After so many years living in exile up north, Héctor had forgotten how pleasant fall in the Chihuahuan Desert can be, the summer heat banished for good and the first snows not yet upon the desert mountains that enclose the city on three sides. From his office on the top floor of the Museo de la Revolución in the Casa Pancho Villa, he had a fine view of Ciudad de Chihuahua dominated by the three conical hills, Cerro del Coronel, Cerro Grande, and Cerro Santa Rosa, and the twin bell towers of the Catedral de San Francisco rising from the city center. This morning the mountains appeared remote through a haze of poisonous cloud rising from the smoldering garbage dumps in the barrios that ringed the city at its perimeter and mingling with the incensed smoke of piñon and juniper wood fires burning on hearths and within cookstoves across the metropolis.
Leaning above thick forearms crossed on the windowsill, Héctor surveyed his new domain with proprietary satisfaction. After three months, Chihuahua still seemed to him preferable to Albuquerque, if only on account of its historical presence and the notable absence of diversity. (In the hundred days since his arrival in the city, he’d not spotted a single turban or burqa in the streets, or anywhere.) Unlike the United States, which seemed to transform itself on a daily basis, Mexico didn’t change much. Despite its substantial growth in recent times, Ciudad de Chihuahua remained in many respects the city Pancho Villa had known when he was governor of Chihuahua State and lived in this same house. From his vantage at the window, Héctor, looking down into the grassy courtyard, could see the Dodge touring car, riddled behind by .45-caliber bullets, in which The Centaur had met his end in Hidalgo del Parral more than eighty years before. Living in Chihuahua and maintaining the computer system at the Museo, he felt closer to his hero than he had even in Namiquipa. As the department of the army in the Secretariat of National Defense in Ciudad de México operated both Casa Villa and the Museo, Héctor’s colleagues in his new job were almost exclusively Federales. Frequently—more frequently, indeed, than he was entirely comfortable with—the impassive looks they sent him through their flat, stonefish eyes gave him the impression of being face to face with the villistas themselves, for so long the scourge, as well as the hope, of the Chihuahuan people.
In spite of his growing disillusionment with America and American culture, Héctor might well not have returned with his family to Mexico had it not been for the fiasco of Ladrón Peak and the buried treasure. At Jesús “Eddie’s” insistence, Beatriz had forced the truth from Hermana Carmen by threatening to report the curandera and her witcheries to Father Ortega, the parish priest for Our Lady of Belen. Under interrogation from Beatriz Juárez, Hermana Carmen had confessed to having extracted a fee of $1,000 from the Treasure Hunter in return for directing him to the same site she’d indicated to Héctor, only minutes before. (Every footloose ne’er-do-well, it appeared, had read that Camino Real column in the Valencia News-Bulletin.) Shocked by such unethical business practices, Héctor and Jesús “Eddie” together had petitioned the Chamber of Commerce for redress, but without success. Immediately following this failure, and acting on impulse, Héctor had put his house on the market and initiated a job search in Ciudad de Chihuahua. The house had sold within two weeks to a Chinese couple from Beijing and at more than double the price Héctor had paid for it, allowing him to pay cash for a handsome old home in Chihuahua in a fairly upscale neighborhood not far from Casa Villa. AveMaría, though she missed the American-style malls, seemed to be settling in nicely after finding an Assemblies of God church to her liking. Contracepción was doing as well as could be expected in a neighborhood school, despite being a year and a half behind her class, and had her first real novio, a nineteen-year-old aspiring corrido singer who wrote songs about narcos shooting police officers in cold blood. And Dubya attended preschool for three hours each morning, while his mother worked on the church’s Crusade For Souls project.
Life, Héctor understood, was good for the Villas. And yet something, he sensed, was missing. The Dream that had sustained his life for more than two decades was ended, and with its passing, existence, though pleasant enough, seemed to him flat and uninspiring—essentially meaningless. Unlike in El Norte, it was not morning again in Mexico every day.
El Día de Los Muertos, coming on the first and second of November, as a welcome instance of the rich historicity of Mexican folk culture afforded him temporary cheer. But Christmas was more of a downer than usual, owing to the absence of shopping malls, reduced family circumstances (the Secretariat of Defense was hardly a generous employer), and his aged mother’s insistence that he and the family spend the holidays in Namiquipa, where she reproached her son relentlessly for the remittances forfeited when the Villas moved from the U.S. back to Mexico.
Much of his restlessness, Héctor decided, was owing to the fact that there was so little to do in Chihuahua. When he ventured to suggest as much to his boss, el Coronel Baca had assured him that the bullring would open for the season in April. But Héctor, who had never been an aficionado of the corrida and had in any event developed an enthusiasm for NASCAR, was not comforted by the prospect of watching three men stab six bulls to death under a hail of ¡Olés! or of pillows. Nevertheless, the coronel’s suggestion nudged his imagination. It was no good looking for Albuquerque in Ciudad de Chihuahua, he realized; por consiguiente, he must seek for Chihuahua in Chihuahua. With this aim in mind, he bought a local guidebook, in English, at a downtown shop frequented by American tourists and spent several evenings perusing it over a bottle or two of Corona. Among the few entries to attract his attention, or his interest, was Rocas de Aladino, a rock shop located in an historic mining town 30 kilometers northeast of the city. Héctor had always been fond of rocks since, as a boy in Namiquipa, he’d made something of a collection of the missiles that the older Montez boys down the street had used to pelt him with.
“Mi querida,” he told his wife, “next Saturday we will all drive out from town together and visit the rock shop I was telling you about the other day.”
AveMaría gave him the look she’d used to give Dubya when, at around the age of two, he’d wanted to eat dirt.
“Rocks? You want to look at rocks? Why not lumps of coal?”
“But these ones are from an historic mine! There’s an old town there, and everything.”
“Coal comes from mines, too,” she replied.
Contracepción, who’d looked forward to spending the afternoon with the novio at the neighborhood theater where the latest J-Lo movie was playing, protested, but Héctor insisted that this was a family outing from which no one could be excused. The drive to Aquiles Serdán, which should have taken half an hour, instead lasted forty-five minutes when Héctor found himself stuck at the tail end of a funeral procession going 25 kilometers per hour on the narrow two-lane highway without shoulders. When at last he saw a chance to pass, he counted forty-two vehicles on his right before being forced off the road onto the hardpan by an oncoming farm truck doing at least eighty and apparently without brakes. The country was barren desert, flat as a Wal-Mart parking lot and littered with rotting cacti and snagged plastic bags. AveMaría claimed it made her so miserable just looking at it, she wanted to cry.
The old mining town of Aquiles Serdán sat a short way up a sharply narrowing cañón, facing itself across the precipitous slopes of the barren opposing hills. It was overlooked from the upper end by a decaying church of great age, built upon a bench of rock twenty or thirty feet above a row of small, dingy shops, most of them catering to the tourist trade.
“¡No deseo ver rocas!” Dubya whined. “¡Más bien deseo encontrar dinosaurios!” The boy, who’d recently developed a passion for collecting toy dinosaurs, had learned just enough geology to associate the two phenomena.
Héctor parked the Subaru at the foot of a flight of worn stone steps leading up to the level of the shops, and everyone climbed out. The town looked deserted, with the exception of two gringo tourist couples letting themselves into the church and a flock of small, predatory boys loitering at the head of the steps.
“¡Señor, señor—venga conmigo!” the boys shouted as soon as they saw Héctor. “¿Desea un guía? ¡Venga, venga conmigo!”
Héctor brushed them off impatiently, but one boy, a nice-looking, soft-spoken, and polite child, refused to take no for an answer. His father, he explained, was the proprietor of a rock shop. Would the señor care to come along with him and see it? Together, the Villas followed, AveMaría dragging Dubya, loud in protest, by the hand the entire way to the shop, where Héctor placed a peso in the kid’s hand.
Inside, the proprietor introduced himself in a friendly way and proceeded to show Héctor his inventory. The rocks, indeed, were beautiful: rough, polished, and carved; minerals and gems; petrified wood, fossils, and geodes; carnelian, quartz and rose quartz, malachite, and blue calcite. Héctor was entranced, and so were the girls, who kept squealing at each other from various parts of the shop to come look at this! On impulse, he bought, for twelve pesos, a malachite cougar (or was it an African lioness?) for AveMaría, and a geode for himself to serve as a paperweight. The girls also were buying, placing one item after another in the plastic sacks thoughtfully provided by the proprietor. Only Dubya seemed unimpressed. Instead of wanting to buy the whole store, as was usual with him, he was nowhere to be seen—or heard.
Where, Héctor wondered suddenly, was Dubya?
In panic, the family ran outside, nearly forgetting to deposit their sacks with the proprietor. Héctor glanced swiftly around the small plaza and saw nobody. Even the gang of importunate urchins was gone. He raced to the flight of steps and looked down at the Subaru. Dubya was nowhere outside the car, and Héctor had the keys in his pocket, having taken care to lock the doors. He looked back to the line of shops, half-expecting in his confusion to see one of the Dollar Stores where dinosaurs were always to be found. But the Villas weren’t in Albuquerque anymore!
Contracepción was in tears, and AveMaría nearly hysterical, when suddenly they all heard shouts punctuated by piercing screams from some distance off. Héctor, after listening with his head on one side and his hands cupped behind his ears, determined that the sounds issued from behind the church. The next instant he was flying on swift new Adidases, leaving the womenfolk panting far behind. He vaulted a low iron fence and ran on, past the doors of the church from which a pair of curious gringo faces peered, around the corner of the building and straight into the street urchins pushing, pulling, and hammering with their fists at Dubya in their midst. They scattered, squawking, like ravens as he burst upon them and fled in all directions, some into the brush on the steep hill behind the church, others up the narrowing ravine where the town trickled out in a profusion of ocotillo and mesquite. Dubya lay sprawled on the bare ground, stripped almost naked of his clothes, including his new pair of expensive sneakers. Héctor snatched up his son and clasped him to his bosom—which was how the women came at last upon the two of them, as if a wooden statue of St. Joseph With the Christ Child had come alive inside the musty church and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
For weeks following the horrific attack on Dubya, which Héctor was convinced had been a kidnap attempt as well as assault and robbery, the Villas kept to themselves at home. Had the drug violence in Mexico reached the point that it now involved seven- and eight-year-old kids? He put the question to el Coronel Baca, who seemed to pretend not to have heard him. Nevertheless, Héctor, fearing the worst, kept the children at home as much as possible while urging AveMaría to take extra precautions whenever she went to church or the supermercado.
Thus, despite the relatively warm weather, by late winter the Villa family was experiencing cabin fever worse than they ever had in the cold of central New Mexico. In New Mexico, too, there was spring break, which Contracepción’s new school, at least, did not observe. In New Mexico, in March, the family had always taken a trip together.
“¡O papaíto!” the girl complained one night at supper, “it’s not fair! I’m so bored, and I never get to go any-place! Pu-lease, papaíto, can’t we go some-place?”
It was thus, under pressure, that Héctor had the most inspired idea of his life.
“How would you like,” he asked his daughter in measured tones, “to drive to Las Vegas for a week?”
“Héctor, do you really mean it?” AveMaría breathed.
“¡Deseo ver los leones!” Dubya roared. “¡Muchos, MUCHOS leones! What does the lion say, Papá? The lion says RRRRRRRUUUUUUUHHHHHHH!”
And why not? Héctor asked himself. He and AveMaría had at last received their U.S. residency papers a month after returning to Mexico, so the border crossing would be a piece of cake. And even as the idea occurred to him, the Dream stepped forward in his mind once more, a Lady clothed in green and bearing aloft a flaming torch; and he understood that, where they were going, it really was morning again, every day of the year.
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