The Guilty

The scissors lay on the table. They were unusually large. My father used to use them to cut up chickens. Ever since he died, Jorge takes them with him everywhere. Maybe it's normal for a psychopath to keep his gun under the pillow. My brother's not a psychopath. Nor is he normal.

I found him bent over in the bedroom, struggling to get his T-shirt off. It was a hundred and seven degrees. Jorge's T-shirt was thick and coarsely woven, the kind of material that sticks to you like a second skin.

"Get it off me!" he roared, his head caught in the fabric. He pointed toward some imprecise point that I had no trouble guessing.

I went for the scissors and cut the T-shirt. I saw the tattoo on his back. It bothered me that the scissors had served a purpose. Jorge had a way of making pointless things useful; that was his definition of talent.

He hugged me, baptizing me with his sweat. Then he gazed at me with eyes sunken from drugs, suffering, too many videos. He had surplus energy, rather inconvenient on a summer afternoon in the outskirts of Sacramento. On his last visit, Jorge kicked the fan and broke one of the blades; now it was barely stirring the air, making a rattling sound. Out of six siblings, none of us thought of replacing it. The farm was for sale. It smelled of poultry, even now; there were still white feathers stuck in the wire fencing.

I'd suggested we meet someplace else but he needed something he called "connections." The farm where we'd once lived like sardines, read the Bible at mealtimes, gone up on the roof to watch meteor showers, been whipped with a rake used for cleaning up chicken shit, dreamed of running away and returning to burn the place down.

"Come with me," Jorge went out to the porch. He'd arrived in a Windstar van, very ritzy for him.

He took two thin cases out of the van. As skinny as he was, it looked like he was holding up diving tanks in the absurd immensity of the desert. They were typewriters.

He placed them at either end of the dining room and allocated me the one with the sticky ñ key. We were going to go head to head for weeks. Jorge fancied himself a scriptwriter. He had a contact in Tucson-not exactly the Mecca of the film industry-who was interested in an "uncut story" which, apparently, we could tell. The Windstar and a two-thousand-dollar advance were proof of his interest.

This producer believed in Mexican film, though to him it was like guacamole, something totally intangible; but there was too much hate and too much passion in that region not to exploit it onscreen. In Arizona, he said, farmers opened fire on lost illegal immigrants who accidentally wandered onto their land, called it a "hot safari," and Jorge took his words as gospel. Then the unlikely producer had mixed a red margarita. Mexico was muscling in, regardless of the corpses.

His faith in my brother was that gringo's greatest extravagance. Jorge's training as a filmmaker had consisted of guiding North American drug addicts around the Oaxacan coast. They told him about films we never saw in Sacramento. After he moved to Torreón, he hung out in a video rental place where they had air conditioning every day. Eventually they hired him to justify his presence there, and because he could recommend films he'd never seen.

When he'd come back to Sacramento, his eyes looked strange. No doubt that had to do with Lucía. She got so bored in this dustbowl that she decided to give Jorge a chance. Even back then, when he was at an acceptable weight and still had all his teeth, my brother looked like some cosmic freakshow, like one of those guys who's been in contact with UFOs. Maybe he had all the makings of a guy who'd take off; whatever the case, she let him move into her house, back behind the gas station. It was hard to believe someone with Lucía's body and her obsidian eyes couldn't find a better catch from among the truckers who stopped to fill up with diesel. Jorge granted himself the luxury of leaving her. He couldn't be tied down to Sacramento. He'd gotten a tattoo of a meteor shower on his back, the tears of San Fortino, or Saint Lawrence, which falls on August 12. That was the big shower we'd seen as kids. Plus his middle name was Fortino. He couldn't anchor his shooting star.

My brother was born to leave, but also to come back. He laid the ground for his return over the phone: our broken lives were remarkably similar to other filmmakers', Latino artists were really making it big now, the guy from Tucson had faith in fresh talent. Oddly enough, the "uncut story" was mine. That's why the typewriter was sitting in front of me.

I, too, had left Sacramento. For years I drove semis on both sides of the border. Through all the changing scenery of that time, Tecate beer was my only constant. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous after flipping over in Los Vidrios, hauling a load of fertilizer. I lay unconscious for hours on the highway, breathing in a chemical compound designed to improve tomatoes. That could explain why I later took a job that made suffering seem pleasant. For four years, I distributed bags of saline solution for illegal immigrants lost in the desert. I covered the routes from Agua Prieta to Douglas, from Sonoyta to Lukeville, from Nogales to Nogales (renting a room in both Nogaleses, as if I lived both in a city and its reflection). I met coyotes, immigration officials, members of the Paisano immigrant assistance program. I never saw the people who picked up the bags of saline solution. The only illegal aliens I ever saw were the ones who were detained, shivering under some blanket. They looked like Martians. Maybe it was just the coyotes who drank the solution. They call the total number of corpses found in the desert "the body count." That was the title Jorge chose for the movie.

Loneliness makes you chatty. After driving for ten hours, you spit words out. "A recovering alcoholic gives a lot of speeches"; that's what someone in AA told me. One night, when the long-distance rates were cheaper, I called my brother. I told him something I didn't know how to reconcile. I was driving down an uneven dirt road when my headlights flashed on two yellowish silhouettes. Migrants. These ones didn't look like Martians; they looked like zombies. I braked and they put their hands up, as if I were going to detain them. When they saw I was unarmed, they cried out, asking me to save them, for the love of God and the Virgin. "Locos," I thought. They were foaming at the mouth, clutching at my shirt, they smelled like rotting cardboard. "They're already dead." It seemed logical to me. One of them begged me to take him anywhere, "plis." The other asked for water. I didn't have a canteen on me. I was afraid or disgusted or who knows what to travel with dehydrated, lunatic illegal immigrants. But I couldn't just leave them there. I told them they could ride in the back. They thought I meant the back seat. I had to use a lot of words to explain that-I meant the boot, the trunk.

I had to be in Phoenix by dawn. When the thorny plants grazed the yellow sky, I stopped for a piss. I heard no noise coming from the back. I thought they'd asphyxiated or died of thirst or hunger, but I didn't check. I got back in the car.

We reached the outskirts of Phoenix. I stopped the car and crossed myself. When I opened the trunk, the first thing I saw was red-stained clothes. Then I heard a laugh. Only when I saw the seeds did I remember I'd been carrying three watermelons. The illegals had devoured them in an unheard-of fashion, rind and all. They said good-bye with a stunned euphoria that left me with the same uneasiness I'd felt at the possibility of having killed them while trying to save them.

That was what I told Jorge. Two days later he called to tell me we had an "uncut story." It wouldn't make a movie, but it would get a producer excited.

My brother trusted my knowledge of illegal border crossings and the correspondence courses I'd taken in writing before I became a trucker, back when I dreamed of being a war correspondent just because it guaranteed a trip far away.

For six weeks we sat face to face, sweating. From his side, Jorge would shout, "Producers are idiots, directors are idiots, actors are idiots!" We were writing for a commando of idiots. We'd use that to our advantage: we'd force them to convey an uncomfortable truth without even realizing it. Jorge liked to call that "Chaplin's whistle." In one movie, Chaplin swallows a whistle that keeps tootling in his stomach. That's what our script would be, the whistle the idiots swallowed: it would whistle inside them and they wouldn't be able to do anything to stop it.

But I couldn't put the story together, it was as if all the words I needed required the ñ that stuck on my keyboard. Then Jorge started talking like our father at that table: what we needed was to feel guilty. We were too indifferent, too blasé. In order to deserve this story, we'd have to fuck up.

We went to the dogfights and bet the two-thousand-dollar advance. We picked a dog with an X-shaped scar on its back. He looked blind in one eye. Then we found out he closed one eye out of rage. We won six thousand dollars. Lady Luck was indulging us; catastrophic news for a scriptwriter, said Jorge.

I don't know if he took drugs or pills or what, but he didn't sleep. He'd stay out on a rocking chair on the porch, just staring at the desert huisaches and abandoned chicken coops, the open scissors resting on his chest. The next day, when I was stirring my Nescafé, he shouted at me with insomniac eyes, "No guilt, no story!" The problem, my problem, was that I was already guilty. Jorge never asked me what I was doing out on that dirt road in a Dodge Spirit that wasn't mine, and I didn't want to bring it up.

After my brother left Lucía, she took off with the first customer who showed up at the gas station. She went from one border town to another, from a Jeff to a Bill to a Kevin, until finally there was a Gamaliel who seemed stable enough (married, but willing to keep her). He wasn't an immigrant; he was a "new gringo," the son of hippies who'd looked for names in an immigrant's Bible. Lucía herself filled me in on this. We spoke every once in a while and she assured me she had my information, as if I were something she was hoping she'd never need. Insurance on nothing.

One afternoon she called to ask me a "huge favor." She had to send a package and I knew the roads. Oddly enough, she sent me someplace I'd never been before, near Various Ranches. From then on, she used me to deliver little packages. She claimed they were medicine that you could buy without a prescription here but cost a lot on the other side, but she smiled strangely when she said it, as if "medicine" were code for drugs or money. I never opened them. That was my loyalty to Lucía. My loyalty to Jorge was not to think too much about the breasts under her blouse, her slender hands and ringless fingers, her eyes searching for a remedy.

When we decided to sell the farm, all six siblings met up for the first time in a long time. We argued over the price and practical details. That was when Jorge kicked the fan. He swore at us, quoted the Bible, talked about lambs and wolves, about the table where you set a place for your enemy. Then he turned on the fan and heard it rattle. He smiled, as if that were funny. The same brother who used to help me pull my pants down after a whipping to feel the delicious cold of the river now thought he was a filmmaker of enough stature to kick fans. I hated him as I never had before.

The next time Lucía called me to pick up a package I didn't leave her house until the following morning. I told her my car was dying. She lent me the Spirit that Gamaliel had given her. I wanted to keep touching something of hers, even if the car had come from another man. I thought about that on the road and decided to give the Spirit my own personal touch. I stopped to buy watermelons.

I never saw Lucía again. I returned the car when she wasn't home and flung the keys into the mailbox. I had a metallic taste in my mouth, wanted to break something. I called Jorge that night. I told him about the zombies and the watermelons.

After six weeks, my brother had blue circles under his eyes. He cut the money we'd won at the dogfight into little pieces but even that didn't bring us the requisite creative guilt. I don't know if he'd gotten that idea from our punishments on the farm, at the hands of a fanatically religious father, or if the drugs on the Oaxacan coast had expanded his mind that way, turning it into a field to sow with regrets.

"Rob a bank," I said.

"Crime doesn't count. We need guilt we can rise above."

I was going to tell him I'd slept with Lucía, but the chicken scissors were too close.

Hours later, Jorge was smoking a bent cigarette. It smelled like marijuana, but not enough to cover the stench of poultry in the yard. He looked at the salt stain where the image of the Virgin used to hang. Then he told me he was still in contact with Lucía. She had a modest business. Contraband medicine. He asked me if I had anything to tell him. For the first time, it struck me that the script was a set-up to force me to confess. I went out to the porch without saying a word and looked at the Windstar. Could Gamaliel be the "producer"? Could the money and the van have come from him? Was Jorge his messenger? Was he bringing someone else's jealousy to the house? Could he have been that calculating, stooped that low?

I went back to my seat and wrote nonstop, all night. I exaggerated my erotic adventures with Lucía. In that indirect confession, I could use impudence to cover my tracks. My character took on all the traits of a total bastard. Jorge would've been irritated if he'd acted like the weak man I was, but he could never attribute that magnificent depravity to me. The next day, The Body Count was good to go. Sans ñs, but still good to go.

"You can always count on a recovering alcoholic to satisfy a habit," he said. I didn't know if he was referring to his habit of turning guilt into movies or to feeding others' jealousy.

Jorge cut up the script with the chicken scissors. My name was the most significant cut he made. He earned a lot for The Body Count, but it was an insipid achievement. No one heard Chaplin's whistle.

As for me, something kept me at the typewriter. Maybe it was something my brother said to me on his last night at the farm.

"The scar's on the other ankle."

I'd slept with Lucía but I couldn't remember where her scar was. I took refuge in my own version of things. Was that the habit Jorge was referring to? I'd keep writing.

That night, all I said was, "I'm sorry. Forgive me."

I don't know if I cried. My face was wet with sweat or tears I couldn't feel. My eyes hurt. Night fell before us, like when we were kids and used to go up on the roof to make wishes. A light flashed in the sky.

"August 12th," Jorge said.

We spent the rest of the night watching shooting stars, like bodies lost in the desert.

Translated from "Los Culpables." Copyright 2007 by Juan Villoro. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Lisa Dillman. All rights reserved.