The desert, with its immense emptiness, has a way of making you consider your own mortality. This has always been so. Even before there were cities, roads, or fences scaring the landscape, men would huddle together and look beyond their flickering campfires into the darkness and comfort themselves with tales of ancient gods and their struggles to bring order out of the abyss.
He stepped out of the cold yellow glow illuminated by the porch light and cast his eyes for a moment at the immense starlit sky above. He didn’t know much about gods. The older he got, the more he realized that he didn’t know much about God for that matter. But deep down, he had always believed that the desert must be one of the old gods. Hot, brown, and just about as angry and unforgiving as they come. The thing he found to be most ironic was that he had tried his entire life to escape the desert. But then again, how does one hide from the gaze of God?
When he was 18, he signed on with the Navy. Things had begun to sour between him and his father and he reasoned that being on a boat at sea would take him just about as far away from the sand, rock and other discomforts of home as a person could get. Then suspicions arose regarding Iraq’s role in September 11th and whether Saddam Hussein might be stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and he was back. He found himself in a different part of the world, but subject once again to the same god.
When he came back to the world, he tried to stay away; he figured that if he was going to wake up with sand in his hair, it was going to be because he was soaking up the sun on some tropical beach. How he had fallen into work with the United States Border Patrol in Southern California, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps desperate times call for desperate actions. He had completed six years with the Navy, he was unemployed, he was fluent in Spanish and gasoline was over three dollars a gallon. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t be certain, but he now found himself wearing the uniform of the United States Border Patrol, stationed just a few miles outside of Tecate, Mexico near the desert border town of Potrero.
His father used to tell him that with time, we all end up being who we’re supposed to be. He thinks about that now and again but is often troubled by the thought that the man he is now is nowhere close to the man he hopes to become.
Potrero is a cotton mouthed, dreary-eyed hangover of a town that lies curled up like a sidewinder rattlesnake, south east of San Diego off old Highway 94. Potrero is a unique town in Southern California: it has no manicured lawns, no franchised restaurants, and no coffee shops or gas stations to welcome travelers with their sterile but familiar signs. What it has is the Mexican frontier on one side of what some locals refer to as the “taco curtain.” A fourteen-foot high iron fence erected to keep the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians and who knows what else out. To the north is National Forest land, all protected, and still wild, open desert. The actual terrain is populated by a disagreeable form of ground cover, which includes a variety of sage and wild rosemary to tough manzanita, yucca and a variety of unidentified plants with burrs and thorns. The dense undercover makes light of the fact that this is a desert, while at the same time, reminding you beyond doubt that you are in a godforsaken place.
Nobody lives out here, except for the 287 recluses who call Potrero home. The inhabitants are a mix of farmers, ranchers, artists and outcasts who live in seclusion and some for good reasons. Still, he enjoys the silence. On a quiet night, and most nights are quiet, when a big, full moon rises up over the mountains, the coyotes sing out in numbers too great to count that a person can, for a moment, forget he is part of humanity. The worries and responsibilities that attach themselves to the modern world rise up and fade into the ether along with the calls of the coyotes.
Potrero has a general store that sits directly across from the Fire Station. Martin and his wife, Ester, have run what has served as the general store for 25 years, providing the locals with groceries, gossip, feed and tack. Every morning, they open at 4:30 and have a fresh pot of coffee waiting for any early customers who happen to stop by. Garrett is there every morning, and Martin always greets him with a black, fresh steaming pot.
The wooden screen door creaked as he pushed it open and stepped into the lighted shop.
“Morning Garrett!” Martin grinned holding the black handled coffee pot in his wrinkled hand.
“Morning Martin. What happened to Ester? It’s four forty-five a.m., the day’s half over. Is she sleeping in?” He sat the Stanley Thermos coffee mug on the counter top.
“No, nothing quite like that. She’s in San Diego with our daughter trying to catch up with all the grand-mothering she has to do.” He poured the inky essence from the pot. Steam rolled off the black surface and dissipated in the air.
“Well, ain’t that just about the sweetest thing! What about you Martin? Don’t you have any grand-fathering to catch up on?” Garrett screwed on the lid to the thermos sealing in the aroma and the heat.
“Oh, Ester does enough grand-parenting for both of us. Besides, if I spent my time spoiling my grandkids, who’d make your morning coffee?” He chuckled as he placed the pot back on the hotplate.
“Don’t go thinking that I can’t manage without you Martin,” Garrett shot back.
“Well, you’ll get your chance to prove it. Ester and me are going to take a little vacation next month. We’re renting one of them motor homes and taking our grandson with us to Baja for a few days. I just hope you don’t go through caffeine withdrawals while I’m gone,” Martin replied.
“Don’t go worrying about me. Besides, I’ve been looking for a reason to try some of them specialty coffees. I guess I’ll have my chance to upgrade while you and Ester are gone.” Garrett’s eyes twinkled as he took a slow sip from the insulated mug.
“Oh shit! You ain’t going frappa-mocha half-crap, de-caf, whatever the hell they drink at Starbucks on me now are you?” Martin chided.
“Nope. I’m fixing on trying that Kopi Luwak coffee that is all the rage.” Garrett grinned.
Martin’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t follow you. Copy Lou what?”
“Kopi Luwak. You ain’t tried it?” Garrett laughed.
“If it don’t come already ground in a sealed can, I can’t say that I have.” Martin leaned in against the counter, his blue shirtsleeve pulled up just above the faded eagle tattoo on his forearm.
“Well, let me bring you up to speed here old timer. I’ll get you into the twenty-first century of fine caffeinated beverages yet!” Garrett leaned against the counter and took another sip from his mug.
“Oh Christ! Garrett, why do I get the feeling that I should be putting on my hip waders?” Martin asked.
“I’m serious! This is top grade stuff. If you start selling this Kopi Luwak coffee, you’ll put this little market of yours on the map.”
“All right then, lay it on me.” Martin unscrewed the metal lid to the half empty sugar jar and topped it off.
“Well, it turns out this coffee ain’t something you’re gonna find grown by any local boys on account of a little critter called the luwak.”
“The luwak. It’s like this little cat or monkey or something that lives in the rainforest of the Philippines. I saw them when I was stationed over there.”
“And it makes coffee?” Martin raised a thick gray eyebrow.
Garrett laughed. “Not exactly—but it helps. You see, the luwak was considered a pest by the folks around there for years because it climbs the coffee trees and eats the coffee cherries. Apparently it enjoys the sweet fleshy part of the fruit, but it’s unable to digest the beans, so they pass right on through.”
“So then, what you are telling me is that this monkey shits coffee beans?” A broad grin began to spread across Martin’s furrowed face.
“Yeah, apparently, the digestive fluids in the animal's stomach add something special to the coffee's flavor through fermentation.” Garrett took another sip and sat his mug on the counter top.
“I’ll bet it does! But I don’t suspect that folks around here would be too hot on monkey ass flavored coffee.”
“Don’t be too sure now Martin. Folks in the city pay as much as five dollars a cup for this brand of java.”
Martin leaned across the counter and stared into Garrett’s chestnut colored eyes. “I knew it! You are so full of shit Harrison that your eyes are all brown! But I’ll give it you—you had me going there for a minute.”
“I am telling you the gospel, Martin. This stuff is for real and it is good to the last dropping.” Garrett grinned.
Outside, the gravel covered driveway crackled and crunched under the broad all terrain tires of a white Wrangler Jeep followed by two sharp blasts from the horn. The blinding glow from the xenon gas headlights turned the dark, pre-dawn sky into day.
Martin held his hand above his eyes as he looked toward the glowing screen door. “Your ride is here Garrett. Goddamn. I hope you all are a little more discreet when you’re sneaking up on them wetbacks trying to steal across the border. No wonder the goddamn state is being invaded by illegals, they see you guys coming a mile away!”
“That . . . or maybe they’ve heard about your fine coffee.” Garrett winked.
“Get the hell out of here. My tax dollars don’t go to pay you to drink coffee and bullshit with me.”
“All right then, I know when I’ve worn out my welcome. I’ll see you same time tomorrow?” Garrett grinned.
“I’ll be here.”
“All right.” Garrett laid a dollar bill on the counter and stepped out into the morning coolness. The wooden screen door slammed shut behind him and rattled several times against the frame.
“Coffee shitting monkeys,” Martin mumbled to himself as he placed the dollar bill in the cash drawer.
Taylor Brophy was behind the wheel. Brophy wasn’t much older than Garrett, but he had been with the Border Patrol for six years and had taken it upon himself to mentor Garrett and help him adjust to the demands of the job. From the very beginning, Garrett was impressed with the ease in which Brophy dealt with the human tragedy they often encountered along the border, while keeping a sense of humor about it all. Garrett didn’t think that he had many of them, but he felt comfortable counting Brophy as one of his friends.
Garrett climbed into the cab of the government issued Wrangler. He leaned over, pulled the nylon strap across his chest and snapped the seat belt into the latch. Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” was blaring from the speakers.
“Christ, Brophy. You don’t do anything quiet do you?” Garrett reached over and turned the volume down.
“Whatcha do that for Harrison? That’s a good song.” Brophy put the Jeep in reverse and backed out onto route 94.
“I’m not arguing that it ain’t. I just prefer to ease into my day as opposed to being shot into it like a cannon. Besides, you can’t possibly think that that crap qualifies as real country music?”
“I’m just trying to get you into the mood brother! ‘Cause today is your day and this Friday, we’re gonna celebrate!” Brophy slapped his hands on the steering wheel like he was issuing a drum roll.
“What are we celebrating exactly?”
“Don’t be a dumb ass! Today you complete your probationary period with the patrol. Unless you screw up, that means you get bumped up from your lousy ass GS-5 level to GS-7. You’ll actually start earning some real folding money instead of the pocket change you’ve been living off of these last six months.” Brophy grinned.
“Oh, that.” Garrett smiled. “Well, you know I never got into this line of work for the money. It’s all about the prestige and the respect that comes with the uniform for me.”
“Oh yeah, the chicks do dig a man in uniform.” Brophy laughed.
“So, how do you reckon we should celebrate my sudden windfall into wealth?” Garrett inquired.
“Don’t cheapen this milestone.” Brophy took a serious tone. “It’s more than a celebration. You have been here half a year, at day’s end, you will be earning a man’s wage. It is time for your initiation. It is time for you to become a man, my son.” Brophy cast a knowing look at Garrett and patted him on his shoulder in a fatherly fashion.
“Just mind the road dad,” Garrett replied sarcastically jutting his chin toward the windshield.
“Don’t worry about me. You see, when you reach GS-7 status on the government pay scale, you can multi-task.”
“Cow!” Garret shouted as he pointed ahead.
“Shit!” Brophy jerked the steering wheel to the left and swerved, narrowly missing a nearly solid black Holstein standing halfway in the lane.
“Dammit Brophy! Watch the road!” Garrett yelled clutching the dashboard.
“Did you piss your britches Nancy boy?” Brophy laughed.
“Just keep an eye on the road and watch for the little distractions that might meander into your lane, like a twelve hundred pound cow! I want to live to see that GS-7 pay, you reckless bastard.”
“All right, calm down there Susan. You’re okay and the cow’s okay, and I am going to make sure that you live at least long enough to regret celebrating your promotion.” Brophy smiled.
Brophy steered the Jeep off of Highway 94 and pulled into the gravel driveway of the Otay Lakes Border Patrol checkpoint.