I take over the wheel for my second shift at daybreak in Amarillo, Texas. We won’t allow the photographer to drive. He looks worse in the daylight, his reddish hair stuck to one side of his head, stale beer sweating freely from his overworked body. I can’t see his eyes behind his glasses and that troubles me. He is pale and soft, like a fish.
I caught a few hours last night while Josh drove, but we never stopped. I’m tired enough that I have to blink hard to focus on the road. Josh sighs a lot and his words come slowly. He keeps asking me if I think he should sleep.
Why are we doing this? That is the question Josh and I bounce back and forth while Umberto alternates between snoring, opening another warm beer or adding his own disjointed comments. We ignore him. I try once to bring him into the conversation but it is futile. I can’t tell if it’s the alcohol or just his ordinary state.
The answer to the question should be easy. We’re going to sell this ridiculous car. Taking risks we shouldn’t for what will no doubt turn out to be a foolish amount of money. Better by far to race across Texas holding up a string of convenience stores, blasting Jimmy Buffet for courage and eating stolen Slim Jims.
Million of cars a year are stolen in the U.S. Many of them end up on the long pipeline south, down to Central America and yes, Guatemala, where we’re going. Import taxes of 80% or worse on legal cars makes this a lucrative trade. The bribes are easy and the chances of prosecution nil. Against all this our one dubious little Volkswagen of mid-80’s vintage surely can’t count for much.
But it’s not that. It never was that. The car thing was only a story for wives and girlfriends, a way to alleviate black looks.
It’s for the story. That’s why we have the photographer. It’s why our editors fronted us perfectly good cash and loaned us his services.
It’s not that either. As much as we try and reassure ourselves, we know we’re writers, not journalists. A couple of perfectly useless Creative Writing degrees between us.
It’s a quest, that’s what we finally agree on. A search for the primal, a deeper, darker side of ourselves that can only be found south of the border, where potholes swallow cars whole, the beer flows freely, and a man knows not to look at the soldados at the checkpoints. A place where an industrious man once stole an entire country and held it for several years.
On the surface our credentials are impeccable. It has been ten years since I was south of the border, but I once spent quite a bit of time down there. Lived in the primitive areas, made friends with the locals, got sicker than I’ve ever beeen.
Ten years true, but in the intervening time I’ve seen a great many other places. Spent several years out of the country. Met my Swiss wife Down Under. Toured the South Pacific. Lived in Europe.
Josh lived in Panajachel, our quasi-destination, for a year. When he was 19 he left school and hitched to Tierra del Fuego, via the hardest and most foolish route he could find. He’s lived in Ecuador, sold oranges in Panama, stumbled through the salt flats of Argentina. This would be a trip to the supermarket for him.
We clasp hands and agree on the severity of our quest. Blood brothers to the end. The photographer garbles something from the back seat and a limp hand pokes into the front. We give him a cigarette.
I remember back, last night/this morning, late/early when I tried to help clean up the back at a gas stop. I’d been sleeping in the back, the photographer’s haven. I stuck my hand in a plastic bag on the floor in the back – just awakened, gritty and weird – and got it back with a fine layer of tobacco spit juice.
That’s when I feared.
Sputtering gas station lights revealed taco clutter all over the floor. Broken shells. Cheese. Spilt salsa. Partial, piss-warm beers. The photographer’s sleeping bag smelt so bad I couldn’t touch it.
That’s when I knew.
Our photographer would have to go.
We break it to him outside Corpus Christi, in the parking lot of Ben’s Big Pig Hog-A-While. (“The thickest, slickest ribs in Texas.”) He’d stayed, passed-out, in the car while we ate and plotted against him. Worked up our nerve for what would have to be done.
He takes it well. Laughs even, and pats us on our backs. But there is something in his eyes which says this has been done to him before, and often during the night.
On the road again and Mexico lies just over the horizon. Freedom. Texas is too damn big and probably best viewed from outer space or somewhere further away. Perhaps we are expecting the flashing lights when they pull us over.
The cop is friendly, courteous, but persistent. His job is interdiction. Drugs and weapons and the border. His excuse for taking us down is a bad turn signal. His real reason a profile that we fit.
He searches our car three times while the drug dog paces in the back of his car and we stand in the Texas sunset. He is sure he has us and he does, but he is looking for the wrong thing. He barely glances at licenses, doesn’t care about registration. He wants drugs and the fact that we are going the wrong way, that we would have to be the world’s biggest morons to be smuggling drugs into Mexico, doesn’t carry much weight with him. What is a minor thing like geography compared to the science of profiling? But this is Texas and we aren’t too tired to know that the rules are different here.
Suddenly, irrationally, we are free. Shaken but determined.