January 10. My father, in a red American Motors 440, drives north through the Sonora desert, ticking off towns as the sun rises to his right. Santa Ana, Caborca, Tajito. He is on his way to Tijuana, to his mother’s house, where he has lived since my mother threw him out of our home. He left Culiacán yesterday, in the morning. He’s been driving alone, nonstop, pausing for gas and two terrible roadside meals. His dentures fit badly — the pain keeps him awake. The cheap tape recorder nestled among packs of cigarettes on the seat beside him has been playing Mexican songs that call forth all his ghosts and memories. Miguel Prado, Agustin Lara, Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran. Mile upon mile, the car has gradually filled with the dead and forgotten. The back seat is crowded with 100 girlfriends, lovers, and wives. Time swirls around him like smoke.
He has spent Christmas in his hometown in the farthest southern corner of Sinaloa, and he has recognized no one. The townspeople are old and strange to him, their concerns foolish, their laughter painful to his ears. He has retrieved $1000 from the bank on Morelos street, a gift for me. My father is 61 years old.
Alberto Urrea, c. 1949
San Luís Río Colorado appears in the shimmering early light. He is driving fast — he always drives fast. Far away, Yuma, Arizona, suggests itself through the haze. The Mexican checkpoint is outside town. Bored and aggressive Mexican Immigration and Federal Judicial Police officers wave cars over and inspect papers. They deny passage randomly, confiscate valuable-looking goods, exact “tolls” from gringos and border Mexicans who lack the papers or the conviction to persuade the officers that they may proceed. My father is blond and blue-eyed. (Well, his blond hair has gone white, but his skin is still pale pink, and his eyes behind his glasses are still bright.) He has California plates on his car.
This is where the thing happens. No one knows exactly what, nor if it happened before the aduana huts or after. But somehow, my father, Mexican ballads rattling through the cheap speakers, all those voices in his head, smoking a cigarette, smoke trailing from his mouth like he’s burning already and going down, leaves the road and sails into the desert dawn.
His car flies for a dreadful instant, forever. Angles off the road and lifts into the air. His fists on the wheel, trying to right the car after it has taken flight. Dust and gravel cresting beneath him like a wave, as he catapults over the edge of a hill. Everything in the car — tapes, cigarettes, ashes, coins, recorder, my father’s glasses — comes to life and eddies around him. The car tips. Its front corner digs into the ground. It flips once, twice. Later, rumors suggest it rolled six times. The wheel breaks off in his hands. The windshield vanishes. He is pitched out the window. The car rolls on him. He is dragged back inside by the lurching force of the crash. All around, his things scatter across the sand and sage.
Urrea’s car in police impound
I am not brought into this story until late.
Without me, my father goes about the business of dying. He tries not to die, of course. My father would not surrender easily to death. But the Mexicans manage to convince him.
Before they take him to the hospital, various agents of the Mexican republic help themselves to the sudden flea market my father has set up for them. As he bleeds on the gurney, blind and mute, pissing his pants, they sift through the goods. There are a lot of tapes, after all. Someone nabs his recorder. Someone else takes a fancy to his new shoes, bought for him by my favorite cousin and given to him only two days before.
His wallet and my $1000 are safe — soaked in urine in his pockets. No one cares to fish for them at the moment. Because no one wants to reach into all that mess, they don’t find out he’s a Mexican citizen, a retired army officer, late of the presidential staff of Mexico, and a retired federal cop. He can’t talk to tell them. They drive off, blue lights inconsequential against the sun.
Urrea’s police identification and badge
In town, they strip him naked and call in a Mexican doctor. The doctor says something along the lines of, “My God, it’s Beto!”
One of the attendants says something else like, “What do you mean ‘Beto?’”
The doctor looks around him. He can’t believe it. This is too strange. Just days ago, he was at a party with my father in Rosario. He’d asked my father for a ride to this very town. My father turned him down, saying cryptically, “I don’t want to be responsible for your life.”
“I know this man,” the doctor says. “He’s a Mexican.”
Somebody calls the police. The federales are on their way. Something strange is going on here, and the doctor wants nothing to do with it. He snaps some orders to the staff of the clinic, then plunges his hand into my father’s pockets. He is no doubt startled to find $1000 there, in new bills. He takes my father’s wallet out of the back pocket and flees. For reasons that will remain unclear, the
federales will spend the rest of the day trying to find him to get all these things back from him. He will be so busy avoiding them that he will not see my father again.
Once the doctor leaves, they wheel my father, naked, into a room. He is beginning to struggle, to writhe around in his bed. His ribs are cracked; he has internal injuries and some bleeding; he has split open his chin and might have a concussion; he has some brain injuries and might have suffered a stroke. Nobody’s quite sure what’s wrong with him. They decide to quiet him down and shoot him with morphine.
My father, drugged, settles back into a velvet haze. All his ghosts swarm to him and begin to smother him.
I have half-brothers and half-sisters: Juan, Alberto, Octavio, Leticia, and Martha. He abandoned them and their mother. I am younger than all of them and have never lived with any of them. Like me, they fear him and worship him and miss him even when he’s with us. Somehow, words get out on the border that Alberto Urrea has been seriously hurt in a car wreck. But they think it’s my brother Alberto. People start looking for my brother’s family to tell them he’s dying.
In the meantime, in our old neighborhood in Tijuana, my Aunt Lety and Cousin Hugo are in the family house on Rampa Independencia. They are waiting for Beto to arrive from his visit to Sinaloa. Hugo has built him a small bedroom where he keeps all Beto’s tokens — love letters, bowling trophies, moldering Playboys, a box of photographs. In those photos, my father is a skinny boy with a heart-shaped mouth. He looks sad in every one. The years have tinted them brown.
My aunt hears my father’s car pull up to the front of the house. She glances out and sees a red shape pull up to her gate.
“It’s Beto!” she calls. My grandmother, gone mad with age, blinks in her chair like a pudgy bird.
“Who?” she says.
“Beto,” says my aunt.
“Beto ya llegó.”
She steps outside to greet him. There is no car. She steps into the street. Looks both ways. No red car in sight.
“Beto’s dead,” she says.
The author’s parents, c. 1955
Word spreads — the doctor calls my aunt. Hugo takes off in his truck, driving, trying to beat the clock. Other relatives go into a Mexican version of action: one branch grabs the first plane they can that flies to Arizona. In their panic, they take a flight that goes to the northern end of the state, farther from my father than if they’d stayed in Tijuana.
Somebody finally calls me in San Diego. I have been listening to music — something ridiculous like Uriah Heep. Everyone has left for San Luís Río Colorado. Everything is happening. I am asked to hold steady. Someone will get right back to me. Nobody does.
My cousin Hugo, the most feared member of the family, is the one who gets to my father. Hugo was raised by my father and knows him better than some of his own sons. Hugo calls him Papa.
Family legend has it that once, when Hugo was driving through Tijuana late at night, a carload of cholos began to harass him, trying to push him off the road, yelling taunts. Hugo calmly pulled over, took a homemade broadsword from under the seat, and proceeded to chop pieces off their car. He split their hood with it, pulled it out, and said, “All right. Come on.”
They abandoned their car and ran into the night.
Hugo pushes his way into the room and sits on the bed, holds my writhing father down. Tells him, “Don’t worry, Papa. We’re here. We’ll get you out.”
My father cannot say anything to him, but Hugo senses he understands. He calms down, lies back. Hugo talks to him for a moment more.
Arrangements are made to transport my father to the border, and there, an American ambulance will carry him into Yuma. Hugo knows my father will die if he is left in this clinic. The American ambulance arrives at the border crossing and waits, off to the side, doors open, light circling.
No Mexican unit arrives. Repeated calls reveal nothing; nobody knows what happened to the ambulance. Isn’t it there? It ought to be there. How curious. It never arrives. Hugo and my father wait for an hour. It has been eight hours since the accident.
Finally, the ghosts convince him. Beto settles back in the bed, eyes looking at nothing in particular. Without a word or a gesture, my father dies.
A few miles away, the Americans close their doors, turn off their lights, and drive back to Yuma.
Too late to do any good, I enter the picture.
Hugo’s sister Margo picks me up on her way to Tijuana. A family friend has called me and told me the news. Margo’s car is crammed with silent people as we ride into Tijuana and rise up to Independencia, shoulders digging into each other as the car hits the ruts and half-buried boulders in the road.
My brothers are gathered in the dirt street outside the family home. Dogs behind the fence think we’re having a party. They think the fun’s about to begin. They dance on their back legs, eagerly watching us in the street.
They have my father’s money and wallet. The doctor has turned them over to somebody, I don’t know who, and they have ended up here in front of the family house. My eldest brother hands me the cash. It’s floppy. Wet, it feels like felt.
“It must have rained,” he says. “Do you think it rained? Everything’s all wet.”
Hugo looks at me. He says nothing. I know why it’s wet. I say, “I guess they had an early-morning shower.”
Hugo gives me the wallet. Inside, driver’s license, green card, social security card, notes, slips of paper, useless cards in various shades of blue and yellow. In his picture, my father looks small and old. He has a pouch under his chin. You can see the curve of his skull under the diminishing front rank of his hair.
Nobody knows how to grieve. We stand apart from each other with a strange military precision, two feet between each man. We shuffle. We grin; the old man’s dead. We shake our heads, sigh. We laugh. Nobody can fit the fact into the day.
“Let’s go,” Hugo says. He means to the funeral home, Funeraria González.
The brothers pile into various cars. I get in Hugo’s truck. Hugo has been the closest to the thing. He has accumulated a kind of evil grace. We all hope he can tell us if anything special happened. If there were any apparitions, sounds, lights, angels.
“He died,” he says. For him, that’s enough.
We drive downtown. The funeral home is nondescript, in the middle of a run-down block. But then most blocks in Tijuana are run down, all cobbled together with no plan in mind, facade after mid-’50s facade leaning into each other, paint coming away from the walls on thin wedges of stucco.
They are waiting for me outside. We don’t want to take a step without each other. We turn as one and enter. Hugo grabs my arm. They start upstairs. “Down here,” he says.
“What?” I say.
“The body’s down here,” he says.
“So you’re going to look at it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. You’re going to look at it.”
Hugo has a habit of always speaking English to me. For some reason, I insist on speaking Spanish to him. I’m not sure what it is we’re trying to convince each other of.
“It’s up to you,” he says. “He’s all banged up. You’ve got to decide if it’s an open casket or not. That’s what he’d want. Come on.”
His grip is bony as a talon as he pulls me into the little room. The casket is on a stone bench, about three feet off the ground. Tawdry Mexican floral arrangements have begun to surround the coffin: horseshoes on stands, wreaths, all of them draped in ridiculous faux-satin sashes with family names and condolences written across them in glue and glitter. They look like contestants in a retirement-home flower-arranging contest or good-luck displays at a high school reunion.
Hugo uses his pocket knife to unscrew the coffin lid. The screw rises, rises, interminably, until it wiggles loose, and he says okay, and I put my hands on the lid and wait. “Go on,” he says.
I resent his manliness more than anything on earth at that instant, then I lift the lid. For some reason, I hold my breath, as if my father is going to smell bad. But he’s encased in glass. In fact, he probably does smell bad — he’s been dead now for two days with no embalming. Many Mexican funeral homes just clamp a sheet of glass over the body to prevent any problems, and you look down at them as though you were in a glass-bottomed boat, drifting across the shoals of Hell. It’s alarming. You think, He can’t breathe in there.
I look in. He’s small as a ten-year-old boy in a faded brown photograph. He’s unimaginably sad, his lips turned a little around his injured mouth, looking like he’s about to say a word that begins with m. I stare down at my father, my only father, and my breath fogs the glass and steals his face.
Wounds turn black after death.
“Close it,” I say.
Hugo shuts the lid gently.
“Don’t screw it down,” I say. “He wouldn’t want people to see him like that, but I think they have a right to say good-bye, if they want to. So they can lift the lid for themselves.”
It is my first decision as a grown man. “Good,” Hugo says. “That’s the right choice.”
Upstairs, my brother Juan is waiting for me. The others stand behind him. “There’s a problem,” he says.
“We owe some money,” he says, “for the body.”
A pleasant, short man steps up. He has a tan uniform on, with a police insignia but no badge or gun. He’s a lackey for the San Luís Río Colorado cops. He’s a full-blooded Indian.
“I brought the body,” he says.
“Thank you,” I tell him.
“They said to tell you,” he glances away, “that the body is still in custody.”
We all look at each other, eyes clicking in steady sweeps of all the faces.
“You’re kidding,” I say.
“No, señor,” he says. “The police department still has possession of your father. I have been instructed to ask you for the fee to release him to you.”
“You want me to pay bail for a corpse?”
The man is uncomfortable. He says nothing.
“How did my father come here?”
“In my station wagon.”
This whole scene is so bizarre that I don’t know how to respond. There’s no one to ask what to do. My brothers just stand there.
Hugo is as inscrutable as a stone carving. I reach into my pocket.
“Seven hundred and fifty dollars, American.”
I pull out the wet bills and count out $800. He hands me $50 back in change. He smiles. Everybody’s relieved. He shakes all our hands. He tells me it’s sad, what happened, and how hard it is for all of us when these things befall us. I’m thinking: Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!
The funeral director steps up. He’s unctuous, in a suit and hair oil and cologne. It’s like an optical illusion — as the police toady steps away, three reflections of him appear in his absence.
I still have the change in my hand. The funeral director starts in: tragic losses, at rest now, gone to glory, deepest sympathies, but there is the small matter of the funeral costs.
“How much?” I say.
“Five hundred and fifty dollars,” he says.
“Unfortunately.” I hand him my change.
“We’ll come up with the rest,” one of my brothers says.
“We’ll take up a collection,” says another.
On our way back downstairs, Hugo says, “So much for your present.”
I am so confused, I want to cry. I cannot. For years afterward, I will try to cry and be unable to. On some nights, I will take spit on the tips of my fingers and draw tears down my cheeks, trying to get relief.
We Mexicans wake the dead. We give wakes to the dead. Hugo and I agree that my shift will be at two in the morning. He leads me to my father’s room and goes off to bed. My aunt still shares a room with her mother. I can hear the women in there, snoring. The sounds of Tijuana carry up the hills, somehow different than the sounds of the United States. The dogs, the car horns, the traffic rumble, the whistles, the trumpets are all in a different language. Their pitch and timbre are as distinctive as Chinese or Russian. Or Spanish.
I sit in my father’s room, listening. All that noise, and the whole world dead. His pillow is still streaked with his hair pomade — he wore his hair trim, short, combed straight back off his forehead, always as slick as Jerry Lewis. I can’t sleep in his bed. All I can think about is sex. I keep hoping the family’s cleaning woman will wake up and come to my room. I want to eat, make love, climb a mountain, have a fist fight. I sit in the middle of his floor and sift through layers of paper: report cards, citations, letters from women in Sinaloa, divorce papers, poems, tax forms, INS papers, bowling certificates, sheets with numbers on them, military records, a letter from the president of Mexico. Silverfish and roaches come forth from my father’s records, where they have lived safely, eating his past.
I pull the string attached to the bare bulb above my head. The dark claps shut around me. Years later, it seems, Hugo speaks from the greater darkness of the doorway.
I get dressed.
We go to his truck.
Everything’s quiet. You can even hear crickets. He starts up, puts it in gear. We drive down the dark hill. Everybody’s lights are out as we descend. “God damn it,” Hugo finally says. “It’s not fair.”
He drops me off at the door.
“See you in the afternoon,” he says.
“Somebody will be by in a few hours,” he says.
He drives away. I step inside. It’s bright, pleasant. Old carpets have loops tugged loose. Inexplicably, there is an electric clock with a soft-drink logo on it. Chapel A has a forgotten casket in it. My father waits in chapel B.
It’s a dull little room with dull little drapes at the end. There are about eight rows of pews. A plywood lectern stands before the raised coffin. And there are all those flowers. Their colors are basically white and carmine beneath the fluorescent lights; the greens look like rubber.
I try sitting in a pew, looking at the coffin. It looks like a gigantic throat lozenge. I prowl the building. Periodically, the Indian men come downstairs. They apparently sleep up there, because their hair is in disarray and their eyes are red and puffy. “Do you want some coffee?” they ask.
“No, thank you.”
“No, I’m fine.”
They nod, go back up. Occasionally, one will pat my elbow.
I lift the curtains from the wall and look behind them. There is a door near the head of the coffin. I open it.
I step into a small parking area behind the funeral home. A dark station wagon is crunching the gravel,
backing up to a wooden chute that runs down at an angle from the second floor. One of the workers steps out. He and the driver exchange murmurs. They open the back and pull a figure out by its feet. A motor begins to whir. They wrestle the drooping corpse in its shroud into the chute. Apparently, there is a conveyor belt inside. The body rises and seems to float, going up to the sky, feet first.
I step back inside and close the door.
I lift the lid on my father. I can count the tiny white whiskers growing in the blackness of his chin and throat. Stains smaller than dimes dot the front of his shirt — stains he would never have allowed in life. Some relative wants him dressed in a jacket. One of the workers has told me they’ll have to go at my father’s arms with a mallet to get them loose enough to put the coat on him. Nobody else knows. He wants to make sure I understand. I do.
“What does it matter now?” is what I said.
I go to my pew again.
A woman who is notorious as a “bad girl” in our family comes in silently. It is nearly four a.m. She is with a florid American. Her hair is as huge as Tina Turner’s, her eyes surrounded by a hedge of lashes. She seems startled to see me, caught.
“Come in,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
It turns out she didn’t want to make any scandal, just to pay her respects privately.
The American hangs around at the back of the room. When I nod at him, he says, “’Zit goin’?”
Inanely, I say, “Pretty good.”
She sits with me. She says, “He was always kind to me.”
“He loved you,” I say.
I am in love with her. I look at the tiniest of wrinkles beside her mouth, I smell her musky perfume and look at her dangerous nails and tight skirt and I think I will marry her on the spot. She is the only person in the world who is alive with me at that moment. I smell her, sit close to her. We hold hands.
“I’m not what they think,” she says.
She kisses me. Gets up to leave. Says, “Can I see him?”
I let her go up there alone. She opens the box, looks down at him. The muscles in her legs clench tight as fists. She speaks softly. She lowers the lid. When she comes back, she is crying.
“Good-bye,” she says.
I nod. The American says, “Take it easy.” They walk out the door. I can smell her all over the room.
My father was a big stud. At 5 foot 7, he seemed more like six feet tall. My mother chased him out of the house when I was about 12. He was probably the first Mexican to ever rub shoulders with the neighbors on our Clairemont street. They weren’t that crazy about it. Neither was he.
One day the lady from across the street came over and told my mother that he was seeing a string of women while she was at work. The neighbors wanted to know, were they prostitutes or what? That was it for my mother. He left in disgrace, and they never spoke to each other again. When he came by the house to see me, she hid in her room, wanting him to think she was gone.
Every Friday night, we went to the Tu-Vu drive-in to watch movies and eat hot dogs.
All these memories come at me, and I wait. I try to sleep — on the pew, on the floor. I can’t. I wait all morning. Finally, around two or three in the afternoon, people start to show up at the funeral home. I’ve been waiting with my father for 12 hours. I’m eager to get it over with.
People shuffle in, avert their eyes. Half-hearted embraces happen all over the room, everybody avoiding the embarrassment of the coffin. My sisters go up and look. A Mexican Pentecostal evangelist takes the podium and begins to harangue us. It’s a pattern I have begun to notice at funerals lately; the preacher takes countless cheap shots at the crowd, which is presumably softened up by the recent death and is busy hoping it won’t be next. I feel uninterested. Lack of sleep and hunger have made the insides of my ears feel swollen. Pink cotton surrounds me.
We drag my father off to a dismal little hillside cemetery. He takes his last car ride nestled in pointless plushness; satin pillows cradle him inside the darkness of the box. The hearse is muted and stately. Cars stop and wait for us to drive by. Inside, people are watching the procession, saying, There goes the dead guy, through the glass.
His box descends. I back away then turn around. I watch clouds, heavy as trucks, driving across Tijuana.
When the death certificate comes, it says my father died of a stroke. The insurance company will not pay us a cent, since auto coverage is for car wrecks. They insist on proof.
Hugo goes back to San Luís Río Colorado. He enters the police compound and finds my father’s car. It’s beat to hell — the tires are twisted, the roof collapsed. He shoots a roll of film, then comes home unscathed.
“Somebody killed Papa,” he says. “I know it.”
I look at the pictures.
“One side of the car’s all bashed in,” he says. “There’s black and white paint in the door.”
“Cops. They chased him and ran him off the road. Where would he get black and white paint on a red car that crashed out in the desert?”
Since we buried my father, his mother has died. Hugo called me one morning and said, “You know Grandma? She’s dead.”
My own mother is trapped in a financial catastrophe that continues to deepen. Within three years of my father’s death, she is living in a house without heat, without plumbing in the kitchen, with broken plumbing in the bathroom, and without a stove or oven. She cooks on a hot plate.
Hugo shuffles through his pictures. The car looks red as blood. It looks, at turns, vast and minuscule. I look at the crooked seats and see my own ghosts and memories, my own hundreds of miles sitting
I can’t get my eyes off the roof of the car. It’s bent down, all glass gone. Hugo is right. There’s black and white paint smashed into the passenger door.
We send the photographs to the insurance company, and we contact the American consulate for help in investigating the accident. The insurer returns the photos and refuses to pay us a settlement, suggesting the pictures could have been taken after my father died from his stroke. Besides, they tell us, there’s no proof that it’s even his car.
We are again denied the $50,000 settlement.
The consul contacts me a few days later. After a full investigation into the death of my father, the facts seem to be that there can be no investigation of the death of my father. In the months subsequent to his death, the entire police force of San Luís Río Colorado apparently has retired. No officers can be found who were on active duty at the time of the accident, and since the ones who were on duty have retired and left San Luís to enjoy their leisure time, there is no one to talk to. The case is closed. Official cause of death: stroke.
In a final act of desperation, I write to the chief of police of the town. Hugo, when he hears about it, says, “Hey. You’d better not go to San Luís. Ever.” He thinks it’s kind of funny that I’d take on the meanest cops on the border.
“All I want,” I tell him, “is an answer.”
But an answer comes. The chief calls me on the phone. In response to my inquiry, he says, he has only one thing to say. And I should remember this thing, I should take it to heart. “It is over, Sr. Urrea,” he tells me. “It is better for all of us that you forget it and move on with your life. It is better for all of us,” he says, “if there was no accident. Am I clear? There was no accident.”
“Yes, sir,” I say. “You are extremely, perfectly clear.”
“Good,” he says. Then, “Good,” again.
He hangs up the phone so quietly there isn’t even a click.
Within a month of my final conversation with the police, I receive an envelope in the mail. It is from the head office of the chief of municipal police of San Luís Río Colorado, Sonora. The information is printed on the envelope with various official swirls of ink and a seal of some sort. I expect it’s a letter, but it’s not.
I find instead a bill on flimsy paper. The bill is requesting the immediate payment of $1200, in American currency. This sum will cover, in full, the damages my father caused to city property on the date of January 10. There is no mention of how these damages came about. When people ask me, I make a joke out of it. I tell them, I don’t know — maybe he fell out of bed really hard. Nobody laughs but me.