By Jimmy Santiago Baca
How stunning the morning desert was to Vito. His heart burst with pleasure and a desire for his childhood days when the sun radiated one tiny ray of faith on his life, a ray that had weight, one he could toss from hand to hand and hold up and carry in his pocket and embrace before sleep and kiss at daybreak.
Fields steamed dew as the pickers arrived. Men, women, and children humped in the furrows, picking. Carmen slept the whole way. He was thinking bad thoughts as her chest rose and fell. He looked away, told himself to stop thinking of touching her. He told himself to shake it out of his head, he could control his mind, he was a trained boxer, he could discipline his body and mind, he could fuck any chick he wanted, but something else was pulling him.
In the miles that stretched out before them he wished Carmen wasn’t engaged to his brother, that she was like so many he’d had—a free-loving chick who just wanted to fuck all night. But no, he was on a mission, and he would never betray his brother.
He forced his mind to obey his will and pulled it back to what he was going to do—the upcoming fight—but her jeans were tighter at her crotch and the fine black hair on her arms and upper lip and between her eyebrows made his dick hard. He quit looking at her, determined to be strong and allow no thought of her body to fill his mind. He turned up the radio, shifted in his seat, and started thinking about the fight.
A few miles down the road he slowed for a roadblock. The solemn radiance of the desert morning convulsed suddenly into a military camp as armed National Guardsmen approached. They eyed him quickly, squinting into the passenger-side window at Carmen still asleep, waved him through, their eyes following him with suspicion.
Thirty minutes later, he saw a concrete building a few hundred yards from the freeway and he guessed there were at least four hundred people standing behind the barbed-wire fence that encircled a big, dirt yard. A gun tower stood at each of the corners. A large sign facing the freeway read HUTTO PRISON.
He felt queasy. The prisoners stared at him as he drove slowly past tanks and soldiers and laser-beam monitoring machines and sound and motion sensors. Some of the women, children, and men were confined in chicken-wire cages. Others were milling around in a larger cyclone-fence enclosure. A few more, a dozen or so, had their backs turned to him and were lined up against a wood fence.
He guessed it was some kind of temporary holding facility for Mexicans caught crossing the border illegally but it looked too much like a military war encampment with the jeeps, armed guards, military personnel, and white trailer offices. It scared him.
He watched as a canvas-covered Army jeep pulled into the encampment and was inspected by the guards at the gate, which was swung open by guard-tower sentries and allowed to enter and park. He watched as inmates of all ages—the men all handcuffed—were led out of the back of the truck and escorted into a fenced yard.
What the hell is going on, he wondered as an ICE helicopter shattered his thoughts, patrolling overhead. Then it flew off, trailing armed guards in a machine-gun jeep that drove out to the desert.
Once he passed the Army operations base, he locked cruise control at eighty, lowered his window, and relaxed. Twenty minutes later a group of Mexicans rose like roadside ghosts in the shimmering heat. Beyond the road shoulder, dehydrated and clearly in need of medical attention, they pled for him to stop. He kept driving, not daring to look back in the rearview mirror. He was afraid.
They arrived in San Diego on Thursday night, eight hours after they had left Las Cruces. Carmen was delighted to be there, energetic and revived. She directed him through middle-class Mexican neighborhoods for a half hour until they pulled up to a rundown bungalow rental in the university area.
She invited Vito in, adding that her friends were throwing a big party and he better come, but he needed to get a motel room and rest, take a nap, then go to the storage facility nearby and load up all the belongings she wanted to take with her. He’d be back later.
When he returned hours later, the party was well underway. College kids came and went and girls danced on the porch and lawn to blaring music.
Carmen was already high on life and giggly on pot when he arrived. She had a lot of friends and the house was packed shoulder to shoulder, everyone hip bumping to the music and talking loud. He gulped down the first mixed drink offered and lost count after that. He was having a lot of fun telling stories of his life on the road as a boxer and the women surrounded him three deep.
They were party girls, carefree and smiling with no idea how the night was going to turn out, smiling with the expectation that it was going to be a lovely evening. And it was. People gathered around the barbecue laughing and eating, girls ran from guys, couples jumped in the pool and wrestled. The music was oldies but goodies, the weather was perfect and balmy.
Late at night the party started to dwindle, and after a while there were only six or seven people left, smoking weed and philosophizing.
He didn’t remember how he and Carmen were left alone. They said good night to everyone leaving and the hostess went to her bedroom with some guy. He and Carmen were sitting on the couch—the room and the house were mellow, the lights amber and shaded low, Van Morrison on the stereo.
One of Carmen’s girlfriends saw them fucking on the rug but Carmen was oblivious to the world. She was in a totally different zone and her mind was not fully conscious of what she was doing or the consequences of it, her body was feeling such intense pleasure, such sheer joy and lust in fucking.
Her friend’s house with the windows illuminated by street lights, the bawdy voice of Morrison, the sultry moist ocean air, the wine and the weed and Vito’s strong hands and firm body, all combined to create an erotic weight that pressed in on her from all sides and kept her down on her back with Vito on top of her as she whirled into an oblivious meltdown of dizzying joy.
For that twenty minutes she had him.
Then something blew inside of her, crossed from outside to inside and swept through her with a cold embracing chill, telling her she knew what she was doing, telling her she was lapping the kill’s warm blood, filling her with the knowledge that she’d never give up those twenty minutes of her life and that she’d sacrifice everything for those minutes with him, and she grieved that she did.
That twenty minutes was her twenty and she had control of everything.
They left San Diego at dawn, her belongings in the back of the truck and covered with a tarp, and they hit open prairie after an hour, her eyes closed in self-disgust. Everything she looked at reflected her self-loathing. Behind her eyelids she smelled her unwashed hair. She scratched one bare foot with the other, wiping dirt off her soles with her toenails. Some things you could wipe off; others leave an indelible stain.
Her silence made him anxious so he told her he had seen the National Guard erecting electric fences, laying sensor-detection cable, that there were aerial drones following above.
He mentioned seeing the prisoners waving at him on the drive to San Diego, that he had kept on driving. He threw in that he didn’t think it was right to cross without a legal permit. People crossing over in the thousands created chaos.
He should have woken her, he should have stopped for them, she grumbled.
What about his parents? she asked accusingly.
It was a different time and circumstance, he countered sharply.
She was pissed off and there wasn’t much to say—he sensed her temper had deeper levels, a long white trail of fiery debris.
Her big brown eyes settled on him, studying his face.
He shuddered under the heaviness of his betrayals—Lorenzo, still awaiting his bail hearing in jail, and the Mexicans he just drove by.
She swallowed hard. She felt like she might burst out weeping. She looked away, drowning in her own confusion and the guilt that filled hundreds of prairie miles, extending all the way to the horizon.
Vito was lost in his own thoughts as they drew ever closer, with every mile, to his brother’s eyes.
He wanted to blurt out, scream and slam the dashboard with his fist, that it hadn’t happened, that someone put some kind of drug in his drink, that it was her fault, that something evil had possessed them, someone had slipped them a poison and that was, that was, that was . . . but it wasn’t why.
He saw the outline of the mountains behind the town and knew that within an hour he’d be standing in front of his brother. Lorenzo had said he would make bail and meet them at the camp. Vito was afraid to call and confirm that he was already there. Lorenzo was certain to notice the tremor in his voice. Numbed with fear and grief over doing this to his brother, Vito gripped the wheel and stared ahead, seeing nothing but what he had done.
Would he shoot him, beat her, move away, never come back, never see him again? He drove on with an urge to yank the wheel hard, right into one of the oncoming tractor trailers roaring past, one behind another, from the opposite direction. His eyes locked on Carmen’s, asking for help, for reasons, for anything that would alleviate his regret.
It could have been five minutes or five hours. The sky was darkening, sunlight spreading across the familiar landscape of the workers’ trucks and cars parked alongside the fields while the workers were huddled together in the rows.
He pulled off the highway and turned west, down a long slope toward the river and the camp. Then he turned right, down a long row with trees on the left, thick and green running parallel to the road. Kids fished, women visited on porches, dogs chased his bumper. Normal images, and yet the world as he knew it had shattered into a million pieces.
He turned right, then left, into an open clearing, going past the boxcar and their house and other one-room homes, and bearing off to the left, scattering chickens, goats, and dogs, finally parking in front of the barn where he could see women boxing chili.
Lorenzo appeared framed in the doorway like a hero in a cowboy movie, shining and compassionate, smiling with extended arms wide in a mock embrace, elated.
He dashed out, slammed the hood of the truck with the palm of his hand, woke Carmen up, and swung her door open. She leaped out of the cab, rushed him and kissed him, weeping.
And as Lorenzo hugged her, laughing and asking why she was crying, he looked over her shoulder at Vito, sitting, unable to move or smile.
Reprinted from A Glass of Water with permission of the author.
Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “… San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.”
The book gained national recognition when National Geographic Traveler recently listed it as a must read before visiting the San Diego/Tijuana region. To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.