By Michel Stone*I’d known Angel a few weeks when he told me about his being sealed by blowtorch in the underbelly of a truck. His words flowed fast, like the cork had blown on something bottled inside him, and the telling and my interest gave him great satisfaction.
We were tagging elms with yellow plastic tape in the tree nursery where we worked. “You cannot imagine,” he said. He had an easy, boyish smile, almost devilish, but his eyes revealed a perpetual weariness.
“Tell me,” I said, stretching out an eight-inch piece of tape and snipping it from the roll.
“We lay like this.” He stood rigid, his arms pinned to his sides. “Is very close, you know? With the shoes of the other mens is rubbing my head here and here,” he said, tapping his ears.
“How many of you?”
His sudden, wide smile puzzled me.
“Is ten of us. This space is very, very small.” He stepped to a nearby elm and bent a thin branch for me to secure the length of tape.
We had to tag the best looking elms for a landscaper who’d pick up the trees the following day. Angel could tell the caliper of a tree with a glance. We’d walk down the field, he’d select the trees, and we’d tag them.
I didn’t want to be nosy, and I figured he’d be guarded about telling me much more, but I was wrong.
“I try not to move in this truck, is so tight like… how you say… the little fishes in the can?”
“Sardines?” I say, tying a strip of tape to the limb.
“Si, is like the sardines. And the coyote – he is the man I pay the moneys to bring me in these truck – he close the hole in the truck with the… how you say… the fire, you know?”
“Si. Is very dark in this place. Is very long time in this place.”
“How long did it take you to cross?”
“Oh, is many hours!”
“Pretty scary, I bet.” I said, as we made our way down the row, eyeing trees to select.
“I think I will die on this trip. I could no tell is day or the night, is Mexico or el norte outside this space.”
“Did you and the others talk?”
“No, not so much because we is scared of the coyote in the outside, if he hear us or if the border patrol hear us. We not talking in there. But then one man he get very crazy in the head,” Angel says, his perpetual smile lost now. “Is very bad.”
“Crazy in the head?” I said.
“Si, is true. He say crazy things. He screaming and he wanting his mama, but is no space in there and is no mama, either. I want to hit him in the face! You see, is no because I am a bad guy, but this man, he could get us caught, you know?”
“Did you hit him?”
“No. Is impossible. The… how you say… the top? Is right here, is very near to my nose. Is no able to move to hit this man.”
I shook my head, unsure what to say, thinking about my story, my life, and how simple and unencumbered my existence would seem if he were to ask me to tell my personal narrative.
“Then the mens, they have to piss, right? And what can they do but they have to go. So these mens pisses, and one man he… how you say?” Angel shoves a dirty finger into the back of his throat.
(Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out now on Hub City Press, about a Mexican couple’s trip into the United States, ending in South Carolina. It has been called a “compassionate yet unsentimental story [recalling] the works of John Steinbeck.” … Read an excerpt here.)
“Vomit? Throw up?” I said.
“Si, he vomit and smelling very, very bad in this truck.”
As we made our way across the field, tagging the last couple of trees, I wondered what I’d do in the situation Angel just described.
I said, “Did you pray?” I fold my hands in prayer and briefly close my eyes to illustrate my question.
“Oh, si! I says to God, ‘Please! Please! Please!’ And the other mens I can hear them talk to God and to the Virgin, they say like me, “Please, please!”
I tried to picture Angel prone, scared, and lying in human waste among his fellow travelers with barely a few inches between their faces and the top of their hidden, sealed compartment. I imagined the unbearable stench.
Suddenly I am thankful Angel is a thin man. How could he have fit into the space otherwise? Maybe a plump, well-fed fellow wouldn’t have had Angel’s motivation to leave Mexico in such a way, under the protection of a coyote, in search of something better.
(View a trailer to The Iguana Tree)
“But you made it across,” I said, smiling at him.
“Si,” he said, his mischievous grin contradicting the horrendous tale he’d just shared, the truth about his deliverance to el norte in the dark belly of that truck.
“When was this?” I said.
“This was in five months ago. In Marzo. You know Marzo?”
“March,” I said.
“Si. In March I come here. Soon is my wife coming and my boy.”
His face darkened when he said this, and for a moment I suspected I’d misunderstood, imagining he’d be thrilled to be reunited with his family.
“Where are they now?” I said.
“In my country, in my town, Cortazar.”
My familiarity with Mexican geography was minimal. “Is that near the sea, or near the border?”
“No, no, is no near the sea and this town is very far from the border. Is in middle of my country,” he said.
Then I pictured his young wife – How old was Angel? 23? – traveling up through the center of her country with a small child in tow, trying to cross into America.
Perspiration dampened the front of Angel’s shirt in this muggy August South Carolina heat, and I wonder how insufferable a sealed undercarriage of a truck would be in Mexico or Texas this time of year.
I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. “Why’d you do it, Angel? Why come here?”
“Is much better here, Michel. The moneys I make here in one week? You know in my country I make this moneys in many weeks. Is much better here.”
My relatives owned the farm where Angel and I worked, and I kept up with him through them for years after that summer.
His wife and son did make it to el norte that autumn, their journey across the border different but equally as harrowing as Angel’s.
Then one day I learned they were gone. Disappeared. Rumored to have returned to Mexico. Some farm hands mumbled that Angel had begun drinking too much, had gotten in trouble with the law, and left before he got locked up.
Where is he now? His wife? Their child? I often wonder.
*Michel Stone is a writer living in Spartanburg, S.C. Her acclaimed first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out on Hub City Press, and available in hardback or Kindle. Contact her at www.michelstone.com.
This article initially appeared on Sam Quinones site "Tell Your True Tale": http://www.samquinones.com/