Sonora Borders Sinaloa Borders Nayarit


On the first night on the road I sleep with my head against the window and when I’m not sleeping I nod off from drowsiness, my head thumping against the glass. At the front of the bus, staring out like a clock in a clinic waiting room, is a speedometer that marks up to 80 kilometers per hour. Whenever the bus surpasses that speed an alarm goes off, alerting not only the driver but also the sleeping passengers. All night the goddamned alarm rings, disturbing any peace that might have crept up on us during the dead hours of the night. Reports of devastating bus plunges begin to circle in my head. I’ve seen enough photographs in the sensationalistic papers ¡Alerta! and ¡Alarma! that glare out with bright yellows and reds from every newsstand in Mexicali. These reports come with very little text and an abundance of photographs because showing is more efficiently graphic than telling.

I’m exhausted the next morning, my neck and shoulders sore and stiff. I’m in no mood to face a crowded bus already buzzing with talk. The driver has the radio on low but it’s still irritatingly audible. Throughout the night I sucked some of the music into my dreams and the song lyrics reverberated out of the mouths of people I knew. The juxtaposition was surreal and disturbing, like dubbed foreign films where the voices don’t quite match the faces on the screen.

I have no idea about any of these small towns the bus drives through, but I deduce the name of the state by the political candidate flyers and posters nailed to the light posts or glued to the murals along the highways. The PAN and PRI parties dominate the publicity overkill. Faces smile amiably, declaring themselves the worthy leaders. Their names and photographs are the only differences from the posters of the last election year’s candidates who had affirmed the same thing. I imagine there must be a master plate on file at the party headquarters. This group of bureaucrats lobbies for political seats in Sonora.

The bus stops do not last very long, but there are plenty of them. Every time I see a road sign announcing a new town I brace myself for another fifteen minutes of staring out at the gritty terminals and taking in the chaos of exchanging passengers.

“ Do you want a juice or something, you?” my father always asks. No matter what my answer we both climb down every now and then to stretch. I’m embarrassed for the people that come up to me with crocodile tears to beg for money, their performances unconvincing. I stare at them with disdain. Confronted with this look they go away.

“No need to be nasty,” my father says when he catches me in the act.

I roll my eyes. The beggars aren’t worth a fight, I think. And then I catch myself at the arrogance my father just pointed out.

When the bus heads south on the road again, exiting the unexciting state of Sonora and entering the state of Sinaloa, it takes a few hours before the landscape changes from a desert to a coast. The waters of the Pacific Ocean are turbulent and I recall the many summers the roads and train tracks were closed because of hurricane damage. I’m upset that I can’t hear the breaking of the waves so I attempt to open the window again without success. My father pretends not to notice, even after I glare at him.

“ You can help, you,” I say. He makes a feeble attempt.

“ It’s sealed shut,” he says. “Look at the lining.”

The lining is a thick plastic glue, plaster-colored. I look around and realize our window is the only one with this feature.

A few minutes later my father tries to drum up a conversation.

“ So when do you finish your career there in college?” he asks.
I take a deep breath. “That depends,” I say.

“On what?” he asks.

“Well, many things,” I say, not sure about what I’m going to tell him. I had just completed my sophomore year, declared a vague major in the humanities with an emphasis in creative writing, but friends kept telling me that didn’t lead to any kind of job, except maybe teaching. When they suggested I also take up a minor, I thought about maybe minoring in French and this didn’t elicit much of a hopeful response either.

“Well it depends on whether I want to be an elementary school teacher, or a high school teacher, or a university teacher,” I say finally because it sounds thought-out.

“And which do you want to be?” he asks.

“I’m not sure yet,” I say, honestly this time. “At this point I just need to complete my degree. By then I’ll know.”

“That’s good, you,” he says, and then withdraws into silence. He feigns interest as unconvincingly as I fake politeness.

At the moment I’m especially crabby because my back aches, my ass is numb, and my own smell disgusts me—especially my hands. When I stepped in to use the bathroom at the last terminal I came out draped in its odor of piss. The water I used to wash my hands left them sticky.

“ Did I ever tell you the time I got lucky during a hold-up on a bus?” my father asks.

I want to tell him the truth. Yes, I know this story. He’s told it to me at least three times, and each time he tells it he remembers more details. That’s how my father lies, convincing himself more and more that what he’s telling is fact, because fiction isn’t this exact and memorable.

“ I was sitting in the back of the bus on a long trip down to Michoacán,” my father begins his implausible tale.

He’s sitting in the back of the bus, exhausted into sleep, and his body is slumped down against the window. A hand shakes him awake and he’s startled to discover a police officer standing over him.

“ Have you been sitting here the entire time?” the officer asks him.
My father, drowsy and confused, says: “Yes, I’m on my way to Michoacán. Are we there yet? What’s happened?”

The police officer, a fat man with a mustache, looks at him suspiciously. And then makes an odd request. “Stay there,” he says. “Exactly as you were when you were sleeping.”

My father slumps down on his seat again. The police officer takes a few steps back and then, after assessing the situation, steps forward again, shaking his head.

“ Mister,” the police officer tells him. “You’re one lucky cabrón. You just slept through a pinche bus robbery.”

My father quickly got up off his seat and surveyed the scene in front of him: weeping women and scared passengers, suitcases and bags emptied out, and a driver with a compress against his face. My father had escaped notice because he was so short and his sleep so deep that he blocked all noises out. No one, the police officer confirmed, could see him back there, all alone and lost in the safety of his dreams.

“ Can you imagine that?” my father asks me.

“ Not really,” I say.

“ What?” my father says, startled by my response.

“ You’re short all right. And you sleep like a rock. But you snore like a bull. The robbers would have heard you long before they even climbed the bus.”

My father dismisses my response with his usual nervous laugh. And knowing that nothing will change this mood I’m in, he quickly shifts his attention to those around him on the bus. He’s already friendly with the people across the aisle, with the couple sitting behind us, and with the guy seated behind the couple so that he really has to twist his body around to let his voice reach back. Eventually, others on the bus begin to eavesdrop on my father’s conversations, which are entertaining to them.

My father’s contagious laughter makes him the much-appreciated center of attention. An older woman two seats up offers to share her snacks with him. The two guys in the back prod him to join their friendly games of poker. He refuses the invitations, but I know it’s a matter of time before he gives in. People keep demanding his attention. Rigoberto, Rigoberto, they insist, and the more they say it the more the name became exclusively my father’s and no longer mine. Slowly I’m becoming silent and invisible, the overlooked companion to my father.

By noon the bus driver makes a break for lunch. When the bus pulls over I don’t want to get off because the smells of food at that moment will turn my stomach. I remain in my seat, grateful for the privacy, away from my father’s booming voice and popularity. I watch from the window as he plays cards over a basket of fried chicken with the two guys from the back of the bus. One of them calls himself Zacatecas.

Only two other passengers remain on the bus with me. I can hear the man’s shaky voice in the back. “To the bathroom, mama?” he says. His mother responds with a guttural sound. The man lifts the old woman and strains to fit her into the cramped stall. With the door wide open, the stench of urine immediately spreads through the cabin. I pinch my nose. The old woman’s eyes remain shut the entire time.

“ Knock, mama. Knock when you’re done,” he says after he has placed her in the stall and shut the door. He looks over at me. I smile, hoping he will know that I understand about sick mothers.

“ Is that your father traveling with you?” he asks, coming up a few rows forward. He’s balding, but I can’t gauge his age.

Startled, I stammer a yes.

“ I thought he was your brother,” he says, smiling.

I chuckle weakly, accepting his compliment on my father’s behalf. I have my father’s name but look nothing like him. I’m taller and wear glasses; he’s much darker, with curly hair and straight teeth. There’s no reason for anyone to suspect we’re related, sitting side by side on a bus that switches passengers at every terminal. Besides, we have been speaking very little to each other. I do hope however that I will inherit my father’s slow aging. This is not the first time someone has pointed out how young my father looks. And although no one says it, I know they’re also impressed by how handsome he is. My brother and I are round-faced and soft-featured, like our mother was.

“ That’s my mother in there, you know,” he says. “My brother went down to eat. We’re taking turns. We’re bringing her back to Sinaloa. Where are you headed?”

“ Michoacán,” I answer.

“ It’s a longer journey than ours,” he says.

When I don’t keep the dialogue going he continues.

“ She’s sick, you know, and we can’t take care of her anymore. It’s for the best. We love her very much, you know.”

At that moment we both feel awkward, but we’re spared from further embarrassment by the feeble knocking behind the bathroom door.

“ I hear you, mama,” he calls back. He bows his head. “Nice talking to you,” he says, then rushes back unnecessarily since the bathroom is located only a few seats behind him.

Passengers begin to climb back on the bus after half an hour. My father brings me a cold pint of orange juice and a fried chicken leg I eventually consume, surprised at how hungry I really am. And suddenly I’m aware at how comfortable I accept my father’s new-found paternal role—feeding me as if I were still a child. As I eat I think about the man with his mother.

He’s suffering from what my grandmother calls cabeza llena—a mind so full with thinking, that he has to let some words leak out or the brain will implode. Desahogarse, she calls that process. Letting things out to unburden the head. Holding your breath too long can suffocate you. When the bus reaches the next station, the bald man carries his mother off while she sleeps. He moves her without her knowing, and I imagine her waking up in some room, with an unfamiliar face standing over her, trying to calm her down with a soothing but strange voice. I feel bad for both of them. When he walks past me, he doesn’t even turn his head to nod goodbye.

In the long stretch of road that follows, the bus is uncharacteristically silent. Perhaps the post-nourishment exhaustion has finally settled. Since no one else seems interested in talking, my father sets his sights on me. I feel oddly grateful.

“ You know what I always wanted to be?” my father says.

I shrug my shoulders.

“ An electrician,” he says.

“ Don’t you know something about that already?” I ask. I remember that he used to tinker with wires and fuse boxes, like my aunt’s husband who was a licensed electrician in Mexicali before he moved to the U.S. and became a maintenance worker at the golf courses in Palm Springs.

“ Just things I picked up when I was about your age, no maybe younger than you,” he says. “I was apprenticed to an electrician for a while, but then I left it.”

“ What happened?” I ask.

“ Your grandfather didn’t think that would lead to anything. Not like being a farmworker.”

When he says this I sense the bitter taste in his mouth. His eyes gaze out sadly as if he’s looking at the day my grandfather made the decision to take him out of the electrical shop and push him into the fields. I feel a heavy weight in my chest for him, and I rack my mind in search for the right words to offer him—words that don’t sound sarcastic or cruel, but words that can touch him as delicately as he touched me with his admission. But I can’t think of anything so I stay quiet. And it’s in that moment that all of our luck changes because the bus breaks down at the Sinaloa-Nayarit border.

An hour into the delay, passengers grumble as the cabin succumbs quickly to the humidity. I run my finger across the dusty glass, my buttocks sore from lack of circulation. A stream of sweat slides down my spine and it would have driven me to madness had I not found humor in the bus driver’s request for volunteers to help push the bus down the road.

“ Just over the hump,” he says. “It’ll roll down on its own from there.”
My father is the first to volunteer. I shake my head.

“ Zacatecas!” he calls to one of his poker buddies in the back. Zacatecas joins him, as do a number of the other men on board.
When I don’t budge from my seat I become ashamed at the realization that no one has expected me to help. I hear my father take the lead, giving directions, suggestions and an occasional word of encouragement. The crew manages to shove the bus over the hump, and then it coasts to the side of the road where it sits for the rest of the day until a mechanic arrives. The mechanic tinkers with the engine all afternoon and into the evening. The passengers scatter on the ground, seeking shelter from the sweltering heat beneath trees, and in a nearby roadside restaurant whose owner beams at his unexpected fortune. I stand at a distance, observing as my father and the rest of the clientele darken into shadows with the passing of the hours. In time a second bus arrives and we all transfer our luggage over. As we drive off the mechanic seems unfazed by his defeat, watching us pull into the road, a bottle of beer in his hand, which he raises toward us as a sign of farewell.

My father avoids eye contact at this point as if he’s expecting me to gripe about the second class bus ride once again, but I don’t. I’m too worn out to complain. When he turns his head away from me, I know he’s trying to hide the smell of alcohol in his breath. I roll over in my seat and try to sleep as well.

“ I know I shouldn’t be drinking,” he says in a low voice.

I have heard these words many times before.

“ Do you know what I want more than anything in the entire world, you?”


“ I want you to be happy. You’re too depressed. I want to see you smile. You have your mother’s smile. Why don’t you show it to me?”

No response.

“ Do you know what I want more than anything in the entire world, you?” he says again. He struggles to keep his eyes open, so I stay quiet and let him fall asleep.

“ Are you asleep, you?” I whisper to my father. He doesn’t move but he breathes heavily. When he begins to snore I know he’s out. I look around. The entire cabin seems to be lost in deep sleep.

I push his body to the other side and shift his head to quiet down his snoring. I had seen my mother do this a number of times when he helped him into bed. I imagine his second wife has learned this trick by now.

Once his body seems comfortable and at peace, I relax. This bus is in better shape and drives more smoothly. I crack open the window to let the air in. When I start dozing off I attempt to match my father’s breathing rhythm but can’t. My body trembles as I lean on him. I’m lulled by the steady rise and fall of his body. I want to remain attached to him this way all night. When I begin to sniffle, a thin tear making its way weakly down my cheek, my father awakes with a start and pushes his body against mine before quickly falling asleep again. I can’t tell if this is an accidental shove, or if it’s his way of telling me to stop, that the other passengers on the bus might hear me crying in the dark. I shift my body toward the warm metal of the bus, my knee pressed painfully against the armrest, away from my father.

When I wake up during the still hours of the early morning my father is gone, probably to the toilet. Still, the empty seat saddens me because it holds the memory of my father’s body.

When my father returns from the toilet, he notices the angst on my face. He tussles my hair.

“ Are you getting anxious?” he asks.

“ A little,” I say.

“ Tell me—” we both say at once, and let out a laugh together.

“ You tell me first,” he insists, even though he’s the superior storyteller.