Chuck dropped to his knees and envisioned the screams of his daughters. He could picture their pale faces and bright eyes in the paint-chipped building walls, in the rolling hills surrounding the city and in the swirling clouds overhead.
The taste of dirt worked its way into Chuck’s dry nostrils and down his scratchy throat. His grey slacks, white dress shirt and navy-blue sport coat all turned dark beige in the swirling breeze as dust clung to him like barnacles to the bow of a fishing boat.
“What do I do now?” Chuck thought to himself as he strode down a darkened Mexican street. “How do I get home to my family? Where do I go from here?”
His stomach ached and his head spun. Earlier in the day, in his cell at the ICE compound in San Antonio, they fed him a small turkey sandwich. He wasn’t sure if it served as lunch, breakfast or brunch. Time seemed to have stopped for him since the pounding at his front door. Having missed dinner the previous night, he realized he hadn’t eaten more than the limp turkey-on-wheat over the past 24 hours.
More than hungry, his lips tingled with thirst and he felt dizzy as he trudged through the dirt streets of his new home. He came to a bar wedged between a laundromat and a pharmacy. A string of white lights drooped festively from the curved tile roof. They brightened the yellow stucco of the façade.
Large open spaces allowed Chuck to view directly into the guts of the establishment, which appeared to serve both alcohol and food. The dark interior featured a long, ornately-glazed, oak bar with several dozen patrons sitting like a human wall along numerous round wooden stools. Smaller square tables cluttered the inside of the fifty-square-foot establishment. And, along the sidewalk, tall round tables extended several feet past the end of the building with one nearly blocking the door to the laundromat and the other in front of the plate glass window of the pharmacy.
Chuck nodded to several of the patrons siting along the sidewalk, drinking their beers and munching on tortillas and corn pancakes.
“Agua,” he said, awkwardly to the bartender.
“Es todo?” the bartender said with a disapproving frown. “Nada mas?”
The Spanish phrases were simple, but spoken too quickly for Chuck to sort out based on his limited memory of Spanish from his very young childhood.
“Agua,” he repeated.
The bartended scowled and filled a glass sliding it down the bar to him. Chuck guzzled the clear, refreshing liquid in seconds and called back to the bartender.
“Uno Mas?” he said, feeling more confident.
But the bartender, tossing a rag over his shoulder, pointed to the large opening to the street.
“Si no vas a beber, vete,” he snarled.
Chuck looked at him in bewilderment.
“Vete,” the bartended repeated, louder, catching the attention of some less than savory characters that previously seemed almost embedded in the woodwork of the bar.
A tall, heavyset man with dark skin and a wild mustache and beard stood up. He uttered something friendly to the bartender before turning his mean, black eyes to Chuck.
“Gracias,” Chuck said nervously, backpedaling out of the establishment. “Never mind. De nada”
As Chuck returned to the street, the bartender turned toward his regulars and life moved on as if he had never set foot in the building. But the altercation did nothing to stave his hunger. As he walked down the street, away from the bartender’s view, he noticed a tip of a few pesos left on the last highball table near the laundromat.
After a nervous glance into the depths of the bar, Chuck ambled closely to the table and swiped the money before picking up his stride down the street. While he didn’t want to risk a suspicious look over his shoulder, his intuition told him to make sure he had not raised any negative attention.
He had, in fact, generated considerable interest as three young men, including the tall bearded goon from the bar all sprinted out of the dark entryway down the street toward him. He could hear shouting and made out the words “putan” and “bastardo”. Chuck’s adrenaline kicked in and his flight instinct revved his legs into high gear.
Not overly athletic in recent years, Chuck reverted to a childlike state, pressing his body to accelerate beyond his natural ability. His clumsy dress shoes clacked along the hard clay street. He felt small rivers of sweat break out across his face and pits. The sounds of Spanish swear words and flapping sandals behind him drove him to push harder and aim for the end of the street where he could turn the corner with enough distance to find a bush or alley in which to hide.
The chase lasted to the end of the block as his pursuers, while young and fast, had also succumbed to a fair bout of inebriation. By the time Chuck rounded the corner to the next side street, hopped a fence and clamored behind some overgrown shrubbery in a residential back yard, the trio of attackers had already given up on him. In the distance he could make out words he remembered from his childhood such as “mierda” and “puta madre”.
Chuck heaved while remaining prone not more than 50-feet from the back door to a residence on the corner of the street. His pant leg ripped in his dash over the little white fence and a small trickle of blood flowed from a cut on his ankle. More alarming, he seemed to have a huge gush of blood smeared all over his thigh.
He reached to feel for his wound, only to recognize the sweet pungent smell of tomato. In his frantic escape he had landed in a small backyard garden, surrounded by bright, ripe tomatoes, peppers and zucchinis. Glancing nervously at the back door to the house, he plucked a large red, juicy tomato from the vine and took a heaping bite. The sweet, acidic juice of the palm-sized little red ball ran down his chin and dripped on his shirt. The joy of nourishment lasted only a few seconds as a big, black dog appeared at the screen door window barking loudly at him with a menacing, drool-laden snarl.
Chuck attempted to pick a few zucchini’s and escape back to the street when another large man, holding a baseball bat appeared at the door, towering over the greatly agitated dog.
“Ataque,” shouted the resident.
Dropping the vegetables, Chuck barely cleared the fence as the charcoal black lab nipped at his bloodied ankle. Chuck could hear the screen door slap the side of the house, followed by the click of the fence latch opening. The terrifying sound of the snarling dog filled the air.
“Ratero,” his voice echoed across the street and down the alley toward the bar.
Chuck didn’t look back as he dashed down the side street, through tight alleys and across several back yards. As he reached a fenced dead end, he could hear the angry hound growling not far behind him. He clawed the diamond-shaped lattice of the fence to hoist himself over the top and out of the reach of the attack dog at his heels.
He darted out the alley into the next street, stumbled on an uneven fissure in the road and cracked his knee hard against the rigid cobblestone. As he lay flat on the dark street, he looked back dreading the approach of the gnarly dog. But instead, the grating sound of angry barking and steady stream of Spanish swears again dissipated into the distance.
Chuck rolled to his back and clutched his knee.
Appearing upside down from Chuck’s vantage point, a young boy sat on a bench across the street from him. In a bucket on a table sat a small pile of round red apples. The glow of the moonlight seemed to illuminate them, highlighting the only bit of color across Chuck’s peripheral view.
The boy looked at him quizzically, but didn’t move or speak as Chuck hobbled off the ground and attempted to stand.
“Apples?” he asked the boy, pointing at his bucket. “Uh venda? venta? Por la dinerio?”
“Veinticinco,” the boy responded.
Chuck took the few pesos he had stolen out of his pocket and limped toward the boy with the bills extended.
“Uno?” he muttered as the boy took the cash from his hands.
“Diez?” the boy scowled. “Viente.”
Chuck looked at the boy helplessly and shot his hands out to either side as if to indicate that he had no more money.
“Por favor,” he warbled, exhausting about all the phrases he could remember.
“Momento,” the boy replied, tucking the money into his pants pocket on the left while pulling out a switch blade from the pocket on the right.
Chuck flinched as the silver blade winked at him in the twilight of the near full moon.
The boy grabbed an apple from the top of his pile and sliced a chunk. Looking chuck in the eye, he ate the chunk and then sliced another one. After throwing the second slice into his mouth, he tossed the halved apple to Chuck.
“Diez,” he laughed.
Stephanie Domo sat at her kitchen table. The Domo household in Pleasanton, Texas felt like one of those quiet rooms where musicians go to practice a brass instrument. Like a vacuum, the dark house seemed to suck all sounds of human interaction into a vortex. Stephanie felt as if living deep inside the tightest noise-cancelling headphones on the market.
Britney sat on her bed, nearly comatose, listening to music through her headphones. Ashley hadn’t even come home the night before, asking to stay with a friend to escape the depression of the house. Stephanie found it difficult to speak with the girls and spent most of her time either studying immigration laws on the internet or meeting her lawyer, Rupert T. Beckman at his office, at the local Starbucks or right there at the kitchen table.
The doorbell sliced through the air and Emily emerged from the family room to answer it.
“Good morning Emily,” Rupert smiled modestly. “How’re you holding up?”
“Did you speak with the Senator?” Emily asked, forgoing the small talk. “Is she willing to help us get my dad back?”
“I have a message in,” Rupert started to answer.
“Did the immigration office tell you where he is?” Emily continued.
“Why don’t I take this up with your mother,” said Rupert in as soft and relaxed a tone as he could muster.
“He’s been here too long to qualify for expedited expulsion,” Emily rattled off the facts she researched. “And, there’s no precedent for a simple ticket to serve as enough of a crime to justify same day deportation.”
“Emily,” Stephanie said as she crossed the foyer to greet Rupert. “Why don’t you make Mr. Beckman an English muffin and some tea.”
“Ok, but I want answers,” she said as she stormed into the kitchen.
“Seventh grade going on Pre-Law,” Stephanie mustered a half-smile as she moved toward Rupert awkwardly as if to give him a hug or a platonic cheek kiss, but instead more formally shaking his extended hand. “Come on into the kitchen.”
Rupert opened his soft, black leather brief case and took out a MacBook laptop, a long yellow notepad and several folders stuffed with papers.
“I don’t believe ICE had a legal right to dispel your husband,” he said, as Emily placed a plate of buttered and jellied English muffins next to the yellow note pad and then sat beside her mother with rapt attention.
“Of course not,” Emily said. “The closest we are to any part of the Mexican border is 143 miles to a city called Piedras Negras. The first rule is that you have to live within 100 miles.”
“This is true,” Rupert said. “But they’ve listed Mr. Domo’s address as McAllen, Texas, which is only 10-12 miles from the border. So, they managed to satisfy that requirement.”
“What about the fact that he’s been here so long?” Stephanie asked. “Maybe even his whole life depending on whether or not he was born here?”
“The answer I received from the senior director of the San Antonio office is that there’s no record of Carlos Dominguez entering or residing in the United States, so they can interpret his arrival as ‘imminently recent’.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” Stephanie turned red. “He’s been here for our entire marriage and well before that.”
“Not according to the official record of the United States Immigration Service.”
“And, what about the ticket,” Emily asked. “They’re only supposed to send away people who commit violent crimes. I read it online.”
“Unfortunately,” Rupert spoke slowly and deliberately. “The statute is vague enough to be interpreted very liberally, and the INS has chosen to take the broadest definition in this case.”
“But why?” Stephanie asked. “Why Charles?”
“That, I don’t know,” Rupert said. “But there’s good news – maybe.”
Stephanie and Emily simultaneously perked in their chairs and leaned forward.
“It’s not much,” Rupert couched his commentary. “But we can catch them in circular logic.”
Rupert took a sip of his tea and continued.
“They deported him based on their record of his residency in McAllen, Texas,” he continued. “And, they claimed to have no record of when he arrived here in the United States.”
“So,” Emily completed Rupert’s thought. “How could they have a record of him living here and not have a record of him coming here?”
“Exactly,” Rupert allowed his face to brighten just a bit. “Pre-Law indeed.”
The moon rose high into the night sky. Chuck wandered a fair distance from the bar and garden where he had made himself an unwanted guest. His still empty stomach burned from the excessively acidic foods he had eaten. His gouged knee ached from the fall onto the rock-hard cobblestone street. His ankle throbbed from the slice he had taken in his leap over the little white fence. His back also seized up from excessive sprinting through the streets of Reynosa, causing him to hunch as he limped through the town. He needed to sit. Ultimately, he needed to sleep.
By now, most of the lights in the homes along the densely congested residential streets turned dark. The din of cars and voices that had previously filled the neighborhoods faded to relative silence.
Chuck emerged from a narrow dirt road into an open area. Across a grassy park, he spied a bench by a fountain. Flakes of green paint littered the surrounding dirt and burned out grass. The moon illuminated it like an oasis in the desert. Chuck hobbled across the grassy field and flopped on the bench.
Using his jacket as a makeshift pillow, he closed his eyes. He shut out the distant sound of salsa music. He shunned the all-too-bright moonlight. And, as his slumber overtook him, in his mind, he escaped the wretched hell of his Mexican exile to join his wife on his plush king-sized bed in suburban Texas – America.
In what seemed like an instant, Chuck awoke. The sunrise peaked above the foothills to the east and lit the sky in burnt orange light. In addition to Chuck’s sore knee, ankle and back, his neck also tightened overnight and he found it hard to prop himself from his prone position.
At first, he thought his ankle hurt more in the morning than it had the prior evening, but then, he shot upright like a bolt and yanked his pant leg to investigate the sharp needle-like pains he felt up and down his entire leg.
Three horrifying words; Mexican Fire Ants. There must have been several dozens of them traversing his leg like a rush-hour freeway, stopping to bite him at will. He could already make out hundreds of bright red dots as he frantically brushed off the throng of crimson invaders with his hands and stood up to dance and shake his legs.
In his gyrations, he failed to notice the trio of burly local Reynosa residents approaching him in the morning sun.
“Hola pandejo,” said the tall, scary-looking goon with the wild beard from the bar the previous night. “Puta Madre.”
Rupert finished his coffee. A half-eaten croissant sat on a little round plate with a small blob of grape jelly resting precariously close to falling off the edge. Stephanie sat across from him in the downtown Starbucks looking haggard and sad.
“That’s some impressive young daughter you have there,” Rupert observed.
He often started his meetings with small talk to open Stephanie to conversation and let her feel emotions other than just pure anguish.
“Thank you,” she said, staring distantly out the floor-to-ceiling window of the trendy coffee bar. “She’s resourceful like her father. He used to carve the most amazing little Christmas ornaments out of blocks of wood. We still have them all, reindeer, birds, snowmen, little hearts. I don’t know why that thought just came to me now. It’s not even close to Christmas yet. I just hope he’s back by then.”
“We’re taking every step we can to get him back well before then,” Rupert spoke with confidence, mostly believing his words. “We’ll exhaust every avenue and appeal this as high as we can.”
“I can’t bear to think of him in some Mexican hostel for one more night,” Stephanie said. “Did they tell you where he is?”
“Only that he’s in one of the bigger cities along the border.”
“And then what?” Stephanie grew animated. “Did they put him up somewhere? How do we get in touch with him? Did they give him a change of clothes? Any money?”
Rupert knew the answers. He took a sip of his coffee and thought of a response that wouldn’t panic his client. But his client knew the answers just from his bit of hesitation.
“No,” she spoke for her lawyer. “They just dumped him there. God help him.”
Chuck’s beating passed swiftly, not lasting more than five minutes, but seemed like a lifetime to the helpless 40-something American. The tallest attacker lifted him off his feet and tossed him into the wood bench, cracking it in half. Then, the other two, grabbed him by his feet and hands and flailed him into the cement fountain. Devoid of water, Chuck tried to plant his hands behind him to break the fall. But, instead, his wrist twisted unnaturally and his head smacked against the corroded ornament in the middle of the trough, opening a bloody wound in the back of his head.
From there, Chuck’s only memory of the melee was of fists pounding his face and gut while he limply tried to move his hands and arms across his body in a feeble attempt to shield himself.
By the time the laughing group of locals left him dangling across the pavement at the foot of the fountain, his nose gushed blood across his face into his mouth and coloring his teeth. His arm lay useless across the dirt by the base of the bench and his ripped jacket lay in tatters about his feet, which managed to retain one, but only one of his two shoes.
Chuck laid motionlessly as he watched the first Mexican Fire Ant make its way across the dust covered cement, followed by numerous others, up the side of his fingers, across his wrist and disappear into the sleeve of his blood-soaked white dress shirt.