How To Cross A Border by Daniel Pena

Purchase a switchblade from the falluka in the black market that operates from the back of the arcade on Calle Matamoros. Tell the man you’re looking for something small to carry, “something convenient,” and let him unfold the rag of knives he has tucked beneath the display table. Tell him you’re looking to buy something smaller than the width of your palm. If the blade is Chinese, tell him that it’s made of aluminum and that you’ll give him a quarter of the asking price. Haggle, pay and leave. Press your purchase against the width of your palm and wrap it flat against your hand with white t-shirt fabric torn in spiral fashion from the bottom up so that it covers the knife completely. The make-shift bandage should rise a half inch from the skin around your knuckles. Cotton shirts work best: they retain moisture and color.

Walk to the butcher on Avenida Guerrero who’s already planned your trip from the six thousand dollars you received in a P.O. Box after driving a Chevy Suburban chock-full of cocaine from Culiacan on the west coast to the Texas- Mexico border, leaving the key in the ignition behind the Soriana supermarket for someone else. They’re looking for you. Tell the butcher that you’re grateful, that you have to leave and that you know the coyotes he contracts are real stand-up traffickers. Accept the Delicado he gives you when he tells you, “you’re an idiot.” Follow him to the back of the alley where the white vocho cabs park during their breaks and the cats fish through buckets of guts with their pink whiskers and paws. “In she goes,” he’ll say. Dunk your bandaged fist into the bucket of blood until the rag around your hand turns violet, until the driblets seep through your pores like oil and let it dry under the Aztec sun.

“Just a precaution,” he’ll say and the butcher will want to smoke another Delicado with you as he places a sort of fluid over your bandage to keep in the color. “They’ll say, ‘that man’s seen some shit,’” he’ll say and run over the things he’s bought you for the trip: a map and two gallons of purified water. Spring water is vanity on the trail. Pack the shirt your son gave you before you left Guatemala, the one with Chavo del Ocho on the front, and the pair of jeans you got while staying in the evangelical camp where the gringos from Sweetwater, Texas saved your soul. Carry these things in a plastic bag in case you drop them into the river.

Make your way three miles west of La Frontera, where the cars idle for hours on the international bridge and the border police burn in the heat with full- uniform. Keep your bloody hand hidden inside of your jeans pocket when you meet the coyote. He will know you by name and call you carnal, brother, or something along those lines and you should keep in mind that a coyote is never trustworthy, that he sold out two of his own the week before so that he could pay for his daughter’s quinceañera. Study the International Railroads and the small rail that ends in Mirando City from your detailed, pocket-sized map. Study them until your brain feels dry and the last of the sojourners finds his way to the edge of the Rio Bravo.

Enter silently. Don’t make a splash. If you can swim, stay near the back of the group with your possessions over your head. Stay behind the timid children who learned to swim from their older brothers that live in Houston where they plan to attend an American middle school. Help the ‘buelito’s whose bones crack with each successive stroke. Don’t draw too much attention to yourself. Discard the clothes you’re wearing in the river and redress slowly from clothes you carried along in your bag. Fake a wound to your palm and make-believe that it’s bleeding profusely. Leave subtle clues that give you reason for taking it slow, for wearing a bandage with a knife beneath it and when they ask you, “are you ok?” you tell them, “yeah, I’ll just stay back a little.” They’ll force you to the front where they know you won’t be lost and you walk next to the coyote who gives you his Dallas Cowboys cap and tells you, “this is free land, now, carnal.” Ball your hand up in a firm fist to conceal the bulge in your palm and take a swig from the jug in your free hand.

If it’s summer, force yourself to drink three fourths of the gallon of water even if your belly bulges, even if the coyote makes you travel only by night. Offer the rest to the coyote who might take a swig or pass it back to you. Don’t say anything to him unless he speaks to you. La Migra will find you from miles away even from the murmurs of your voice. If the coyote is thinking about selling you out, he won’t sell you to La Migra because there’s more profit to be made if he sells you to a cartel. There are commissions. You can hear it in his voice when he tells you “just a little ways further, carnal, we’re almost there,” and you can tell by the daylight that you’ve only been walking a few hours at a tortuous pace. Sometimes he’ll command you to run in intervallic groups like stampedes of cattle across on open stretch of land and sometimes he’ll command you to walk as silent as crows among the midnight rattlesnakes in desperate search of a meal. If your coyote is trustworthy he’ll have you walk in a single file line with an elderly man at the back covering up footprints with a branch, someone nobody would miss if he were to disappear.

If it’s winter, spill half of one of the gallons into the earth and pour two palmfulls of dirt into the jug to create a murky consistency. Shove your money into the jug so that when they stick you up and check every pocket on your being they’ll take nothing from you but the shoes from your feet and when you can’t run they’ll ask you if you’re sure that you have nothing else on you. Say no, offer them your water jugs until they say “I don’t want it,” and they’ll move on to the next person. Wet bills in dirty water will nearly always float low and they are easier to dry than stolen bills that you won’t have. No one will ever think to check inside of your jug for money.

Take your shoes back as they drive away into the wilderness. The coyote may leave with them and leave the group to their own devices. If he stays, make it a point to wear the Dallas Cowboys cap your carnal gave you to show that there are no hard feelings, that you know it’s par t of the business. When you complain they figure that you’re new and you don’t know the business of border crossing, that you’re exploitable.

As you get closer to the wall, you will find blue traffic barrels of water the churches place along commonly trekked passages. The Minutemen fill them with rat poison so that your muscles tense and tremor. You lose coordination. You lose control of your jaw muscles so that your spit dribbles and flies from the corners of your mouth as your lungs struggle to breath. And when the cells of your body absorb every molecule of poison you’ve ingested they will come for you from their green tent city, circled by fat truck tires that stretch far back into civilization and you’ll wonder how you didn’t see a damn tent city in the middle of nowhere. They’ll surround you with their Winchesters, push the barrels against your head and silence their radios. No one is going to hear this. You’ll look them in the eye as they walk up next to you and lay a foot on the back of your knee so that you collapse, and when your body hits the dirt they’ll kick at the scar where your appendix was removed when you were twelve, boots to stomach and your muscles are so taught from the poison that you can’t even cover your face. “Defend yourself,” they’ll yell and you can see the blood rush to their eyes the way it did when they fought in Vietnam. Lie flat on your back. The blows will cease as the healthy run and you’ll hear shots fired into the sky, sometimes straight into the back of a head. You will hear the little girls scream and the women moan in every cardinal direction. You can hear them beat their bony fists into the dirt as their clothes are sawed off with the serrated edges of Gerber knives and the heavy slaps of baby-boomer hands falling heavy on their twelve-year-old asses. Close your eyes to drown it out, even if they scream your name and pray to you out loud as if you were Jesus himself. You’re useless to them now, as useless as the dirt inside of their rape wounds. Inch your way away from the incident and run. Run as fast as your uncoordinated legs will carry your top-heavy body and even if the vomit and spit run down your chin in the wind and your lungs burst from the warm air in your cold body, run like you’re falling into freedom one million miles a minute. Run even when the shots go up and the high beams hit your back. Run when the Ford engines roar because your spirit is sacred. Run until the night crawls slowly over the painted Texas sky and rest yourself.

Search for men in positions of prayer at dawn. You’ll find them beneath vegetation, sometimes decomposing, sometimes freshly dead and left for the picking of rattlesnakes. If they’re still alive, give them their Act of Contrition and leave them be no matter how hoarse their weak voices might cry. If case they survive, it is your duty to remember where they are when La Migra finds you. Never drag a dying man along no matter how pitiful he seems. You’ll die this way. I’ve seen it before. If he’s dead, take items of value from him and leave him with a blessing. Vow to his body that you’ll create a retablo from his story and set aside some of his cash for this intention. If his body has already been looted bless him with a Hail Mary and give him thanks anyway.

Read your map. Listen to the train off in the distance and if you’re so lucky to find the tracks, give thanks to all of the angels and saints in heaven because your freedom is within earshot. Listen for the train rumbling in the distance and don’t approach the tracks until you can hear the railroad ties bend beneath the Union-Pacific freight train. It will come fast, about thirty miles an hour. Let the first twenty cars roll by and approach the tracks walking parallel to the train looking for cars that aren’t open, specifically the unventilated reefers with the pull-out refrigerator doors and platforms on top. Count eight identical cars in a row and on the ninth run alongside. Study the topography of each passing car: the latches, the grooves, the steps. Pump your legs hard and push yourself further as to slow the progress of the train and without giving so much as two thoughts to the whole process, jump as high and as inward as you possibly can. Predict the jump. Once you make contact hold on as fiercely as you can even if you’re sure you’re ok; even if you think it’s impossible to make it. At this point the only other option is death if you land wrong, cut in half by a giant iron wheel or left broken on the baking floor for the real coyotes to find. Make your way to the loading deck and slide open the hatch into the reefer, the unventilated car. If this is impossible, climb on top of the car itself but lay flat. A train will take fifteen minutes to pass. Don’t rush yourself even if you feel it’s right or risk falling beneath the cars and left dead for the vultures.

If you find yourself in the presence of other migrants realize that the most important thing at this point is to take care of yourself. Forget about the scores of bodies falling from the train. Their screams will pierce your brain, even in the distance, but look forward. Take care of yourself. Build your strength.

Some of the migrants will bail at some point along the way, maybe an hour or two into the ride. What they don’t realize is that there is only more death, more wilderness, more of La Migra. It often happens throughout civilization that there is more death on one side of the wall than the other. Ride the train into civilization, but be sure to jump before the great wheels grind to a stop. La Migra will be waiting for you at the station too and once you’re caught, it’s impossible to begin so easily again in Nuevo Laredo. Shoot for Austin, carnal. It’s a forgiving city and you will find good work there. You will never go hungry in Austin.

Take the knife, open it, and bury it blade-down inside of American soil. This is your land too, now. This is where you will save to bring your family over. This is where you will buy your first house. There will be no suicides this time.