ll five foot five of Epifanio Gomez inherits a daughter from his brother Jesus, a lieutenant with the Zarapicos Cartel killed in a shootout with the Estremera Cartel or the Mexican marines, what does it matter. Her name is Maria Guadalupe and she is four years old. She is deposited at his dwelling 3AM of a hot August Tuesday lugging a little pink backpack decorated with a photograph of Wonder Woman and Rin Tin Tin. Inside he finds ten thousand American dollars, all in hundreds; a heavy gold crucifix on a thick gold chain; a loaded Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver; and an old photograph of his brother. On the back of the photograph this note: “América! No esperes hasta mañana.”
He gathers his significant possessions in another backpack, places Maria’s little bag into his own, and sets out for the border, two hundred miles north. Ten minutes out he turns around, holding Maria’s hand and re-entering his little shack unnoticed in the still early dark. He sits on the dirt floor for several minutes, lowering his head onto folded arms. Maria Guadalupe kneels silently beside him. He finds a half-eaten granola bar wrapped in a small sandwich bag in the back of the cardboard box which serves as a kitchen cabinet and gives it to her with a plastic cup of water from a plastic jug. He removes two thousand dollars from the backpack, finds another sandwich bag on the floor and separates the bills into each bag, rolling them tightly and securing them with string, also plucked from the floor. He swallows both, working at it and washing them down with gulps of water from the jug. When they leave a few minutes later he points them south, to Valdemoro, where his brother had lived. Later that morning they find a bus stop, and by late-afternoon have entered the city.
* * *
Jesus was fifteen when he left home and found a position with Zarapicos. There was no money, there was no school, there was no job and his mother was raising five children without benefit of a husband who had been killed in a shootout with the Estremera Cartel or the Mexican marines, what does it matter. Your first job, his mother had said, is to survive, for without you we are lost. Zarapicos will elevate you if you don’t get killed the first two years and you will be safer. Not safe, just safer.
With some of the money he brought her she purchased a heavy gold crucifix on a thick gold chain and placed it around his neck with her kiss and blessing. This will make you safer, she said. Not safe, just safer.
When Jesus was eighteen and a sergeant he returned home one hot August morning to find his mother and siblings slaughtered. Epifanio had been away with a friend who worked for a landowner, sitting outside under a tree with the help, drinking coffee and discussing George W. Bush, who had appeared in the newspaper that day as Mexico’s friend. If he had been our friend, Epifanio’s acquaintance observed, he would have sent his army here instead of Iraq which, so far as I can tell, is at this point worse than ever. Every day there are bombings. It is more dangerous than Juarez, far more dangerous. What did he accomplish?
When Jesus found him at the estate later that afternoon, still drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, Jesus could not speak, only stand and point, as if both question and answer lay at some quadrant of the compass. Suddenly Epifanio understood that only one event could make such a practiced killer as his brother mute, and he rushed home just in time to see the last of the bodies removed and the police complete their questioning of the neighbors. Two other families had been wiped out as well, both with links to Zarapicos. This, one of the officer’s observed to the stunned Epifanio, is like poking a tiger in the eye. Zarapicos, my god, can you imagine! Go far away and let your brother sort this out. After Zarapicos dispenses their justice maybe you can return home again.
* * *
During that sunny afternoon drinking coffee beneath the lovely leafy trees of the estate, Epifanio had read a La Jornada article to the effect that Mexican bus lines were no longer the colorful poultry-haulers beloved of gringo travel guides. No, these days Mexican buses were advanced, high-velocity capsules efficiently transporting the young entrepreneur from country manor to urban high-rise – the envy of Latin America!
Epifanio’s bus, bursting-full, rolls slowly along with all the windows down, mariachi blaring through speakers on dangling wires that sway and spark. Amongst the livestock stuffed in with laughing Viejas and squalling children are a monkey, a parrot, a cage of young ducks, innumerable Chihuahuas, two lambs and a kid goat. Small children urinate in the aisles and someone in the back fires up a hibachi. The bus breaks down for an hour. Forty miles from Valdemoro, now detoured up a narrow dirt track to pick up a family of farmers with crates of squealing piglets, the bus is boarded by highwaymen who block the road with a tractor. One greets the driver as if he knows him, then walks up and down the aisle with a coffee bean sack into which passengers drop their earthly possessions. Another tosses ducks and piglets out the window to confederates on the ground. Epifanio hides cash, crucifix and revolver beneath Maria Guadalupe’s skirt and tells her to sit up straight and keep her hands folded primly on her lap as if she were in church. When the bandit walks by – parrot now on one shoulder, monkey on the other - Epifanio empties the contents of his backpack directly into the sack, taking care to tremble a bit as he does. The bandit glances at him sharply. ¿Es esto todo, poco indio? Epifanio frantically retrieves three pesos from his pants pocket and offers them with quivering hand. The bandit tousles his hair as if he were a child, laughing as he steps from the bus. When they are again underway, Epifanio encircles Maria Guadalupe with his arm and kisses the top of her head. Hija, he whispers, you are already a great deceiver. When we get to Valdemoro please remind me to buy you some chocolate!
* * *
Valdemoro was the dream of his youth and he had travelled there many times with his father, in the early days to sell vegetables and turkeys, later to trade marijuana his father and others had cultivated on their little farms and, if his father had visited Indian lands, salvinorin from the Mazatecs and sacks full of peyote buttons. They had purchased staples and even a few luxuries for the family back home, then taken a bottle of mescal on the singing bus back to their village and passed it between themselves, laughing and slapping each other as the bus labored on. His father’s senseless death, essentially in the crossfire of a turf war because he did not care which cartel he sold to, had crushed his family beneath a terrible weight of poverty. Epifanio abandoned all hope he had once entertained for an advanced education, though he preserved a reputation for comprehending even complex texts, and was often sought by neighbors for assistance with problems legal and mathematical.
Jesus had enhanced his cartel membership from Valdemoro and had, over time, built a wide range of businesses involving everything from gun-running and drugs to prostitution and kidnapping. Epifanio visited his brother twice and had discerned the outlines of a dreadful life which concealed, behind expensive cars, stacks of dollars and gilded females, acts of such monstrous cruelty that they destroyed the perpetrator as surely as the victim. I am doomed, Jesus told him one day. It won’t be long. I’ve got to get all of you to Texas. Prepare to lead the family, hermano, you are the last good man. They’ll be looking for you, too, so when the time comes don’t waste a second.
Now there is no family left, save dark-eyed Maria Guadalupe who is, it seems, a creature eerily capable of comporting herself with poise and cunning, much like her father. The problem is now somewhat smaller, observes Epifanio to no one in particular, but a problem just the same.