SHORT STORY | THE LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON
God only knows what I'm doing in this snake-infested, back-stabbing little whorehouse town. It's too hot to sleep and Valdez is over there roaming around on her side of the bed as bare assed naked as a blood-sucking shark, nuzzling my thigh, sniffing around for something sweet to take a bite out of. I've been in love with that girl half my life but I don't really know her. Two wrecks on the highway, rank strangers even to ourselves, is what we are. It's always been like that, ever since third grade, trying to save each other from our own worse selves and never once even coming close. And here we are together again the Night of the Dead on the northern edge of the treacherous black heart of Mexico, all shred of decency lost, our pride in tatters, hiding in the shadows, waiting to slip up like we always do: Just like Alvarez knows we will, and always have. But not this time. Everything's changed. It's not like it was before and it's too late to look back even if we wanted to, which we don't. We're like abandoned pirates now, watching our beautiful boats burning in the harbor. We're not going anywhere. Not until this is all over. Not until the killing ends.
These days she goes by the name of Val, which is short for Valdez, her father's name, but her real name's Frankie Jean. Who wouldn't change it? This is the first time I've seen her since we broke up over a year ago and it's hard to believe it's come to this, me sitting here, watching her dance nude in a contaminated skin palace in Matamoras. Sources tell me she's been working two shifts, trying to earn enough money to feed her kid while she tries to kick the merciless smack habit she's got. I can't say I'm surprised to have found here. It's my fault really. I don't know how many times I gave up on that poor girl and took a hike. But the stench of skank boiling in the bathroom haunted our house and there was no way I was going to live in a frigging shooting gallery. I couldn't help her. I tried everything. And I mean everything. But I have no choice now and time's running out. Alvarez wants her bad, and he wants me dead for even thinking about taking her away. And the only way he's ever getting her back is over my dead body.
I should have seen that slime ball Alvarez coming, his silver spoon shining in the fake moonlight, the cold blue sheen shimmering off his greasy blue black hair. It hadn't taken him long to break Val down and set her up in Mexico after we'd broken up. She was already strung out before I left, and it didn't take her long to burn through the shitload of the money I'd given her. But it wasn't until after Alvarez had decided to put her on the street, that I found out she was pregnant: And that I was the father.
Alvarez wasn't exactly happy to hear about me showing up in Mexico, believe me. I'd never actually met the old pendejo but he knew who I was, and he wasn't stupid; even a blind man could see how much Val and I still cared about each other. That never died. And he obviously knew I was the kid's father. He'd had big plans for Val. She was only seventeen when he'd latched on to her. She had the face of a Christmas tree angel then, but she was already an old women in some ways, clinging to her sanity and what was left of her self-respect. She wasn't chasing the dragon anymore, the dragon was chasing her. She fought like a mama lion to stay clean, but she couldn't win; Alvarez had already stacked the deck and rigged the game. She never had a prayer. Women like her never do when a predatory psychopath like Alvarez goes to work like some starry-eyed gold miner, stabbing at their veins with a pick axe, searching for the mother of all mother loads.
Val's step-father Wendell, of all people, told me about the baby, and I guess finding out I was the father was the reason I came down here to this putrid smelling septic tank of a town. Her baby needs a mother and I'll be damned if I'm letting Alvarez take Val away from the kid. Wendell told me that he'd seen a copy of the birth certificate with my name on it and thought I should know that Alvarez had seen it too. I never did figure ole Wendell's angle but his telling me was the only decent thing I remember the perverted son-of-a-bitch ever doing before he died. But don't look at me, I didn’t shoot the piece of shit. Not that I wouldn't have liked to for all the things he'd done to Val, having her pose for kiddy porn mags when she'd been nothing but a little girl, introducing her to Alvarez, and all the rest. If I could have found the nerve to drop a dime on that sick dick or popped a cap in his back and gotten away with it, I would have done it years ago, but that's all over now. Like everything else, life as we'd known it then is long gone.
I hadn't heard their footsteps on the hallway floor earlier but I can hear the click of a credit card working the lock. I unload both barrels of my .12 gauge at the peep hole, and duck. Silence. I grab Val and hit the fire escape. I know my plan to get Val out of Mexico isn't pretty but I had no idea it would get shot to shit so soon. I'd never told anybody where we were staying or which route we'd planned on taking back to the states, but Alvarez owns these back water Chihuahua border towns, and nearly everybody in them, and I should have known he'd track us down sooner or later. But I have friends too and I bought our way onto a freight train headed north. It would get us to Palomas, but we'd have to hitchhike to the border crossing.
Val's not happy about her nightgown flapping around in the breeze exposing her mesmerizing assets and she wants to stop to buy clothes, but I left everything but the .357 and a pocket full of shells I'd bought off a crooked cop in Matamoras in the hotel room, including most of my money and credit cards. We've got no more time to waste. Alvarez won't give up and the sun's sinking fast.
The train is packed so it's not hard to disappear in the crowd. Val had dyed her streaky blond hair black and taken out her blue contacts earlier. She can't see worth a shit but she's hard to spot, even up close. She could be Mexican for all anybody knows. I've never met Alvarez in person and I don't think he's got a picture of me, so we should be okay. But what I hadn't counted on unfortunately, is just how bad Alvarez wants Val back.
Val's coming down fast and needs a fix fast. But there's no way in hell I can score for her, and no way I would if I could. She's gonna have to go to war against that big bad bitch of a cold assed turkey on her own. I tell everybody she's got malaria and that we're headed for a hospital in Las Cruces. They seem to buy it, but then, they'd buy anything if the price was right. The people on the train are mostly migrants heading for the orange groves in Arizona, not two pennies to rub together among the lot of them. They don't eat or sleep. They'd spent most of their life savings on train fare and are saving whatever else they've got for supplies for the crossing, but the coyotes and gang thugs who will get them across the border will most likely take the rest, and turn those who can't pay into mules or whores. I can't believe I'm doing this for Val but what choice do I have? When she's not loaded she's worth it. If you'd ever spent five minutes with her you'd know what I mean. It's a bitch to find but that girl's got gold in her.
The sun is already down but the sky's still on fire, burning up what's left of a breeze that seems to have slipped out through a crack in the floor. Must be a hundred degrees in this damned cattle car. The train stops, and it's time to make a run for it. The border's only about three miles from here. Beats the shit out of crossing the desert, but still no picnic. This whole area is crawling with Federales but I figure our chances are still better crossing here than trying to make it across that over heated oven they call the Sonoran desert. Nothing but low tech surveillance and barbed wire to worry about here. We could have done Marfa or Del Rio but I liked our chances better in Palomas. Money changes hands fast down here, and since nobody likes transporting gringos, they charge triple the going rate. Mala suerte, they say. It's bad luck.
Val's putting on quite a show for the boys with her nightgown fluttering around like a the Mexican flag in a Day of the Dead parade. She grabbed a pair of high heels before we'd left the hotel but you'd think maybe she could have found a pair of underwear somewhere. Jesus, there's going to be hell to pay in Mexico tonight.
Turns out the train isn't going all the way to Palomas after all. Shit. I never saw that coming. Goddamned bastard Raul. I never should have trusted him. Rich man's kids and bad gamblers...save your money. But at least we're free of Alvarez for the time being. I've got a serious wad of cash stashed in my sock and we buy a ride to town on a truck full of cranky goats. If we can make Palomas we'll be ok. I know a guy there and all he does is transport illegals. Who knew all that time I wasted in the Peace Corp would ever come in so handy?
There's a slit of silver moonlight slicing through a dirty yellow cloud above us, so we'll have to wait till dark to cross. I've got a cell phone but the batteries are low and Raul is late. Val's burning up and she's shaking so badly I have to wring out her nightgown for her. I give her some water but she can't swallow, or walk, but she's tough as nails and she'll scrape that bad assed monkey off her back eventually; she's always had more guts than sense and God knows she's got it in her to.
I can't imagine where Alvarez is. I can smell him out there snorting up his profits, trolling the desert in his Bentley and that trained pack of rats of his, hanging their heads out the window like salivating Dobermans. Nobody double crosses Alvarez. Nobody.
The light in Val's eyes is sputtering, but she's hanging on. If I can find Raul we've got a chance. Turns out my gutter Spanish isn't as good as I thought it was and the truck driver's not going to Palomas after all. He drops us off like we're two sacks of rancid red chili by the side of the road and then vanishes.
I lean around the falling down shack we're hiding behind and see a pair of wobbly headlights dancing down the road. It's Raul. He's stoned but driving reasonably straight. I've never been so glad to see the old reprobate. Knew him when I was a college student in Albuquerque and he was selling smoke, but he's retired now. Makes a living selling phony historical documents supposedly "signed" by Pancho Villa to school book publishers. Makes you wonder what those history majors at the universities think they know about Mexico.
Raul takes a wrong turn and I have a sickening feeling we're screwed. The river that we're half up to our hubcaps in is a swirling cesspool and it's turned the road into a shimmering canyon of muddy garbage. We won't be going anywhere any time soon. Val's asleep so Raul and I leave her in the car and edge our way up the ditch to take a look. The lights of Palomas can't be more than a mile away and the car I spotted following us earlier is nowhere to be seen. I slide back down into the ditch and leave Raul up there to keep an eye out while I check on Val. Apparently, Raul's lost his edge over the years. His daddy was a border bootlegger that worked for Capone in the twenties and you'd think he would have taught his only son how to drive better than that. I really hate to leave him back there holding the bag but it's his own damned fault he caught a tail.
I wake Val up and we wade across the river. But before I can drag her up the slippery bank, I turn around and see three of Alvarez's goons unloading a vicious barrage of AK and Glock fire at Raul's Chevy. I'm not kidding, they're seriously lighting it up. It sounds like the Fourth of July back there. The car's already nothing but smoldering junk, disintegrating in a plume of burnt orange smoke. Val's holding her ears the gunfire is so loud and I have to cover her mouth so she won't scream. The car suddenly explodes, hurling burning metal and twisted chards of chrome over our heads and clear on across the river. When things calm down we drop to our knees and crawl up the bank. I can't see Raul anywhere.
I figure we've got maybe fifteen or twenty minutes before the Three Stooges figure out we're not in the car. The prickly pear and yucca along the river is tearing what's left of Val's dress to shreds. She's practically naked and we've still got a mile to go. Those paranoid bastards back there aren't as stupid as they look and they'll rip that car to pieces looking for our bodies. I know there's a federal warrant out for Alvarez in the States, so he won't be coming after us himself, but his goons will be on us in no time. At least until we cross the border. It won't be long.
I've got another ex-Peace Corp pal, Pablo Ortiz, waiting for us in Columbus, New Mexico at the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad Depot. I know I shouldn't risk a cell call to him but I'm not willing to take a chance of him not being there. Val's coherent for the first time in hours, but she's only human and I don't know how long it'll be until she caves. I put the forged papers I bought for her in her trembling hand and wrap her tattered mud caked dress around her shaking body as best I can. If we're lucky we should be able to walk across at the U.S. Customs Port of Entry, assuming Alvarez doesn't have somebody on the take working tonight.
The border guard is so enamored with Val's mouth watering tits peeking through what's left of her raggedy assed night gown that he takes a half hearted look at our papers and waves us through, keeping his eyes glued to Val's virtually bare butt as we walk away. Doesn't even ask us what we were doing in Mexico. We could be blood sucking terrorists and he still wouldn't give a shit.
Pablo's waiting right where he said he'd be, but he's nervous as a wet cat, trying not to look at us, which I take to be some kind of signal. I spin Val around and propel her out the way we came in. She's shaking like a paper doll and starting to hallucinate. Who knows what she think she sees? Probably thinks we're riding in a golden chariot on a trip to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I just hope it's not Alvarez she sees.
We catch a cab and make it as far as the Valley Heights Cemetery before the cabbie stops in the middle of the road and dives out of the car like he'd just found a five hundred pound bomb strapped to his balls. I look out the window and see Raul, standing there in the road in front of the cab with a Gulf wide, shit eating grin on his face. He sticks his head through the driver side window and says, "Buenas dias, mi amigo. Have a nice trip?" Calm as can be. Giving me nothing.
Val's a basket case but holding her own. Raul can't be happy about me leaving him alone back there to salvage what he could of his mangled wreck of a car in Palomas, but you wouldn't know it. "I don't blame you, amigo," he says, reading my mind. "You did what you had to do. But you better get out of that cab and come with me. Pablo's got another stop to make and he won't be joining us."
I had no choice but to ditch my .357 in Palomas earlier and am in no position now to argue with somebody who never goes anywhere without a high powered howitzer stuffed in his pants. So I pick Val up and deposit her in the back seat of the old beater piece of Jap crap that Raul most likely thinks is a cherry Chevy. I don't know what game he's playing or who's side he's on. I can't make myself believe Alvarez got to him, but then, I've been wrong about a lot of things lately. We're heading north on a dust choked back road towards Deming when Raul jerks the Chevy off the road and growls to a stop in a snarled stand of barrel cactus and greasewood. "End of the line," he says. Oh oh. This can't be good. But when I see the big smile on his face, I loosen my grip on the tire iron I found under the seat. "Alvarez won't come this far north," he says. "You're on your own now, bro. There's a gas station and cafe less than a mile up the road. Hasta luego, God willing. Mayo Dios estar con usted. And buy that lady a dress. Adios, amigo."
After nearly suffocating me in a monstrous bear hug, he gives Val a sloppy peck on the cheek and steps on the gas, sending a pink salamander scurrying for cover before plowing up half an acre of mesquite and cactus in his wake. Through the open window he gives us a little back handed Queen of England wave, his short circuiting taillight winking at us as he heads south for the border.
Val's coming around but barely, although I think she's through the worst of it. I hand her my canteen and a half melted Snickers bar. She eats a bite and takes a sip of water. She'll make it. Assuming she wants to. She's got a kid now, who her infinitely patient sweetheart of a mother in Santa Fe has been taking care of, and if I can just get Val straight, we'll all be together soon. We don't have that far to go and Alvarez won't be coming after us. Even he doesn't have the kind of juice he needs to get at us there.
Once we cross the Rio Grande and reach the main highway, I stick my thumb out and then duck as a whacked out semi driver spots Val stumbling around half naked, mumbling deliriously to the buzzards circling overhead. He slams on the brakes and comes to a stop in a cloud of greasy black smoke. The guy's obviously high as a frigging kite on angel dust, white crosses, meth, crack, and God knows what else, and when he sees Val up close, it's as if he's just seen a vision of St. Teresa herself, stumbling around naked in the dirt in the middle of the freaking Holy Land. But what do we care? We get in, and when the big rig roars to life, Val suddenly shakes herself awake and stares out the window. Cracking a dazzling, crooked little smile, she yells at the top of her lungs: "Last train to Babylon. All aboard!" And then, just as suddenly, she sinks back into a dope and fatigue fueled coma, oblivious to the pack of high flying vultures slashing up across the desert horizon into the red hot New Mexican sun.