The holidays were fast approaching, and, for the first time in his life, Héctor could find no joy in the prospect of the Christmas season. Homesick, guilt-ridden, pinched in his wallet by his irregular business schedule, and worn down by the rigors of patrol with the Critter Company, he felt physically and mentally exhausted. The lack of privacy afforded by the ranch house rubbed his nerves raw, as did his wife’s nagging and his daughter’s incessant vocalizing. AveMaría was insistent that the family begin attending services at the Assemblies of God church in Lordsburg, which meant a 160-mile round trip every Sunday. (She persisted even after he’d explained to her, patiently, that church on Sunday morning conflicted with his sworn duties as an active Critter in good standing.) And Contracepción, bored to distraction on the ranch, had recently conceived a burning ambition to become the new Britney Spears. (“I mean,” Héctor overheard her explaining to her mother, “she’s like, you know, so fat and pregnant and divorced and everything—it’s time for her to move her lard butt over and let someone else have a turn, for a change!”) In pursuit of the dream, she’d ordered all the Spears CDs from Amazon.com and begun singing along with Britney for three or four hours a day. Though he was too good a father to say so, her voice sounded to Héctor—who was the first to admit that, with the exception of Mexican Civil War corridos, he knew nothing about music—like a cat strangling on a hair ball. The sound had much the same effect on Beatriz Juárez, only more so. When Contracep suggested to him that the Pink House might be interested in having her stage a concert there some evening, Héctor understood that the sins of the father were being visited, in spades and squarely, on the father.
As little as he understood himself, Héctor understood Jacinta Ruiz even less. How could a nice girl like her chase after a man with a wife and two children? And what, really, did she want from him? True, he’d never mentioned in so many words he was married, but he was (if he did say so himself) a reasonably attractive man in the prime of life and therefore presumably attached, while she had to have noticed his wedding band. Perhaps Jacinta was what was called a skivvy—a word he’d heard in a movie set in England in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Or perhaps, she was one of those women who couldn’t control herself, like AveMaría’s younger sister Carlotta, a hot number if he’d ever met one. (Luckily for him, Héctor reflected, AveMaría had got there first.) It could also be that she was simply an outrageous flirt. Then again—he had to be fair about this—Jacinta might simply be in love! For Héctor, a soft-hearted man when it came to the opposite sex in particular, this thought was particularly distressing. As a young buck back in Mexico, he’d always hated having to disappoint a woman.
He would never, never (Héctor assured himself) have crossed the threshold of the Pink House again after that devastating event in the shadows around the corner from the bar, had the Critter Company not adopted the place as its unofficial watering hole. Every Sunday now after exercises, the Critters gathered at the Pink House for beer and war stories, under the bemused gaze of the local clientele. Emboldened by training and the confidence inspired in its individual members under General Mitternacht’s drilling, the Company had formed squads of three and four men each, any five of which were on posted duty twenty-four hours a day along the border between the Cedar and Potrillo Mountains. Already, Héctor had served two graveyard shifts with Jesús “Eddie,” after slipping miserably out from under the warm covers at a little before midnight. “If you ever wanted to fool around on me, mi amor,” AveMaría murmured sleepily on the second occasion, “this would be, like, the perfect excuse.” The valley north of Columbus and west of the Florida Mountains had in the past two years become a major corridor for northward migration, so that the Critter units always saw plenty of action, no matter the time of day. As they were not allowed to shoot anyone, and the Border Patrol preferred to devote its investigative resources to sightings by the Minutemen on duty in the same sector, there was little the Critters could do but shake their fists, make faces, and yell at the wire jumpers, though this at least gave them a feeling of doing something.
For Héctor, visits to the Pink House were occasions of ecstatic agony—or agonized ecstasy, he couldn’t have said which. Weighed down by guilt, he felt himself simultaneously lighter than air, at once older than the hills and younger than a new-birthed star. Over and again, he asked himself whence came this passion he had for Jacinta Ruiz and when, without discovering an answer. It seemed rather to have taken hold of him by degrees and imperceptibly, in response to . . . Héctor wondered what. Had she sent the first, perhaps unconscious, signals to which he’d responded, or was it the other way round? Or had they met each other halfway? Héctor inclined toward the third proposition, perhaps because, in allowing him to regard himself as something less than a callous adulterer and Jacinta rather a fallen star than a designing woman, it was the most reassuring of the three. One way or another, what mattered now was that this secret relationship that had developed somehow between a woman named Jacinta Ruiz and a man called Héctor Villa was both real and infinitely gratifying to his heart—also, that the thing must not be permitted to proceed beyond this point. Jacinta, Héctor perceived—or thought he did—seemed pained, as well as puzzled, by his distant manner. And she doubtless wondered why he never paid a visit to the Pink House alone. His greatest worry, though, was that Jesús “Eddie” might get the wind up and confide his suspicions to Beatriz. While Héctor had implicit confidence in his friend, he could not have said the same for his friend’s wife—or anyone’s wife, for that matter, including his own. And yet, so far, he was guilty of nothing, absolutely nothing! (Excepting, of course, that single kiss round the corner in the twilight.)
Oppressed in almost equal measure by guilt, the demands of the holiday season, and Contracepción’s relentless “rehearsals,” as she called them, Héctor sought distraction in his responsibilities as a foot soldier in the Critter Company. Conscientious by nature, he took these duties seriously, even when it meant getting up at midnight and spending hours out in the desert scrub, bundled in heavy clothes against the terrible cold to hold the line against the relentless invasion from abroad. Many if not most Americans, Héctor had noticed over the years, spoke of what they referred to as “isolationists” in a manner that suggested they classified these reprobates in the same category with neo-Confederates and people who belonged to country clubs. This hostility was perplexing to him, in part because he had begun over the past year to consider himself an isolationist of a sort—though, naturally, he knew better than to say so outside the privacy of his own home. America, so far as Héctor Villa was concerned, was, quite simply, not just the one best place on earth but the only good place in a violent, immoral, and undemocratic world. What kind of American would not wish to build a wall around America the Beautiful, to keep that outside world from getting inside? Only those, he’d concluded, who, if not actually evil, were unpatriotic Americans. It was a matter of the utmost confusion and distress that President Bush himself, in every other way a paragon of the American nationalistic spirit, should be among those scoffers at isolationism, and a critic of the proposed Seven Hundred Mile Wall along the Southwest border as well. Was it possible that the President was simply out of touch with Mexico and the Mexican people? Perhaps he suffered from the delusion that the average Mexican had all the heroic and patriotic qualities of Pancho Villa himself. If only—Héctor lamented inwardly—the thing were really so!
All that was necessary to make these globaloney internationalists and unpatriots see the light, he was convinced, was to send them to work a twenty-four/seven shift on the southwest border, where they could experience sordid reality for themselves. God only knew, that reality was all-encompassing and inescapable down here. Hordes of immigrants from literally everywhere stampeding north amid clouds of dust among the cholla and sotol; armed coyotes brandishing handguns; Mexican army soldiers showing their heads from around what seemed like every other mesquite bush; Minutemen blowing whistles and shouting GPS locations into their two-way radios; drug mules scampering past like kangaroos; agents provocateurs of the Nation of Aztlán thrusting pamphlets advocating Reconquista and an end to White America into the hands of the hastening illegals; turbaned men and veiled women flitting like genies and phantoms through the night, pursued by shrieking Ku Kluxers in their white robes and pointy white hats that reminded one uncomfortably of the Washington Monument; the Ku Kluxers themselves chased by gaggles of American hippies holding signs that read welcome to amerika, amigos! che lives!—Héctor, in his wildest imagination, had never anticipated such chaos, such a zoo. And the detritus left by the invasion was equally unbelievable: acre upon acre, square mile after square mile of thrown-away backpacks, strewn underwear, empty baby bottles, used condoms (how did anyone manage successfully to deploy a condom in circumstances such as these?), half-eaten tortillas and rounds of Indian fry bread, the remains of shish kebabs still on their metal skewers, small brass hookahs and abandoned Middle Eastern and oriental rugs, plastic Buddhas and Confucius dolls, here and there a witch doctor’s rattle surrounded by a fringe of what might have been human hair, and Indonesian masks carved in what might equally have been the image of primitive devils or orangutans—all these things, taken together, representing an intergalactic rainbow of importunate human cultures.
After a week of this madness, Jesús “Eddie,” overwhelmed by depression and defeatism, sought time out in a shabby taberna in Columbus, leaving Héctor—to his modest pride—to fight on. Christmas was upon him like the Hound of Hell. In his gravely depleted financial state, the invasion battlefield offered an almost infinite array of free gifts, all of them his for the taking. In a period of a few days, Héctor gathered a winnowing of the spoils of war and bore them home in triumph to his wife. AveMaría, for the most part gratified and impressed, acquiesced in all of these trophies, the sole exception being a pair of smallish oblong rugs, beautifully woven of the most brilliant colors and fringed at both ends, that Héctor had particularly admired. “Islamic prayer rugs,” she insisted, “the work of the Assist of Evil—El Diablo himself! I won’t have them in the house—what would Brother Billy Joe have to say? ¡O Jesús María y José! You can throw them on top of that fallen-down barn out back, where the snakes come to warm themselves on nice days.”
Jesús “Eddie,” after a few days hanging out at the bar and having his Rio Abajo diction mercilessly mocked by the Mexican-Americans of Columbus, made an heroic decision to return to the front. Working together as a team late one mild December afternoon two days before Christmas, he and Héctor set out from the Juárez ranch in Jesús’s Dodge truck, driving south to the border. At Columbus, Jesús “Eddie” made a left turn onto Route 9, heading west in parallel with the international line toward the boot heel. There was little traffic along the road, most of the vigilantes having returned home for the holidays, and one trail of exotic litter after another showed where alien bands had recently crossed, taking advantage of the temporary withdrawal of the patriot forces.
“Why do the bastardos want to live in the Rio Abajo anyway, seeing as we talk so funny?” Jesús “Eddie” demanded. “How about we follow that two-track over there on the left—see if we can jump some mojados coming up the arroyo from the border.”
The truck made slow progress in the wash, and twilight was gathering already when Jesús proposed going the rest of the way on foot, carrying with them the long-handled nickel flashlights that were standard issue to border-patrol agents and the backpacks containing their survival gear. They had walked no more than two hundred yards when Jesús “Eddie” gestured violently at Héctor to get down, dropped to his hands and knees, and began crawling forward in the gravelly bottom. Héctor, surmising that he’d caught sight of something ahead, did likewise.
The clay felt unpleasantly chill and clammy to his bare hands, but there was no time to search out the gloves in his pack. Shoulder to shoulder with Jesús “Eddie,” Héctor crawled on up the wash, which, having narrowed considerably, commenced now to meander, first to the left, then to the right, resulting in a sequence of blind turns.
“Not mojados,” Jesús “Eddie” hissed, “—Islamists! You can tell by the curry smell. We’re almost to them now. Get ready for a fight, hombre!”
It seemed to Héctor he was still speaking when, from around the next curve in the bank, two faces, side by side in the wash, appeared abruptly, not ten feet ahead. They were Mexican faces, adorned by drooping mustaches and surmounted by black baseball caps. Their owners, also on hands and knees, similarly carried light packs on their shoulders. On seeing Héctor and Jesús “Eddie,” they started, then reared back in astonishment.
“¡Hermanos!” one of the men exclaimed. “What is it you think you are doing? You are going in the wrong direction!”
“¡No!” his partner exclaimed. “They are right! El Norte must be that way”—he jerked his thumb behind himself. “Our coyote—he has lost his way in the dark and is leading us back into México! ¡Maldito sea!”
Jesús “Eddie” stared at him, confounded. “If you guys really are Mexican,” he asked in a surly voice, “how come you smell like Islamists?”