The breaking news of the day was that Carlos Lopez, the notorious Mexican drug dealer, was under United States Border Patrol custody.
Carlos was reportedly picked up from an orange orchard near the Rio Grande, which serves as a section of the Mexican-American border. They come across extremely hazardous conditions by swimming by swimming across. Many families, including children are lost to the temperament of the Rio Grande. These stories fill the newspapers often. But no matter what, they risk their lives to reach a promised land.
Across the river in America, the vast orange orchards that stretch deep into the horizon is their first refuge. They feed on raw oranges and water from the river for weeks on end.
The US Border Patrol police spotted Carlos from a helicopter in that very orchard. The chopper flew low, the canopies were pushed aside exposing the fugitive running for cover. Based on reports, the police closed in on him quickly, and pounced on him as soon as they got the chance.
I was curious.
Who is this Carlos? The name was not specific enough, given how many Carlos’ exist in Both the US and Central America. There is a story by John Abraham, titled ‘How many Mathews are there in Kottayam?’ You could say there are enough Mathews in the tiny city of Kottayam to fill in the city ball park entirely. Carlos, though, is next level. It would be a bit more difficult to trace out a Carlos in the US than tracing out a Mathew in Kottayam or an Eldhose in Kothamangalam – there are a lot of people named Carlos.
But his face flashed on TV. There was only one Carlos that I knew, and I barely remembered him. I tried to trace out the name and the face. It was back when I was a real estate agent in McAllen in southern Texas. I used to meet Carlos regularly. Then one day when I returned to work after a break, Carlos was missing. I barely knew him, but I kind of missed Carlos. I initially made some enquiries, but eventually I decided to forget it all. Now that the news fills social media, I was bothered. The breaking news continued to flash on my screen. Memories of this little known Carlos came to him like a movie.
So, I drafted this short note for Facebook.
Who is this Carlos Lopez?
Back then I was at the border town of McAllen. Being closer to Mexico, most of the people in that city were of Mexican origin. My Carlos was a homeless man in that city. I first met him on my way to my regular lunch spot. He used to sit by a vegetable stand which was placed unobtrusively amidst the short maple trees. There were three other stores along that road, but only two were open. One was an ice cream shop, and the other was a barber shop. Carlos sat on the doorstep of the closed shop. The door of the vacant storefront had a billboard that said that the space was available for rent. His presence probably had something to do with it.
But he did not look homeless. Close to him a cardboard sign was turned over. I was curious as to what was on that sign, but I didn’t really make an effort to find out. He had on decent clothes. He had never ever looked at me. He would sit there leaning on the glass door looking down. He had a leather bag, one or two plastic bags with what I assume were his belongings and water bottles close by. There was a walking stick propped up against the pillar. Though he didn’t seem to need a walking stick. He had grey pants, a yellow t-shirt and an ancient black grey jacket. His hair was uncombed, flapped in the wind, and his beard was untidy. He always looked the same except for the t-shirts. Each day he had a different brightly colored t-shirt.
Once I stopped near him on my daily walk. Pretending to search for something on my phone I observed him on the sly, but he didn’t seem to care. It was not easy to catch his attention, but I greeted him. I offered him a five dollar bill and he accepted it stoically with a cold thank you. He peered into my eyes and said, ‘I’m hungry.’
The poor fellow was starving. He never really begs, so I was surprised. He never even helped up his cardboard sign. I started to share half of my sandwich with him, whenever I happened to pass by him. Or I would keep his share in the fridge in my office. The Hispanic woman who works at night would throw it into the waste bin. In America no one really cares that much about a half sandwich. So many sandwiches end up in restaurant garbage cans. So much food is wasted in this country and yet here was Carlos starving on his storefront.
But on certain days I did not buy a sandwich, and he would stare at me aggressively when I go past him with empty hands. His glance probably meant something like, ‘Where is my share, dude?’ and I would feel guilty and give him five dollar bills. Repeated gifts becomes a right, so say the wise. Though I had spoiled him like that I was happy about it.
Only once I bothered to ask his name. He grunted ‘Carlos’ and then looked at me and finally lifted the cardboard sign. It read, “Please help me go to hell,” and it was signed “Carlos Phavela.” It was written in two lines so one could read it as, “Please help me. Go to hell.” That message piqued my curiosity, but I was not surprised at the shock value. Another beggar at Wilmar junction had a sign that said, ‘Please help me find my wife.’ You could say it was a common tactic of the homeless in the city – the sign was an eye catcher, probably nothing more. Not sure why Carlos was hiding his message — that was a little strange.
Once, I had come back from a weeklong trip, and Carlos was missing. I hoped that he would be there in a day or two, and continued to keep his share of sandwiches in the fridge. The Hispanic custodian at work would keep throwing away the leftovers into the waste bin.
A month later in front of Carlos’ storefront, a billboard appeared in bold letters, ‘Paradise Spa’ and in small letters, ‘Walk-ins, welcome.’ Another sign said, ‘Open.’
Inside the shop there were a lot of busy people. I peeped in from the other side of the road, and realized that it was a massage parlour. The beautiful receptionist was talking to someone. He must be a new customer. Then another girl appeared and gave him a glass of water. He had apparently been massaged. He had his water and sweet talked with the girls, and another man entered the parlour. He hugged and kissed one of the girls and left the room. As he had kissed on the lips it was obvious that he was her boyfriend.
In any case they would not let Carlos beg in front of the business. They might have complained to the police. The police might have rehabilitated him in a homeless shelter. Does anyone report a homeless person missing? In the US, every city has its share of the homeless. Even President Trump has no solution for that. Being a free country people have the right to be homeless, the constitution guarantees that. They live as the children of the streets. Still, in the back of my mind, I was worried about him.
The receptionist at the Paradise Spa informed me coldly that he had killed himself. He had been chased away from the spot many times, and on a certain day he was found dead at the doorstep. She had called the emergency number. It felt like she was making some of this up. I guessed that the poor fellow died out of starvation as he refused to beg. Even though I didn’t do anything wrong, I felt remorseful. I felt I should have let him open up to me. Maybe I could have even saved him. He used to cough time and again, it might have been an incurable disease. I should have asked him. But he was a strange creature. If anyone bothered to talk to him, he would lift his sign. Though the message was ‘Help me go to hell’, the ‘go to hell’ part was obviously meant for the visitor, if his body language had anything to do with it.
Still, I could not trust that too-beautiful masseuse. So, I went to the ice cream parlour. I know Alberto, the proprietor of the shop. I was a regular customer there. He greeted me warmly when I entered the shop. He had missed me. At the cash counter I asked about Carlos.
‘He was crazy, he was selling drugs. Somebody informed the police, and they nabbed him for drug trafficking,’ Alberto informed happily.
That version seemed more believable to me. On looking back, the story seemed fitting. His red eyes and drugged visage became more revealing. The poor fellow took to drugs and drug dealing to make a living.
‘Sounds plausible,’ Alberto agreed.
Alberto also told me that one of his legs was paralyzed. This was news to me. Apparently, at night his cronies used to come with a wheelchair to take him away. He might have shared his cash collection with them. Then they might have gone to a bar to drink with all the money he made.
I told Alberto that the girl next door told me Carlos committed suicide. Alberto said that it was one of Carlos’ acts, occasionally he liked to play dead. The girls might have been scared at that scene. When she called the police they came with an ambulance and scooped him up, possibly making a scene. Probably, Alberto was guessing it all. There was no news about him after that. And nobody was bothered.
The barber next door may come out with another version. It all looked like the legendary story of the crow being thrown up.
People are so gullible. They concoct impossible stories out of nothing. Even our gospels are made like that. The historic and ultra-historic characters are given super human powers and they become theology for our consumption. A gifted writer could deify Carlos also without any difficulty, if he tries. Carlos was homeless and disabled. I had only sympathy for him.
The reality was that Carlos was missing altogether. Truth had to be snuffed out. I thought of going to the police station. One Saturday I went to the city police. Though I explained everything, it was of no use. He never existed in their records. He was probably an illegal immigrant who crossed the Wall and was shot in the leg while running to safety, so I guessed. So then, he was incapable of other jobs. For a living he was forced into drugs. Seems likely.
Thereafter I was gradually forgetting Carlos. Still, I wanted to let the world know about it on social media. Maybe, somebody would enlighten me about Carlos upon reading this post.
This was the draft for the post. Time and again the face of Carlos on TV flashed on my mind. Something was missing. Years have come to pass, hence changes are natural. Anyway, he is nobody to me, Santhosh told himself.
How did Carlos Phavela become Carlos Lopez? Probably he was wrong, still it was a puzzle. Who is that man, really? There are numerous people in that name in Mexico. They conquer Trump’s wall by the fury of hunger. He may be one among them, another Mathew of Kottayam.
The next day Santhosh drove to the border of the city with all his memories of Carlos. He explored the shores of the Rio Grande, the orange orchard, and reached the wall. The river and the wilderness were covered in darkness. He saw many people swimming across the river, but nothing was clear. Their faces were alike. They had the same clothes and whispered in the same language. When night progressed people increased in numbers, and I kept seeing Carlos there, making his way across. Nothing was clear.
* * *
Thampy Antony is a short story writer and actor based in the US. His latest books `Lady Biker’ and `Vasco da Gama’ are available on Amazon.