The Baked Potato, Part 2: The Gulf Cartel

The morning after Miguel told Cristina about Carlos and the heroina he woke up in their bed to find her staring at him in the dark. The baby lay quiet in his grandmother’s bassinet in the corner of the bedroom. It was early, with only a hint of the sunrise beginning to glow through the crack in the old counterpane (also his grandmother’s) which Cristina had cut into two parts and stitched into curtains to cover their bedroom window.

“Where did he get it?” Cristina asked in a soft voice, so as not to wake the baby. “Who gave it to him?” Miguel stiffened on his side of the bed. Cristina was wide awake. She had been awake for a long time. This was not going to be one of the mornings when she would giggle and tickle him until he took her in his arms. His wife was making plans.

“I don’t know,” Migueal answered. “I didn’t ask. He wouldn’t tell me anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cristina sighed. “They won’t let him go.”

“I know,” Miguel agreed. He stared hard at the ceiling.

“I think we should leave here,” Cristina told him.

Miguel felt his heart hammer in his chest. “What do you mean, leave here?” They had always lived in Matamoros. He had grown up in Matamoros, met Cristina in Matamoros, married her in the back yard of his grandmother’s house. His parents lived down the street. Her parents lived three blocks away.

“They won’t let us go, either,” Cristina told him.

“You don’t know that,” Miguel replied. Cristina did not answer him. She wrapped her hand around the gold cross hanging on her neck, and rolled over in the bed, so that she faced the bassinet standing on its folding legs in the corner.

Miguel asked, “Where would we go?” He knew that there was nowhere to hide from them in Tamaulipas, maybe nowhere to hide in all of Mexico.

“I am thinking of Gregorio,” Cristina answered.

Miguel bit his lip. “Gregorio? Your brother Gregorio, the one who lives in Reno, Nevada?”

“He will help us,” Cristina told her husband. She rolled back to face him, and he felt her put her arms around him. He hugged her back, and they lay together, holding on to one another, waiting for the rest of the morning to come through the crack in the curtain and wake the baby.

Together they decided that they would not pay for the services of a pollero. It was too dangerous. Instead Miguel suggested they contact a coyote, not as a guide, but to help expedite the process and tell them the steps they would need to take to cross forever from Tamaulipas to Texas. Cristina, who was wiser than he, and whose sole overriding purpose was the safety of her children, refused his plan. Her reasons were simple. The coyotes worked hand in hand with the cartels, and Cristina wanted, above all, to stay out of their grasp. Instead, she told Miguel that he must go to the immigration office and collect the necessary paperwork. They would take their time, as much as necessary. They would keep their plans to themselves, not telling their friends, not even telling their parents. They would save their money, and when they moved, they would cross the border legally, in their own vehicle, with no handlers to betray them.

So began a long year, in which Cristina’s nightly question to Miguel, once the children were asleep in their own bedroom, was “What have you done today to continue the plan?” The baby outgrew the bassinet and Miguel had to spend some of their savings to purchase a crib they would be unable to take with them.

One day they received a letter in the mail from Gregorio. It was a thick manila envelope. Inside was a short note wishing them good luck, and then “to help with your trip.” Miguel poured the envelope out on the table.

“Cristina, come look at this,” Miguel called. Inside the envelope were all sorts of plastic gift cards. Some were for gasoline. Some were for groceries. One was even for a restaurant. It said $100 on its plastic front.

“Do you see?” Cristina was laughing. “I told you Gregorio would help us. You must remember to call and activate all of these cards. Before we leave, not now. Make sure they all are bueno. Oh, Miguel, it’s going to happen! We’re going to escape, to start a new life!”

“Shh,” Miguel told her. “The children will hear you.”

Carlos visited often. Cristina did not welcome him, and did not let him hold the baby, but Miguel convinced her that shutting his brother out of their lives would only arouse the suspicions of those around them, and by association the suspicions of the other drug dealers. On his visits Laura and Raul were fascinated by Carlos’ new gold watch, and by his fancy stitched leather wallet. One evening he arrived wearing a beautiful pair of white ostrich-leather boots. After Carlos finished their meal of posole with pork and corn tortillas and left to go out for the evening, Laura, who wanted a new dress for school, asked her father, “Why does Uncle Carlos have so much money to buy nice things, when we have so little?”

Miguel felt his heart wrench. He couldn’t tell her about United States Customs and Immigration Services Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative that Gregorio had to file through the Dallas Lockbox to try to get Cristina citizenship under F4-1 status, and that cost $420. He couldn’t tell her about USCIS Form I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker that Gregorio’s employer had to file, that cost $585, plus another $345 for EB-3 status that might within six to nine years grant Miguel a path to lawful permanent resident status as an “other worker” with no special skills but a willingness to do a job at a wage that no other US Citizen would be willing to accept. He couldn’t tell her about USCIS Form I-131 Application for Travel that they had to have to cross the border legally and drive in the United States, that cost $135 to file, or USCIS Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization that cost $380. He couldn’t tell her about the pitiful few US dollars and the ZapTel prepaid telephone cards that he had stashed in the tequila box behind her mother’s wedding dress in the closet with the gift cards Gregorio had sent. He couldn’t tell her why he refused the cash that Carlos offered them every time his brother came for supper. He wanted to tell her how proud he was that he had just finished payment for her mother’s passport, and that when he had asked her for one of her school pictures it was for her own passport photo, not to keep in his threadbare wallet.

It was even harder to keep the secret as the time to leave approached, and they began to sell the possessions they could not take with them. When Miguel told Laura that a man was coming to take her bed and that she and Raul would have to sleep on the floor until they could buy another one, Laura finally exploded.

“Why can’t you get a good job like Uncle Carlos?” she yelled. “You always say that he is the foolish one, but I think it’s you who’s the foolish one. What am I supposed to tell my friends when they come over? It’s bad enough that I have to share a room with my brother. What am I supposed to say to them when they see that I sleep on a pallet on the floor? Why can’t you get a better job?” Laura burst into tears.

There was nothing Miguel could say. All he could do was stare down at the food on his plate.

“Laura,” Cristina snapped. “Come here right now.” She took Laura back to their bedroom while Raul sat stunned at the supper table, which was already sold and would be taken away the next day. When Laura came back she still had tear stains on her cheeks, but she was no longer angry with her father. Instead she threw her arms around him and hugged him as hard as she could, and whispered “Me’m siento papi” in his ear. Miguel patted her on the head and thought that maybe, just maybe it would be okay.

The next day it was not okay. The next day Carlos disappeared. The word came first from Miguel’s mother, calling him from home to see if he knew where his brother was.

Miguel asked, “Why would I know where he is?”

“He said that he had an important meeting yesterday. He seemed frightened,” Miguel’s mother told him. Miguel knew that she had her suspicions about what her other son was doing to earn money. It was hard not to have suspicions, with all the fancy clothes and the new car Carlos had purchased, a bright yellow Camaro.

“Don’t worry, Mama,” Miguel told her. “I’ll try to find him. I’m sure nothing has happened.” Miguel hung up the telephone, praying that the cartel would leave his parents alone. He called Cristina. “It’s time for us to have the garage sale,” he told her. “We must pack up the van.”

Cristina’s fingers flew to her mouth. “What’s happened?”

“Carlos is missing,” Miguel told her.

That day they pulled the children out of school. Cristina put their remaining possessions out on the lawn for the neighbors to poke through. Because it was  a weekday there were few shoppers. “Get whatever you can,” Miguel told her. “We can’t take any of it with us.” He was busy packing the minivan, collecting their paperwork, calling to activate the gift cards. As they ate their hurried supper that night, Laura pointed with a shaking finger at the small left-behind television on the kitchen counter. It was showing the news. A news truck near General Servando Canales Airport panned its cameras across a freeway overpass. Miguel jumped across the table to switch off the television, but it was too late. They all saw the headless bodies dangling from the bridge. Most of them were barefoot, but one wore a single bloodied white ostrich leather boot.

“Get into the Windstar,” Miguel ordered. As he was fastening the baby into the carseat, he saw a figure running up the street towards their house, a tall, skinny man wearing embroidered jeans, a red silk snap-button shirt and a cowboy hat. Miguel backed out of the driveway so fast that the left rear bumper of the Windstar struck the bricked-in mailbox. He had to pull foward and adjust the wheel. Then they were off, driving towards the New Bridge in the dark.

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