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Crossing the Rio Grande

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December 4, 2013

“No,” she continued. “I mean, where are you really from?”

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Image from Flickr via Krystian Olszanski

There is a crack in the windshield.

He noticed it the first day when they pulled onto the highway and his wife unfolded the map across her knees. “The Pacific Ocean,” he was telling their children through the rearview mirror, “is greater than the Atlantic. Many creatures are living there.”

It was after he had glanced over at the map—the blue rivers and black roads made America look like a fabric pattern, like a collection of shapes begging to be cut out and sewn back together again—that he first became aware of the line in the windshield. He thought that it might be a trick of the light or debris drifting in the shallow waters of his eyes. But when blinking did not erase the line, he swore under his breath: “Jebem ti mater.

He had not yet mastered his father’s foreign curses but because he could identify the words for dog, uncle, and fuck, was delighted by their narrative possibilities.

His wife, who did not understand his language but was well acquainted with its more objectionable phrases, looked up with a frown. He pointed to the crack, leaning forward over the steering wheel and pressing his finger against the glass that was still smooth from the inside.

Yebanti! Yebanti!” his son was repeating, singsong, in the backseat. He had not yet mastered his father’s foreign curses but because he could identify the words for dog, uncle, and fuck, was delighted by their narrative possibilities.

The crack hovered in front of him, all through the Baltimore suburbs, across West Virginia, and into Kentucky. Over the plains and the states where grass did not grow, as his wife led their children through the singing of songs and spying with eyes. It danced before him in red-dust states where the earth was so dry that it, too, was cracked, and he imagined the ground swallowing their secondhand station wagon and camper—“wonderful hardwood interiors” the advertisement had read, but it was like dragging the deadest of weights, and by the end of the first week they were halfway through their gasoline budget for the entire summer.

In the mornings, when his family was still sleeping, he rose early to inspect it, to measure its length against his thumb. He feared that it would spread over the entire windshield, a spider web of such complexity that they would not be able to see in front of them as they drove westward.

Karl May had been the first to introduce him to America, long before the trip and long before he had even considered the idea of leaving his own country. The German author had not actually visited the Wild West when he wrote his books, but they were the lens through which generations of Europe’s children first saw America, and he had been no different.

“The genocide against the American Indian,” he would tell his children mournfully. “There are many great things in America, but this is a shame.”

He remembered that the tales made him euphoric as a child, that they made him stride the streets of Sarajevo as if it were a dusty frontier town. At night he lay awake in his bed imagining ambushes in which he dispatched wave upon wave of bandits with his trusty rifle.

His children were adept at interpreting his verbal intent. They knew that he did not mean shame the way other people meant it. In their father’s vocabulary shame denoted disgrace, and not the idea that something was mildly regrettable.

He had tried to get them to read Winnetou before the trip, special ordering it from a bookstore in Cleveland. The woman who helped him place his order over the phone may even have been from his country. “Such a wonderful tale,” she said with an unmistakably Slavic accent. “Your children will love it.”

He could still remember the blood brothers—the white man and the Apache chief—and their adventures fighting the evil Santer. Their horses—Wind and Lightning—were also brothers.

He remembered that the tales made him euphoric as a child, that they made him stride the streets of Sarajevo as if it were a dusty frontier town. At night he lay awake in his bed imagining ambushes in which he dispatched wave upon wave of bandits with his trusty rifle. Or prairie flowers that blew in a mournful wind—he had not then seen a desert and imagined their color like Adriatic bougainvillea—as he buried his blood brother’s sister, the beautiful Nscho-tschi. He wept many times over her grave, which he had piled high with rocks.

When he presented Winnetou to his children, he tried to think of a suitable inscription, finally writing: I SPENT THE HAPPY HOURS READING THESE STORIES.

His daughter had attempted to read it, but he could tell by her sighing that it did not truly interest her. His son preferred to be read to, and he preferred his mother’s English voice, which did not bend words in unorthodox ways. But she had been too busy with preparations in the weeks before their trip and so the book, after a brief sojourn on the coffee table, was tucked away on a bookshelf somewhere.

In Indiana, his daughter and son began to fight. One kicked the other and there were scratches and screams. He pulled onto the shoulder, a thunder of gravel hitting the undercarriage of the car. He raised his fist as if to strike and shouted the word, “Shame!” It echoed in the station wagon and seemed to make the weeds on the side of the road swing drunkenly.

The hills of West Virginia reminded him of the Bosnian countryside with their forests and rolling hills.

He threatened to leave them there, as he did whenever they fought while he was driving. But lately it was only when he opened his door menacingly that they grew quiet. As he pulled back onto the road, he was muttering about the type of love that donkeys die from.

But America stretched before them as beautiful as he had ever imagined it. Vaster, in fact, than May had comprehended. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, the evening light truly made the landscape blue. The hills of West Virginia reminded him of the Bosnian countryside with their forests and rolling hills. Had the settlers who pushed into the wilderness hundreds of years ago felt the same glimmer of recognition, he wondered. Or had they found the dark hills remote and terrible?

To pass the long hours of driving he told his family stories about boyhood excursions to Vrela Bosne and Pale. “Just like this,” he said of the dense forest that rose on either side of the highway.

“Just like what?” his son asked curiously from the backseat.

“America,” he said, and unrolled his window so that they could feel the wind on their faces.

But three days after leaving Baltimore the engine began to make a strange ticking sound and the smell of burning rubber—black and chemical—filled the car. On the fourth day, the trailer’s toilet stopped flushing.

“It will not kill you to walk to the campground toilets,” he told his daughter.

On the fifth night, they stayed at a Kentucky campground with a giant water slide and children who regarded his children with curiosity.

“How come your parents talk funny?” one of them asked his perplexed son.

On the sixth day he woke up angry. He fought with his wife for much of the morning. “God damn it, you never listen to me!” he was yelling when the sirens started behind him. “I told you to put it in the car, not the trunk.”

By the seventh day they had received two warnings for a faulty brake light, his children were fighting again, and rain was falling from the sky in huge, fat drops that hit the windshield with the sound large insects make when they die.

And that crack traveled the roads before him. It hovered in the sky that was blue or thick with thunderclouds, the sky that shrank when stabbed by city skyscrapers before becoming wider when they reached the open roads again. Open, if not for the hindrance of that crack, which taunted him across the miles.

“It doesn’t seem to be getting any larger,” his wife pointed out and he was irritated to realize that she barely noticed it when it was her turn to drive.

His daughter sang incessantly from the backseat. Top Forty songs, theme songs from movies, songs that were not even songs but jingles from television advertisements. There were rude songs with words he didn’t know she knew, and songs about blowing up teachers and never having to do homework again. Her younger brother sang along.

His English, while accented, was excellent. But he had the sensation that his English was actually regressing the further westward they went.

“What does this mean?” he asked them sharply in the rearview mirror. “‘Some people threw flowers but I threw grenades?’”

In Missouri, a woman who sold them ice did not understand what he was saying, shocking him into silence as his wife repeated the question about whether they carried bigger bags. His English, while accented, was excellent. But he had the sensation that his English was actually regressing the further westward they went.

He began to let his wife do more and more of the talking. But there was something about the very angularity of his face, the jet blackness of his hair, his olive skin—olive? he had wondered when learning the English language. But olive trees are green—that exposed him before he uttered a single word.

“Italian?” People in Baltimore would guess good-naturedly. “Greek?” And invariably they would tell him about their papa or their grandpapa who had first come over on the boat.

But here no one hazarded a guess. They just looked at him with an amused and tolerating expression that he was growing to despise.

Any other summer and they would have made the journey in the opposite direction, across the Atlantic, to visit their families. But this year he had suggested the cross-country trip, and so they saw Kansas cornfields, rock formations in Utah, miles and miles of Arizona’s Navajo flatland.

There were no aunts to greet them with cast-iron pots of boiling soup after their long drives, no beds made up with snow-white linens or roving packs of cousins who would be his children’s playmates in those weeks. No one to whom they showed photographs from the last year of their lives—the Christmas tree, their daughter’s confirmation, or the new black and white rabbit which ate lettuce leaves in a hutch in their Baltimore garden.

The engine of their car ticked like a bomb and the chink in the windshield burned like a needle in the sunlight.

But neither did his prying relatives ask why his daughter was growing so plump or how much he was making now that he was working the night shift. There was no pre-trip shopping list—medications that were available only in America, hair dye that came in fancy cardboard boxes with English writing, blue jeans and electronic gadgets. There were no meaningful looks between family members when someone asked, as they invariably did, “So, have you started that business you were talking about?”

As they drove deeper and deeper into a landscape where they were unknown, his son grew pale and his wife developed insomnia. He would hear her get up and sit on the camper’s step in the middle of the night. His daughter was in a perpetually bad mood, picking on her brother and quick to burst into tears. Her face would scowl at him from the backseat for miles.

It was in Wyoming that he first began to feel light-headed. Returning to their campsite from the KOA convenience store alone one night, he stumbled and nearly fell. It happened to him the next night as he was looking for firewood and the next as he was unhooking the camper from the car. Each time he could only straighten as the world swam around him. He did not mention these spells to his wife—the feeling of lightheadedness as he walked, the sense that he had walked in exactly this place, in exactly this moment before.

By day they visited canyons and rock formations. His wife started ticking days off on a calendar, at least five days behind the schedule they had meant to keep. Across the western deserts—where the light was merciless and the nights were cold—the engine of their car ticked like a bomb and the chink in the windshield burned like a needle in the sunlight.

In certain moments, he realized that his wife’s eyes were filled with tears and his son had grown almost completely silent.

In the 1960s, a German film company had chosen Plitvice Lakes in Croatia as the backdrop to their production of Winnetou. He watched Der Schatz im Silbersee in Munich, where he was living illegally at the time. Although the main actors were German, dark-haired Croatian extras played the Indians and it had amused him to realize that they somehow conjured the Wild West in the imagination of the German public.

He was then a grown man well past the age of adventure novels, but he had nonetheless felt the thrill of memory as Old Shatterhand and Winnetou stood at the edge of the Zrmanja Canyon. He recognized both the waterfalls and the figures of the cowboy and the proud Indian Chief, but he found the combination bizarre in retrospect.

And that was how he sometimes thought of himself in this landscape, with his English wife and his two American children, driving through the Western states.

“Karl May,” he told a woman in a bookstore in Tucson, as his wife was buying ice cream for the children across the street. “His tales of the West are classics.”

But she only looked at him blankly.

They held their breath for the Pacific Ocean. They willed the car to survive that far, although he had his doubts about the engine. And there were days when he considered releasing the brake and letting the car and the camper drop into the water once they got there. He could picture it exactly: the four of them standing to one side as the entire rig rolled off a cliff, making a spectacular crashing noise and scattering cups, towels, and highlighted maps on the way down. He thought he would only feel relief to see the whole thing swallowed by the ocean.

But first they had to get there.

They ran out of gas in the Nevada desert, the temperatures outside topping 109. Forty miles later the right front tire burst on the highway. And the night before they reached the sea—the air already thick with the promise of salt—they jackknifed on a steep road, the camper rolling backwards and blocking both lanes of traffic for over an hour.

In certain moments, he realized that his wife’s eyes were filled with tears and his son had grown almost completely silent. His daughter had picked those weeks to stage her teenage rebellion, several years ahead of schedule. “Why did you take us on this trip?” she would demand angrily, as if everything that went wrong were his fault.

Reaching California was like beginning to breathe after a very long time under water. His children splashed in the Pacific Ocean and watched men juggle chainsaws on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. At a campsite outside San Francisco, they even met a cowboy from Montana who wore a hat and whose weather-beaten face looked like it had endured decades of cattle drives beneath a scorching sun.

The lanky, silver-haired man and his wife invited them for a campfire sing-along one evening, and while he could only hum along with “Home on the Range,” he was proud to see that his children knew all the words.

“I will get you a guitar,” he promised his daughter as the cowboy was tuning his. He imagined her playing the song in their house in Baltimore, all of their voices raised in unison.

At the end of the evening, when the cowboy’s wife was shaking his hand, she asked, “Where are you from, anyway?”

“Baltimore,” he told her. “In the state of Maryland.”

She looked confused for a moment. “No,” she continued. “I mean, where are you really from?”

The next day he bought a straw cowboy hat with a brown band. “How do I look?” he asked his son, who watched him with appreciation as his daughter snickered in the background.

They considered selling the battered station wagon and camper and flying back instead. Compared to sleek R.V.’s in campgrounds across America, their camper was hopelessly outdated. But they packed provisions for their trip, said goodbye to the Pacific blue, and dove once again into the length of America.

It was while they were returning through Nevada that they ran out of gasoline a second time, the tank no match for the hardwood interiors they dragged behind them. For miles he watched the red light, praying that they would make it to the next filling station which, surely, could not be that much farther. But unlike the familiar and densely packed East, the West confused him with its stingy placement of amenities.

“O, God,” his wife was muttering as they slowed and finally stopped.

He closed his eyes, but when he opened them again he realized that his family had grown completely quiet.

“Get into the camper,” he told them wearily. “I will return shortly.”

Through the camper’s windows his wife and children watched him stand on the side of the road with his thumb in the air.

His wife was thinking in those moments that the cowboy hat made him look ridiculous. “Come, children,” she said. “Away from the window.”

His son was thinking that he looked very hot. He could see perspiration soaking his father’s shirt like shadow.

His daughter was not watching her father, but the faces of people who passed him in their cars. She noticed that the passengers studied him carefully, but that not one car slowed. Periodically, she looked at him—his shirt had come untucked from his trousers and rustled as each car passed—then back at the traffic.

Wetback. When he got into the truck his ears were still ringing with that word and his face felt hot beneath his suntan.

As if in slow motion, she watched a woman unroll her window and shout something at her father, who went rigid upon hearing the word. She did not understand the word and thought he might turn around and shrug to them in the camper, wave his hand as if to say, “The next one will stop.” But he only looked after the car and the strange, shouting woman.

The pickup truck that did eventually stop was filled with dusty men and farming equipment. They gave him a hand up, but even then, he did not look behind him.

Wetback. When he got into the truck his ears were still ringing with that word and his face felt hot beneath his suntan. He had heard it for the first time in New Mexico just a few weeks before when a drunken man at a restaurant bar was cursing about The Wetbacks.

He had been on his way to the bathrooms but slowed out of curiosity. “Are they a local football team?” he asked a passing waiter who laughed so hard that he asked him to repeat the question for the waitress behind him.

“It’s a mean word,” the young woman explained sympathetically. “For Mexicans.”

He looked at her blankly.

“You know. Because they swim across the Rio Grande?”

And so he had not been prepared to hear the word here, on the side of the road in a desert in Nevada. He had not been prepared for a woman to scream it from a car window when they were more than halfway home.

He had not swum across the Rio Grande. He had flown to New York in a planeload of refugees. Then he had taken a Greyhound bus to Baltimore.

The men who sat around him in the truck did not speak English, so their only communication was to nod and smile at one another. They looked tired and hungry, he thought, like they had been working all day. They wore dust-caked work boots and smelled of sweat. They reminded him of the laborers he had known in his childhood, the men who worked dry tobacco fields and got drunk on rakija.

How strange I must look sitting among them, he told himself, for he had gone to university and worked as a radio journalist and ate in Baltimore’s finest restaurants for anniversary celebrations and birthdays. But the drivers of cars that pulled up behind them at traffic lights did not appear to notice anything out of the ordinary. They looked through him just as they looked through the other men in the truck.

The man beside him tapped his arm and pointed further up the road. “Gas!” he said with a smile that split his face in two.

Turning, he saw the station on the horizon, the pumps and the black letters of the sign. He thought of his family in the camper beside the road, of their relieved faces when he returned with fuel. They would make Wyoming by that night. With a little luck, they would be back in Baltimore in two weeks.

But as he turned to look in the direction they had come, his hat flew from his head in a gust of wind. One of the men made a grab for it, but it was already falling on the road behind them, where it bounced once and was crushed by the car that followed on their heels.

Tu sombrero,” the man beside him said sadly.

Half an hour later he returned along the same road with the manager of the gas station, who had agreed to give him a ride. The canister sat between his feet and he looked through the passenger window at the squat bushes that grew on the side of the road. This part of America, he realized, was almost entirely colorless.

When they reached the place where he had lost his hat, he was tempted to ask the man to stop so that he could salvage the crushed straw from the side of the road, but he averted his eyes at the last moment so that he would not see it lying on the asphalt.

He kept his eyes trained ahead, expecting to see the boxy shapes of the station wagon and camper rise out of the desert. But it was a bright and flashing light that drew his attention, instead. It looked like a beacon or distress signal, as if someone were standing in the sun with a mirror, sending signals into the wastes. For a moment he wondered if one of the children had slipped from the camper and was making mischief, but the flashing was too deliberate for their impatient hands.

He wondered if he was about to experience another of his dizzy spells, which happened so frequently now that they were no longer remarkable. Lately, he had even begun to see strange and implausible things: swathes of green, lush grass in patches of barren ground, or figures which hovered in his peripheral vision but disappeared once he turned his head. He had even heard laughter, whispers, and low singing that were like a radio transmitting from behind a closed door.

“Love?” his wife would ask him in those moments, bringing him back to reality with a worried face that made it clear she had been speaking to him for quite some time.

He was exhausted, he realized. He felt like he had not slept in weeks.

“Do you see that light?” he asked the man driving, whose face was ruddy with sunburn and whose bolero tie was set with a large, crude piece of turquoise.

The man looked in the direction he was pointing and shrugged. “It’s probably the sun hitting a tin can or a piece of broken glass.”

And it was then that he remembered the windshield, the crack which measured no longer than his thumb. He thought of it reflecting light, sending a signal out into the desert, into the sky above it. And in that moment he saw his wife and the children, the way they sat at the table—the one that folded into his daughter’s bed at night—playing cards.

“I wanted you to see it,” he had finally answered his daughter’s scowls, her shrill demands to know what on earth had possessed him to drag them across America. “I wanted you to see your country.”

The windshield of the car that bore him back to them was dusty and crusted with the residue of dead flies, but there were no discernible cracks. He took a sidelong look at the man who drove, whose view of the highway in front of him was unobstructed.

He knew that the crack in his own windshield would cleave every road back to Baltimore, but it no longer mattered.

Winnetou had died in the end. He remembers this now.

G

Courtney Angela Brkic‘s novel, The First Rule of Swimming, was published by Little, Brown earlier this year. Both previous books, Stillness: and Other Stories and The Stone Fields were published by FSG. Her work (mostly about Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) has also appeared in Zoetrope, the New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Harpers, Queen, the Utne Reader, TriQuarterly Review, The Alaska Review and National Geographic.

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