The Greyhound bus slowed and the driver coasted toward the intersection.  Finally the diesel-belching beast came to a halt. The driver, a guy I’d swear must have been pushing eighty, pressed a button and the door swung open with a loud ‘swoosh’ “This is your stop, pal,” he said.

Newly-plowed fields stretched for miles in every direction. Flat, stark, featureless land all around. No fences, no trees, no rock outcroppings. Nothing.

The sky echoed the camel color of the freshly turned soil. Two two-lane highways crossing one another at a four-way stop sign, miles from any hint of civilization.

I asked myself What the hell am I doing here? as the bus disappeared in the shimmering heat rising from the distant roadway.  The answer came just moments later in the form of loud ranchera music coming from the direction of the disappeared bus.

I squinted to see where the music was coming from. A bicycle and lone rider slowly came into view. It was Garcia.

Garcia owned that part of South Texas. When I say “owned,” I don’t mean it in the literal sense. Yet he really did. No one would dare challenge his right to even a square inch of land down there. It wasn’t his, but it was. He was the only one who could control it. I mean, he was the guy Greyhound asked about a stop. A stop in the middle of nowhere. Even Greyhound knew he was the only one with an answer.

When he finally got to me, he swung his leg over the center bar of the bike and flicked the kickstand. The bicycle ignored his efforts at decorum and fell to the ground, its left pedal stabbing the ground as the front wheel spun freely.

“Amigo!” He lunged toward me with outstretched arms. “You really did it!  You came to visit me, man! I can’t even believe it!”

His scent, a mixture of charred poblano peppers and smoked meat, preceded him. The odor took me back to the previous summer, when I spent time in the decrepit hut he pretended was a house, where he roasted peppers in a makeshift broiler oven made of bricks and clay and oyster shells.

Garcia’s embrace was powerful. I remember the first time he hugged me I was stunned at his grip. For a small man, five foot five I’d guess, his strength was almost frightening. But he was gentle, too. His hug was like that of a bear cradling her cubs; you fear for their safety, but you know her instinct will protect them from her own savage power.

I had learned a few words of Spanish from him during our time together the year before, but he knew language was not my strength, so he didn’t push it. Still, I felt embarrassed to be monolingual in an area in which Hispanic history was such as thick component of the cultural stew. Damn near everyone in that part of the Valley was bilingual. At least anyone with an Hispanic  background was; Anglos tended to be like me: one-dimensional and hollow. My limited linguistic abilities notwithstanding, I responded to Garcia. “¡Mi hermano! ¡Mi Salvador! ¡Hemos estado separados demasiado tiempo!”

In our excitement, neither of us had seen nor heard the car slide up the cross-road. Only after I heard the report of the gunshot did I realize someone else was there. Garcia fell to the ground. The car white Toyota Prius, its black windows concealing whoever sat inside, silently crept away. I could tell by looking at him that Garcia was gone. He was dead and I was alone on a desolate highway with a friend I’d barely been able to touch. I had come to spend time with Garcia, then kill him. Someone else had beat me to the punch.

Garcia’s death was the beginning of a very bad year. If I knew what the future holds for me, I’d say it was the worst year of my life. But tomorrow could be worse, so I can confirm only that the year just ended—the year that began with Garcia’s death—was worse than I’d ever imagined a year could be.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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