Today should be the best day of my life. Here I stand, in the sunshine after two hard years in a Mexican prison, breathing the air of freedom. Only it’s not the best day, not even close.
“Hey gringo, you coming or not? I got room for one more. This train leaves for Juarez in five.”
I don’t want to get into the back of the dusty Toyota idling at the curb. I know what will happen if I do. I should just turn and walk away, make my way back to the border and hope they’ll let me through. The problem is I’ve never been one to hope. Life has been one swift kick to the nuts after another, and guys like me don’t get the luxury of hope. Every fiber of my being screams no as I throw my duffle into the rusted out truck bed and hop in. We pull out and I watch the shacks of corrugated tin and the mangy dogs, all ribs and teeth, fade into a cloud of dust.
“So Raul, this bolillo is your man? What did you do, drag him behind the truck? He looks beat to shit.”
“No, no hefe, he’s the real deal. His face just looks like that. He was a boxer I think.”
The boss turns to me. “What do you say gringo? You up for some work?”
I’m standing in a warehouse that’s hot enough to bake bread and sweat is running down the back of my legs. The fat man behind the desk is some kind of mid-level shit kicker and judging by the way the others avoid his stare, he got Cartel weight behind him. I look him in the eyeand don’t blink.
“I just need some cash to get back across the border. If the pay is good, I’m your man.”
The fat man scratches his hairy jowls and takes a minute to think. I see the wheels turning, they’re small wheels, rusty with broken teeth. He’s wondering if I can be trusted, if I can do the work. Raul is sweating bullets, his balls are on the chopping block for vouching for me. Poor kid thinks he owes me for saving his ass in the prison yard, but I didn’t bust those guys up to save him, I did it to get some time in the hole. I needed space to think. Time to plan without the worry of a shank in my kidney.
“Alright, bolillo, it’s your lucky day. Hector will fill you in on the details, you just make sure you do what you’re told and you’ll get paid.”
“How much?” I say.
The fat man squints at me, intrigued by my lack of fear. “Enough to get you home. Comprende?”
The job is simple enough, we’re supposed to hit a convoy of panel vans moving up through Juarez from the south. I have no idea what’s inside and nobody bothers to tell me. There are five of us, and Hector is running point. He’s a short, barrel chested man, ex-military with a temper. Raul and two other kids barely out of their short pants are crouched in the ditch on the other side of the road. I’ve got a pair of bolt cutters and my job is to open up the truck after the others flash some guns and pull the driver over. My gut tells me this is a poorly constructed plan, but when I try to say something to Hector about it, he spits on my boots and tells me to shut the fuck up. A clear message in any language.
I hear a rumble coming from down the sun baked highway and spot the convoy in the distance. Hector gives the signal to get ready and after the first three trucks pass through, he and the others step out into the road with some antique AK-47s pointed in the air. The last truck slides to a stop and Hector yanks the driver out by the neck and puts a bullet in his head right there on the cracked pavement. Raul and the boys watch the road in case the other trucks decide to turn around and I run to the back and cut the padlock off the roll door.
I nearly fall over myself backing up when the door opens. It’s full of bodies. They’re stacked like firewood and wrapped in plastic. The stench is so overwhelming that I gag and wretch until a breeze kicks up and I get a reprieve of fresh air. Hector comes around the back with a blue bandana wrapped around his face. He doesn’t seem surprised by the cargo.
“Alright gringo, time to earn your pesos. We are looking for a man with this tattoo.” He holds up a Polaroid picture. It shows a crown of thorns etched in black ink on a muscled forearm.
“What, you want me to unwrap all these rotten bodies?”
Hector tosses me a folding knife. “Just slit the bags and look at the arms.”
“You got to be fucking kidding right?”
Hector points the Soviet era rifle at my chest. “Fucking do it gringo.”
I flip open the knife and jump up onto the bumper of the panel van. The hot stench of rotting flesh is thick as soup and sticks to my clothes and claws at my eyes. I cut open the first bag and vomit down the front of my shirt. I find the arms and give them a quick look over. No tattoos. I move on down the line trying to hold my breath as best as I can.
“Hurry up motherfucker. Time is almost up,” Hector says looking down the highway toward the horizon.
I’ve worked through the first two stacks but come up nil. Half way through the third pile of bodies I spot what I’m looking for. The ink stands out a tangle of black in stark contrast to the bluish white skin around it. I yell for Hector and he gets Raul to climb up and help me pull the bag down to the ground. Hector inspects the body while one of the other kids pulls up in the station wagon that serves as our ride.
Raul and I lift the bag into the back and Hector puts a blanket over it. He makes the sign of the cross and mutters something under his breath.
“Alright, everybody over to the ditch, we have one last thing to take care of,” Hector says looking at his watch. The driver gets out and joins the rest of us in the red dirt by the side of the highway. My gut’s screaming that something’s not right. I see Hector’s finger on the trigger of the AK as he walks over and it dawns on me what’s about to happen. I quietly pull the folding knife from my pocket and take several steps away from Raul and the others who are high fiving and oblivious to the cleanup that’s about to take place.
The first shot splits Raul’s head wide open, spraying the others in a mist of blood and bone. They fall to their knees with their hands in the air and Hector opens up on them, mowing them down. I move in quick, leaping from the ditch and manage to get the knife into Hector’s neck before he can swing the barrel around on me. The gun goes off next to my head and I feel my right ear drum rupture. Hector’s a strong bastard and he struggles and fights until he bleeds out, nearly pulling my hand off the handle of the knife in his throat. When he’s dead I lay there in the blazing sun, exhausted, covered in blood and surrounded by dead bodies, new and old.
I should’ve just made my way to the border, let the guards work me over and try to explain why I didn’t have a passport. Sure it might mean some more prison time on the other side, but at least I’d be out of this shit stain of a city. I should’ve, but I didn’t, and now I have to let this thing play out. I swear, if I’m still breathing at the end of this, maybe I’ll buy a lottery ticket, my luck will have surely turned.
“Where the fuck is Hector?” I hear Hefe say in Spanish to sweaty man in a police uniform. “He’s late and if we don’t have the package, it’s our heads on a stick come morning.”
The sun is starting to go down behind the hills of dirt and rock and the warehouse has taken on a burnt orange glow. I’m crouched behind a pallet of fertilizer with Hector’s AK waiting for the darkness to settle in.
“He’ll be here Miguel, Hector’s our best man.”
The fat man takes a puff from a cigarillo and leans back in his chair. “It doesn’t feel right. He should have called by now.”
The two men hear a commotion outside and turn to the large roll door. It looks like the guards have found my little gift. The man in the police uniform tells the boss to stay put and goes out to see what’s going on. The sun has slipped below the horizon now and I move from one shadow to another, closing the distance between us.
The policeman comes back in carrying a plastic garbage bag in one hand. His face is pale and his jaw slack. He places the bag on the boss’s desk and opens it up. The fat man flinches when he sees Hector’s head, the eyes rolled back and the tongue out and swollen purple.
I step out of the darkness and put a single round in the cop’s head, sending him crashing to the concrete floor. The boss goes for something in the bottom desk drawer but thinks better of it when I close in. The shot echoes off the sheet metal walls alerting the two guards outside who rush in and pull their weapons on me.
“Tell them to back away or I’ll pop your skull right now.”
The boss takes another puff from his cigarillo and flashes a toothy, yellow grin. “Now bolillo, why would I do that?”
I pull another plastic bag from over my shoulder and toss it on the desk. It falls open and the arm with the tattoo rolls out onto a stack of papers. “If you want the rest of this bastard, you’ll do as I say.”
Guys like me don’t have the luxury of hope. We go through life looking over our shoulders, waiting for the bullet or the blade that will finally send us to hell to face the awful things we’ve done. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised when the border agent took a quick glance at my new passport and waved me through. He didn’t even give my duffle bag a second look. It wouldn’t have been hard to find the eighty grand stuffed in the lining.
As the barbed wire and concrete fade into the dust behind me, for the first time in years I look ahead to what might be. For an instant I push out the doubt and let the empty space in my head fill with the strange and unfamiliar thought that today just might be the best day of my life.