Sergio se quedó sin saber que decir. Tenía el concepto atorado en la garganta, pero se negaba a salir en forma de palabras.
Un sorbo de la cerveza que tenía enfrente le ayudó a desatorar el nudo conceptual.
-¿Es en serio? -inquirió el joven, dejando la botella de cuartito en la mesa.
-Oye vato, si quisiera hacer bromas me iría al parque a actuar de payaso -mencionó Felipe, apoyando el brazo derecho en la mesa.
Felipe tenía poco más de treinta años, aunque aparentaba un par de años más por el bigote, que siempre traía bien cuidado y recortado, al igual que su cabello, negro como el carbón.
El pollero vestía con una camisa azul de manga larga, pantalones de mezclilla de un color negro deslavado por los años, y unas botas de cuero café, bien cuidadadas. Había dejado sobre la mesa su sombrero de vaquero, blanco como el algodón, al alcance de su mano izquierda.
Felipe era el sobrino de Graciano, quién siete años antes había pasado al grupo de Miguel y Mariano al otro lado de la frontera. Según contaba, su tío había durado solo un par de años más, antes de dejarle todo el negocio a él.
-Pues es que está muy caro. Casi lo mismo que costó cruzarnos a cinco personas, pues -comentó Sergio, todavía un tanto incrédulo.
-Eso fue entonces, ahora es mayor el riesgo -comenzó Felipe, mientras daba sorbos a su cerveza en cada pausa. -Hay mayor vigilancia de parte de los gringos, con más cámaras y drones; los pasos están más vigilados en ambos puntos, y es más difícil cruzar; y los cárteles te pueden agarrar de un lado o del otro, y créeme que no quieres que eso pase.
-¿Y por ese precio seguro sí cruzo sin pedos? -insistió Sergio, todavía sintiéndose inseguro.
Si no podía lograr un buen trato, estaba dispuesto incluso a esperar la caída de la noche, buscar un punto en la barda por dónde pudiera trepar, y jugársela a cruzar el desierto a pie, solo.
-Soy tan seguro que podría ser una agencia de viajes, vato. Y tienes suerte, porque justo mañana será el cruce que arreglo cada mes -explicó el pollero, con una sonrisa, tratando de mostrarse confiable.
-¿Ah, sí? ¿Pues cómo es el viaje? -preguntó Sergio.
Felipe se llevó un dedo a los labios, antes de contestarle.
-Mira, no puedo darte detalles, solo que es una ruta que hago desde hace año y medio, todos los que van cruzan sin pedos. Si vienes, te garantizo que llegas a Tucson. -dijo Felipe, cruzándose de brazos. -Ya después de ahí, es problema tuyo lo que hagas y adónde vas.
Sergio todavía no se sentía muy convencido. Acaso podría probar su suerte preguntando por algún otro pollero, pensó.
-Si todavía tienes dudas, pues es normal. Pero te garantizo que el precio es uno de los más bajos, considerando el riesgo y la distancia -continuó el pollero. -Si lo que quieres es solo saltarte la barda, o probar irte escondido en un coche, también puedo conectarte con la gente adecuada. Pero así sí es más fácil que te atrapen, vato.
El pollero hizo una seña a Roberto, pidiendo otra cerveza. El cantinero la llevó con rapidez, ya que se habían ido casi todos los clientes que llegaban de manera usual a la hora de la comida.
-Cuando acepté este negocio de mi tío, me hizo prometer que una vez que aceptara el dinero de alguien, de quien fuera, yo haría lo posible e imposible por cumplir con lo prometido- compartió Felipe. Limpió la boca de la botella con una servilleta de papel, antes de comenzar a beberla. -Si me pagas, te prometo por la virgencita que te llevaré del otro lado.
Sergio soltó un suspiro. Considerando sus opciones, lo mejor sería tomar el riesgo con Felipe. Cada día que esperara, era un día en que se exponía a ser detenido por la policía, o secuestrado por un cártel, que era casi lo mismo por aquellos lugares.
-Muy bien, acepto tu oferta -dijo Sergio.
Felipe extendió la mano, y Sergio la apretó, sellando el acuerdo. De inmediato sintió que elipe le pasaba un pedazo de papel doblado en la mano.
-Perfecto, entonces te veré mañana en la hora y el lugar que ya sabes -explicó Felipe. -Y abrígate bien.
El pollero acabó la cerveza que le quedaba de un trago, se levantó, y dejó dos billetes de doscientos a Roberto, el propietario del bar.
Sergio esperó unos minutos, y luego se levantó de la mesa, con el papel todavía en la mano. Se acercó a la barra, dónde Roberto estaba ocupado metiendo botellas llenas de cerveza en la nevera de plástico.
-Oiga, disculpe, ¿dónde puedo comer barato por aquí cerca? -inquirió Sergio, con una de las correas de la mochila en el hombro derecho.
-Saliendo vas a la izquierda, hasta la esquina, y de ahí te vas para abajo hasta ver un depósito de la Corona. Justo en frente hay un local con comida corrida -explicó Roberto, haciendo los ademanes para señalar la dirección correcta.
-Gracias -dijo Sergio. -Adiós, y gracias por todo.
-No hay de qué, pero mejor guardate las gracias hasta que estés del otro lado. Te deseo buena suerte -se despidió Roberto.
El cantinero volvió a su labor de reponer la reserva de cerveza helada. Sergio abrió la puerta de aluminio, y salió a la calle. Lo recibió el Sol menguante del atardecer, cuya luz comenzaba a tornarse en tonos naranja.
Mientras esperaba la comida en el local que le habían indicado, Sergio echó un vistazo a la nota. Detallaba la hora y el lugar dónde debería presentarse mañana.
Para cuando le sirvieron la sopa de verduras, Sergio ya tenía un plan. Esa noche buscaría el motel más barato que pudiera encontrar, y trataría de descansar lo más posible. Necesitaría todas sus energías para el viaje.
Se preguntó el porque Felipe le había dicho que se abrigara bien, pero decidió no pensar mucho en ello. Seguiría el consejo, y ya descubriría la razón mañana en la noche.
Por suerte había traído consigo un viejo suéter negro que había usado en el último año de la secundaria. Sus padres lo habían comprado un par de tallas más grande, porque esperaban que lo usara durante la preparatoria.
Sergio decidió dejar de lado sus preocupaciones por un rato, para poder disfrutar su comida. Sería la última buena comida que tendría en un buen tiempo, si lograba cruzar la frontera.
Mientras Sergio comía, el Sol seguía su descenso por el cielo, la gente entraba y salía del local. En el fondo, podía oír el sonido de una televisión sintonizada en una de las telenovelas de la tarde.
Cuando estaba casi a punto de comer lo último de la ensalada que le habían servido con la delgada carne asada, en su mente surgieron de nuevo las palabras del viejo Eliseo.
-Vas a morir allá afuera -es lo que había dijo es viejo borracho.
Sergio se quedó viendo por un momento el último bocado que tenía en el tenedor de plástico blanco.
Morir allá o morir aquí. Al final no había diferencia.
Acabó de comer, y se levantó para ir a pagar a la mujer que estaba encargada.
-Well, ain't that a kick in the nuts -Dave said, like he was doing more than just stating the obvious.
The blond man tried to reach into his gray camouflaged jersey for his pack of cigarrettes, but a mean look from Mike made him take his hand away.
-You know damn well it took me two years to get rid of the damn smell after Shawn died -Mike reminded him. -And that goes for all of you, too. If you want to smoke, do it outside on the deck.
The group had just finished eating dinner. The ones who had gone on the recon mission towards the fence had come back ten minutes after Paul and the others had finished setting things up.
Now they were drinking some beer from a keg that Mark had brought along to celebrate their ten year anniversary of doing the border patrol. Like always, Rich had been drinking a bit more that he should, but so did almost everyone, except for Helen, who was a teetotaller.
-And what happened after you got back home, Paul? -Helen asked, her head resting on the shoulder of a bald man with a black handlebar moustache with specks of white.
George looked like he would've been right at home on top of a chopper, with nothing else but him and the open road. He even had some intrincate tattos on his forearms, some of them looking a bit too rough to be made by a professional.
-Well, if the devil wanted a role-model, I would direct him to the insurance company that I'd signed up before being shipped overseas -Paul commented, his words dripping with some bitterness despite the time that had passed already.
-It's the fault of that goddamn socialized medicine we're being dragged into, if you ask me -Rich intervened, which gained him an annoyed look from Helen. Even if he had noticed it, Rich wouldn't have cared.
-God damn it, Rich, let the kid finish! -said a rather large man, fatter than even Rich.
Sam was almost at his sixtieth birthday, but time had eroded away his patience towards anything he found annoying, and he always had something to feel annoyed by.
Rich shrank a bit in his seat, feigning a sudden interest in his glass of beer. Sam motioned to Paul to continue.
-As I was saying, the insurance company was full of grade-A assholes, every one of them -Paul remembered, while playing a bit with his empty glass. -the bastards not only didn't want to pay for the hospital stay, surgery and all, but also tried to claim that the rehabilitation costs was something that wasn't covered by the policy.
-Fucking rat bastards -muttered Nick, who was resting his head on the table, using his right arm as a makeshift pillow.
-Yeah, that's some messed up stuff, son -Mark added, with a coarse voice. He was the second oldest person in the group, just a couple youngers than Sam. Unlike him, he looked like time had chipped away at more than just his patience, since he looked like tall, wiry scarecrow.
It didn't help that his green and brown camouflage jacket looked a size too big for him to use. It was also hard to ignore the scars running all over his nose and left cheek, a reminder of an old car accident he had been involved in his youth.
-I haven't gotten to the worst part. Or best, if you like -Paul said, with an ironic smile on his lips. -You see this fake leg of mine?
Paul then pointed down to his prostethic leg, and tapped the aluminum shaft with the beer bottle, making the glass sound like the bell on top of the door at Henry's shop.
Out of instinct, Nick got up, looking wildly from side to side.
-Welcome, sir, how can I help you? -Nick asked, like he always did when he was at the shop.
Everyone else laughed at him, while Nick was still trying to remember where he was.
-So, what about the leg? I think that looks fine -George commented, while the laughs started to calm down.
-Oh, this one is fine, is a real good leg. But it's not the leg that those assholes paid for -Paul revealed.
Of all the bad things that had happened once he got back home, that was still the one thing that he was hung up on.
-When I was going through rehab, the doctor told me that soon I would be ready to start working with the prostethic leg -Paul remembered, while the grip on his beer got a little tighter. -And I got kinda excited, because some of the guys that also went there were vets who had this fancy, battery powered things. Like out of a sci-fi movie.
-And people say we don't care about our veterans -Rich interjected. He was getting ready to start a rant, but a quick look around the table convinced him that it would be better received at a later time. Right now, everyone wanted to know more about what Paul was telling.
-Anyway, there I am at the doctor's office, feeling like a kid in Christmas morning, when he enters the room with a large box that looks a little beat-up, sits down and out he takes an ugly,cheap-looking prostethic half-leg -Paul described, still feeling the dissapointment and anger like he was back in that office.
He then explained how the doctor told him that that thing was the best the insurance company was willing to pay for. Paul and his father had tried to argue with the company, but didn't get anything more than getting cited a bunch of rules and regulations.
That thing worked as well as it looked. Paul couldn't even use the cane, and had to keep using the crutches, which did wonders for his ability to move around the town.
-It was a pretty bad time for me and my dad. I wanted to go back to work, any work, but it was damn impossible if I even couldn't walk right -Paul said. Then he nodded towards where Rich was sitting. -It was then that I met Rich and the guys, when he was handing leaflets at a park.
Paul was sitting down in a bench, trying to rest and let what was left of his leg to recover enough to go back to his dad's house. It had been another day were he was going around town, trying to find a job, but almost all of those jobs required someone who could walk without crutches.
He tried to distract himself by watching the people going around the park. He felt a bit bitter at how all these people went around, taking for granted something as easy as walking. He had tried to help his country, to do some good, and now here he was, after the people in charge had done just enough to quiet their conscience.
-He gave one to me, and I just crumpled it up and threw it away once he walked away -Paul recounted. -Then, a couple of days later, he hands me another, which I also threw away. Then a week later, he gives me another leaflet.
-And he told me: "Old man, I'm just going to throw it away like all the others, why do you keep giving one to me?" -Rich mentioned, this time his intervention not being resented.
-Yeah, like that. And he tells me: "Because you look like the kind of guy who is in a hole, and wants to get out" -Paul said, trying to make his best impression of how Rich's voice sounded.
He didn't threw away that leaflet. Once he got back home, Paul took a good look at that piece of paper. It was for a group called Concerned Citizens of America, in big bold letters flanked by crossed American and Confederate flags.
Fellow citizen! America is in danger!
The country is in turmoil, assaulted by enemies both abroad and at home!
As the once great society built by our forefathers crumbles around us,
the effects are being felt by each of us, the good people in every town and city!
Our government no longer cares about us, the true Americans, instead choosing to cater to the whims of a select few!
If you want to learn the truth behind it all, come to our meetings, ever last Saturday of the month!
The next Saturday, Paul was in front of a peculiar looking building. It was made out of two metal shipping containers put togehter side by side, with an elaborate wooden sign identifying it as "The Great Stag Hunting Lodge".
-So, I walk inside, and then I saw Rich, talking to Pete while sitting one of the wooden pine benches they had facing the far wall of the lodge -Paul described. -There were like fifteen other people already sitting there, and when Rich saw me he got up and shook my hand, thanking me for being there.
The first speaker was an old man wearing a cheap looking dark-blue suit. He was from Phoenix, Arizona, and talked at lenght about the problem of illegal immigration. The man's speech was full of attacks towards the "good for nothing liberals" in the federal government that "were content to let his home be run into the ground" by the never-ending flux of illegal immigrants coming from south of the border.
Paul found the speech quite droll, even if did have some interesting facts about the problem of illegal immigration. He was starting to think he should leave, when Rich announced the theme of the next presentation.
It was from a man in his forties, dressed in a flanel shirt tucked inside his jeans. He was bald, and had a full, neatly trimmed auburn beard. He was a representative from a charity whose main concern was helping the injured veterans coming home from Afghanisthan and Iraq.
That grabbed Paul's attention, and vor the next half hour he heard how many veterans couldn't cope with these life-changing injuries at first, but were still the same brave men and women they always were, adapting to their new challenges.
Still, they needed help to go back into society. There weren't many places that hired people like them, and their families also faced their own challenges, getting accustomed to the changes that their loved ones had been through.
-After that meeting was over, Paul asked how he could get in touch with the organization. We got to talking, and that's when I found out about the troubles he'd had with his leg -Rich mentioned, drinking the last of his beer.
-They helped me a lot -Paul admitted. -To get rid of that piece of shit fake leg, and get this new one, that may not be fancy but at least let's me walk without a cane.
-We also helped him find a job at Henry's store -Rich added. He scratched his right forearm, just where a mosquito had bitten him. -It's not fancy, but it's a good, honest job.
-And that's how I got here -Paul finished. He took a sip of his beer. -I wanted to learn more about how to help make our country a better place, and to pay back the kindness I've received.
Everyone around the table mumbled with approval, the drinking and late hour starting to get to them. Nick had succumbed to it already, sleeping with his face down on the table, his left arm covering his messed up hair.
-Okay, everyone, time to go to sleep. Tomorrow we have a busy day -announced Mike, as she got up from the table.
Twenty minutes later, Paul was sleeping on the couch. The sleeping arrangements were always done in a first come, first serve way, but after hearing his tale the other guys almost forced him to accept the couch, instead of his sleeping bag on the floor of the living room, like Rich, Nick, Mark and Dave.
Sam had preferred to sleep on the outside, right on the back deck. He explained that he preferred to be outside, since that's what he always did on his hunting trips, and didn't like much sleeping inside a house other than his own.
Paul had left his prostethic leg right next to the sofa, propped against a small table that had a small flower vase with plastic orchids in it.
He covered himself in the sheets that Mike had given him, printed with a dark green grass pattern and some orange flowers. The night was getting a bit chilly, and he felt less guilty about not sleeping in the floor.
Paul wondered how things would've turned out if he hadn't accepted that leaflet, and gone to the meeting. It was kind of hard to believe that things would been better, he admitted to himself, before falling asleep.