolls, not always getting my change back. The second 500-peso bill I figured would be enough to at least get to Sergio’s friend in Guadalajara.
We stopped at a rest area to have a coffee, which, since we didn’t know each other at all, we drank in silence. When we got back in the car I was finally tired enough and this time I fell asleep right away. When I opened my eyes again, it was already day and we were driving into the city. A little later we slowed down and stopped along the side of the road. The guy turned to look at me.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
I grabbed my backpack from the backseat and got out. I was ducking down to thank the guy when he put it in gear and pulled away without a word.
It was a hot day, but not much hotter than in many of the places Sergio and I had lived. It was also humid, even pleasantly so. I started sweating on my neck and arms after taking just a few steps. I walked to a newsstand to buy water and something to eat. The man who attended me, leaning on his elbows above the racks of magazines, looked at me without any unusual expression. I set my bag down and before saying anything and went through my checklist: the first step was to go to Javier for the money, the second step was to take the bus to Tijuana. That was it. That simple.
As I was opening my bag I asked for a bottle of water and a sandwich. But in the bag, I saw, there was no money, not even the paper with the numbers that Sergio had given me. I emptied my backpack on the ground and looked through all of my stuff, then again went through the pockets of the backpack. Nothing. I went to a payphone and dropped in the few coins I had in my pocket.
“Your friend just robbed me,” I told Rafael as soon as he picked up.
“Your friend just robbed me,” I repeated. “I don’t have any money.”
“I can’t hear anything,” Rafael said, and then hung up.
My hands started shaking. I’m not a violent person, but believe me I can’t just stand back and let someone rob me.
The damage was already done though, and all I had to do now was find Javier and ask him for the money. I sort of remembered the name of the street and the neighborhood where he lived since they both were plant names, and if I were able to look at a map I’d possibly find the place. I went back to the newspaper stand and I asked if the man could lend me a map to look through the neighborhoods. I told him that I’d recently come from Mexico City. Without hurry he handed me an old city map.
“This isn’t for Guadalajara,” I said.
The man looked at me with what seemed genuine interest, as if suddenly the pieces finally came together for him and formed an image of me in his head.
“We’re not in Guadalajara,” he said.
I must have made a face because the man seemed to repent his words and the effect they had on me.
“We’re in Mazatlán,” he added. “And the bus station is pretty far, half an hour in taxi. There aren’t very many busses today either. They’re on strike.”
“I can’t take a taxi.”
“You could walk,” he said.
“There’s no other way?”
“Not if you can’t take a taxi. Where are you headed?”
“Tijuana,” I said. “Or Guadalajara.”
“Do you have any money?”
“Twenty pesos,” I said, after counting my change.
“Well, better get walking then. If you start now you’ll get to the station early. And then you can maybe catch a ride from there. You never know.”
He gave me directions to the station and I started out, bag on my shoulder, keeping an eye out for shade to avoid the heat. Occasional breezes blew in, smelling of the sea, but their cool only lasted for the moment they touched me, and then I started streaming sweat again.
I started thinking of the mistakes I’d made so far. I rushed. Not only had I not saved money in all this time, but I seemed to have forgotten the most basic survival skills. One of my mistakes, for example, was not to bring provisions that would have helped when I got dropped off so far from Guadalajara and Javier. At least I would be able to eat that way. Another, possibly fatal, mistake was not memorizing his address. Especially since Javier, who drove a collective taxi, didn’t have a phone. Thinking of all I’d done wrong was wearing me out even more than the heat.
Later, when the afternoon finally cooled and the sun dropped a little more, I saw, at last, the big letters spelling out the bus station. Inside, except for the cleaning staff who had cordoned off a huge area to mop the floor, there was hardly anybody there. I walked along the platforms under the gaze of the workers and a few small groups of confused tourists waiting for somebody to tell them why there were no busses, then found a little corner and sat myself down to wait.
I don’t know what I was waiting for, but the sensation that something was going to happen was about all that I had, and I wasn’t sure whatever was going to happen was going to be something good, and every passing minute I was getting more and more scared that someone was going to rob me, beat me, or, even, kill me. I was there for another hour before I heard the noise of an engine as a bus pulled into the departure bay. I took up my bag and walked over to where the two drivers were stepping down and laughing about something. One of them squatted down next to a tire to look at the tread. I went up to him.
“No service today,” the other driver told me. “But where are you headed?”
“To Tijuana,” I said.
“Take the ferry,” the squatted driver said. “You can go to Tobolobampo and then to Los Mochis.”
“I don’t have any money.”
Neither of them responded, though maybe that was a typical response for them. Indifference to folks asking them for a free ride. But I was obviously nervous, and they must have seen it.
The first driver told me that they were going to Culiacán to drop off the bus and then, before I even responded, he told me that the bus had already had two accidents that month. While he went over the details the second driver nodded and smiled, and then said, “It’s cursed.”
“Yeah, it’s cursed. If not, then how do you explain it?” the first said. And then he added, “So, the best we can do is get you a little closer. We stop in Culiacán, but you’re on your own from there.”
I didn’t hesitate. I figured moving at all would be better than just sitting and waiting in a corner for something to come to me. I thanked them and stepped up onto the bus. When they finished whatever they were doing with the tire, the driver sat down behind the wheel and the other guy sat in shotgun. We started up and left the terminal, and I watched as the streetlights passed above us in a chain, and then the city disappear and give way to the surrounding countryside. After a while it started to get dark. After I arrived in Tijuana, I thought, the next step would be to find the detention center, though I wasn’t sure exactly which detention center Sergio was talking about. I still had a lot to figure out once I got there. And still I had no money, no friends, no anything.
I nodded my head.
“Where are you from?” the other driver asked.
“From Oaxaca,” I said. “But I live in Mexico City.”
“What part of Oaxaca?”
“And you’re traveling alone?”
“They arrested my brother,” I said. “I’m going to go help him out.”
Both of the drivers laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh, but a laugh that assured me they’d seen that sort of resolution before. The second driver took a Coke out of a cooler and handed it to me. Then he started talking about Mazatlán, Los Mochis, and his older brother who was killed while working on a tunnel to Acapulco. His brother worked the crane and was inside the tunnel when it collapsed.
“I know what it means to lose a brother,” he said.
“My brother’s still alive.”
They both laughed again.
I felt like telling them something myself, some story to get back at them with. Drivers always have a lot of stories, and they even give free rides if they hear something good. But I couldn’t think of anything: it felt like before that day nothing had happened in my life that was worth telling about. On weekends I went to the park or to the movie theater, alone, staying away from neighbors or other Oaxacans, never even trying to make friends.
I kept listening to the drivers, trying to force myself to remember something, and then sleep started taking a hold of me and I dreamt of a parallel voyage on another bus. But in the dream I was the driver and my arms, which aren’t very long, were trying to maneuver the enormous steering wheel. It felt good taking the curves and spinning the wheel hard. And then, still dreaming, I heard a loud noise that shook me completely. I felt like I was going to throw up and then a hand took a hold of my shoulder.
“Don’t move,” I heard someone say. “You knocked your head.”
I came to a little bit and saw out the window that the bus was in a ditch next to a smoking car. The bus driver along with a couple other men were leaning in through the broken windshield of the car trying to help a boy, who looked about my age, get out.
After the men managed to get the boy out of the car, they leaned over him in the grass. Another man kneeled down next to him and started to talk. His face, I could see between the legs of the other men, was covered in blood. I saw his lips move in response to one of the men. Then the man put a damp t-shirt on my forehead.
“It looks like you banged your head pretty good,” he said to me. “Don’t let the blood scare you.”
We got down off the bus. I was still holding the shirt to my head. A few steps away the boy was still lying in the grass, looking up calmly at the people bending over him, telling him he would be okay. The driver of the bus was explaining to a group of people what happened. He pointed at the car, which was leaning up against a tree. About a minute later, a police cruiser came and parked just up the road. Then an ambulance came and two medics got out with their bag of equipment. They loaded the boy into the ambulance and when they closed the door someone saw the blood on my face and pointed to me. One of the medics came over to take a look at my head.
“Are you here alone?” he asked.
“I just hitched a ride.”
“Well we’re going to have to check you out.”
The driver gave me a look, then touched my back.
“Good luck,” he said.
I sat down in the back of the ambulance and glanced again at the scene, at the destroyed car, the stunned men, the cops, the bus in the ditch. Then the doors closed. The boy was lying on the stretcher right in front of me, completely still except for his eyes, which looked up as if interested in what the paramedic was telling me. Later the boy closed his eyes, but not as if he were laid out in an ambulance stretcher, but as if he were just on a Sunday drive, as if he were relishing the moment.
“You’re going to be fine,” the medic said to the boy after looking me over. “With a couple of knocks you’ll be fixed right up.”
Only a few minutes later the ambulance stopped and the door opened. The hospital was a small one-story building in the middle of a field. In the distance, half a mile away or so, I could see the lights from a gas station. Beyond were the foothills and then the mountains where the trucks were driving into and disappearing.
The medics took the stretcher down and then left me in the charge of a nurse. She took me to an office that was empty save for a metal desk with some papers on it and a couple of chairs. I took a seat and she leaned over to look at the wound on my head.
“Are you alone?” she asked.
“You have family?”
“My brother’s detained up in Tijuana.”
“In jail you mean?
“I don’t know. He lived in the States for a while. I’m going up to see him.”
“How old is he?”
“Twenty-five, I think.”
“How about you?”
She nodded, then set out a needle that looked like a fish hook and in less than a minute she put a few stitches in my head. When she was looking over her work I felt how lightly her fingers were touching my neck.
“I have family in the US as well,” she said. “My husband and my brother-in-law. They’re in California.”
“My brother used to work in California,” I said.
She put a piece of gauze on my wound and asked me to hold it there.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Just a bump.”
“I think I fainted.”
“Yeah, but it’s really nothing. How do you feel?”
“Hang on a second.”
She left the room and a minute later came back with a map that she spread out on the desk. She pointed to California and read aloud the names of the cities as her finger passed over them.
“Here,” she said in a serious tone. “Watsonville.”
We both leaned over to look more closely, as if we could somehow have seen what was happening in Watsonville itself at that moment. She told me that her husband and brother-in-law lived in the north, in a town called Río del Mar, until they started picking strawberries and following the harvests. As she talked I could hear the occasional rumble of a truck approaching, its slow decrescendo, and then the return of the cricket song. After a while the nurse folded the map four times, tucked it under her arm and asked me to follow her to a small room with two beds. She gave me a gown to change into and put my own clothes in a bag.
“Do you have a number you can give me?” she asked.
As hard as I could think I couldn’t remember Rafael’s number.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Okay, a number for your brother will do. But now try to sleep. We’ll figure things out later.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“Nobody’s charging,” she said. “Now get some rest.”
I wanted to ask her to leave the lights on, but she stood up, turned the lights off, and then left. I watched the ray of light under the door, listening hard for a few moments to the noises coming from outside my room. I heard a car door, someone talking in the hallway, a telephone ringing, and then silence. A car’s headlight shined through the window for a moment, illuminating the room. There was a curtain dividing the room in two and an empty bed on the other side. And then it was dark again. The shadows stilled and I thought of the boy from the accident.
Hours later, I don’t know how many, the nurse woke me up and offered me juice and molletes.
“Are all oaxaqueños this quiet?” she asked.
“Alright, let’s see. Does your head hurt?”
“Do you feel nauseated?”
She left and then came back a minute later with my clothes. They smelled like they had been washed, but there were still some bloodstains on the front of the shirt. I saw that there was an envelope stuck in the pocket of my pants.
“Get dressed,” she told me.
I started dressing in silence.
“There’s an envelope for you. A little money and an address I want you to go to.”
“I didn’t earn this,” I said, holding the envelope out to her.
“Come on, are you stupid?”
“I didn’t earn it. It’s not my money.”
“Yeah, you’re stupid.”
I put the envelope back in the pocket, picked up my bag and followed the nurse out of the room. As we were walking I noticed for the first time how short she was. I stopped at the front desk to get my discharge papers, then continued towards the exit, past the green plastic waiting room chairs, and then stopped right before the door. The landscape outside looked so different from what I remembered the night before. There were a few houses close to the hospital, even a few skinny horses standing behind a fence. When I turned around to talk to the nurse again I saw that the medic from yesterday was sitting in one of the green chairs. He gave me a nod. In one hand he had a sandwich and in the other a cup of coffee.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“It was nothing,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
We didn’t say anything else. The nurse came over and together we walked out the door. The air was surprisingly cold, damp. I reached down and touched the envelope in my pocket.
“Are you gonna go where I told you?” the nurse asked.
“Yeah,” I said, not knowing if it was true.
I thanked her and then started off towards the gas station. There were two busses stopped just along the highway, one facing north and the other south. I wasn’t sure if I should head on to Tijuana to look for my brother and see if I could help him, or if I should turn around, go back south, to Rafael, to my old “home” and my job delivering glass. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. As I approached the gas station, with my hands in the pockets of my beat-up pants and my bloodstained t-shirt on my back, I felt that either direction would turn out well. I don’t know why, but I could feel it.
When I got to the gas station, the busses, as if my waiting for my arrival, both started their engines. Next to the gas station there was a 24-hour restaurant, a place built out of varnished wood and with an old brick chimney rising out of the roof. I walked in and sat down at a table. A small and thin young-woman came to take my order. I asked her what her name was.
“I don’t like cholos,” she said and then shifted her weight to her other foot. “You have bloodstains on your shirt.”
“I know,” I said. “Can I have a coffee?”
“Do you know where that bus goes?”
“No,” she said, already starting to turn away. “But it goes south. The ones pointed that way head south. The ones pointed the other way head north.”
“Sure,” I said, “thanks.” And I sat there to wait for my coffee.