Tequila Highway (Chapters 10 & 11)

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BORDER COWBOYS

Small towns can fall prey to the heavy hand of local people in power. Santa Rita was no different. Garrett McBride was a defense attorney who had a private practice in Nogales. His steady clientele of folks in the drug trade had made him a wealthy man in a community that needed private money to survive. Garrett had donated funds for a new roof on the community center, a parking lot at San Felipe Catholic Church, and the arena at the county fairgrounds. People were grateful for his contributions but were also indebted to him.

My dad and I were working in the corrals one morning when I asked him if drug runners had done something to Clay, would Mr. McBride defend them. “Not this time, son. Nope, not this time.”

SOFIA

I overheard Julio talking to the Schwan’s delivery driver on our back porch. Garrett had purchased The Glendale Ranch as part of his scheme to build a resort. Richard Glendale’s south pasture butted up against ours. A pair of wire cutters would give McBride access to the hot springs. I stopped by the library in Nogales and asked a librarian for the Nogales International archives. McBride was an elected official and businessman with a questionable reputation. I planned to find out all I could and started with a computer search. By midday I was scanning microfilm.

A few articles mentioned McBride’s career, which was lackluster at best, until in 1987, ten years after Clay went missing, he defended Christóbal Marquez, a notorious local drug kingpin. He won the case. At the time McBride was in private practice. Over the next decade he defended primarily high-profile drug traffickers. In 1998 he won a Santa Cruz County judgeship. Following the breadcrumbs, it was no coincidence that winning the Marquez trial had made McBride a sought-after criminal defense attorney. The paper reported McBride spent more money on his race for judge than all other candidates combined. I did a search for Christóbal Marquez. He died from gunshot wounds after a drug bust in Tucson in 1994.

McBride built a business empire after winning the Marquez case. He attended seven ribbon cuttings where he was either the sole proprietor or investor in businesses ranging from produce warehouses in Rio Rico to an Italian restaurant a block from the border. The caption under the restaurant photo where a smiling McBride held a pair of giant, gold scissors read: “Investors Mike Devon, Garrett McBride, and Jed Bishop welcome The Venice Club to Nogales” The restaurant opened in 1992. I searched the paper’s archives for Devon and Bishop. In 1992 the men owned several produce houses in Rio Rico. Mike Devon died in a boating accident in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico in 1997. In 1999 Jed Bishop was indicated on racketeering charges along with Phil Moretti, the general manager of The Venice Club. The article was barely a footnote in the paper. I didn’t find any more information on Bishop or Moretti. I’d learned enough in Chicago to know that federal law enforcement agencies were probably involved, and both men were scrubbed from the system after giving up bigger fish to save themselves.

Garrett McBride was scum. But he was also an intimidating and powerful man. Nana had reason to be concerned about the ranch. I glanced at the wall clock. It was six o’clock. I gathered up my notes and thanked the librarian. I had all the information I needed and no idea what I was going to do with it.

Eddie pulled me over at Snyder Wash on Ocotillo Pass. It was seven in the morning. The chance of someone else being on the road that early was slim. The scar I’d seen on Katherine O’Connor’s face was a reminder that Eddie was dangerous. What I’d learned about his father was equally troubling. Eddie could do what he wanted without consequence. I kept the Cadillac idling and adjusted the side mirror. He straightened his collar and looked over his shoulder before approaching my car.

He tapped on the window and waved. I unrolled the window enough to hand him my driver’s license, registration, and insurance card. “Come on, don’t be like that,” he said.

“Why did you pull me over?”

“I just wanted to talk to you. I was hoping we could get together.” He crossed his arms over his chest. From where he stood, he saw I wore a tank top and shorts. Hunger filled his eyes. I fumbled to lock the doors. “Come on, Sofia, what do I have to do to get a date with you?”

“I’m already seeing someone,” I said.

“Shit. It’s Patrick Waters, isn’t it?”

“It’s not Patrick. It’s someone in Chicago. I’m engaged.” I checked the rearview mirror. There was no one coming in either direction.

“Engaged?”

“Yes. So, if you’re not giving me a ticket, I’m leaving.” A Border Patrol SUV topped the hill behind us. I pushed the door open and hopped out of the car. “I think I know that guy.” I waved and the SUV pulled up next to us. A tall, skinny kid in his early twenties stepped out of the vehicle.

“Sorry, I thought you were someone else,” I said.

The pistol Julio gave me was still in the paper bag in the glove compartment of the ranch truck. I made a mental note to put it in my backpack when I got home. “Thanks for stopping,” I said to the Border Patrol agent. I left both men standing in the middle of the road as I drove off.

I had planned to go hiking up in the mountains, but instead stopped at the Elixir to pick up some scones to take home. The place was full, and I wanted to slip behind the counter to hide my bare, white legs. Eddie understood the primal fear all women carry within them—violent men and sexual predators live among us. It wasn’t my tank top and shorts that caused me to feel naked in front of him, rather it was his ability to exploit my fear. The Cowboy had whittled away my self-confidence, and it had taken years for me to get it back. I envied women who could sniff out men like Eddie and The Cowboy before any damage was done. The young woman with the serpent tattoo took my money. She’d been born with that keen sense. Someday Eddie would regret harassing a woman like her.

Nana and I were in the kitchen making apple butter. “Have you considered selling this at the farmer’s market?” I asked.

“Oh no. The apple butter is for my friends. I trade it for things we need.”

My grandpa had called it the Mexican Underground. If we ran out of anything at the ranch, Nana had a way of making it appear within hours. I imagined over the years her apple butter, jellies, and salsa were used as currency to acquire everything from toothpaste to motor oil. It was a skill the women acquired while growing up in Mexico. When I was a kid, the American ranch wives made many more trips to Nogales than Nana and her friends. “Maybe we can trade some of this for jewelry,” I said.

Ay, you are just like your mamá,” she said.

“I read the love letters. The ones you gave me.”

“Julio found the box many years ago when he moved into the bunkhouse. I saved it for you.”

“They loved each other.”

“Yes, very much.”

“Dad ignored her unhappiness it in his letters.”

“He hoped one day she would learn to love the ranch.”
“I’ve been thinking about her. I wonder where she is.”

“I wish I knew, m’ija.”

“How did you and Grandpa meet?” I asked.

“We finish the jars, then I will tell you.”

I carried a tray with our lunch and a pitcher of iced tea out to the Formica table. The ranch had seen so much rain that Julio could barely keep up with mowing. The yard was a lush blanket of green. I slipped off my boots and walked the perimeter of the garden. It was teeming with life. The tops of beets and broccoli poked through the moist soil. The aroma of Mexican oregano and sweet basil clouded my thoughts with Italian recipes I’d brought with me from Chicago. Nana came out carrying a black, metal file box I assumed held file folders. I joined her back at the table.

“The tuna fish sandwiches look delicious.” She sat down and placed the box on the ground next to her and picked up a glass of tea. “There are things I must tell you, but first, the story about how your grandpa wanted to marry me. It is your story, too.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Perhaps, but the past has found us. It is time you know everything.”

Nana spoke quietly; her voice interrupted by squawking cactus wrens that perched in the branches above us. I moved to the chair that sat between us.

“I came to live on the ranch when I was thirteen. My papá was a cattle rancher in Mexico. Sam and your great-grandpa Roland bought cows from him. It was Sam’s idea that I come to the United States to go to school. He was ten years older than me. When I graduated from high school, I went back to Mexico. I was very sad there. My brothers and sisters were much younger than me. I felt like a stranger in my house. My papá brought men home for me to marry. Some were ranchers who were broken down like old mules. When I told my papá I didn’t want to get married, he threatened to choose a husband for me.”

“Why did you go back to Mexico? This was your home.”

“Ruby didn’t want me here. On the way to the bus station, she said Sam had taken a shining to me. I didn’t understand this saying. ‘There are plenty of local girls for Sam to choose from. American girls,’ she said. Julio sat next to me in the truck. He was maybe twelve or thirteen. His English was not good at the time, but he understood. He made fists with his hands. In Spanish I told him not to cause any problems. I was very ashamed in that moment.”

“I’m sorry, Nana.” Without looking into her eyes, I asked her to continue.

“Sam came to our ranch. He wanted to marry me. He had never told me his feelings. My parents already knew how Ruby felt about me. Julio had sent a note to my papá. My parents told Sam to leave, but he would not go. He said he loved me. Until that moment, I did not know I loved him. He was a good man and would be a good husband. I left with him. My parents followed in their truck. At the border crossing, Sam told the man who asked for my papers that we were getting married. This made me very happy.

“Ruby and Roland came out on the porch when we arrived. My papá was furious and demanded I go back to Mexico. Many bad things were said. When the fighting was over, Roland and my papá went to the mountains on horses. That night my parents would not stay here. I said goodbye to my mamá. Two weeks later, Sam and I were married at the courthouse in Nogales.”

I tapped the box with the tip of my boot. “What is in here?”

She reached over and took my hands in hers. “My papá was a proud man. He did not want me living here with Ruby, but Roland and my papá were friends. Many years before, Roland needed money to keep the ranch. My papá helped. Ruby did not know about the loan. When the two men were in the mountains, they came up with a plan so that I would be protected. The ranch went into a trust with Sam and me as the executors. After Roberto, your dad, was born, the trust was updated so that he would inherit the ranch when he turned twenty-one.”

“So, my dad owned this place?”

“Roberto did not want the ranch. That would have hurt Sam’s pride. The truth is, m’ija, after your dad passed, you were to inherit the ranch when you turned twenty-one.”

I stood and paced the space between the table and the peach trees. “You’re saying I own the ranch?”

“Yes, the ranch is yours.” She held out her hands. “Please, Sofia, come sit down. You make me nervous.”

I slid into my chair. “You should have told me. Maybe I would have stayed. I left because I didn’t feel like I belonged here.”

“No, Sofia, you ran away because of memories. Staying here would have been too hard. We did not want that for you.”

“Then why tell me now? Why tell me at all?”

“Because it is time. Please forgive us if we have made a mistake.”

I dragged the file box across the grass until it was next to my chair. “Is the trust in here?”

“Yes, and so is the deed. The lease agreements, tax information, and other papers are also in the box. I can help you with it, but I am worried.”

“Why?”

“A few years ago, we had a bad drought. The monsoon storms stayed in Mexico. It has been like that ever since. People like Jake are selling their cows. There is not enough grass, and it is too expensive to feed a herd. We are lucky Jake leased the land, but he can’t afford it anymore. I don’t know what we are going to do without the money.”

“There’s been a lot of rain this year.”

“Yes, but the ranch is tired. It needs a rest. One season of good rain will not bring the grass back. It is a lot to think about right now.” Nana collected our dishes and put them on the tray. “I need to check on Sam.”

“Wait, one more question.”

She wiped her hands on a napkin. “Of course, m’ija.”

“Did you ever see your parents again?”

“Not my papá. He was too stubborn. My mamá came to the ranch after Roberto was born. She came again when you were born. You are named after her sister, my aunt Sofia. She died when she was a little girl from the Spanish flu. I sent many photos to my family. My papá saw I was happy with my life here. You were six years old when he passed. He was gone before Roberto drowned. My mamá died the week I lost Roberto. I did not go back for her funeral. This I will always regret.”

My great-grandparents were gone by then, too. Roland died of a heart-attack when my mom was pregnant with me. Shortly after I was born, Ruby went to see her sister in Texas and was killed in a car accident near El Paso. “I had no idea,” I said.

She kissed my cheek. “When we are blessed with a long life, God gives us strength to live with our heartache.”

She picked up the tray and went into the house.

My grandpa had always consulted Nana on large purchases—buying a tractor or a truck, even building an addition on the barn, but when it came to land, cattle, and horses, Nana had little working knowledge of how the operation was run, and I knew less than she did. Above the murmur of bird songs coming from the orchard, came the sputter of the tractor before it died. Julio was out there somewhere east of the barn swearing a blue streak. Nana was right. I would have stayed knowing the ranch would belong to me when I turned twenty-one, but not for the reasons she and my grandpa had believed. Fear of being tethered to something so wild and unpredictable would have paralyzed me.

I wandered out to the chicken coop. Among their head bobbing and content clucking, I wanted to scream. I had been orphaned by my parents and raised by kind people who kept their stories, my stories to themselves. There was no doubt in my mind that Garrett knew I owned the ranch. One of the chickens had been henpecked by the others and was missing half her feathers. She cowered in the corner. Garrett would do the same to me if I showed any fear.

Nana took my grandpa for a Sunday drive out to Peña Blanca Lake. She’d packed a picnic and promised they’d be back before dark. Julio was helping a friend brand cattle. I had the house to myself.

I retrieved the file box from my bedroom and set it on the kitchen table. My grandpa had been meticulous in his record keeping. In recent years, Nana had taken over and kept all the ranch receipts in folders. One for each year. I imagined during tax season she handed the folders over to the accountant in Nogales to let him make sense of it. Nana was too busy with my grandpa to worry about keeping proper records. The effects of Alzheimer’s were wearing her down harder and faster than it was my grandpa.

My grandparents were able to cover bills with Social Security and a small investment portfolio. The house was paid for and taxes on the deeded land was manageable, but Nana had reason to worry. The money Jake was paying on the leased land helped, but the medical bills were substantial, and it would get worse. Nana was filling most of my grandpa’s prescriptions across the line in Mexico for a fraction of the price, but tests, lab work, and doctor visits exceeded the savings. My grandparents’ long-term health insurance paid for Letty two days a week, but as the disease progressed, we would need more help. I had about twenty thousand dollars in the bank. It would be gone soon if we tackled any of the countless repairs on the ranch or if something unexpected came up.

In a folder marked Ranch Documents, I found the trust my great-grandfathers’ Roland and Miguel had drawn up by a lawyer in Nogales and the subsequent updates. I spread them out on the table. The calligraphy and official seals on the first trust were formal and elegant against the typeset of the others.

An envelope addressed to my great-grandpa Roland had slipped down between some papers. The note inside was written on stationary from the Hotel Congress in Tucson. It was from my grandpa’s brother, Lyle, and dated July 23, 1951.

Father, I admit I’ve made mistakes, but you and Sam are fools to ignore the good fortune those hot springs would bring. I got a big deal in the works, so I won’t be coming home.

Good luck and all that,

 Lyle

My dad had referred to his Uncle Lyle as a swindler. He was shot in 1951 on Christmas Day in Mexico City after getting caught cheating in a card game. My great-grandpa Roland had gone down there to bring his body back. He was buried a hundred yards east of my dad under a desert willow. Nana had always lit a candle for him in the dining room before we said grace on Christmas Day.

The hot springs was off limits when I was a girl. My mom feared the hot water would scald my skin. Since she sat among the rocks to cure her body of aches and pains, I had associated the water with sickness. Lyle understood that indeed we had a gold mine, but my grandparents worried what development would mean for the ranch.

I picked up the letter from Lyle and read it again. I had opened Pandora’s Box.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

Tyler Anderson was a sheriff’s deputy. He’d come from San Diego and was on the job two years when Clay disappeared. He told my dad once that he’d left the city for a quiet life. Tyler ran a youth program in Nogales and volunteered at the community garden each summer. He lived alone and had a black lab named Blue. A few weeks after Clay went missing, Tyler shot off his thumb. He’d been hiking in the Dove Wing Mountains with Blue when he came upon two men carrying packs he assumed contained drugs. When he drew his pistol, it went off.

Tyler was suspended from the sheriff’s department and accused of drug smuggling. No one in the community believed it until he hired Garrett McBride to defend him. Tyler lost his job and the whole incident went away.

Not long after Tyler was fired, I noticed his truck towing a trailer parked across the street from Dalton’s. It was stacked with furniture. Blue sat in the front seat staring out the window. I followed his gaze. Tyler leaned against the community garden gate. It was late autumn; the garden was closed until spring. There were rumors he was heading back to California. At the time, no one thought Tyler had anything to do with Clay’s disappearance.

 

SOFIA

Nana handed me Grandpa’s bolo tie. “I need to pack a few things to take to the fair.” She ran a comb through my grandpa’s hair. “Be good for Sofia, mi amor” she said, and left the room.

“Queenie liked it up here,” my grandpa said.

“Liked it where?” I slipped the bolo tie over his head.

“After Robbie died, she stayed a long time.” His eyes darted around the room. “This isn’t the cabin. Where’s Natalia?”

I followed him to the kitchen. “Sam, come here,” Nana said. “You have a spot on your shirt. Are you okay, m’ija?”

“We can talk about it later,” I said.

Julio had cleaned the Cadillac inside and out. Nana clapped her hands together when she saw it. “Ay, it looks brand new. Thank you, Julio.”

The county fairgrounds were packed. Julio dropped us off at the entrance and went to find a parking spot. I waited in the ticket line. Several old ranchers came over and shook my grandpa’s hand. Nana watched his every move. It was my fault for bringing them, and before I could apologize, Jake and Patrick walked up. Jake patted my grandpa on the back. “Come on, old man,” he said. “You owe me a beer.”

I handed Nana her ticket. “It’s good to get out of the house,” I said.

Julio found us and excused himself when I mentioned that the men were in the beer tent.

Nana checked her watch in the exhibit hall. I took her hand. “Grandpa’s fine. If he needs you, Julio will find us.”

We spotted Nana’s lemon cake on a table filled with pies and cakes. “Look, you won a blue ribbon. Congratulations.”

Teresa Sanchez approached us carrying an enormous fry bread with honey. “This is too much food. Come, Natalia, help me eat it.”

We walked out into the sunshine and found space at a picnic table. Patrick approached us. “Where is Sam?” Nana asked.

Patrick’s smile faded. “Julio said he was with you.”She wiggled free of the picnic bench. “Dios mío. I should have stayed with him.”

“I’ll find him,” I said. “Stay here.”

Teresa took Nana’s hand. “Please, Natalia, sit down. We will finish our fry bread while we wait.”

I forced my way through the crowd toward the beer tent. Eddie sauntered toward me. He was on duty and sweating profusely in his uniform. “Have you seen my grandpa?” I asked.

“Now that depends.”

I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep from slapping his smug face. “Screw you, Eddie.”

“He’s in my squad car. We found him out by the horse trailers.”

“Thank God. Where’s your car?”

“Christ, that’s all I get for finding him?”

I ran past him toward the parking lot. The squad car was parked at the food pavilion.

My grandpa’s cowboy hat rested in his lap. I tried the door. It was locked. The engine was running, and the window was cracked. “You okay?”

“Where’s Natalia? I’m hungry.”

An Arizona Ranger arrived in a golf cart with Nana and Teresa. “Is he okay?” my grandma asked.

I took her purse. “He’s fine.”

She rushed past me toward the squad car. “Ay, Sam, you scared me.” She tried the door and looked at me. “I need to take him home.”

My grandpa pounded his fists against the window. “What the hell’s going on? Natalia, get me out of here.”

Nana was hysterical. “Somebody, help him.”

Eddie stepped forward with his hands up like he was under arrest. “Show’s over, folks.”

He opened the door, and Nana nearly tackled my grandpa. “Sam, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

Eddie grinned. “See, he’s alright.” He stroked my arm. Patrick came from behind me and punched Eddie square in the face.

Eddie stumbled backwards. “Jesus Christ.”

Patrick shook out his fist. “I swear to God, Eddie, you come near her again, I’ll hunt you like an animal,” he said.

“You son-of-a-bitch, you’re under arrest.” Blood from Eddie’s nose pooled where his fleshy neck met the collar of his white T-shirt.

“No one’s arresting anybody.” We all turned as Garrett McBride stepped out of his pick-up truck. His eyes were on Nana, and he tipped his hat. “Go on Natalia, take Sam home.”

Julio pulled up in the Cadillac. Patrick helped my grandpa into the car. “Thank you,” I said. “For everything.”

Patrick buckled in my grandpa. “Someone had to set Eddie straight.”

Nana was in the backseat and unrolled her window. “Sofia, please stay and have a good time.” She looked up at Patrick. “The dance is tonight. Can you bring her home later?” With all that had transpired, she had time to play matchmaker.

Patrick smiled. “I would be honored.”

The band was setting up when Garrett McBride took the stage. As president of the fairgrounds, he welcomed the crowd and emceed a raffle to benefit the Santa Cruz Humane Society. He played the perfect politician with the correct balance of charisma and humility. I didn’t see Marta among the hundred-plus folks waiting for the dance to begin.

The Cowboy had possessed the same public qualities as Garrett. At home he’d been moody and distant. In the beginning of our relationship, I had spent much of my time trying to correct whatever it was I had done wrong. Eventually, I realized it was his priorities that were in question, not my behavior. He was more concerned with what others thought of him than my feelings toward him. I came to resent his every move as he smiled and tipped his cowboy hat to collect adoration like little gold stars at the rodeos we attended. Garrett caught my eye and winked as he exited the stage.

“Now you know where Eddie gets it from,” Patrick said.

“Maybe we should go,” I said.

“And give that clown the satisfaction?” He took my hand and spun me around. “No can do. The band is about to play.”

Patrick was an easy dance partner. Nana was right. I needed a night out. After our third dance, Patrick went to get us something to drink. I stepped outside and walked out to the rodeo arena to get some fresh air.

The sound of footsteps caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. I turned around.

Garrett McBride was approaching fast. At the very least he was a criminal by association. Scurrying from him would only ignite his predator instinct. I stood my ground under the bright lights flanking the arena. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Garrett McBride,” he said, when he reached me.

“Yes, I know, Mr. McBride.”

He played the role of the distinguished politician impeccably. His teeth were capped and matched the pearl snaps on his baby-blue, striped Western shirt. I searched his face for a soft place to land my gaze and settled on his right ear.

“Please, call me Garrett.”

The diamond on his left pinkie finger flickered as he lit a cigarette. He wore a pressed tan Western suit and bolo tie with an impressive turquoise slide that rested against his broad chest. His fawn-colored cowboy hat was brushed clean. I pictured his petite wife, Marta, standing over an ironing board, her deft fingers lining up perfect creases. It was at least eighty degrees. McBride didn’t break a sweat.

“I would like a few minutes of your time, if you don’t mind.”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I hear you’re not going back to Chicago,” he said. “The disparaging remarks your friend Patrick Waters wrote about me and others in this town would make some people think twice about coming back here to settle down.”

“It’s good to be home.”

“My boy took quite a beating today. Patrick is lucky we’re not pressing charges.”

Men like Garrett had a knack for creating situations in which people became indebted. Quid pro quo was simply a way of doing business. I’d seen enough of it among the Marino Brothers’ patrons to know when I was being pressured. I owed Garrett nothing.

“Eddie got what he deserved.”

McBride’s smile vanished. “That’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.” He took a long drag off his cigarette. “How is Sam doing these days? And Natalia? Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. My dad had it. It’s hard on a family.”

“We’re managing just fine.”

“I’m sure Natalia has filled you in on my interest in the ranch.”

“We’ve talked some,” I said.

“I’m not sure what a chef makes in Chicago, but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s not enough to keep something like your place afloat.”

“That’s none of your business,” I said.

Two men in black cowboy hats sat at a picnic table outside the exhibit hall passing a flask between them. The man with the goatee I had glassed from the barn a week earlier with my grandpa’s binoculars as I searched the south pasture for Fox. He was on a quad riding the fence line we shared with Richard Glendale. At the time, I didn’t know Garrett had bought the Glendale Ranch and had assumed he was a hired hand.

I scanned the fairgrounds. There was no one else in sight.

Garrett leaned in closer. “I want to make a fair offer on your ranch. I’d like to work with you on this, Sofia.” He took a step back and with the tip of his cowboy boot, snuffed out the butt of his cigarette in the gravel. “I look forward to seeing you again,” he said, and disappeared into the darkness.

If I hadn’t researched him, I would have laughed at his stereotypical Western persona—the imposing, wealthy landowner hell-bent on getting what he wants. But neither of us were characters in a Western. His polished boots and good manners didn’t hide the fact that as the leading lady in this real-life drama, I may not be afforded a happy ending.

Patrick came out carrying a rum and Coke. “I’ve been looking for you.”

I looked over my shoulder, the picnic table was empty. I took the drink and finished it in one swallow. Patrick and I stood in a hundred acres of open space, yet my encounter with Garrett left me short of breath.

I handed Patrick the empty glass. “Can you take me home, now?”

“Of course.” He looked over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I lied. “I’m fine.”

Nana came out of her bedroom when I entered the back door. “Today was a big day for Sam. He just fell asleep.” She came to me and rested the back of her hand against my forehead. “Ay, m’ija, you look terrible. Are you feeling okay?”

I planned to tell her about Garrett but noticed her Virgen de Guadalupe pendant on the kitchen table. I held it up. “What happened?”

She sifted through a canister of tea bags. “The clasp broke. I’m thankful I did not lose it.”

Something my grandpa had said that morning made sense. I went to the living room and retrieved the laminated holy card from the picture frame that held the photo of my dad. I turned it over. It was my dad’s memorial card like the one I had found up at my mom’s altar. Julio hadn’t buried the tin box.

I returned to the kitchen and handed her the card. “Grandpa said my mom came back here after my dad died.”

Ay, m’ija.” She slipped into a chair. Her tears fell onto the card, and she rubbed them away with the corner of her apron. “Yes, she was here.”

“You never told me.”

“We didn’t know how, Sofia.” I handed her a napkin to wipe her eyes. “Faye came here a week after we buried Roberto. It was the middle of the night. She was very drunk. Sam sat on the porch with her until she fell asleep on the swing. In the morning she was gone. She blamed us because Roberto would not leave the ranch.”

“But she wasn’t gone. She was up at the cabin,” I said.

“Sam told you this?”

“Never mind. What happened?”

“Faye took the truck and got it stuck in a pothole. When Sam and Julio went to dig it out, she drove to the cabin. We figured she would leave later that day, but she stayed up there. More than five days went by. Ay, Dios mío, we were worried something would happen to her.”

“Where was I during all this?”

“Carmen took you to her sister’s house in Nogales, across the line.”

“Julio’s wife?”

“Yes. Julio stayed here to help in case Faye made any problems. Your mamá said she would not leave without you.”

“What?” Nana reached for my hands. I crossed my arms. “Why didn’t you let me go?” I asked.

“I still worry about telling you. Ay, no, but it is time.” She handed me the holy card. “Your mamá, pobrecita, she had many problems. Carmen said a demon lived inside her.”

“Why would she say that?”

“This place was too hard on your mamá. Sometimes she drank and cried for days. Other times she would stay up all night and paint and dance to loud music. Roberto tried to help her. He took her to doctors in Tucson, but she wouldn’t take the pills they gave her. She said they dulled the colors of the world and made her head foggy.”

“So, you kept me away from her?”

“Your grandpa went to the cabin to check on her.” This time I let her take my hands. “He found her lying naked inside the stones around Roberto’s grave. She had used his pocketknife to carve a cross on her belly. She wasn’t moving,” Nana said. “Sam found sleeping pills and an empty bottle of tequila in the dirt next to her.”

Tears stung my eyes. “Ay, no, Sofia, I should stop,” she said.

“No, please. It’s time I hear everything.”

Nana turned over the memorial card and gently brushed her fingertips over the image of la Virgen de Guadalupe. “Sam wrapped her in a blanket and brought her here to the house. He put her in a chair and shook her until she woke up. I called Jake. He had some medical training through the fire department. An ambulance from Nogales came and took her to the hospital in Tucson.”

My heart pounded in my chest. “Did she die?”

“No, of course not. We would have told you. She was in the hospital for many days. Her sister was with her.”

“She has a sister?”

“Yes, her name is Mona.” Nana set the holy card on the table.

“Where is she? Where’s my mom?”

“I don’t know. She never came here again. Sofia, she loved you very much, but she was not ready to be a mother. She knew that.”

“And Mona? Do you know where she is?”

“Jake saw her a few years ago at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson when he took Emily there for surgery.”

“So, she’s still in Tucson?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

I went to the freezer and pulled out four chicken breasts. “What are you doing?” Nana asked. “It’s almost midnight.”

“I need to cook something.”

I ran out the back door and fell to my knees in the garden. I’d been right. Patrick’s book had set in motion some cosmic unraveling of what I’d always believed to be the truth. My mom had come back for me.

I lay in the cool, moist soil, a crescent moon peeked through the branches of a peach tree. The leaves would soon curl under the seasonal shift of fall. Each day, long buried secrets reached out of the ground, their roots wrapping around my limbs holding me in place. I’d known back in Chicago that if I went home, I would never return to the city. At the time, I thought it would be by choice, not an obligation to the past and to my family.

Carmen was Julio’s wife. I had no recollection of going to Mexico with her. I shut my eyes and my senses swirled, delivering the sweet smell of vanilla. Carmen baked wedding cakes in the clay horno Julio had built for her next to their small trailer that was parked in the orchard between the house and the bunkhouse. I had always assumed a fruit tree gave off the aroma of vanilla until she died of a brain aneurysm when I was eleven and the scent disappeared. She and Julio had tried for years to have a baby, but Carmen never got pregnant. She loved me, and she taught me how to measure flour and sugar and how to crack an egg with one hand in her tiny kitchen.

I drilled holes into the earth with my fingers trying to remember a trip to Mexico. Carmen and I would have been gone several days. My memories had failed me so often, it felt like I had done a poor job of protecting them for someone else, a doppelganger who was living my life in a parallel universe.

I was gone when my mom came for me. The familiar guilt bubbled just under my navel where she had carved a cross into her flesh. It was time I found her.

4 thoughts on “Tequila Highway (Chapters 10 & 11)

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