Juan Luis Merlo sat on an old sofa inside the living room of his mother’s home in Tijuana. He visited on Sunday afternoon and onto Monday, his day off, making it a personal weekend of sorts. He limited crossing the border to once a week and spent most of his time in San Diego living in a rented room. Outside lay a pit bull on a chain that Virginia Rodriguez de Merlo kept for safety. Juan knew his mother liked the dog but that the two had a relationship that ended at the front door. Her home was just too clean to have a large dog living in it, and on top of that, it was small—Juan’s feet barely fit between the coffee table and the sofa. Placing his feet on the coffee table was totally unacceptable to his mother. Even though the home wasn’t hers, the living room was not designed to be comfortable, a concept one could only understand if one knew Juan’s mom grew up in Mexico City where living rooms were seldom used.
In a few hours, he would need to remove the jacket, because the sun would raise the temperature to a balmy seventy-five. He was bored and grumpy, and he sat there, reading photocopies of pages he’d taken out of a cardboard box that sat next to the sofa. They were the court papers from his father’s lawsuit, which his mother would not let him remove from the home. Most of what he read only confirmed what he knew already.
On breaks, he stared at a wood imprint left on the ceiling during construction, just next to where the white-painted walls met the concrete ceiling. The walls were coarsely plastered, and they contrasted with the other finishes in a manner that most ordinary people living in the projects didn’t care about. But Virginia was not ordinary. She kept bringing up the defects in the hope that one day Juan would learn how to plaster and fix them. Juan hoped to move her from the miserable home, which he was renting on a month-to-month, cash basis. He knew that if he didn’t make the rent, the eviction process would be private, painful and he could show up on a weekend to find her on the street. The law in Mexico favored those who had possession, but with the type of landlord they had, a court-ordered removal was the least of his problems. Juan kept reading, but the depressing subject of the case, combined with his mother’s living conditions, weighed on his soul. She didn’t deserve this fate; her father had been successful, and she had come from an intellectual family.
She kept the living room spotless, even though there was dust everywhere just outside the walls of the little cinder-block home. Tijuana was located in a desert where water was scarce; grass and trees were unaffordable in the project. On the walls, she had hung the last indication of a better past—a collection of prints by Salvador Dalí. These prints were not only her pride and joy but also the first art she had purchased with her husband back when Juan was only two years old. Framed in elegant gold-leaf frames, they were a potential target for thieves. They were also a source of discomfort for Juan, even though art was rarely stolen in these parts since it was very hard to fence. Juan found it surreal that she cared so much for this little room that was almost never used. In the breakfast room, a hop away from where Juan sat, the TV was almost constantly on and permanently set on mute. It was a Sony Trinitron from the eighties but still worked perfectly and was like a mute companion for his lonely mother.
When Juan was only fifteen, his father, Diego Merlo, died from an alleged suicide that was propelled by a bankruptcy. The ten-year anniversary of his death was fast approaching, and Juan knew that it would be a blow to his mom. Grief had taken years of beauty and joy from his mother and had prevented Juan from achieving a proper education. Juan was smart, and this lack of opportunity also kept him wondering how far he could have gone had he attended a university. Only recently, his mother had shown him the paperwork of the lengthy court case that supposedly drove his father to his death. Juan missed his father immensely, because he had been a sensitive and kind man who had worked in the toy industry. Juan had grown up surrounded by new gadgets and gizmos that sometimes didn’t even work, but interacting with his father as he tested the toys had been wonderful. On top of that, he never once felt unloved by his father. His father’s absence and loss were like a punch in the gut for Juan, and discovering that Diego’s death had been unfair intensified Juan’s feelings. Juan sometimes lost his breath when confronted by these emotions.
Juan remembered that in the 1990s, before the great financial crisis and before 9/11, life in Tijuana had been improving rapidly. Manufacturing assembly factories called maquiladoras had been sprouting up everywhere, and entrepreneurs thrived by providing low-cost manufacturing to US enterprises. Few Mexican businessmen imagined the hit that China factories would inflict on them. No matter how hard they tried to compete, the Chinese could produce better and faster, in larger quantities, and most important, more cheaply than the Mexicans. Juan’s father had the clever idea that manufacturing on the US side meant that his toys could be labeled “Made proudly in the USA.” He had plenty of laborers who would appreciate a minimum wage so close to Mexico. They earned dollars and lived for much less in pesos across the border. Diego’s idea caused his business to thrive.
The Mexican population in San Ysidro and Chula Vista was practically indistinguishable from that of Tijuana, the only difference being the way of life. Juan’s father opted to have the family live on the Tijuana side; he’d never liked living in the United States. Juan suspected the decision came down to friends and lifestyle. But within only five years, Diego Merlo went from a happy and successful man to a broken man. What had happened? The answers lay in the report Juan read.
Diego’s factory had grown rapidly in size and output, so much so that it had been running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He’d managed to achieve a level of growth that couldn’t be overseen by himself personally; therefore, he was forced into leaving the factory in the hands of managers for two of the shifts, as well as hiring workers who sometimes were too inexperineced to know the difference between a hot press and an overheated disaster. Nevertheless, productivity had continued to grow, along with Diego’s client list. He had even been starting to make small batches of toys for the big toy companies.
It was bad luck, therefore, that the factory caught fire in the early morning hours one Easter Sunday. Diego was in the Valley of Guadalupe on a weekend outing, wine-tasting with his wife. Flames ignited from a combination of dirty rags and a hot machine oozing leftover plastic that had been ignored by a careless worker. On any other day but Easter Sunday, this would have been a nonevent—the small fire could have been stopped by a worker. But the factory was empty, and thus it was a total loss.
Diego was accused of insurance fraud by his own policy provider, the Tickell Insurance Products Corporation, better known as TIPCO, which he had thought was there to protect him. This huge and powerful company became his enemy. Allegations of misconduct and embezzlement, as well as accusations that his business had been doing badly, appeared in all the local papers. Juan remembered how devastated his father had been, because he hadn’t been prepared for such calumnies. On top of that, he’d never had court-system experience in the United States, and before he knew it, all his money was exhausted on lawyers’ fees. Between no factory income and the legal expenses, Diego was wiped out even before the trial date was set. His lawyers were incompetent, and in little time, the TIPCO power team had rendered them useless.
Then came September 11, 2001. On that date, life in Tijuana changed forever. Just crossing the border into the States became a three-hour ordeal. Diego Merlo was broke, and, finally, he took a TIPCO settlement for a pittance. He barely had enough to pay the lawyers and ended up with nothing. The fire had devastated him, and 9/11 had destroyed his vision of providing US-made goods with cheap labor. Juan remembered his father being so depressed he had wandered about aimlessly, obsessing over how to recover from the mess that was his life. One day, when he was walking on the side of the great Tijuana River basin, a dry concrete structure built to avoid flooding from the rare flash floods that occurred in the area, he slipped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete below. He was instantly killed.
Juan didn’t believe that his father had intended to die—he had not been not suicidal. But everyone had known that he had been going through a rough patch. Therefore, his life insurance company would not pay out a benefit, because his death was ruled a suicide. Twice within a short time frame, Juan was gypped by TIPCO. His father should have been able to leave something for all the hard work he’d done. Years of inventions and manufacturing, all gone up in smoke, and the years of insurance premiums paid to insure his family could survive in the event of his death, all worthless.
Everyone claimed that Juan’s mother had kept all this from him so that Juan could grow up happy and not be sad all those years, and perhaps that had been the right choice. But once he read the court documents, the truth hit Juan like a ton of bricks. He swore to himself that he would avenge his dad. But how? Being born on the American side and having two nationalities afforded him the possibility of a job that paid in dollars, though not for much more than that. He supported his mom in a simple and mediocre life on the Mexican side of the border, and that meant that he couldn’t afford to lose his work in San Diego.
His mom worked by sewing every now and then, but her clients were few and typically paid late. On top of that, Virginia hated to work. She constantly told her son that without him, she would be finished. The reality of her needs created more than the normal emotional attachment a son had to his mother. Juan was not only a son but the surrogate head of household, like so many other underprivileged kids. Many times, she had expressed that they were not about to return to Mexico City with nothing to show for themselves. She preferred to lean on Juan instead of suffering the ignominy of facing her family and friends while destitute. Her prideful response was common in Mexico, though hard to sustain by those who fell on hard times.
Juan sat now, feeling the outside heat radiating through the window, choked up once again after reading the case files. He zoned out, and his eyes finally came to rest on the TV, which was tuned to a European variety show. On a stage, dancers and comedians performed one after the other to a large crowd of patrons sitting at dinner tables, much like a mix of the Golden Globes and America’s Got Talent. A group of about seven television personalities sat at one of the tables, commenting and introducing the different performances. One particular gray-haired man was the main announcer. Juan grew bored with the show and popped a videocassette into the VCR.
Juan knew what he was about to see—the seed of his plan for revenge against TIPCO. The video was a taping of the same variety show he’d been watching, but from a different night. On this episode, an Asian magician was introduced and came onstage. He was dressed in a tuxedo, and from his hands, out of nowhere he produced a white scarf that, upon waving it magically, released a white dove. He was similar to many magicians of the past. What was different this time was that the magician repeated the same move over and over. One time he even simultaneously produced doves of different colors—pink and baby-blue doves that flew away.
By the end of his performance, the Asian magician had pulled twenty-five to thirty doves from somewhere on his person and released them onto the stage. At the moment when the magician bowed to the audience with a huge smile on his face, Juan’s mother came down the stairs and into the little foyer between the breakfast room and the living room.
“¡Wow, el mago, eh!” (Wow, this magician, huh!) he said to her.
“¿Otra vez lo viste?” (You watched it again?)
“¿Y?” (So what?)
Juan told her to wait while he went outside. He walked to the rear patio of the tiny home and climbed the steel rebar stairs up to the roof. The stairs were rungs of metal rebar, installed when the concrete blocks were poured and simply bent in a U-shape, weaving in and out of the wall to create a stair. Rusted and unsafe, they were a ninety-degree climb. Juan made it to the roof and his pigeon aviary, constructed of cheap one-by-three wood and chicken wire. From the roof, he had a view of many identical rooftops, one after another, all holding black plastic water tanks with the word “Rotoplas” printed on them.
The maker of these water cisterns must be a billionaire, thought Juan.
The houses were practically indistinguishable as far as the eye could see. They were so-called Social Interest housing projects, which had improved the lifestyle of millions of former Mexican peasants. The builders had received handsome government grants to build the houses, and they’d done so as cheaply as possible in order to pocket the maximum amount of grant money. Then the buyers began the process of fixing or neglecting, painting or ignoring, until whole neighborhoods became slightly worse or slightly better. Keeping up with the Joneses had helped, but a drug-dealing neighbor had hurt, and this had become a luck-of-the-draw situation for the poor owners of these residences.
Juan opened the makeshift door and entered his large aviary, and the birds became excited. They were racing homers of the finest quality breed, kept by Juan in conditions that were mediocre but safe. He grabbed a small female pigeon and then opened the aviary to allow the rest to fly away on their weekly round. They exited in a flock that circled the area, then flew away to such a distant point that it seemed they were lost forever. He closed the door, because the pigeons would use a Sputnik trap when they returned. Sputnik entrances were simple openings one pigeon-level higher than where food was served in the aviary. Once the pigeons hopped into the aviary, they couldn’t fly back out.
Juan came down with a pigeon in one hand. He latched his available hand quickly on each rung, then hopped off the last two, excited to show his mom. Before entering the house, he gently grabbed the pigeon with both of his hands and squeezed it, compressing all its feathers, feeling once again how very small a body these animals had, then tucked it inside his jacket sleeve. Once inside the home, he asked Virginia to sit and watch. He purposefully left the door open, knowing this would drive her crazy, but asked her to bear with him.
While his mother watched from the living room, Juan turned around in the small foyer and made a quick gesture, badly imitating the Asian magician. Juan was a six-foot-tall, handsome young man of barely twenty-five years of age. He wore a blue dinner jacket given to him at his job, and a white shirt and jeans. He let the pigeon out, not like the magician at all. He had to pull the bird out from his sleeve the same way he had placed it inside. When the bird emerged, it was stunned and did not fly. Virginia did not like the presence of the bird in the house, and she winced. Juan moved his hand up and down, prompting the pigeon to jump off his finger and fly out the door safely, out to look for its flock, then he closed the door. The brown pit bull tried to catch the pigeon but failed when the chain stopped it by its neck.
“Terrible!” Virginia criticized.
Juan shrugged and smiled; then they both laughed. Juan went around to the back of the house and turned on the faucet attached to a green garden hose, which he then pulled up to the roof, climbing up the same dangerous stairs while holding it bent tightly to stop most of the water flow. He took advantage of the time the birds were away to conduct the weekly hosing of the aviary. He sprayed water, applying pressure with his thumb on the end of the hose. Water poured onto the roof, and all the excrement floated off the roof and down the gutter. Then he checked all the water bowls, cleaned them, and added water to their reservoirs. The bowls had water that self flowed as its basin drained and lasted for weeks, but Juan liked to add fresh water every week.
Food was a more complex issue. Juan fed the birds daily from a remote opener he had devised. Six bowls had six tops tied to long strings. These strings fed through a piece of garden hose Juan had tied to the roof and strapped to the wood frame of the window in Virginia’s bedroom. She pulled one string per day, until the weekend, when Juan would come to refill the bowls. Juan labeled each string with a day of the week. This ceremony took place every week, accompanied with his daily phone call to remind Virginia about the bird feeder and to speak to her briefly. Now, he finished his routine by adding birdseed to the devices from a large container. This was his pigeon routine, as he called it, but in reality, it was just one piece of his master plan.
For months, Juan had spent every weekend training his pigeons to return home from increasingly greater distances. He’d read all about how to train pigeons and dedicated himself to the process. He began with tiny baby pigeons, and within a few months, he had a full house. Sometimes training the pigeons would have adverse consequences when one or more didn’t return. He’d started with forty pigeons that he’d purchased at almost twenty-five dollars apiece, and now he had thirty-five adult pigeons, fully trained to return home. This pigeon training was the most dedicated and expensive undertaking of his life, and he clashed with Virginia because she had trouble believing he loved birds so much. She was unaware of the motivation behind Juan’s actions and for this reason she did not understand them. He told her that pigeons trained like his had sold in England for thousands of dollars, but Virginia just laughed; he knew she thought he was crazy to believe anyone would pay for one of his pigeons.
That evening he didn’t talk much more after coming down from the roof, but said good-bye and left, kissing her on the cheek. Virginia was always emotional when he left, so he made short work of the good-byes. She watched him leave in his Toyota Camry that looked beaten and on its last legs. Juan knew that his mom adored him and this reinforced his desire to be a good son.
Juan drove away, as usual thinking about his father and how Juan remembered feeling great when walking with him and holding his hand. His emotions swelled and he forced them down deep into his body so that the sadness would recede. He turned the stereo full blast listening to rock and tapering his anger. Later on while driving he also had his recurring daydream of the TIPCO skyscraper in Century City collapsing like a Twin Tower…