In the weeks immediately following the encounter with the illegal immigrants in the arroyo, Jesús “Eddie” and Héctor were men possessed by a single idea, though not the same one. Jesús could think only of joining up with the recently formed Critter Company, based in El Paso but with a chapter in Deming, and fighting Islamists at the border. As for Héctor, his sole, overwhelming thought was to get home to Belen with his family, far away from the bewitching siren at the Pink House in Las Palomas.
Never in twenty-something years of married life had he been tempted by another woman—until now. Héctor tried to assure himself that his desire for Jacinta Ruiz was entirely normal, because it was completely natural. Adultery is as American as apple pie, and just as healthy; indeed, it is positively pro-American, as anyone who watches TV and reads People at the barbershop or on the checkout line at the supermarket knows. And yet, for some reason he couldn’t fathom, he was unable to acknowledge that yielding to his male instincts by cheating on AveMaría was acceptable behavior. In what he clearly recognized to be a failure of imagination and nerve, Héctor blamed himself. Had he come to the United States as a child, perhaps he might be more completely acculturated to modern, progressive American ways. As it was, the notion of infidelity stuck in his craw like a beer-can poptop in a magpie’s gullet, except for when he sat drinking with Jesús “Eddie” in the Pink House bar, waiting for his friend to visit the toilet and leave him alone with Jacinta for three precious minutes—which was why, every time, he attempted to talk Jesús “Eddie” into driving to Deming instead. In these efforts, he regularly failed, and this failure Héctor also blamed on himself. Obviously, he wasn’t being very persuasive, and he knew all too well the reason for that: When the time came for “a couple” of drinks after dinner, Héctor wished to be nowhere in the world but in the mesmerizing presence of Jacinta Ruiz.
In vain, he worked at firing Jesús “Eddie’s” enthusiasm for the Critter Company to still greater heat, as a distraction from the cheap beer and attractive company at the Pink House. (Jesús, though not as smitten with the girl as Héctor was, had ceased digging him in the ribs and offering lewd encouragement to extramarital pleasures. Having for now given up on Contracepción after living under the same roof with her for weeks without eliciting the slightest sign of interest, his behavior in the presence of Jacinta and Héctor had become distinctly rivalrous.) But at this formative stage in their organization, the Critters met only twice a week, once at the chapter leader’s home in Deming on Sunday evening, and again the following Saturday morning for military training at the border next to Pancho Villa State Park. The Critter Company was a new militia group, intended to compete with the Minutemen whom it considered unsound on the immigration issue for their unwillingness to raid across the international line onto Mexican soil. Its name was borrowed from Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s celebrated Confederate cavalry, which the founder, a German-born American named Wolfgang Mitternacht from the Air Force base at Alamagordo, had read about in Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. As none of the Critters, including Mitternacht, could ride a horse, the men were obliged to train on foot, though dressed in appropriately critterish garb in which they resembled Rendezvous reenactors on the upper Green River. The Critter Company’s relaxed schedule left Jesús “Eddie” plenty of time for beer drinking at the Pink House, affording Héctor little room for maneuver and leaving him with the consoling thought that, anyhow, he never permitted himself the company of Jacinta Ruiz absent the presence of a chaperone. In the end, after hearing Jesús enthuse about the pleasures of hiking around in the wintertime desert with a heavy pack on his back and a pistol on his hip, Héctor himself joined the Critter Company, more to divert his mind from Jacinta than from the conviction that anybody, short of the 150,000 troops in Iraq, could do anything to control illegal immigration across the southwestern border. (Not even President Bush believed that.)
Héctor had always counted as one of the many advantages of early repatriation his avoidance of military service in either country in which he held citizenship. Now, in his forties, with a slight paunch and not what could be called in shape, he’d been apprehensive of the discipline militia training entailed. His first morning in the field, attempting to stand straight under the weight of the Jansport daypack on the hardpan desert floor with an icy wind slashing through his buckskin suit and whipping the leather fringes along his legs and arms while Wolfgang Mitternacht strode up and down bawling orders from under his pulled-down coonskin cap, Héctor was already regretting having signed up with the Critter Company. And why was it necessary to learn to salute, to make an about-face, to sound off, to assume formation, to march in step? This wasn’t the Charge of the Light Brigade, was it? The Minutemen’s routine amounted to sitting out in lawn chairs under umbrellas, drinking beer and panning the scrub across the border through binoculars—he’d seen as much with his own eyes over in Arizona. By lunchtime, he understood he’d made one of the bigger mistakes of his life. His throat was parched by the dry air, his lungs ached with the cold, and the pressing weight of the pack seemed to be telescoping his spine as if it were a portable fishing rod. Beside him, Jesús “Eddie” was blue in the face and looked to be on the verge of a heart attack. The twenty-five or thirty other Critters, too, were obviously done in.
At twelve noon precisely, General Mitternacht ordered them to fall out, and the exhausted men had already commenced staggering toward their pickup trucks when another, unfamiliar voice issued a countermanding order: “Hold it right there, dudes!” Héctor raised his head and saw, through reddened, wind-teared eyes, a group of tourists from Pancho Villa State Park aiming a battery of cameras at the Critter Company. Numbly, insensibly, he stumbled ahead anyhow on a zigzag course toward Jesús “Eddie’s” Dodge.
“Who wants to go for beer at the Pink House?” one of the Critters called in a weak, breathless howl, like that of a gutshot coyote.
The Pink House! The words rang in Héctor’s ears like alien sounds arriving from another dimension in space. The thing seemed impossible, yet it was a fact nevertheless: He hadn’t had a single thought of Jacinta Ruiz, not one, in the three hours since the training exercises had begun at 9 a.m. And now, he found, he couldn’t think of anything else—except cold beer.
The Critters, crowding through into the bar in full regalia (guns excepted), caused a considerable stir at the Pink House, where the male portion of Las Palomas’s leisured class sat at drink, enjoying a peaceful Saturday afternoon. Héctor had a glimpse of Jacinta’s startled face before the onslaught, and then of her nubile figure bending and swaying gracefully from the waist as she hastily pulled tables together. Wolfgang Mitternacht took a seat at the head of the company and sat with his hands on his knees, staring truculently about as if he would challenge someone to a sword duel. Héctor tried to catch Jacinta’s eye, but she went off behind the bar for cocktail napkins, apparently without having recognized him.
Jacinta was called to the kitchen before she could return with the napkins and was away for some time. Mitternacht, instantly impatient, scowled and drummed with his fingers on the table. At last he reached around, seized a drunk-off beer mug from the table behind him, and began banging the wood with it while calling loudly for beer in a field-marshal voice. At the second vociferation, the Mexicans set down their bottles and stared, as conversation in the bar ceased. Héctor shrank into his seat, wishing he were less conspicuously dressed.
To his huge relief, Jacinta Ruiz returned at that moment from the kitchen with an order pad and pencil in hand.
“¿Alguien me llamó?” she asked politely.
Wolfgang Mitternacht gazed upon her with contempt.
“Speak English,” he ordered abruptly.
But Héctor was fed up with the tipo, whether he was his military superior or not. “She doesn’t have to speak English,” he told him in a firm voice. “She’s in her own country over here. This is Mexico, remember.”
Mitternacht started as if he’d been shot, then glared at him.
“But all this”—he gestured inclusively with his hand—“all this belonged to America once!”
“No, it didn’t,” Héctor corrected. “It’s the other way around.” Apparently, the German educational system was as poor as the American one, he thought.
“¡Héctor!” It was Jacinta who spoke to him. “Why, it’s you! I’d never have recognized you in that getup! Are you all supposed to be Apache? You must be shooting a movie or something!”
“We’re the Critter Company!” Jesús “Eddie,” speaking from farther down the table, sounded insulted. “Patrolling the border to keep the goddamn Islamists out of the Rio Abajo!”
“And Jesús too! I hate to tell you guys, I haven’t seen any Muslims come through here lately.”
“We have!” Jesús “Eddie” informed her. “Just a week ago at night, driving home from here! Wearing them black burgers over their faces, and everything!”
“Me acuerdo de eso.” Jacinta’s face was poker straight. “I was worried for you that evening. I have not forgotten a man who left here one night after many drinks and drove off the road into the arroyo to avoid hitting what he said was a fantasma.”
General Mitternacht, recovered from his shock at the insubordination offered him, had recalled the more important thing.
“Beer!” he shouted, waving the empty mug in her face.
“You are alemán?” Jacinta inquired. “We see many of your people here, from Alamagordo and Fort Bliss. It seems they use el Norte to come across the border into México. But we mexicanos do not mind—so long as not too many come here, that is.”
Héctor caught up with her just outside the bar, on her way to the kitchen to pick up an order.
“Jacinta,” he said earnestly, “I am very sorry. That ma—that patán—who insulted you just now is not my friend. I owe you my deepest apologies. Please believe me when I say that I did not bring him or these others here—in fact, it was them who brought Jesús ‘Eddie’ and me!”
She was smiling at him now, which gave him immeasurable relief.
“I know. I have seen some of them, including the German, drinking here before. Only not dressed up, the way they are today.”
Héctor discovered that he was shaking with emotion.
“I should have hit him for talking to you that way,” he stammered.
Her kiss came as fast as a striking snake but honeyed rather than venomous, and full on the mouth. His arms were around her then, and he had the confused impression that she, not he, had placed them there. They held together for what felt to Héctor a measureless interval beyond time, before Jacinta released him suddenly and took a step backward.
“I must go now,” she said in a low voice, “and take drinks out to your . . . friends. I will see you again very soon, Héctor?”
Héctor did not return to the bar right away. Instead, he went on to the men’s room, where he washed his hands thoroughly with soap and water. Then he brushed his hair carefully with a pocket comb, tilting his head first at one angle and then another. He did this even though he hardly recognized the face staring back at him from the small mirror set into a gaudy Mexican frame, hand-painted and hand-carved from wood. In fact, he scarcely saw the face at all. Héctor Villa was in a state of shock.
He sat dazed while the Critters recounted for one another their training exploits and discussed the gear they would need for deployment. Having drunk his first chilled beer almost in a single swallow, he dawdled over the second until the frost disappeared from the outside of the bottle and the bubbles subsided within it. Héctor could not tell whether he had just experienced a resounding triumph or suffered a terrible defeat. Like Zerlina confronted by the amorous Don, he wanted to, and yet he didn’t want to.
What he particularly failed to understand was why it was all such a big deal in the first place. Why, Héctor wondered, were men like this? Why couldn’t they be content with just one woman? Why was it that kissing another woman, or a thousand women, seemed irresistibly desirable, when kissing her was no different, after all, from kissing your wife? It wasn’t important, was it? Then why did he feel, in this earth-moving instance, that it was infinitely so?
Had the Critter Company been meeting at the Taberna Aztlán in Belen, Héctor might have been tempted to stop by Our Lady afterward for Saturday-afternoon Confession. As it was, he escaped the Pink House under cover of twenty-five jostling Critters, without Jacinta Ruiz seeing him leave.
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