How does the wind make the desert seem even lonelier? Is it the eerie howling or is it because the desert’s vastness and beauty is hidden by the blowing dust? It’s been blowing constantly for weeks and I’ve had it up to here.
I’m tired of being cooped up inside of my truck watching the world blow by. I should quit bitching about the weather and introduce myself. My name is Bob Garcia. I’m a U.S. Border Patrol agent assigned to the Deming, NM Station in the El Paso Sector. Today I’m on routine patrol on the dustiest road in what has to be the loneliest part of the whole US/Mexican border. There are probably lonelier stretches of border in Texas but this it from here to the west coast. I’ve been with the border patrol just over 18 months and this is my first assignment after the academy. I’m from San Diego, Santee actually, but San Diego sounds better and people know it. I kicked around in a couple dead-end jobs for two years after I got out the Marines before I was accepted with the USBP.
I like everything about my job except the occasional boredom, this damn wind and a bad case of homesickness for my old Marine buddies and my ex, Linda, back in Santee. Linda is history. She’s married now and I’ve got to get over her. But, the loneliness and boredom of my job doesn’t help at all. I have too much time to think about her and feel sorry for myself. Linda, damn her.
I’m trying to get Linda off my mind when my radio chirps, “Agent Garcia, there’s some activity in your zone about two clicks west and a half a click or so north of your current location. Check it out.”
“Roger control, I’m on it.” I step on the gas eager for some action. There’s nothing like racing through the desert to get your mind off old could-have-beens.
Bouncing around at fifty miles an hour over bumpy, rutted desert trails in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is actually fun. I’m dodging yuccas and boulders like a week-end yahoo. I screech to a halt close to where the activity was reported.
“Control, this is Garcia, I’m at the designated location.”
“Take a look around. Our sensors picked up what looks like four illegals on foot right where you’re standing about ten minutes ago. They’re off the screen now but they’ve got to be there somewhere. Let me know what you find. Over.”
“Roger control, I’ll keep you posted.”
This is going to be fun, a game of hide and seek in this sand storm. Maybe calling this a sand storm is a bit of an exaggeration. Whatever, I’m out of my truck and in pursuit. Pursuit of what? Four illegals probably even more fed up with this wind than me. It’s not blowing hard enough to cover their ten-minute-old footprints. Four people will leave an easy path to follow. Yeah, but where are they?
I got ‘em. They’re headed down this arroyo to my left. I hope I don’t lose the footprints on the rocks at the bottom of this wash. I see ‘em; there they go … up the wash past that mesquite. I jog along in their footprints, pass the mesquite and come to a bend with a small cliff that shields the wind. Damn, it feels good to be out of the wind, even if only for a couple minutes. Who’s that? Someone, someone small is crouching under an overhang in the cliff wall.
“¿Quién va allí?” I yell in my schoolbook Spanish.
She raises her head and I see she is a young woman, a very pretty young woman. She stares at me like I’m some kind of boogieman for a moment then she smiles and says, “Buenas tardes, Señor Migra.” Migra is slang for inmigración, and is always said with a sneer when referring to the U.S. Border Patrol.
She is so unexpectedly beautiful that I can’t think of what to say next, let alone in Spanish. While I fumble for words she speaks in heavily accented English.
“Señor Migra, would Ingles be better for joo?” I speak leetle bit Ingles.”
Her cute accent brings me back to reality. “My name’s Bob er … Roberto. Let me help you up.”
“Si, Roberto. Joo are muy educado for la migra.” She firmly grasps my extended hand and rises.
She is tall, five seven or eight and strikingly beautiful in her dusty jeans, western shirt and hiking boots. As she lifts her cowboy hat to wipe her brow I see more of her pretty face and notice her long black hair tied loosely and hanging down her back. She looks like a fashion model posing for a western-wear ad. Wow!
“What are you doing out here in all this wind?”
“I was hiking with mi hermano y sus amigos but they ran when they hear joo coming. Joo can catch them if joo run muy rapido.
“Do you have any ID?”
“No Roberto. I’m just a poor leetle Mexican lost in the desert. Will joo help me, por favor.”
“I’ll have to take you to the station for processing.”
“Please señor, I can’t go back to Mexico. I will be killed if they catch me on the other side of the border. I will do anything to stay here, anything, Señor Migra.”
“Who’s going to kill you?”
“My old boyfriend is un hombre muy malo and he has really bad people working for him. They all carry guns and they’re looking for me. They want to take me back to my old boyfriend. If I don’t go with them, they will kill me. Please, Señor Roberto, I can not go back.”
“I have to take you in. You’ll be processed and returned to Mexico.”
“Why senor, can’t we keep my being here our secret? I will be very nice to joo, very nice. Por favor.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” It’s then that I see her backpack and canteen behind her against the cliff. “Grab your stuff. My truck is just over that rise.”
She walks beside me as we lean into the wind. The wind is too loud to have much of a conversation so we just look at each other and smile. She climbs into the passenger seat in my truck and I don’t object. She should be in the back in the holding tank. Does this mean I’ve made my decision?
“I’ll tell you what. You can go home with me; it’ll give us time to sort this all out. I don’t want to send you back to Mexico if you’ll be in danger, then again I don’t want to lose my job either. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Gracias, gracias joo won’t regret it.”
“I’ll drop you off somewhere out of the way, check in my truck at four and then come back for you in my car. You’ll have to hang out for … let’s see … a little over two hours. Will that be OK?”
“Si, I’ll do anything but go back to Mexico.”
I know an abandoned farm house that will keep her out of the wind if she can stand the spiders and the snakes. We drive to the farmhouse and I and shove aside the broken front door. What is left of the front room is too windy with its boarded up windows. We climb over trash and junk to what must have been a dining room. Its one window is on the leeward side so this looks like the place. I kick away some trash and clear a spot for her to sit against the wall. “Here’s my canteen and a candy bar, it’s all I have with me. Will you be OK for a couple of hours?”
“Si señor, I’ll be fine, joo don’t forget to come back for me.”
“I’ll be back a little after five. Do you have a watch?”
“Si”, she says as she grabs me around the neck and kisses me passionately. I kiss her back wondering what the hell I’m doing. If I’m gonna get fired, this is the way to go.
“Thank joo, Roberto; I see joo at 5 o’clock, adios.”
I realize that I’ve been so taken with her beauty and her story that I don’t even know her name. “I don’t know your name.”
“Maria, Maria Flores.”
“Nice to meet you Maria, adios, I’ll see you at five.”
“Control, this is Garcia. I chased four illegals for about a half mile north. I couldn’t catch them. They had too much of a head start and I couldn’t get my truck through the arroyo. You should see them on you monitor now.”
“Roger Garcia, we’ve got what looks like three illegals heading due north. We’ll intercept them at Anapra Road. You can come on in; it’s getting on near four.”
“Roger, control.” I’d done it. I didn’t tell them about Maria.
It took me to almost four thirty to retell the story of chasing the four illegals, turn in my truck, and end my shift. I dashed home to change and headed back out without catching my breath. What was I hurrying for? She’d been squatting in a desolate canyon before I found her. The old farm house will seem like a Holiday Inn to her after that. I’m not running for her, I’m running because I can’t wait to see her again. She really got to me.
“Hola Roberto, joo look bueno without joor Migra clothes.”
“Thanks, you had enough of this place? Ready to go?”
“Si, I’m ready. My new amigo, this leetle leezard, will miss me and the chocolate joo left for us. Adios, leetle leezard.”
It’s a quiet drive back to Deming. Neither of us knows quite what to say when Maria asks, “Roberto, joo are un guapo hombre mexicano. Where joo from?”
“I’m from California. My grandparents were from Mexico but my mom and dad tried to raise me as an American. That is why my Spanish is so bad. Do you mind that we speak English?”
“No, no mi Chicano amigo, if joo can stand my leetle bit Ingles.”
We pull up to my tiny apartment and pause in the driveway. I don’t know what to say so we sit for what seems like hours when Maria says, “Are we going in or are we going to sit here in the car.”
I jump out and open the door for Maria. She drops her backpack and our two canteens on the floor just inside the door and says, “Not bad for a soltero. How joo say soltero in Ingles?”
“Bien, joo are a bach ... bachleer aren’t joo.”
“Yes, I’m a soltero. I’m not married; in fact I don’t even have a girlfriend at the moment.”
“Maybe joo have a new girlfriend and joo don’t know it yet.” See says as she grabs me and kisses me again.
We fall to the couch.
I can’t remember when I’ve been happier. Maria has been with me for … let’s see now … sixteen days, but who’s counting. It’s amazing how some unforeseen event like finding Maria in the desert can change your whole life overnight.
Work even seems like fun again, or is it just because I can’t wait to get home every night. Last night we had dinner at Campo’s with a Border Patrol buddy and his wife. Maria was the center of attention. She tells everyone she’s an old girlfriend from Guadalajara and that we met a couple of years ago in San Diego. That seems to work; she is so sweet and sincere that no one suspects she is an illegal that I hauled in during a sandstorm.
Maria wore my tee shirts until we had a chance to go shopping for clothes in Las Cruces. Maria loved the mall, especially the boutiques for the younger set. She acts and dresses like an upscale teenager and not like the poor little Mexican girl she claims to be. I wonder what the real story on her really is and if her badass old boyfriend is really looking for her. I guess, Deming is as good a place to hide as anywhere.
I don’t know what she does during the day. She keeps the house neat and she prepares good but simple Mexican dinners. Her enchiladas and red sauce may be even better than my mom’s but I’d never tell anyone that. She made friends quickly with Josephina, the old lady from next door. Josephina is probably eighty and loves to sit on the shady porch of hers, drink beer and gossip the day away. She and Maria can spend the whole day jabbering in a Spanish that’s too fast for me to follow. I’m glad she has a friend even if it’s the neighborhood gossip. What they talk about all day is anybody’s guess.
We’re living like a married couple or maybe honeymooners might be a better description. I’ve never known a woman like Maria before and I’m madly in love. I’ve got to get a commitment from her. I’m not going to let her get away. She’s too beautiful and sophisticated to be living with me in a run-down apartment in Deming, New Mexico and spending her days with someone four times her age. She seems happy enough but what is she going to do?
“Hola novia how was your day?”
“I had a good day. Josephina and I walked to the leetle panadería down the road and bought some galletas. How joo say galleta in Ingles … coookie, I think? Josephina and I had café y coookies this afternoon. I’ve got some for joo, for after dinner.”
We had tacos for dinner and her coookies for desert. I poured us a glass of brandy and we curled up on the sofa to watch TV. Maria watches Spanish language TV during the day but she seems to enjoy CSI, Cold Case, and other popular TV shows with me at night. Her favorite, by far, is Dancing With The Stars.
I’ve got a full day tomorrow and have to get to bed. Maria will spend all night watching TV if I don’t drag her off to bed. Going to bed with her is truly the highlight of my already good day, by far.
Today was pretty quiet. We put a lot of miles on our trucks only to come in empty handed. Oh well, our job is to protect the border and that’s what I did all day, protect. I hurry home. “Hola, I’m home.”
No answer. I look everywhere for Maria. She’s probably over at Josephina’s.
“Hola Josefina. ¿Donde esta Maria?”
She tells me in Spanish that she hasn’t seen her since around lunch time.
I go home and open a beer. Maybe she walked to the store and will be back soon. After the sun sets and my third beer I begin to worry. Where can she be? She has always been here or at Josephina’s when I get home from work. Should I wait longer, drive around looking for her, call the police, or what? I check with Josephina again and learn what I already know. Driving up and down the streets near home is just as fruitless. Its eleven o’clock and no Maria. I return home not knowing what to do.
I look in the closet. All of the clothes I bought for her are hung neatly on the rack. Wait, her backpack that she always kept at the back of the closet isn’t here, neither are the jeans and western shirt she had on when I found her. Her hiking boots are gone too. She hasn’t worn them since I bought her some sandals her first day here.
If she’s gone, and it looks like it, she left with only the stuff she came with. I can’t believe she’d leave. We were so happy.
The days drag on. No word from Maria, she just disappeared. I wait for a phone call that’s not coming. I pace, I pout, I drink, I’m lost without her. How can I find her, I’m not sure of her real name and I only know what she told me about herself which isn’t much. She never mentioned any friends or relatives here in the US and she seemed adamant about not going back to Mexico.
Work is boring again but somehow different. I no longer think about Linda instead I look for Maria behind every bush and down every canyon. I know she’s not out here but I look for her anyway. I’ve be assigned to the check point on the Columbus highway. I check each car for her and I have to fight the urge to ask everyone who passes if they’ve seen her.
After work on Wednesday I open my mail, drink a beer and stare at my bills. My phone bill looks ordinary enough until I spot a long distance call to an area code 213 number. That’s Los Angeles. I didn’t call anyone in LA. Maybe Maria did? Is this a clue?
I write down the mysterious phone number and wait for a chance to ring it out with my friend, José a DEA agent who works our sector. He has access to all of that federal database stuff. José takes down the number reluctantly and promises to get back to me.
A week later I see José at the station and he slips me this note: Carla Hernandez,
26462 Cerritos Ave., E. Los Angeles, CA.
This is my only link to Maria, this and that lonely, dusty canyon where we met. I’ve got to go to LA and meet Carla or whoever lives at this address. I think I can get a week off if I get my request in pronto and my commander approves it.
Los Angeles is a huge and unusual place even to a Californian and East LA is foreign even to a Chicano from San Diego. I find the house on Cerritos easy enough and it looks like all of the other run-down, cracker box houses on the street. I park and walk up to the door nervous with anticipation. A teenage Chicano with his pants down to his knees comes to the door after my repeated knocking.
“Buenos tardes” I say with my brightest smile.
“What do you want?”
“I’m sorry to bother you but I’m looking for a friend, Maria. She said she would be staying with you for a while.”
“There ain’t no Maria here.”
“She’s about twenty six, tall and very attractive. You’d remember her if you ever saw her.”
“Don’t know nobody like that.”
“Is your mother here or anyone else that might know Maria?”
“Homes, you look like a pig to me. Why you asking all of these questions for?”
“I’m just trying to find my girlfriend, that’s all.”
“Then go someplace else, Homes. She ain’t here,” he says as he slams the door.
So much for the direct approach, I’ll go to plan B.
My plan B is parking up the street slumping down in my car and watching the house. I find a spot where my rear New Mexico plate won’t show from the house and begin my stake out. Well into my fourth hour and with a numb butt I see a car pull up in front of the house. A tall young man jumps out from the driver’s side and helps Maria out of the other door. It’s her, I’ve found her! Now what?
Before I can decide what to do Maria and that guy come out and get back into the car. They head down Cerritos and I follow at a safe distance.
They pull up to an Italian restaurant and go in. I wait a few minutes and follow them in. Maria is sitting at a table against the side wall with her back to the door. I ask for a table in front so Maria can’t see me without turning completely around. I watch and wait.
Mid way through my spaghetti the guy with Maria gets up and goes to the men’s room. I jump up and run to her table.
“Roberto, what are you doing here?”
“I came for you, Maria.”
“Get out of here. Get out fast. They will kill you.”
“I can’t leave you.”
“Go! I’ll come to you soon. I love you. Now go!”
I turn and walk back to my table. It takes me a while to realize that Maria didn’t have the cute “leetle” accent that she had in New Mexico. Unable to eat I pay my check and leave. I drive back to my motel in a daze. She said she loves me. I can’t believe she actually said that. I’ll drive back to Deming tomorrow and wait for her. What else can I do? She was pretty adamant about me getting out of here.
The drive home seems to take forever. I can’t stop thinking about Maria. What was she doing in LA? How come she speaks flawless English now? It must be big-time illegal if she was afraid I would be killed. It must be drugs. What else could it be? Mexicans smuggle either drugs or people into the US and she wasn’t leading a gang of wetbacks when I found her.
Is she a smuggler, a mule? She was only carrying a small backpack that couldn’t weigh more than twenty pounds. What’s she up to?
I’m back at work on patrol again. Time seems to drag. I’m worse now than when I was heartbroken over Linda. Maria, Maria. I had a beer with Josephina the other evening and all we talked about was Maria. Josefina misses her too. What did Maria say in that brief conversation? “I’ll come to you soon.” I think that was what she said. I wonder what she meant by soon?
Weeks pass and no word from Maria. I’m ready to give up hope but I can’t. I feel so helpless, I can’t do anything but wait. Where is she?
Nearly three months after our brief meeting in LA I see a story in the local paper. Three More Drug War Deaths in Palomas the headlines read. Two men and a woman were gunned down in a Palomas street about three blocks from the US/Mexico border. This just seemed like more of the same, one drug cartel killing off members of a rival cartel until I ran into José, my DEA buddy, at the station one evening. José asked me if I remembered that phone number he had chased down for me months earlier. I told him that I had checked out the house in East LA but never met Carla Hernandez. He said that that phone number had come up again. That same phone number was written in a note found on one of the drug dealers slain in Palomas last week. My suspicions were confirmed, Maria and the house in LA were tied together in a drug smuggling scheme. José said he’d get back to me with more info when he learned more from the Mexican authorities.
I never thought any more about the coincidence of the phone numbers until I ran into José again. José said he had a bit more information and he showed me a Mexican police report with a mug shot of the female victim of the recent killings.
It was Maria.
©2009 by Bob Rockwell