Chuck awoke at the hotel with the bright sun streaming through the thin linen curtains and the roosters crowing at the first light of the morning sunrise. He stripped off his bathrobe and took a hot shower, possibly his last in some time. Mr. Casteneda told him he could eat breakfast and lunch in the hotel as he finished a few last tasks, but that he would have to move on to another residence in the evening.
He took his time, relaxing on the soft bed and resting his head against the fluffy pillow that he had come to enjoy over the past week. By late morning, he was ready to bring his metal key down to the front desk and bid the Casa del Sol farewell after filling his stomach with home cooked hot food one last time.
As he passed the front desk, Miguel nervously motioned for him to approach. As he did, the young manager handed him a stack of Mexican currency, which he folded in half and stuffed in his pocket.
“Western Union,” he whispered.
Octavio brought him an egg and hot pepper breakfast burrito. And as he downed his fresh papaya juice, he viewed Mirabella in a short black dress emerge from the elevator and wander to her shop. Turning the “Cerrado” sign to the other side that read “Abierto”, she flipped the lights and powered the cash register.
Octavio met Chuck at his seat and offered to take his empty plate.
“She’s here at strange hours,” Chuck said, nodding in Mirabella’s direction. “What do you know about her?”
“Nothing señor,” Octavio said, quickly looking to move back to the kitchen. “I don’t know nothing about señora Lopez.”
“Does she work for Mr. Casteneda?” he asked. “Or does she rent the space from him?”
“Señor Casteneda give her the space and she keep whatever she sells,” Octavio said.
“Really?” Chuck said, looking curiously at her moving back and forth across the storefront. “What’s in it for him then?”
“I don’t know,” said Octavio. “He just a nice guy I guess. She used to be very troubled girl. But he save her and give her the store to help her make her money and stay out of the trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” Chuck asked.
“Oh, I don’t know nothing about that, señor,” Octavio said, walking away. “Don’t know nothing.”
Chuck walked to the shop and caught Mirabella by surprise. She jumped when he turned the corner and almost bumped into her.
“Hola, hello,” she said.
“Buenas dias,” Chuck replied. “Es hermosa,”
“Gracias,” she replied, blushing slightly.
“Aminals,” chuck clarified, pointing at the carved animals, of which half had sold since they stacked them together the other day.
“Ah, sí,” Mirabella smiled. “Animales de madera. Muey Bonito. Very pretty.”
Since the store remained empty and Chuck had little work to do, he lingered, pointing at other objects on the shelves and asking her the Spanish words, while translating to English. She opened the refrigerator and offered him a Mexican soda.
“Limón,” she said. “Delicioso. Mi favorito.”
They clanked bottles and drank lemon sodas together.
A patron Chuck assumed to be a customer emerged from the hotel lobby and walked straight at Mirabella. Chuck stepped aside as the customer, a large Mexican man, moved swiftly through the store toward Mirabella. For a moment, Chuck thought he recognized the tall, chubby man in his faded chinos and white silky shirt.
The tall, bearded man immediately started shouting at Mirabella in a series of rolling Spanish sentences that sounded to Chuck like a recording set to double speed.
Mirabella fired back in equally impressive Spanish. Octavio poked his head from the kitchen along with several other staff members. Miguel briefly walked to the entrance of the shop before dashing off toward the exit.
The big Mexican pointed out the door toward the street and Mirabella motioned that she needed to stay in the store. Chuck took a step forward to intervene as the big man seemed to reach a point of anger that seemed like it could lead to violence.
As Chuck looked closer, he recognized the big Mexican as the same drunkard with the wild beard who chased him into the tomato garden and ultimately broke his arm a week earlier.
“Excusa,” he said, not exactly sure what Spanish phrase to put together next. “Problemo?”
The man looked blankly at him, chuckled slightly and continued to berate Mirabella. Chuck could make out the term “gringo” during the diatribe.
Mirabella called to Octavio and spoke with him in Spanish. Octavio shook his head, apparently disagreeing with something she said. She then spoke again, pointing at Chuck and then back to Octavio.
“She has to go now,” Octavio said. “She wants to know if you watch the store while she go. Pedro, her son, is come here with more animales de madera, the wooden animals and then he work at the store when he get there.”
“Sure, but,” Chuck started, looking worriedly at Mirabella. “Where’s she going? And who’s this?”
Octavio didn’t answer Chuck as Mirabella exited the store.
“Lo siento, señor,” she called back to him as the big Mexican took her less than gently by the elbow. “Gracias.”
Chuck watched Mirabella’s curved hips sway as the breeze batted her short skirt back and forth across her back side. As they turned the corner, the belligerent Mexican spread his large dirty hand across her bare back and led her into his big white minivan. Chuck watched the dust spin from the tires as they sped down the road.
“What the hell was all that?” Chuck asked Octavio. “Who was that guy?”
“Don’t know nothing, señor,” he replied, returning to his spot in the kitchen.
Mr. Casteneda rounded the corner, in a hurry, followed by Miguel. He approached Chuck glancing around the store as if looking for Mirabella.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“She left,” Chuck replied.
“Maldito,” he said, turning to Miguel. “Mierda Riko Grande.”
“What’s going on?” Chuck asked.
“Riko Grande,” he said, leaving the store and walking out to the street, calling back through the doorway. “Did you see which way they went, Mr. Chuck?”
“They left in a mini-van,” Chuck said, joining Mr. Casteneda in the square.
“Maldito,” he repeated. “Mierda sea, Riko Grande.”
Chuck went back into the store. Mirabella’s half-consumed lemon soda sat on the counter next to the register. Mr. Casteneda returned to the store.
“When Pedro comes,” he said with a stern tone of urgency. “You tell him I sent señora Lopez out for supplies. Nobody says she went to Riko Grande. Sí? Nobody say it to him.”
“Why?” Chuck asked. “Is she in trouble.”
Mr. Cateneda turned away, ignoring the question, and returned to his office behind the key wall.
Only about 20 minutes later, Pedro cheerfully strode through the hotel lobby with a box, a little smaller than the previous one.
“Where’s mi madre?” he asked. “She here? She leave you in charge?”
“Yes,” chuck said, helping Pedro unload his latest creations. “She’s running errands for Mr. Casteneda.”
“Ok, good,” Pedro said. “You working at the store now?”
“Well, no,” said Chuck. “She asked me to watch the store until you got here.”
“I got a big job to do today,” Pedro said. “I got no time to watch the store. We can just close it. It’s ok. Just lock it up, señor.”
“I need to stay,” Chuck said, sipping his soda. “I promised your mother.”
“You want to make some money?” Pedro asked. “I can get you a job.”
“What job?” Chuck asked.
“A job like me,” he said. “It pays good. Real good.”
“What’s this job?” Chuck asked.
“Come with me,” he said, flipping the sign from “Abierto” to “Cerrado”. “We’ll go work for señor Grande.”
“Señor Grande?” Chuck asked, flipping the sign back to the “Abierto” side. “The big thug that runs the hardware store?”
“Sí,” Pedro laughed. “Es un ‘thug’, un maton. Sí.”
“What do you do for him?”
“After mi madre gets back, you should come,” Pedro said. “I will show you the tunnel we are digging.”
“Tunnel?” Chuck asked. “What tunnel?”
Pedro clutched Chuck under the arm and maneuvered him to the corner of the store.
“We’re digging a tunnel to America,” he said. “Señor Gonzalez, uh, that’s Riko Grande as we call him, he pays us to dig on the weekends with the other workers from his store. Mi madre, she works here at night. So, she don’t know I go work for señor Grande. Cinco pesos an hour he pays me. Some of the older guys, he pays siete and he gets them women too, for free. All the men in town want to work for señor Grande. He got diez o viento men out there at any time. They dig and dig through the loose dirt and the sand.”
“They’re digging a tunnel under the border?” Chuck asked.
“Sí,” Pedro beamed. “We can go to America in a week, maybe two when the tunnel will be finished digging. Señor Riko Grande will eventually charge the people from the caravans ten or 20 pesos each to cross through his tunnel. At like 1,000 to 2,000 people in the caravans, he will make many dollars. My job is to build the wood beams that hold up the roof of the tunnel so don’t uh, how do you say, uh ‘fall down’, or uh, collapse.”
“How long it this tunnel?”
“Like a half of a mile,” said Pedro. “It goes down and then right under the river, the Rio Grande. Amazing. It’s almost done. Señor Grande charges money for people to pass through when it’s finished. Anyone who wants to go to America, they get a chance at a better life.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to cross the border illegally?”
“Well, sí,” said Pedro. “For the people who own the businesses here in Reynosa, they do ok. But, if you are a poor people, it is very dangerous to live in the streets or in the Pueblo de Chicos where the drug lords, the pimps and the whores work on the streets. Then you want to leave here so you can get a better chance. Because if you stay in the poor parts of the city, then you either die or you get caught up in the drugs and the gangs.”
“Are you going to America?”
“Sí,” Pedro beamed. “I will go to see my dad. I will take mi madre. We can be together again.”
“It sounds interesting,” Chuck said. “Maybe next weekend.”
“Ok,” Pedro said. “I go now. Meet me at the bus stop across the street from the hotel Saturday morning and we go together to dig.”
Pedro grabbed a soda as he left the shop.
“Limón,” he said. “Mami’s favorite.”
Chuck smiled and held up his lemon soda.
“This is what you want, right?” said Pedro. “You miss your family, like I miss my papá. No?”
Chuck rubbed his week-long facial hair, which had become somewhat of a beard.
“Sí,” he said. “Sí.”