Chapter 52

After a while, the truck finally stops and we are let out at a border crossing guarded by several border patrol agents with shotguns. They march us all through a gate, and I’m back in Mexico. Every little rock in the ground stabs my feet.

My mom is home now, but I don’t have any money for a phone call. I find myself back in front of the only place I know someone: El Burrito Crazy. It’s well past morning now. If I don’t get home soon, my job is toast.

Cheech looks like he’s actually surprised to see me. He’s staring at me like I’m a naked monkey and I just pooped on his floor. I don’t think he really knows what to make of the fact that I’m back. That makes two of us, really.

There is an elderly couple eating at a table in the middle of the dining room, and they’re staring at me too. Then they look over my right shoulder. I look at Cheech and he’s looking too, so I turn around and immediately see what they’re all staring at. I’m dressed exactly like the guy on the wall mural, only I’m missing the holster with burritos for guns. I hate my life.

“So, It’s not hard enough to cross the border with your famous Mexican name, you gotta dress like that too?”

How do I even try to explain this?

“I know I told you that the other clothes could make it hard for you to cross the border, but you thought this made you look less Mexican?”

I can’t even respond. My mouth, my brain, my spirit, all feel used up.

“AAAAAW I get it . . .” He looks around wildly. “There’s a camera somewhere right? Of course, God! It’s so obvious.“ He searches across the street and looks hard at the parked cars. “I mean yeah, I knew it, I mean, Nobody, not even a gringo could be that big of a . . .” He’s not finding any cameras, and nobody is jumping out of their hiding place to confess they’re caught. He looks at me, and sees I’m not smiling.

“A moron? Go ahead—say it.” The confusion never leaves his face. I tug at my shirt. “These aren’t mine!”

”Okay, I get it. But you have to admit, you’re like some kind of a Mexican boomerang or something. I never seen someone have such a hard time getting across the border before.” I’m still not smiling. “Why are you dressed like that? Don’t you want to go home?”

“More than anything, but your friend, the one who would get me across the border for free—“

Paco made you dress like that?”

“No, he made me carry drugs across the border.” Cheech motions for me to keep it down and nods his head towards the elderly couple. “It was the border guards that made me dress like this.”

“Ay-yay-yay! Their punishments are getting really harsh.”

“They did it because of my name.”

“They punished you because your name is Fran . . . cis . . . co?”

I turn around, not wanting to look at him any more. I see my reflection in the front door. I look like a Mexican ghost-of-Christmas-past. Through the door I see a guy walking on the other side of the street, and he looks familiar. I focus to get a better look. “That’s him!”

I dash out the door, and run across the street, not caring about traffic, and tackle the guy on the sidewalk. I sit up and begin pulling my boots off his feet.

Cheech comes running after me, albeit a bit slower and more concerned about not being hit by cars from either direction. He tries to pull me off the guy but I refuse to loosen the grip on my boot. The guy who’s wearing them actually helps and the boot comes off his foot. I show it to Cheech. “These are my boots, remember?” I give it to him to hold, while I jump up and tackle the guy again before he can get away. Then I begin taking the other boot off of him. “These are my boots, asshole.” I look into his face and feast off his fear—his guilt. He rattles something off in Spanish.

“Pancho, relax. He didn’t know these were yours, man. They were in his bag at the jail so he put them on.”

I stop pulling so hard, and the boot slips off. I hold it in my hand and look at the terrified little Mexican guy. He looks like he’s about fifty years old. He’s probably someone’s grandpa. Now I feel like the guilty one.

“I think I got some clothes at the restaurant you can have. Relax Pancho, you’re starting to freak me out.”

I sit down and the thief stands up, ready to run. I begin to put the boots on, without socks. A hand appears with two white socks, browned to perfection. Now I feel awful. A deep sadness hugs my body. “Sorry. Esta Boot-as es me padres.” For some reason, Cheech feels the need to translate my Spanish.

Cheech offers to buy “Jose” something to drink, and Jose looks at me to see if it is okay with the crazy gringo in the Mexican ice cream man suit.

Cheech pours us all a lemonade, and we sit there, drinking and not saying anything. I feel the cool lemonade slide down my throat and coat my stomach. Slowly, my depression begins to loosen its grip on me. I never really thought about it before, but it’s pretty difficult to be depressed when you’re drinking ice-cold lemonade on a bright sunny day.

They start talking about something, but all I hear is the conversation going off inside my head about getting home, my job, how do I get ahold of my mom . . .  Cheech interrupts my trance. “You gonna be in a parade or what?”

Somehow, he can make this all seem comical. “We got caught.”

“I’ll bet. One look at you—“

“No, you don’t understand.” Jose, jumps in and explains to Cheech what happened. Apparently, he too, had been forced to carry the drugs, and this was so common that the police just dropped us back at the border. They probably can’t prosecute all the unwilling drug mules they catch, and if they did, what would the charges be? We were forced to do it; guns literally to our heads. We weren’t bad people, we don’t have criminal records, and we wouldn’t have done it otherwise. We weren’t even getting paid for it. We were victims too. Victims that just happened to be carrying illegal drugs. Guilty and not guilty, all at the same time.

Life sure gets complicated once you become a Mexican. It seems the world is made up of lots of shades of grey that you never knew existed before. Black and white, hot and cold, legal and illegal. Those are just extremes. I think I’ll stay in school a bit longer and get a degree. Maybe by the time I graduate college, I’ll be ready for all the grey areas, exceptions, and technicalities life is going to be throwing at me.

We finish our lemonades while Cheech shoots off a couple more jokes at my expense, but they’re pretty funny so we all laugh and generally perk back up.

Jose says he has a cousin who is a coyote. He was on his way to his house when he got kidnapped by that drug gang. His cousin was going to take him over the border at a place in the fence where it’s safe to cross. Hey, that was why the driver was in such a hurry to get back to the van. The other people inside might try to escape if he’s gone too long. “Yo no tango denero,” I tell him.

“He says he will talk to him for you.” Cheech translates.  “He says his cousin is a good guy.” I look at Cheech. I might as well go with Jose, I don’t know what else to do.

Cheech goes into the back of the restaurant and returns with a pair of jeans, a blue and white striped long-sleeved shirt and an old pair of tennis shoes. “I collect clothes for the needy who come by. You’re not the only person to come to El Burrito Crazy looking for help. You’re just the only gringo this week.” He smiles. “When people can’t get through the border, they are usually broke, hungry, and need just about everything. I prefer to give clothes I collect from friends and neighbors. I can’t afford to give food and money to everyone who shows up at my door. I’d be out of business in no time.”

Cheech hands me the clothes and gives the shoes to Jose, who is very thankful. Cheech is a great guy. The look on his face doesn’t even say, hey look at me, I’m a nice guy. It’s more like, here, sorry, this is all I can do.

“Take some water,” he says, handing me a couple of bottled waters that he sells.  “You’ll need it.”

“Thanks, Cheech.”

“No problem-o Pancho. Hey you think I can put up a sign that says Pancho Villa ate here?”

“Shut up.” I head toward the bathroom to change. I can’t wait to get out of these clown clothes.


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