Hector and I were with the Parkies, those burnouts from the Midwest working every minimum wage job at our beloved National Parks. It gave both of us a small joy to have found this tribe of lost white children, who, not unlike Hector, were running from things.
I laughed my ass off when Hector proclaimed (the two of us drunk and high) that the Parkies had no real idea they were white. How Hector, without papers, got in with them I never discovered. He had mapped their vast network of who’s working where and the best parks to be a Parkie, and they fucking loved him. They knew he was illegal and really knew when the beer started flowing after our shifts, when the trash bins became bonfires and the cold air seemed to come from somewhere far across the land.
There was something between them I could never fit into; they wore their transience like day laborers, fast with a joke, often generous, their clothes baggy against lanky, strong bodies. Back then none of them could afford or procure meth or heroin. This was also before this country lost its mind, when two Mexicans could drive through Colorado without much worry.
I remember that summer, Hector convincing me to drive eight hours north to work at Mesa Verde. It was the summer Obama won the Democratic nomination. We were both in my mother’s kitchen, eating caldo in a hundred degrees like real Arizonans as the news played in the background. That’s when Hector told us of the Parkies, these gabachos that didn’t vote and migrated to the canyons and the Badlands, to the lakes and especially onto Yellowstone like a pilgrimage. My mother thought it strange, thought they were pimply, sex-crazed weirdos.
“Those are Carnies, Amá,” I told her.
“This would be the perfect first job for Lalo,” Hector said with that huge grin and double nod he always did.
My mother smiled at the word job. I was nineteen and just wanted to get out of Phoenix for the summer and off the hot-ass streets people trudged on like penitents, paying for something.
A week after that, my Sentra (my graduation gift) was packed, Hector and I laying out enough CDs on its seats to get us to Canada.
The sun was nearly risen but it hadn’t before Amá pulled on Hector’s sleeve and lovingly dragged him to our apartment porch, him smiling and laughing because he’d gotten to know my mother, Carmen. The zest in her life was worrying about me, my punk music, my broken Spanish, my grades, my lack of a girlfriend. She called me Terco, but I wasn’t stubborn, I just wanted the freedom that Hector had, that I thought she had granted him and denied me. I wanted her to talk to me sometimes like she talked to him, like someone who might have seen or known things she didn’t. Just out of earshot, I heard her rapid- fire supplications to him, picking out only my name and something about the Martinezes, her band of cousins that brought Hector from Texas and gave him a job in their overrated but expanding restaurants. He had lived with us for maybe a year in the added-on bedroom her brother Eligio had built not for us but for people like Hector, obscure but roofed family members, cousins who weren’t cousins.
“What about school?” my mother asked, which practically served as a goodbye. She was proud I finished my first year of college.
“College is easy, Amá.”
“Easy, everything is so easy for you, Lalo.”
I kissed her and we left.
We drove, a single day of flat desert, the Four Corners, lots of dusty towns with Mormon names. At dusk, we crossed into Colorado. Hector gestured his hand across the window, traced his fingers like he was drawing on the horizon. In the darkness it just looked like more purple mountains, like we were on Mars.
“That’s the Sleeping Ute,” he said. Indios from here say he’ll wake up and take back all this land.”
I expected Hector to reach out and pinch my guts, to shout Cucuy, but he said things and did things differently after we had left. He was quieter, sterner, not as carefree sitting in my mother’s kitchen or sneaking back from his shifts and watching horror movies on our couch.
I didn’t make out the mountainous sleeping Indian. I’d see it again, months later when I drove back alone, each curve making a nose, a forehead, its knobbed mesa-top like folded-over hands that made the whole valley seem at ease.
We passed a sad town called Cortez and found the entrance sign we were looking for off the highway. Ascending, I rolled down the window, thankful for the cool breeze after a day of driving. It was too dark to see anything below, but I felt the rise, the turns of the road climbing up the mesa and every thousand feet the rosary my mother must have prayed.
He had failed to mention that we’d be sleeping in Tuffsheds, that most of the Parkies lived in a village of air-conditoned storage units with shitty furniture and bail-bond blue carpet. I’d eventually have a roommate but was thankful that first night to lack one.
“Why can’t I bunk with you?” I asked him.
“I have Parkie seniority,” he said. “My W.O.B. is for me and my guests.”
“What the fuck is a W.O.B?”
It was a stupid question. Each unit had a number and ran in concentric circles so I walked the whole gravel path before I found mine. It was a fucking Tuffshed, like I said. I’d learn later that W.O.B. stood for ‘without a bathroom,’ and Wobville was the whole maze of almost-free employee housing. I dropped my bags, lay on the springy twin bed before I heard Hector yelling for me and people closing and opening their doors, their crunch on the rocks, a campfire and music.
Hector brought me a beer. A girl with a nose-ring was nearly attached to his hip.
“They’ll start you at the front desk, I bet.”
“He’s got a nice face,” the girl said to him. “They’ll for sure do that. You okay with that?”
“I’m okay with anything,” I said.
“Good. Parkies move around a lot, get in trouble sometimes. So you have to be flexible.”
They wanted me to come outside with them, but I wouldn’t drink or party with them for many nights. I twisted over on my mattress and touched the wooden wall where I felt carved indentations of words and pictures—dates, lyrics, penises, and multiple confirmations that God didn’t exist. But in the largest print: Welcome to Wobville…don’t eat the Navajo Tacos. Below it, Not Navajo. Not Tacos either. If I had a pocketknife, I would have carved something too.
Soon enough, I felt like a Parkie. A common scene: me drinking a Tecate on a hammock between our Tuffsheds, the world’s strangeness unfolding while I swung and looked at the view below us, dusk and the maze of twisted canyons, a road speckled with juniper bushes and burned colonies of piñon. And hidden throughout (and what Mesa Verde was known for) were the adobe palaces of the Pueblo, former kingdoms now covered in dust, cleaned by Mexicans like Hector and me, and conveniently distributed into seven guided tours.
I did start at the front desk, checking in families with their Park passports half-filled, hip couples and older Europeans dressed in khaki shorts and twelve-gallon hats. Hector and I worked the same days, our responsibilities hardly divided. We were sides of a single coin that got flipped every night; we drove golf carts across the Mesa to deliver wine, we joked with guests and appreciated their foreign (to me) cigarettes— Gauloisses and Winfields; our hands grew sore from the key machine as it rubbed out brass duplicates when guests lost theirs.
Hector’s official title was ‘Maintenance Supervisor’ with no one to supervise. He trained me to check in guests and sound natural despite using the same words to answer the same questions.
“You’ll get bored,” he said. “But don’t let me see you get complacent. It’s like dribbling a basketball. If you get sloppy, someone will swipe your ass.”
He was all politeness with guests, charming if only to amuse himself and pass the long hours. After a long conversation, if the guest was especially in the palm of his hand, he’d ask them if they knew why he spoke so much with them, why he asked so many questions. They’d look taken aback by the realness of a hospitality worker bee, shrug, but laugh when he grinned and simply said “to practice my English.”
But it was when the rare family from Michoacan or a young couple from Mexico City arrived that his eyes lit up and with them he always seemed to speak of other places, other times before he finally told them the choice sites to see, not just in Mesa Verde, but Denali, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. He’d plan out a perfect day for them, and they’d smile and walk away.
He took pride in the Park’s vast history and he taught it to me, always ending with “but of course, this was all written by white people.” Mesa Verde was his specialty, especially when he talked about the Pueblo, how the cliff houses could capture or expel heat, the water that trickled through the Mesas after thunderstorms, each cliff a giant filter that once filled canals for their crops. Even if Hector had lived with us for a year, I couldn’t have told you very much about him. He was tall, much taller than Amá, and worked a lot. When I first met him, he’d hardly said a word to me even though I was home every other weekend. He had a red Mustang that he always messed with. I remember thinking that his face, always clean shaven, had an expression I later recognized on a very young, very beautiful Mexican woman walking down the street and carrying three bags of luggage. Her face wasn’t blank but didn’t emote, didn’t strain or adjust to the incredible heat or her sweat. She wore beat-up sneakers and crossed the street without looking at me staring from inside my car, just headed straight on. She must have walked many miles, the only thing betrayed by her. And I knew she could walk many more. Not that I’d ask her to, but that was her fate, her comeuppance, and she had no interest in the pedestrians who looked upon her beauty, her youth and exhaustion on her shoulders like devils, or the cars waiting for the light to drive past her and altogether forget her. Hector was made of the same stuff. Undocumented, a few years older than me, on a path I couldn’t walk. It had made him strong enough to work all those shifts and to stay here with us, not his family but people he trusted.
Our days off were for drinking and exploring or a healthy mixture of both. There was always drama, always weed. We’d done all the tours, seen all the cliff houses until we avoided them because it felt like stepping on something sacred.
That far south was still desert to me, and probably to Hector too. So we’d often drive down the Mesa to explore other parts of Colorado we’d heard about.
Parkies weren’t the sort of white people obsessed with the many 14ers they’d summited, but they were still nature-loving. Five or six of us would drive to Durango, an immoderately picturesque college town. From there, if we weren’t running through bars or tubing down the river, we’d hike the San Juan Mountains, none of us sporting the right gear. We passed hikers on every switchback, young ones, retired folks, families with dogs and picnic baskets, sinewy athletes trekking the full four-hundred miles of the Colorado Trail. Most of them looked at us like we were lost hobbits, motley and absurd.
Hector was made to be a Parkie. Walking sticks were drawn to him and he’d shape them with a knife and without hesitation. The ones he made for us he’d toss, along with his knife, and we’d carve out names for ourselves—obscene ones, stupid ones. I once tried to choose something villainous, as if I’d be the one to betray our group. We weren’t mere coworkers or roommates but a made-up village. Conspirators, though to what I couldn’t say.
Hector and his on-again, off-again girlfriend were the photographers. I think her name was Hannah. My last day in Colorado, I found a picture in his Wob and I wondered if it was dropped or cast aside or left for me to find. I still have it. He must have taken it, just me between two mountains. They frame the sky and I’m off-center in front of a jade- green pond, but it’s angled, the sky tilted, my red shirt surrounded by green piñon. The water reflects it all, every shoot of grass with a shadowy duplicate. I’m looking at something out of the frame, my body in both halves, sky and water, the division between the two worlds so close and meshed in the mud that it looks like both sets of my feet are attached, no telling where the ground and the air starts and the glimmering water begins. Every rock and color has its murkier double, a bounty of green and then blackened, dreamed trees, a real blue sky where I’m looking away and a secret one. I have no other photos of Colorado.
I got to know Hector better when they took away his single W.O.B. and he moved in with me, which, as a 5th year Parkie, pissed him off.
Dude had been all over. California, he said, was rooming with six to eight guys in shithole apartments and bearing the blows of sometimes not getting paid for finished jobs. Indiana surprised him with how many thriving Salvadorans and Mexicans had good factory jobs and suburbanized kids with broken Spanish like mine. In Bloomington a man passed to him the basics of framing a house, how to set a truss to hold as much weight as it needed to. He kept moving though. New York, he only called a mistake. New Orleans, after Katrina, was a hive of construction, a crop of jobs that grew informally and where an honest day laborer could make fast cash. Vermont, he only mentioned its lakes. Maine summers had a plethora of camps (a basketball one, a Jewish one, and a LGBT one with all lesbians that dated back to 1912). No northern lights, just trees and trees and darkness that summoned immigrants to stare at it all after their shifts. He’d seen so much more of the country than I had and it seemed to have shaped him.
I wanted to follow his lead every summer, to mark out places with experiences, to avoid the racist tourists and the racist locals, to drink delicious amber beer on tap, to walk through cities to know what they were made of. I didn’t have much to say about Arizona, strip malls and suburbs to me.
“Why not get out?” he said with slight derision.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I told him.
He nodded back and swished back the last of his beer. He didn’t really hate Phoenix. He hated his uncle who owned the restaurants they kept rotating him at.
“I’m a zombie,” he said. “Every single night shift and making all those burritos for the bastard.”
He told these stories in front of the campfire to the Parkies and they shared too, about their hometowns, about the Tetons and Death Valley, about Led Zeppelin and weed becoming legalized.
One night, it must have been two in the morning, we were down further into the park on lawn chairs from Goodwill with a fire going in the middle. I remember all their faces, and Hector’s, how the close illumination made the distance seem darker. But the moon was high, the stars were out like always, and not too far off there lay a thick, dark line of trees. It looked like giants sleeping or a mouth, a disgusting mouth that led inside the filtered mesas. A Parkie dared me to run to it and I was about to before he grabbed my shoulder drunkenly and said loudly that it was a joke. I offered to go together, to have a smoke and check it out. He admitted he’d never do it, that his imagination of what lay out there would snatch him up as he walked the mile, maybe two miles of distance of open space to get to it. Hector raised his glass and egged us on, told the Parkie that our ancestors, his and mine, had crossed into a larger darkness all over this land, that while our people were going north hundreds of years ago, the pioneers were going west, dying and killing, that we needed to go and see a little of what they saw.
We rarely outdrank the Parkies, but that night we did. The fire smothered out and it grew cold, but we had a sixpack to finish, just him and me. He asked me about college, about my father who had split from us shortly after I was born. He sang songs in Spanish and would stop to ask if I knew them too. We threw large river rocks on the fire and pissed in it. We heard a few people crossing the gravel in Wobville, sneaking into each other’s housing to get high, blare music or fuck.
Hector pulled out a cigarette, his arms folded over as he bent down to light it, away from the wind. He wore a scapular like my mother did. I asked him about it and he got strangely defensive, started going off on how it was our people’s faith, given to us by Jesus and delivered by Our Lady of Guadalupe. I told him I was Catholic, too, that of course I believed in God and the Church. We drank our beers quietly until he eased up again.
“I love this country,” he said. I didn’t know what to say to that, to what it meant from him, or for him. “I love Mexico, too,” he continued.
“This land was Mexico, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. The towns say it. Cortez, Dolores, Puebla, Salido, La Junta. It’s like a fucking joke, carnal.”
He’d never called me that before, but even as a pocho I knew what it meant. Brother, of my body.
“You are like my brother.”
“Handsomer than you?”
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’re so short.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Your mom does.”
I looked ahead at the forest and slipped on my jacket. I thought my mom had fallen into one of her telenovelas and I must have looked quizzical.
“Not like that,” he said, laughing and grinning again.
“My brother grew up in Texas, grew up with broke Spanish like you. He got deported a week before graduating. He’s living with our grandmother, no relation to you or your mom, just a crazy vieja.”
“So what’s my mom got to do with it?”
“She’s a saint. She sends my brother money to help him in his endeavors, just a little, maybe a tenth of what I send him. Because he’s a saint too, like a real fucking one. He wants to be a priest, already. Can you imagine?”
Priests were royalty to my mom and her friends, our family. They had powers, but not to me. They were just men—teachers, pastors, colonizers, pedophiles, servants.
“He wants God to forgive everyone and for that to change everything.”
“I knew she received an envelope with scratchy handwriting every month from Jalisco.”
“That’s him. Alejandro. The only thing is, I talk to him, you know. And he’s like you— impatient, wanting to get out of his town. He wants to cross in the fall, to live with me here. He asks about it every damn phone call.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, man. Pay for him to cross.”
We drank our beers and I thought of more summers, more beautiful parks to explore and get paid. I told Hector that night what I planned to become, a cop, but more than a fucking policía, a detective.
He didn’t laugh or lay into me.
“You’ll be solving murders, stalking crime scenes.”
“Far from a priest,” I said.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Both of you are enforcing, serving people something good or something bad, looking for clues, signs.”
“There’s no clues in mass,” I said. “You know I know that shit in English and Spanish.”
On Sundays my mother made us chorizo, Hector and me. He never knew that it came after I begged her to skip mass, but unmistakably I’d be there, a mad kid in a pew with Hector and my mom, a unit in a communion line so slow that I counted the lint on the backs of our neighbors.
“My brother is crazy about all of it, the Church. The symbols, the bread, the wine, holding everything up, the music, the smoke. But I think about what the priest must hear from people. Confessions week after week. The crimes, everything that’s a sin, the violence that people admit. There’s usually plenty of reasons for violence. A detective is on the other side, also walking into the mierda of a human being.”
Wobville was lit above us between the trees like an alien spacecraft, a cheap one. I walked up the road and saw Hector finish his cigarette and throw it into the embers. My door didn’t slam shut that night, was wide open in the morning. I remember a bitter wind, my window flapping loudly but my sheets lay perfectly folded over me.
I could sanitize what happened to Hector, could say that he just kept walking into that forest, into the treeline that had grown there and must have survived a fire that cleared out such a wide grassland and a rocky path, that it welcomed him into history and he stepped into it willingly, singing a corrido. I could overly depict it, could tell you what happens to the body when it overheats when it crosses a country, a desert, how the heart pounds confusedly to cool the other parts. I could say nothing because I don’t know what happened to his body.
This isn’t a confession, some sentimental path I need to take. I’m a full believer that some people are meant for particular parts of your life and that’s it. I’m a Mexican-American and thus Catholic, but also Mexican and thus a realist. This isn’t a ghost story. Hector wasn’t a saint. This could be a testimonio, written by the only person who can still speak of it. I’d let my mother speak too, if she was still alive. She died many years after Hector disappeared.
I’d let Neil DeGrasse Tyson open this story up. He’d riff on how we’re all made of the same stuff—stars, recycled atoms, so much destruction that it begins to look like creation. I’m old as fuck now, sitting in a church, thinking of Amá, Hector and me, lighting a candle for both of them. Their little glows always stop me, how they dance, and I remember how Amá would strike those long-ass matches after Mass and lower them to the white candles after she stuffed a dollar into the collection. They weren’t all for Hector. There’s a lot of fire in churches, the candelabra on the altar and beside the sanctuary, the Pascal candle they light on Easter, even the fire that turned Amá’s body to ash, to matter. I can keep going back. I could get all historical (that Mexican obsession with identity and blood, in other words history), return to the wreckage of our people, Cortez’s boats alit on the sand, the ones he burned so none of his crew could turn back. A whole continent to plunder, a whole empire to excuse, but first, this burning, each of his men staring at the light (but was it daytime or night?) and the poor fucks surely thinking of their families and their sad fortunes and sadder prospects of tomorrow without transportation and definitely without the guy who protested and got a sword thrusted into his chest. Hysterical men, terrified men, smelling the death that they would soon learn to hold.
I don’t believe in heaven but only in echoes, reverberating instances, mistakes that rhyme. I see that same fire dance and linger in Amá’s church as parishoners light their candles for the ones they’ve lost and then, now, my questions come like a hymn: what is communally burned but, more important, what will remain?
When I look back on my last day there, I would use the word mysterious, that everything was tinted anew.
Hector was gone. No one knew shit. Our bosses gave me the run-around. One of them told me to call the police. I did. The police told me to call ICE. I did.
My stomach felt compressed, the pit of it gnawed out. I didn’t know where to go, what to do, who to blame, how to fix anything or help Hector. I skipped work. I went to the visitors center. I walked into our communal kitchen, opened the heavy doors of the freezer room, a relief to my throbbing head. My breath slowed, I stumbled into the shelves, knocking over cartons of yogurt, apples, boxes of frozen food marked in Sharpie with people’s names that filled the floor like a litany.
When I called my mom her breath was short, but she was far calmer than me. The conversation didn’t last long. She was worried about Hector. She begged me to stay there because she knew what could happen to him. “Don’t you remember Eligio, mi’jo?”
Her brother. He always smelled like cigarettes and woodchips. My mother had slightly broad shoulders, but Eligio’s were massive like a swimmer’s or a gargoyle’s. He was generous and loud. I remembered mostly his set of chisels, their steel and wood inlaid handles. He called them the perfect tools. “Perfecto, perfecto, Lalo,” he’d say to me when late into the night he’d finish a chair or a table. He had six of them and took them to work, too. I saw him rip off baseboards in single motions or stick them into stubborn chunks of wood when he was laying floors, hit them with the hammer and pry them clean off. How he’d always retell me the history of chisels being produced in his home state followed by a slightly racist comment about China, but eventually he’d get to how the steel was carbonized, tempered and tapered until it all came to a point, able to last damn near forever if you cared. The last time I saw him was in Florence, a small town south of Phoenix.
For a year’s worth of Sundays Amá would drive two hours south to visit him. I only had to go once or twice. We gassed up in Casa Grande, cruised through its little main street, passed its two gas stations and a Jack in the Box, kept going until the mountains slipped into the distance and the flat fields of indigo and corn lay like beds. Then down a near-dirt road that eventually became a newly paved one. The detention center’s building looked like a huge cinder block, modern and lined with barbed-wire fencing. Cars dropped people off, waited or drove away, came back. Families were there, lots of women with children dangling on their hips. We’d walk through a thin metal hallway with heavy doors that I had to open for Amá.
I heard her describe it once to her hairdresser she really connected with when they both discussed their sad, lost loves or tragic familial accidents. Amá’s was Eligio.
I was a boy when he answered, through glass, that it’s mostly waiting. Waiting in a room with a lot of other people. Then you’re alone, alone with your thoughts. And then you’re back with the others, talking to them, but feeling even more alone in those conversations. Eventually, you’re sent back. And then you have to return.
I packed up my stuff. I should have said goodbye to my boss and a few others, but I needed the pleasure of hurting someone, of seeing the miles fly as I drove, hungover, through the Four Corners, Tuba City, Flagstaff’s mountains. The clouds were immense, powerfully floating toward me. I don’t remember stopping for gas or eating, surely I must have, but only the highway junctions and the sleeping Ute mountain, slowing down through the curved gradient of Sedona and then speeding across the reservation, the wide flat land. I arrived at night, back to our apartment silently, a thief, like Jesus, I strangely thought.
The whole building seemed to sway, or maybe it was just the trees readying for the monsoon. Our door wasn’t locked. Amá hardly looked at me, sitting in her chair in the living room. I didn’t know which detention center Hector would be sent to. I knew he would opt to be deported, though. He’d return to his brother and they’d face the journey north, possibly by themselves, face the days of walking and the way of mountains and dirt. They’d know how desert can go wrong, can urge you out of your body, all of it contending to see what you’re made of— water, stars, salt. Our desert is lushness surrounded by a dying that’s always happening, and Eligio tried to navigate it, roughly aware of the path pushed far away from safety, all of it ready to fall apart. A rock or a crevice that turns your ankle, or nothing at all. Heavy, open sky
killing you with every kilometer. I didn’t say these things to her. I didn’t have to. I never quoted the researcher who said that for every body found there were likely ten others, a tithe of flesh and hair that the border demanded and that people paid. She only looked at me, shaking her head. I took the car key off its ring, told her to sell it and pay for Hector’s return. She only curtly laughed.
“More,” she said. “And then what? Your college, Lalo, do you even know how much I’ve paid, how much more I’ll need to? If you don’t finish, tell me, di-ga-me, what then? What will I do?”
I looked at her painting of The Last Supper, the twelve apostles surrounding Jesus.
“We’ll ask others, the Martinezes.”
I thought of Hector and Alejandro alternatively getting caught, floodlights and trucks, of both of them giving up, returning to their town where he’d still become a priest.