Tequila Highway (Chapters 6 & 7)

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BORDER COWBOYS

Five vehicles followed my dad and me up to Old Job Boulder. Sam, Robbie, and Julio were right behind us in their pick-up. Sheriff Daniel Rodriguez had two deputies with him, and another county sheriff’s car followed behind them. Border Patrol Jeeps took up the rear. The storm had all but washed out the road. I complained that I could outrun the truck. My dad opened his mouth and hesitated before he spoke. “You’ve done enough for one day, son.”

We stopped a hundred yards from Old Job Boulder. There were no signs of Clay, his horse, or the drugs. Sheriff Rodriquez signaled for me to open the door. “Are you sure we’re in the right spot?”

I pointed. “Yeah, he was right up there in that clump of trees.”

A sea of law enforcement stood behind the sheriff.  I stepped out of the truck, and he put his hand up. “I want you and your dad to stay here.”

I turned around. Sam and Julio were still in their truck. Robbie was talking to a Border Patrol agent.

John Sloan walked over. He was a neighbor and a sheriff’s deputy. “Patrick, we’d like to know what happened up here this morning. If you could answer some questions while these boys look for Clay, that’d be real helpful.”

Robbie Covington was the best tracker in the valley. The deputies and agents fell in behind him and trudged through the mud up toward the trees at a snail’s pace.

My dad rubbed his chin. “It’s going to be alright, son.”

 

SOFIA 

Eddie McBride approached the pharmacy counter and slapped down a prescription. His barrel chest strained against the sheriff’s uniform he wore. The top button of his shirt was open to allow room for his thick neck. I was seated reading Border Cowboys while I waited on my grandpa’s medication. I brought the book up to hide my face.

As Eddie was leaving, he caught my eye. “Sofia Covington, right? What are you doing here?”

The question stretched farther than the pharmacy. “Picking up a prescription.”

He chewed on a toothpick. “You reading that garbage? I’ll tell you what, Patrick Waters doesn’t know shit.”

He was loud. People waiting for their prescriptions to be filled shifted in their chairs. “I just started reading it,” I said.

He snatched the toothpick out of the corner of his mouth and pointed it at me. “If he comes to town, you can bet my dad will have him locked up for writing that crap.”

Eddie was a blowhard. It was clear that without his father’s influence, he would have been in trouble with the law rather than upholding it.

A woman behind the pharmacy counter waved for me to come forward. I returned the book to my backpack and walked past him.

Eddie came and planted himself next to me. “I’ll be back later to pick up my pills,” he said to the woman.

Eddie outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds and hovered over me like a lion coveting its prey. Instead of telling him to get the hell out of my way, I paid for the medications and pressed passed him, averting his eyes.

I ducked into the restroom and waited several minutes until I was certain Eddie had left the store. He had caught me off guard, and I played the perfect victim. I cracked a rib one summer in a water-skiing accident. I was back at Tavolino in a week, but it took a month before I could raise my hands above my head to grab plates from the shelves or containers off the racks inside the cooler. Sal Marino had treated me like an injured bird. At first all the fuss annoyed me, but soon I had the kitchen staff trained to be at my beck and call. Then one day Francie called me Her Majesty when I asked her to bring up a sack of flour from the basement. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“That accident happened two months ago,” she said. “Get over it.”

I looked around the kitchen and caught my staff looking at their shoes. I had lost their respect, and it took a long time to get it back. I’d let Eddie get to me. It would be different the next time I ran into him.

I passed through Santa Rita on my way home and noticed a woman with a yoga mat locking her SUV in front of the old hardware store where a schedule of yoga classes and massage services was taped to the window out front. Most of the town had undergone gentrification. Doc Simpson’s old house was painted lavender, and the sign out front read, Quail Run B&B. The organic movement was thriving in Santa Rita along with the culture it was attached to. I pulled into Dalton’s Grocery Store parking lot and contemplated the locally grown fruits and vegetables that were stacked in brightly painted crates under a green and white striped awning. A Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant serving grass fed beef and free-range chicken dishes was across the hall from a European chocolate shop in the old train depot. The only three buildings spared a makeover were the high school, post office, and Santa Rita Feed Store. They were on the east side of town and appeared drab and exiled from the new and improved Santa Rita I no longer recognized.

Local businesses were swarming with folks from Tucson and Phoenix who’d come down to escape the heat. Men in khaki shorts and polo shirts paraded up and down the sidewalks with their wives and girlfriends who wore short cotton dresses and flip flops. Birders flocked to the town square where something had caught their attention in a sycamore tree. If my dad were still alive, he’d stand in the Santa Rita Feed Store parking lot and laugh until he cried. I wanted to cry, too. The changes to my hometown felt like retribution for leaving and never looking back.

I sat at an old picnic table under one of several apple trees my dad planted for my mom. Aside from the peach trees Julio had pruned, much of the orchard had been ignored for years. The emaciated apples and pears hanging from withered branches paid the price of neglect. Thankfully, the peaches had already come and gone for the season. Before opening Patrick’s book, I mentally added picking apricots to the list of things I needed to tend to.

The next several chapters in Border Cowboys recounted Patrick’s childhood adventures with Clay. Some sparked memories. Clay’s dad, Henry, came to the house one night after my mom left us. He was drunk. He said he’d seen my mom and told my dad, “For fifty bucks, I’ll take you to her.”

My dad punched him in the face, knocking him out. He dragged Henry out the back door where Julio helped heave him into the bed of Jake Waters’ old pick-up truck. Henry was gone the next morning. The story of how Henry ended up with the truck was in the book.

A lot of people struggled to find work in our community. We all knew who was making a living on family ranches and who needed to work in the city to make ends meet. I had enough to keep me busy on our ranch to last me a lifetime. Clay wasn’t so lucky. His family lived in a rented trailer on the fringe of town.

My dad sold a beat-up ‘56 Chevy truck to Clay’s dad for seventy-five dollars. I’d been promised that truck for as long as I could remember, and because I was afraid my dad would tan my hide if I complained, I blamed Clay.

It was Friday night, and Clay and I were at a baseball game in Nogales. We’d had a few too many beers when I accused Clay of stealing my truck. He told me to shut up, so I shoved him. He took a swing at me. A few of our friends tried to separate us, but we ended up in the backseat of a deputy sheriff’s squad car doing our best to ignore one another.

 Clay had cut his lip wide open on the top of my head. We were both bleeding.

My dad stepped into the glare of the headlights. Clay said, “Shit, you’re in for it, now.”

“We’re both in for it,” I said.

My dad thanked the sheriff’s deputy and yanked me out of the backseat by my ear. He walked to the other side of the car, where he tossed Clay his bandana. “Put this on that cut. Your dad is on his way,” he said.

On our way home, my dad said, “That boy has nothing, and until he’s old enough to make something of himself, he’s family. You start fighting over things like that old truck, you’ll end up alone with nothing but a bunch of junk when you’re my age.”

He caught my arm in the driveway. “I want to see Clay here for dinner tomorrow night. He’s welcomed any time.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

The next day Clay came by early to gather cattle. He had a black eye and kicked the dirt when I apologized for hitting him in the face. “You didn’t do this to me.”

Before I could say anything else, my dad came into the barn. “Leave it alone, son,” he said.

That old truck was at our house the day Clay disappeared. Julio had replaced the radiator for Henry. I was sitting up in an apple tree watching a caterpillar eat its way into a Granny Smith. I saw Patrick and Jake drive up our road. What happened wasn’t clear. I went in the house hoping Nana could fill in the pieces. She was rolling out pie crust. I sat down at the table. “I’m reading Patrick’s book.”

“Is it good?” she asked.

“He was here with Jake the day Clay went missing.”

“Yes, I remember. I was on the porch at the old stove making barbacoa. I heard a truck come and go. I went to ask your grandpa about it.”

“What did he say?”

“He was in the bedroom looking for his radio from the fire department. He said Clay and Patrick found marijuana at Juniper Falls. Clay was alone with the drugs. Sam was angry. He called Sheriff Rodriguez on the radio. I heard them talking. The sheriff said he would meet everyone at the west gate. Your grandpa grabbed his guns.” Nana rinsed blueberries for the pie. “Sam took his hunting rifle and the box of bullets from the bedroom closet. He pulled you out of the apple tree and brought you in the house. He told me not to open the door for anyone.”

“My dad was out in the barn,” I said.

“Yes. Roberto loaded horses into the trailer because maybe they would need them in the mountains.”

“It was hot,” I said.

She furrowed her brow. “You asked for ice cream.”

“I don’t remember.”

Nana sat down in the chair next to me and stroked my arm. “Ay, m’ija, you were so young. Your mamá had just left. You were in shock, but it doesn’t matter, now. Patrick’s book is making people wonder about the past. It is asking a lot from people to change their minds.”

“How long were the men gone?”

“They came back late, after dark. Clay was gone,” she said. “It rained that day, so there were no footprints. The sheriff’s deputies collected some empty cartridges near Old Job Boulder. They weren’t from Clay’s rifle.”

Gossip and speculation had filled in the missing pieces surrounding Clay’s disappearance and eventually became some version of the truth we could all live with. I poured a glass of lemonade and stepped out onto the back porch. My grandpa joined me.

“Nana is baking you a pie,” I said.

“Clay was good with a horse. Why didn’t he ride off when he saw those drug runners?”

It was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Strawberry pie?”

“Blueberry,” I said.

Grandpa winked and went into the house.

If Patrick had come to some definite conclusion about what happened that day up at Old Job Boulder, I wouldn’t be reading the book. The whole town would be talking about it.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

My dad was furious when a Border Patrol agent told him he couldn’t cross the line into Mexico. Twenty head of cattle had roamed over there through a hole in the fence the drug runners had cut. Robbie stepped between the two men before any damage was done.

A sheriff’s deputy approached my dad and me with Clay’s saddlebags draped over his shoulder. “Do these belong to you?” he asked me.

“Nope, they’re Clay’s,” I said. “Can I have them?”

“I’m afraid not, son.”

My dad sent me back to the truck before I could object,

We were all on edge. The storm that raged through our valley during the day prevented Robbie or any of us from tracking Clay.

That night I went through the duffel bag Clay brought with him every time he came to the house. I found three neatly folded t-shirts, two pairs of rolled tube socks, two pairs of underwear, and a pair of jeans. In a small canvas bag were a razor, a bar of soap, a roll-on deodorant, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a set of tweezers. A box of 30-30 shells, and the Swiss Army knife my dad had given him were in the side pocket. I found a roll of five-dollar bills equaling a hundred and twenty dollars secured with a rubber band and wrapped in a bandana.

I lied when a sheriff’s deputy asked me if Clay had left anything behind. The duffel bag was the only thing I had left of my best friend. After answering the deputy’s questions, I stuffed the bag up in my closet where it stayed for years.

 

SOFIA 

 Patrick finally came home. Eddie McBride was in his squad car on Derringer Road clocking traffic on Highway 60 when Patrick, in a black Highlander, blew past him going 66 mph in a 45-mph zone. Eddie issued him a ticket. He was relating his account of the events to a small group of people waiting in the vestibule at San Felipe’s when Nana and I entered. “I should have dragged him off to jail after what he wrote about us,” Eddie was saying, when his dad stepped forward. “That’s enough, Edward. It’s Sunday morning, and these fine people are here for Mass.”

The crowd dispersed and entered the church. Garrett McBride’s smile disappeared, and he whispered something into Eddie’s ear. Eddie lowered his head. Garrett straightened his tie before he pushed open the glass doors to make his entrance into church. He motioned Marta and Eddie to follow.

It was obvious Eddie was a disappointment to his dad. “I almost feel sorry for him,” I said.

“Who?” Nana whispered.

“Eddie. Garrett McBride seems like a real ass.”

“Sofia, we are in church.” She made the sign of the cross. “Go, sit down. I’m late for choir.”

I sat a few pews behind the McBrides. Both men had taken off their cowboy hats. No one would suspect them to be father and son. Garrett, who was angular and dignified, sat next to his stout and sloppy son. Marta lit a candle before joining her husband and son.

Why Eddie had it out for Patrick was something that would soon be answered by the ever-present gossip mill that made up for much of the small talk in town. It was better to hear the truth, so I decided to drive over to the Waters’ ranch later in the day to meet Patrick.

 I joined Nana and most of the parishioners in the community room for coffee and pastry after church. I excused myself and joined Millie Bradshaw in the kitchen where I arranged pastries and donuts on platters. Millie’s husband, Darren, had owned the gas station in town back in 1977. He was part of a local group of men who had helped in the search for Clay. A retired Border Patrol agent had called Darren and men like him bulls in a china shop. Patrick had written about it in Border Cowboys. I hadn’t seen Darren in church and avoided asking Millie how he was doing. People kept their heads down. A sense of embarrassment permeated the air in church and in town. It was obvious most of us were reading the book and none of us knew quite what to do with the information we had. I’d read about crises teams sent in to help victims in disaster situations. Maybe we needed a team of our own. Each chapter set off tiny grenades that blew up memories and notions I’d carried with me for years. Like so many of us, Millie and Darren were casualties of Patrick’s short-sightedness.

The subject of Patrick’s visit stirred things up each time someone entered the kitchen, “If Patrick Waters thinks he’s done folks a favor by writing that book, he’s not as bright as I thought he was,” Millie was saying, when Eddie McBride came in looking for his mother.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said to me.

I wiped my hands on a dish towel before lifting a tray of cinnamon rolls. “Would you like something to eat?”

He took the tray from me. “I’ll take this out and save you a seat.”

“I can manage,” I said.

He winked. “Like I said, I’ll save you a seat.”

He disappeared through the swinging doors. A woman from the choir had caught the exchange. “It looks like McBride has his eye on you.”

“I’m not at all interested,” I said.

She picked up a tray of bagels and nudged me with her elbow. “Be careful, honey, that boy has the devil in him.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I pushed the doors open slightly to get Nana’s attention. She was at the opposite end of the room with her best friend, Teresa Sanchez. Eddie had put down the pastries and was looking around the room, presumably for me.

I slipped out the backdoor into the parking lot. A black Highlander cruised through town. I ran toward it with the understanding Patrick and I were about to meet under unusual circumstances.

Patrick stopped, and I jumped in. “Please drive,” I said.

“Okay,” Patrick said, ignoring the stop sign at the crossroads.

I snapped in the seat belt. “Sorry about that. Thanks for stopping.”

He glanced down at my backpack. “No problem.”

“I’m Sofia. Sam Covington’s granddaughter.”

“Sofia Covington. You were catching bullfrogs out of our water tank last time I saw you. I’m Patrick. Patrick Waters, but you probably already know that.” He drove without saying much.

“I should go back. My grandma will be worried.”

A white pick-up was coming our way. “It’s my dad,” Patrick said. “I’ll flag him down.”

“What are you two up to?” Jake asked.

Patrick sat back in his seat while I recounted what happened with Eddie.

“I’ll let Natalia know you’re in good hands,” Jake said.

“Your dad came by for dinner.”

“Thanks for doing that. He spends too much time alone up at the house.”

Chicago had domesticated him. He wore his dark hair short. It glistened with gel. His navy polo shirt and khakis were fine for a Sunday golf date or brunch, but they were out of place in ranch country. His hands were smooth and hadn’t seen a hard day’s work is quite some time. Patrick had played football in high school. Nana said he’d been chased by every girl in the county. Maybe so, but the spider veins that spread across his nose and cheeks, and the sagging skin under his sharp, blue eyes and along his jawline were indications that Patrick drank too much and had for years.

I pointed to our mailbox. “You can drop me off there. My nana will be by soon.”

He pulled over and killed the engine on the SUV. “I’ll wait here with you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Natalia,” he said.

“Thanks again for picking me up,” I said.

He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. “It was that or run you over.” The corners of his mouth raised in a faint smile. “So, running away from Eddie McBride?”

“He’s interested in me.”

“And you?”

“Not at all.”

“Eddie’s an asshole always has been. Be careful, Sofia.”

“That’s right, you went to school with him.”

He cleared his throat. “You read the book.”

I glanced out the side mirror hoping to see the Cadillac.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everyone around here has read it. My dad said folks were avoiding him. It’s why I came home.”

Patrick had shared his own ideas about what had happened to Clay and told the whole world before he told any of us. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him why.

“Your dad’s a good man,” I said.

“He is, and it’s my fault he’s in this mess.”

“I’m reading the book. It’s interesting.”

“Interesting? That’s being kind. Especially for someone who lives here.”

“It’s not official,” I said.

“When are you going back to Chicago?”

A horn honked. It was Nana. “Thanks again. Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” I said.

Patrick waved to my nana. “I’d like that,” he said.

“He is still very handsome. Such a nice smile.” Nana said, when I got in the car. “Maybe he will ask you to dinner. Will you go?

There was so much riding on the answer to her question. All of Nana’s friends had grandchildren. In her eyes, and in the eyes of her comadres, marriage and children were part of a woman’s identity. She struggled to make sense of women like me in their thirties who had forsaken their biology for a career.

“He seems nice,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

A tear slid down her cheek. “That is good news, m’ija.”

Nana flipped on the blinker and waited for the truck coming up on us to pass. Garrett McBride waved as he drove by, the top of Marta’s head barely visible above the dashboard.

Nana made the sign of the cross. “I feel sorry for that poor woman,” she said, before we crossed the highway.

Grandpa and Julio were out on the front porch when we got home. My grandpa’s shirt was torn and dusty. Nana fussed with the latch on the gate. “What happened?”

“He crawled under a fence,” Julio said.

“What?” Nana raised my grandpa’s arms then turned him around checking for injuries like she would a child. “What fence?”

Julio took off his hat and scratched his head. “Out by the corrals. He said he saw a man riding a horse.”

Nana took my grandpa’s hands in hers. “Sam, are you okay?”

Julio was just as dusty as my grandpa. I was certain he’d gone under the fence, too. Julio went home. Nana took my grandpa into the bathroom to clean him up. I went to the barn. Something in the way Garrett waved when he drove by felt familiar. I’d seen him do it before. I was struggling to give adult context to my childhood memories. Things became distorted in translation. Julio was adamant about leaving the past behind, but why? I dumped out the box where the bear had been; it was gone. My little girl memory shattered as the truth formed, solid as rock. Garrett was the man in front of the shoe store—the stranger who had given me the bear. I squeezed my eyes shut and caught a glimpse of his younger face, smiling as he handed me the bear. My mother’s laughter. Oh, Garrett, it’s so good to see you. She had been expecting him. I cursed Patrick and his damn book for bringing me home.

Tequila Highway

My new novel is called Tequila Highway, and I am so excited to share it with you. Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” If like me, you believe this to be true, I plan to post a chapter or two a week and hope you will join me on this new adventure!

windmill

A Brief Synopsis:

In the summer of 1977, Clay Davidson vanishes during a botched drug smuggling operation along the Mexican border in Arizona. Clay’s best friend, Patrick Waters, publishes a memoir about the events some thirty years later, and his conclusions dismantle everything the ranching community of Santa Rita has believed for decades. After reading Patrick’s book, Sofia Covington leaves a successful career behind in Chicago to return home in hopes of finding answers to long-buried family secrets tied to Clay’s disappearance. Excerpts from Patrick’s debut memoir, Border Cowboys shed light on the past while Sofia struggles to make a new life for herself.

Tequila Highway 

Part 1

Sofia

Lake Michigan delivered thunderstorms to Chicago each summer like premeditated assaults on its victims. I slipped into O’Hara Bookshop where I was met with a blast of cold air. Water dripped from the hem of my skirt, down my bare legs, and into my sandals. I felt violated, standing in the cramped store among the ancient wooden bookshelves lined with new releases and forgotten titles. A girl working the register studied me with mild interest.

On a round table next to the door, a photo of Juniper Falls peppered a dozen identical book jackets. I picked up a copy. “What is this doing here?” I asked the girl.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you want to buy it?”

Wind-driven rain slapped against the storefront window. An older man with a Basset Hound face and sad eyes stood on the other side of the table. “Are you alright?” he asked.

The title Border Cowboys was branded in bold, bronze letters across the photo. The author, Patrick Waters, grew up on a ranch adjacent to my family’s place. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but our lives were entangled. Without opening the book, I knew he’d written the story of a life I had deliberately left behind. An impulse to steal the remaining books I reasoned, would not erase what Patrick had done. Without thinking, I slid the book I held into my backpack.

“Hey, you need to pay for that,” the girl said.

The man with the sad eyes produced a credit card and handed it to the girl. He turned to me and winked. “It’s my treat.”

I thanked him before running out into the rain.

The outdated window air conditioner in my tiny living room was no match for the heat and humidity left in the wake of the storm. I changed out of my wet clothes into a dry sports bra and a pair of boxer shorts. My backpack was soaked. I dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and poured a shot of tequila. Border Cowboys sounded like the title of a spaghetti western. I picked up the book and read the synopsis.

Brought up on a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, Patrick Waters believed in hard work, the importance of family, and helping neighbors. All this was laid to rest in the summer of 1977, when his best friend, Clay Davidson, went missing after the boys found bales of marijuana dumped by Mexican drug mules in a remote corner of the Waters’ ranch. After years of searching for answers, Patrick discovers his best friend may not have been the person he’d claimed to be. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal.

I had always believed Clay was kidnapped by drug runners and killed over in Mexico. Everyone in our community assumed it had happened that way. The word betrayal felt wrong, like a bump under the skin that shouldn’t be there.

Clay’s disappearance was one of three tragedies that summer, each wrapped in something soft inside me that split wide open with the least bit of provocation. I tossed the book on the table where it sat like a cholla cactus—intriguing but painful if you got too close. I was certain he’d weaved my family’s story within its pages. “This place lives in our bones,” my nana Natalia said when someone who’d left for the city came home to Santa Rita. I’d been gone fifteen years and suddenly yearned for the quiet of the desert to ground me before reading Patrick’s account of what I lost that terrible summer.

I walked the six blocks to work with the sensation I was headed in the wrong direction.  The book was in my backpack and bounced against my hip like a heavy stone.

My sous chef, Francie Marino, met me at the backdoor of Tavolino. “Pucci’s Market delivered a case of spoiled lettuce and Antonio called in sick,” she said. “We’re booked solid tonight. It sucks to be us.”

I handed her the menu for the specials I’d written out earlier in the day. “See if Sal can help out through the rush.”

“You got it, boss,” she said, and disappeared through the swinging doors into the dining room.

As the executive chef, the Marino brothers deferred to me in kitchen matters. Sal hadn’t worked the line in over a year. He was in his late sixties and had a heart condition. I prayed he’d be able to keep up. Sal and his twin brother, Johnny, came to the United States when they were just kids. Johnny went back to Italy annually on what the family called a pilgrimage. For reasons he kept close to himself, Sal refused to join his brother.

As co-owners of Tavolino, the two men argued constantly about changes to the menu. Fifty years had passed since the men first left Italy. Sal’s recipes, as well as his memory, were old world, whereas Johnny returned from his trip each fall with new ideas. Like Sal’s, my childhood memories had remained frozen in time. A slow thaw warmed my insides as I stuffed manicotti shells and fed dough through the pasta maker.

Sal joined me on the line and took instructions like a seasoned cook. Francie didn’t have her uncle’s calm demeanor and barked out orders causing one of the servers to burst into tears. The only consolation on a chaotic night was that it went fast.

Images of my family and the desert interrupted my focus while I took inventory in the walk-in cooler. After counting blocks of mozzarella for the third time, I untied my apron. Francie walked in. “What’s going on?”

I handed her the apron. “I’m going home.”

“What? This place is a mess.”

I brushed flour off her cheek. “Tell your dad and uncle I’m sorry.”

She swatted my hand. “I don’t understand.”

No one in Chicago would. I’d sealed my past in a vault. Francie, like everyone else I knew in the city, had no idea where I had come from. I stepped out of the cooler and for moment didn’t recognize a thing. In a flash I’d been transported back to the ranch, my old room, and my nana’s kitchen.

“I’ll call Sal in the morning,” I said.

I walked out the back door into the muggy night. By the time my apartment building was in sight, I had made a plan to leave the city and prayed my old pick-up would make the long trip back home to Arizona.

END 

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Border Talk (Part 9)

Geronimo trail 3I packed a picnic lunch before Ron and I headed south toward Geronimo Trail for a well-deserved break from spring chores at the ranch. The trail is an eighty mile stretch of county and U.S. Forest Service back country road that winds thirty miles though the Animas Valley and up over a pass in the Peloncillo Mountains before it drops down into the San Bernardino Valley ending in Douglas, Arizona. A gorgeous four hour round trip was just what we needed, or so I thought.

Geronimo Trail 2Climbing out of the Animas Valley into the mountains, the desert floor flora is replaced by pine and desert oaks. A plaque of the Arizona -New Mexico Boundary marks the crest of the pass. There are also two other signs near the site. One marked the U.S. Mormon Battalion Trail—the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history. It was led by Mormon officers and commanded by regular U.S. Army during the Mexican – American War from July 1846 to July 1847. The other, a U.S. Forest sign that cautioned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area.

Geronimo Trail 5                  Geronimo trail 8

While Ron and I enjoyed sliced salami, cheese, apples, and oatmeal cookies I had baked earlier that morning, I contemplated both the historical marker and the sign warning us of smugglers. Not much had changed in the 175 years since the war. Back then this part of the country still belonged to Mexico and would until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 when Mexico sold the United States 30,000 miles of its northern borderlands for ten million dollars. History books are full of reasons why we ended up with so much land for pennies on the dollar, nonetheless, since claiming this vast desert landscape, we have fought hard to keep it for ourselves. The No Trespassing signs nailed to gates and fence posts on every ranch flanking the Geronimo Trail may keep hunters and weekend outdoor enthusiasts off private property, but they stand as proof to those crossing the border illegally that they have entered the United States. One could argue the need for a monstrosity of a wall or fence spanning 2,000 miles of southern borderlands to keep the riff raff out. Or one, like myself, could argue that it’s time to vote the current demagogue out of office. Those were my thoughts as Ron cut apple slices with his pocketknife, and we scanned the vistas for wildlife.

Geronimo Trail 9The terrain changed abruptly as we entered the San Bernardino Valley where fields of wildflowers encroached on prickly pear cactus. It was late afternoon. We were recapping the day’s adventure and weighing the risk of contracting coronavirus if we stopped to pick up a few groceries in Douglas. When on the horizon, we noticed the newly constructed border fence just east of town. We had been within miles of the border all day and hadn’t seen so much as a footprint. All the joy the desert had filled me with evaporated.

Geronimo Trail 12I asked Ron to pull over so I could take pictures. How could this be happening right under our noses? Human rights organizations and environmental watchdogs are no match for the media blitz covering the coronavirus. Everything from the 2020 presidential race to global warming has taken a backseat while Trump marches on with his 2016 campaign promise, “I will build a great wall—and no one builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a wall, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Geronimo Trail 13Ron and I stared at the 30-foot tall scourge on the land as though we were watching an alien spaceship approach. My camera hung limp at my side. I hadn’t attended protests regarding building the wall or kept up with the news. I didn’t deserve a place at the table with photos to share. Our our local border communities had been sucker-punched, while I turned a blind eye. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we drove closer to town, the wall grew exponentially in stature until it was the only thing I saw. It was Sunday and a construction crew worked with the determination of an ant colony. I asked Ron to pull over again. I thought of how fitting it was that we had traveled so much open country on a road named after Geronimo, a great Apache warrior who surrendered to the U.S. military in Skeleton Canyon some thirty miles north of the border after he was promised land in Arizona for his people. Instead, he and his band of followers were shipped to Florida where they were imprisoned. And there I stood, on the same land Geronimo had once navigated, witnessing yet another one of this nation’s great injustices.

Geronimo Trail 16

Racism, prejudice, bigotry, and fear, we all have assigned seats at these tables. I picked up my camera and took dozens of photos of the wall and construction site. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the words of Thomas Jefferson as written in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We have strayed far and wide from that proclamation, but as Covid-19 is reminding us, we are all created equal. We do not bow to the political powers that be, rather we, the people, hold the power.

The ride north out of Douglas was quiet with no radio or unnecessary conversation to interrupt our thoughts. Just south of Silver Creek, Border Patrol Agents had gathered a group of illegal immigrants. All of them men, and all of them wearing masks provided by our government. These men are our new Geronimo. The stories of how we treat them, and how we treat our border will one day fill the pages of history books. The accounts will be either of good men and good women doing great things or quite the opposite. We still have the collective power to choose.

 

The Spirits are Mad

corona virus mapMy husband saw a cardiologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for erratic high blood pressure and an irregular EKG. It was our first appointment with this doctor. He was a lovely man from India who warned us about the dangers of the COVID-19 virus saying we need to be careful because the spirits are mad. I could not agree more.

The doctor explained his role in this new world while he examined Ron. The staff was being trained in COVID-19 protocol and infectious disease. “I am a cardiologist, but we need to be prepared. So, now I have other responsibilities,” he said.

The doctor called in a colleague after Ron’s exam. Both cardiologists agreed Ron needed a stress test and echo-cardiogram, but each doctor explained, in his own sympathetic way, that because all appointments and resources were slated for fighting the virus that testing of any kind had been put on hold. “We can make an appointment, but I am afraid you will not get your tests for three months.”

Neither Ron nor I took the news well. This is my husband’s heart after all. “I’m sorry,” the attending physician said. “There is nothing we can do right now.”

We all looked down at our shoes. There is nothing we can do. “If you feel chest pains, or a tingling in your arm, or you have shortness of breath, go to the emergency room,” Ron’s doctor offered up apologetically. “They will have to see you.”

We live three hours from a hospital. Even in the best of times we understand the medical risks of living so far from town. By the time we reached the truck, Ron and I had reached an unspoken agreement. I don’t want to talk about this right now.

Ron and I have a pretty good yin-yang thing going on. He knows where his next meal is coming from, and I know the leaky faucet will eventually get fixed. We work hard and enjoy the peace and quiet of country living. Even the cardiologist said the ranch was a perfect place to live during the pandemic. That was before he examined my husband.

The map of COVID-19 cases in the United States as reported by ABC News is rising hourly while testing ramps up and the virus spreads. We may never learn how many folks have or have had COVID-19. What is equally troubling is that people like my husband and others who are denied medical care are the indirect victims of this pandemic. Because of budget cuts and lack of resources in a toxic political climate, patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases will not receive the medications, treatments, and surgeries they so desperately need. And the ugly truth is that some will die.

I held out hope that the virus would rip through us like a desert dust storm leaving few casualties in its wake. Then yesterday I found the only egg our Great Horned owl pair had produced this year. A violent storm had come through, knocking the owls’ nest to the ground. The egg was among the debris. In many cultures the Great Horned Owl represents wisdom. I cradled the egg in an attempt to save what was already lost.

The Kaqchikel Indians of Guatemala believe that an egg is the symbol of new life. In ceremonies led by a healer, people pray over eggs before placing them in a fire. The smoke then carries the prayers to heaven. I said a prayer for Ron’s health, and set the owl egg in a fire we had going in the green house. The smoke swirled upward, and I thought of the doctor’s warning, The spirits are mad. I pray that we have the global wisdom it will take to weather this storm.

 

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When I find Myself in Times of Trouble

 

coronavirus_update920.jpg.daijpg.420Two weeks ago, I was working on a response to the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel, American Dirt. Joe Biden had just won the South Carolina Democratic primary, there was still hope for the stock market, and Pete Buttigieg’s announcement that he was pulling out of the primary race hardly made a ripple in the news cycle. Then the earth’s axis tilted, and we, every human on the planet, lost our balance. Reviewing my notes on American Dirt, I feel a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time. Were we that naive, or simply woefully unprepared? Does it matter now? Not at all. COVID-19 is changing the global landscape at an unprecedented rate.

The Walmart in Douglas, Arizona was out of toilet paper, bleach, and bottled water when I stopped in to pick up a few things. This new reality shut down my frontal cortex, the thinking part of my brain, igniting the primitive amygdala and a compulsion to hoard. There were no guarantees where the next meal was coming from when Homo sapiens first roamed the planet 200,000 years ago. Sticks and stones were hunting weapons of choice. Man-made fire was a novel idea and agriculture was not yet on the radar. We were as much prey as predator. Those with a superior amygdala went on to propagate. My ancestors had survived natural selection. Every bit of their DNA resided in my cells as I careened up and down aisles snatching things off shelves with abandon. How many cans of Bush’s Baked Beans did my husband and I need in the face of a pandemic? Apparently six, or at least that seemed adequate at the time.

Every angle of COVID-19 is being explored and tested. From healthcare, to politics, to education, to social reform, we are all talking about it. But more importantly, we are waiting. And for what? We don’t know. As a species, we don’t respond well to the unknown. Or at least not since we relied on our primitive brains. What we cannot control, we fix. We are good at cleaning up messes and restoring order. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and typhoons may devastate coastal towns, but once the water recedes, we get to work. In the aftermath of tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes we pick up the pieces and rebuild our communities.

COVID-19 has erased the question of why me? and has replaced it with, Why Us? Why all of us? What good can come of this? we ask ourselves. Maybe this is the starting point. A new beginning. We are unwitting participants in the greatest social experiment of humankind. Under the proverbial microscope, we will be examined and judged years to come in history books, sociological studies, and houses of worship by our response to this threat. This is a big responsibility to place on a select few, never mind the entire world population. Do we give in to fear and allow our primitive brains to influence our decisions, or do we acknowledge our vulnerability making room for compassion and empathy?

How are we to pray in the face of such danger? Today at church I flinched when someone sneezed. What we are experiencing is a parable from the Old Testament: The king ignores his people to gain riches until God smites him. Whether you read this as a political statement, or see yourself as the king, doesn’t much matter anymore. In the end, God protects his flock. That is the message I must adhere to when someone sniffles.

While at the store I overheard two gentlemen talking. One was saying that closing schools is ridiculous. The other agreed and said the virus isn’t a problem here in the United States. Money, power, prestige, and/or celebrity cannot buy a get out of jail free card; either can rhetoric, hearsay, or wishful thinking. We are all at risk.

Global and local civility alike are at stake. There is finger pointing, blaming, and conspiring. Someone must be at fault. Scientists, doctors, scholars, and healthcare workers are scrambling to provide answers to how this happened while simultaneously tending to the sick, developing test kits, and God willing, finding a vaccine.

What I would like to see is an independent global coalition of world-renowned scientists, doctors, researchers, economists, and sociologists granted permission to travel this precious planet, regardless of borders, to collect objective data on threats to earth and humankind. From that data, the coalition, rather than nations, drafts policies to preserve and protect. I believe that is a conversation worth having. In the end, perhaps this canary in the mine is the thing that unites us all.

A friend from Miami is staying with us right now. Last night at dinner, he brought up the quiet he experienced after 9/11 after all planes had been grounded. My husband and I are blessed to live in a place where we are woken each morning by the cacophony of birds. We have everything we need right here at the ranch, including quiet, to weather most any storm. As long as I don’t listen to the news, I can get on with my day. For now, we are hunkered down as they say. The peach and plum trees are in full bloom while the bees are frantically gathering pollen unaware of what is going on beyond the orchard.

 

 

Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want the smuggler caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Angels We Have Heard On High

christmas tree with baubles

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Thirty years ago, I gave my beautiful daughter up for adoption. My life was in shambles and without a strong support system, I did what was best for her. Intellectually I have always known this. My heart, on the other hand, never reconciled my decision. Each Christmas I took her adoption box from my closet and spread out the items I had collected during and after my pregnancy on the bed. The little hospital band she wore on her wrist, no bigger than a bread tie, held her DNA and remains the most precious thing I own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, she stayed three years old in my thoughts. An age in which she could walk and talk but would have still been completely dependent on me. This was the little girl I mourned for all those years.

After a long and emotional search, my daughter and I finally found one another, and I have been twice blessed to have traveled to Wisconsin to see her this past year. She is an extraordinary, accomplished young woman with a lovely husband and four precious children. All the things I feared would become of her life because of my decision have been laid to rest. She grew up with loving parents who continue to have her best interests at heart, and as a result, she has a full life.

This is the season of giving and receiving, of forgiveness and new beginnings. Of love. For thirty years I roamed the earth in a fog, paralyzed with guilt and sadness for what I had done. I kept my story mostly to myself in fear of judgement. Seeing my profile and long fingers in my daughter, marveling at her smile, and embracing her after all these years gives me hope for a better future.

The sun has set on this most blessed day of the year. The gifts are sorted in neat piles, leftovers are stacked in the refrigerator, and the house is quiet. This Christmas, the adoption box and the broken dreams associated with it remain in the closet. I am so grateful my prayers have been answered and that my daughter has accepted me into her life, making this a very Merry Christmas!