by H. E. Dunkle
Domingo knows he can give his family a better life; all he has to do is cross a river.
"Good afternoon," I say to the scruffy looking man sitting at the desk.
He glares at me. "Where's your momma, boy?"
I return his stare and ignore the question. "I'm here for identification papers. Someone told me you were good at making those."
"You see that line behind you? I have to help those folks out, too. They have families to feed, families to support. You look like you could still be in grade school!"
I feel my face getting red. "School doesn't help me get paid, mister. Now, I need papers, and I need them now. If you can't help me, then I will take my business somewhere else."
"I ain't about to be bullied around by some scrawny son of a--"
I slam a five-hundred-peso bill onto the table. "This convince you?"
The man's eyes widen at the sight of the note.
I pull out another and wave it in front of his face. "I need papers that can get me into Texas."
He grunts. "Texas, huh? Well, I just might be able to help you with that." He gets up from his desk and begins to riffle through a box on the shelf behind him. He pulls out a weathered folder, sets it down on the desk, and begins leafing through it.
When he stops, he hands me a piece of paper attached to a wooden clipboard and a pen. "Fill this out, and we'll get you set up with a photographer."
The man holds out his hand. "Don't thank me yet."
What does he... oh!
I begrudgingly hand him the two bills. He snatches them and swiftly stuffs them into his coat pocket, grinning. He then gestures for the person behind me to come forward.
Dang... there goes one thousand pesos!
One thousand hard-earned pesos.
He better deliver with those papers.
I walk over to a chair in the middle of the colossal tented area and sit down in one of the few remaining seats. I pull the lid off of the pen, then start filling out the questions.
First name. Domingo.
Last name. Rodruez.
Middle name. The heck if I know. My parents had to worry about feeding me, not what my middle name should have been. Let's see. What's a good middle name? Hm... I've always liked the name Raoul. How about we go with that.
Weight? Dang. This was just supposed to be a simple form for information that will go on a tiny card that's gonna get me a job. Why does it need to know my weight?
I stand up and walk back over to the man at the desk. He scowls at me. "Done already?"
"How much do you think I weigh?"
He laughs, and I clench my fist tightly around the clipboard. "You? I would say that you're somewhere around fifty kilos, max. But you need that in American measurements. That would be around a hundred and ten pounds."
I jot the number down on my form, then walk back to my seat and look at the next question.
Height? Good grief!
I once again head over to the desk. "How tall do you think I am?"
He swears. "How are you so retarded that you can't fill out a stupid piece of paper?! And you want to try to get into America!" he scoffs.
"Well, I don't really need to know this kind of stuff in my daily life, so I don't keep track of stuff like that."
He grumbles as he looks me up and down. "Somewhere around five foot five, give or take. Now, are you done? I have other customers to take care of."
I nod as I write down his answer.
He grunts, then swears again as he goes back to what he was previously doing.
I sit back down again and continue to fill out the answers to these prying questions.
Date of birth. Hm... Sometime in May. Oh yeah! May twenty-first, 1927.
Eye color. Wait, what? Why do you need to know the color of my eyes?! Whatever. If this will get me into Texas... Blue.
Like people are gonna mistake me for a girl.
I walk back over to the counter and hand him the paper before he can open his mouth to curse again. He inspects it closely, nods, then gestures for me to follow him. We walk back to a secluded corner, where another man is sitting, surrounded by photography equipment.
The man smiles at me. "Hello there!" He gestures to a chair. "Please sit right there. Now, hold still while I get things set up." With that, he starts fiddling with a giant box set upon three legs.
The man looks back at me when he is finished. "Ready?"
"Smile!" A blinding flash fills my vision, and I blink on pure instinct.
The man laughs, then hands a small black and white piece of paper to the man from the desk. "Here, Rico. You know what to do with this."
The man named Rico nods, then turns back to me. "We will be finished with your card in two days. Come back then." With that, he walks back to his original post at the desk.
I thank the man with the camera, then walk out of the tent and into the bright sunlight. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the brightness, but soon I am off; running back to the dump that I call home.
I don't stop running until I reach the outskirts of town. Panting, I lean up against the sign that has always been here; the sign that says, "Welcome to Nuevo Laredo!" The sign that is supposed to be warm and inviting, but to the natives, to me, it means nothing of the like. We only see it as another sign of the corruption and deception in our town.
My parents had moved here when I was little because they wanted to get away from the drug wars in Guatemala. They thought that, since we are closer to the United States, we would be safe here.
Man, were they wrong.
Turns out that drug cartels thrive more the closer you get to the border. And with drug cartels come gangs, and with gangs comes turf wars, and with turf wars comes violence.
Which ultimately leads to death.
My dad had hated every second here. He didn't want to go to work most days because he knew that there was a high chance that me, my mom, and my sister would not be at home when he got back. Or worse, our bodies would be the only things he came home to.
I remember him always saying that he would take us to the United States. He said that he would find work there, make lots of money, then come back for us.
"We would have a good life," he would say. "There are plenty of jobs in America."
Then one day, he came home and said he was fired. He said that the next day, he was going to America. He was going to Texas to get a job. Mom tried to talk him out of it, but his mind was made up. He left that very next day.
That "very next day" was two years ago.
He hasn't been back since.
Having caught my breath, I jog past the sign and continue to head home. I sprint through several streets; past the rundown houses that populate this forsaken place like rabbits, past the businesses that barely make enough each day to feed themselves. I race through the town square, which is crowded with people trying to sell stuff from their carts, as always, and head down an alleyway. I continue to weave my way through the crowds, forcing my way through gatherings and groups, until I reach my destination: a small, brick-red house, covered in moss and dust, and falling apart at the seams.
I race to the front door and knock seven times. The first three knocks are sharp and brisk, the next three slow and soft; the seventh is more like me slamming my palm on the door than actually knocking.
The door opens, and there she is. Dark hair pulled back in a bun, green eyes burning bright, arms covered in soap suds. I must have caught her doing the wash.
Mama smiles. "Domingo! You're back!" She gives me a hug, covering me in suds as well.
Whatever. At least she isn't asking about--
"So how did your job interview go?"
"It went ok. They want me to go back there in two days. They'll tell me if I got the job then."
Mama has no clue where I have really been in the last twelve or so hours. When I left early this morning, I left a note on the counter that said I was going to a job interview, for a mining position down south in Guanajuato.
"Good! That usually means that they will give you the job!" she looks so happy...
"Yeah. I think that I am gonna get it."
"That's good. Now, why don't you get something to eat? You must be hungry from walking all day."
"That sounds great, Mama."
I walk over to the kitchen table, grab a banana out of the fruit bowl, and sit down.
I hate lying to her. Especially about something as serious as this. But if I told her the truth, she would shut it down faster than you could say "Access denied". She already lost Papa to this crazy scheme. We don't know if he's dead, or in jail, or anything like that. We just know he tried to cross, and he hasn't come back.
But the drug dealing here has only gotten worse. I can't find any job here that doesn't involve me joining one of those blasted gangs. So I'm planning on going to Texas to get a job. Then, when I have enough money, I would come back for Mama and Maria.
And unlike my father, I plan on coming back. By any means necessary.
"Domi!" I hear a shrill voice cry, as the pattering of feet becomes louder and louder.
I turn to my sister, smiling. "Maria!" I get up out of the chair and stoop down low as she runs to embrace me. "And how are you doing, my dear sister?"
"Ok. I missed you so much!"
"I was only gone for a few hours!"
"But it felt like forever!" She clings to me tighter.
Mama walks over to the table, grinning. "Do you want to show Domi what you made today, Maria?"
"Oh, yes, Mama!" With that, she races back into the small hallway and into her room. She returns carrying a drawing.
She hands it to me excitedly. "What do you think?"
Even though it was made by a five-year-old with only three crayons, it was still a masterpiece in my opinion. It was a drawing of a purple house, yellow grass, and four blue stick figures, two girls and two boys, holding hands as they stood on the yellow grass, smiling as if they had no cares in the world. She has clearly labeled each element by name with a pencil: "house", "grass", "Mama", "Me", "Domi", and "My Daddy in the United States".
They look so content... so carefree...
I look at my sister. "It's beautiful."
She squeals in delight.
I look at the "Daddy" figure.
Maybe this picture will become a reality someday.
But for now, I need to focus on my mission.
I need to focus on my duty as the man of the house.
Providing for my family.
I tousle my sister's hair. Maybe, dear sister. Maybe someday, you can go to school, and show the world your artistic talents.
Maybe someday, I can fulfill our father's dream of us living in America.
But for now, you will just need to be patient.
And hopefully, I will deliver.
"What are you doing back here, boy?!" Rico yells when he sees me walk into the facility.
"You told me to come back in two days. Well, two days have passed, and here I am."
He grumbles as he pulls a box out from behind his desk. "Name?"
He rummages through the box, pulls out a folder, and leafs through the small papers in it. Finally, he hands me a small plastic card with my picture on it. "I hope you know what you're doing."
He grunts, then holds out his hand.
I try to act cool as I search my pockets. Finally, I grasp several notes in my back pocket, yank them out, and hand them to him without a moment's hesitation. He inspects the bills, counts the money, then grunts and shoves the notes into his coat pocket. "A pleasure doing business with you."
I thank him, then race out of the tent and back home, gripping my ticket to a better future for me and my family tightly in my hand.
"You're leaving... now?" Mama's voice was quivering, and her eyes were welling up with tears.
Maria was staring at me, eyes wide. "You just got back. Why do you have to go again?"
I stoop down so I am at eye level with her. "Because I need to get a job, so I can send you and Mama money. And then, when we have enough money, we can go to America, and you can go to school."
Mama is shaking her head. "Your father said the exact same thing before he left. And where is he now?" She picks Maria up in one swoop. "And where will we go while you are gone? At least when your father left, you were here. But now you are leaving, and it will just me and her! What would we do? How will we defend ourselves?"
I stand up. "I talked with the Miguels across the street. They said they would be more than happy to watch out for you two while I am gone."
She is crying hard now. "The mines are dangerous. You could get crushed in a cave in, or blown up, or..."
Dang, I hate this. Seeing her so upset. She is always so strong; she has to be in order to survive.
And on top of this, I'm lying to her face.
But in the end, when we are in America, when we are all happy, I won't have to lie to her anymore.
I reach over and hug her. "Don't worry, Mama. I'll come back for you two. I promise."
"You better. Or I'll come down to Guanajuato and kill you myself."
I smile. "Yes, Mama."
I spend the rest of the day packing. I shove as much as I can into a small knapsack. A change of clothes, the rest of the pesos I got from selling my bike and doing random jobs for the past two years, a few oranges, toiletries, a flashlight, and a pair of rough work gloves. I don't know what I'll need, so I'm just taking the basics.
I make sure that the identification card is still in my pocket.
As I walk out of the room, I spot the framed photo hanging on the wall. It's an old photograph of me standing with Papa, Mama, and Maria outside our house.
I remember. It was taken a few days before Papa was fired; before he left. We are all smiling, just like in Maria's drawing.
I take the frame off of the wall and pull the photo out. I tuck it tenderly into my knapsack. I then look around the room one final time.
I sigh. So many memories here.
I walk out of my bedroom and into the living room, where Mama and Maria are waiting. Maria looks half asleep; it is half-past twelve, the latest she has ever stayed up at night.
Mama is once again crying as she holds Maria in her arms on the sofa. I can see the fear in her eyes.
She fears for not only her life, but for Maria's; for mine.
"Don't cry, Mama." I walk over and take Maria from her arms and set her on the couch. Then I turn back to Mama and embrace her. Her sobs become louder as she holds me tight. "Don't go," she whispers shakily.
I stroke her head. "I have to, Mama." I look her in the eyes.
Her wide, green, glistening eyes.
This may be the last time I see those eyes.
I swallow the sudden hollow feeling that developed in my chest and try to comfort my mother.
"Don't worry, Mama! I will get a good job, make lots of money, and I will come back for you and Maria. Then we will all go to America together, all of us! Then we can send Maria to school, you can get a good job, and we can get a nice big house! And we won't have to worry about drugs or gangs or guns or death or poverty; America is the Land of Opportunity! The Land of the Free! We can be happy there! All of us, together!"
That seems to calm her down a little. She sniffs and backs out of our embrace. "You promise to come back for us?"
"I promise, Mama."
Maria stands up on the couch. "Then when you come back, we'll go to America!"
I nod, smiling at her.
Mama reaches into her dress pocket and pulls out an envelope. "For the journey. It will be very expensive."
I open the envelope, then flinch.
It's a bundle of peso notes.
A big bundle of peso notes.
"That should get you there with a little left over to get a good place to stay."
I look at her.
This is her life's savings!
"Mama, I can't--"
She holds up her hand. "Take them. Me and Maria can take care of ourselves here. But you, you will be in a strange new place, not knowing anyone. You need something you can fall back on."
I close the envelope, put it in my satchel, and slowly nod. "Thank you, Mama."
Maria jumps off the couch and hugs me. "Bring me back something pretty, can you? Like a pink crayon."
I nod again. "Yes, I will bring you a pink crayon. Then, when we get to America, I will buy you a box of crayons with every color in the world imaginable."
She squeals at the prospect of unlimited colors at her fingertips.
I stand up and grab my satchel off of the couch. "Goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, Maria. When I return, it will be to bring you to a better life."
After hugging both women once more, I walk to the front door.
"Domingo?" Mama calls after me.
I turn. "Yes?"
Dang. Is she trying to make me cry? Cause if she is, she's doing a dang good job.
"I will, Mama."
With that, I open the front door and step out into the crisp night air, closing the door behind me. I race out into the night.
My plan is simple: wait until dark, sneak across the Rio Grande, and boom, I'm in America. Easy as that. The river is the border, in a sense! And Nuevo Laredo is so dang close to the river, I shouldn't have any problems. I just need to find an opening; an opportunity.
I reach the river at around one in the morning. It's still dark out, thank goodness. That means I won't be seen by the Border Patrol, but it also means I can't see the river.
I've been at the Rio Grande before. I would sometimes fish here, when Mama didn't have anything for dinner. If I followed my mental map right, the part of the river where I am now should only be a few feet deep; maybe a little more than ten feet deep. Still deep enough to drown in if I'm not careful, but I'm a good swimmer.
I stick my hand in the water to see how fast the current is. I quickly yank my hand out; that water is freezing! Much colder than my last time here.
Well, duh. It's night. Of course the river would be colder at night.
I put my hand back in the water. The frigid water pushes swiftly against my hand.
Rats. It's moving faster than I thought. I'll have to move fast.
I tighten my knapsack shut, and swing it over my shoulder.
I take a deep breath.
This is for you, Mama.
I plunge into the icy water, then come up to the surface quickly, a wave of shocking cold shooting through my body. I feel myself being pulled downstream by the raging current. I don't fight it; I let it push me as I focus on getting to the other side. I slowly start making my way to the opposite bank in a diagonal direction. I do this for several minutes; the width of the river varies the further you follow it.
Then the rapids start.
My head is engulfed by waves multiple times, and every time I pop back up, I am slammed with another spray. I'm beginning to feel dizzy; I need air.
My muscles are screaming in agony as I continue to force myself towards America; towards freedom.
Finally, my hand scrapes up against solid ground, and I pull myself onto the shore. Gasping, I stumble up the bank and collapse on the ground.
I made it!
I'm in Texas!
I'm in America!
I lay on the ground for several minutes, processing this thought. Then, when I have caught my breath, I get up and start making my way towards the inland. Laredo is the closest city at the moment, so I shouldn't have trouble finding a hotel or something.
"Hold it right there!" a sharp deep voice cuts through the night air. A blinding light hits me in the face.
Oh, crud! Border Patrol!
I start running. Too far to get caught now! Too close!
"Stop!" the voice cries. I can hear his footsteps following me.
I keep running. I can lose him in the forest.
Suddenly, a man in a uniform jumps out in front of me.
"Hold it, kid!"
There's two of them?!
I veer left, now with two Border Patrol guards hot on my tail. I keep running; passing trees, jumping over roots, ducking under branches, and trying everything I possibly can think of to lose them. But I can't shake them!
Suddenly, I burst out into a clearing. I can see the city lights in Laredo cutting through the dark night.
I can also see a half dozen more guards pointing guns at me.
I turn around and try to run back into the woods, but the other two jump out and tackle me. The three of us fall to the ground. A third one comes running forward and joins in the struggle.
"Hey! Let go!" I yell, squirming and kicking.
"Hold still, son!" One of the guards exclaims as he yanks my knapsack out of my grip.
"Give that back! It's mine!"
He riffles through the knapsack, tossing my food and clothing out onto the ground. He pauses when he sees the envelope, and his eyes bulge when he opens it and sees all the cash contained inside.
"Where'd you get this, kid?!"
I don't answer him.
He scowls at me, and continues to search my bag. He finds my I.D., looks at me, then back at the tiny card.
He walks back over to me as the other two soldiers, who are now gripping my arms, force me to my feet. "This yours?"
He looks at me a moment longer, then slaps a pair of handcuffs on my wrists. "You're gonna have to come with us, son." The two guards restraining me start pulling me toward a small car.
I'm too close!
I start struggling against the handcuffs, against the guards.
I can't fail!
Not like Papa!
Not when Mama needs my help!
My struggles are to no avail, however. The two guards shove me into the backseat of the car. They both get in the front seats and start driving towards the lights of Laredo.
I sink back in my seat.
This was not how I planned it.
Not how I planned it at all.
The guards start conversing with one another quietly. Soon, I find myself able to close my eyes and tune their voices out. I find myself drifting as the wave of adrenaline that has been coursing through my body ever since I dove into the Rio Grande slowly fades, and is replaced with fatigue, then calmness, then finally, sleep.