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Bulletproof Vest

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Ambush (Zacatecas, Mexico, 2001)

Mexico’s Rural 44 is the only road that leads from his ranch to the cantinas of Valparaiso. Unless he decides to spend the night in a bordello, eventually he will be on that road. But there he is, standing at the bar, one foot propped up on the chrome rail, the heel of his cowboy boot wedged against it, his hand wrapped around a beer, the musicos playing a corrido just for him.

He takes a cold one for the road, settles his tab. The tyres of his Chevy grip the concrete; the truck jerks with every shift of the gears. Through the rear-view mirror he can see the lights of Valparaiso growing dim as he disappears into the abyss of the desert night. He pushes a tape into the deck and cranks up the volume. Each note blasts through him as the drums and horns blare from the huge speaker he rigged behind the seat. One after another, he listens to the corridos, the stories of heroes, outlaws and bandits, men who took the gamble, took the law into their own hands. Some won, some lost – some lost it all.

The stars above and the occasional whiff of decomposing carcass are his only companions. The headlights slice through the pitch-dark. Bugs fly in and out of the beams and some hit the windshield, leaving streaks on the glass. The truck swerves freely from left to right; occasionally, he will veer so far that the tyres catch the gravel on the shoulder. Jagged rocks grind beneath the weight of the truck. He drives past the ditch where he and his buddy recently drove off the road – the truck rolled twice before hitting a mesquite, his arm pinned under the hood for two days before anyone found them. Best to take it nice and easy, he thinks as he slows to a crawl, take it right down the middle of the road, wouldn’t want to end up kissing a tree again. The beams catch the tail lights of a blue car on the side of the road. Pobre pendejo, he thinks as he idles past the stalled car. There’s no one inside.

The condensation from the beer can is already forming a small pool of water on the vinyl seat between his legs. He takes a swig, notices the headlights of an approaching truck through his rear-view mirror. Suddenly, it’s upon him, practically pushing him out of the way, flashing its long beams. An arrow pointing at its target. Must be in a hurry, he thinks as he slows and pulls slightly on to the gravel. The truck flies by in a flurry of flashing beams. He grabs his beer but before the can reaches his lips, his truck is lit up in a hail of bullets. Every muscle in his body contracts, pulls him towards the steering wheel. Hot pressure pierces his body; bullets skid across his head. All around him glass shatters. The truck slows to a halt. The music has stopped, the speaker behind his seat pumped full of lead.

The sound of his breathing fills the cabin as a warm stream runs down his face and neck and collects in a puddle inside his shirt. Through his side mirror he sees the headlights of the blue car flick on. Two men with machine guns emerge from ditches on either side of the road and run through the beams, towards the car and jump in. Tyres screech as they do a U-turn and speed off in the opposite direction. Fucking cowards, he thinks as he watches their red tail lights vanish in the distance.

In his mind he prays to the Virgen de Guadalupe, to El Santo Niño de Atocha, to San Francisco de Asís, to any saint who will listen. It might be hours before another car comes down the road and his right arm is already going numb. He stares at the keys, still in the ignition, reaches for them, turns them slowly and, to his surprise, the truck lights right up. It’s a goddamn miracle, he thinks as he reaches for the scorpion gear knob and, with both hands, manages to shift into neutral. The incline gives him a slight push and the truck rolls towards home.

The sounds of creaking metal and shattered glass fill the truck’s cabin as he turns left on to the dirt road that leads to his ranch. The truck picks up momentum on the downward slope and wobbles violently as it rolls over gullies left behind by the flash floods of the rainy season. It flies past the shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe and, in his mind, he makes the sign of the cross: up, down, left, right. It glides into the shallow creek, swims over smooth stones, crawls up the slight incline on the other side and goes through the entrance to the ranch. But he’s lost speed on the climb and his focus is fading and the puddle collecting in his shirt keeps growing.

The truck crawls past the small adobe church; the bell sits quietly in its tower above. Laundry flapping in the courtyard comes into view, clean sheets flying in the midnight breeze. Not that far away now, he thinks. His right arm slips off the steering wheel and the truck swerves off the dirt road, smacking into a limestone wall. The hood flies open; hot steam hisses into the cold air. He drifts off, comes to; pushes the door open and slips into unconsciousness.

He feels claws digging into his shoulder, warm breath in his ear, wet tongues on his face and neck. There is a distant barking, which grows louder and closer and then it’s all around him. He opens his eyes. His dogs, El Lobe and El Capitan, are standing on their hind legs, wagging their tails and barking at him. He swings at them, tries to push them away and falls out of the truck; lands on the ground with a thud, a cloud of dust covers him. With his left hand, he pushes himself up and leans into the truck. The courtyard comes into focus in the distance. It takes all his might to drag the weight of his body towards home. He staggers past the encino woodpile he recently chopped, past the two alamo trees where the chickens sleep, reaches the blue metal gate, pushes it open and zigzags through the courtyard, leaving dirt and blood on clean laundry as he swats it out of the way, stumbling past the parakeet cage, the gas tank, the half-rubber tyre filled with drinking water for the dogs, the flowerpots arranged in large rusty tin cans along the cinder-block wall, until he reaches the green metal door of the house and collapses.

In the early hours, while the chickens are still tucked away in their trees and the chill of night lingers in the air, Doña Consuelo, one of the neighbours, goes out for her morning walk. She adjusts her headscarf and leans on her cane as she makes her way up the dirt road, her chihuahua prancing alongside her. She turns the corner and there it is. Pressed up against the limestone wall: the hood open, the windows shattered, the door ajar, the seat slick with blood. And the rumours start circulating. Jose is dead. His truck completely destroyed. By the time the news sweeps across the desert, crosses barbed-wire fences, travels north and makes it to the other side, my family hears conflicting stories.

‘Hey, did you hear about Dad?’ my sister Sonia asks when she calls from Chicago.

‘No,’ I say. I’m in my office in the garment district in New York City, filtering emails, reading my horoscope, checking out the special of the day at Guy & Gallard’s, trying to decide between a salad and a burger. ‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘He got ambushed,’ she says. ‘Apparently there were two guys with machine guns.’

‘Oh.’ I continue browsing through the menu. ‘Well, is he dead?’

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