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PUFFS OF CLOUDS

PUFFS OF CLOUDS
PUFFS OF CLOUDS

It is a red Chevrolet Blazer with tinted windows. As they reach it, locks click open. Enrique and the others scramble inside. In front sit a Latino driver and a woman. Enrique has met them before, at a house across the river frequented by El Tirindaro. They are part of his smuggling network.

It is 4 a.m. Enrique is exhausted. He climbs onto pillows in back. They are like puffs of clouds, and he feels immense relief. He smiles and says to himself, "Now that I'm in this car, no one can get me out." The engine starts, and the driver passes back a pack of beer. He asks Enrique to put it into a cooler. The driver pops a top.

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For a moment, Enrique worries: What if the driver has too many?

The Blazer heads toward Dallas.

Border Patrol agents pay attention to Blazers and other SUVs. Headlights tilted up mean there are people in the back, weighing down the vehicle, says Alexander D. Hernandez, a supervisor in Cotulla, Texas. Weaving means the load is heavy and causing sway. When the agents notice, they pull alongside and shine a flashlight into the eyes of the passengers. If the riders do not look over but seem frozen in their seats, they are likely to be illegal immigrants.

Enrique sleeps until El Tirindaro shakes him. They are out of Laredo and half a mile south of a Border Patrol checkpoint.

"Get up!" El Tirindaro says. Enrique can tell he has been drinking. Five beers are gone. The Blazer stops. Enrique and the two Mexicans, with El Tirindaro leading, climb a wire fence and walk east, away from the freeway. Then they turn north, parallel to it. Enrique can see the checkpoint at a distance.

Every car must stop.

"U.S. citizens?" agents ask. Often, they check for documents.

Enrique and his group walk 10 minutes more, then turn west, back toward the freeway. They crouch next to a billboard. Overhead, the stars are receding, and he can see the first light of dawn.

The Blazer pulls up.

Enrique sinks back into the pillows. He thinks: I have crossed the last big hurdle. Suddenly he is overwhelmed. Never has he felt so happy.

He stares at the ceiling and drifts into a deep, blissful sleep.

Four hundred miles later, the Blazer pulls into a gas station on the outskirts of Dallas. Enrique awakens. El Tirindaro is gone. He has left without saying goodbye. From conversations in Mexico, Enrique knows that El Tirindaro gets $100 a client. Enrique's mother, Lourdes, has promised $1,200. Clearly, this is all business, and the driver is the boss; he gets most of the money. The

patero

is on his way back to Mexico.

Along with fuel, the driver buys more beer, and the Blazer rolls into Dallas about noon. America looks beautiful. The buildings are huge. The freeways have traffic exchanges with double and triple decks. They are nothing like the dirt streets at home. Everything is so clean.

The driver drops off the Mexicans and takes Enrique to a large house. Inside are bags of clothing in various sizes and American styles, to outfit clients so they no longer stand out.

They telephone his mother.

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