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THE MOMENT

THE MOMENT
THE MOMENT

He considers crossing the Rio Grande by himself. But his friends at camp warn him against it.

They talk about river bandits who kill, a man sucked under by a whirlpool, dogs at Border Patrol checkpoints that respond to German and can smell sweat, the 120-degree desert, diamondback rattlers, saucer-sized tarantulas and wild hogs with tusks. Some immigrants, dehydrated and delirious, kill themselves. Their leathery corpses sway from belts around their necks on whatever is sturdy and tall. Water jugs lie empty at their feet.

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El Hongo listens. Finally, he decides against going alone. "Why should I die doing this?" he asks himself. Somehow, he will call his mother and ask her to hire El Tirindaro.

On May 18, he awakens to find that someone has stolen his right shoe. He spots a sneaker floating near the riverbank. He snags it. It is for a left foot. Now he has two left shoes. Bucket in hand, he hobbles back to the taco stand, begging along the way. People give him a peso or two. He washes a few cars, and it starts to rain. Astonishingly, he has put together 20 pesos in all.

That is enough to trade in his 30-peso phone card for one worth 50 pesos.

He will use the 50 peso card to call his old boss at the tire store. If the boss reaches his aunt and uncle, and if they know his mother's number, and if his aunt or uncle will call him back ...

It is May 19. Father Leonardo Lopez Guajardo at Parroquia de San Jose is known to let migrants phone from the church if they have cards. Each day, he serves as their telephone assistant. In flip-flops, he pads to the door every 15 minutes or so and summons someone for a return call.

In late afternoon, Enrique reaches his old boss with his request. Two hours later, the padre bellows Enrique's name. As always, word spreads through the courtyard like wildfire: Someone named Enrique has a phone call.

"Are you all right?" asks Uncle Carlos.

"Yes, I'm OK. I want to call my mom. I've lost the phone number."

Somehow, his boss has neglected to tell them this. Do they have it with them? Aunt Rosa Amalia fumbles in her purse. She finds the number. Uncle Carlos reads it, digit by digit, into the phone.

Ten digits.

Carefully, Enrique writes them down, one after another, on a shred of paper.

Just as Uncle Carlos finishes, the phone dies.

Uncle Carlos calls again.

But Enrique is already gone. He cannot wait.

When he talks to his mom, he wants to be alone; he might cry. He runs to an out-of-the-way pay phone to call her. Collect.

He is nervous. Maybe she is sharing a place with unrelated immigrants, and they have blocked the telephone to collect calls. Or she might refuse to pay. It has been 11 years. She does not even know him. She had told him, even harshly, not to come north, but he has disobeyed her. Each of the few times they have talked, she urged him to study. This, after all, was why she left--to send money for school. But he has dropped out of school.

Heart in his throat, he stands on the edge of a small park two blocks from the camp. Next to the grass is a Telmex phone box on a pole.

It is 7 p.m. and dangerous. Police patrol the park.

Enrique, a slight youngster with two left shoes, pulls the shred of paper from his jeans. They are worn and torn; he is too tattered to be in this neighborhood. He reaches for the receiver. His T-shirt is blazing white, sure to attract attention.

Slowly, carefully, he unfolds his prized possession: her phone number.

He listens in wonderment as his mother answers.

She accepts the charges.

"

Mami?

"

At the other end, Lourdes' hands begin to tremble. Then her arms and knees.

"Hola, mi hijo.

Hello, my son. Where

are

you?"

"I'm in Nuevo Laredo.

Adonde estas?

Where are you?"

"I was so worried." Her voice breaks, but she forces herself not to cry, lest she cause him to break down too. "North Carolina." She explains where that is. Enrique's foreboding eases. "How are you coming? Get a coyote." She sounds worried. She knows of a good smuggler in Piedras Negras.

"No, no," he says. "I have someone here." Many smugglers deliver their clients to bandits. Enrique trusts El Tirindaro, but he costs $1,200.

She will get the money together. "Be careful," she says. Go to a hotel. Get the telephone number and the address of Western Union in Nuevo Laredo. She will wire money for a room.

"No," he says. He is camping by the river. But he will call back with the Western Union information, so she can send a little money anyway.

The conversation is awkward. His mother is a stranger. This is probably expensive; he knows that collect calls to the United States from back home in Honduras cost several dollars a minute.

But he could feel her love. He places the receiver in its cradle and sighs.

At the other end, his mother finally cries.

     [ Return to Top ] NEXT: CHAPTER SIX (Coming Monday)
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