‘Uno Che’ Excerpt
“Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
– Che Guevara
Soft forms swarmed across the sand like cucarachas in the fake shade made by Dark Guns. The Guns towered overhead on skeletal turrets, inverse flood lights that partway hid the high hot sun. The aliens were on the run.
The Watch Tower was only half-full, which meant everyone had a proper mask, and could avoid breathing in the Guns’ dark particulate while they watched. Jack surveyed the fenced-in, soccer field-sized lot from his own raised perch at its north end, and watched the coyote lead immigrants toward him along the dry riverbed, dodging saguaro and the Minutemen Jeeps that swept the set. He strained to hear the tourists yell their help; he heard nothing. He stepped back out into the blasting May daylight and climbed down a narrow staircase to stand before the two Federal agents come to buy his land.
“Thanks for waiting, Paco,” Jack said. He squinted over at the car they’d come in—it was a guzzler, one of only a handful he’d recently seen—then considered Paco’s white, button-down short sleeve shirt. It fluttered against his thin body like a dove. Paco’s partner—a man he’d never met—was dressed in a pressed blue suit. He held a manila envelope. “You know,” Jack said, “I’ve come to look forward to these meetings. It makes me feel important, all this Federal attention.”
The agent held the envelope out in front of him and shook it a little, like a broken rattle.
“Just doing our job,” Paco said impatiently. “Take the damn thing, for Christ’s sake. I have an Indian wants to buy a dog.” He shook his head. “Now, what’s an Indian want with one of my dogs? Don’t they have their own system?”
Jack shrugged. He looked down at the man’s small, fine-boned face. Paco Esteban lived a mile outside of Tucson and bred Aussies. He’d sold one to Jack’s girlfriend a few years back, and when she’d left it stayed, so he’d had grounds for contact with the man now and then totally unrelated to Paco’s job with the Federal Government. Jack had gone to him a few months ago when the dog had been acting strange, running and stopping and pacing. Paco said she was just bored.
“Speaking of Indians, Jack. You got damn-near a whole village of them out on the edge of your land.”
“Yeah, looks like they’re early.”
“You’d think they’d respect what you’re doing,” Paco said.
They looked up the driveway toward the gathering. Navajo and Tohono had been coming to protest Jack’s annual Busk Ceremony for ages, but this year their number had spiked.
Paco’s partner shook his envelope again, then let his arm drop.
Jack felt a little embarrassed for him. “I don’t know what to tell you fellows,” he said. “‘Not For Sale’ is more like a whole separate category than a spot somewhere out toward ‘Really Expensive’ on the ‘Things You Can Buy’ scale.” As he said this, Jack realized that the line required far too many air quotes, and he decided to drop the sarcasm. “That a new car?”
“Yeah,” said Paco. “She’s a guzzler.”
The three men stared at it for a minute. It was 2112, and there weren’t too many cars on the road anymore, let alone guzzlers. At least not in the desert. Mostly just those owned by border groups or the Feds, or the occasional high-roller slumming over from the coast and too good for the tour bus. The bright white sedan was parked alone on the far end of the largely empty lot, and sat there like a missing piece, an absence, like someone painting by numbers hadn’t reached that number yet.
“But the gas is taken care of, of course.”
“I know,” Jack said. “My taxes take care of it.”
Paco’s silent partner dropped the envelope at Jack’s feet and started walking back to the car. The two men left just stood there and stared at it, listening to the man walk away.
Paco looked back at his partner, then turned to lean in close. “Listen, you and I are friendly, okay? Part of me doesn’t blame you for not selling. Heck, you own one of the last private border lands in the state not run by tribes.” He stopped short, and squinted up at the tall, nearly red skinned man. Jack’s long black hair was pulled back behind his head, but a few strands danced in the desert charge, waving upward like charmed snakes.
“No offense, Jack.”
“Now, I’m not saying nothing,” the man continued, “but word is this’ll be our last offer.”
Jack reached down to pick up the envelope—he had a thing about litter on the property, and it seemed like a friendly gesture—but he didn’t open it. Though the Federal Government was now little more than a withered branch whose sole directive was to protect the border, he knew the offer was more than he could ever spend. The two men stood, acknowledging their impasse, and watched a small brown moth spin awkwardly between them as if caught, though there was more space than man to make the circle.
Paco was the first to speak. “How’s the bitch?”
Jack hated it when he used that term. He felt sure it was an inside joke among dog people, that they reveled in their right to say “bitch” in polite conversation. Also, he hated the fact that the first thing he thought of was Jo, even though he didn’t consider her a bitch and never had. Besides, Paco knew the dog’s name.
“I’m thinking about putting her to work in the show.”
“Herding the runners, yeah. But I have to solve the Dark Gun issue.”
“Don’t want her breathing in none of that crap.”
The two men looked at their feet.
“Well, Lightning, I got to go sell a man a dog.”
“Stay cool, Paco.”
He spat. “Shiiiiit.”
Paco tipped his hat and ambled to the car, which his partner had brought around and sat in, burning fuel. He opened the door, then looked over at the show as the Dark Guns stopped and the sun began to burn off their cloud of man-made oblivion. He shook his head and climbed into the cab. With a precious growl, the car retreated back up the long dirt drive toward Warsaw Canyon Road, disappearing in a dream of chalk-white dust. Jack watched it go, then turned to see his tourists climbing back down from the Watch Tower. He was disappointed with this group. Visitors were encouraged to give directions to the Minutemen, to help them round the aliens up, but recently they’d been too shy or sympathetic. Too apathetic. Without their involvement, the show took on an eerily voyeuristic aspect that only increased sympathies and made the whole display feel manipulative and sad; it was in everyone’s best interests for tourists to participate. Jack tucked the envelope under his arm, and headed over to the Visitor Center to answer questions.
Who can resist the need to suffer one or two real tragedies in life? A kind of fatalism had brought Jack back to Arizona after his father passed and left him the land. He knew it then, though he didn’t express it this way to Jo—she was in love with him still and to her it was all an adventure—and he still felt it, though perhaps less urgently now, being here. When they arrived the lot had been the same as he’d left it: bare save for a four room adobe, a well, and a windmill atop a small rise to the south. During the day they’d watch the shadow of slowly spinning blades pinwheel across the scabby desert floor toward the house, almost touching its southwest corner, then retreat again, running from the sun. But it didn’t work out the way he’d planned. Despite having come here to face death and to endure again the terrible freedom of the hard, violent land he’d grown up on, things had actually gone rather well.
Nearing the Visitor Center, Jack saw Rockette running around at the tourists’ feet; she was mostly silent, but let out an abbreviated yip to remind one straggler who was standing dumbly, looking south toward the Wall. Jack did good business at Border Run! Upwards of 50 heads, twice a day, 5 days a week. Though he’d never considered himself businessman-material before, he’d surprised himself by being pretty good at it. Occasionally he’d feel foolish trying to manage and organize people, or having to take himself seriously so people would listen, but they were largely ready to believe, he found, and instead of looking for reasons to doubt his command, his employees often seemed even more convinced of it than he. In fact, Border Run! had turned him into a local celebrity—a hero who’d brought prosperity, or something like it, back to an area that had been slowly withering away for close to a century. There’d been detractors from this point of view from the beginning, of course, people whose sole ambition was to embrace the crushing anonymity of the desert and who considered the constant coming and going of tour buses a scourge. And he sympathized with them, actually. After all, he’d come with a similar hope. But they were a minority, and happily retreated from public discourse by nature, leaving those with a more social agenda to run the town meetings during which issues such as land-use were discussed. In addition to buying neighboring lots for the event field, he’d had to use public land for parking, and enlist local law enforcement to train and assist his on-site security force. It was not without the help of Arivaca that he’d attained his strange success, and he tried to keep that in mind.
Jack entered the Visitor Center through a door marked “Employees Only,” and stood before a small mirror above the sink in the small office, straightening his shirt and brushing dust off his shoulders. The tour group murmured in the next room, and he could hear the gulping sound of water being tapped from coolers on the refreshments table. It was rare to offer Visitors water in this business anymore, but Jack did it on principle, figuring the expense into his operating budget. He skimmed the Run Report on his desk to see how many aliens this group had helped capture. He had two intros, one for groups with high numbers (Way To Keep This Country Safe), and another if the numbers were low (Now You See Why We Needed The Wall). Even for a small group, they’d done poorly, having pointed out only five of the 30 runners on the field. Jack jotted down a note to make sure the Dark Guns weren’t set too high, then went out to say his piece.
He waited for the group to notice him, and stood with his hands at head level, palms forward, gently patting the air. “First of all, let’s hear a round of applause for our resident aliens!” He continued above the half-hearted claps. “Those men, women and children represent the more than one million illegal crossings per year that used to pour into the U.S. under circumstances just like those you witnessed.” He paused for effect. “Don’t worry, mine all have their papers.” The tourists, sweating and silent, were unmoved by his weary humor. “Well,” he said, scanning their sagging faces, “now you know why the Wall came in handy.”
“How high is it, exactly?” asked a woman in the front. Her pink, knobby knees peeked out between the top of her shin-high socks and the cuffs of her khaki shorts. She raised her nose slightly, as though to appear more receptive, and looked down its length through a pair of bifocals held around her neck by a thin pink thread.
“Good question. The Wall measures forty vertical feet, but you can only see twenty five of them. Does anyone want to guess what that means?”
“It means tunneling is a bitch,” said a voice from the back. “And not many people know about this because it wasn’t publicized for obvious reasons, but there are also pressure-sensitive charges along the bottom of the Wall meant to deter people determined enough to try.”
The group looked among themselves to see who’d spoken, then parted to reveal a young man with a pointy chin dressed in a dark green, militaristic uniform. Jack pegged him as an Anti-Wall activist, probably from A-Wall; they showed up once or twice a year to make a scene. Jack pressed the panic button on the wall behind him he’d installed for occasions such as these.
“It looks like we’ve got an expert in our midst,” Jack said calmly. He’d heard the rumors about the underground charges himself, but he didn’t believe it. If something is going to act as a deterrent, it has to be understood by the people you’re trying to deter. Still, he went along with the kid. Jack knew from experience that the only way to deal with these types was to keep them talking. “What else can you tell us about the Wall?”
“Probably more than you’d like to know,” said the kid. He leaned back against a window and folded his arms.
Protestors are show-offs at heart. Not all show-offs get political, of course—you need deep-seated feelings of abandonment too, and a dose of desperate optimism doesn’t hurt—but without the need to be seen, you’re less likely to take a stand. Jack remembered how Jo, toward the end, would come to the Visitor Center and hand out fliers with information about the various human rights atrocities surrounding the Wall literally, and the many more it represented. He’d let her do it, partly because he knew she would anyway, but partly also because he couldn’t tell her it was wrong. In fact, it was when she stopped that he really began to worry. It meant she’d given up. She denied this, of course, and indeed when she’d left a couple weeks later, it became clear that the only thing she’d given up on was him.
“Try me,” said Jack.
“The Wall is 1,971 miles long,” the kid continued, growing more pompous with each word, “which you’ll note, if you’re up on your political geography, is exactly two miles longer than the border itself. Does anyone know why?”
After a moment of silence, during which Jack received several confused and worried looks, an elderly man slowly raised his hand.
“Yes, you sir, in the unfortunate shoes.”
“Is it because the Wall goes into the water?”
“That’s correct! The Wall not only runs through the two rivers comprising parts of the border; it actually extends nearly a full mile off either shore, making it nearly impossible to swim around.” The kid was obviously reciting a text he’d been given. “Amazing: one of you actually knows something about the border you all voted for!”
“Well, I’m from San Diego,” the old man said, looking around the group. Several people nodded, as if approving of the man’s hometown.
Then Security burst in.
The four large men looked at Jack, who nodded in the direction of the disruption, and descended upon the thin kid, who offered no resistance other than repeatedly shouting “Tear it down!” as he was carried out of the building.
The woman with bare knees asked what would happen to the boy, and Jack explained that he’d simply be escorted into town, where he’d be allowed to make arrangements to be picked up. Everyone seemed okay with this answer, and the mood of the group lifted. In fact, the visitors were suddenly energized, upbeat, even, as if the unexpected conflict had added something memorable to their trip. Jack thanked them all for coming, and as he watched them file out the door and linger by the gift booth he wondered if maybe something like that could be staged.
At the postmortem, also held in the Visitor Center after the tourists had cleared out, the team brainstormed ideas for how best to encourage reluctant visitors to get more involved in the show. About fifteen employees were present, including the coyote, the runners, the Minutemen, the grounds crew, and two of the four security officers. Jack let the group socialize a little longer than usual on account of the A-Wall excitement. He’d read that letting his employees fraternize was an essential component of keeping productivity rates high, and though “productivity” was a concept difficult to apply to Border Run!, he thought of it as good advice, generally. He listened to their conversation, mostly just mundane explanations of the day’s work, and as he did he couldn’t help seeing himself standing there, arms crossed, and he began to feel self-conscious about this separation. He shifted on his feet, his body feeling awkward and strange.
During the discussion, everyone agreed that participation resulted in a higher level of satisfaction. This fact was underscored by Larry, the sales manager, who produced a hand-drawn chart depicting post-show sales generated by groups who’d helped catch a high number of aliens vs. those who, like the group that afternoon, just stood there and watched. Above the graph he’d drawn a rainbow that sprung from a cloud to the left and ended in a pot of gold beside the higher numbers.
“It’s plain as day,” Larry said. He was bald, and his scalp was covered in freckles and moles. “People just feel better if they’re helping.”
“Thank you, Larry,” Jack said. “Anyone have any thoughts?”
“The runners could wave their arms around,” suggested a young man named Archie. He hadn’t been around very long; his job was to help people apply their masks. “Maybe the tourists just can’t see them.”
A grounds crew member thought clear instructions in the tower would help.
Then Archie spoke up again. “What about trying it without the Dark Guns?” he said.
He was beginning to try Jack’s patience. A small gold cross around the boy’s neck caught Jack’s eye. A religious man, then.
“We’ve gone over the Guns before, Archie. And I don’t think visibility is really at issue, here.” Jack had forgotten to check the settings, actually, and repeated the words Dark Gun in his head a few times, trying to commit the task to memory. “Anyone want to remind Archie why we use the guns?”
“We simulate night,” a couple people said in chorus, Larry included, “to evoke the real life conditions under which most illegal immigration took place.”
“Thanks, guys. That’s right. It’s a question of historical veracity, Archie.”
Jack was about to make a mental note to keep an eye on the kid, but remembered he was already trying to remember something, and repeated Dark Gun to himself once more.
“What about planting a mole?”
Jack refocused, and looked for the speaker. It was Senora, a widow whose husband had died in an accident on Jack’s watch. She peeked out from under her black mourning veil—a now constant accessory—and continued.
“Stanley was a mole in the Canadian Cold War, and he would always talk about how we could make better use of his skills around…” Her voice trailed off and she bowed her head, and Jack picked up the point quickly, lest the meeting run off-course.
“Stanley was a smart man. A brave man. And I think you might be on to something, Senora. What about posting someone up in the Tower while the show is going on, someone who could lead by example? I think that’s a great idea.”
Everyone seemed to agree that it was worth trying, and Jack told them he’d work out the details and come back to them with something more concrete. He considered introducing the idea of planting someone to stir things up in the Visitors Center too, but decided to hold back on that for now. He didn’t want too much thought given to how to deceive their guests. At least, not all at once. Once deception enters the conversation, it’s not easy to shake.
As the employees began to disperse, the grounds crew captain, a man named Angel and one of Jack’s first employees, stayed behind. Angel was a large quiet man, very independent, with slow, steady movements which could easily be mistaken for sloth, or melancholy, though he was neither slothful nor melancholic. He was rather a pensive man, considerate. He had been great friends with Jo.
He approached Jack with his straw hat crumpled in his strangely soft, clean hands, and smiled. “Will Mrs. Lightning,” he said, “be staying for long?”
Angel knew well that Jo had never been Mrs. Lightning. Jack used to cringe when he used that term, looking around to see if she was in earshot, and Jo herself would scold the man, which in her case usually just meant a small frown and a slow, pitying shake of her head. But neither of them could break him of the habit. And now here he was, saying it for the first time in five years.
“What did you say?” Jack looked around.
“Mrs. Lightning. I saw her in town an hour ago.”
Jack poured himself some water and eyed the crunched paper cones overflowing from the small trashcan underfoot. “I wasn’t aware she was in town,” he said. “Are you sure it was her?”
“There’s no mistaking Mrs. Lightning,” Angel said.
“No, I reckon there isn’t.” Jo’s long, bright red mane was easy to spot in these parts, where coarse black hair was the norm, followed closely by bald heads under hats. “You didn’t speak with her?”
“I was late for the meeting.”
“Oh, heck, Angel, you know you could have skipped the meeting. You and Jo were close…”
“I’m on the clock, sir. I have a duty.”
Jack crumpled up his paper cone and threw it on top of the pile, then thought better of it, and bent over to pack down the trash and cinch the plastic bag. He wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t told him she was coming in—Jo was the kind of person who always welcomed guests, and found it difficult to understand the need some feel to prepare for them—but he was a little hurt that she hadn’t come to him directly. Or perhaps he was just embarrassed before Angel. The old Mexican watched Jack put a new liner in the trashcan, his mood hidden by silence. Jack wondered why this man hadn’t ever opened up to him. They’d known each other since Jack was a kid. He’d owned the adjacent property, the property on which Border Run! now stood. The property below their feet right now.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me ‘sir,’ Angel.”
“Well, thanks for coming to me about Jo. I’m not sure what she’s doing in town, but we’ll know soon enough. And about how long she’ll be staying, I reckon we’ll find that out too, but my hunch is she’ll stay as long as it takes her to finish whatever business she has here, and not a moment longer.”
The two men parted ways, Angel back to the field, where he had to assess the damage of today’s two runs and prepare the grounds for tomorrow, and Jack in the opposite direction, down the sand and gravel path toward the small depression in which his house sat squat and mostly out of sight. He tried to think of what might bring Jo back into town, and despite his attempts to escape it, his mind kept circling back to the kid who’d disrupted the Q and A. What if she was somehow associated with him? That would mean that her work here was already done, that she was either picking him up or that she’d brought him here in the first place. Jack knew her sympathies—it wasn’t beyond belief—but she’d never gone so far as to ally herself with any group. It wasn’t her style. Or it hadn’t been. She wasn’t a show-off. When she’d stood and handed out flyers years ago, it had been hard for her, terrible. Her hands had shook and she’d avoided people’s eyes. It had been a hard thing to witness.
Jack walked into his small home, largely unchanged since he’d lived there as a child, and sat at the two-chair table. Even without her there, he saw the place through Jo’s eyes again. The living room wasn’t cozy; it was cramped. The rusted plumbing wasn’t rustic; it was busted. It was difficult now, Jack thought, to recall exactly what had been his argument for keeping the place as it was when they’d arrived, but it was easy to remember the sentimentality that fueled it. It was easy, looking at the precarious stacks of books that grew like stalagmites under the halfway refinished roof, to remember his own unexpected feeling of completion when he and Jo had opened the unlocked door and breathed in the hot, stale air.
As a boy, Jack had shared the bungalow’s single bedroom with his father, first sleeping with him in the bed, then graduating to a small military cot by the door when he was old enough to stink. And when he turned fourteen, the night of the ceremony that would give him his last name, he’d come home late to find his father half-asleep on the couch. “Young man needs some privacy,” his father had said, before rolling over and drifting off.
He’d spent his first night alone in the bedroom unable to sleep, just looking up at the ceiling his father—and his father before him—had slept under until the room filled with the first grey light of dawn.
Four years later he’d come home from a night of drinking to find his things in a pile on the couch where his father should have been, and the bedroom door closed. The message was clear enough: he was an adult now, and it was time for him to act like one. The next day he packed, shook his dad’s hand, and headed West.
Jack heard the scratch of footsteps coming down the path toward his house, and his pulse quickened. He knew who it was, and didn’t feel prepared. He sprang out of his chair and looked around the room as though he’d have time to straighten the place up, then thought better of it and instead tucked in his shirt, pulled his hair tight behind his head, and brushed the dust off his sleeves. The dining room had no window toward the house’s approaching path, so Jack could only stand, frozen beside the door, and wait for the knock. He waited. The footsteps stopped outside, leaving the place in silence. He waited. He pictured Jo looking up at the now-stalled windmill, then farther up toward the airborne pin-prick of the high-floating turbine tethered to the hill. She’d been wary of the new technology, he recalled. Thought there was too much clutter in the sky as it was. What was taking her so long? Slowly, Jack began to reach out toward the latch; if she wasn’t going to knock, he’d have to meet her halfway.
Just as his fingers felt the lever’s cool twist of wrought iron, something slid under the door and stuck beneath the tread of his left boot. Startled, he leapt back before seeing that it was just a piece of plastic, a thin, rigid card covered in big, bright lettering. “Come to the Busk Ceremony,” it read, “and honor the Supreme Spirit!”
Jack picked it up and turned it over, listening to more footsteps outside, the visitor now on his way. There was a hand-drawn map on the card’s back that indicated where the annual festival would take place: in the parking lot of Border Run! itself. It was two days from now. Jack already knew all this, of course, since he’d organized it himself. He tossed the card into the trash. This whole town was tragically inept, he thought, feeling mean. Didn’t they know who lived here? He was going to give the Mayor’s kid a goddamn battle name! Which reminded him: time was running out to think of one.
Jack sat back down with a deep sigh. Though the flyer angered him, it was also a relief, and in the balance, he felt the tension evaporate from his muscles into the dry, eager air, and leaned back in his chair. A gecko darted out from under the light fixture above him and tucked into a crack. Maybe later he’d head into town to see if he couldn’t talk to someone else who’d seen Jo. Surely she’d stopped off at Desmonda’s Inn to say hello to Desmonda. Maybe she’d even had a drink at the Double Barrel. She was well-loved, and impossible to miss. Someone was sure to have spoken to her.
In the midst of these thoughts, a knock at the door made Jack jerk forward, and the chair fell out from under him, toppling him to the floor.
“Jack,” said his ex-girlfriend. “Jack, are you okay?”
Shya Scanlon is the author of the poetry collection “In This Alone Impulse” (Noemi Press, 2010), and the novel “Forecast” (Flatmancrooked, 2010). He received his MFA from Brown, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction.