The cool harbor air blows through the car. We gain altitude, moving inland at a steep angle. Something is different here. A haze hangs. Foul-smelling smoke pours from small factories. I can feel it getting warmer, by the minute.
Johnny digs up some oranges, mixed nuts, and dried fruit.
There are quite a few factories along this road. “What’s the road?”
“You told me its one twenty-two.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it; I saw a sign. Look at that.”
“All those men clustered around.”
We come up to another group. A man points at a guy, then hauls him up, onto the back of the pick up-truck. “Geez, look at them all.”
There are more cars now; we slow. Another pickup truck pulls into a cluster of men. The driver calls out, men move to the truck. He speaks briefly with one man; he is waved off. He turns to the next and after several words, the man climbs onto the truck. The third guy gets the nod; and so it goes.
The traffic thins enough to pick up a bit of speed. Piles of burning trash send thick black columns upward. The traffic slows again. A sign reads ‘Centro Los Mochis’ with an arrow pointing the way we are going. There’s a big modern building on the left; it so ugly, it must be an administrative building for the city. The size and number of buildings dwindles until there are only dusty fields and the occasional shack.
At Culiacán, we enter the flow on the toll highway. Hot wind blows through the open windows. The highway is smooth and fast, but the scenery is sterile.
We descend into Mazatlán. I want to get money, but I don’t want to have to go all the way into town to get it. We fill at a gas station and collect directions to the airport. Getting there is easy, but there isn’t a bank machine. John goes to a kiosk. He cashes travellers’ cheques, and hands me $150 USD.
Heading south, out of town, the highway goes from four lanes, two in each direction, to one in each direction. It moves well despite the continuous stream of vehicles.
There is a sign ‘Esquinapa 5 km’, then another, ‘Rosario’ with an arrow pointing right. I jam on the brakes, and skid around the corner, onto the road to Rosario. I wonder how far it is to the sea? Maybe I can just… see it. I’d take a quick swim, if it’s possible.
After bumping along a dilapidated road, for what seems like too long, perhaps ten minutes, I’m totally disoriented. I’m not sure what direction we’re going in. “Where, the fuck, is the town?”
The car lurches through the holes in the pavement. I must have missed it, somehow. I slow, but I drive on.
We come over a small rise and through an archway over the road. Well kept stone buildings line the smooth cobble-stone pavement. We pull into the centro. It’s a broad, well-paved square around a fountain.
I park at the first spot on a road leading out of the far side of the square. There is a young man with a dark round face rolling burritos on a grill. There is a table with benches under a thin fabric.
I ask for two burritos. <<Can we get beer?>> He barks instructions to a boy, who shoots off.
The kid returns after a moment with six sweating bottles. I accept the burritos and hand one to John, already seated at the table.
The activity around the square is sedate, but steady. Nobody hurries, but those moving do so with purpose. Though it is hot in the sun, the gusty breeze cools me under this slight shade. The entire scene is surreal; the tranquility of it is so unusual.
We alternate explaining where we come from, and where we’re going, to the steady stream of people who stop and greet us, cordially. Several times whilst explaining, there is laughter at my bad Spanish; then I am politely corrected.
An older man comes and sits with us. I offer him a beer. He starts a dissertation about the history of the pueblo, anecdotes strung together by some kind of a theme or pattern. I haven’t figured it out yet. I ask him how far it is to the ocean?
<<¿The ocean, what distance is it? ¿How many kilometres?>>
He waves off the question. <<Is twenty kilometres more.>>
He begins another story about setting off for the sea, but never arriving. The boy who got the beer is watching and listening intently. I smile at him. At a wheezing breath, I say, “¿Qué pasa?”
His eyes light up.
The cook cautions against Guatemala and shakes his head solemnly at the mention of Honduras.
I nod vaguely and tell him how much I like the food, and the town.
“Good pick on the town.”
There is a steady stream of beautiful women. I nod. I wish I could stay for the night.
He laughs. “We’re not going to stay here.”
“When do you think we’ll get there, your buddy’s place? It’s close to Mexico City, yeah?”
“Early morning, probably. After Tepic, it’s a buck-fifty ‘K’ on the toll highways, to Guadelajara. Probably an hour to get through it, then another three, four hundred klics to Toluca. Axel will probably have a couple beds we can crash in.”
We’ll have to drive straight through to make it to Guatemala, to meet Nick on Christmas Eve.
“I’m looking forward to night driving. Fast toll highways. Not too many people on the road. We can get there by, three, four, definitely by five.”
“It’s hard to leave this parade of beauties; it’s so nice here. From Toluca, how much further is it to Mexico?”
“I think it like, 85 K?”
The drive out to the highway is smooth and seems much shorter. It doesn’t seem anything like the road that we drove in on. The highway is busy. The traffic is mostly trucks of various size and vintage. The long steady line slithers up and down, curving left then right in a southward procession. It slows. The day wanes, so soon.
At 5 p.m. the last dark orange embers of daylight, on the edge of the western horizon, go cold. At the fringe of Tepic, John pulls the car into a gas station with a large, deep lot.
I get out to fill it. I lock the pump in the ‘on’ position, and get into the car while it fills. “It’s cold! It’s colder than it was when I left Toronto. It’s fucking freezing!”
He’s focused on a little black book full of names and numbers. “I’m gonna walk over to use that payphone.” He nods to a phone booth in front of a restaurant, further back from the highway.
I nod as I rummage around behind the front seat, trying to find some more clothes to put on. I find the leather jacket and put it on. There’s a hat in the pocket; I pull it as far down the back of my neck as I can.
I pay for the gas.
I idle the car to the cantina, at the very back of the lot, the fury of the highway a safe distance away.
John is on the phone. It’s freezing and the wind is howling. As I pass him, he holds his hand to the receiver, “the food looks good. I’ll be in, in a jiffy.”
It’s lit by a couple fluorescent bulbs. I get a bowl of vegetable soup and half a chicken, and a beer.
The wind fills the small room as John enters, “what’s good?”
I’m into the soup. I can feel it warming my innards. “This is working for me.”
He has a short discussion with the cook, pointing at menu items listed on the wall. He holds his beer aloft as he slides into the bench. I knock on it with my bottle, then drink some down.
“That is good, so cold.” He looks around and holds the beer high, catching the attention of the cook, “muy frio, bueno. Gracias.”
The cooks nods at him, a thin smile cracking his stoic expression.
A middle-aged woman places a bowl of soup and a hamburger in front of John.
“I like it, in spite the fluorescent lights. ¿Pardone, Señora, uno mas, por favor?” I hold the bowl out to her, not able to shake the feeling of “Oliver Twist”[i].
She takes it and nods, returning momentarily with another portion.
<<¿Where is the toll highway?>>
The man behind the counter points out the window, to the crest of the hill. I can see the line of glowing red, rear-brake lights, leading to it. <<That is it, right there.>>
“Alright, we’re here.”
“You didn’t know that?”
“That’s why I said we should stop here.”
“I completely missed it.”
“I’ll drive. You can take a snooze in the back.”
“I gotta do my turn, while I still can.”
“It’s no problem, Dean.”
“I won’t be able to sleep now. Take your time with the chow. I’m going to fix up the back of the car for sleeping.”
I zip my jacket up, nod “Gracias” to the man behind the counter.
I re-arrange the back of the car. I take everything off the folded futon, piling it securely on the other half of the car behind the driver seat. I turn the car on, and put the heater on full.
John gets in.
I wait for a break in the traffic at the highway entrance.
“Did you talk to him?”
“He’s got family in for Christmas. He thinks we’ll arrive in the middle of the night. He said to call him in the night, when we’re closer.”
It sounds complicated.
“Hey, did you notice that the cook wore a turban?”
“Now that you mention it…”
“In Mexico; who’d ‘a thought?”
“Who’d ‘a thought?” He chuckles.
I accelerate as smoothly as I can into the flow, changing into the left lane, directly.
“Good going, but it’s over there.” He points to the lights at the crest of the hill. “Over there!” I continue straight. “You gotta take that exit!” He points to the right exit lane, about a hundred feet ahead. I’m driving at a hundred miles per hour in the left lane.
I accelerate and swerve across to the right shoulder, just past the exit.
I’m nervous not moving, in the dark, on the shoulder, of the highway, in Mexico. I look around, through the muddy back window. The headlights coming up from behind are blinding, streaking past in a steady, bumper to bumper flow. I put down the back window. Cold wind screams in with the roar of the traffic. There’s never going to be a good time. I put the hazard lights on, put it in reverse and back up slowly, to a chorus of horns.
I slam the gear shifter into drive, kill the hazards, signal right, stomp on the accelerator and lean on the horn, simultaneously. The assault of horns increases to a frenzy.
“No good deed goes unpunished.” I eek out a shallow grin.
Within a few brief seconds, we approach the lines for the tool booth. I brake hard and pull it into the shortest line.
My heart is pounding. I’m glad for the slow down.
Past the toll booth the road ascends. I accelerate easily. There are four lanes, separated in the centre, with a generous paved shoulder, on the right. It’s dark, I can’t see anything off the road. There aren’t many cars.
“It’s cold. It was somewhere after the time zone change, after I left your place, in Detroit.”
“When it got cold. I came down from Detroit. It was grey. I think it was I75. I remember a sign for Dayton before I changed on to I70. Then… Indianapolis, around sunset. An hour or so past there, I stopped for gas and it was like a micro-blizzard. The clock in the gas station was an hour back; I’d passed the time zone line. I was still trying to make it to St. Louis in time to see Jimmie’s Chicken Shack[ii]. It was even colder in Saint Louie. After I missed the show, I drove around looking for a warm parking garage, but, the rent-a-cops came around. It spooked me, and I didn’t think it would work out.”
He nods silently, in reflection.
“I kept going west, and I ended up at an inter-state rest stop, about an hour past the city. It was okay; it was behind a long hill, removed from the highway. Noise wasn’t an issue, at all. Anyways, I had no choice, I couldn’t have kept on going.”
“They do a really nice job with those, eh?”
“Yeah! I parked it there and slept in the back. That next day was a long haul. I pulled off I70 before Colorado, and got lost on icy and unlit country roads, looking for a motel. I ended up in a shitty room in La Junta. But, it all looked better the next day. I took it easy, I stopped in Socorro, New Mexico, after only half a day of driving. Then the next night I got to Benson. I passed by Tucson, by noon the next day. It looked alright. I got onto 8, about an hour out of Tucson. I stopped to get lunch at a restaurant, gas station and RV park. It was a bit weird. There was this, uh, maturish, but very funky, cowgirl… ”.
“The long and the short of it… . I’m never trying to do that.”
“Trying to do what?”
“Make word plays, ‘the long and the short of it…’.”
“Okay. What about her?”
“It ended up, she gave me a couple joints. It was so nice. I can hardly believe it, even now. Obviously, I was grateful…”.
“She just gave them to you?”
He looks at me with mock suspicion then laughs.
“I never told you that one yet, eh?” I shake my head, thinking about it.
We drive into Guadalajara at 10 p.m. The roads are busy. John navigates, telling me where to turn, and what to look for with plenty of time to make it easy. We go straight through, not even slowing down.
Twenty minutes past Guadalajara, I pull into a service stop at the side of the highway. We get six beers and two paper bags full of empanadas.
“This road food is good, eh?”
“Yeah. Hand me another.”
I hand one to him. “And so civilized to have beer with it.” I belch. He nods, smiling as much as he can while continuing to chew.
“I’m ready.” I look at the futon over my shoulder. “I’m going to squeeze into my honey, back there.”
I crawl back, over the seat, to the folded futon. I lift the top fold and squeeze in. It’s comfortable. I can feel the tension in my back. “Hey John, can you put on that Nirvana tape?”
REM begins to play. “How’s that?”
The dim silver light shows only the largest landmarks, flying by, ghost-like. My imagination fills in the black with ghouls and threats on the longest night of the year…
* * *
John’s directions to I75 were perfect. I drive south from Detroit. The sky is a solid grey. I’m sad. It was sunny when we were having breakfast in Royal Oak.
Now it’s starting to drizzle. I see a sign for the Dayton by-pass and another indicating the junction to I-70. The highway is smooth! The drivers are good; they leave the left lane open for passing. The traffic moves fast and orderly, but it’s boring. I feel alone and empty.
It’s getting dark. The last of the orange sun smoulders low on the horizon. I pass through Indianapolis; the sky is now perfectly clear. The limestone giants rising from the downtown core shine in the burning orange light before the last of the sun passes below the edge of the horizon.
It’s black. The pale blue ‘6:31’ glows from the dashboard. I pull into a small gas station. Tiny missiles of ice sting where they impact, driven by an icy blast, swirling, disorienting. The clock on the wall in the gas station office shows 5:30. I must have past the timeline. Maybe I can make it to Mississippi Nights, in St. Louis, after all. I pay and go out, back to the car.
Spits of ice scrape off the windshield. I turn the heater on to full.
I’m anxious driving. I’m really out, now, far from home.
I come into St. Louis. I take the exit that looks closest to the downtown core. A couple, dressed to the nines in business attire, scurry from the revolving doors of a building towards a cab stopped at the curb. Their breath steams out as they dash, ill dressed for the weather. Otherwise the street is deserted. It looks post-apocalyptic. I don’t want to be here. I pull over under a street light and look at the map; the detail of the city is not good.
I pull out, following my best guesses. After a surprisingly short amount of time, I follow a hunch and move towards a slightly brighter area. I hit well-paved cobblestones. Now, I can see that this is a trendy touristy retail area. Most of the boutiques are closed. I drive towards the brightest lights. It’s a bar, but not ‘Mississippi Nights’. There are more lights at a diagonal corner of the large square. I cruise over, ready to hit the highway. There is a long row of buses around the bar. I can see the sign, ‘Mississippi Nights’.
I pull into a suspicious parking spot, near the end of the tour buses and equipment trucks. It’s 9:30. I hesitate. All the stuff that I have, is in the car. I’d hate to have to track it down in this fucking freezing cold ghost town, because it gets towed, then pay an outrageous amount to get it out of the pound. I’ll just run in quick and see if they’ve played.
I pull on the leather jacket and hat.
The lobby is invitingly warm beer, sweat, and smoky dampness. I feel even more isolated.
“Can I help you?”
“Can I get in? How much?”
“Uh, it’s been sold out for a while.”
“How late am I?”
“About a month.”
“I drove from Toronto to see Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. They’re my favourite band. Can I just hang out here and listen? I’ll pay you.”
“I’d have let you, but you’re too late. They finished fifteen minutes ago.”
“There are four bands on the bill. Sorry you missed them.” He turns. I go.
I’m kind of relieved. I’m not sure if I’m up to it. I’m shivering. I cruise out. I can see the raised highway, about a mile away. I head towards it, then drive parallel to it, back into the city downtown core. A parking garage, underground, would be good; I could sleep in the back of the car. The streets are completely deserted, except for one car, coming down the street. It has the name of a security firm painted on it, in big letters. Inside, two darkened men look at me. If I go to a parking garage, someone will wake me up in the night, tell me I’m not permitted to sleep there, and send me out. It could be worse.
I should be able to find a cheap motel in the ‘burbs. A hot bath would be so good.
On to the highway I pass a large sign ‘Gateway to the West’, onto a big bridge over a river of darkness. I see the bright lights of St. Louis recede in the rear-view mirror.
On the west shore, the sign says, ‘Missouri’.
I can’t see any motels. I don’t want to get off the highway and get lost in the suburbs. There must me some motels along the highway. But I don’t see any.
I’m clearing the city. All I want to do is have a bath and go to sleep. I’m in the country, now.
I turn off the highway at a random exit; I’ve got to find a place to park the car for a nap. It’s dark. It’s so tranquil compared to the suburbs and the highway, but will I wake up looking down the barrel of a farmer’s Uzi? It’s snowing. It’s beautiful. If I park it here, will someone call the cops?
What the fuck am I doing?
I go back; I follow the light, and find the highway. I’ll pull in at the service station, for gas and something to eat. I stand freezing in the blowing snow, filling the tank. But inside there is some fresh produce. I get supplies, pleased at remembering the cream for the coffee. I turn on to the highway chewing some beef jerky. Maybe something will present itself.
I have to take a piss. I pull off the highway at an exit for a rest station. It’s a long drive in; I wonder if I’ve missed a turn, or something. I can’t see, nor hear the highway, for there is a long, narrow hill between here and it. I pull into a large, well-kept parking lot, fringed by trees. There are no transport trucks idling the night away. It is tranquil.
The men’s washroom is warm and clean, a refuge from the winter blizzard. I’m reluctant to go back out into the dark, cold. But outside, it’s not snowing anymore, and there’s not so much wind, here, either. I relax a bit. As I walk back to the car, I notice people sleeping in a few parked cars.
I can’t go on. I’ve got to get a nap at least.
I rearrange the big blue crate and other luggage in the back of the car, so I can unfold the futon. I pull the back gate shut. I drink a beer, then lay down on the futon. I pile all of the blankets on top of me. It’s so nice to shut my eyes…
* * *
What’s that noise? It’s still dark. The car sways in the wind.
“Wah… What? Hello?”
“I’ve got to sleep.”
“John? What… ? Oh. Where are we?”
“We’re coming up to Morelia, I think.”
I smack my lips trying to get enough saliva to moisten my mouth and throat. Morelia, Missouri… ? How did… ah, Mexico, “any time, man. If you see a spot I could get out and make a shot, take it, okay?”
Slurred words?!? I wrestle my way out of the futon sandwich and pull on a layer of clothing, as fast as I can. I slither over the seat, and acquaint myself with the situation. I feel a bit better.
We pull into a dirt parking lot, in front of a few shops, adjacent to a gas station. He steers it over to a pump. I open my door. “No, I’ll get it. Then, I’ll go back. Take another minute to wake up.”
He fills up the gas tank and pays. Then he shimmies his way into the folded futon.
I idle the car along, passed the closed shops to the empty lot at the end of the strip, and stop it there. I make espresso on the hood of the car. It’s cool, but no wind; it’s not bad at all. I put a sachet of sugar, taken for just such a purpose from the restaurant in Tepic, into the black liquid. I drink it down; the taste is strong. My head clears and my focus sharpens. The cold on my face and hands feels pleasant.
I put the espresso gear on the floor behind the driver seat, then get in.
I hear the mechanical sound of the cassette player reversing, signalling the start of one side of the tape. I hear the familiar opening guitar chords to “Drive”[iii].
The air is clear. I see the moon close to the horizon for an instant, before clouds completely enshroud it. It’s black again.
I can’t see anything away from this endless tunnel of the highway’s artificial light. It must be three or four hours that I’ve been driving like this.
A pair of red lights appear ahead, then another, and another. I hit the brakes; there are no headlights close behind me. There are oil drums with fires burning in them. Stones of more than a foot in diameter, block the road. I’m in a line of five, three in front, and one behind; I’m trapped!
In front of the first car in the line, the way is blocked with even larger boulders. But I see a car accelerate, going from my right, to the left. I’m disoriented. I can’t tell what is going on.
The car in front of me turns right, into blackness. Blood rushes into my head. My heart is pounding. “John,” I croak; my mouth is dry.
“John, I think you’d better wake up. The toll highway is finished. Something is up, here!”
I turn right, following the last car. “The highway has ended! There are burning oil drums.”
“Yeah, well… yeah.” A brief quiet is followed by snoring. Alone, fuck!
I follow the short train of cars, through the blackness. I’m blinded! It’s a car passing in the opposite direction. The car in front of me makes a sudden 180° left u-turn around more burning steel drums. I follow it around and into the opposite direction. I focus on the car in front of me, keeping it rolling. The train of cars stretches out. A railing appears at the right extreme of the road, and a median separates the two lanes going this way, from the two lanes in the opposite direction. The road is cracked and uneven; I get the feeling that the road is elevated, but I’m not sure. It reminds me of the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto, but it’s never this empty. I hit another pothole, hard; this road may be even more dilapidated! I can’t see anything beyond the railing on the right. I focus in front, and keep driving. Deliberately, I breathe deeper, and slower. The tightness in my back eases, slightly.
A sign over the highway comes into focus, ‘Toluca 65km’. How could it be that we’re where we wanted to be?!? How could it be? It feels like a miracle to me. I keep going.
Here’s another sign, ‘Ciudad Toluca’. “John. John. Wake up. We’re in Toluca.” I pull off the highway, and drive in the same direction, along the main street running beneath the raised highway.
“Toluca. We’re here. We made it!”
“Uh? Oh, okay.”
I pull into an open lot, paved. A clock on a pole reads ‘4:12’. I gather the espresso stuff and take it out to the hood. I brew one up and take it to John in the passenger seat. “Thanks man.”
I brew another and down it stomping around. The air is about six or seven degrees; it seems balmy compared to Tepic, ten hours of driving behind.
“There’s the phone.” I nod towards the reason I stopped here.
“Oh yeah. Good.” John goes to the phone with his notebook in hand.
I make another espresso in the damp, pre-dawn light. As I’m getting in the passenger side, I see a paper bag on the floor, behind the seat. I find a couple of empanadas; I remember stowing them for just such a circumstance. I munch gratefully on one, and sip my coffee.
A minute later, I’m finished, and bored, and eying the second empanada. I get up to make John another coffee, so I won’t eat it.
He comes back over. His disappointment evident.
I hand him the coffee, as I walk around to the passenger seat. “Dude, look what I found!” I hand him the empanada.
“Alright, Mexican road breakfast.”
“I can still drive. I can’t see a way to by-pass Mexico.” I show him the map on the roof of the car. “All the highways disintegrate going into the city. But it looks like there’s a ring road around the centre of the city.” I follow it with my finger on the map. The ring road is tiny amidst the hugeness of the federal district of the entire Mexico City.
“Is this the best we’ve got?”
“That’s what we’ve got.”
I get us back on the raised highway; we drive out of Toluca. The road ascends and it becomes a major highway, six lanes across, separated in the middle with a median. The highway broadens approaching a toll booth. It continues at a steep grade, four lanes in each direction.
The car chugs. “What was that?”
“It’s probably the altitude.”
“The power is bad.”
We crest the hill. I can see lights of the city glowing across the entire valley, brightest in the middle. It’s 4:56. The traffic on the road is dense, but the flow is still ten kilometres an hour over the marked limit, 100 kmh. A sign informs of ‘Pila 5km’. The development along the highway intensifies. The road is straight and flat.
All of a sudden, we’re on a broad city street, approaching traffic lights, red. How did I get here, from the highway? “I missed all the exits to a ring road, if there were any.”
The sky is lightening. The thought of being here, in the gridlock of morning rush hour makes my stomach feel queasy.
We’re on a six-lane-wide main street. “What do you think?”
“Straight ahead, you’re right on track.”
“It looks like we’re going downtown.”
“Pull over here.” He indicates a modern, full–service gas station.
I screech, skidding across bumps on the tarmac, into the spot in front of a pump. “I’ll fill it up.”
“I’ll go pay.”
“Give me the sign when I can start.”
I can see John speaking with the attendant. There are three other cars at the pumps; presently, one guy replaces the nozzle, back to the pump, gets in his car, and speeds into the flow. The traffic on the street is steady. John nods to me; I start to fill the car.
John is talking to another man in the store; he has the map spread out. He waves to another guy, on his way out.
The pump stops. I look down at it to replace the nozzle. John walks out, still in conversation with one guy. He nods at him, and trots over to the car. “This guy is going out to the airport, which is the way we take for the highway to Oaxaca. He said we can follow him.”
“I can go a bit further. Why don’t we switch when we we’re out of town?”
“You spot him and tell me which way to go?”
The guy takes off like a shot. The traffic is getting thicker by the second. I force open spaces in the flow, to a chorus of horns. I have to accelerate hard to keep up with him, and then brake hard to squeeze into an exit line that he slides into. He peels off to the right, waving and pointing to the left, out of his window. He waves again, and honks his horn. I continue, honking and waving out the window as we pass him, slowed in an exit line.
The road begins to climb.
John slaps my shoulder, “good job!”
“Thanks man. That fucker, though. Do you think he really drives like that all the time?”
He shrugs, and shakes his head, “Doesn’t matter, we’re out.”
The road steepens. Its five lanes wide, two lanes in each direction, and a single, middle lane for passing in either direction. I’m in the middle lane, trying to get past this train, which is headed, I can see now, by a worn out and full tanker truck. The black smoke spews out, as it chugs slowly along. We come around a right 180 degree turn. At the apex, the sun shines between mountain peaks, straight into my eyes, then darkness. Honking, there is a car coming straight at us. I brake hard and jam it into the lane, just barely in front of the slow-moving tanker. The way is open in front. I pull away to get a safe cushion distance, and then slow down to a more congenial speed.
An overhead sign reads, ‘Ciudad Puebla’, next to an arrow pointing forward. There are fewer and fewer buildings. Pines grow at the side of the road.
We crest the peak into full white-yellow light. I slow for a toll booth near the bottom. It’s nice here, on the south side of the mountain. I roll down the window. The light breeze is pleasantly cool. On the far side of the tollbooth, I pull into a short commercial strip.
I park in front of the pump. John walks over to a grocery store, two store fronts further along. The car only takes twelve litres, but I am glad to keep it full. I idle the car over and into a slanted parking spot, at the front door of the small grocery store.
John comes out of the store with twelve bottles of beer in one hand and a five-litre jug of water in the other. He holds a brown paper bag under one arm. Half an empanada is protruding from his mouth.
“What’s in dee bag, mang?”
He finishes off the empanada. “Let me, see.” He looks in it, “oranges, and bananas, and…”, he looks around for something inside the bag, and then smiles even more broadly, “liquorice. They make liquorice here. It’s good for you. Did you know that?”
“Hmm, I mighta heard that before. But did you get ice?”
“No worries, it’s not so difficult a thing to forget.”
I walk into the store. First, I get a bag of ice, then six beers of a label that I haven’t seen before. At the cash counter, I get a bag of meat empanada, and some oranges.
I put the stuff on the hood, and crack one of the beers, and try it, “yeah, it is good.”
John turns the car on. I finish the beer, and climb in to the back.
We pull out. I want to watch the scenery, but the brightness hurts my eyes; so I have to shut them.
* * *
It’s light out. I feel refreshed. My face is cold. I reach out to find my clothes under the blankets; I pull them on. I open the door. Cold, dry air hits my face and shocks my lungs. I pull the boots on and walk fast to the men’s restroom. It’s warm inside. I piss. I wash my hands and my face. I run my fingers through my hair, and fix an elastic band around it.
I turn the car on, and then the heater fan once the air coming out is warm. I find my leather jacket and pull it on. I take the espresso stuff to the concrete curb, behind the car, and brew one up. I put it to my lips. The aroma is so incredibly powerful; I can almost taste it before the first sip touches my mouth. It has already cooled to warm. I’m still holding the maker with my other hand. I place the empty cup down, then clean, and reload the maker. I place it on the still burning stove.
I take the second to the passenger seat. I see a sachet of sugar on the seat; so I put it in. I swish it around and savour it.
It’s cold but sunny. I take a deep breath and finish the coffee, collect the gear, and dump it in the back seat.
I join the river of cars flowing westward.
I dodge great streams flowing from the large patches of grey slush on the road, through Kansas City, on the by-pass. A thick haze of dirty water enshrouds the highway. The area of the windshield, unreachable by the wiper blades, is enshrouded by the dried and drying dust.
Past the city, it’s the same dreary, featureless grey landscape.
Finally, the sun dips below the impenetrable cloud, low on the western horizon, directly in front of me. I savour it, even though it hurts my eyes.
I pull off the interstate at the exit to Oakley. I fill up at a small gas station. I get beef jerky in the shop, chewing on it as I look at the map. It’s still bright but I can feel the temperature falling. I’ll drive a bit more, off the interstate, then take the first motel I come by.
I pull out. The sun sinks. The road starts to roll. Off both sides of the road is forest. As I crest the hills, the sun shines into my eyes from the bright orange crack along the horizon.
No motel yet. It’s getting dark. The road is not lit. There are few cars. I don’t even know what road this is? I drive faster. I screech around a corner. Fuck! Ugh, I slide across a patch of road onto the far shoulder. The back-end continues sliding around, but I correct it in time, and get back onto the road. My pulse is a mile high.
I force myself to back off the accelerator. A car approaches. Its high beams burn straight into my eyes; it hurts; I have to close them!
* * *
I open my eyes. I’m looking straight at the sun, filtered through a thin silver haze. It hurts my eyes; I blink. I’m relaxed, lying down. What happened? Where is the car? It was dark.
“Ughh. Ughh.” Uhh, Mexico. I’m in Mexico. I glad to be off that road in Colorado. “Water?”
“Right next to you.”
I splash some down. It’s like an oasis after the desert. “Is it raining?”
“Nah…” A fat drop smacks into the centre of the windshield, momentarily making the dust on the window transparent.
A few more drops hit. Then nothing. “Nope.”
“We’re coming up to Tehuacán.” He points across the valley, off to the right.
The dashboard clock shows 11:59. “Is it noon?” Wow!
“How’s it goin’?”
“Good. I like it here. They’re good drivers. They’re courteous. They follow the rules; they’re different from our rules, but most of the drivers follow them. I’ve had her at about a hundred, almost the whole time you were asleep.”
“A hundred miles per hour?!”
“Yup, miles per hour. This is a great car, man. You got a great deal. It’s a tank, and the mileage ain’t all that bad.”
I scramble forward into the passenger seat. I open the window and let the warm air blow through the car.
“D’you wanna go into town, or just swap somewhere along the road?” I tilt my head towards the small strip of commercial buildings a short ways ahead, just back from the highway.
“Yeah.” He nods and pulls off the road, into the large gravel lot.
There is a gas station, a café, and a small grocery store. “Perfect.”
I fill it up with gas and check the oil while he visits the restroom. I move the car into a parking spot in front of the store. When John returns, I go to the restroom. When I get back, he’s pouring oil in. “Did you check the tires?”
“Yeah, they are just like it says, on the sticker in the glove box.”
He inspects the oil stick, examining it as an ancient Egyptian priest might have looked at the intestines of a bird. “Poifect.”
There are baskets of corn, squash, cabbage, oranges, and papaya along the outside wall of the grocery store. Inside there are dry goods, some hardware and other household consumables. We get supplies. As the boy works the cash, a young woman places a basket of empanadas next to the cash register. She smiles at me. I take half a dozen.
John sits, eyes slits, in the passenger seat.
“I’m going to make a shot, you?”
He’s hardly awake.
When I finish making the coffee, John is asleep. I turn on the car and back it out slowly. John’s head is nodding and swaying with the motion of the car as we pick up speed. “Bub, go down.”
He looks up, straining to open his eyes. He nods slowly, unbuckles, and climbs over the seat. “Can you close the back window?”
I take a warm empanada from the oil-stained paper bag, as I put the back window up. It has a rich meaty and peppery taste. I eat another. I peel an orange, holding the steering wheel with a knee.
The road continues through straw-coloured valleys, followed by brown passes into subsequent yellow valleys. There is scant traffic. The air smells faintly of hay, but always with a whiff of mould and burning leaves.
I reach around, blind, behind the seat for the fizzy water. I feel the metal canister. I pull it up, and take a short dark cigar from inside it. Replacing the canister, I find the fizzy water, and take a good drink from it, then toss it back. I light the cigar.
The car runs smoothly as we ascend. Now steeply up, then the switch backs. The road becomes level, I think. The wind howls from the side, shaking the car violently.
“Huh! What do you want?”
I continue to not say anything; he’s probably talking in his sleep. I put up the windows up all the way.
I hear him stirring. “Hey.”
“Look at this gnarled, wretched land.”
“Are you sure this is the way?”
“I’ll stop when I see a place, and we can look at the map.”
It’s desolate here. Lonely stunted trees are angled away from the wind. Occasionally, the sun shines through holes in the clouds, utterly changing the view. The dark, passively menacing mountains, miles away, are transformed, becoming animated with colour, glowing green and yellow, inviting engagement. Ahead on the highway, no sun shines; it looks forlorn. A gust of wind shakes the car, this time violently.
“No problem dude, up the speed a bit, it pushes the car down; it makes it more stable.”
“Good thinking.” He drops into the passenger seat, rubs his face and drinks water, while taking interest in the map.
A sign ahead reads, ‘Nochixtlan’.
“Here it is; we’re coming up to the continental divide.”
“Yep, should do.”
He munches on empanadas and oranges. “That’s a good tasting empanada.”
He takes a beer from the cooler behind his seat. “The ice is done.”
“Yeah, I forgot, to get it, again.”
“There are two cold ones left. You want a can?”
He reaches around and takes a bottle, “piss warm.” He hands me a cool can.
“You want the last empanada?” He hands it to me.
“That would be lovely.”
The clouds break; everything looks better. We are going decidedly downwards, now. The road is smooth; I take it at a 100 mph glide. We pass a sign saying we’ve entered the state of Oaxaca.
It’s a smooth cruise, all the way into Ciudad Oaxaca.
Stone walls line narrow, cobbled sidewalks, on clean narrow streets. I pass around the central park. The traffic is sedate. I’m looking for a likely place to get food, and, hopefully, cleaned up a bit.
I turn down a street, off the centro, looking. It’s difficult to tell which are commercial establishments; there is nothing obvious. Occasionally, there is a small sign attached to the wall, near a door. I pass a sign on a wall that looks like it might be a restaurant; it’s difficult to be sure. I’ve got to get out of the car and stretch a bit. I go half a block past the suspicious sign, then around a corner before finding a parking spot of adequate size for the car.
It take a couple of minutes to rearrange a few things in the car to cover valuables. I’m sweating by the time it’s done.
The streets are clean, but it’s hot and dusty. The sun is heavy upon me. It’s so bright! It doesn’t look like anything is open. A small sign, ‘Restaurante’, is the only thing differentiating this closed door from all of the other closed doors. I press the indicated button. I can’t hear any sound from it. I push it again, so as to ensure that sounds, if it is working. “Do yuh think its open?”
Raised eye brows shrug slightly, above a bemused grin.
We’re greeted by a fine-looking woman in her forties. She brings us into a dark hallway; for a moment I can’t see anything. We walk into a large courtyard with several trees amongst many plants. There is a large fountain in the middle of the open courtyard, and water cascading down a 25 foot wall. There is plenty of shade in here. It’s cool, as if the whole space was air-conditioned. We take a spot at a table, which sits partly in the sun. I sit in the sun.
The sound of running water is like music. I can feel the moistness in the air. The entire dining area must be 15 by 20 meters. About a quarter of the tables are occupied. It is sedate.
She returns and pours water into our glasses and hands me a menu, setting another at John’s place. I order beer. John returns from cleaning up as she brings the beers. “This place is great!”
We toast. This is what I came for, finding places just like this.
A young woman comes to the table as I return from washing. <<¿Are you ready to order?>>
John points to something on the menu; she writes on her note pad. <<¿And you señor?>>
<<¿Is there a local dish?>>
She points to two items on the menu. <<These are traditional. This one is chicken, and this one pork.>>
<<That looks good.>> I point to the pork.
<<Good choice>>. “Bueno.”
The tightness in my back eases.
“She is beautiful.”
“She smells nice.” I breathe in through my nose, trying to catch the last of the scent.
“Cheers. Way to go.”
* * *
The food is so good. The beautiful woman, who’s been serving us, takes a seat and joins us at our table. Most of the patrons are finished and gone, now. She asks where we’ve come from. John makes the motion of steering and said, “manejamos de Canada.”
“¿Condujisteis de Canadá a aquí, en coche?”
“What does that mean?” he asks me. “Uh, momentito, por favor.” He chuckles.
“I think it’s the same thing. ‘Coche’ is ‘car.'”
“You say ‘ma-na-ha-mos’ for ‘drive’.”
He turns to her, “‘Par-doa-nae.’ ¿’Manejamos’ es mismo que ‘condujisteis’?”
“Mas o menos, sí.”
“Sí, condu-ji-mos a aquí en coche.” He laughs.
“Que aventura. ¿Cuándo llegasteis?”
John laughs again and looks at me, with eye brow raised, slightly.
“Llegamos ahora, treinta minutos pasado en el ciudad. Gusto mucho aquí.” I point to the ground and around the comfortable surroundings of the dining room. “Gusto mucho. Gracias por estar aquí.”
She smiles. “Con mucho gusto. Bienvenido a Oaxaca.” She bows slightly, and standing, starts collecting the dishes. “¿Algo más?”
“¿Es posible consigo uno espresso cortado?”
“Sí.” That beautiful smile again. “¿Y usted, señor?”
“No, Gracias.” He grins like an imp, looking at her.
She brings me the coffee.
When we finally leave, the street looks like a completely different place. Now the uniform walls and closed doors hold unlimited promise. We find schools, art centres, a design centre, and an internet café. There is a synergy here, some kind of cultural hybrid.
The young woman, working at the bookstore café, tells me in perfect English, about moving from Mexico to Oaxaca. She loves it here. She agrees that there is something new, a unique ‘thing’, emerging here; it’s impossible to not notice the unique vibration of the place.
On a stone bench in a tiny park, I look at a map of the town. Beyond the city limits, there are Mayan and Aztec sites. I wish I could stay in this town.
John drives. At the city limits, we stop. It’s 3:07. He goes into a store to take on supplies.
I put down all the windows, then open all the doors, including the back gate. I sit on the front bumper, staring at the highway ahead.
The shimmering heat rising from the road mesmerizes me. I’m lost in the randomness of it.
We continue driving, passing a fork in the road, without slowing. We’ve already had the conversation; I wanted to go straight down to the beach by 175 and stay overnight at Puerto Angel, but it would cost half a day, at least. We’ve agreed to continue on the shortest route to the frontera, on Hwy. 190, to rejoin the Pan-Pacific Highway just past Salina Cruz.
“I got something else.” He shows me two cigars. “They had them at the last store. I asked the guy which one he likes best, and he gave me these. He bites the end off one, and lights it.
Hwy. 190 is well-paved. It’s a steady descent. I can see a long way out across a desert plain, which disappears into the pure blue sky. The air is so clear, the scenery looks surreal. I’m glad I can watch it as a passenger. I long for the ocean, and a decent bathing in it.
“Are you finished with that cigar?” He nods at the ashtray.
I’d smoked a third of its raunchiness before admitting to myself that it was enough. “Yeah.”
He takes it from the ashtray and re-lights it.
We approach a line of buildings off the side of the road. The first one has a crude, hand made sign, inscribed ‘Mescal’.
John slams on the brakes and pulls into the gravel yard. He strides through the dust to the door. I get out of the car, and follow him in.
She is just cute enough to be cute. The back door of the shop is open; two small children play in the dust amongst the agave cacti. Six full glasses in front of three bottles, rest on the bar. <<This is pure mescal, made only from the blue agave cactus. It is seven years before the cactus can be harvested.>>
He downs the three, one after the other. I take my time.
“The white one is really good.”
“Are you gonna get any?”
He gives me a sideways glance then breaks into laughter.
<<¿Señora, what is this one?>>
<<This one is very special. This one is made from the flowers of only the oldest agave. It’s the best one can buy.>>
John points at each bottle, “Uno, uno, y uno, por favour.” He grins.
I’m drunk. I have to concentrate to get back to the car.
We pull through the town; every building in town has a sign indicating mescal ‘se vende’. The unthreatening portion of the mescal… seems too little to have such a strong effect. I lean my head out the window to get breeze on my face.
The highway snakes along, switching back and forth and up and down. Agave is planted everywhere. Men in mountain climbing equipment tend it on sheer faces of the mountain.
He pulls over, near to the far edge of a generous run-off area around a left-hand hairpin curve. I walk to the edge. We’re atop a cliff with an expansive southwest vista. A hundred yards down is the centro of a small pueblo. There is a tour bus at the side of the road on the central square. Passengers are milling around. The sun gleams off several crops of pale blond hair.
I get the gear and coffee out, on to the hood. I revel in the brightness and the heat of the sun.
* * *
I put the espresso gear away. I’m feeling better after the coffee. “Let’s go down there.”
Its two minutes of switchbacks down to the bus.
I walk over to the bar, go in, and use the restroom.
When I emerge, the bus is pulling away. John stands in the rising dust, watching it leave. He sips a beer.
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“That cigars, uh, sometimes cigars can really… uh… result in a purging. It can’t really be hurried.”
He takes a haul on a cigar. “Oh yeah? Weird.”
“So, there were some blonds?… “.
Clear of town, I can see the coast, far away.
“They were just loading back up. She was Norwegian, went to school in the states.”
“Jah. One of them. They’ve just come through Chiapas; she said it was a nightmare. They were stopped eighteen times. At one checkpoint, they were corralled into a concrete room. All of the passports were taken. They were in there for four hours, no toilets, no water, no communication. When they got back outside, the luggage was all over the road.”
There is a stop sign at the intersection with hwy 185. John pulls the car over to the side of the road, next to a dark, fortress-like building to the right. I want to take Hwy. 185, back, away from the border, to Salinas Cruz, because it looks like it is on the coast.
John wants to push on. We flip for it, and I win. The highway to Salinas Cruz is like a continuous strip mall. It is bumper to bumper much of the way. It’s on the verge of dusk when we get into Salinas Cruz. It’s dreary and has no beach on the ocean. It’s an oil port; most of the sea front is dominated by oil transfer quays and industrial structures. I don’t want to stay, but it’s a moot point, because we don’t see a single hotel.
The highway back is even worse than before; it’s dark when we get back to the intersection with Hwy. 190. At the intersection I notice a sign on the fortress-like building, ‘Motel’.
A sentry opens a gate after giving us a look-over. The courtyard is huge. Lawns of well-kept grass, dotted with citrus trees all the way around it. Everything is clean. I feel completely insulated from the violence of the highway intersection on the outside of the walls.
In my room, I splash water on my face. I put on some fresh clothes, and walk out to the bar with my computer and paper notebook. I get a beer and sit in a lounge chair next to a small table.
I turn on the computer. I look through the notebook for the right place. I open the file on the computer. I type from the hand-written notes:
“Martha’s Black Dog Coffeehouse, Socorro, New Mexico,
07 December 1999 – Tuesday
It’s about 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time. I’m eating a couscous-something, and drinking a strong pale ale. The waitress is young and funky; I think I’m picking up a vibe from her. Of course I’m not crazy about the fluorescent lights, but I really like the place.
I made it here from La Junta. Yesterday was out-of-control, especially the paranoia-express on icy, unmarked roads after sunset. The nightmare continued with the dinner and hotel, ugh.”
Thinking about it now, I feel a shiver run up my spine. Turning off the lights and driving at 120 kph is a bit fucked up.
“But, the town looked quite nice in the morning light. Mid-morning, I stopped to look at horses in a field. Past the horse, for the first time I could see the mountains.
I joined I-75 at Trinidad, at the bottom of the state. The highway ascended steeply. The car bogged down and just about stalled when I accelerated for the final push over the top. It’s been fine since then, but I’ll have to keep an eye on it.
Lot’s of sun, down the south side and along the mesa. I was attracted by red clay tiled roofs of Albuquerque. I pulled off the highway to take a quick look, filling up with gas. But at that time, I just wasn’t prepared to have that short a day.
But after another 100 kilometres, I made it here, to Socorro. By then, I was prepared to have that short a day driving. It’s a nice, manageably small town. I got a room at a pretty nice motel along the highway.
I was surprised to see puddles frozen over. I forgot that deserts can get really cold.”
I order another beer, and look over the text. I’m glad to get it input to the file.
I start the next one.
‘09 December 1999, Thursday
I sit writing at a restaurant next to a trailer park, along I-8; about 30 miles west of the turn off from I-10.
Yesterday, I drove from Socorro, New Mexico to Benson, Arizona. By the end of the day I wasn’t feeling so well.
I was chilled and fevered in the night. I had a dream, in it I was fleeing; but I don’t know what I was trying to get away from… very much. I was afraid to turn around to look at it, because I feared it would slow me that crucial too much! It was like trying to run in water; so I dove and glided, and I was in knee level deep water, until I slowed. But then I had difficulty finding my footing to run again! Somehow, I did get back up, to drive forward, practically blind with exertion, running in slow motion.
The fever broke; I got up, exhausted; it was 3 a.m. I’d hoped to find sleep, after that. But, it yet eluded me. It wasn’t until dawn that I was able to fall into a shallow slumber.
I got going just after 11. I felt a bit better in the sunshine.
After Tucson, I decided to take the turn off and go along I-8; anything to get further south and to more warmth. I knew I’d have to pull back, and head north to get to Palm Springs, but maybe there’d be less traffic.
The traffic has been very light, so far. There’s a lot more scenery, but there aren’t the usual amenities, like gas stations and groceries stores, every five or ten miles. I passed a gas station and noticed the restaurant, after I’d already passed the exit; so I turned around at the next exit, and came back.
The gasoline pumps in front of the restaurant aren’t working. But I could see a pump by the entrance to a trailer home, across two huge, empty parking lot; so I drove over to it. I tried to get gas, but… nothing happened. So I went to go inside the store that was there, to see what was going on.
As I opened the door to go in, a woman, in cowboy motif, and liberally applied bright red lipstick, approached and passed through the door, as I held it open. Her smile showed a mouthful of straight, white teeth. I was startled by the look she gave me.”
The shapely bar maid passes me by, seemingly without noticing me.
“I could hardly believe the open desire from a woman, who must be more than old enough to be my mother.
Inside the store, there were two women at the counter in a heated discussion, in Spanish. I approached them smiling. I asked about the gasoline. The one behind the counter fired a machine-gun speed volley in Spanish that I couldn’t follow. I tried again, pointing towards the gas pumps. I heard the door open then shut. The woman behind the counter switches her focus to the new arrival, over my shoulder. She narrows her eyes. There is a tenseness. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see the cow lady watching me intently.
“How much would you like to get, hombre?”
She explained it to me that you have to pay, first. I paid for thirty dollars worth. The Mexican woman reached below the counter, I heard a clunk, like the sound of a high voltage switch. My newest friend took me gently by the arm and escorted me out to the pump. “It should go now.”
It did. “Thank you very kindly”, I said.
“Why, you are most very welcome, sir. I’m Sandy.” She holds out her hand, smiling; I shake it.
“Ontario,” she points to the license plate, “ is in Canada, isn’t it?”
I told her about the general thrust of my plan, through Central America.
She laughed innocently, like it was some kind of a joke. It didn’t seem, in the least, maliciously.
With my thirty dollars-worth in, I replaced the nozzle back on the pump cradle.
I looked at her. “I guess that’s it.”
“Yep. You’re done with the gas-O-line. I just want you to know that I think you’re a real cool guy.”
She took a small, intricately carved stainless steel tube from her pocket, took off the lid from one end, tapped it gently, and took a cigarette from it. “Here, take this for the road.”
I stared at her in awe, pretty well freaked; it must be a joint! I thanked her profusely, somewhat bewildered.
Before going, I asked about the restaurant?
“It’s the best around here.”
“Thanks. I’m going to take a toot and get some food there.”
“Well, you can do what you want, but in that case, you better take this, too.” She removed a second joint from the beautiful little canister, and handed it to me. “I’m at No. 5, if you’d like to come by and maybe stay for a while.”
I’m flabbergasted. But I had to get food. I idled over to a parking spot, close to the restaurant.
I brought the notepad and a pen with me, here, to the restaurant, so I could write it down, right away.
Now, the waitress has brought me the food.”
I walk over to the bar, and order a courto, and another beer.
I sip the coffee. It reminds me of the one I made just before getting into Yuma, a few hours after I left the restaurant on I-8. Overlooking Yuma, Arizona, California, and Mexico, I decided to keep driving until I got to Palm Springs; I knew it might be late by the time I got there. I wanted to be amongst friends.
The barman brings me beer.
When I arrived in Palm Springs at 10 p.m., it was cold; it must have been freezing.
I look around the bar, watch the people coming and going, for a moment.
I should have been getting all of the stuff done that I needed to, for the trip, like getting the temporary importation permit for the car.
It was nice to hang out with my friend, with an existing network of creature comforts at my disposal. But, I didn’t get too much done in Palm Springs, before John got there. The thing was racing the motorcycles along the flat, straight desert roads, through the fields of windmills.
When I picked up the voicemail messages on my landline in Toronto, there was an urgent message from someone, to call her immediately. I recognized the tone of that particular strain of urgency; so I wasn’t surprised when she said she was pregnant. She said I had to come back to Toronto, right away, of course. Who knows? It could be true, but she’s told me so much ridiculous stories before, to… get me to do something, anything to bend my will. After having broken free of the oppressive gravity of the machine, how could I trust her? She’d already agreed to take full responsibility for such an occurrence in exchange for my willingness to indulge the supposed allergy to latex.
“Hey?” John startles me! “How’s the writing going?”
“I just got to, uh, just before you fly into Palm Springs.”
“Cool. You want another?”
“No thanks. This one is fresh.” I hold the mostly full bottle up for him to see.
His beer comes. He downs half of it. “Are you ready to roll?”
I down most of my beer. “Yeah, I’ll put the computer away, and we’ll go.”
I see the cab waiting, on my way back to the bar. “Cabs here; let’s go.”
He comes over. “You look like a new man!”
“Naps are good.”
The driver follows Hwy. 190, continuing south from the main coastal highway 185, straight towards the centro of Tehuantepec. But approaching the centro the way is blocked with people and vehicles. I get out, and pay him at his window. “Gracias.”
The town square is alive with activity. An open market takes three-quarters of the square. One side is food and dining. The aroma makes me feel stoned. My stomach rumbles.
I point, “Food, yeah?”
He nods. “Food.”
Food is being prepared in open kitchens on the sidewalk. Tables and benches are set up in front. A middle-aged woman stirs a caldron with a large wooden spoon; she looks up and sees me looking at her. “¿Que gusto?” She nods emphatically, looking directly into my eyes. “¿Que gusto, señor?”
I point to several of the other patrons seated on the row of benches and tables. She nods, with a small laugh and points to two seats, while fixing John with the eyes, “¿Y señor?”
John confers with her over the steaming caldrons, then joins me with two beers.
Shortly, food is brought. A little boy runs off, and returns with six more bottles of beer. More food is brought.
A string of firecrackers snap and crackle on the fringe of the square. The smell of sulphur wafts past me. Pods of adolescent girls cavort past groups of boys trying to get their attention.
An old man sits down beside John, across the bench from me. He greets me, and then John, in a formal, but cordial manner. He calls himself Indalecio. I tell him the story of the drive from Toronto; “si, mucho frio, y mucho nieve allá.” There is lots of cold and ice, there. He says the cold makes his joints ache. <<Yes>>, it is much better here, I agree.
I look around as he speaks to John about the festival; there is unpretentious joy here.
The moon shines down. I interrupt the two of them, <<Indalecio, I like it here. You are very fortunate to live in such a pretty place. The joy of the people pleases me much.>> As he nods his head slowly, he reaches his hand across the table and shakes mine. He keeps holding it and stands, pulling me up, and over to him, in an embrace.
“Tanto gusto, hombre. Tanto gusto.”
He sits, turns, and shakes John’s hand with equal sincerity. <<¿Where do you go next?>>
In one breath he details getting to, and then crossing the border, into Guatemala. He pauses, presumably to breathe then stands with a flourish, waves, and moves on.
After settling with the matron, we wander around the square for a few minutes. Most of the activity has slowed or stopped. We leave the square by the road leading to the highway, the same road, by which we’d arrived. I spot a man standing at a doorway under a balcony. The door opens, exposing psychedelic lights and loud trip hop music. He enters and the door closes. A waft of skunk enters my head. I’m tired, but I want to see the other side of that door.
“Let’s go over there.” The entrance is a few steps down, from the road.
I knock hard on the solid oak door; I can feel the dub beat, from behind it. A small slot opens at eye-level. Someone looks out for half a minute. The plate slides back, closed. I turn towards John, ready to accept rejection, but I stop as I catch the motion of the door opening, in the corner of my eye. Disco music pours out with a plume of marijuana smoke.
We take a small table, shaded from the undulating light by a pillar. Beer comes in a brown bottle with an unfamiliar label. It’s dark and has a strong taste. I like it. I want grass, but I don’t know how to ask for it. “I like that beer.”
“Ugh?” John is fading; he looks like a man who has been driving for thirty-six hours, after a sleepless night.
I down the rest of my beer. John has hardly touched his beer. His head nods forward.
The lines at the cab stands are long, and there don’t seem to be too many cabs coming along. We walk in the direction of the hotel. A cab stops in front of me and a couple get out one side. I open the opposite side door and push John in. <<We’re going to the hotel at the highway.>>
I help John open the door to his room, push him in, and drop the key on the floor, on my way out.
I go into my room, pulling off my pants on the way to the toilet. I take my shirt off while pissing then stagger over to the bed.
* * *
I’m driving. I’m driving. It’s bright. It’s hot. My back hurts. I bottom out at an intersection. I grimace, but I don’t stop. No one is stopping around here.
“Do you want me to drive!?”
I glance quickly over at him, “no, I’m good.” I am not good. I just want to get out of Tijuana, as fast as possible; changing drivers would take too long. We can get money at the next place. But how the fuck do we get out? “Navigate. Let’s get out of this shit hole. What way do I go?”
“I dunno. But you gotta ease up a bit, or let me drive.”
“Okay. Okay. I’m easing up.”
“There! Is that a freeway?” Without waiting for the reply, I roll through the stop sign, left, because a momentary opening has appeared. The tires screech. I stomp on it, to avoid getting crashed into by the cars approaching at high speed. Car horns sound in a discordant symphony.
“I’m glad to get out of that.”
We come around a corner; I have to jam on the brakes, and changes lanes to avoid ramming into the nearest car. Eight lanes of cars fume in the heat, not moving.
“How can this be happening, again?”
“What do yuh mean?”
How did we get back up here, to Tijuana?
After ten minutes, we’ve moved about twenty yards, up to where an on-ramp joins the highway. Cars are parked all the way up it to an overpass.
It’s hot in the car.
“I’m thinking about going for the on-ramp.”
“I don’t know.” How can he be so relaxed?
“It’ll be sundown by the time we get to the border, and who knows if they’ll let me in.”
I wave at two Mexican police, passing by on bicycles. They come over to the car.
I try to explain the predicament.
<<We’ve just entered Mexico. We want to be in Mexico. Mexico is great! We want to be driving down the Baja, further into Mexico. We don’t want to go into the U. S. A.>> I shake my head, slowly and gravely.
How can I be back here, going into the states, just like before?
They have a conference. One of them is a middle-aged man, swarthy, otherwise non-descript. The other is a squat and not very feminine woman; I think she’s a bit younger than the guy. She talks; they can help; but it is passed lunchtime.
The partner says something too fast for me to understand.
She continues. <<Yes, it is past lunchtime.>> She pauses. <<Lunch costs money. ¿Do you have any money, you could help us out?>>
Her tone suggests that lunch could cost more in dollars. Yes, they can help, but it is almost passed lunchtime! They’ve not eaten, she explains. Perhaps we can help each other, she suggests. Again some rapidly spoken Mexican from the coach interrupts our conversation. <<¿How much money do you have?>>
How can this be happening, again!?
<<¿How much money for lunch?>> John says it from behind me. <<¿How can we get out of the traffic?>>
How much money did we have?
How much money would lunch be, in American dollars?
The talk of late lunch and how much it costs, continues for ten minutes. The number ‘diez’, ten, is mentioned several times.
They move off. She opens up space in the lanes between us and the ramp. He goes to the ramp. He speaks to drivers, walking up the ramp. One by one, they pull their cars half over the curb, opening up a narrow space on the road.
She motions for us to go, as she walks up the ramp to join her partner. She points up, and then right. <<To the right.>> She makes the motion with her hand.
I bark out a laugh; it seems surreal, but here it is, happening to me, again… What? How can it be, just like the first time? I take the five from amongst a one, a five, and several twenties. I hand it to her, knowing the expression that she will make. I speed away, to the right, just as instructed.
We drive over the crest; there is the ocean! Made it, again! We descend into Rosarito. It’s calm. We stop at a bank and get the money.
John drives. We go south on the coastal highway; there’s a toll but the highway is smooth and fast. The sun shines off the Pacific, to the right.
We drive down a long hill, into downtown Ensenada. We park in front of a burrito stand at a busy intersection. I drink beer and eat burritos at a table on the sidewalk; John walks over to a tourist booth. I can see him speaking to a young woman. After twenty minutes, he returns grinning.
He opens his mouth to speak, but all of a sudden, it is completely dark!?
* * *
“John?” It croaks out of me. “Where are you?”
I blink but there is no difference. “I can’t see.” My voice is hoarse.
I’m relieved to see the numbers ‘3:54’ glowing in the blackness; at least I’m not blind.
The fortress, I’m in the fortress, in… in Tehuantepec. I sigh and lay my head down.
I’m relieved that I don’t have to do the drive from Tijuana to here, again.
The sweat cools; vaguely, I can feel my skin tightening as the sweat dries to salt. I sink into a relaxed darkness.
[i]. “Oliver Twist” “is the or The Parish Boy’s Progress, is the second novel by Charles Dickens, and was first published as a serial 1837–39”, according to Wikipedia
[ii]. “Jimmie’s Chicken Shack” an American, post-grunge alternative rock band from Annapolis, Maryland, emerging in 1992; frequently described by Dean as his favourite band, along with half-a-dozen others
[iii]. ‘Drive’ is the first track on the REM album, “Automatic for the People”, released by Warner Bros., October 5, 1992