For more than a week after his encounter with Jacinta Ruiz, Héctor avoided the Pink Store, finding an excuse to drive Jesús “Eddie” to Geronimo’s Bar & Grill in Deming—which Jesús much preferred anyway—instead. All this time, the Centaur’s statue stood on the top shelf of his computer hutch, where he had to make the effort to raise his eyes in order to behold the thing. Handsome as it was, the statue gave him no pleasure but only a sense of distress, arising from moral confusion. In truth, Héctor found he could no longer admire it without suspecting that he really was a bit of a traitor.
He was an American, after all—not yet a citizen, granted, but citizenship would surely follow in time, once the late unpleasantness arising from his failed political candidacy was resolved. Whereas the Ruiz woman, a bona fide Méxicana for whom Pancho Villa had fought and died, reprobated Villa and all he stood for because he’d been a relentless enemy of the gringos, certain of whom her great-grandparents had befriended. Héctor himself had few American friends besides Bro. Billie Joe and Jesús “Eddie,” and he wasn’t sure Jesús “Eddie” counted as an American. Never before had it occurred to him that his pride in being a descendant (though a collateral one) of the Centaur might be at odds with his fervent commitment to his adoptive land, including a 100-percent adherence to the American Creed. Now Jacinta Ruiz had exposed the contradiction for him, and Héctor was discovering to his immense chagrin that it was not a matter he could conscientiously ignore. Nor, unhappily, was it one he felt comfortable discussing with AveMaría, who disliked Villa as a notorious polygamist and philanderer, and resented both the society dues her husband sent annually to Namiquipa and the time he spent away from home every summer “partying,” as she expressed it, with the Hijos.
It was a good ten days before it occurred to Héctor that help was right under his nose—more precisely, just across the border, in the Pink Store itself. Despite her hatred of Pancho Villa, Jacinta Ruiz was certainly sympática—and obviously well disposed toward his namesake, whose arm she was given to squeezing affectionately each evening on his arrival at the store and again as he left the bar, following Jesús “Eddie” out to the van. Only, he wanted to talk with Jacinta alone, without his friend around. And when—Héctor wondered—would that ever happen? The possibility was unimaginable, short of Chihuahua becoming a dry state.
His chance, by some miracle, arrived soon enough, within a matter of a few days. Jesús “Eddie,” stir-crazy already from living off in the boondocks and hungry for the bright lights and dark dives of the Rio Abajo, was also concerned about the state of his several rental properties in Belen, ancient ’dobes crumbling into weedy yards he’d inherited from an uncle and that he leased short-term to winos, vagabonds, and kids from the local community college. As hiding out on the border precluded working his job as a handyman around town, the income from these properties was Jesús “Eddie’s” nearly sole source of support during his sojourn at the ranch, supplemented only by Bea-triz’s monthly disability check from Santa Fe in compensation for her late-developing color blindness that had forced her to quit her job as a beautician when she became incapable of distinguishing one tint of hair dye from another. Consequently, Jesús “Eddie” determined that he must return to Belen to make sure of his houses and collect the rent payments that had somehow failed to find their way to Rancho Juárez in his absence. Bea-triz was going along to act as chauffeur, and both she and her husband planned on wearing disguises in order to escape recognition by the Muslim community in Belen. In spite of his eagerness to see them off, Héctor could not resist a desire to witness the Juárezes in whatever garb they might choose to get themselves up in for the trip north. AveMaría had no interest in whatever spectacle Beatriz and Jesús “Eddie” made when they went. She just wanted them to go.
After arguing the question back and forth, loudly, for days, the pair decided on assuming the identity of a military couple on leave from Fort Bliss, a role they reasoned should be sufficient to deter any bloody-minded would-be jihadist assassin from a violent assault on their persons. (No one, Héctor had to agree, underestimates the U.S. military.) At an Army and Navy store in El Paso advertising itself as the place where the Minutemen shopped, they purchased fatigues, combat boots, and stiff-brimmed camouflage military caps, which they wore home in the car afterward in order to acquire a feel for their new clothes. Héctor’s instant reaction to the sight of the Juárezes in uniform standing outside on the turnaround was that the Immigration Office had come to arrest him at last, but the next moment he was laughing so uncontrollably he’d had to run to the outhouse and remain there a good five minutes to avoid offending his friends.
Jesús “Eddie” and Beatriz departed next morning for Belen, carrying with them an extensive shopping list made up by AveMaría, after an impassioned, tearful plea by Contracepción that she be allowed to go along to visit her friends upriver. When the Juárezes were gone at last and his daughter lay sulking face down across the bed, Héctor retired to the shaky linoleum-covered table in the parlor where he kept his laptop computer and put in an hour and a half on billing work, while AveMaría and Dubya went shopping in Deming. Distracted and restless, he worked without enthusiasm and knocked off finally around noon, when he wandered into the kitchen in search of lunch. Héctor was wholly unaccustomed, after eighteen years of married life, to preparing his own meals. Now, in his wife’s absence, he took four slices of bologna from the ancient icebox, placed them between two slices of white bread he found in the rusty breadbox decorated with fading hand-painted flowers, and made himself a sandwich. He wrapped the sandwich in wax paper and buttoned it into the pocket of his woolen shirt. Lastly, he yelled at Contracep that he’d be home in an hour, lifted his parka from the peg behind the door, and walked out into the pale glare of a chilly winter day. For the first time, perhaps, in his adult life, Héctor Villa was taking a walk.
Prompted by an impulse of which he was barely conscious, he wandered down the drive and across the asphalt strip of highway, crawled beneath the four-strand fence, and proceeded into open desert in the direction of the mountains. The mountains resembled those with which he’d been familiar as a child in Nami-quipa, but that did not explain the allure they had for him this brilliant winter afternoon. Héctor perceived these carved massifs as the faded, nearly indistinguishable background of early twentieth-century photographs in which armed troops, wrecked trains, and—in particular—a proud sombreroed figure, mounted horseback and carrying a rifle under his saddleskirt, occupied the foreground, surrounded by the immediate caliche and sotol desert. But here was a background without a subject, nothing but the empty desert across which he seemed to wade heavily, as if through a foot of sand. Héctor halted to get his breath, then moved doggedly forward. The mountains seemed to retreat ahead of him, deeper into the background of the empty, subjectless photograph in which he moved. They were a great deal farther off than he’d imagined, viewing them from the ranch. Stopping for the fifth or sixth time, he looked behind himself and was surprised—shocked even—to see how far he’d come, though the mountains themselves appeared no nearer. It occurred to Héctor he should fortify himself for the long walk back. He looked about and spied a manzanita tree growing at the edge of an arroyo thirty yards away. Now almost completely winded, he staggered on and collapsed against its blackened trunk, beneath the leafless web of branches. Héctor worked the trunk between his shoulder blades and pulled the sandwich from his shirt, wishing he’d thought to bring a bottle of water with him. Luckily it was winter or he might have died of thirst on the desert like the immigrants he’d seen on TV. However, the sandwich tasted good to him, even though he’d spread Contracep’s tasteless brand of mustard on the bread instead of the spicy kind he preferred.
Héctor had finished the sandwich and was regretting having used mustard at all on account of his now acute thirst when he heard the measured crunch of shoes on gravel and looked up to see seven people, four men and three women, approaching along the bottom of the arroyo. All were Hispanic, dark-skinned, wearing jeans, torn parkas over snap-button Western shirts, and sneakers, and carrying packs on their backs. The men wore their hair almost as long as the women’s, but it didn’t appear to have been washed as recently. The lead man stopped and stiffened like a pointer dog when he caught sight of Héctor under his tree. Then he seemed to relax and moved forward again with confidence, baring a double-row of square white teeth in a wide grin beneath his black mustache.
“¡Buenas tardes, compadre! ¿Dónde vas usted?”
Héctor gave him a wary look. In Belen, strangers never spoke to each other, whether on the street or at the mall.
“¿Y dónde viene?”
Héctor shrugged. “From around here.” He’d noticed the leader carried a plastic bottle slung across his shoulder on a nylon cord. “Can you spare a swallow of water? I forgot to bring any with me.” He assumed these hikers were from Douglas, which these days had a large Hispanic population. Héctor was impressed. He couldn’t imagine assimilating to the point of taking up a kick-ass Anglo sport like backpacking, himself.
The leader squinted, leaning forward on the palo verde pole he’d cut and trimmed to make a walking stick.
“How is it you come across with no water, no food, hermano?” he asked sternly. “Have you not read the survival guide the government hands out to everyone? Our people are dying like flies in the desert every day. Now I must risk dying of thirst, too, because you did not trouble yourself to come prepared.”
Héctor, perceiving the truth at last, felt like a fool. He and AveMaría, when they emigrated to the United States seventeen years ago, had acquired work permits, then taken a taxi across the international bridge from Juárez to El Paso, where they had simply lost themselves in the bustle and confusion of a great American city. Now, he was seeing for himself how the other half lived. With great dignity, he stood from under the tree and confronted the interlopers.
“You have made a mistake,” he told the alien. “I am an American” (he had almost added “citizen”) “living in New Mexico. My home is over there” (pointing to the ranch that appeared as no more than a speck on the desert). “I have lived in this country for seventeen years and I’m used to having all the water and food I want, whenever I want it. I don’t have to carry it around on my back, like a tortuga.”
All six illegal aliens, grouped close together now as if for self-protection, eyed him with hostility.
“Claro,” their leader said, coldly. “Are you then a hermano or a gringo? It is Eulalio Guzmán who asks.”
It occurred to Héctor for the first time that these people might be armed and dangerous.
“I’m both,” he said at last, trying to hold his voice steady. “Don’t worry,” he added quickly, perceiving a yellow glint in Guzmán’s eye. “I’m not going to report you to the migra.”
The alien smiled sardonically. “Then you are a hermano,” he concluded, “and it is a lucky thing for you. Do you remember how Pancho Villa once served the gringos, many years ago but not so many miles from where we stand now?”
Héctor wanted to tell him he’d forgotten more about Pancho Villa than the other man would learn in a lifetime, but he held his tongue instead.
“And now,” the alien continued, “you may have a swallow of water—if you still want it, por supuesto. Do you?”
Attempting a dignified pace, he waded off into the desert in the direction of the ranch that seemed impossibly far away. A sense of pride forbade him to look back over his shoulder until he’d gone a couple of hundred yards, and by then the invaders had vanished among the mesquite and sotol. More than an hour later, dry-mouthed, with aching lungs and sore hip-sockets, Héctor arrived home where he was greeted by his tearful wife, who in panic at his disappearance had reported him missing to the Luna County Search and Rescue a half-hour before.
He carried the cellphone outdoors where the reception was better, dialed Search and Rescue, and canceled the alarm. (It occurred to him to report the invading aliens while he was at it, but he resisted doing so.) Afterward, he climbed into his van and drove south on highway 11, toward Columbus and the Pink Store. It was too early in the day to start drinking, but Héctor was not in search of the numbing influence of alcohol. He needed to have a talk with Jacinta Ruiz, and he couldn’t wait until the sun had crossed over the yardarm to do it.