South of Nogales
I am many miles south of Nogales, in the desert. Far from the Gulf or any known road. Blistering sun. The hills are full of smoke and all I can remember is the sound of crackling flames. I walk dry canyon floors through creosote and sage and ancient bones that hum with ghosts. I must be looking for something. Why else would I be here?
Though it is in my blood, I know little of the language. Cerveza. Comida. Por favor. Lugar para descansar. Agua. Enough to find my way. My pronunciation always draws paused stares, whispers, but my money is green. Gracias.
Before dusk I find myself in a rented room above a small restaurant in a nameless place. Air thick with spices and meat and something else. Something sour. A rat in the plaster. Spirits in the fibers of the braided rug. The room is aglow with shafts of harsh late-day light, and I hope this is what I’ve been searching for. Below in the dusty street, junk peddlers and squeaking wheels. Dogs barking. Foreign voices. Even the flies are listless in the heavy heat.
With night comes wind, dry and unmerciful. I lie on the bed and sleep, sweating and dreaming of fires, until awakened by something circling my navel. Brushing it off in the dark, I pull the chain on the small lamp. A cockroach flees into the folds of the dirty sheets. Others into cracks and shadows.
There is no clock here, so there is no time, but I need to be in the wind.
The door has no lock, so I stash the last of my American dollars in my shoe, pull on my shirt, and follow the narrow stairs into the alley.
The gray-haired woman who rented me the room holds a wooden bowl at the kitchen door, a mangy huddle of dogs and cats at her feet, dimmed by a seething cloud of gnats. Scraps of chicken guts smack wetly on the dirt as she feeds them. Snuffling. Gnashing jaws.
“A altas horas de la noche,” she says. “La noche no es seguro.”
I say, “I am from somewhere else.”
I say, “Roaches in the room.”
She has deep-set eyes, a toothless grin. She squints, then nods. “Sí,” she says, and scrapes the remaining entrails from the bowl with her slick fingers.
I have walked so long already, yet wander more through serpentine streets, past adobe brick and stucco walls. On the dim road, I witness several young boys beat an elderly man, and I hurry on so as not to been seen.
Things are different here.
Though I feel I must have come here to get lost, to be forgotten, I soon feel a horrible need to find my way back. The traffic has ceased. The night air still smells of smoke, and new sounds split the hush. Coyotes. Breaking glass. Sandaled feet whisper warnings. I have gotten turned around. Panicked, I run. Hide in doorways and under awnings until at last I come to the place I know, to where I started. Brief relief…brief relief fills me. The boys, five of them I see now, gathered at the mouth of the alley beside the restaurant. One is crouched down, digging in the dirt with a knife.
When they see me, one steps forward. “Yo vato, how much money you got?” he says in my own language. I share their skin, but they know me to be a stranger.
“No money,” I say.
A fly buzzes, lands on his cheek.
“Then give us a smoke,” another says, and they all crowd around.
Just then their faces look older than their bodies, as though they are not boys but tiny men. Another with a short metal pipe at his side.
I think to duck into the restaurant, but it is much too late — no lights, no sign of the old woman — so I offer a flattened pack of Camels. A hand snatches it, and it disappears into a pocket.
“Nothing. Nada,” I say.
“Take off those shoes,” says the one with the knife.
My money. It is all I have and not enough. I bend down as if to slip them off then break through their tight circle toward the entrance of the stairs. There is a wisp and breeze as the blade clips my ear, and I fear they will chase me. But they only remain pacing at the mouth of the alley, shouting words I cannot comprehend.
Inside, the air of the room is still ripe with death and ghosts, and when I turn on the lamp the roaches scatter.
I place the rickety bedside chair under the knob, thinking I am somewhere between nowheres and forget what I am searching for. (Was I ever searching at all?) Several flies rise from my pillow, and I turn out the light but do not sleep. I listen to the dark and wait for them to swarm.
William R. Soldan received his BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University, where he was formerly the head fiction-editor of the student-run online literary magazine Jenny. He currently studies fiction and poetry in the Northeast Ohio MFA program and teaches English Composition at YSU. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of publications such as The Fictioneer, New World Writing, The Vignette Review, Thuglit, Elm Leaves Journal and others. He lives in Youngstown, Ohio, with his wife and son.
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Image derived from photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia