Chuck awoke to the sounds of chickadees, bluebird, wrens and hummingbirds singing in sweet Mexican harmony just outside the window to Mirabella’s spare bedroom. Less a spare room and more a laundry room with a mattress on the floor, Chuck smelled the unmistakable salty, greasy smell of bacon crisping on the skillet. Sunlight beamed across his face from two slit windows pressed against the ceiling. Chuck stood noticing a fresh pair of shorts and t-shirt resting atop a clean towel and small tube of toothpaste.
Chuck changed out of his shirt and shorts, trying on the new ones that Mirabella laid out for him and threw the towel over his shoulder. He viewed the laundry room, a drab cement box of a space with short, high windows and a wooden roof that resembled the same style he recalled from Pedro’s room. A thin, firm carpet, rust and brown colored like the wooden beams of the ceiling, scratched his bare feet.
“Buenos días,” he said to Mirabella as he exited his room into her aromatic kitchen. The combined kitchen and dining room adjoined to the living room as one big, open space, but separated by different color area rugs and furniture appropriate to each function.
Mirabella stood at the stove lifting the strips of bacon out of the skillet onto a plate. She poured a cup of coffee and pointed to the table for Chuck to sit, serving him a plate of bacon, a muffin and some strawberries.
“Comer mucho,” she said to him, pointing to her mouth and repeating the verb for “eat”.
“Eat,” Chuck said. “I eat. You eat. He eats. She eats. We eat. They eat.”
“Yo como,” she replied. “You eat es comes. He eat es el come. She eat es ella come. We eat es comemos, y they eat es ellos comen.”
“Sí,” Chuck pointed to Mirabella. “Comemos.”
Mirabella ported a plate for herself and sat across from Chuck. She reached toward his swollen eye as if to touch it and recoiled before making contact with his face. She made a noise akin to “ooh” and Chuck scrunched his nose as if to indicate that it didn’t hurt or bother him.
“¿Usar el teléfono?” Chuck asked, straining to formulate coherent Spanish sentences and glancing about to spy another opportunity to reach his daughters. “Teléfono a America?”
“Lo siento,” Mirabella replied, attempting to speak in as simplified a Spanish as possible. “No llamadas telefónicas internacionales.”
“No international?” Chuck repeated
“Sí,” she replied. “No internacional.”
After several misunderstood bits of poorly spoken Spanish and English, followed by a comedy of hand motions, Chuck managed to indicate to Mirabella that he would like to access the internet phone and she enthusiastically handed him her phone.
She didn’t have a Facebook icon, and accessing his e-mail through the browser was a challenge given the default Spanish language setting. But, with the small sticky note in hand where he had written all the critical log-in and password details for his most important applications such as his e-mail and Facebook accounts, he managed to create a new, blank e-mail, fill in the recipient field and interpret the Send button with a bit of successful guessing.
After crafting specific loving messages to all three daughters as well as his wife, reassuring them of his good health and safety and promising to find a way to call them, Chuck sat across from Mirabella at her kitchen table. He downed his bacon, drank his orange juice and nodded in appreciation to his host.
“Donde esta Pedro?” Chuck asked.
“En la yarda,” she said, pointing out the back window. “Ahi.”
They ate in relative silence, with Chuck occasionally blurting out “delicioso” to compliment his host. After clearing both plates and washing them in the sink, he looked out the kitchen window at Pedro. The boy sat in a wooden chair under an awning that extended from the back of the house. He had a dozen different carving knives arrayed across a picnic table and whittled away at a bock of wood.
“¿Qué pasó en el hotel?” he asked Mirabella.
“Nada,” she said, her beaming smile melting away. “No quiero hablar de ello.”
“Does Pedro know about Riko Grande?”
Mirabella’s face brightened red and her sad expression turned mean.
“No le digas,” she whispered like the hiss of a snake. “You no tell.”
For a moment, her dark eyes and angry expression reminded him of Uncle Alias.
Mirabella cleared their empty plates and stood facing Chuck with her back to the kitchen window.
“Es mi problema.” she said, softening. “Por favor, señor.”
Chuck nodded and left the kitchen, exiting the back door and joining Pedro in the yard.
“Hola Pedro,” Chuck said as he faced the hot morning sun. “Que esta, or uh, esto ques, uh, es esto?”
Pedro smirked at Chuck’s broken Spanish and replied in English.
“This is how I make the animals,” he said. “They sell very well. They help us pay for our food. I sell them at the hotel and on the street corners.”
“I wanted to see how you dyed them that amazing orange and brown color,” said Chuck.
Pedro tossed the pale white ball of wood on the table and waved Chuck to follow him. They walked into the swampy area behind the house. Pedro followed a well-worn path around a grove of trees that sloped down a hill on his left, with the soft muddy ground to his right.
They stopped at a spot where the boggy land met a ridge of harder flat ground. Chuck noticed a series of red, blue, green and yellow flags protruding from the bog attached to thin metal rods. Pedro waded into the swamp. The mud seeped up his ankles and squished as he left imprints behind him. Chuck removed his socks and shoes and waded in after the boy. Pedro reached into the mud and pulled up a metal cage that resembled a lobster trap. Only instead of crawling red crustaceans, the bin contained several ornately carved wooden animals.
“The teka wood is very resisting to the water,” he said. “I bury them overnight in the mud and they soak in the color from the bottom of the swamp area. They get the orange from the minerales. Our home used to be a gas station and the oil and gas was leaked into the water here. There’s the limestone and the gypsum and the alluvium. They react with the acids in the water and the oils and they burn into the wood. But the oils seal in the color and give the wood the nice finish.”
“Amazing,” Chuck said, removing one of the carved items from the bin and rotating it in the sun. “Does your mother own all this land?”
“Sí,” Pedro said. “It belonged to my father’s family. We own the land all the way past the canal to the highway over that hill. His brothers and cousins sell to Riko Grande. But, mi papá, he pay it back to get it for my mami when they get married.”
“What happened to your father?” Chuck asked. “He went to the United States?”
“Yes,” Pedro said. “He worked at the hardware store with señor Grande. They both worked for señor Agundez, who owned the place. My dad borrowed the money from his boss, Mr. Agundez. But we don’t make so much money like we thought. My dad worked hard for señor Agundez to pay him back. But it’s a lot of money.”
“You still owe the money to señor Agundez?”
“No, he’s dead,” said Pedro. “He was killed. Nobody ever find out, but we all know señor Grande have him killed so he can own the hardware store instead.”
“So, your debt was passed on to señor Grande?” Chuck surmised the story. “And, your father went to the United States to try and make money to pay off your debts?”
“Sí, yes,” Pedro said, plucking several of the bins with red flags and shaking the excess water from them. “He went through the old tunnel before the Americans exploded it.”
“How long ago was that?” Chuck asked.
“Like five years ago,” Pedro replied, a quick sadness washing his face before wiping away nearly as furtively. “I haven’t seen him or heard from him since then.”
They made their way back along the path toward the house.
“The teka trees are up on that hill,” said Pedro. “That’s where I get the wood.”
Behind the house, under the tattered awning, Pedro had an entire woodworking studio of equipment including an impressive router table, a band saw, a miter and a full lathe. His carving knives sat strewn across a large table. Along the inside wall, hammers, drills, saws and screw drivers rested in hand made cubby holes. Next to a five-foot-tall nail and screw cabinet.
Bright white saw dust and wood carving remnants lay across the cement patio with weeds poking through. At the far end of the patio, an impressive pile of solid wood beams, planks, two-by-fours and huge sheets of plywood piled more than five feet high, against the side of the house. A large blue plastic tarp covered much of the pile and flapped freely in the breeze snapping loudly with each gust.
“Jesus,” Chuck said. “Where did you get all this? The hardware store, I guess?”
“My father had the machines,” Pedro replied. “I just got it from him when he left. The wood, I get from the junk yard. It’s amazing how much good wood people just throw away. I take it and I strip it down. I cut out the bad parts and I make new works out of it. I sell the furniture and the picture frames. I make my animals and I sell good finished wood to other carpenters. Many of the woods you used at the hotel came from my collection. I make pretty good dollars.”
Chuck pointed out a square wood frame that looked like a work in progress.
“What’re you making over here?” he asked.
“This here?” Pedro asked with a chuckle. “That’s going to be your bed, señor.”
Chuck and Pedro spent the morning measuring and cutting to construct the bed. They used the lathe to create ornately twisted round slats for the foot and headboard. Pedro produced a tub of brown ooze and handed chuck a paintbrush.
“We apply the mud and oil,” he said. “Then we rub in the olive oils and wipe it all down with the old towels and let it sit in the sun for the afternoon. We will get a nice, beautiful finish.”
They spent an hour slowly rubbing the natural stain mixture into all the crevasses and pressuring the oils into the pores to create a rich, smooth surface.
Following the construct of the bed, Chuck and Pedro climbed the roof to fix broken ceramic tiles and install a gutter to help manage the flow of water away from the patio and into the swampy yard behind the house.
From the top of the structure, Chuck could see across the vast swampy property that Pedro and Mirabella occupied. To the left, a hill rose and flattened past the wetlands. Cedar, teak and pine trees rose into the air near the eastern side of the house. A clearing just beyond the trees featured wild patches of Mexican feather grass with hints of petunias and lavender coloring the yellow and beige landscape. The muddy flatlands directly behind the house extended as far as Chuck could see, with a distant road far in the background. The western side featured several additional acres of mud and wild grasses, with additional trees bordering a fence along the right edge of the property.
“I get the wood for the animals from these teka trees,” Pedro pointed. “I get the other wood for the furniture from the vertadero, the garbage dump. It’s just through the fence by those trees. The people, they throw away some of the best wood and I take it before they can resell it to the banditos.”
As Chuck stood, inhaling the fresh scent of lavender and newly cut teak wood, he felt the massage of the sun bronze his bare back. Sweat ran down his forehead and his scraggly hair matted into his eyes.
Mirabella emerged from the kitchen and placed two large fresh glasses of ice water with lemons floating at the tops of the containers, and the men climbed down to enjoy the refreshing thirst-quenchers. As they sat at the woodworking table, sipping their ice-cold drinks, Chuck asked Pedro for more detail about his father’s escape from Mexico.
“So, the tunnel went literally under the Rio Grande?”
“Sí,” he replied. “They dig a tunnel into the hill and then a hole deep in the mud and sand. The hole goes down on the angle. Then a space opens up just big enough to stand. And when you get close to the river, they push big round tubes into the tunnel and close them off with cement. They’re not so wide, but you can crawl through them and when they snap together just right, with the cement all around them, they don’t let the water in.”
“Mind if I ask why you and Mirabella stayed behind?”
“We all went together,” Pedro said. “The tunnel was so dark and hard to crawl. But we got to the other side and we made it to America.”
“You were in America?”
“Sí,” said Pedro. “But it don’t look no different than Reynosa.”
“And, it’s just as dangerous there,” Pedro continued. “I don’t know why they call it the land of opportunity. America was just as dangerous.”
“And, you still want to go back?” Chuck asked.
“Sí,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before señor Grande come for his money. He likes me and my mami, so he leaves us alone. But, if he needs the money, he’ll come after us. That’s why I keep telling mi mami we gotta go.”
“What happened to your father?” Chuck asked.
“The men with guns and the big dog logo on their shirt, they come after us,” he said. “They shoot many of the people, dead, as they come out the tunnel. My papá ran fast and made it over the hill, but I was little and I fell. Mi mami come for me and help me up. But the men on the other side of the hill, they all get shot at by the American dog men. They call them the Border Dogs and they blow up the tunnel. Me and mi mami are the only ones who escape back through the tunnel and return to Reynosa before they explode it and all the water rushes in. We almost drown, but we made it back just in time.”
“And your father?”
“He got away,” said Pedro. “He escaped the Border Dogs and made it into America.”
“How do you know?”
“Mi mami told me,” Pedro said. “She said he made it alive. She said she saw him in the dark, running away over the hills. She said she saw him escape, safe.”
Chuck fell quiet for a moment, imagining 10-year-old Pedro clinging to his mother as bullets whistled by their heads. He pictured their friends and neighbors face down and bloody in the sand, shot dead by vigilante American bigots. Maybe they were racist pigs. Maybe they were honest Americans upholding a cause they held to be noble and just. Chuck had no idea what to think about the broader issue around illegal immigration – or any immigration for that matter. He only understood the desperation of his own situation and his unshaken personal belief that he had a moral right to return to his home; the place of his residence that he had purchased with his hard-earned money; which he had faithfully squared with the government every year; the humble patch of property that housed his wife and three offspring.
He felt sick to his stomach thinking of Pedro’s father, separated from his wife and child, desperate to escape the violence and bloodshed all around him. He empathized with the fateful decision Mirabella must have made to turn back and leave her son’s father to his own fate in the hostile and dangerous land of opportunity.
It caused him to reflect on his own family and the continued angst his three precious daughters must have felt without him. He could barely keep track of the days since he had been ripped out of their lives. The words “five years” and “ten years” reverberated in his mind like painful echoes, tapping the nerves in his temples. His head throbbed and his eyes watered.
He turned to Pedro and looked him straight in the eyes.
“Where’s this tunnel?”