The five Mexican soldiers turned in unison as if they had been waiting for him. Then he saw something that he had never seen before – their eyes glowing in the reflection of the fire that was warming them in the pre-dawn darkness. In daylight, soldiers’ eyes were always hidden by dark glasses or goggles.
It was 6:30 AM, New Year’s Day at the Santa Teresa border crossing west of Juárez and Carter’s station wagon was so stuffed with clothing that he could barely see out the rear view mirror. Whenever he crossed, he was afraid that he would be stopped and the soldiers would confiscate the clothes, paint, candy or cigarettes that he brought. Or, worse, that they would just take him away. Then one of them waved him on and, relieved, he continued south.
After a year of these monthly trips, he knew every section of the journey from here to the mental asylum – the stretch of roadway where the little clan of Mixteca Indians would shiver in the frigid wind, trying to sell sombreros and crosses with Jesus on them; the rickety stand where he would often buy a coke and gird himself for the journey ahead; the area where vendors array their tacky ceramic statues in the sand with the border fence looming in the background. But now the roadway was dark, empty and windswept.
He thought of Paula, the woman in Las Cruces who had given him paint and the last load of clothing. Months earlier, she had read one of his articles about the border and e-mailed him with an offer of help. Driving down from Santa Fe, he would meet her in a Burger King parking lot where they would transfer paint, used clothing or whatever else she had from her car to his. Although they met like that every month, he had no idea where she lived, if she had a husband, what church she belonged to or how involved in it she was.
“I’d like to go with you,” she had said yesterday afternoon. They were looking at each other over the hood of her car, the wind blowing her dark hair across her face. When she pushed her hair back, it was like she was opening herself up to him and he had almost said “yes.” Later, in the motel in El Paso, he had started to dial her number. Instead, he had called his daughter in Colorado who told him that he was in mourning and not thinking straight, that it was too dangerous to be going to the border again. He could hear the shrill sound of his granddaughter’s flute in the background.
Now once again he thought of calling Paula. This would be his last chance before driving out of cell phone range. Instead he continued south, suddenly elated by the sense of movement. This was what kept him alive, he thought to himself, just getting up and pushing ahead. When Pantoja, the founder of the asylum had heard of Carter’s wife’s death, he had knelt before him in the patio with a semi-circle of his mental patients watching and prayed for him. Carter laughed. How could life have come to this? Then Pantoja had said that most people have to drink Red Bull to get going. “Pero, Carter, tu tienes adentro el Red Bull.” “You’ve got Red Bull inside you.” Carter hoped that he was right.
To the east towards Juárez, the skyline was turning pink and the early light illuminated the white, curved lines of a huge, elongated horse painted on the side of a barren mountain. Who had done that? What did it mean? Who had had the time to create a work of art in this land where every instant had to be devoted to survival? But wasn’t that why he was here? To bring attention to the beauty he had found along this brutalized frontier?
Then he passed the battered sign that had been erected by a woman whose daughter had been murdered, a sign that announced her thirst for revenge. Carter could imagine her appearing some night and standing over the killers with a knife in her hands. “Now it’s your turn to die,” she would say. He would like to meet her. Simply putting up the sign with all the suspicious cars and trucks cruising by or leaving her phone number so that anyone who had information about the killers could call her – that had taken courage. But it wasn’t courage that women like her felt; it was rage.
El Paraiso, the little cantina where he buys cigarettes flashed by on the left, closed and dark. He would always tell the woman clerk with the big earrings that he didn’t smoke, that it was bad and, therefore, he didn’t know what kind to get. He hadn’t told her that one of the patients in the asylum had killed a woman in an argument over a cigarette and that he had simply set his principles aside and decided to be safe. “Son para los loquitos,” he would say. He would show the woman a picture of the asylum but she would just stare blankly. It was only five or six kilometers away but she had never heard of it.
Finally he passed a now-abandoned Mexican Army checkpoint with two buses partially submerged in the sand, a big tent, sandbag bunkers for soldiers with machine guns, two outhouses. He’d heard that the President of Mexico was pulling most of the soldiers out of Juárez, leaving just a few at the border crossings. The stocky, unsmiling soldiers from Indian villages in southern Mexico; the federal police in dark blue pickup trucks, their faced covered by balaclavas; the convoys of local police with their automatic weapons – the people he had come to know would argue that they were the real killers, not just the narcos.
To the right, the two-lane road disappeared off into the desert, straight as an arrow, like an illusion leading to nowhere. Just driving these few miles scared him; the thought of following it all the way south to the city of Chihuahua took his breath away. Juárez, the murder capital of the world was to the left. And along the way, huddled in a little swale in the desert, was the asylum.
It was still semi dark so he passed the asylum and continued into an area of shattered, abandoned buildings and “yonkes” or junkyards. One building had a rotary sign on top that said, “Hamburgers.” The sign was slowly turning in the wind as if to invite him in but the windows were broken and the building empty. Stopping to take a leak, the only noise he could hear was the roaring of the wind and the grinding sound of metal rubbing together, the sheet metal that was loosely tacked to the fences surrounding the yonkes. Aimless, killing time before going to the asylum, looking for a photograph or perhaps just a feeling, he saw a sign for a church – Iglesia de Paz – and drove down a stony side road into a barrio of shacks. Each shack had a wind scoured yard that was surrounded by a low fence, as if everyone had animals – maybe goats. But nothing was moving, just dust and tumbleweeds. It was as if the people huddled somewhere inside these shacks knew that something was coming. Not just the sunrise. Not just a New Year. Once again he thought of Paula. What it would be like to be with a woman who was a churchgoer? Then a man suddenly appeared, huddled in a blanket and outlined in the headlights of Carter’s car. He seemed puzzled and lost. Carter gave him a ride to the highway and left him by a yonke a few kilometers closer to Juárez.
Now the sun was rising and the white, abandoned buildings scattered in the desert glowed like little stars. Sitting in the idling car with the dust swirling past, it felt as though everyone else had fled, like it was the end of the world and he was the only survivor. His jaw clenched, he gripped the steering wheel with all his strength to keep from crying.
The asylum was a long, rectangular, half finished, cinderblock building that had “Albergue Para Discapacitados Mentales” painted along its north side. “Albergue” meant shelter but this was really an insane asylum. Or as Pantoja said, a ”manicomio” or madhouse. There were about one hundred patients, many of whom had jobs – helping in the kitchen, gathering firewood, boiling water in the huge barrels out behind the building, checking on the pigs and turkeys, gathering up blankets and clothing to be washed, or preparing to serve the first meal of the day. Unlike so many Americans who had to have a boss watching them, Carter thought, laughing to himself, these “loquitos” simply woke up, went to work and, to a large degree, ran the place. For them, crazy or not, life was work, not just social chatter, shopping and TV.
He parked near the large metal gate that opened onto the patio where the patients spent their days. To the left, they had painted flowers on the wall, using paints that Paula had given him earlier. He would take a photograph for her church.
Carter hadn’t told Pantoja exactly when he was arriving. “The sunrise in the desert on New Year’s Day” idea was his. Even if he fully understood why he was here, he didn’t want to have to try to explain it. He walked around to the rear of the building where two men were starting a fire in a big metal barrel to heat water for dish washing. Today was a washday and beyond them were long clotheslines on which to hang blankets to dry. The clothing would be hung on clothes lines on the roof where, blowing in the wind, it would make the building seem like a great ship moving slowly through the desert. Off in one corner of the sandy yard were two pens – one for a huge strutting turkey and several chickens and, next to it, a larger, rectangular one where seven pigs were rooting at trash. They would all be killed eventually. A number of the patients were killers so Carter figured it would be easy to find someone who was good with a knife.
“Mr. Carter, Mr. Carter.” He recognized the voice of Becky, the woman who had killed for a cigarette. Her hand reached out through a space between the cinder blocks that made up the rear wall of the room where most of the women slept. He couldn’t see anything but her hand waving at him.
“Becky, I have cigarettes,” he answered. He was glad that he had brought enough cigarettes and candy for everyone, that he could start their New Year with a moment of pleasure. Another man appeared carrying a bucket. Always dressed like a soldier, his name was Gaspar. “I was a paratrooper once,” Carter had said to him on an earlier visit but he learned that Gaspar himself had never been a soldier. As you got older, reality becomes less and less important. It’s what you think you are that really counts, Carter realized, huddling against the wall out of the biting wind. He rubbed his hands together. They seemed tiny. It was as if he was shrinking. Or maybe it was just the enormity of this desert. His daughter and his friends insisted that Juárez was too dangerous, that he should give up these monthly trips but, in reality, he couldn’t imagine another place where he would want to spend New Year’s day.
Carter wrote free-lance articles in English and in Spanish for a series of newspapers in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, mostly about the asylum but also about other humanitarian programs along the border. He had found a niche writing about heroic people like Pantoja who continued their humanitarian work, despite the terrible violence. People reading his articles were beginning to respond, bringing him clothing or sending checks, one from as far away as Japan or contacting him as Paula had done. He also gave presentations with his photographs to Rotary Clubs, churches, schools, the Chamber of the Americas in Denver where everyone knew him from his days as a lawyer. “Your camera is your scepter,” Pantoja had said. “You have to tell the story of my loquitos.” Gripping Carter by the shoulders, he had added, “Eres mensajero. Mensajero de Dios.” “You’re a messenger of God.” Carter had laughed awkwardly. Other than funerals, he hadn’t been in a church in years. His wife’s service had been a scattering of ashes in their back yard in Santa Fe.
The long cinder block building was coming alive now, as if rising out of the dust and wind. There was the wood fire, the hot water to wash the trays, Becky still calling out to him, voices in the kitchen. Inside the patio, they were probably forming a chow line. Here the patients ate off their trays. No utensils because they could be used to stab someone.
Carter saw Pantoja’s battered, red Chevy pulling up next to the building. Hunched over as if talking to himself, he hurried into the kitchen, not noticing either Carter or his car. Pantoja had been an addict, had been deported from the US and then lived on the streets of Juárez until, some fifteen years earlier, he had had a conversion, became a street preacher, earned thousands of pesos with an evangelical radio show and used the money to start the asylum so that he could rescue others who were living on the streets or had been deported. He called them “tesoros humanos” or “human treasures.” Combed straight back, his black hair contrasted with the pale, sharp features of his face. On Wednesdays, he would make a few extra pesos for the asylum by going to the municipal jail or “cereso” and praying with the inmates. The jail administration thought that it was calming but several months earlier – just a day before Carter was scheduled to go with him – a shoot-out between two gangs left 17 inmates dead. Although he never spoke of fear, Carter could see from his spare, honed face that it was working inside him like an acid.
When Carter joined him in the kitchen, Pantoja was huddled at a little table with Benito, the patient who was in charge in Pantoja’s absence.
“When?” Pantoja asked. “When will they bring this Marta? Why?” He waved his hands at Benito but the big man just shrugged. Carter stood by them but they were huddled together as if to exclude him.
“You have to take her. You know that.” Benito wore a cowboy hat adorned with little political pins. Obama, Sarah Palin, former Governor Bill Richardson from New Mexico. “Pastor, you take the people the police want to get rid of; in turn, they leave you alone, don’t ask you for money. It’s not about medicine.”
Behind them, several patients were carrying the dirty trays out to the tray washing detail. Every time the door opened, Carter could hear the sounds of the huge turkey. Someone was chopping vegetables for the noon meal, the heavy knife making a “click, click, clicking “ sound against the wooden table. Elvira, the cook had brought her 13 year-old granddaughter, Yeira with her; where else could she leave her on weekends when she was working? Yeira hugged him and Carter thought of his own 13 year-old granddaughter with her private school and flute lessons. With the slightest of smiles, Yeira pushed her long black hair back and handed him three sheets of white lined paper. Stunned, Carter realized that she had written out the full names, ages and birthplaces of the patients he had photographed during the last visit. At that time, she had just jotted down their first names or nicknames. In essence, she had made herself a partner in his portrait project.
Feeling the tension from Pantoja, Carter crossed into the patio. Half a dozen patients immediately rushed and hugged him. One held up his fingers as if he was taking a photo. This was a game, taking the photo, then showing it to them on the monitor of his digital camera. Yeira followed, ready to continue the portrait project; seeing her dark, striking face had made him suddenly realize that he was going to call Paula as soon as he crossed back over the border. But first there was the portrait game. And then all the candy and cigarettes he had in his car. A patient brought out two small stools. Carter placed one next to the wall and sat on the other. Yeira took Carter’s notebook and ballpoint pen; she would write down the names. Gaspar came out of the kitchen, joined Becky and the two of them began lining up other patients and moving them towards the stool. One by one, they sat and posed. Blanca, El Cholo, Guadalupe, Yogi, Santiago, Juan Carlos, Leticia, Elia, Román, Petra, Cabrales, Victoriano, Juan from Cuba, Jesús – soon he would know all their names. Carter chatted away; he just seemed to be prattling on as he looked for different expressions.
His first monthly visits had been just photography and note taking for articles. In effect, projects for himself and his readers. Or for publicity for Pantoja. Now, bit by bit, it was more about the patients – the boxes of candy bars, the cigarettes and now the game of the portraits, even the way his sudden exhilaration seemed to lift everyone. A break from the boredom of the patio, from Elvira’s ample but monotonous food. Cigarettes for even those who probably never smoked, the smoke pluming in the air, seeming to relax them. Now the portraits with everyone jostling and joking, the laughter, the attention that he, Yeira, Becky and Gaspar gave them. Before Pantoja found these loquitos, they had been living on the streets of Juárez, ragged, raving mad, eating garbage, targets for the young “sicarios” or gunmen who killed them as a gang initiation. Carter’s goal was to show their faces, to prove that, despite all that had happened to them or that they themselves had done, they were still human beings or even “human treasures.” Yet, today something more was happening. Despite the wind and whatever it was bringing, despite Pantoja’s preoccupation with the new patient, Carter felt a moment of sheer pleasure and togetherness, the kind of happiness he had thought no longer existed.
Now he heard vehicles arriving, car doors opening and then slamming, a reverberating sound that seemed to echo even inside the asylum. Men talking, harsh voices. Then Pantoja, his voice oddly high pitched. He was outside where the cars were. The patients suddenly went silent. Yeira grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. Walking quickly – fiercely, it seemed – she led him to the gate that led from the patio to the desert outside. He pushed it open as the patients gathered behind them.
Two police cars were idling in the sandy parking area. They made a rumbling sound as if they had some sort of oversized engines. Five officers had gotten out of the first car, most of them carrying automatic rifles. They were taller and lighter skinned than the soldiers at the border checkpoints. Wearing dark blue uniforms, they looked more like soldiers than police. Three others were pulling a struggling woman out of the second car. She wore a stained blouse but no pants, just underwear. Her hair was a thick dirty mat. She had powerful tattooed arms and appeared half frightened, half ready to attack. This was the Marta that Pantoja and Benito had been talking about.
An officer was holding paperwork out to Pantoja. The remainder stood, holding their weapons, at the edge of the scraggly mesquite bushes that separated the parking area from the desert. One of them had his pistol in his left hand. With his right, he removed the clip, then re-inserted it. Again and again with a “click,click,click “ sound. His face was impassive, his body motionless except for the movement of his right hand. It made Carter think of the monotonous clicking of the knife chopping celery stalks for Elvira’s soups.
Carter picked out the officer who seemed to be the boss and began commending him on the dangerous work of being a Juárez police officer. He wanted to soften him up, get him to agree to a photo of the officers and their weapons with the desert in the background. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Behind him, he could tell that Benito and some of the patients were taking Marta inside. Pantoja was saying something but Carter was too focused on the officer to understand.
“I’m a writer from the US.” He spoke slowly, his eyes focused on the officer. He realized that he was sweating.
“Carter, I’m going inside,” Pantoja said behind him.
Carter was watching the lead officer when Pantoja spoke again.
“Carter, it’s time to go inside.” Like earlier, Pantoja’s voice had a higher pitch. Carter waited as the lead officer stared impassively at him. Then the others were getting back in the cars. Doors were opening. The moment was passing. Carter lifted his camera; that’s what he was here for; this was his scepter. He pointed it. “Click, click, click.” Then another officer suddenly stepped around him and pressed his weapon against Carter’s back. It was the one who had been taking the clip out of his pistol.
“Our faces can’t be recorded,” he said, suddenly pushing Carter towards the second car. Carter reached out to the lead officer but he just turned away.
“Carter!” It was Pantoja. Carter turned. Pantoja had his hands outstretched towards him but other officers were pushing him back with their rifles. Carter stumbled and almost fell as the officers shoved him towards the car. Two officers held his arms and a third opened the rear door of the car.
“No!” He heard a thin, high voice. The little Yeira was surging forward, the wind sweeping her hair across her face. The patients followed, fifteen, twenty, Carter had no idea how many. They seemed to come flowing out the gate, across the sand. Three officers had Pantoja pinned against the outer wall of the asylum as the others shoved Carter in the second car. At first, he was too surprised to resist. Then Yeira darted between them and wedged herself between the door and car body so that the officers couldn’t close the door. She made a sharp, jerking motion with her head as if to say, “That’s it. Now leave us alone.” Looking at her from the back seat, Carter thought of the woman who had put up the sign along the highway, seeking revenge for her murdered daughter. Yeira had that same rage, he realized, as if something terrible had happened to her or someone in her family.
It was silent now, only the breathing of the fifty or sixty patients who had surrounded the two police cars. Then the wind started again with a shrill, whistling sound. Outside, Carter could see the clothing that was drying on the lines on the roof of the asylum lifting, rippling, the wind ripping at it. Suddenly the air was full of dust and something more. Snow! The pounding wind from the north was driving a snowstorm over the asylum and down onto them. A snow storm in the desert. A New Year! He started laughing. The loquitos were laughing too, the hidden treasures. They were packed around the two cars; no one could move. He turned and his face was just inches from the officer next to him. Fuck it, he thought, I am a messenger. He slowly twisted his arm out of the officer’s grasp, pushed the car door open and stepped out, his camera in one hand, the other holding Yeira. He, Yeira, the loquitos, they all backed slowly towards the gate of the asylum, leaving the police cars isolated in the blinding snow. The officers were staring out of the car windows, the snow pelting their faces. Carter waved. Then he knelt, raising his camera again as the police slowly drove away.