East of Durango by Harrison Kim

“You know, I could drive out in the desert here, and put a bullet through your head,” says the stocky, brown shirted man who claims he’s a Mexican Federale. “No one would ever find you.”

I’m riding with him through the warm January desert, a hundred kilometres east of Durango, Mexico.

This morning, I woke up in my camping place behind some high sage with the hard clay under me. On top of my sleeping bag I felt a slithering. A long moving weight. I stayed still. To move, to startle, could mean that creature coming into the bag. I convinced myself it was something else. Perhaps a sleepy non venomous king snake. And the sliding thing went away. 

I backed out of the bag and stood watching the rising sun. Nothing round but low brush and dusty ground. If that was a rattlesnake, any panic moves would have encouraged a bite. Believing that it was something benign calmed me, changed the situation. I stayed in control, unscathed.

I needed to move. Sun too bright, circling birds overhead. I hiked along the nearby railway track, thoughts drifting as I moved along a long straight stretch above a creek bank.

Will I wake up one day to find myself back at home in Canada? I wondered. Only if this was a dream. 

I made a choice to leave my old life behind. Now it was always the desert. I stared down at the tracks and the ties. Behind me, I heard wheels screech along the steel line. Three workers drove up on a railway speeder. 

“Need a ride?” A rough whiskered guy wearing a tattered straw hat held out a cola. 

“Sure,” I said, and his crew drove me along to a crossroad.

“You shouldn’t walk on the tracks,” he said. “There’s nothing to eat or drink for thirty kilometres. Take the road here.”

 I followed his direction, hitchhiking at the few vehicles passing. Then the Federale picked me up. Some kind of officer. Wide nose, soft, thin hands, deep brown neck.

He turned and said, “Do you speak Castilian?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, actually.” 

His spoke with a high-class accent, easy to understand. He reached back and prodded my packsack while driving with his other hand. “What are you doing up here?” 

I eyed his gun, in a black holster attached to a wide black belt, poking into his side.

He gestured to the hills. “There’s nothing up here,” he said. “Why would a young man such as yourself come to see nothing?”

Black chest hair pushed out of the top of his clean brown shirt. His voice was very articulate, calm. He must have been in his early forties. Nothing shiny on his uniform, like medals or stars. I had to believe he was who he appeared to be.

Anyone can behave like someone they’re not. It depends if he or she is real about it. Then that person can assimilate into someone new.

In Mexico, I was not my usual self. I spoke another language. That alone sent me to a different zone. The whole thought process was different en español. And with the low brown hills, the villages with their crumbling brick buildings, the woman who crossed herself as I sidled by her door, put my mind in a dream. That’s where I wanted to be. Dreaming, and forgetting, and changing what I believed.

The day before, outside a few square brick huts, a boy followed me. A skinny, sallow faced teen with a torn green shirt and ragged pants, asking the same question as the Federale. “What are you doing up here?”

“Just checking out the scenery,” I told him then, and the Federale today. 

And they both replied, “There’s no scenery here. Nothing to see.”

They’re right. I’m here for the nothing. I came to experience, in a place where all seems illusion and mirage, to find a change to bring me out of emptiness. 

I attended a University back in Canada, and had directed myself into a place where my union with a woman became the only meaning, the only reason I existed. Studies became a long second next to the physical connection with Gillian. To touch her, to bond. I created exclusive singularity with my own imagination. 

Once it became real, I couldn’t think my way out of it. I needed to spend all my time with her. Without this connection I had no reason to be. For two months I existed in paradise, for a man of 22, in a heaven sex love dream.

But after the New Year, Gillian presented me with a somber lecture, “You act too serious. Too intense. Too clingy. You’re always calling me, always round the apartment, paying attention. You’re always wondering where I am. What I’m doing.”

She wanted freedom, she wanted to have fun. I boxed her in, she needed a break. “Just a break,” she pleaded. 

I waited outside her door, watched her as she went to class. Sat behind her in the student lounge. Walked behind her down the University concourse, pacing around and around the block where she lived. 

Two choices arrived.

One: to reappear each day as a pitiful stalker, every moment possessed by the places Gillian and I knew─the memories of what we did together. The more she pushed me away, the more I insisted on closer. Each day I was rejected. 

Two: to run away from everything. The conclusion came easy. I couldn’t stand living another day in my stalker persona. I stopped attending school, threw some clothes in my pack, jumped on the bus to Mexico. I studied for a degree in Spanish literature, and I was fluent in the language. Maybe Mexico would give me an escape, relief from obsession.

I spent long days staring out the bus window at passing trees and towns, nowhere to get out, because to get out meant to think again. The technicolor land screened by as I sped south, away from the frozen Canadian winter.

I called Gillian in California andshe told me, “You’re acting out. You’re selfish and sick. You scare me. You say you love me but you only love yourself. If you loved me, you’d come back. You’re manipulating me with guilt. Please, if you love me, give me what I want.”

What she wanted was to be left alone, so what I wanted could not be. “I’m trying to do what you asked, to disappear,” I told her. “I won’t call again.”

I imagined relating all this to the Federale, telling him that his strange offer to shoot me was welcome. The moment would be over fast. No more pressure, no more awakenings. No one would know of my death. I’d vanish forever. I pictured the Federale burying me under the hard desert ground. 

Would that bring satisfaction? After the shot, would I wake up again back home? Back in time, before I met Gillian, back in my parent’s place? 

I overheard my Mom saying, “He’s always wandering, will he ever settle down?” and my Dad crying in the bed, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” 

Or would I be resurrected, born again to start everything once more? And when the time came to meet Gillian again, would I have learned my lesson, and turn away?

“The power of a brand-new dream,” I repeated to myself, over and over. 

“I don’t believe you are a tourist,” said the Federale. He drove by some tall trees, over a bridge, below it a dried-up riverbed. “You must have some kind of secret.”

At a crossroads, he stopped and raised himself right over the seat, opened my packsack and looked in. “Tell me. What are you doing up here? The real reason.” He sat back, turned off a side road. The vehicle lurched over some ruts.

“Where are we going?” I asked. It was becoming a bit more real, this vanishing into the desert.

“Like I said,” the man’s voice grew stronger. “You could disappear. And no one will know.”

I glanced across at the Federale. He was totally correct. I made it here by impulse. Told no one. My parents still thought I was attending classes. To my professors, I was only another missing number. Gillian… I imagined her sleepless, shocked by all that I was doing because of her. Or more likely, and what I perceived from that California phone call, living free and getting on with her life.

“You’re like a child,” she said then. “You always have to be with me, like I’m your Mommy.”

I recalled our wild life. At first she seemed insatiable, a wicked teacher. Before her, I’d never even kissed anyone. We were one. She was not my Mommy.

But now I asked myself “What’s with all this drama? Am I doing it for real, or acting it out? And is there a difference?”

I glanced out the car window at the low, black trees and wondered, “What is my purpose here?”

The hills looked real. The Federale looked real, eagle eyes scanning the road ahead, maybe figuring out where to plant me. A bit too much reality. I smelled car exhaust, caught a glimpse of the dust blowing behind us. I checked my hands, they trembled. I breathed harder, felt my thoughts burning. The inside of the car began to tilt. I needed to calm down. Or I’d be dead.

I concentrated, picturing the Federale as my friend. I imagined his name was Mendez and he was familiar with my imaginary Uncle who lived in Durango. My hypothetical Uncle Joel, the Mennonite. There were many Mennonites farming in the area. I saw them in Durango market itself. Blonde, tall, and bearded, delivering produce early in the morning.

I volunteered myself as the director of this scene. I directed myself along the railway tracks, through the hills, and into the Federale’s vehicle. From here, I could direct myself to be killed and left in the desert. It was very much within my power. Just leap from the car when the man slowed for a corner, and pretend to run. He’d shoot me then, as I stumbled through the dust. 

There was only a short distance to go now, to whatever place my mind chose. I began to talk to the Federale. He could decide what to do after that. 

“I’m here because my girlfriend broke up with me,” I told him. “I wanted to go somewhere to take my mind off her. I’m staying with my uncle in Durango. He’s well known in the Mennonite community. He knows I’m up here.”

“Mendez” regarded me from the corners of his eyes, as if to say “How do I know that’s true?” but after a long pause he nodded. “That’s a long way to travel for a woman.” He slowed the car and we bounced over some more bumps.

“Do you speak low German?” he asked. “That’s the Mennonite tongue.”

“Not really,” I told him. “I’m not religious actually. But my Uncle is. We sort of split apart when he moved down here a few years ago. But we’re back to being friendly now.”

“Why did you lie before?” Mendez asked.

“It wasn’t a lie. I’m a photographer. I like to take bird pictures, and there are many birds up here, the turkey vulture, the raven and magpie.” This was true. I’m a big fan of all animals. They can’t hurt you like people. Many are photogenic.

“We’re just about at the Corrales railway station,” he said. “I want you to board the next train. It comes in four hours.” He turned. 

I noticed a small tattoo on the back of his neck. Some kind of eagle. 

“It is dangerous country up here for a gringo.”

“Yes” I nodded quite a few times. “You are totally correct.”

He turned the wheel round a large puddle and smiled, revealing his big wide white toothed mouth. He threw his head back and laughed. “Did I scare you before?”

 “Yes. You scared me. I was very scared, actually.”

He leaned forward again. “You will find other women. But not around here. You should’ve stayed in Durango. I know some places…”

Ahead the road dropped down to another river and on the other side a small village. My confidence rose. I chatted in the guise of my new Mennonite family persona, telling Mendez about romance, hopelessness, needing an escape, and busing it all the way from Canada. 

He kept driving silently. After a while he turned his head and said, “You better be absolutely sure there’s no marijuana in that pack.”

“I’m absolutely certain,” I said. “Marijuana makes me paranoid; I don’t touch the stuff.”  

The Federale motored up to a small building at the side of the tracks. He opened his window. I caught a whiff of sage.

“Get out of here,” he said. “And don’t return. It’s not safe. There are very bad people in this area.”

“Yes, sir,” I pulled my pack out. “Thanks for the ride down.”

He shrugged, one hand on the wheel. “When I come back tonight, I want you gone.” He raised his hand, half a wave. “I’m trying to help you, gringo.”

As I walked towards the tracks, he pulled away. I stood in the shade of the tiny station. A slight breeze blew across the platform, rustling a paper cup. The sun drifted imperceptibly around the pure blue sky. I moved myself to new shade as the shadows turned. 

After a couple of hours, a girl approached the station. Oval faced, long black hair, dressed in tight blue pants, a shiny white blouse, dust on her grey running shoes. She carried a heavy burlap bag, and when she saw me, she waved with her other hand.

“Hey, what’s in there?” I asked

“It’s an iguana.” She lifted the bag higher. “I’m taking it to my house for supper.”

“Can I see?”

“If you like.” She walked over and opened the bag. I looked in. Indeed, a grey reptile lay blinking there. Swarthy fellow with a string around its jaws. It appeared claustrophobic, eyes gazing up at me. Its feet tried to grasp the bottom of the bag.

“Can I buy him off you?” I asked.

“Are you going to eat it?” The girl grinned and tied the burlap closed. She mimed eating a slab of meat, hands up around her pretty mouth.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m a vegetarian”

“Well,” said the girl, “You’ll have to give me double what I paid for it. My parents will be angry if I sell for less than a good profit.”

“Okay. I’ll pay whatever you ask. Just cut the string from around his mouth.”

“Okay. That’ll be two hundred. But he bites.”

“No deal unless his jaws are free.”

“Okay. You are very brave.” She smiled again. 

I handed over the money in 50-peso increments. The girl pulled a knife out of her jacket, crouched down, and opened the bag. She reached in, pulling out the iguana to snip the string. Then she quickly shoved it back in and tied the bag shut. I could see the iguana bumping around inside. The girl stood up, waved the fifty-peso bills at me, “adios,” and jogged down the railway tracks, stuffing the money in her tight pants pockets.

After a while, I carefully turned the bag sideways and very quickly untied the loop knotted string. The iguana poked its head out, looked both ways. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, then walked around the train platform. It turned to face me. Then it walked away. 

The platform had a view across the tracks to the sage and stunted pines beyond. The iguana stopped, stared at the desert. I watched it peer over the platform edge, where the wood jutted out. It hopped off the platform. Its grey scaled tail followed last, as it disappeared into the sage.

I waited another hour for the train, hopped on and rode all the way to Durango. I stood between the train cars. They shook and jostled along the tracks, and I watched the desert hills roll by. I didn’t think of Gillian more than once, and that, only in passing. I was alive, and free, and that was enough.

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