My family and I are crossing the border on Thanksgiving. It is a good day to go into Tijuana because American tourists stay home, leaving the town desolate. While everyone up north is settling down for a long day of food, football and familial relations, we go further south, spending the day shopping and eating in restaurants filled with only Mexicans. My family consists of my mother and brother, my father having died years ago. But he is present with us here, today, in one of the stops we will be making in town. This tradition is unlike a more normal Thanksgiving but one that we have kept for four years running. We are looking for my half-brother.
Driving past the check point I see the long row of people waiting to cross the border into the U.S. They wait on foot, being checked and questioned, used to the scrutiny given to all Mexicans entering. They stand, slouched and listless, shuffling forward by half-steps. They know that they are a dirty little secret, doing the work that no one else wants and they feel the glares given them every step of the way until they return home at night. There is the same dullness in their eyes as they trudge to labor but the money is too good to refuse the scorn. My father crossed this same border, decades ago, seeking the same type of work. Once over, he would stay illegally, trying to live the American dream. He would end up being deported twenty-seven times before finally figuring out how to stay up north. But in that transition, he would end up severing all physical ties to his first family, whom he had divorced. He would leave a first wife, daughter and son in a dusty border town that should by all rights be rich but instead looks like that last chance stop to a poor, run-down hell.
The first stop is Gigante, a supermarket chain that has several stores in Tijuana. Inside, the layout looks similar to any large grocery store you would find in California; aisles and aisles of mostly the same brands with minor differences in the packaging. But the shelving is what grabs your attention, or rather, the prices on the shelves. Everything is much cheaper there, like you've always heard, but seeing it is quite another thing. And so we load a cart full with food and alcohol; it seems silly not to take advantage of the strength of the dollar. We push the cart over floors that could use another cleaning and past shelves that are not as white as you might like but the money saved compensates for the lack of neatness. When you reach the cash registers you are hit again with the difference of the border, in the eyes of young, lean courtesy clerks. The age range is usually from eight to fourteen, all dressed smartly in brown polyester slacks and white short-sleeved shirts, with a full-sized apron to match the slacks. The eyes of the children here are not as dull as those of the border guards, looking to work hard at delicately packing the groceries that the cashier slides at them. They are quick but careful, not making direct eye-contact. They load the carts with the bags quickly and when finished do not move on, waiting for you instead, the hope being that they will be able to help you to your car with your purchases. The longer they are with you, the greater their tip can grow. It is the only pay they make. Child labor is not as tightly regulated as it is back home, and I think of how this is part of the world in which my half-brother grew.
I was seven the first time I met my half-brother and half-sister. They had come to visit my father at our home in Redondo Beach. My half-sister showed absolutely no interest in either my brother or me, never saying more than hello and instead wanting to go out, see the sites and buy things. Things that were expensive and had authentic brand labels. But my half-brother, who was seventeen at the time, was kind and would humor me, taking the time to play and talk to me in broken English. And with him came a sort of relief, a feeling that my brother and I were not on our own but that we both had a larger defender who could take care of us. But it is that memory and a handful of photographs from a trip to Sea World that comprises my first impression of him and nothing more. Both he and my half-sister left soon after they arrived and after that, I forgot them both.
After putting the groceries in the car we are back on the desolate sidewalks. Here, first-timers become acquainted with the ubiquitous dust and dirt, carried by the gusts of wind that November brings to the city. Without sunglasses it eventually gets whipped into your eyes, carried from the outskirts of the town into the short canyons of the one, two and three story buildings. If you look, its presence is visible, filling the cracks of the sidewalks and the fissures of the walls surrounding you, occasionally dancing on the streets in random zephyrs. But at this time of year, the sun is still strong enough to bring sweat to the surface, creating a new place for the dust to find a home. It sticks wherever your skin is visible, a fine powder riding you like a parasite. And Tijuana never runs out of the dust, being constantly rejuvenated with dirt as it is tourists.
My half-brother moved in with us when I was in junior high. My brother and I shared a bedroom when he came, my father purchasing a bed which he set up in our room. My brother took to the new situation well, all smiles with having another sibling in his life. But as my father set up the bed, he looked at me and read the discomfort in my furrowed brow. It was then that he sternly laid down the new law of the house. "Your older brother is in charge when your mother and I are not home. He's older and he knows better than you, so you listen to him." He patted my half-brother's shoulder as he entered, my half-brother having heard his declaration. My father turned and walked out satisfied. My half-brother looked at both my brother and I and said, "Hokay guys, we're going to have a fun, huh?"
All the drug and liquor stores and tourist shops have their doors open for us. We walk by them, glancing at them peripherally. Like the uneven and dingy sidewalks, the buildings appear crooked. The doors all look as if the rain has swollen and warped the wood so that they don't close with a satisfying click but rather have to be pushed and wedged shut, the deadbolts having to be forced. The paint on the edges of the window panes always bleeds and dries on the glass. Inside is the occasional native, but mainly there are the clerks and workers, waiting, keeping themselves busy. Some of them stare at us expectantly, being the only possible clients while others never notice, disinterested.
My half-brother came to start a new life, much like my father. He got a job at a popular fast-food chain, having to work his way up like any other employee. Over the weeks, it was apparent that he was moving up in status there by the smell he would come home wearing. The first wave was all trash and cleaning duty, which resulted in a combination of bitterly offensive waste and chemical disinfectant odors. His first promotion earned him the smell of grease and French fries, which soon brought with it an increase in wages, making our bedroom smell like it needed ketchup and salt. And as he had more money, the vibrations of a huge new boombox and the smell of cologne made its presence known, which was also a first to our common bedroom. Suddenly, he had taken the lead in firsts. And he took another lead; getting attention from our father. I had been the oldest and as such had become used to being heard by my father on whatever issue came to my young mind, especially since it was my mother's job to take care of my brother, the youngest. My father felt more comfortable with children that were older because he knew how to communicate with them more easily. But now my half-brother, who had been there only months, had a majority of his attention. When my half-brother was with my father, I would be sent away because the two of them needed to talk man-talk. It was then that I began to resent my half-brother, and then that I decided who was really in charge.
The next turn on the street takes us down a multitude of clubs and bars. There are open rooftops, open curb-side patios and open doors. You hear the street before you see it, the contemporary club and pop music blending from all the speakers into a chaotic mesh hovering in your ears. Barkers stand in front of a few of the clubs, cajoling us to come inside for a drink despite the fact that we are a family and not a bunch of barely legal kids. It is a bad day for business because like all the tourist shops we have already passed, the clubs are empty. The barkers are different though, trying to pull in anyone coming down the street. One glance inside brings back the familiar sight of employees sitting down and chatting, except here they can drink. The overwhelming similarity grabs at your chest the same way it does passing all the stores; everyone here is killing time.
I lured my brother into terrorizing our half-brother with me. It lessened the possible rebuke that would be leveled once my campaign began. At first it was low-level annoyance, like covering the floor with our things so that he couldn't make it to his bed or hiding his clothing when he was going on a date. In return, he would do nothing, instead spending more time with my brother and me, sitting next to his shiny, new boombox and asking us about what rotten things we liked to do to our friends, peers and parents. It sometimes even made us laugh. Failing to demoralize him we, and really I mean I, would set booby traps that would get him in trouble when he came in past curfew. A favorite trap was rigging our bedroom door so a huge amount of noise would be triggered by entry, causing my parents to be woken up at whatever hour of the night or morning he returned. At first it was something easy, like leaning our baseball bats against the door so that they would fall down when he entered. But my half-brother quickly found ways around that and the noise itself wasn't enough to awaken us in our room. It was at this point that I discovered the joy of fishing line. With it I could tie one end of the line to the doorknob and the other to any assortment of items that would be pulled off a nearby shelf: leftover plates of food, a stack of cassette cases, an open box of marbles. All these traps worked wonderfully against the floor, making huge amounts of noise, waking everyone in the house except my brother. I of course had to pretend to be asleep as well, learning to lie still and not be jolted awake with the commotion. My eyes would open but my head would not turn, scanning peripherally to see if my latest plan at ruining my half-brother's standing with my father was showing itself on his face. When I would awaken in the right position to watch, all I would ever see is him bending over to pick up the mess, quietly, face calm. Delicately, he would make his way to his bed, gently dropping and instantly sleeping. I almost began to feel guilty, but those feelings would soon vanish when we would be called in front of my father to discover that my half-brother had been tape recording all our conversations on his boombox. Conversations about our devious behavior became involuntary confessions, carefully manipulated by our older, wiser half-brother.
A block from our destination I see the same woman I have seen for the last three years, sitting on the same spot of sidewalk that she always occupies. I have never seen her face but I know it is her because of the location and more importantly her pose. She sits with her feet flat down on the wind-swept sidewalk, her knees elevated. Her left arm lies braced against the bend of her legs, creating a surface where she can rest her head, hiding her face from the pedestrian traffic. Her right arm is extended forward, resting on top of her left arm, supported. In her right hand is a beaten and dented aluminum cup with several pesos inside keeping her company. She is old, age betrayed by her white hair and by the looseness of her liverspotted skin on her hands and extended arm. It is the fourth time I have seen her and I have no idea what her face looks like nor do I wish to know. And as I walk by her this fourth year I still do not put a coin in her cup.
The second to last time I heard about my half-brother, the relationship between he and my father had become difficult. Before he had to leave, my half-brother had tried to get my father to help him become a citizen. My father went to Immigration Services, of course, to start the mountain of paperwork to get him admitted as his son. The problem was that my half-brother was already past the age of eighteen and so was an adult. Adults have to file by themselves and since they are not minors, must get into line behind every other adult. Being my father's son would be of no use to him. It did not keep him from resenting my father, of course. He told my father with growing irritation that there should be something he could do and eventually adopted the mindset that my father was being lazy about the work, that perhaps he didn't want to help him. This would be the wedge that drove them apart, from a lack of understanding on my half-brother's part. And it would be the reason I would forget him for quite some time. After this misunderstanding, my half-brother disappeared from our life. And as soon as he ceased communication with my father, my father became my father again, who I only had to share with my brother. No matter how poorly my father and I got along, he would be mine to disagree with and no one else's.
We walk into what can be best described as an indoor swap meet. Calling this structure a shopping mall is inaccurate because a mall implies certain standards, certain comforts. Walking off the sidewalk and onto the worn tile floor, you see an indoor, two-floor plaza filled twenty storefronts, illuminated poorly by fluorescent lighting and a skylight in the ceiling's center. Beneath the skylight is a wide cement staircase, decorated with more tiles that do not match the floor. Around the bottom of the staircase are more vendors, standing behind stands and display cases and racks. What ties all the stores and vendors together is the tourist trade. They all sell the same type of merchandise, the variety being the materials or the colors: blankets, shot glasses, marionettes, leather wallets, purses and jackets, gold-plated necklaces, belt buckles with scorpions preserved in the center, turquoise embedded in silver, chess boards and pieces, T-shirts with screen-print designs saying you've visited Mexico, knives, switch blades and brass knuckles, and velvet tapestries with images of Mexican icons or with Elvis. At the center of all this, I walk to a glass display case, looking at the assorted bracelets and imitation name-brand watches in the case and know that my half-brother used to work here, at this very spot.
Six months after my father's death, I received an unexpected telephone call after work. I picked up the telephone and recognized the voice; my half-brother.
"Hey, how are you?"
My eyes widened because they could. He wasn't there in the room with me to see my face and I allowed my body to react the way it wanted. My head dropped as my mind raced, trying to figure out what to say and more importantly how to say it. "Hey, I'm fine. Where have you been?"
"Oh, you know, I've been busy, working." His English had improved. There was still an accent, but syntax was much clearer. "And you? What have you been up to?"
"Oh, well, I graduated. I'm a working man now, like you."
He laughed. "Oh, good, good. That's good to hear." It was there where we paused, neither one of us knowing how to proceed. Just like my father.
He broke the silence. "So, ah, let me talk to Dad."
A second's pause can say a great deal. He heard it and I already knew that I didn't have to tell him anything else, but I did anyway. "I don't know how to tell you this, but Dad died. I'm really sorry. It happened about six months ago."
My half-brother didn't say anything. He asked no questions. It is how I became aware that he already knew, somehow. "I'm sorry to have to tell you like this, but when he died, I looked all over for your phone number but I couldn't find it." I didn't mention that I never asked for it, was never curious, never cared. And it was in this moment that I realized that this man and I shared a great deal. We shared a father, and he was dead.
My half-brother broke the silence again. "Okay. Listen, I have to go, but I will call you back."
"Okay. I'd really like that."
"Okay. I'll talk to you later."
Staring into the display case, I never notice the salesman walking to me. His voice breaks me of my memory trance, asking me what I would like to see. He is standing where my half-brother stood. This is the place, because my mother knows it is. She had been here several times with my father, visiting him at work. It is how I've come to know this place, visiting yearly now, looking for him. I politely decline his offer and turn away quickly. As I walk away, the salesman offers to cut the price on whatever I want to buy but I do not answer. I walk towards my mother and brother who are near the entrance. We come here every year in the hopes of finding my half-brother, to reestablish communication. My mother realizes the importance of this and provides the opportunity by taking us here, but she leaves the last step to us. As I walk to my mother and brother I quicken my pace because I realize the truth. If I truly wanted to find him I could turn around and ask the salesman if he had ever heard of my half-brother's name. I certainly had the chance in my other trips down here. If I really wanted to find him I could easily hire a private detective here or stateside to track him down. But the truth is I don't. I don't want to find him. I don't care.
I reach my mother and brother and say, "Let's go." It doesn't take much convincing. We start the walk back to the car and I don't know if my feelings of disdain for Tijuana are because of this town's deplorable conditions and poverty or because of how I am trying not to find my half-brother. How I hope that I don't accidentally bump into him and how I should stop coming to this town because it is so miserable and sad. As we drive back to the border, I see the thousands of shanty homes on the hillsides and wonder if he lives there. I wonder if he has a wife and if I am now an uncle. As the border patrol inspects our identification and asks where we were born, I look at the tremendous barricades and weaponry and realize that these are the least of the issues we have between us. And as I look into the rearview mirror, watching the border checkpoint diminish, I realize that I may never see him again and am bothered by how easy it is to let him go.
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|Author:||Schulz, Edgar Martinez|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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