Patty Somlo is the author of The First to Disappear, a Finalist in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, and National Indie Excellence Awards; Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace, which received Honorable Mention in the Reader Views Literary Awards; and Hairway to Heaven Stories, a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards. “How He Made It Across” was first published in Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos) and will appear in Somlo’s next book, From Here to There, forthcoming from Adelaide Books in August 2019.
HOW HE MADE IT ACROSS
The tenth time the agent asked Alejandro how he made it across, Alejandro gave him the same short weary answer.
“Sir, I walked.”
Alejandro was not too tall, with already dark skin browned further by the sun. His straight black hair looked as if it had been cut with the use of a bowl. He did not raise his head when he spoke.
The agent stood next to Alejandro’s chair, his right calf brushing the metal leg. He marched over to the desk and back, his steps heavy due to his substantial weight. If Alejandro had stood up, the agent would have towered over him by at least a foot. The agent’s hair was cut military style, and a pair of sunglasses hung like a weapon from his front uniform pocket.
Alejandro breathed in the acrid aroma of old coffee spilling from the agent’s breath. The agent had just leaned down, his face a few inches from Alejandro’s forehead.
“How did you make it across?” The agent paused, momentarily, after assaulting Alejandro with each word in slow motion for the eleventh time.
Alejandro hadn’t eaten for over twenty-four hours. His head ached and his stomach had grown sour. His mother had taught him to always tell the truth but the truth didn’t appear to be what the agent wanted.
“I walked across, sir,” Alejandro repeated for the eleventh time.
If the agent had known the entire truth, he would have needed to step outside, spit violently into the street, then stomp to the corner, yank open the heavy wooden door leading into Jake’s Bar, barely allowing his eyes to adjust, before blindly making his way over to the bar and demanding a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. What the agent didn’t know was that Alejandro Murghia Lopez left his village in the south of Mexico, close to the Guatemalan border, on a Monday, before the sun had come up. Teptapa was a mere sigh in the dusty road from Mexico City to Tegucigalpa, a town barely suggested by a tired tienda with an oft broken-down generator that kept lemon-lime and sweet orange refrescos cold. Yet, on a morning that was still cool and dark, Alejandro felt as if he were leaving more than a shrug of earth behind. He understood that he was also abandoning his life.
The distance was unfathomable. Being a simple man who believed in God, the Virgin Mary and the spirits of the corn, rain, moon and sun, Alejandro hadn’t bothered to discover how far America was from Teptapa. Funny thing, Alejandro didn’t know what America looked like, so how would he know once he arrived? He carried a few cold tortillas, a cupful of beans and another of rice, and a jar filled with water. On his feet, he wore a pair of Nike knockoffs a distant cousin had brought back from Tijuana.
By the fourth day of walking, Alejandro had lost track of time. He walked in the daylight and continued to walk at night. When he couldn’t walk any more, he lay down to rest in doorways and under bridges and once even in an abandoned car.
The agent’s head hurt, from his temples to a spot in back above his neck. This job is getting to me. That’s what he said to his girl, Maria, at the bar last night, every time she begged him to dance. He’d planned to stick to Coors, since he needed to get up for work at five. But all the damned beer did was fill him up. That’s why he started in on dark, sweet, 100-proof rum.
They’d finished the new fence and couldn’t understand how these cockroaches were still getting across. Computers, cameras, night-vision equipment and stuff the agent was still learning to operate were designed to alert the agents if anyone tried to cut a hole. The cameras were set to take a photograph and trip an alarm, the second an illegal tried to get across.
So, how did the fucker do it? The agent sure wanted to know. His head was pounding something awful. He’d already taken enough painkillers to put a man out.
“You walked?” the agent said, his right hand clutching the back of the chair where the little Mexican sat. He looked like an Indian to the agent.
“Yes, sir,” Alejandro whispered.
“What’d you say?”
“I walked, sir,” Alejandro replied, more loudly now.
Alejandro had grown dizzy as the last day wore on. Luckily, he was still headed in the right direction. The poor man wouldn’t have known if he’d gotten turned around. He had dreamed of coming to America for even longer than he could remember. His desire to reach the place had become the engine moving him forward, as the power in his legs was wearing out.
“What I’m trying to figure out is how’d you get past the fence?” The agent had pulled a wooden toothpick from his pocket and began to use it to clean the spaces between his top front teeth.
“I don’t understand,” Alejandro said, ashamed that his English was so poor.
“La frontera,” the agent shouted, the Spanish words carrying the twang of South Texas. “Como te vas atras?”
The agent mumbled under his breath, without waiting for Alejandro’s response. How the fuck did you do it?
Alejandro shuffled his feet and tried to calm the beating of his heart. He saw himself sitting on his porch back in Teptapa. What he couldn’t explain was how a man feels, right before the sun comes up, when the silence of the long black night suddenly gets broken by the rooster’s morning call. Alejandro couldn’t have described the way his spirit grew large and lifted him up, watching the fiery orange ball stretch up into the sky, streaked with shredded pink clouds. He had a good idea the agent wouldn’t understand that as the sun climbed, lighting up the fields, Alejandro began to believe he could do anything he wanted.
“Did you pay a coyote? Did someone help you across?” the agent asked now.
Alejandro slowly shook his head from side to side. He couldn’t explain that the man sitting in this chair was not the one who left Teptapa over a month before. That man, he was ashamed to admit, had collapsed onto the ground, before he even had a chance to try and make it across. At the moment when he hit the dirt, he was on the Mexican side, so close to America it would have taken only a few steps north to get across. His body dropped and the dust rose all around. For some reason, the wind suddenly picked up.
The wind is to blame, Alejandro wanted to say. Instead, he swallowed the words, just as they began to form in his mouth.
The agent walked heavily across the linoleum floor and out the door. Moving from the chilled air inside, the agent felt as if he’d been slapped with a hot dry towel. He looked down the road, where the air wavered above the pavement. A cold beer would taste awfully good right now, he thought.
Dust buried the tips of his boots a few minutes after he started to walk. He knew it was against patrol procedures to leave an alien alone in the office uncuffed. If the truth be told, the agent hoped Alejandro would take off. He understood that the Mexican wasn’t about to tell him how he made it across. He’d let the little guy vanish and both of them would be off the hook.
By the time the agent returned to the office, after nursing one cold Coors Light, Alejandro was heading toward San Diego. He had gone past the point of hunger. He understood that on the Mexican side of the border something otherworldly had taken place -- the man he had been was turned into dust, after his last breath released itself and his heart made one final clap. The dust of Alejandro Murghia Lopez, a poor farmer from Teptapa, lifted into the wind above the border and drifted across. As it cleared the fence meant to keep Mexicans like Alejandro out, the dust didn’t even bother to hide.
Alejandro entered the city of San Diego at dusk. It took him no time to blend in with the other men from villages where light at night came from the stars.
Months after, he found himself on a warm clear evening, looking up at the sky. He imagined that the poor farmer from Teptapa was hanging suspended there, wondering whether coming to America had been worth giving up his life. At that moment, the quiet, copper-skinned man assured his old self that he was glad he had made it to the other side. Though life wasn’t easy, as the poor farmer had so often fantasized, this American guy, Al Lopez, was doing all right.