A Sherlock Holmes in El Paso (New Book Excerpt!)
Hey, everyone! I’m excited to host my first ever guest post on the blog! This is a true story, written by my mom, Rhoda Friend. It will appear in the book we are co-writing: Seven Years Running. I’ll let you jump right in and enjoy. Take it away, Mama!
It was my day to volunteer at the homeless clinic in downtown Spokane. My patient, a homeless man was describing his last meal—probably the first good meal he’d had in a long time, and he’d shared it with another down-and-outer.
“We used the big knife to cut the steak half in two,” the unkempt man explained enthusiastically. Half in two. The peculiar expression instantly transported me back six years, to a small plaza in El Paso, Texas, walking distance from the entrance into Mexico.
I had slept the previous night in a dirty, but very inexpensive hotel just south of the border. After my breakfast of flautas: potatoes, chiles and seasonings wrapped tightly in tortilla, creating a flute-shaped deep-fried taco, I hoisted my backpack and walked to the bridge connecting the Mexico and the US.
“May I see your ID, Ma’am?” the young, blond border guard requested.
“Sorry, I left it at home,” I responded smoothly, looking him square in the face. This was the literal truth. My passport was safely tucked in the pouch in the suitcase lid at our home in Pátzcuaro, where it had been hidden for five years. “You can tell I’m American, though, can’t you?”
He nodded in the affirmative, “But you really should carry your ID with you at all times, Ma’am.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded pleasantly, “In the future I’ll be sure to do that.” Not sure how far in the future, but certainly, at some point in the future, I’ll be sure to carry proper ID.
The guard waved me through. I smiled and waved back at him, as I left the station. Now the hard part.
I walked over the bridge and entered the United States of America for the first time in five years. How strange it felt! How strange I felt! I was not the same naïve young woman who had left for Mexico, but a different person altogether. However, surviving in Mexico and surviving in the United States were two different things. Mexico, without computers and with a much lower risk of being recognized was easy. We could move freely without being asked for papers, social security cards and identification. Could we be safe here? How would I make a living? Where could we get a house? Could we manage without papers? So many questions to be answered.
A brown-skinned man was selling newspapers on the corner. Approaching him, and without thinking, I greeted him in Spanish and purchased a newspaper. Sitting down on a bench, I immediately turned to the “For Rent” section. There were a few rooms available, but only at prices far more than we could afford to pay. Most did not allow children. I turned to the “Employment” section. Many ads pointedly stated that proper identification and proof of citizenship would be required.
One-half hour later, I sighed and set the paper down. Visions of quickly finding housing, work and getting back to the girls in Mexico faded quickly. A shadow darkened the warming morning sun, and I looked up to see a rugged, lanky man staring down at me. The early morning breeze blew his sandy, shoulder-length hair away from his face. A slender scar across his right cheek marred his otherwise perfect skin, and his dark brown eyes looked intensely into mine.
“You need a place to stay,” the man stated more than asked.
Resenting the intrusion, I said nothing and looked back at the paper, ignoring him. Instead of leaving, the man gently took the paper from my hands and sat down beside me. Defenses up, I turned to leave, but his hand firmly pulled me back down to the bench. Now frightened and angry, I faced him squarely, stiffened and went into fighting posture.
“Whoa, whoa,” his hand came off my arm and he gestured submissively, palms out, slightly backing away. “I’m not here to hurt you, I’m here to help. My name is Bobby.” His soft drawl and manner allowed my defenses to drop, but only a little. He held out his hand in greeting, but I wasn’t ready to be friendly yet. My daughters needed me back in Mexico, soon, alive and well. No one would know where they were, and they would never know what happened if I disappeared or could not get back to them. I couldn’t afford to be careless with my safety. Staying in the defensive posture, I looked at the man with a question on my face, still not saying a word.
“Don’t say much do ya?” he queried, “but that’s OK, I been watchin’ ya for about 45 minutes now.” Ticking off talking points on his fingers, he reviewed the last three-quarters of an hour: “First, ya came from Mexico with a bag—ya been there for a while, but ya didn’t have no ID.”
Where was this guy? I don’t remember seeing him as I crossed at the station, but obviously he was already watching. Suddenly, a memory of a tall man with broad, T-shirted back returned to my mind. The man was standing on the bridge, and had appeared to be looking out over the brown Rio Grande as I passed him and crossed into the States. How stupid could I be?
Bobby’s deep voice continued sweetly, persistently, chipping away at my fantasies of being invisible and safe. He ticked off the next finger. “Ya spoke perfect Spanish to the newspaper guy, ya bought a paper and went straight to the housing section.” Putting his palms together in a prayer-like motion, the man ended, “So I know ya ain’t from around here, ya don’t have a place to stay and no work. Ya need help.” Elementary, my dear Watson.
But Bobby wasn’t finished. “Just one thing I haven’t figured out,” he paused, sizing me up shrewdly, “Ya come from Mexico, but ya ain’t Mexican; ya speak perfect Spanish. Ya been there for a while. You were there…and now you’re here…” Bobby paused again, staring into the distance, slowly shaking his head. “Woman like you ain’t a criminal. So, my question is, what were ya doin’ there, and what’re ya doin’ here?”
Bobby turned to face me squarely again, eyes boring through me. He moved his head slightly to the side, raising his eyebrows, inviting a response. I shrugged and smiled, still not breaking my silence. He pensively stroked his chin with his hand and continued puzzling aloud.
“What would make a woman like you live in Mexico and come here with no ID?” Bobby continued slowly moving his head back and forth, his velvety rich voice lulling me into a relaxed state as he weighed the issue.
“I got it.” His hands clapped together abruptly. The sound slapped me back to reality. “Kids. Ya got kids. So, you’re on the run with your boys.” Now he was watching intently, gauging my reaction to his leading statement.
I could stop the words, but not the subtle micro-expressions that told this perceptive man everything.
“Girls,” he corrected himself. In less than one hour, using only observation, this man had penetrated the shell of secrecy. Dismay gripped my heart. So obvious. So easy to figure out. Who am I fooling? We can’t stay in the States. My dream of returning to the US, re-acquainting the girls with the culture, and teaching them to be Americans vanished like candlelight in a gust of wind.
Bobby read my thoughts. “You’ll be OK. Ya just need to get outta sight. Not everyone watches people like me,” he stated reassuringly. “Y’all and your girls can stay with me.”
I spoke for the first time, “I will not stay with you.”
His face soft, Bobby coaxed, “You and your daughters will be safe with me. Honey, ya got no money, no job. Ya got to get off the street. There’s narcs and snitches everywhere here, and your ol’ man’ll be looking for ya.”
“I don’t stay with men,” I repeated firmly.
“Yeah, y’all look like that kind of woman. Lemme see.” His hand stroked his chin again. Suddenly he looked up and called across the plaza, “Hey, Kenny, c’mon over here.” Oh, no. How many guys have been watching me? What am I up against here?
Across the plaza, a large, Viking-like man stirred, turned and headed toward me. Now thoroughly alarmed, I instinctively moved so as not to be trapped. Quickly putting a bench and a couple yards between me and the men, I looked for possible allies should either of them try to grab me or prevent me from moving.
Bobby noted the obvious defensive movement, but said nothing, gesturing toward the bushy, red-haired giant who now faced me from the other side of the bench. “This here’s Kenny; he’s been here longer than me,” he explained simply. I had thought Bobby a good-sized man, but next to Kenny, Bobby’s lanky frame looked almost petite.
I guessed the grizzly fellow to be at least six foot five and 270 pounds. He extended his massive hand, “Hi, I’m Ken” he said, repeating his name.
I shook his hand, but Bobby spoke before I could introduce myself. “She’s on the run from her husband with her kids. She’s got no money and needs a place to stay, but she won’t stay with us. Know of anywhere she could crash?” Unaccustomed to the blunt explanation of my fugitive status, my breath caught.
“Don’t worry about staying with us, Ma’am, you’d be perfectly safe,” Kenny reassured.
Bobby intervened, “No, I already said she could stay with us, and she won’t do it, she’s a proper lady.”
“Well, it’d cut your costs half in two,” Kenny was insistent.
“She won’t come with us, Ken, now where could she stay?” Bobby was losing patience. “We got to help her get settled before night, she can’t be out here after dark. She needs a job, too.”
The two men pondered options as if I wasn’t there, naming and discarding local charities. Finally, they had a list of three places.
“Got quarters to make calls?” Bobby asked. I produced several quarters and Bobby dialed the first number. After a moment’s conversation, he turned to me, “Got a Social Security number?” he asked. I shook my head no. “Well Salvation Army won’t take ya then,” he hung up abruptly.
The next conversation ended similarly, “So you’ll only take men,” Bobby said to the person on the line, and again hung up. He dialed the third number.
“What’s your name?” Kenny asked as we waited.
“Aurora,” I responded, impulsively using the Spanish version of my name.
Bobby was now talking to the final charity on the list. He stopped his conversation, “They’ll take you, but this is a wetback house,” Bobby explained to me.
Perfect. Inhabitants of a wetback house will have a good idea of where local jobs are and how to survive without ID or a social security number. That’s what I thought; and for that moment, ignorance was bliss.
“I’ll take it,” I said, relieved to have a place besides the street to stay that night. Bobby got the address from the person on the phone, and repeated the directions. In twenty minutes, I was standing with Bobby and Ken looking at the multi-story brick building on a corner, just blocks from downtown El Paso.
“Wanna meet us in the morning and go find work?” asked Bobby.
“Sure, y’all can hang with us tomorrow,” Kenny chimed in.
I resisted the urge to stick with my huge guardian angels. In spite of their helpfulness, I still could not take a chance. “Thanks, guys. I really appreciate all you’ve done. It’s time for me to strike out alone. Thanks again for everything.”
“Come find us in the plaza if you have any troubles,” Bobby offered one last time.
“Thanks again, Bobby. I will.”
“Goodbye, Aurora,” the men waved, turned, and walked away. I never saw them again. . .
“Ma’am?” the homeless man’s voice jerked me back to the present. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
I thought of my two girls—one now an adult, the other almost so—and my wonderful husband. Life was good. “I’m excellent, Sir. You just reminded me of some people I knew in Texas,” I told him. “They were really good friends.”
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