Alejandro knew he was dead but that didn’t stop him from wanting to come to America. His body lay on the dry dirt exactly where he’d fallen, the muscles rapidly losing their ability to stretch out and contract. His mouth was fixed, oddly enough, in a permanent grin.
He had a terrible urge to speak to someone, really anyone would have been fine. A young man of twenty-four, Alejandro hadn’t been the least bit prepared for death and wanted to make sure his assessment of the condition in which he had unexpectedly found himself was correct. When he’d considered death before, at the rare burial service he’d attended or times the priest traveled to his village of Teptapa and mentioned the word during mass, he imagined that something fantastic, such as flashing lights or crushing pain, would occur to signal the act. You might say, at this moment, that Alejandro felt a little disappointed.
Perhaps this was all a poor man from a dusty Mexican village so far south it could barely be measured in miles could expect. Yes, he began to scold himself. He could hear his wife Elena’s voice now, lecturing him about relying too much on what he could not see, except, of course, if he was placing his blind faith in God, Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. Elena’s voice, which started out low, grew louder as she reminded him that he had made a mess of his life this time. As if he needed any reminder. A mess? He would have laughed, if he’d been able to move the muscles in his jaw that had frozen into a stiffness no amount of effort was going to pry apart. Not only had he failed to get to America, where he intended to make a better life, he had died.
Even more shameful, his corpse lay a breath away from the border.
What would happen to Elena, he wanted to know. Of all the crazy things he had done, he’d gone and left her with a child growing in her belly. He imagined Elena holding the child on her lap, and telling him that his father had traveled to America to give them a better life. But, unfortunately, she would say to the small boy ‘Your father did not make it.’ Then she would watch tears form in the child’s large brown eyes. Since he was too young to understand, the boy couldn’t help but toss the words around in his mind, like weeds tumbling through the fields when they were dry. One day, much later, he would understand. His father, like most of the village men, had left for that mythical place known as The Other Side.
Alejandro wasn’t ready to accept death yet. Without a priest nearby, he had no idea what might happen to him in the afterlife. Sure, he was a poor man. Why else would he have walked all this way to die, without a single soul to witness his passing? A poor man had one thing, Alejandro recalled, and that was his dignity. Right now, lying in the dust, Alejandro only felt shame – to die without the priest’s blessing, his clothes soiled, even his shoes caked with dust.
All around, there was silence. Even the wind failed to make a sound, as in that heat, it couldn’t find a reason to blow. The temperature hovered around a hundred and ten. By the end of the afternoon, it was expected to hit a hundred and seventeen. Alejandro didn’t feel the heat any more, which was a blessing.
The desert stretched for miles in every direction. It was said that bodies were strewn across the dust like cactus, and scorpions sometimes nested in their ears. Alejandro hadn’t known about the vastness of the desert and what it took from a simple man, who only wanted to sample the riches everyone in his village claimed would await him on el otro lado, the other side.
If anyone had been here to see, and no one was, a man suddenly began to lift himself up, at the very spot where Alejandro had fallen. The man had on a pair of cheap sneakers no longer white and pale blue polyester pants. Alejandro watched the man, as he stepped next to the border fence, and felt proud that the man he had once been was going to try to make it across.
They heard the story first in San Diego. Then the story spread north. In Los Angeles, in a tiny restaurant where the smell of grilled beef and onions wafted out the open door, men repeated the tale. They lifted bottles of Corona to their lips, after squeezing in a bit of lime, and said, “Have you heard?”
Miles up the coast, in San Francisco, the young cholos stood on the corner of Twenty-Fourth and Mission, their pants too large, and red and navy blue scarves tied like headbands to keep their thick black hair down, and watched girls walk by. Even they began to tell the story. These kids, most of whom had been babies when their mothers sneaked across, felt proud. This Alejandro, they would say, smiling and smoking cigarettes pressed between their first two fingers and thumbs, had balls. The guy died, they said, slapping each other’s palms and rocking back and forth on their expensive sneakers, and he still made it across.