by Seth Harp
When a boy like Javier couldn’t have the girl he wanted, he was liable to get into a fistfight or some other stunt. He would act out a drama of his emotions, even if no one apart from him understood the significance of his truculent and often dangerous actions.
He had some money for the first time in his life and he blew half of it, more than ten-thousand dollars, on a new motorcycle. Then he rode for Mexico. The border town of Nuevo Laredo was only four hours south on Interstate 35. He took nothing but the clothes he was wearing and what he had in his pockets on that May morning.
It was late afternoon by the time he reached the international bridge over the Rio Grande. Soldiers stood guard on the Mexican side. Javier studied them as he waited in the bleary miasma of hot carbon dioxide, walking his motorcycle forward in the long line of idling vehicles, not so much their old, scuffed rifles as the cut of their uniforms, the condition of their boots, their haircuts, their faces.
He parked his motorcycle on the curb of a plaza and rested on a bench that had a fresh coat of green paint. The flagstones were littered with palm fronds from a recent thunderstorm. The plaza smelled of fried dough and wet pavement. When a reddish torpor fell over everything, like the settling of a heavy gas, he could not even finish his cigarette. He lay down, overcome with fatigue, and closed his eyes.
He heard water running somewhere. The laughter of children. The lamentations of a faroff Tejano band. Gunfire? No, fireworks. It had to be. He closed his eyes again, to a childhood memory of lighting firecrackers in some other Mexican plaza, some six or seven years before.
When he woke from a light doze, he found a young man who smelled of cologne seated on the bench next to him, though other nearby benches were empty. Javier got up and left with a hitch in his step, one of his legs asleep.
He crossed the street and went along a sidewalk where orange trees hung over wrought iron gates and whitewash flaked from cinderblock walls. He was refreshed from sleeping, and there was something he loved about the homely streetscape at nightfall, just before the lights came on. The blue dusk in the dirt lane. The burnt sweetness of trash smoke. He spied a neon beer sign in a barred window. Below it another sign said, “no drugs, no weapons.” He went in, through an oddly narrow door that somehow seemed to hinge open on the wrong side.
The barman was a wary-looking character in a curious leather vest. When Javier ordered a whisky in Spanish, he didn’t even nod. He took down a glass and poured a drink. Javier took a sip of the bourbon and looked around. The bar was dark and empty and smelled like a bar. A Mexican flag hung on the far wall, and elsewhere there were light beer posters of models in bikinis. They had cardboard over the front windows, but a bulb screwed into the wall illuminated a plastic table where an Anglo with slicked-back hair sat reading a tabloid. He wore a pressed shirt with embroidered flowers, black jeans, and stingray boots with underslung heels. There was a cowboy hat of lacquered straw on the table by his hand. He looked up and raised his beer bottle from the table.
“Howdy,” he said.
Javier nodded and turned back to the bar. He heard the man’s chair scrape and the echo of his heels on the floor. The hat and paper came down on the bar and one finger signaled for a beer.
The man said, “Where you coming from, partner?”
“No hablo Ingles,” Javier mumbled, without looking up. He was in no mood for company.
“Oh, I see. You don’t speak English.” The man had a country accent, and he spoke in a high, warbling voice, a faint whistle punctuating his sibilant consonants. “Well, I beg your pardon,” he said, leaning towards Javier with his elbows on the bar. “I guess you stole that motorcycle with the Texas dealer plates you got parked over by the plaza.” He was not old, but when he smiled his tanned face was deeply lined.
The barman brought a beer smoking whitely from the neck and handed it to the man, who straightened up and took a long pull. Javier was looking at the paper on the bar, El Nuevo Alarma. At first Javier could not be sure what the cover showed. A dead man’s face encrusted in blood, that much was clear. Then he saw the man’s head was completely severed, lying on one ear on a black plastic garbage bag. A pair of severed hands lay crossed on his back, duct tape around the wrist. The headline said ¡Guillotinado!
The man saw him looking at it and said, “My interest is professional, not prurient.”
“What?” Javier said.
“What unit are you in?” The man referred to Javier’s buzzed head, his tanned neck and hands, the dog tags under his shirt, and the desert boots he wore with his jeans.
Javier didn’t answer. He held up his glass for another Jim Beam.
The man carried himself like he owned the place, with one foot on the stool, his knee propped up, his arms crossed over the knee. He said, “Well, let me ask you another question. What are you doing in Mexico, soldier?”
Javier paused mid-sip. He quaffed the rest of the whiskey and slid the glass away. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Is it possible that you are deserting?
“What? I’m on leave, motherfucker. Who the fuck are you?”
“Leave outside the contiguous United States?” the man queried, in his solicitous country warble. “Does your CO know your whereabouts? I assume you notified rearguard.” Every s he pronounced was a whistle. “Hey, what’s your name, soldier?”
“Fuck you, that’s my name.” Javier stood and dealt a few bills onto the bar.
“You going someplace?”
Javier crossed the room to the door.
“Headed back to your bike? They’re waiting for you. Four of them.”
“You better cowboy up if you aim to hit the streets after dark. When did you come here last?”
Javier pushed the door open a crack and eyed the sidewalk under weak streetlamps. In the gutter a dog gorged, snarling into a styrofoam clamshell full of castoff fast food. A new black truck cruised by, the windows rattling from the bass of the stereo. Javier turned back to the stranger at the bar. “If it’s true what you say, I got something for them.”
“What, the pocketknife in your boot? No te pongas chulo.”
Javier spat through the doorway into the street. But he did not go out.
“A knife ain’t shit to them boys. Damn if you ain’t gringofied, for a pocho.” The man turned back to the counter. “What you need is a strap,” he said more quietly, turning a page in his paper.
Javier let the door swing shut. “Is that the deal? You want to sell me a gun?”
The man turned another page, to a black-and-white photograph of a young girl showering. “If you need to equip yourself,” he said, raising his eyebrows, not looking up, “we can always talk. But I deal in wholesale, amigo. I’m not after a thing from you.” he nodded to the stool at his elbow. “Set down.”
“I gotta go. How did you know I had a motorcycle? Are you following me?”
“Negative, partner. Take a look out the window.” He indicated where he had been sitting before. “You can see straight to the plaza. I saw you park your bike, saw you come up. I knew you for a soldier ‘fore you walked in the door. Said to myself hey, here comes another Texan. Why don’t you set down, damn. It’s not like I get much company in this shithole.” He looked genuinely aggrieved.
Javier took a step forward with his hands in his pockets. He pulled the stool out with his foot out and sat.
The man ordered a bottle of whiskey from the barmen, who may or may not have understood their English. Javier sat with his wrists crossed while the man poured two tumblers nearly to the halfway mark, took one, and nodded to the other.
“I’m Jeremy,” the man said.
Javier took the drink. “I’m Joe.”
“Mucho gusto, Joe.” Jeremy tossed back the drink and grimaced, sucking his teeth.
Javier matched him by taking his whiskey down in one slug.
Jeremy said, “You didn’t answer my question, Private. Corporal?”
Javier wiped his eyes, examining the label of the bottle. It was half ethanol, proof one hundred and one. “Private,” he wheezed.
“You didn’t answer my question, Private.”
“When was the last time you were here?”
“In Nuevo Laredo?”
“In Nuevo Leon. In Tamaulipas. When was the last time you crossed the border?”
“I don’t know. It’s been awhile.”
“I take it you are not familiar with the situation.”
“I don’t know, man. I’ve been in Iraq for the last seven months.”
“Well. At the moment there’s a little misunderstanding between two entrepreneurial organizations as to which of them owns this town. Hence the inadvisability of your little unarmed stroll. How long have you been in town?”
“I just got here.”
“Well. You might hear it tonight. Trucks peeling out. Three-way gunfights up and down the avenues. You won’t know what the hell’s going on. The narcos wear uniforms and the army pushes dope.”
Javier took out his pack of cigarettes and lit up.
Jeremy said, “Hell, purely in terms of body count, you’re probably better off in Iraq than here right now. Two weeks ago, there was a gunbattle in downtown Reynosa that lasted six hours. Left thirty people dead. Closed three international bridges. And the police, shit. They would no sooner intervene than you or me.” He looked at Javier. “You ever seen a six-hour gunfight?”
Javier didn’t answer the question. He stared ahead, smoke uncurling from the cigarette, straightening out, flowing past his eyes.
Jeremy refilled his glass and went on talking. “You can hardly sell an AK-47 down here anymore,” he said. “Nor an AR-15. Market’s saturated. These young commandantes, they want RPGs and crew-served weapons. They just started bolting steel plates onto their trucks for armor. I believe they got that from watching y’all boys on CNN. I seen a F-350 with an external rollcage and a fifty-caliber in the bed, said they got the gun from a Texas National Guardsman. Not one week ago, this gentleman showed me thirty-thousand dollars in a duffel bag. You know what he wanted?” Jeremy waited for Javier to look up. “A surface-to-air missile.”
Javier rubbed his brow.
“This was in Brownsville.”
“What did you tell him?”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “I told him I didn’t aspire to be a high-value target.”
“That’s when the gringos put a fatwa on your head. They got drones over the Rio Grande now, did you know that?”
Javier shook his head no, slowly, and Jeremy went on, his voice increasingly lubricated as the whiskey-line in the bottle descended. He said that Iraq and Mexico did not even look all that different, and he sketched for his mind a vision of hazy concrete slums, dirt sewers and palm trees, rubbly skylines smoking against the outer desert. Dead bodies floating the polluted river to their respective Gulfs, Persian and of Mexico.
“Both of these peoples must be punished,” Jeremy said. “Punished for the wickedness of America.”
Javier said, “That don’t even make sense.”
“You don’t know God very well.”
Jeremy went on, holding forth on the subject of empires, state failure, warlords, blood feuds, Sunni and Shia, Zetas and Negros, and of the competitive advantage excessive cruelty proffers in the black marketplaces of the post-industrial state of nature. The practice of beheading was a parallel of particular interest, and he traced its pedigree in Mexico from the tzompantli of Chichen Itza and Tenochtitlan to the gangster horror show of the present day.
“You see heads impaled on fences, hanging from trees by the hair, you start to wonder what the hell century it is.”
He claimed to have been inside one of these safehouses, the scene of a carne asada, or barbecue, as they call their almost ceremonial torture-murders. “Looks like somebody slaughtered a steer, and setting in the middle of it is a plastic chair. What’s left of the guy is hanging from a chain. All these tools and shit laying around. Cameras on tripods. Sheets of plastic taped up. And these guys are fucking partying. Coke. Whiskey. Fucking accordion music. Girls standing around. I’ve seen some horrible shit, compadre, but I thought I was going to faint. They wanted me to see what they were capable of. I will never have another good dream.”
Javier brought his drink to his lips with trembling fingers. It was empty, and he set it aside. The room had begun to list at the periphery. He was dizzy with thirst, but the bartender wouldn’t look up from the little television babbling under the bar.
“Let me tell you what’s next,” Jeremy said. He had sidled up to Javier with his elbows on the bar and his shoulders up to his ears. “What follows logically. One day soon, the newest, most badass boss of the day will lift the lid off his barbecue pit, and what do you think will be sitting there on the grille, next to the onions and the jalapeños?” Jeremiah held up a finger, one brow arched over a wide and delirious eye. “And will he partake of that flesh? The economic argument for it is obvious. To say nothing of the historical precedent.”
A tone sounded in Javier’s pocket, a text message. His head was humming and he nearly fumbled the phone getting it out. He flipped it open, closing one eye to reconcile the doubled display. It was the girl he had been thinking of all this time, since he had gone out to buy the motorcycle. He flipped the phone shut. “I gotta get out of here,” he said. He almost fell getting down from the stool. He dealt a couple of bills onto the bar and called for a bottle of water.
Jeremy was obviously loathe to lose his audience. “Well hell,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you that bad.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Javier said, unscrewing the cap of the water bottle the barman brought. “A bunch of street criminals, they don’t mean shit to me. I’m a professional soldier. Plus, not all these people are like that. Why would these guys fuck with me if I’m not messing with their business, or disrespecting them?”
Jeremy snorted. “Sheeit. You’re outside the wire, boy. You better recognize.”
“Let me tell you something else,” Javier said, polishing off the water, wiping his mouth on his shoulder. “All this crazy talk, to me it sounds like some kind of sick wishful thinking.”
“Oh, indeed,” Jeremy said, leaning back on the bar. “Indeed it is. Yes, you are correct. I do so love this shit.” He gestured widely around him. “And now let me tell you something, my young friend.”
“I’m not your friend.”
Jeremy ignored him. Sunk in the solipsism of deep inebriety, he was intent on making his points as they occurred to him. “There are seven billion people on this planet, which is fit for one billion,” he said. “One billion at most. A hundred million would be a whole lot better. But we’re headed for ten billion, amigo, pronto. I have seen the future, and it is an ultraviolent landfill. You been in Iraq seven months? You ain’t seen shit, boy. When you were beating off in boot camp, I was busting caps in Kandahar. I was in Mogadishu, when you were in kindergarten. You’re a pussy compared to me.” Jeremy drew a deep breath in through his nostrils. “But you know that. And you know I wish you well. So mark what I say. A trickle of dirty water in a concrete ditch. Slums rattling with gunfire. That’s the future. Permanent war, all over the globe. And hot as all hell.”
“Whatever, dude. Thanks for the whiskey.”
“Learn to love it, that’s my advice. Learn to love it, as I have done. That’s all you can do.”
“More of your crazy talk.” Javier said, concentrating on his footsteps to the door.
“The day of tribulation is at hand,” Jeremy called across the room. “Behold the cleansing fire. Hell yeah I love war.” He was nearly shouting now. “The state of nature is my sovereign. I’m a spy of the wilderness behind enemy lines.”
But Javier was already out the door.