Mirage by Jeff Burt


Jeff Burt

I had traveled to Orange County by air and then drove I-5 and I-8 to Calexico to see Gabriel Trevino discharged from a drunk and disorderly because he would not stop shout-singing poems of Flores, of two men who love the same woman. It was Tuesday, and he’d been in jail since Sunday night.

“I had barely a drop to drink,” he told me. “The words were intoxicated, such gloom as if night had drawn early on the day, but here in the flat of the valley, without mountains, the day never ends. Flores wrote about the soul, knowing it does not exist, but perhaps it only exists when there is longing, the frustration of desire.

That is the desert. That is why I sang the poems so loudly so that the mountains that ring this valley could hear how much the people ache.”

“For that, they put you in jail,” I asked.

“What could be more startling,” Gabriel said, “than hearing the desert floor itself, the place of no life, speaking to the rest of existence?”

I paid Gabby’s drunk and disorderly fine and took him to a motel. He slept three hours, then wanted to leave.

Gabriel worked as the national manager for a maquiladora in Mexicali, just across the border from Calexico, in the Sonoran Desert. Mexicali is home to over seven hundred and fifty thousand people, Calexico about forty thousand. Mexicali has many great Chinese restaurants, a few classy hotels, and a throbbing nightlife. The most frequented spot in Calexico is a Walmart.

Gabriel, or Gabby as he was called for his incessant fast-paced speech, owned a modest ranch near the canal that brought water from Calexico into Mexicali. He had planted fruit trees that could survive the hot summer provided the water ran, which he had insured by attaching his grandfather’s water rights to the property. He also had a listless bull, a terrorizing burro, and a few dozen goats, which he had penned with twelve-foot fences after he had seen the goats stacked three tall trying to leap over the fence. Their primary purpose was for barbeque. He sold many each year to his neighbors for parties and celebrations.

I took Gabby across the border toward Mexicali, past a youth group encampment and a flock of young people working at the homes of old women, cleaning, fixing the walls so dirt did not seep through, and two repatching a roof on a shack that had several orange barrels in it. We turned east toward Yuma, following the sparkling water of the canal to Gabby’s ranch.

“This is the oasis of the desert here,” Gabby said. “To the west, you have the boulders of the Laguna Mountains and the rocks of the Cleveland Forest. It is not much to speak of and even less to see. To the east, you have the desert, all the way to Yuma. It is not much to see and even less to speak of. To the north, the desert, perhaps populated along the canals and a single golf course stealing water from the mouths of children and the roots of plants. To the south, there is nothing to speak of and nothing to see. The land is idle, lazy, produces nothing, and the only people who live there are those that can survive on nothing.

That is where my mother was born. My father came from the Sonora Mountains, a family of hard work, industry, producers, farmers, ranchers, and grove owners. It is from my father that I learned of the fruits of work. It is from my father that I learned the poetry of Flores. It was from my father that I learned to drink. All things that I am I trace to my father.”

Gabby had an odd attachment to his father, who had been dead for nineteen years. Gabby believed in ancestor worship and attended séance-like sessions with a shaman to communicate with his father, but he had been unsuccessful. Stoked with psychedelic drugs, heated to a fever in the tent beyond what animals would tolerate, sucking smoke into his lungs, Gabby failed, the shaman told him, because he would not let go of things that bound him, his property, his work, even his wife, who participated in the sessions. More of Gabby’s money went to the shaman for the sessions until he had only his job and his ranch left, no other assets. He had sold his car. He had even begun selling the goats to his neighbors rather than gifting them. His wife, who the shaman said had communicated with her grandmother, left him for the shaman, and shortly after, his wife and the shaman left for La Paz.

Gabby had a rift with his father shortly before his father died. He had plunged into the burgeoning electronics field, which his father considered a fad, and Gabby had married a woman with a sketchy past from the Pacific Coast, having been jailed several times for grifting. When Lupita became pregnant, Gabby’s father refused to come down from his mountain ranch and visit. When Lupita miscarried, Gabby blamed his father, and back and forth the barbs flew, digging into each other like two roosters in a small pen with spurs attached to their feet.

Then, silence.

It was that silence Gabby was trying to crack and that brought him finally to alcohol, both daily and binging on weekends.

I had a friend in Rosarito who said we could use his villa on the weekend, and I thought it would be a good place for Gabby to start rehab.

We took Gabby’s car, a 1966 white Thunderbird with modified shocks that made it feel like it was swimming on the road, never just a straight-ahead plowing through the air, but a slicing, a knifing, the car rolling over the air rather than the road. Soon after we left Mexicali, heading west on Highway 2 with the sun reddening our necks and the left side of our faces, the traffic slowed, and the potholes began coming faster.

“You might want to hold on to the dash,” Gabby said, swerving the car off the road to the right. On the shoulder, Gabby’s car spun cyclones of dust that did not seem to dissipate. Tires unable to latch the gravel, we spun, and the more we spun, the more Gabby pressed the accelerator until the Thunderbird felt like a power boat. We passed cars on the right, off the road. He took the Thunderbird up to seventy while the other vehicles did fifty or less. We came to a road crew with an orange barrier, two flagmen, four workers, and an asphalt layer, and we passed them to the right as well. Gabby did not slow down.

“Otay Mesa in half an hour,” he yelled, like a cowboy on a galloping horse.

At certain points, the car seemed swallowed by swales in the asphalt, other times on two differing planes, a high left and a low right, or reversed, or often, a video game of potholes to dodge. Gabby broke into song, bitched about having to work when he could have retired at the age of forty, and said he longed for the mountains of his father and the pace of a small village, but I knew he was lying to please me. Gabby loved the city’s electricity, long days of work, long nights of music, and sombreros on men and women to converse with, talk at, figure out, and drink.

Shortly before Tijuana but well after Tecate, Gabby swerved from the highway and took a bare earth road north toward the border. A long trail of people had lined up to cross the border, perhaps forty or fifty, most with scarves wrapped over their heads to deflect the sunshine, a few with hats, a few with no protection.

“You won’t see people like this at Mexicali,” he said. “People here want to be in the United States, but not the people of Mexicali. Even the people who arrive in Mexicali thinking they will escape into the U.S. end up staying and working at the factories. Let me show you the difference.”

We drove and parked one block from the Tijuana River, lined with migrants and homeless and strewn with garbage.

“In Mexicali, the water runs clean. In Tijuana, dirty. In Mexicali, the factories are clean. In Tijuana, dirty. In Mexicali, the docks are cement, and in Tijuana, clay. In Mexicali, we tell the Anglos to shove it if they mistreat us. If Tijuana, they bow.

Let me show you a factory here. It will not be,” he said, “the number of flies but their size that will appall you.”

It was the time of the year that the fuchsia bougainvillea hung over the side of the wall and the Federales inspected trunks for kidnapped Americans, riverbanks pooled poverty, and smog and fumes made a lower layer of air that only the spire of the Catholic church pierced as if ascending for a purifying breath.

When we came to the factory, the smell of an open solder pit accosted, and on the wall of the tilt-up turned pink by the morning sun, mud swallows daubed and flickered, flies the size of a knuckle swarmed and flexed under the nests.

“When the wall gets hot, the flies electrify,” Gabby said. “When the mother bird leaves, the flies raid the nest and cover the little birds like a second batch of feathers.”

I drove the Thunderbird to Richard’s villa, following Highway 1 to the end of Calzada Del Mar. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Gabby lost his restive nature. He sat on a terrace in a wicker chaise lounge without a drink and without a sound. Soon, he fell asleep, and towards evening, I covered him with a blanket. I offered him dinner, but he simply rolled his head away from me.

When the sun set, I roused and offered him food again, which he refused. He went to his room, left his clothes on, and got into bed.

The villa was more than pleasant. The adobe walls had an enticing coolness after the hot day, and I ran my hands over them every time I made a trip down a hallway, twice placing my left cheek and forehead just to dissipate the heat of a sunburn. Noiseless fans circulated in each room. The ocean air had a slight saltiness to it, as if for curing my body. I had a key to the liquor cabinet but decided to keep it locked.

Before falling asleep, I thought of the young boys who traipsed the rocks for lobsters to sell, how pleasant such a summer would have been had I lived in Rosarito as a youth.

I had to return Gabby to Mexicali and our plant by Friday morning and then return to the U.S. that night. I shuddered to think of leaving the seaside for the desert in the Thunderbird.

Gabby woke twice during the night. The first time I found him wandering the house in his clothes, asking, “Is he there?” at every corner, behind every piece of furniture, in every room.

“Who are you looking for, Gabby,” I asked.

“My father. I know he is here.”

“How do you know he is here? Have you seen him?”

“No. He is a ghost.”

I took Gabby by the arm and led him back to his bed.

I said, “Your father is long dead. You will only hear him in your mind, not through your ears.”

“He must forgive me first before I can hear him,” Gabby said. “The shaman has talked with him, has heard him. The shaman knows. The shaman.”

“There is no shaman at this villa, Gabby,” I whispered. “You are dreaming of your father. But it is only a dream.”

Gabby grabbed both of my shoulders and shook me. “You are the one dreaming. I am awake. You are the one who thinks in a different world. I live in this one.”

I got him to lie down, and he quickly fell asleep with a huge sigh.

Gabby had been with me when I received a call that I had been laid off during the business trip. I had three young children and a wife who had returned to school, debt, and no assets. I felt as though a barbell sat on my chest, and yet anxiety and panic reigned in my limbs. I was spastic in speech and motion. I felt the image of being a providing father fade from my life.

Gabby had steadied me, said those stupid cliches about hope, and said in the morning, the grass at the golf course I would run would be wet with dew even in the desert. Good times would come.

I called my wife. She said everything would be okay. But I knew it would not. I did not sleep. At dawn, I went for a run, and damn it, the grass was wet, and as I looked east over I-8, I saw moisture in the low sky making a mirror over the highway. I saw trucks hauling and cars zipping along. Life moved, and I need to move as well. I kept looking at that mirror over the road in the moisture, at hope. Al called, came over, and drove with me to San Diego, where I had to catch a flight, talking non-stop about everything but hope, job-seeking, or unemployment. He talked about cactus, tequila, wintering birds, growing apples, the taste of goat in a taco, fishing near San Felipe, women, straw hats, and how the Chinese made the mole sauce in Mexicali. I laughed, hungered.

And now it was my turn. I knew it was D.T.s withdrawal from at least alcohol, if not other drugs, but the second time he awoke screaming, shouting poetry so loudly I knew the neighbors could hear.

I let him sing his poetry until he fell, exhausted, in my arms. He was drenched in sweat, wearing only boxers, and the sheet and cover tossed to the floor.

“I’ve been with my ancestors,” he said. “My mother lives in this poem. She is the woman loved by two men who chose only one, my father. She regretted her choice. Said he was a demon. But she was evil. She left us in spirit even though her body lived with us.”

All I could do was nod.

“I left home, left my father broken, and she poisoned him. My mother killed my father, then escaped to live with the other man who loved her. When I buried him, the priest said I should never have left home.”

I had heard this story before, often, and simply nodded and held him.

He recited more poetry but quietly repeated the name Flores many times, like a mantra to gain a foothold on serenity.

We rose in the early morning. Gabby woke exhausted and stayed that way. I drove the Thunderbird up Highway 1 to Tijuana, then headed east into the sun towards Tecate, with Gabby sleeping in the back seat. The air, even in the morning, was dry, desiccating.

I kept the Thunderbird on the asphalt and drove about twenty miles per hour slower than Gabby, which meant after Tecate, we spent more time in the desert and mountains than I desired. I drove anxious about the kidnappings and finally, on the descent toward Mexicali, decided to concentrate on the fuchsia bougainvillea blooming on the walls of factories in Tijuana. It was a pleasant diversion. I noticed that Mexicali had a tremendous layer of airborne dust and smog, with a slight distorting moisture rising above the city, and as I approached saw a few mirages on the highway ahead.

Mirages. We all need mirages.

I understood now why Gabby lived in the desert, why he lived in Mexicali. When he looked off into the distance, there would be a mirage, a portal as it were, where he could imagine, finally, the voice of his father, forgiveness, even if as he approached, as I had, the mirage would disappear.

About the Author

Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California. He has contributed work to Gold Man ReviewPer ContraBird’s Thumb, and previously to Lowestoft Chronicle.