“Remy, I am going to go over the border.”
The twenty-year-old woman hefts their small boy. “What do you mean? When did you decide to start thinking like this again?”
Tippy ducks his head and shrugs.
“Bernardo and Felix are going.”
The couple stand near the open doorway of their family’s small house, made of dirt brick and ancient repurposed windows and doors splintered from the sun. “Tippy, we have already talked about this!” The loud bray of locusts sounds outside. The sheen of white light is that of the desert.
Her husband can barely look at her.
“I think it is best to go with Felix and them.”
“What about me and Sancho?” She hikes the boy on her hip.
Tippy scrunched his head deeper between his small shoulders.
“They are going. I can go with them. It’s safer if we go together.”
“So, you are going to leave your boy and your wife?
He puts his hands in his jean pockets.
“We talked about this. I’m not letting you go.” She hikes the boy again and wipes an itch on her jaw on her shoulder.
“I can do more good for us up there.”
She nods in frustration, conceding the obvious. “Okay. Okay. Your son will do better never seeing you up there?” She sways the baby soothingly. She glares at her man like he too is a child. “Short term, Tippy. But what about the long term? Hmm? What about that?”
Tippy stares at the burnished dirt floor.
“I don’t need you to think short term, Tippy. I need a man who thinks long term. Hmm? Right? Do you understand me? I can’t do this alone.”
“We can all go up together.”
“With the baby? Really? Look at him. That’s what you want?” She waits for him. “I’m not going up there. This is our home. My parents need me. Your parents need you.”
Tippy’s mother comes to the bright door, putting her hands on either jamb. The two-room house is sixty years old. The wood framing is from before Pancho Villa. The lazy sounds of the locusts move in and out of phase.
“What’s going on?”
“I want to go over the border.”
The woman’s name is Marta. She looks inquiringly at Remy as if there’s nothing wrong with this, in the end. She shrugs. “Why not let him go?”
“I told him before, Nunu.” Remy shakes her head.
“Dios mío,” Marta says.
The baby starts to get upset. Remy rocks him.
“This is not the answer. We need our good men home.”
Marta raises her hand in solemn frustration and walks away. She stops three steps out in the sun, then slowly turns back. She comes back to the door and replaces her hands on the jambs.
“You two shouldn’t fight. It’s not good for your health.”
Remy shakes her head. The boy looks tearfully at the adults, screwing his head this way and that as his mother cradles him side to side.
“No. This is not the way. Long term.”
Marta looks at her son. She shrugs. Tippy keeps his head hung and scratches once at the back of his neck. His pointed cowboy boots handed down from his uncle are white with dust from the bull ranch where he works as a hand.
“He can make money.”
Remy shakes her head.
Marta lifts her hands in surrender and makes to leave again. This time, she simply turns around and replaces her hands on the jambs.
“He can send money home to us.”
“What do we need?”
“Ay. Shit.” Marta shakes her head.
“Seriously. What do we need? What do we need that we won’t get one day if he stays and we all work?”
Marta says nothing.
“Running away from Mexico is not the answer. I want a better world for my son, here.” She kisses the boy. He is sensitive and doesn’t like adults fighting. “His father running away to America for a few dollars is not the answer.”
Marta turns to lean against the door. She crosses her sandals. “This is true.” Marta looks at the pale leaves of the mesquite trees in the ravine.
“What is there in America that you are chasing? What magic do they have that makes you think you need to chase what they have, Tippy? Eh? Tell me?”
“They have money. That is magical.”
“Okay. But why do they have that magic, eh?”
Tippy shuffles. He wants to avoid fighting because he never wins.
“They have the money because they have it.”
“That’s not the reason, love.”
Marta looks at a finger. She looks at her daughter-in-law.
Remy’s knees are tired, and she sits on the bunk draped with blankets under the window that serves as a couch.
Marta shrugs noncommittally and looks away.
Tippy shifts his hands to his back pockets.
“We will never have a life like Americans if our good men run away from here, Tippy.” She bounces the boy. She can tell he will cry if she makes him go down. “We have to bring what they have down here. Running away from this to go there and nibble will change nothing.”
Tippy glances up at her briefly.
She is always right. She is too smart for him.
That is the worst trouble of his being married to her. His friends know the situation. They give him a hard time. He accepts it because he knows it is good to be with a smart woman, and for the man to see it when it is true.
“I can go learn from them. Send money. Come back.”
Remy nods. “Okay. How many years?… What if something happens to Mama? Or Sancho? What if he dies? What if I die?”
“Caramba,” Tippy says, displeased that she tempts fate.
“Caramba,” Marta says. “Girl. You go too far. That, should not be said.”
Tippy twists his head, refusing to look at her again.
He would kill himself if such awful things should happen.
“And all those years away you could be here doing something. Like I told you before.”
Marta nods; Tippy nods.
“The FCN,” Tippy mutters.
“Exactly. Fighters. They have connections. You are a good worker. They know you. There is enough work here. And they are here.” She stops bouncing the boy. She squares him up and looks keenly into his large beautiful eyes and kisses him full, with a smack. She puts him on the floor. He trots to his grandma’s bare knees in her pink gingham shorts and leans on them, looking out for the shrill locusts invisible in the pale green canopy of the mesquite descending into the white ravine.
Tippy rubs the back of his neck.
“Maybe she is right, Titi?”
“What should I do?” he asks his wife.
“The FCN are Christians, and only they are standing up to the criminals and protecting people. I told you. That is the way.”
Tippy nods faintly. He turns and leans his weight on the wall by the doorframe. His shirt is filthy with dust. He still looks down at his boots. They are the finest thing he owns.
“Let’s go talk to Señor Ramon,” Remy said. “He knows you.”
The family walks up the hill on the road out of Apatzingan up to the larger house made of white-painted concrete with a two-car garage and a clean 2012 Ford F-150 parked in it. Two young men sit on the low stone wall in front with automatic rifles. An old truck approaches with a hole in the muffler, and Remy quickly reaches for her son to guide him more to the shoulder of the road. Two men are in the truck. One holds a rifle.
“Hola, Tippy,” calls the driver in passing.
Tippy barely looks.
“Hola, Samuel,” Remy answers.
She looks at Tippy. The men are FCN.
Sturdy, fanciful grillwork covers the carport and all around the second-story balcony.
In the shadowy front room, they find Don Ramon. Three other young men are also in the house, and the voices of at least two women can be heard in back. A child too. Piled on a table are four AR-15s and two Kalashnikovs, assorted pistols and ammunition boxes. One of the young men nods and says hello as he repairs one of the pistols. Don Ramon sits squarely beneath the ceiling fan in the middle of the room. His floral shirt is open, and sometimes he fans himself with a straw cowboy hat. His head is unusually long and rectangular, his skin dark, his toothbrush mustache stark and plain.
“Hola. How are you? Sit down.”
The family sits. The boy, Sancho, watches the man fixing the pistol.
“Don Ramon,” Marta says, “Tippy is thinking of going up north.”
“Oh? Many do.”
“Remy wants him to stay with his family and work with you.”
The Don nods sagely at Remy.
“I want him to stay and make life better here so we can one day be more like the United States. Not run away from our problems.”
The Don frowns. “Who will ever be like the United States? Maybe China will one day be like the United States, or even better. But we can make life better here”—he indicates Sancho—“for our little ones. Much better than Mexico is now. Now, it’s bad. God willing, we can make it better.”
“God willing.” Marta crosses herself.
“Tippy is hardworking and honest, and he wants to join you and the FCN to fight the drug lords and make an honest living. We are from the same town. We want to help,” Remy says. Sancho leans deep into the space between her thighs and stares at the big guns across from them on the table.
“We always have room for another good man. He works now at Don Ortega’s ranch. If he needs more work, there is opportunity.”
“Thank you, Don Ramon,” Remy says.
“Let me hear from Tippy directly, now. I know how his women think and how they love him. How do you want to help the FCN?”
“I am nervous about the FCN, Don Ramon.”
“Oh? Why do you have reservations, my son?”
“I know you keep the money you steal from the kingpins.”
“Yes. This is true.”
“I don’t like it. And I know others worry about this, and I know the Church Fathers also find fault with you doing this. Isn’t it crooked? And don’t you risk just taking their place?” Tippy looks directly at the Don, but he slouches low against the chair back.
“Ah, see? This is a big problem for many,” the Don admitted.
He fans himself with the hat. He is tall, quiet.
“This is true, many people worry for this practice. And the Church Fathers too, for some, feel I should not do this practice. But the money from the Church and our own collections is insufficient for a small army. It is good for us to grow and pay our soldiers a little something. They are volunteers trying to save their country from murdering cutthroats, but where else should the money go but to them and to food, equipment, and needed weapons? Look what the cartels have. We have to stand toe-to-toe with that? And where else should the money go? To the police? To the government? Should we burn it? To me? If this were the case and I was as corrupt as they and our police, then I would deserve to die like them and be put in the desert in the same hole as them by our own men.”
He crosses one thin leg over the other. “So, no. This is a fine practice. It is turning what is plainly sinful into a benefit for our state.” He watches Tippy squarely. “This is war. Only once we admitted to ourselves that this was war did we start to win and scare the cartels and the incompetent cops.” He looks at the backs of his fingernails. “Is our self-defense just? So is stealing their drug money. It is all the same virtuous business.”
He looks frankly at Remy now, the smart one.
“I think this is the truth of it,” she states, looking at Tippy.
“They are killing us, Tippy. It’s only killing back. Enough to show them who is the righteous and who is going to be the boss.”
“We did not start it,” Marta said.
“No, no. We did not.”
The Don looks out at the land sloping from the rise.
The land is parched and rang with locusts.
“We and the Americans both have a war against godless cancer on our hands, Tippy. If you go north, you will be a knowing part of the problem. And you know it. In your heart. They are waking up to a problem of godless people doing their best to tip over that great country with disorder and hedonism. Look at the shit they teach their kids in school at earlier and earlier ages, to train them to think of their own sexual desires first before being good people in a sound society.” He emphasizes this with his long index finger. “Goodness is mocked in every one of their movies and TV shows. We see it here. It cannot be hidden. They who do it don’t want to hide it.” He pauses. “Every one.” He gazes down the land again. “Showing sexual restraint. Not taking the property of your fellow man. Working hard. Up there, they are coming to war. Down here, we are already at war.”
“Good and evil,” Remy said.
Marta and Don Ramon nod.
“I like sex as much as the next fellow. I am no prude. But sex is the least important of the social virtues we build on. The most important is mutually respecting our work and then what is the basis of reward and punishment in our society. First, you lay that foundation of the respect. Our cancer is that our people need to work harder to understand the importance of a larger social and legal organization and to be faithful to keeping it pure from criminals. We have a problem ignoring the near reward of making the quick, dirty money that pushes away the far reward.” He twitches his mustache. He smiles. His smile is surprisingly immediate. “After we lay this foundation, then we can chase each other’s women.”
Tippy smiles. Marta and Remy laugh. Marta covers her mouth.
“Don Ramon! You are not the man of God I thought you were!”
“I joke. I am old enough that I need the women to chase me!” He snickers at them. “I am still a soldier of god, even though I have never read the Bible.”
“How can you never have read the Bible?”
“Well, I was made to do it as a child. I should study it as a man.”
“You know in your heart what it says,” Marta said, squinting advisingly.
The Don nods. He looks back at the man with the pistol.
“How goes it, Fidel?”
“Good, Don. Two more.”
Little Sancho scratches his head, watching the pistol. He puts his head back against his mom and yawns. The Don smiles at the size of the mouth.
“So, Tippy, you want to be a fighter?”
Tippy’s face doesn’t know which way to move. But the Don’s speech has made up his mind.
“We are going out this week, if you want to join.”
Sancho says, “I want to join.” He stretches his arms and yawns again.
The Don and his mother chuckle.
Tippy knows better than to be amused by such a thing.
“We will show you the ropes of what we do. But each man must decide for himself what future he wants for himself and his family.”
“It’s a lot of fighting,” Tippy said.
The Don frowns. “Their fighting will never end. Again, my young friend, they are not the same. Because one barbarian after another rises to the top to savage those below. No one is easy with that. Our fighting is to wipe out the savages who will not be peaceful, and then build the prosperity and peace on the other side of the hill where we respect one another.
“Not every man is a fighter, Tippy,” the Don said.
Tippy and the squad leave Apatzingan in a big box of a van with three other large box vans, each filled with a squad of vigilantes. At nine thirty, they load out onto the cobbled main street of a town on the outskirts of Uruapan. A cantina there is already secured by their well-armed vigilantes, who had captured three men in the bar whom Don Ramon wished very much to interrogate. The interrogation takes place by using a rifle stock to open the skull of the lowest cartel thug in the group and using this demonstration as leverage against the other two. It is known among the vigilantes that these cartel thugs know of the whereabouts of some others. The Don uses his cell phone to give the location to others of his men, and Tippy loads back with the other vigilantes into the box vans.
The vans drive back and forth through narrow streets until the men get out again at a large old apartment building, where the men they were looking for are already caught and tied up hands and feet, with sacks over their heads. The Don comes into the apartment and orders the sacks taken off the three men, and then he has them dropped out of the window into the alley two floors below. Tippy and the other vigilantes return downstairs to the alley, where the three men are groggy but still aware of their surroundings.
“You know why we are here?” Don Ramon asks the men.
He wants them to swim back to reality before anything happens.
“We didn’t do anything,” one man whispers, rolling in pain.
“You have only a minute to get right with God and ask forgiveness.”
“You have the wrong guys,” the man tries again.
Blood bubbles out between this one’s broken teeth.
“Oh, no. We have the right guys. You should see what we did to your amigos to get the truth out of them.” The Don nods at Tippy, and Tippy shoulders his AR-15 and brings out his machete that he had sharpened expertly yesterday just for this occasion. The blade shines with ragged file marks. “The farmer, our friend, Jalisco. You remember? What did you do? Eh? What did you do, young man? To his boys. Tell me. Tell me and make your peace with your God.”
“You have the wrong guys.”
Don Ramon drops this one and picks up the head of the next guy by the hair and throat and shakes him sharply.
“Very little time left, boys. Or you will go to God black with your deed. Tell the truth. You know as well as we what you did to those tiny boys.”
The young man in the Don’s grip looks up at him in double fear. Double fear for what is about to happen to him and what will happen to him in the afterlife. Tippy watches him blink heavily, his lips smoosh from the pressure of the Don and another fellow, Pico, choking him.
“We killed them.”
“Yes! You killed them. For what?”
“Because the farmer did not pay.”
“Oh! You wanted your protection extortion money from him? You rat bastards. Why did he not pay you?”
“He said he did not have the money.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“I do not know.”
“Maybe because he was poor?”
“So, then. What did you do, you boys?”
“We killed them. With rocks.”
“Excuse me? I did not hear you.”
“We killed them. On the rocks.”
“Oh, that’s right. Now, I remember: you killed his four young sons by tying them up feet and hands, like you are now, and then bashing their brains out on the rocks. While he watched. He and his wife. Is that what you did?” The Don shouts all of this out loud so that his voice echoes down the alley. He turns to Tippy, his face flush with coldness. “Chop them up.”
The Don and the vigilantes not holding the three punks stand back and watch without any sign of emotion.
Tippy slings his machete up and down and chops at the joints of each man. The blade sinks deep enough to stick with each bite. He weeps as he cuts. It is an outpouring that he does not really understand. He knew Jalisco, and his wife, and the four young sons. Sancho had played with them. He had seen the little boys the next day battered purposelessly to pieces.
“That’s for Raphael.…. That’s for Mario.… That’s for Emilio.”
Each time he swipes apart a limb, he says a name. The blade is very sharp and made like the joints of the three men were thick saplings.
Another fellow helps him a little bit.
Tippy goes around and around through all the names.
They leave the clothed limbs and bodies in a loose red pile in the alley for the other cartel members to see.
On the drive back to Apatzingan it is late.
They get into the town, and no one is on the street.
Tippy jumps down from the truck and hefts his gear and starts the walk out to his house. He does not think about what he has done. He thinks about the weight of his rifle and gear and the straight shape of his machete in its treated canvas sheath stiff on his hip. The machete he normally uses to cut brush on the ranch with the great breeding bulls of Don Ortega’s family.
Remy is waiting up for him.
“I have some soup.”
Tippy sits at the table by the stove as Remy turns up the single burner under the dented, burn-stained pot.
“Is Sancho good?”
“Yes. He asked where you went.”
Tippy stands. “I have to clean something. Is there water?”
Remy nods at the bucket of water waiting for him by the back door. Tippy takes a rag and his machete and the bucket and goes out behind the house. The sky is full of stars. Remy, inside, opens the cabinet. Tippy takes a moment to listen to the sound of the crickets.
David Walls-Kaufman is an aspiring writer/chiropractor in Washington DC. He is on Facebook and Twitter @Caesaramericus