Ignacio Manuel Leonardo Gutierrez II filled his sizable gut, the kind that provides an arm-ledge, with his wife's exquisite huevos rancheros. He was, he knew, a very average man. But a happy one. He soaked up the last of the runny eggs with a tortilla, kissed his wife goodbye, inspected his nicely pressed uniform, and headed for the border station. The one area of life he felt he did surpass the bar was in his skill as a border guard. He'd made chief inspector by age 30, and now, 37 years later, he had one of the highest drug seizure rates along the entire Texas/Mexico border. He'd even been the one to catch the "priest" with the bible chapter “Revelations," soaked in $10,000 worth of LSD. At the station, he poured himself an oversized mug of coffee and headed out to do another shift at the gate. Six hours later, nothing much had happened until a kid, perhaps 13, pedaled up to the gate, a small trailer with a wooden cargo box attached to the rear of his bike. Ignacio approached the boy and said, "Hola hombre. Donde vas?" The boy flashed him a grin and replied in perfect, unaccented English. "Good morning esteemed sir. I'm en route to Brownsville." Ignacio was taken aback. The boy's raggedy pants and dirty tee-shirt did not remotely match the way he spoke or, as he thought about it, the boy's air of confidence in general. As a reply, Ignacio extended a hand for the boy's passport. It read: "Conflicto Antoine Ramirez. Mexican national. DOB, Sep 19, 2005." So, fifteen, a little older than he'd guessed. Ignacio peered at the passport with incredulity and asked, "Conflicto? Really?" The encounter was getting weirder by the minute. "Ah, yes, well, my parents had a rather negative perspective on my entrance into the world. A too common tale I fear." The banter was making Ignacio feel funny. "Okay, okay," he said, waving off the conversation. "What's in the box?" It turned out to be sand. Just the ordinary kind you could find all over Mexico. Ignacio sifted through it. Then, finding nothing, he increased the intensity of his digging and prodding. But, still nothing. He glowered at the boy who observed the search with steady indifference. Cool as a frozen tamale. Ignacio, stripping off his protective gloves off, asked, "Okay boy, what's the deal? What's special about this sand?" "Respectfully sir, unless I’m required by law to explain, its purpose is a private matter for me. I sincerely apologize." Pinche nino! Ignacio thought. The boy was hiding something.
Changing tactics, he sent Conflicto to a little booth to be searched. Meanwhile, Ignacio checked the sand a fourth time. And a fifth. Then he searched the bike. Nada. He was sweating now, pit stains gaining ground in their war upon his no-longer crisp shirt. Ignacio yelled for his lieutenant Roberto to bring him the drug and explosive swabs. Roberto, pastry crumbs adorning his impressive gut, complied with a scowl. But, again, nothing. Absolutely clean. They had to let Conflicto go. Sand wasn't, after all, a controlled substance.
Watching him pedal way, sandbox in tow, Ignacio's heart pounded with frustration. He knew he'd missed smuggling on his watch. That was inevitable. But he'd never missed a seizure when he knew it was happening. Until now. And, what the hell was with the way the boy spoke? Ignacio, in one last effort, called headquarters for a background check. Again clean. Other than the weird name, Conflicto was a regular high school kid. On paper, at least. Two weeks later, he'd mostly forgotten about the whole thing when the boy came pedaling up to the gate towing the same box of sand. And they went through the same search routine while the boy politely followed directions, occasionally making comments in his infuriatingly proper manner.
This time, however, Ignacio was better prepared as, after the previous encounter with Conflicto, he’d ordered a barrage of swab tests for unusual drugs such as GHB, DMT, and Ketamine. When he’d called headquarters to make the request, the paper-pusher who’d handled these matters had given him a hard time: “What the hell do you suspect is going on out there? These specialized tests are not cheap.” Ignacio’s vague response of, “I’m just being thorough,” didn’t seem to satisfy the man, but the tests had arrived a few days later anyway.
But, the new tests revealed nothing. Ignacio felt like dumping the boy’s sand onto the ground, but he didn’t want to do anything rash. Particularly not these days while cameras watched. Ignacio did, however, tell him, “You’d be smart to not come back.” The boy just gave him what seemed to be an exaggerated look of puzzlement before thanking Ignacio for "his service" and pedaling off towards Brownsville.
Conflicto did return, though. Nearly once a week for months in a row. That cursed box of sand began to worm its way into Ignacio’s thoughts, an unwelcome visitor. It even made appearances in his dreams—his hands digging deeper and deeper through the grains but never reaching the bottom of the box. To make matters worse, his wife thought it was hilarious a child was outsmarting him, so he quit mentioning the problem at home.
One afternoon, about a three months after the boy’s first appearance, Ignacio was walking home from the bar he and his cronies liked to frequent when he spotted a decaying building with a sign reading: “Psychic – Where Truth is Revealed.” He did not believe in psychics. They were con artists as far as he was concerned. Clever, but thieves. Yet, he found himself entering through the ridiculous beaded door and, a minute later, speaking to a middle-aged woman with a single white streak in her raven-black hair.
After a brief, slightly slurred and extremely vague description that he needed a “solution to a work problem,” the psychic pulled a tarot deck from a velvet pouch and had him cut the deck several times and choose three cards. “It needs your energy to be accurate,” she informed him. Gesturing to the first he’d chosen, she said, “The Moon card, when next to these other two, indicates anxiety regarding a deception and, perhaps, your ability to see the deception.” Continuing, she pointed to the Ace of Swords card, and said, “This card tells me that your way of looking at the situation is backwards in a sense. And,” she said pointing to the final card, “the Seven of Swords is also a card of deception but in this case, it’s referring to the deceiver and not yourself. Whoever this is, is getting away with it.”
Ignacio didn’t know whether to be impressed or furious. While she’d certainly been accurate, she hadn’t told him a damn thing he didn’t already know. Allowing more frustration in his voice than intended, he asked, “So, what is the deception? How do I figure it out?”
She slowly shook her head and looked up toward the ceiling as if trying to hear a distant call. “I’m sorry. I can’t see that clearly. Only that you are looking at it wrong . . . like from the wrong hilltop.”
Ignacio left angry. His problem was no closer to being solved and his pleasant buzz had transformed into a headache. “Criminals,” he spat out to no one in particular. “Everyone’s a damned criminal!”
And it went on this way for slightly over a year. Every couple of weeks, Conflicto would ride up to the gate, be thoroughly searched with extra attention to that damned box of sand, and then pedal off. It was always the same polite responses to Ignacio’s barked questions. And the same twinkle in the boy’s eyes.
Then, Ignacio turned 68 and, a few weeks later, worked his final shift. Roberto brought in greasy bags of street food, and a few off-duty cronies showed up to celebrate. Drinking on the job was, of course, against the rules but in a case like this, no one was going to file a complaint. So, ice cold cans of Tecate were passed around while the newest member on the force manned the gate. There were a lot of off-color jokes, most at Ignacio’s expense, and accounts of big busts and strange characters they’d dealt with over the years. It was all feeling quite pleasant until Roberto brought up Conflicto. Ignacio laughed it off but inside he wasn’t laughing. Not at all. That box of sand had plagued him and now it would seem he’d never get answers.
Inwardly, cursing the whole damn situation, he headed outside to take a leak behind the building despite the presence of a bathroom inside. He preferred to pee on the sand. In that moment, almost in what could be interpreted as divine mockery, Ignacio saw that Conflicto was riding up the road. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered and strode toward the gate. He sent the young guard in to have some empanadas and waited for Conflicto’s arrival. He didn’t know why he wanted to perform a final search—it seemed extremely unlikely he would find anything after all the previous failures. Yet, he realized he wanted one last crack at it.
Conflicto greeted Ignacio’s glower with a smile and they went through the same routine. With, of course, the same results. But, as Ignacio concluded the search and watched Conflicto start to pedal away, he called out to the boy. “Wait. Conflicto. Please, let me ask you one last question.” Ignacio had never used the boy’s name and, for the first time, he saw genuine puzzlement in Conflicto’s eyes as Ignacio trotted up to him. “Listen,” he said slightly out of breath from the jog, “Here’s the thing. This is my last shift before retirement. I’m finished being a border guard. Completely. And,” he paused trying to find the right words, “It’s been eating me up that I don’t know what you’ve been hiding in that sand. I honestly don’t care about the legality of it anymore. I’m not looking to get you in trouble or wrap up some loose end of my career. Not legally at least. Your box of sand . . . please, just tell me what it is you’re up to. I will not report you or anything. I’ll say nothing. To no one. You will still be free to go on your way.” To illustrate his sincerity, Ignacio pulled out a little gold cross he wore around his neck, and, nearly in tears, said, “I swear on the life of my wife, on my children, on El Christo himself, I will not get you in trouble! I just need to know what you’ve been smuggling. Please!!”
Ignacio would never know if it was the sincerity of his pleas or, perhaps, the boy’s desire to finally reveal how clever he’d been. Probably something else entirely since, in his experience, criminals never confessed to shit. Ever. Asking for one was a delusional, desperate long shot. But, Conflicto, after contemplating the request for a long moment, flashed Ignacio his toothy grin and said, “Did it ever strike you as peculiar, sir, that I am always on a different bicycle? And, expensive ones to boot?” With that, he rode away, box of sand in tow.
[Pic by Peter Merts in Vidal Junction, CA]