Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion, translated by Andrea Rosenberg and out this month from Europa Editions, in narrated by Liborio, a young man who illegally immigrates to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life. The excerpt below alternates between Liborio’s flashbacks (italicized) of his experience in a border town shortly after his crossing of the Rio Bravo, and his present life in the city where he is trying to reinvent himself—and where, after he is attacked, he is helped by Aireen, a young woman with whom he is enamored.
[One afternoon, after we’d been paid at the cotton-picking farm, we toad-hopped toward the city to watch a match between the Mexican and US soccer teams in a bar. El Pepe, El Ramonete, El Jíbaro, Piolín, El Arenuco, and La Toña Peluches—who’d used to be known as Toño, but because his nuts were so hairy you couldn’t see his prick, everybody called him La Toña Peluches—we all got into El Pepe’s truck and headed off down the highway.
And so we were off, them looking for booze and fucking football, and me looking for soda pop, because alcohol gave me searing goddamn headaches like hammer blows.
We arrived at the Latinoid dive near State Highway 87 and spilled out of the truck.
It was a dismal joint lit by a couple of neon signs that said, “Open, cabrones.”
A US and a Mexican flag were draped across the entrance. It was darker inside than it was outside. Wooden tables and chairs and a television for watching the game. The place didn’t look dirty, though it stank of beer and sweat. The bartender was an ossified geezer with an arm full of tattoos distorted by wrinkles.
We sat down wherever we could find a spot; the place was awash with paisas. After all, when you’re getting wasted, any hole is paradise, especially when there’s a US–Mexico match involved.
El Pepe ordered the first round, dark, from the tap, to celebrate and have a laugh at life as the game began.
I was remembering when they’d brought me to the farm for the first time. The three of them had lifted me down from the truck and put me in a room all the way in the back of a barracks, near a lean-to.
They placed compresses of cold water on my back, shoulders, legs, head, and kept me crucified like that on a bed made of planks. One vato injected me with an antibiotic whenever I woke up, supposedly so my wounds wouldn’t get infected.
“The sun, see,” he’d say as he prepared the fucking needle he was going to use to spear me in the backside, “same as it gives life, also takes it away.”
And they brought me serums to drink and to spread on my arm, right there, roosted on a dunghill that seemed to me like the most magnificent kingdom on Earth.
A couple of weeks later, I was able to stand. The scars on my back had gotten less dramatic. Now there were just wrinkled pieces of skin across my back, like trickles of honey running down from the nape of my neck to my tailbone. An older man would apply aloe vera, and another guy would squeeze lime juice into abalone shells, telling me it was to “erase your scars, paisa, because otherwise you’re going to end up all lizardy, with scales instead of pores. You really broiled yourself good, little squirt.”
By the fifth week, it was as if it had all been a dream. I stood up and managed to walk across the room and back without using my crutch, which was a broom handle. So I started working with them, like part of the family. First wrangling cables and then hauling crates, until two weeks later I helped them harvest the cotton flowers.
In the bar we had a few rounds. Me belching my Coca-Colas, and them teasing me for being a pansy and not drinking beer, and me just taking it and laughing and laughing as I watched their eyes roll back every time they took a drink.
The match started after we all stood for the two anthems, the Mexican one and the gringo one.
“Viva México, cabrones!” came a shout from the other side of the bar, at another table packed with paisas.
And so the game starts without a fuss and things are pretty uneventful until, in a direct free kick by the Mexican team, the ball hits the crossbar and bounces off toward a gringo defender who can’t get clear and, boom, an Aztec vato strikes it hard and, smackdiddly, it hits the net.
“Gooooooooal!” we all shout.
“Gooooooooal!” shouts the fucking announcer.
The whole crew euphoricates.
“Hell yeah. Hell yeah,” shouts El Pepe.
El Ramonete keeps drinking.
“Hell yeah. One–nothing,” says El Piolín. “Chili pepper’s revenge. Sweet!”
“One more round.”
“One more, ’cause we’re so damn happy,” warbles El Jíbaro.
The second half of the match begins, and order seems to have the upper hand over chaos. A gringo player goes wide on the right, secures the ball, and swings it across the pitch.
“These guys don’t make things personal, they don’t try to be heroes. They want results,” says El Ramonete.
The gringo kicks the ball down the center and it heads toward the box. The keeper leaps into the air, but the gringo’s head reaches the ball first and, fuzzbuckets, it strikes the back of the net.
“Goal, motherfuckers!” yells a gringo behind us. “USA!”
“No worries, there’s still time,” says La Toña Peluches.
Two minutes later, another gringo passes it to number 10, who heads toward the middle. He passes to a holding midfielder, and the midfielder passes it back to number 10, who kicks it backward with his heel toward a defender who’s charging down the field like a freight train and wallops the ball like a mule.
The ball arcs toward the goal, whistling like a fucking rocket.
The Mexican goalkeeper jumps and stretches sideways like a batrachian, but his frog legs aren’t strong enough and the ball lands in the left corner, just like that, like a fucking ball of fire, like a goddamn meteorite.
“Goddammit,” says El Piolín.
“No big deal,” says La Toña Peluches. “There’s still time.”
There are ten minutes left in the game.
“Things have turned on a dime,” says the TV announcer.
“Mexico plays like never before and loses like always,” says El Ramonete.
“Come on, boys! We’ve got this! Two–one is nothing.”
Then everything starts falling apart. The green team loses focus and blurs into cowering blotches.
“Pinches ratones!” yells the paisa at the next table.
There’s no offense or defense. The Mexican team tries to pressure the ball, but the gringos steal it halfway down the pitch and one of them races toward the goal.
“Motherfucker,” warbles El Pepe.
The gringo feints, cathematical, out of joint, and catches the Mexican goalie off guard. The goalie crumples over, and the gringo is setting up to shoot into the empty net when the goalie’s fist bastes him in the huevos.
“Hell yeah!” says El Ramonete, whose eyes are redder than a rabbit’s. “If you can’t win clean, win dirty. After all, even the strongest motherfucker’s got fragile balls.”
The gringo collapses and falls battered on the grass. They’re not real good at making a stink, don’t have much of a flair for histrionics, but this guy is rolling around like they’ve tattooed his nuts.
The referee whistles and runs up to the Mexican goalie. He gestures to the goalie to get up. When he does, the ref immediately gives him a red card. Ejected.
“Putoooooooo!” most of us paisas howl.
“Oh well,” says the announcer. “Penalty.”
“Motherfucker,” El Pepe says again.
I get up, needing a piss, and head to the bathroom. I go in and start peeing, drawing esses in the toilet with my piss. I even take aim at a joint that’s floating in the bottom of the bowl like a nuclear submarine. I’ve almost managed to break it in two when I hear a commotion.
“Puta madre!” they shout.
“Fuck! Fucking hell!”
I hear crashes behind me and a massive scuffle spreads like a wave from the entrance to the fucking exit.
“La migra, motherfuckers!”
“Run like hell, fucking cockroaches!” I hear what sounds like a fucking stampede, and me there, with my dick in my hand, diddling around.]
“Dude,” I hear as I lie sleeping. I cover my face with my arms. I don’t want to wake up; I don’t want to open my eyes; my eyelids are glued together with concrete. “Come on, wake up, I’m going to be late, sabes!”
I deslumber in a flash when I recognize her voice, and open my eyes.
The chickadee, beautifully awake, is squatting beside me. She’s holding a ceramic mug and a little plate.
“Here. It’s not much, but . . .” She falls silent.
I don’t know what to do. I feel scared. I’ve got long crusties in my eyes like tomperil worms that are hanging down like vines. I press back against the wall of the building like I’m facing an enemy army. I rub the crusties away with both hands.
“Come on, dude, it’s getting late. Take this.”
The chickadee looks at me with her enormous eyes, which are brown, honey-colored, greenish, yellow, blue, almost blue, gray, and black. Her nose is perfect. She’s got her hair pulled back like always, with a purple ponytail holder. Her tattoo is peeking out from behind her ear. Now she’s wearing little gold stud earrings. Her mouth has a slight gleam to it, buffed with the emery of a singular genetics.
I take the plate and the mug, my pulse juddering my body.
“I didn’t want to wake you up, dude, but I’m on my way out, sabes, going to work.”
I look past the girl, trying to break free of her magnetism. The sky has barely started to turn blue. It must be around six in the morning or earlier.
“What happened to your shoes?” she asks, standing up. I shrug. “Oh, dude, you just go from bad to worse, don’t you?” She smiles at me for the first time, with a smile I suspect will remain tattooed on my retinas forever, because a person knows when something huge is happening right at the moment that it occurs. Her smile is the most beautiful cataclysm I’ve ever seen. “I have to go, but I’ll be back later,” she says as she starts down the steps garbed in black workout leggings, a gray sweatshirt, and sneakers.
“I love you.” Did I say that or think it?
“Qué what?” She stops halfway down.
“Thank you,” I say without thinking, lowering my voice till it’s practically a papery whisper, a fucking murmur of a thank-you. She doesn’t say anything; she turns back around and walks down to the sidewalk, and I hear her move quickly away as the few cars out at this hour start honking at her. At that moment, the cold grips me more firmly all over my body. The morning dew has coated the stone steps—the gray stone; my hair; my skin; my bare, blistered feet. I look at my clothing in the bluish-pink light of dawn. I’m covered with leaves and twigs. I have grass everywhere, bruises on my hands, dirt between my toes. My hair feels ashy, greasy between the follicles sticking up like thorns around my forehead.
“Fucking idiot, what the hell did I say to Aireen? Aireen!”
I sniff at the mug; it’s black coffee. Without realizing it, I also start to smile. Aireen, beautiful Aireen! There’s a tortilla on the plate covering a piece of meat and some white rice with chickpeas. A pewter fork. Love turns bread crusts into feasts. I take a sip of the coffee and feel restored; my belly grows warm. I put the mug down and start in on the meat and rice. I hadn’t realized how much hunger could fit in my body.
I finish the meat and rice wrapped in the tortilla in three gulps. I drink the coffee more slowly, nursing it as if it were the last bit of liquid on earth.
The streets are still deserted. There are very few people going by, their bodies bent forward to speed their steps. The scruffs have disappeared; now there are only yups heading to work. The addos have vanished off to school.
I salicate the coffee very slowly. I look over at the bookstore and notice that the light in the storeroom is no longer on.
“That’s weird! It’s fucking weird!”
I finish the coffee when the sun’s already starting to cudgel the tops of the highest buildings. I place the mug on the plate with the fork. I don’t know if it’s my last supper, but it’s definitely the best one I’ve ever had. I stretch out on the stone to watch the people start to emerge from their dens to earn a living.
Little by little the street fills up with footfalls. The avenues start to circulate. My eyes are still heavy. I haven’t slept well the past few nights. To open them up and keep them from closing on me, I examine my feet. I’ve got huge blisters that have burst. A few tatters of filthy shredded skin are visible over my calluses. I yank them off.
Ouch. It burns.
And to think I swore I’d stay out of trouble on this side of the world.
[“Run for it, dumbass, don’t let them catch you!” El Pepe yells at me as I watch the Border Patrol agents corral him and drag him out of the bathroom.
I’m in front of the toilet, my dick still in my hand, and all there is is a little window like an air vent. Without finishing my piss, I tuck it away, soaking my hands and pants. I climb up on the toilet tank and smash the glass in with one hand.
It’s a good thing I’m skinny. I prop my foot up on the divider between the stalls and unfurl myself so I can squeeze through the window opening. I feel shark teeth of broken glass poking out of the frame and ripping my clothes.
I’m nearly halfway out the window. Almost free. Just a little bit more and I’m set. And then I feel someone hauling on my feet from inside, but I can’t see anything, so I kick my feet wildly. I’m like a rat with its tail caught in a trap. In desperation, despite the pain in my shins, I strike out against everything, but my anaphylactic strength is no match for the people pulling on me.
They uncork me from the window with a sharp tug and I crash onto the toilet bowl, which shatters. All the shit inside it spatters across the floor. The Border Patrol agents are ranchers armed to the teeth with rifles and nunchucks, chains and tonfas. They’re carrying walkie-shouties and are dressed like soldiers. They’ve got semiautomatics in their belts. Some of them are using night-vision goggles to hunt down illegals like rabbits and robots in the tunnels. Most of them are wearing wide-brimmed cowboy hats with braided leather cords. The real motherfuckers are wearing Kevlar helmets and gas masks and bulletproof vests; they’re dressed as if they were going to space war against the Martians.
“Fuck you, you sonofabitch, illegal beaner.”
And they subtract me right there. They pistol-whip the air out of me. I double over and fall in the scattered shit. Piss soaks into my clothes. Shit stains my face. They drag me by the feet outside of the bar. My paisas are already there, roughed up, their hands bound with cable ties.
El Pepe’s got a bloody cut above his eyebrow. El Piolín and El Jíbaro are leaking mole sauce from their snouts. La Toña Peluches’s plaid shirt is torn, and lumps are already swelling on his cheek and temple. There are also a few other paisas, the ones from the table in the back. And the table in the middle. All of them badly beaten, staring at the floor. There must be a good twenty of us. They dump me next to El Pepe and try to bind my wrists, but since my hands are smeared with shit, they don’t secure them tightly.
They think I’m disgusting.
The agent just puts the ties on my wrists and tugs, trying not to touch me to avoid getting crappified. He’s got to keep his professional gloves spotless.
A vato at the other end gets up and takes off running down 87, trying to disappear into the thick scrub. He’s got his hands tied behind his back; he looks like a dancing earthworm. Two agents chase after him, and a few minutes later shots ring out. El Pepe just closes his eyes and hangs his head even lower. Blood is now running out of his nose and dripping onto the ground, making tiny volcanoes in the loose earth. We have no words.
An agent goes up to the old man who was bartending and hands him a wad of bills. I don’t understand English for shit, but I assume the money is compensation for the damage they’ve caused to his rathole.
Three civilian trucks arrive, and they herd us into them like cattle. They shove us into the back and toss us down like a flock of fish.
When I started working on the farm, El Pepe told me, “We’re the ones who clean up their shit, and they still treat us like crap. Not all of them, just some of them. Those fucking gringo bastards want us to lose the last of our dignity, but someday . . . someday . . .” And he sat staring at the cotton plants. And I sat staring at him in bewilderment, and when he noticed he yelled at me, “Listen, chiquito, don’t sit there gaping at me like a moron—go pick that shit. If we fall behind, we don’t get paid this week.”
And we worked there for hours, doubled over at the waist, wearing cotton-picking gloves and hats to shade our necks under the sultry sun.]
Here in the city, on the other hand, the sun is less catastrophic. Here it seems like the sunlight’s been filtered by the windows of the skyscrapers. I scoot back closer to the chickadee’s building and notice that there are lots of people on the street now. The blood on my feet has dried. I pick up the chickadee’s dishes and clutch them as if they were part of her; I don’t know, I think there are a few things in the universe that tell us about people. I close my eyes again to run away once more.
“What would I have wanted to be if I could have fucking been something else?”
Things work better inside my head than they do out there.
Here inside it’s easier to live.
Out there it’s a disaster zone.
© 2016 Europa Editions.
Published Jan 11, 2017 Copyright 2017 Aura Xilonen and Andrea Rosenberg