This originally appeared in The New Quarterly (Issue 113) and was reprinted in Best Canadian Short Stories 10.
The brochure Laurie hands me says “Cross the Rio Grande” in block letters across the top. We are thousands of miles from El Paso, but there’s a creek a few miles out from our Mazatlán three-star resort where I’ve spent the past week holding Laurie’s hair back while she pukes colada.
“It’s like a desert hike,” she says. “I’ve already bought your ticket.”
She said the same thing when she told me about this vacation, an all-inclusive sell-off purchased on the Internet, a few weeks after she and Manny announced their separation. I don’t do the package vacation, but Laurie’s my oldest friend and I was her maid of honour, so I feel in some ways, obliged.
In the shuttle, the driver assures us we’re supporting the local economy. We mill around the parking lot—just an empty dirt square—waiting for the group from the other hotels to arrive. The couple at the far end tell me they’re travel bloggers. They’re mid-twenties—she’s a little younger, with an angular haircut, bangs swooping down to her chin. He’s wearing a pair of skateboarder shorts and a band T that’s thinning under the arms. As we’re waiting, he squats and chats with one of the guide’s sons. His accent is awful, he collapses the vowels and levels the ñ so that mañana rhymes with banana. When he gets up, he tussles the kid’s hair. Laurie is staring over at him. “That’s the kind of guy I should be screwing while Manny signs the papers.”
He catches us looking at him and strolls over. “You two should check us out on the Interweb.” He hands us a card with his name, Trevor, and his URL, therealdeal.org. “Dot com was already taken.”
“Do you make any money at this?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah, ads pay big.” He waves at the girl. “Tell them where you used to work.”
Laurie’s impressed. “Did you get a lot of clothes?”
“But now,” Trevor says, “we get the world. El mundo es nuestro.”
“Wow.” Laurie lays her hand on his forearm.
I walk over to the guide, Juan Carlos, who’s sharpening his machete on a river stone.
“My wife,” he says, pointing to a middle-aged woman dressed up in a traditional paisano dress, smoking on a boulder and feeding scraps to a dog. “She’s always picking up the… how do you say? Stray?”
“Stray dogs,” I agree.
“Soft heart,” he says.
“Rabies,” he says.
“How long have you been married?”
“We have twenty-four years.”
He points over to a young man farther down the trail. “That’s my son. Over there, my daughter, over there my baby son.”
“Five. You meet the others later, when we cross the border.”
I wonder if the kids ever fight over who gets to pretend to be in the USA. “All your family?” I ask, covering the area with my hands.
“All family,” he says, “except Chucho.” Chucho is a paunchy man with prominent eyebrows that appear to be holding up his sombrero. “He works for me because my wife’s big heart.” We look over to the wife again, but the dog is gone and she’s finished her cigarette. It’s much darker now and Juan Carlos glances at his watch. “Showtime.” He whistles, two thick fingers in his mouth. “Buenas noches, compañeros. Tonight is our last chance to cross the Rio Grande.” A hush falls over the group and I make my way back to Laurie who’s still chatting with the blogging Adonis. “The guards are out tonight. Y ellos quieren sangre. Does anyone know what that means?”
Trevor calls out, “They want our blood.”
“Por cierto, mi amigo. So how are we going to survive?” Juan walks back and forth in front of the group. We all watch his progress as if he really were our coyote. The heels of his cowboy boots clack against the pavement. “How are we going to survive?”
“We have to be quiet,” an older woman says. She’s dressed in casual safari wear.
“Muy bien. We have to be quiet. What else?”
Her husband, in an almost identical outfit, ventures a guess, “We need to be fast.”
“O-kay, sometimes, yes. We need to be fast. But most important you have to listen to me. I am your guide.” He takes a little bow. “So I want to hear you say it, ‘sí, coyote.’”
“I say drop to the ground, what do you say?”
“Sí, coyote.” There’s the flash of a camera and Juan Carlos blinks. “This one going to get us killed.”
“Yes, now it’s a joke. But crossing the border, the bullets don’t laugh. Any questions?”
A man with a thick Tennessee drawl asks, “Have you ever crossed before?”
Would he still be here? I think. Juan waves us around him into a big circle, as if we were a football team about to receive the big play. “One night, twenty-three years ago, one year after I marry, I lose my job in a factory. My three brothers and I decide to cross into America, near Tijuana.” It’s quite dark now and Juan Carlos turns on his flashlight which gives his speech an eerie performative quality. “We pay a coyote, but he leave us before we cross. We get lost. One brother get over, but my hermanito, my little brother, cannot walk across the desert. Hizo mucho calor. You never met a hot like this, the sun…” Juan Carlos thumps his hand into his palm. “I had to carry him back. It took a whole day. He died before we get back to Tijuana.”
“How old was he?”
“Muy joven,” Juan Carlos says. “Before we go, we pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe for our safety.”
Travel safari woman bleats out, “I’ll say a prayer for your brother too.”
After we pray, Juan Carlos’ wife walks around and hands out a piece of candy to everyone. It’s round and wrapped in wax paper with a rose label on top. It looks like a puck of soap from the hotel. “Cacahuate,” Juan Carlos says. “Peanuts to give us strength.” His wife doesn’t make eye contact as she deposits the package into our waiting palms. Trevor asks her to pose for a picture, but she doesn’t understand and Juan Carlos comes over and poses in her place. The only time I see her look up is when she passes Chucho who comes over with a box of bottled water.
“El camino es duro y frío como una mujer,” Juan Carlos says. “The way is hard and cold like a woman.”
Laurie would normally take offense at that, but instead she drinks it up as if he were Pablo Neruda himself. Then she reaches into her pocket for the American dollar that Chucho is asking for the water. We all buy water. Chucho hands the money over to Juan Carlos before taking the bottles back to the truck. The cab light comes on when he opens the door and I can see a Virgen de Guadalupe votive on the dashboard and another hanging from the rearview. “Vámonos, amigos.” Juan Carlos turns and Trevor follows closely behind him. Laurie and I end up somewhere in the middle. The path is steep uphill, no more than a foot and a half wide. It curves in zig zags up a low mountain that’s covered with scrubby trees and some cacti that look like overgrown aloe vera. As we climb, it gets harder to see the vegetation. Laurie tells me that this experience feels cathartic for her, a spiritual exodus from her starter marriage. I bite my tongue, try to enjoy the scenery. The older couples are lagging and we can hear them chatting with Chucho in one word exchanges. After twenty minutes, we reach the summit and Juan Carlos stops us. “We have made it to Tijuana. Now we say goodbye to México. My family prepare a fiesta.”
Up ahead there is a firepit circled by cinderblocks. One of the other children has started the fire and leads us over to sit. It takes several minutes for Chucho to arrive with the stragglers. The wife is also with them and Juan Carlos calls her over and says something to her in Spanish. She hovers close to him afterwards.
“Before you leave, I want to give you the taste of México.” Juan Carlos’ son hands him a guitar. The arm strap is woven from bright wool and has fringes on it like a poncho.
Trevor snaps a few pictures and Laurie leans over to him. “Can I give you my email? I forgot my camera.”
The song is a ballad and Juan Carlos has skill picking the strings. He sings quickly, slurring the words, so it’s hard for me to make them out. The refrain is something like “I made a mistake about you.” He sings with one foot up on the cinderblocks and leans forward into the fire a bit, so the smoke and flames frame him. When he finishes, his eyes are closed, as if he is moved by the song’s narrative.
We clap enthusiastically. Some people have already eaten their snack and have to put down the wrapper to smack their hands together.
Chucho picks up the guitar a moment after Juan Carlos puts it down and I sense that this is not part of the usual script. He still has his sombrero on and a denim jacket the same colour as his jeans—it almost gives the effect of a mariachi uniform. He holds the guitar at an angle because of his belly. His fingers are too fat to pick the strings the way Juan Carlos did. He launches into a lusty song that doesn’t require that kind of subtlety and he strums exuberantly, thumping the guitar in percussion. He punctuates the song with guttural “Ay, ay, ayiiis” and at one point crows, head flung back like a rooster.
The older people are particularly impressed. I overhear one in a mauve tracksuit say, “He’s just like the one on the cruise last year.”
Laurie whispers to me, “See, I told you this was a good idea.” She said that six years ago when I tried on the puce tea dress. You can wear it again, she promised.
Juan Carlos claps his hands slowly as Chucho puts down the guitar, then turns to address us. “In México we call those songs rancheras. Cowboy songs. That was called ‘El burro.’ You know what a burro is?”
Trevor answers, “Donkey.”
“Bien, you know another word for donkey?” Juan Carlos lets it sink in and chuckles to himself. “No tenemos mas tiempo para divertirnos. Now we say Adiós México. Now, quiet.”
We all hush up.
“No los oí. I don’t hear you.”
Suddenly it dawns on someone and he calls out, “Sí, coyote.”
We all repeat, “Sí, coyote.”
Juan Carlos nods and motions for us to get up. We follow him along, down the slope to a sandier valley. We fan out as the path disappears, trailing in three groups of four or six. A little girl, Juan Carlos’ fifth child, runs out of the dark. “Que, hija?”
“Los Americanos vienen.”
“The guards are close. We have to take cover.”
As Juan Carlos says this, the stray dog from the parking lot runs out. It’s mangier in the darkness, knee high with short fur the colour of bleached bone. It yaps at Juan Carlos and nips at his heels like it’s expecting to play a game. Juan Carlos yells at it, heaping insults in Mexican slang, but it just excites the dog. From what I can understand the dog is some kind of f----t son of a bitch with a whore for a mother. The dog growls back at Juan Carlos each time he swears, giving as good as it’s getting. Finally Juan Carlos kicks it in the ribs and it scampers behind a cactus.
Someone shines a flashlight after it but then we turn back to Juan Carlos’ daughter who warns us about the border guard again. Laurie has this goofy scared expression on her face like she used to get at the haunted houses in Niagara Falls. As I advance into the desert, kicking sand into my loafers, all I can think is thank God I’m not paying for this.
Juan Carlos whispers, “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale!”
We sprint to cover behind a group of bushes. Then it’s back up another hill, single file. This time when we reach the top, there is no fiesta waiting for us, just darkness and city lights in the distance. A shot is fired and Juan Carlos motions for us to drop to the ground. Several more rounds explode and everyone looks around, unsure if this is part of the tour. When the artillery quiets down, Juan Carlos helps us up and explains that it’s too dangerous to cross tonight, we’ll have to try tomorrow. The group’s disappointment is palpable. Some of the couples embrace, consoling each other. Laurie looks on the verge of tears. We are all covered in dust.
We head back down in silence, arriving at the plateau much faster than expected. In the torchlight, I can see Juan Carlos’ wife sitting on a rock with Chucho, feeding the stray dog what looks like an extra candy. As soon as Juan Carlos gets close, the dog starts snarling again. Several people focus their beams on it as it lunges forward and snaps at his shoes. He kicks at it again. “Fucker going to get us killed.” He spits on the sand.
The dog gets its teeth on his pants and tears a small patch from the leg. Trevor snaps a picture. In the flash, Juan Carlos grabs the dog’s ear then slices his machete blade across the mutt’s throat. Its snort turns to a gurgle and its head flops to the side as it collapses at an unnatural angle. Juan Carlos walks away, his wife following behind him. Chucho lingers by the dying animal.
Someone musters a question in broken Spanish. “Should we take it back with us? Vet-erin-a-rian?”
By the time the dog dies, Juan Carlos and his clan have already disappeared into the darkness and Chucho isn’t sure of the way back. There’s a false start that only leads to a rock face. We end up making a giant circle around the valley, Laurie frequently dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. I keep as much distance as I can between us. The old people are getting exhausted. After an hour we end up at the same spot. The dog is still there, but an animal has already dragged off the head and it’s only the spine that flashes against the lights.