Let the Good Times Roll

Posted on March 19, 2014


Let the Good Times Roll
Robert Joe Stout

Beneath jutting rocks on the hillside ahead of him, patches of new-growth green showed evidence of recent rain. The land had been sere, drought-parched, when he’d left, with dying growth tangling the shallow culvert that sloped away from the unpaved road.
It could rain again. Manuel Hernández shifted his backpack from one shoulder to the other as he peered at the gray masses veiling the horizon. He remembered the rain in California the two days he’d spent trying to follow trails through the mountains—hungry, cold. Blades of the fear he’d felt then darted through him and he paused, panting, for the road was steep and rutted where the rain had washed looser soil away.
Fear, not panic: for he was Oaxacan, from the campo. He knew only how to go forward and not question fate. He hadn’t wanted to leave the pueblo but Azul, his wife Azul, had struck him, spit at him. We have no food! We have no money! I cannot live this way! So as many others had done, he left the Sierras del Sur to head for the border, find work in the United States.
Above him, ominously black against the leaden sky, two vultures soared in interlocking circles, going nowhere, but always searching. Vulture life—who’d said that? One of many indocumentados he’d worked with, like him, earning what they could to send money home: salvaging junked cars, assembling furniture, scrubbing convalescent home floors, picking olives. Finally, he’d latched onto a permanent job at the lumber mill. That was where he’d met Alejandra.
Again, he stopped. Only one vulture was circling now, the other apparently out of sight beyond the crest. A voice somewhere inside him asked, what about Ale? He’d intended to return to her, at least contact her, but.
He pressed his hands against his thighs and closed his eyes as he had done countless times since catching that last glimpse of her, herded with dozens of others out of the mill into the stacking yard, migra in bulky uniforms labeled “ICE,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shoving them this way and that. She’d tripped and fallen when the two of them had run between stacks of lumber, trying to escape after hearing the shouts from inside the mill.
Raid! The migra!
He’d rushed to help her just as three officers lurched past the stacks.
“Let her go!”
That he remembered, clearly, shouting in English. One of the men had grabbed Alejandra; another yelled words he hadn’t understood.
“I only shoved him. I didn’t hit him!” Manuel protested. But was that true? He wasn’t sure. The migra’s head had slammed against the stack of two by fours, and he’d fallen. Manuel remembered seeing blood.
“Instead of saving Ale I ran,” he’d told Nick.
“You couldn’t have saved her; you did the right thing,” Nick had replied. Nick, whom Manuel had learned to consider his friend. Manuel had gone back, briefly, circling through the woods to a point from which he could view the yard. Whether the migra were loading everybody in trucks or just those with counterfeit work permits, he couldn’t tell, but Ale was among them, sullen and defiant. He’d planned to slip into town after the trucks had left to check on Jazmín, Ale’s child, but he’d heard the voices of men approaching. Cautiously, he’d slipped away, climbing through brush and logging debris, up toward the ridge.
He’d never gone back, never seen Ale again. Hitching his jeans higher above his wide hips, he resumed walking. Someone had braced a treadless tire against two rocks as a warning that a portion of the road behind them had washed away, and cars coming downhill would have to thread their way along the half that remained intact.
In the Trinity Mountains, there had been no warnings. He’d tried to follow the ridge to a point from which he could descend into the town, but dense manzanita had made passage impossible. To avoid the migra, he’d detoured along the side of the ridge to a point where he could see the valley below, where neither the paved road nor any buildings were visible.
He’d hesitated, then wound his way down the ridge. Gorges, rock slides, and grown-over burns forced him to change course. He finally stumbled onto the remains of an old logging road and followed it. How far he wasn’t sure—four miles, maybe five.
Again shifting his backpack from one shoulder to the other, he shook his head. This was the Sierra Madre Sur, not the Trinities. He wasn’t lost; this was where he’d spent his boyhood, where he and his father had hunted deer and wild pigs. But he felt lost, not knowing if Azul still lived in the village or what had happened to her. The last times he’d sent her money, she hadn’t replied. How long had that been? Months. But since leaving the mill town in the Trinities he’d lacked a permanent address. And there was the law. Always, as an indocumentado, one lived with fear: fear of failure, fear of the police, fear of the charges that might have been levied against him for attacking the ICE agent.
He’d taken nothing with him the day he fled—no clothes, no papers, only whatever was in his pockets. After trudging through the mountains for hours, he realized he needed to find some kind of shelter—a cave or deserted shed, anything where he could spend the night. Finally, he’d crept beneath an overhang, out of the wind. But it had been cold—treacherously cold. He barely slept that night or the next but continued to push forward, trying to recognize points of landscape, trying not to go in circles.
Finally, he saw a long, sloping meadow and zigzagged toward it, startled by rabbits bursting from underfoot and the appearance of an airplane overhead. He felt a sharp twang against his ankle, and brushed aside matted grass to uncover a tautly strung steel wire. Tripwire. Warily, he edged through the brush, following the tripwire through ferns and thick-leaved vines.
“One more step an’ you’re dead.”
“Turn around.”
Slowly, Manuel turned, hands open in front of him to show he wasn’t armed. The voice had come from behind a thick fir trunk splintered by lightning.
He nodded.
“What’s a fuckin’ Mexican doin’ out here?”
A figure moved from behind the shattered trunk. Manuel first noticed the revolver, then a sunburnt face scruffed by a week’s growth of transparent blond beard.
“You lost?”
Again, Manuel nodded and the gun-bearer stepped closer. He was young, maybe in his late-twenties. Although his body wasn’t as muscular as Manuel’s, he appeared to be healthy, an outdoors type.
“Man! You look like shit! You hungry?”
Again, a slight nod.
“C’mon.” The young gun-wielder indicated a path winding parallel to the tripwire. Manuel preceded him until they came to a rudimentary camp set up on the banks of a shallow creek. The young man pocketed the revolver and brushed past Manuel to fling open the lid of an ice chest and extract two stacks of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches.
“Ham. Chicken. Salami. Take what you want. You like beer?” Without waiting for a reply, “Fuck, you’re Mexican! Of course you like beer!”
Manuel squinted toward the horizon as he heard a low growl of thunder. To the north, the closer hills were barely visible through thick, gray mist and he felt a few drops of rain.
All that summer, Manuel and Nick worked together—tilling, irrigating, camouflaging what Nick called the finest sinsemilla in the world so the plants couldn’t be detected from the air. They bridged language and cultural gaps with words they taught reach other, with gestures and pantomimes.
Nick was a Southerner who’d come to the Trinities with an Army buddy after the two of them had returned from Afghanistan. Nick had a wife and child in New Orleans that he hadn’t seen for years, “nor ever expect to see ag’in,” he’d told Manuel. On the trips the two of them made into the nearest town for supplies, Manuel had wired money to Azul but hadn’t given her a return address. As he’d filled out the first Moneygram, Nick had slipped him several hundred dollar bills. Let the good times roll! he’d laughed, and Manuel had made the phrase one of his favorite expressions in English.
But fear still hovered around him.
“It’s something we live with, part of the show,” Nick commented after Manuel told him about the raid on the lumber mill. “Us criminals.”
“Hey, man, it’s the migra and the narcs who are the baddies, not us Joes workin’ to make a dishonest buck. Like the Army, tomorrow you may be dead, so you get what you can today.”
“Get what you can today,” he murmured. That’s what he and Ale had done: bonded because they needed each other. What he and Nick had done. Always the immediate, the past sliding away, the future uncertain. Like what he was doing now: going home. If the village and Azul really were his home. Manuel wasn’t sure he had a home. He paused, shaking his head to bring his thoughts back to the present. The rain had drifted eastward and the sky was lighter again, the hill and distant crests ahead of him visible.
But old, rounded, used up. The Trinities were fresh, clean, majestic. Manuel had felt a sort of satisfaction working there with Nick, a happiness different from the lumber mill and living with Ale. Until the tripwire alarm had reverberated through their campsite.
They’d scrambled to their feet, and from a vantage point behind the campsite, caught glimpses of sheriff’s deputies—five of them, maybe six. They had guns. He could see that one of them stood talking on his cell phone, his cap thrust askew. He and Nick grabbed what they could and slipped away, hiking two miles to a vacant campsite just off a private gravel road where Nick had parked his four-wheel drive. Fortunately they’d already harvested one of their two marijuana tracts. As they bounced along the narrow, unpaved mountain road, Nick laughed. “Shit, man! We’ve got money to burn!”
In the little town of Orleans, Nick shoved a bundle of bills—“severance pay!”—into Manuel’s hand, and slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll show up in Oaxaca one day! Look for me!”
A good man, Nick. A good friend. One who, like Manuel, had seen rough times: buddies shot, maimed, sick prostitutes, repressive laws. Manuel squinted toward the horizon. Clouds, whiter now instead of depressive gray, tangled the mountaintops; on the slope just in front of him an old stone house, apparently abandoned, peered across stunted growth with empty-windowed eyes.

Empty, like he’d felt in Orleans after Nick had left him. Some Indians from the reservation had given him a ride into Redding, where he’d thought he would find work but, “No’mbre, Reno—Reno’s the place!” the paisanos there had told him. So he’d boarded a bus to Reno, careful to tuck some of the bills Nick had given him into his socks, in the little pouch he’d fashioned to fit under his shirt, in a back pocket he’d sewn closed.
He was not naïve. He’d lived in the United States for nearly two years, had traveled up and down the coast. He knew to wear clean clothes, get a room in a respectable but economic hotel, ask about jobs from established Hispanics—store owners, Mexican eateries, bartenders. He had enough money to live on but wanted to work in order to send most of what Nick had given him to Azul. After a week—maybe two—some construction workers with whom he shared counter space in a Chicano-owned restaurant introduced him to their employer and Manuel unloaded trucks, poured cement, and framed houses with them for nearly a month before the restaurant owner offered him a temporary job during a construction layoff.
Even after he’d gone back to construction he continued to work at the restaurant, mostly to help out Elena, the owner’s sister, and to get free evening meals. Again during a layoff the owner offered Manuel a job, this time to accompany Elena to work sites near Sun Valley carrying freezers full of pre-packed lunches. “I want you to work full-time,” the owner told Manuel and explained that the little garage apartment he’d furnished next to his house was vacant and Manuel could live there at no cost to make up the difference in wages between what the restaurant could pay and what Manuel was earning in construction.
Manuel accepted. He cooked morning breakfasts, packed the lunches, made the trips with Elena, and did odd jobs until one of the worksite bosses arranged to provide restaurant space amid the sprawl of earthmovers, trucks, prefab buildings, and mobile homes set up on the property. Each morning before daybreak Manuel and Elena left Reno, cooked three meals a day, and made runs into town to get supplies.
Driving back one Saturday night, Elena suggested, “What say? Let’s stop for a beer.” A three-piece band was playing; they danced and after a beer or two switched to tequila.
“Am I so ugly then?”
Elena’s question as they got out of the van that night reappeared as he hesitated at the crossroads where the rocky defile that led over the hill to his village veered away from the more level roadway he was following. As he started up the incline he detected cloud fragments hanging like vagrant wisps of smoke between the hills in front of him, much like the clouds had looked above Reno after winter snow.
The snow hadn’t bothered him, he remembered, nor the cold. Elena’s life had merged with his after that night of drinking tequila together. Far from being ugly, she was more physically attractive than most forty-year-old women although—as she’d rasped during moments of bitter recollection—“I’m scarred, scarred by men, by migrating, by losing my daughters.” She’d left the two girls in Baja, California with her sister years before and had refused to allow them to make the trip across the border for fear they would be apprehended or raped. She was not, as it had turned out, the owner’s sister but the wife of a cousin who’d been imprisoned for manslaughter after a drunk driving crash.
They’d closed the worksite restaurant before Christmas but reopened it in March, and Manuel and Elena worked together all that summer. Often passionate, but also subject to plunges into melancholy, Elena had described being robbed in Tijuana before she’d been able to pay the coyote the money her husband had sent her, being gang-raped by cholos before she could get across the border, taking up with an engañoso pendejo who’d pretended to be a firefighter but who beat her up and abandoned her in the San Gabriel mountains. “Jodidos”—screwed—she’d called both herself and Manuel, screwed by life and the circumstances in which they found themselves, circumstances they had no way to alter.
Around the curve ahead of him he heard the brump! brump! of a truck’s horn and edged off the road. The driver winced as he wheeled the oversized vehicle, marked with a beer distributor’s logo, over rocky potholes. He waved to Manuel and Manuel waved back. Government vehicles couldn’t make it to the village, nor doctors, nor water trucks, but beer distributors could go anywhere. “Even in the North Pole the Eskimos probably get deliveries,” he muttered to himself. At the crest of the first hill—there were four before the road descended into the valley where the village was located—he sat down in the roadway to rest. Elena, he remembered, never could rest. She’d rasped something about being driven by demons, but there hadn’t been demons, only remembrances, painful ones, that she fought against. “Us criminals,” she said, repeating the phrase Manuel had picked up from Nick. She’d laughed in that way she had of blending humor with sarcasm.
The skies had been gray and the wind blowing the night she showed him the telegram she’d received from her sister. I’m leaving La Paz with Adolfo, he read in Spanish. We can’t take the girls with us.
“You can’t go alone,” Manuel had insisted. “I’ll go with you.” But she lied about waiting a week and was gone the next morning before he awakened.
“Elena,” he repeated her name as he pushed himself to his feet. Elena, Ale, Azul: what had happened to them? He didn’t know; one never knew. Like them, he was a shadow in a world of hard edges, always afraid, never able to be himself.
For months after Elena left he’d run the worksite eatery alone except for occasional help from other immigrants the owner hired. Then immigration agents had raided the worksite. He’d driven into Reno that afternoon to stock up on supplies and the restaurant owner called him on his cell phone. “Lie low for a few days,” he’d warned. But a few days lasted longer than that and the owner told him he’d have to leave the little garage apartment, that business was bad, and he needed to collect rent.
South Shore, Yerington, Las Vegas. Manuel washed dishes, cleaned sewers, packaged porno videos, and kept moving until he reached Calexico and walked across the border—shoulders straight, clean white shirt, new backpack and travel bag. The migra didn’t bother him, nor the Mexicali fuzz. He spent three nights in a nice hotel then bought bus tickets—first to Hermosillo, then Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Mexico City—feeling like a stranger in a place he should have felt he belonged.
Two barefoot children—a boy and girl—darted off the road as he approached and eyed him suspiciously as he trudged past. “I’m Manuel, from the village up ahead,” he told them, but they plunged down the hillside toward their choza in the swale below. He realized that as far as they were concerned, he was a stranger, a foreigner, an alien from outer space for all they knew.
It began to rain again—a slowly settling mist that dampened but did not obscure the view of the higher mountains to the west nor the last hill he needed to climb. It had been cold in Reno, colder in Las Vegas, but warmer when he’d crossed the desert to Calexico. All that now seemed like a dream, something that had happened to someone else.
“Jodido,” he whispered, again thinking of Elena. Once she’d shown him photos of her daughters—round-faced, dimpled girls three years apart—then had yanked them away. “I send them money, I tell them to stay in Mexico, never to leave La Paz,” she’d told him. Another time she’d sighed, “Would they be embarrassed to see me? Old, scarred the way I am?”
From the top of the fourth and final hill he paused to peer down a long slope densely green with second growth. At that distance he was able to make out the blurred silhouettes of some of the buildings bordering the village. Like some slow growth gradually consuming his body, the fear returned and he pressed his fists against his mouth.
“The only real fear is fear of being who we are,” Nick had said once.
Manuel remembered it when he’d repeated the phrase to Elena. She’d countered bitterly, “The only real hatred is hating who we’ve become!”
Over and in the past, he tried to tell himself, forcing his shoulders back as he started down the incline toward the village, toward Azul, toward José Alfredo, the little son named after his brother who’d died when Manuel was six. As he crossed the stone bridge built across a gully that was usually dry but now had water twisting through tangled bottom growth, he looked up and gasped. Mi pueblito. It seemed both unchanged and different, foreign.
He slowed his pace, remembering as he passed them the huge, rambling bougainvillea that half hid the little slaughterhouse, the crumbling concrete wall bordering the primary school, the houses where various friends had lived. From beneath the bent lamina eaves of the tortillería someone called his name and he lifted his hand in acknowledgment but did not stop. “Azul first,” he murmured, “then the others.”
The walls of the little houses that lined the rutted, unpaved street uphill to the concrete block house he’d built ten years before gave no indication that anyone lived behind them. A peeling Liconsa poster flapped languidly from the metallic door of the building across the street, but he saw pots of blooming geraniums on his porch and smiled. Azul is here, he told himself.
He paused for a moment standing in front of his door then lifted his hand and rapped loudly. That someone was watching from across the street penetrated his awareness, but he didn’t turn. From inside the house he heard footsteps. Then Azul was standing in the doorway peering at him.
“I come,” he said simply. “I bring money.”
She nodded, a barely perceptible movement of her head. She seemed much older than he remembered; the lines around her mouth had tightened and her eyes had lost their luminescence. A boy pushed his way into the doorway beside her—round-faced, black hair cut too short, a chesty body like Manuel’s.
The boy turned toward Azul as if to say, I know who he is, what do I do?
She stepped away, opening the door wider.
“Have you eaten?”
Manuel shook his head.
“I’ll fix something.”
Joselito hesitated, then followed her into the kitchen. As Manuel stepped inside, she reappeared in the kitchen doorway.
“I’m glad you’ve come,” she said simply, and flashed him the hint of a smile.

Published in Prick of the Spindle, Issue 5, 2013/14

Robert Joe Stout’s most recent book is Running out the Hurt. Previous books include Why Immigrants Come To America, The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, and Miss Sally. He has written about Mexico, migrant workers, and human rights for a wide variety of publications, including America, American Educator, Notre Dame Magazine, Commonweal, and Conscience. He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Posted in: Fiction