When it topped the crest of the hill, the diesel engine of the rusted semi seized up like a fat man on a treadmill failing a stress test. Jesús jerked the wheel of the flat lining rig to the right. He tapped the brakes, popped the clutch, and jammed the gear shift into neutral. The truck lurched to a halt on the sandy shoulder of the back country road. The mish mash of scrap iron, old stoves, freezers and junk stacked in the trailer smashed together with a screech. The engine spit sparks through the slits of the grill. Jesús stomped on the gas. Shocked by the surge of fuel, the sputtering motor hesitated, almost died, then belched back to life, spewing black smoke out the vertical exhaust and into the desert night.
Jesús hunched over the steering wheel and cocked his head to the left, straining to hear each chug of the pistons. Through the sole of his lizard-skinned cowboy boots he felt the ragged pulse of the engine.
“Andale, mamacita, andale,” Jesús whispered, patting the dashboard with his left hand while his right gripped the stick.
Jesús eased his boot off the accelerator. The rage in the machine ebbed. The engine relaxed and sank into the rhythm of its natural idle. Jesús shoulders slumped as he took a deep breath. He released the stick, tipped back his straw cowboy hat and slouched into the frayed, cloth covered seat. With the unthinking reflex of a lifelong Catholic he crossed himself and brought the gold crucifix dangling around his neck to his lips.
Goddamn, Jesús thought. Goddamn that was close.
He had traveled too far for this old wreck to die on him now.
He pulled a cigarette from the pressed pocket of the short sleeved shirt his wife Ana had given him the day before. In her nightgown, her usually well-kept black hair a mess, she presented it to him as he dressed in the dark, trying not to wake her. Ana made all his shirts herself, this one out of cotton broadcloth, bleached to a bone white.
“It will be filthy in a day,” he had chided her.
“Shhh, cuate,” she said, putting her index finger to his lips. “You don’t clean them, vato.”
He smiled at the memory of his wife’s gentle rebuke. Ana always dressed him in a clean, starched shirt.
Her husband may be a yonquero, a junkman, she would say, but he would not leave her house dirty.
Jesús’ tattooed hands trembled as he fired up the Marlboro prepared “a la Mexicana,” laced with crack cocaine, and sucked the nasty shit into the deepest part of his soul, holding it in until it blew itself back out with a hacking gasp.
“Yonquero,” he said to himself as he set the smoldering cigarette in the ashtray.
Jesús leaned across to the passenger’s seat, pulled a bottle of El Presidente brandy from the top of a khaki backpack and broke the seal with a sharp twist, downing a shot with a quick tilt.
Jesús winced as he took another hit from the Marlboro and chased it with a gulp of brandy. The twin toxins speed-balled through his body and hit the wall at the base of his brain.
The jolt jarred Jesús. He squinted through the dust drenched windshield at the lights of the city which lay below him, trying to zero in on a single beam. The lights blurred, then popped into focus. Matamoras, Mexico, the drop off point for this load.
He was close. He should be glad. Instead Jesús coughed up a mix of smoke and phlegm and spat it out the rolled-down window of the cab toward Matamoras.
Jesús removed his hat and shook loose his long, sooty hair, letting it fall to his shoulders and over the beaded sweat of his brow. His mind and vision clearing, Jesús stared at the distant glow of the town where he had been born.
As a little boy, Jesús loved Matamoras. But that was when Matamoras was a small town catering to American tourists. That was before the maquiladoras, the factories, built by multinational corporations looking for cheap labor, spread like a creeping vine along the banks of the Rio Grande. Before the colonias, the ugly bloom of the maquiladoras vine, where the sweat shop workers lived in squalor and died of despair. Before the fumes from the blast furnaces of the maquiladoras mingled with the smog and stench created by 500,000 peasants crowded into the colonias. The toxic mix formed a dun-colored cloud of perpetual pollution which hung over Matamoras like an unholy halo.
And it was before the trucks.
By the time Jesús was a teenager the maquiladoras were booming. Every day hundreds of semi trucks lined up south of the Rio Grande waiting their turn. Massive engines churned. Air brakes hissed. The trucks trundled forward a few feet at a time.
Jesús and his friends jumped on the running boards of the rigs and begged for money. Sometimes the drivers would consent. Most of the time they would tell the kids to get lost or ask them if they had a sister who wanted to make a fast buck.
But always the trucks advanced. Their eighteen wheels pawing at the asphalt, they panted through white hot exhausts, anxious to break free from guarded steel starting gates manned by the border patrol. Keen to make their mad dash north to give the gringos the goods they craved, courtesy of the maquiladoras.
Even then, Jesús knew he would never use the products of the maquiladoras. They were not being made for Mexicans. He was ignorant, he knew, but not estupido. He swore he would never work in the maquiladoras. And he knew he did not have to. The truck drivers did not.
When he was sixteen, Jesús got a job at a junk yard. At seventeen he was driving. By the time he was twenty-five he saved enough money to buy a used truck of his own, and he moved to his grandmother’s village south of Matamoras to start his own junk business.
“Yonquero,” the boys of the village jeered as they threw rocks at his crumbling rig. But Jesús did not care.
Pincha ninos, he thought, what did they know? We’ll see if they escape the maquiladoras.
Not long after he moved to the village Jesús met and married Ana. She soon gave birth to the first of seven children. The junkyard business was good for a single man, even a married man, but it did not pay enough for a man with a wife and seven children.
But, if he was willing, there was other work for a man with a truck.
For crammed in the tires and the gas tanks, stashed into the roofs, or secreted in lubricated condoms swallowed by the drivers, the trucks, the workhorses of the maquiladoras, served dual masters. The narcotraficantes, the drug lords, used semis just like the multinational companies: to move their goods north. And they based their shadowy version of maquiladoras, their ephemeral drug trade, in Matamoras for the same reason as the industrial tycoons. Low wages, lack of government interference, and the gringos insatiable appetite for their product.
The corporations, the narcotraficantes, the government, even yonqueros like Jesús, everyone made money. Everybody was happy.
As long as the trucks rolled.
Jesús had only a vague notion of the big money machinations of the conglomerates and the narcos. Like most poor Mexicans, he did not give a damn. It made no difference to him who made how much dinero or how they got it. All he knew was he made more in one of these trips than he did all year hauling legal junk.
Besides no good people were hurt. Only those who wanted drugs did them. And most of them were spoiled gringos. If the Americanos were not smart about it, and got hooked, it was their problem, not his. He knew where to draw the line. Jesús made these trips for the money, for Ana and the children. Para familia.
The crack-laced cigarettes and bottles of El Presidente were a bonus. The narcos always offered him a taste to steady his nerves and make the rough ride more hospitable. Jesús always obliged them. Besides, it was good shit, Colombian, the best.
Just a taste, he told himself. After this trip, no more until the next job.
Jesús took one last drag; one more shot, then rubbed the Marlboro out in the ash tray and set the brandy bottle on the floorboards between his boots. His work-hardened, callused fingers tingled. His thoughts floated to the stars, separating from his body, the final stage of a coke-fueled craft blasting through space.
Jesús sank deeper into his grimy cloth seat and rode the rocket, welcoming the inky darkness of space, the cooling cover of night. It comforted him. Like the dope and the booze. And Jesús needed comforting. Needed the false confidence of a coke rush. Because under the assorted junk piled in the trailer rested one hundred pounds of Colombian cocaine. With a street value of five million dollars in the states. A king’s ransom for most people, an average shipment for the drug lords.
They loaded it last night on an unmarked landing strip twelve hours south of Jesús’ village. As the Colombians placed the last packet in the lead lined false bottom of his trailer, Jesús shone his flashlight on the treasure. Like diamonds peeking through a vein of coal buried deep within the earth, each individually wrapped kilo shimmered when struck by light, the wax paper and plastic wrap producing a mesmerizing sheen. The kilos were packed in the shape of bricks, like white chocolate fudge from a candy store. Stenciled on each were the initials of the dealers to whom the coke was to be delivered when it reached Texas. Jesús did not know these people. Did not need to. Did not want to. He only knew it was his job to get the magical bars, produced by the Colombian kingpin Senor Jose Rivas, to Matamoras, die trying, or face Rivas wrath.
Jesus had not met Rivas, but he feared his power and reach. Years before he traveled with his cousin Ramon to Colombia. Ramon, who everyone called “Pelon” because of his round-as-a-ball hairless head, recommended Jesus as a smuggler. They met in Bogota with a lower level member of the Rivas family who gave Jesus his blessing, then, after a few shots of tequila invited them to tour a cocaine “factory.”
After a helicopter flight to a private ranch outside of Medellin, Jesus and Ramon, eyes wrapped in black blindfolds, were driven by jeep into the thick Colombian jungle. A bumpy, sweat-soaked two-hour ride followed before they came to a grinding halt, their veils lifted. In front of them stood a number of rough hewn huts with tin roofs interspersed with a series of canvas tents. The “factory” covered three or four acres in a man-made meadow ripped from the ever-encroaching jungle by machetes, chain saws, and yellow Caterpillar bulldozers.
As they toured the factory, following the production process step-by-perspiring-step, Jesus occasionally made eye contact with a worker. Sorting cocoa leaves, standing over vats of chemicals, or hosing down the dirt floors to keep the dust from blowing, it made no difference. Their dull eyes matched the defeated stare of quiet desperation Jesus saw in the peasants who labored in the maquiladoras of Matamoras. Embarrassed, Jesus kept his eyes to the floor.
But when they came to the last tent, Jesus stared unashamedly. Before him lay a pile of cocaine, the finished product. A ton, their guide said. Men wrapped the coke into kilogram bricks, marked them for shipment, and placed them in wooden boxes. Pallets stacked with boxes taken from the previous piles, awaited their turn to be hoisted by a Caterpillar forklift and loaded onto waiting trucks.
“Iiy,” their guide said in Spanish, “now you see? Now you know? Senor Rivas deals in millions. He don’t give a shit ‘bout yonqueros like you. You fuck with him, you fuck with his production, you die. You see? You work hard. Make your deliveries. You make a lot of money. Now you see?”
“Si, si,” Jesus and Ramon said. “Comprende, comprende.”
“Bueno,” he said as he scooped handful of coke from the pile, plopped it on a table and offered them a snort. Pelon, who was more like a big brother than a cousin to Jesus, his protector since they were boys, went first to show it was safe, bald head shiny with sweat. The three men took turns until the coke was gone, contract signed.
Goddamn Rivas, Jesus thought. Goddamn Matamoras and the maquiladoras. Que es la diferencia?
Jesús flicked on the cab light and checked the time on his counterfeit Rolex. Ten o’clock. Ahead of schedule. He bent the mirror on the the driver’s side door towards him and laughed. His almond colored skin was flushed and his brown, wide set eyes bugged out from the lids, looking as if they might detach from their sockets and tumble down the slope of his high set cheek bones. Those gumball sized eyes reflected his state of mind. Dead head stoned. Better to sit tight for a while and come down to earth.
He flipped the dome light and the high beam headlights off and turned on the parking lights. Nobody bothered truckers parked at the side of the road unless they had their distress flares burning. And he picked this road because it was lightly traveled. He had only encountered half dozen cars in the last hour and only one aroused suspicion, a battered red Ford pickup which trailed him for a half-hour before passing and speeding out of sight. Saturday night drunks, Jesus figured. He had not seen any policia in six. The policia usually patrolled the four-lane highways where a driver never knew where, when, or why they might stop him. Sometimes the policia wanted a bribe or coke, and sometimes they were doing their job. Regardless, Jesús took no unnecessary chances and drove on the local farm to market roads whenever he could.
Jesús grabbed the khaki backpack and dug into its depths, shoving aside the .45 caliber semiautomatic supplied to him by the Colombians in favor of his boom box. Jesús always kept the gun in reach, just in case, but in all his years of smuggling he never fired it. Or ever felt the need. But the boom box, the Marlboros, the brandy, those were necessities.
He rested the radio on the dash and tuned the dial until the high pitched wail of an accordion spilled out of the speakers. The “squeeze box” served as the siren call of Tejano music. Since before Jesús was born, Tejano had served as the soundtrack of the border. For Jesús, the Tejano tradition of fandangos in the cantinas on Saturday nights was one of the few things of real value to come out of border towns like Matamoras.
Jesús cranked the volume and bopped his head to the beat of the bajo sexto, a Mexican guitar, as Flaco Jimenez, the king of the Tejano accordion players, blazed through a series of chords. The shrill, sharp struck notes zinged Jesús’ soul, zooming him higher.
“I, yi, yi, yi,,” Jesús cut loose his best Mexican grito, as he patted the steering wheel in rhythm to the staccato beat.
With the mirror and his thoughts turned inward and the radio reverberating, Jesús never heard or saw the red pickup which passed him earlier ease off the road a hundred yards behind him. The men inside had laid in wait and followed the junk truck for miles – headlights doused. Jesus never heard the two men creeping up from the rear, the crunch of gravel under the heels of their Tony Llamas, or the zip of their switch blades, as they came to a crouching halt on either side of the cab.
One was a rangy Indian, as red as the clay from which he came, who enjoyed the slice of a sharp knife. The other, a stocky Mexican, who could do little except drive a semi. As Jesús shook his feet, dancing in his seat, the two men waited, as stationary and silent as the moonlike landscape surrounding them.
“I, yi, yi, yi,” Jesús wailed.
The Indian ripped open the driver’s side door. Its rusted metal moaned as the Indian yanked Jesús from his seat, jerking him by the collar like a dog on a leash. Jesús’ dancing feet kicked the brandy bottle he had set between them. It rolled out the door and shattered on the gravel road. The Indian shoved Jesús down to his knees. With his left hand he snapped Jesús’ head up and back, bracing it against his turquoise belt buckle. With his right, he slashed Jesús’ throat with one sinewy swipe of his blade.
Warm blood gushed from Jesús neck and soaked Anna’s starched, white shirt a crimson hue. The big Indian broke his hold, leaving Jesús, on his knees, arms bent, palms turned upward, to stare at the spreading pool of blood beneath him. Jesús wavered for a second, then fell face first into the shard remains of the brandy bottle.
The Indian and the Mexican moved efficiently. They did not speak. The Mexican slid behind the wheel of the semi. The Indian stepped over Jesús and waved back at the pickup driver, his brother. The high beams of the pickup flashed on as it raced up to Jesús and halted short of his quivering torso. Jesús’ fingers fluttered with each spasm of the severed artery. Together the brothers rolled him over. They slipped off his boots and his watch and snapped the gold crucifix from its chain. They left him his Marlboros and driver’s license.
One grabbed Jesús’ arms, the other his ankles. They flung him into an arroyo which ran along side the road. They did not bother to conceal him. In a few days when the buzzards circled and the policia arrived they would find Jesús, with his crack-laced cigarettes and his worthless ID. All they needed. No need to investigate. Just another drug running trucker who got what he deserved.
“Pincha yonquero,” the Indian with the knife said as he spat on Jesús.
Laughing, the brothers jumped into the battered pickup and drove off, following the already moving semi and its fortune of coke, vanishing as swiftly as they appeared.
Jesús lay in the ditch on his back, his arms splayed, legs crumpled, eyes cast towards the heavens. His joy-filled singing replaced by gurgling gasps. The stars blinked brilliantly as darkness enveloped him, soothing him, as the coke numbed him.
He heard the glory of Flaco’s accordion, its notes crisp and clean, as Flaco’s band played on a Saturday night at the local cantina. Ana appeared, black hair caressing her bare shoulders, a red peasant dress trimmed with white flowers clinging to her damp body. Skimming over the dusty planks of the mesquite wood floor, Jesús and Ana danced, Tejano style, their children cheering them on.
In the distance, Jesus junk truck rumbled north.