When I drove for the Mano de Plata cartel, I had no interaction with the natural world. I walked on tile and cement, drank from aluminum cans, and turned metal keys in ignitions. Even my ass sweated onto polyester seat covers.
Now that I’m penniless and deported back to Mexico, nature surrounds me. The earth emits an assaultive odor from my overflowing septic tank. The sun burns brown spots on my forehead. My dog pushes his nose against my leg, asking me to pull foxglove barbs from his muzzle.
I stood in the bare dirt yard, looking out over the hill at the Pacific Ocean, three kilometers away. A Christian song in Spanish drifted through the open door of my hut. Radio Zión 540. The only station I ever listen to.
Señor, Tú eres el más precioso,
Señor, Tú eres todo para mi,
Señor, Tú eres el Alfa y Omega,
Y nada yo deseo fuera de Ti.
Lord, You are more precious than silver,
Lord, You are more costly than gold,
Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares with You.
In our home in San Diego, we had everything we needed. Two cars in the driveway. Three bedrooms. A stainless-steel refrigerator. A Faber natural gas range. With so much cash rolling in, I had no problem bankrolling family trips to Target, daily lattes from Starbucks, memberships to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the Disney Channel. I spoiled my family.
Every man in my wife’s family was a soldier in the Mano de Plata cartel. Our wives and girlfriends didn’t work. Most had extravagant nails, plump lips, fake butts, and fake breasts. When my wife Rosa begged for plastic surgery I bobbed and weaved like a featherweight fighter in the ring with a light heavy. She wanted to be Instagram presentable like the other cartel wives and girlfriends. But my wife was my only link to nature. I didn’t want to hug a mess of hard plastic.
In California, I drove a panel truck, carrying money south for the cartel. Guns, not often; and only twice canisters of fentanyl. The second time I was intercepted by the San Diego County police and thrown into prison. Fentanyl is killing too many whites so the judge showed no mercy. I was deported and kicked down to Rosarito Beach, where my wife’s family had a tiny plot of land and an abandoned cinderblock hut.
I thought my wife and kids would follow, but that didn’t happen.
I walked over to the nopal plant in the corner of my yard. Thank God it grew fast. At least three days a month I was reduced to eating nopal—and not even tasty nopal prepared with ground beef, onions, serranos and tomatoes. To fill my belly, I ate boiled nopal with salt.
My white wolfhound Prudencio came out from the shade of my cinderblock hut. He padded over and sat on his haunches next to me. I’d named him after San Prudencio, famous for healing the sick. I didn’t give my dog that name right away. At first I called him Blanco. But, over time, he earned the name Prudencio. His simple affection lifted me out of the ditch I was in.
I roughed the fur on his head. “You don’t want nopal, amigo.”
Wielding a steak knife from my hut, I lopped off an oval pad from the plant, about the size of my hand. It was then I heard the pan dulce advertising jingle in the distance—the signal Luis the seller was on the road. Seconds later, a battered Toyota Corolla crested the hill and drove toward my hut. He came by once in the morning selling baked goods—pastries and cookies. In the evening, around ten, he’d drive by again. This later circuit he’d also be selling meth and marijuana.
In my past life, I was drunk five nights of the week. Most mornings I needed a bump of cocaine to lift me out of my hangovers. My belly hung over my belt, heavy with all the grease and meat I forked down. My blood pressure was high enough to get me admitted to the emergency room, if I was ever reckless enough to consult a doctor. I didn’t need an expert opinion—I knew I didn’t have long to live. I had no relationship with my divine savior. My wife would bring the kids to church each Sunday morning while I nursed what was usually my biggest hangover of the week. The only time you found me in a place of worship was for a cartel christening or wedding.
When I was kicked south of the border, Rosa told me to knock off the booze and find God or else. I went through the motions for a few months and then something funny happened. It took. No more tequila and beer. I lost 30 pounds. The ringing in my ears disappeared. In my hut, I started singing along to the Christian songs in heavy rotation. There was a small Evangelical church down the hill across from Highway 1. The first few weeks I sat in the back pew and kept my head down. When the pastor invited the congregation to a carne asada after service, I stuck around. Drank licuados and ate a plate of beef, beans, and grilled onion. It had been a long time since I’d been welcomed anywhere. It stuck. I got proud of myself. For the first time in my life, I believed in God and living a righteous life.
Luis braked in front of my house and leaned out the window. “Anything today, Orlando?”
I walked over, the nopal pad in one hand, the knife in the other. Shook my head. “Not today.”
Luis jerked a thumb toward the back seat. “I got some from yesterday, half-price.”
I held up the nopal. “You see this in my hand and you know pesos are tight.”
“When’s your esposa coming?”
“In three days, on Saturday.”
Luis knew where my money came from.
He leaned over the back seat and took a paper-wrapped puerquito out of a long cardboard box. He handed it to me. “You gotta keep smilin’ compadre.”
Saturday morning, I boiled a pot of water to give myself a good wash. I raked the dirt in the yard and shoveled dogshit, flipping it over the high cinderblock wall, where it disappeared into the dry mustard plants and tumbleweeds. Rosa and the kids only came once a month. She’d hand over enough dollars to keep me alive and to buy materials to build the small house next to the hut. A proper house—not fancy, but with plumbing and electric. The work I couldn’t do myself was done by one crooked contractor after another. They’d start off honest but that would change in days or weeks and then I’d have to send them packing and look for another set of workers. There was nothing to be done about it—it was the way of business in Mexico, this close to the border.
Prudencio knew today was a special day—he could feel it. He followed me around all morning. He knew that when I ate well, he did, too.
It was close to noon when Rosa’s yellow Scion came crawling along the dirt road. She drove slower than most, always wary that if she drove too fast she’d bump the car’s undercarriage or screw up the shocks.
Rosa braked and cut the ignition. The door opened slowly and she stepped out from behind the wheel.
Rosa was 36, ten years younger than me. Seeing her today—with what she’d done to herself—it was hard to tell how old she was. I lowered my head and muttered, “Chinga tu madre.”
My wife wore white leggings, black boots, and a yellow crop top. Her breasts stuck out, spherical and hard as mixing bowls. Her fake ass hung too much meat off slender legs. There were strips of blonde highlights in her black hair, and her lips were swollen, like she was about to quack.
It could only mean one thing. A man in the cartel had swooped down and taken possession of my wife.
She saw me staring and said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I peered into the shadows of the Scion’s backseat. “Where are the kids?”
“They didn’t want to come.”
Rosa settled in one of the yard’s white plastic chairs, her handbag in her lap. She glanced over at the ongoing construction. “It looks the same.”
“I’m looking for a new contractor.”
“Maybe it will never get done.”
“It will get done.”
That was the payment her family was extracting from me. For the privilege of staying in their hut, I was to build a serviceable house on the property.
I sat down across from Rosa, in the remaining chair. Compared to her I was dressed in rags. My shoes were scuffed. My jeans and white T-shirt were clean, but worn. Too worn. A man with means would toss them away.
Prudencio stared at my wife but he didn’t go over for a pet.
Rosa began rummaging in her bag. “I can’t stay long.”
“The church is having a supper tonight.”
She took a deep breath and her mixing bowls swelled. “I don’t think so.”
She took a white envelope from her bag and held it out to me. I took it, folded it, and put it in my pocket. I wasn’t going to count money in front of her.
For a moment, I imagined I was a bird riding the air currents, looking down at these two people sitting in white plastic chairs.
There was nothing that would hint they were husband and wife.
Behind my hut was a wall looking out at the ocean. When I got Prudencio, I’d scavenged a long chain, which I locked onto a metal ring cemented into the wall.
With the free end of the chain, and the lobster clasp in my hand, I called, “Hey, boy.”
Prudencio came trotting over.
I gave him a treat—a piece of stale tortilla—and clicked the clasp on his collar. Prudencio was at my side all day and if I ventured away from the property, he’d walk alongside me. This was dangerous. There were pit bulls in the community that would savage any dog daring to venture through their turf. Maybe Prudencio would come out on top in a fight, but I didn’t want to risk it. As it was, walking alone, I carried a can of wasp spray. I’d only had to use it once and it worked perfectly, disabling the pit in mid growl.
I gave Prudencio a pat. “Guard our house.”
It was a four-kilometer walk to the little Evangelical church. I made the walk twice a week, sometimes three. To the church, my AA meeting, and odd occasions like this.
Saturday’s church supper was held on the cement patio behind the building. Folding tables were covered with dishes of grilled chicken, frijoles puercos, roasted jalapenos, yellow rice, and heaps of tortillas. I filled a Styrofoam plate and ate standing up. I thought about my wife. Her visit hadn’t lasted more than a half hour. She’d inspected the progress on the half-built house, as though that was the primary reason for coming. She said little but it was obvious she was displeased.
I refilled my plastic cup with warm Squirt soda. There was no ice. In my old life, I’d be the one pouring tequila with a heavy hand, topping off my drink with a jolt of sugary Squirt. I looked around, wondering if I was the only one who missed having a real drink in his hand.
Luis came around the back with his wife and three kids. It was no secret he was a drug dealer, but that didn’t affect his standing. If Mexican churches shunned drug dealers, they’d be lonely and broke institutions.
As his wife set a box of pan dulce on one of the tables, Luis came over to me. Like many Mexican couples, his wife would prepare him a plate of food.
Luis brushed at the sweat on his brow and wiped his hand on his shirt. “Tell me when you’re ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“To buy a vehicle. I don’t like to see a man penned to his own yard.”
“That won’t be any time soon.”
“A man with a truck can always find work.”
I changed the subject. “I have to hire a new contractor.”
“How many is that? Five you’ve gone through?”
I counted in my mind. “Six.”
“You know,” said Luis, “my nephew is a contractor. He has two helpers.”
Luis’ wife handed him a plate of food and he nodded. “Thank you, mi amor.” He said to me, knowing my wife had visited earlier that day. “You have money, right?”
“What do you need done?”
“The cement floor and after that, the electric.”
It was a day later that Luis’ nephew, Gonzalo, came to my hut. I was surprised to see he didn’t drive a pickup and instead arrived in a tiny, sunburned Honda. He had a tape measure in one hand and piece of cardboard in the other. He was younger than I expected—maybe 18. He walked around the house-in-progress, taking measurements and making notes on his piece of cardboard.
When he was done, he said, “My uncle says you don’t have a truck.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’re going to need 20 sacks of cement, a half-load of sand and half-load of gravel. You have water?”
I pointed to the five-thousand-liter water tank on the top of my hut. “Yeah.”
Gonzalo glanced at the piece of cardboard. “For the electric, I need 25 meters of size 12 wire, boxes, and covers, a few more things. I have all the tools I need.”
“When can you start?”
“Tomorrow. I can also get you a good price on materials. The job will take at least four days. I need to start right away. I have other work scheduled.”
I was silent, wondering how I could get the materials that quickly. I guess Gonzalo sensed my wheels spinning and said, “If you pay my gas, I can pick up and deliver the materials so we can start first thing in the morning.”
I took the white envelope from my pocket.
“How much do you need?”
Human beings know when something isn’t happening. The realization comes quick with some, slower with others. But the truth of a situation eventually arrives with clarity.
Next morning, I woke early. If Gonzalo was like other contractors, he’d arrive at eight. I put the coffee on and fed Prudencio.
An hour went by, then another. I attempted to call Gonzalo but it went to voicemail every time.
When I woke up this morning I was six contractors down. I guess I was down seven now. But of all the contractors, Gonzalo made the biggest score—my month’s budget to build, with nothing to show for it.
I waited in the front yard until the familiar jingle of the pan dulce seller carried over the hill and Luis’ Corolla came into view. As usual, he braked in front of my house and leaned out the window. “Que tal?”
I walked over. “Where does Gonzalo live?”
His eyes darted away. My days in the cartel had taught me when men were preparing to lie.
“Why?” said Luis. “Is there a problem?”
I said nothing and Luis dug his phone out of his pocket. He got the same result. Voicemail.
“Something must have happened,” said Luis. “Give him time.”
“He has money of mine.”
“You gave him money?” said Luis, his eyes wide. “Cabron. That wasn’t smart.”
“Where does he live?”
Luis was a beat slow answering. “He moves around.”
When I called my wife about losing this month’s budget she listened in silence and then ended the call.
The rest of the month dragged along. Luis drove by twice a day but he was smart enough not to brake in front of my hut. I did what work I could on the house, which wasn’t much.
At the AA meeting in the church, all I could think of was cracking the seal on a bottle of tequila and taking a deep glug. When it was time for me to talk, to tell them, “My name is Orlando and I’m an alcoholic” I passed. My sponsor mumbled. “One day at a time.”
Where was the hope? Where was the hope in taking life one day at a time?
The month passed and my wife’s yellow Scion crawled along the road to the hut. She climbed out of her car but this time stood in the dirt by the driver’s side door. She wore sunglasses and didn’t smile. Her face was a mask. She was alone again. I guess the kids had something better to do.
“It’s been a hard month,” I said.
“We had a family meeting,” said Rosa. “We decided to take the offer.”
“On the property. The hut and the partly-built house. It’s not a good offer but we’re taking it.”
“What about me?”
“There’s no work to do here so it’s time for you to find a job and a place to live.”
“Maybe I should take my chances crossing the border.”
“That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
That put a long pause to the conversation. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was wondering who she was with now. I was never very powerful in the cartel. It was obvious Rosa had traded up. Did it matter? Not really. What’s the sense of a showdown when nobody has your back?
Rosa reached into her handbag and took out a white envelope. She held it out to me and said, “This is the last of it.”
Prudencio stared at me as I clasped the chain to his collar.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Watch things for me, okay?”
I started walking along the dirt road. It was so rutted, and with so many loose rocks, I had to walk staring at my feet. Otherwise, I risked stumbling and taking a fall.
There wasn’t much time. I needed to find a bed. Someplace that would accept Prudencio. There was a string of shops along Highway 1 selling what they called curios: Talavera tile, clay suns, decorative iron work, rustic furniture. I had a simple plan. Go door to door asking for work.
My back was wet with sweat by the time I walked the five kilometers to the highway. One shop after another turned me away. I reached the end of the shops on one side of the highway and crossed to the other, the ocean side.
I was close to calling it quits when I approached a shop owner—an old man with a gray mustache—drinking a can of Tecate Light.
I had only just begun my entreaty when he held up a hand to stop me talking.
“I need a man,” he said. “The job is 24 hours, seven days a week. Our tile comes from Tonalá and Puebla. Sometimes the trucks arrive in the middle of the night. Your job will be security and helping them unload. They don’t cheat with the count. They know if they are off by a single tile I’ll stop doing business with them. The rest of the day, you help with customers and keep the place clean. At noon, you go up the street to bring me my meal. From the little restaurant, Cocina Nanci.”
“When do I sleep?”
“Fits and starts. You’ll adapt.”
“I have a dog.”
The old man gave this some thought. “Big or small?”
“Big. He’s a good dog.”
“Keep him tied,” said the man. “If he bothers my customers with barking, he goes.”
“He won’t bark. Not if I tell him not to.”
“There’s a shed in the back for you to sleep.”
Going from a hut to a shed.
“How much is the pay?”
“We’ll talk about that at the end of the first week. You’ll get two meals a day from the restaurant. Tamales in the morning. Rice and beans at night. All the water you can drink.”
There was a long pause. I saw what was happening. I was being made into a slave.
He took a sip of his beer. “Don’t waste my time.”
There was a man clawing inside me, when I said, “I’ll take it.”
It was late afternoon when I topped the last hill and saw my hut and the half-built house, surrounded by a cinderblock wall, highest on the south side, where a white sack hung slack. Five steps closer and I saw the body of Prudencio, hanging from his chain. I set off at a run, something I hadn’t done in years, hoping I was in time. I grabbed an extension ladder from the yard and scrambled to where Prudencio hung. As soon as I touched his body I knew he was gone.
It's a mystery how the life force disappears. Where does it go?
I undid the clasp from Prudencio’s collar and settled his body on the ground. Maybe he thought if he leaped the wall, he could follow me.
Unwept tears are poison and I was full of poison.
The sun was almost down when I finished burying my dog.
I hotwired a beater, a rusted-out Taurus. I got lucky—it had half a tank of gas—enough to get me to Tijuana. I was wearing my dark green suit, pale yellow shirt, and brown dress boots—clothes I’d brought down with me when I was deported. I’d never worn them in Mexico.
I was done playing in the dirt.
The rpms on the beater were set too high and the car lurched every time I gave it some gas. Even so, it felt good to be behind the wheel.
How do you move up in a cartel? You make yourself useful.
It had been a long time since I’d contacted anyone in Mano de Plata. One call and I had a number. A second call and I had a meeting. At the end of the meeting, I had an assignment. Take back the Calle Jacinto corner in the El Florido neighborhood. There was only one way to do it—assassinate the street dealers from Rey 2000. They were making a push westward from Tecate and if they weren’t stopped they’d be in Tijuana, sparking the kind of war that gets the Mexican army involved.
They handed me a loaded Hi-Point C-9 handgun and eight extra rounds. I was expendable. If I failed I’d get a lesser burial than Prudencio.
I found a parking space for my beater five spaces down from the street corner. There was an OXXO on one corner, an abarottes on the other, a dry cleaner, and a taco stand. It didn’t take long to pick out the dealers selling meth and oxy. I’d been told there was one dealer, two at the most. There were four, probably all armed. Maybe there was a fifth out of sight.
In my other life I’d been a driver. I had no skills with a gun. I didn’t know how good I’d be.
There was only one way I was going to come through this.
I kept the Hi-Point in my pocket as I walked toward them. I tried to give the impression I was heading to the OXXO. In my mind, I pictured myself buying some chips and a six-pack. I was a nobody. No one had to give me a second look.
Parallel to the nearest dealer, a meter away, I pulled my gun and shot him in the neck. I rushed toward the second dealer and pushed the barrel of the gun into his chest and fired. The third was reaching into his belt for something when I rushed him and only fired once my barrel broke the skin on his cheek. The fourth turned to run, but he stumbled. I caught up to him and jammed the gun into his back, over the liver, and fired.
Were they dead? Maybe. I trotted back to my car and drove off at a normal speed.
No one followed.
No one cared about me.
No one cared about them.
That night, with pesos in my pocket, I rented a room in the Cesar Hotel, in the heart of the redlight district. I didn’t have skin hard enough to venture out into the nightclubs. Instead, I bought a 900 mm bottle of Jimador and sat back on the bed in the dark with the window open to the street sounds and took jolt after jolt.
Thinking of Prudencio.
The motherfucker with the gray mustache.
As I drank, dozens of others flowed through my mind.
The bottle got lighter in my hand. The street sounds drifted to almost nothing until finally gray dawn arrived.
It took almost a year to move up a step at a time. From street assassinations to having a crew of my own, a corner of my own, and then a whole neighborhood.
The beater was quickly replaced with a Jeep Rubicon. Women came and went. The hotel room was left behind for a tenth-floor two-bedroom condo in Playas Tijuana. Fuck AA. Fuck the church. I was a drunk and I’d die a drunk. But I kept my drinking behind locked doors. Too many would see it as a weakness. I’m not so sure it is.
The floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean reflect slices of black, slices of light. I slid the doors open and stepped out to the balcony and looked up at the night sky.
Maybe one of those stars is mine.
Maybe stars are sharks in the sky.
Sharks in a deep black ocean.