Tegucigalpa. by Robert Detman
“Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.”Sonia Nazario, New York Times
From my seat at the wheel, I won’t be at ease until the boy goes away.
I roll down my window. I think I recognize him, the Soares’s boy. “Go home,” I say to him. “Do you know you have a mother who worries about you?” I say this with no confidence. A grown man trying to reach an impassive child.
He has been drinking orange soda, it stains his lips and shirt.
He maybe only reminds me of the Soares’ boy.
The Soares’ boy used to play in the fields above the village that washed out in the flood. Inevitably, I think of my own son. Maybe I can save him from this life. I try to have pity. Perhaps pity is the wrong response. He might not think twice about what he does.
He holds up a cell phone for me to take. “No more,” I say. “Tell me where you live.” I say this forcefully, with authority, but he sneers at me like he’s learned from the elders in his gang.
He’s a child, all of thirteen with an incipient moustache and the greasy face of adolescence. I concentrate on his deed, but I can’t threaten him. He spits at my window as I roll it up. He wants to invoke my rage; I must stay calm.
This is his initiation. Next will come face tattoos of teardrops and swastikas. Why not take your chances and leave for America, if the only option is to be pressed by the Maras, to fall under their sign the way the sun finds you in the square, a ripe target?
As he stands there, I drive away. I read in his eyes a warning, never sure how I am to take a threat from a child. There’s a shade too much despair in his threat. It is a pointing finger like a gun, held to his temple. A finger across the throat for good measure. Is he telling me what will happen to me, or himself? I offer a grim smile, trying not to betray my fear.
This cell phone boy will be the last, I vow as I deliver my passengers to the airport.
I pay my humiliation fee to several of the Maras, in a complicated and headache inducing tally of increasing costs. After the first one promised me protection, a rival gang soon took over. They were fighting over my extortion, and someone paid the price. I am never safe. But the pretense of security in the arrangement eludes the police, who will not come to my aid, as the recent boy outside my window seems to attest to.
This is like the Wild West I read about, and imagined, as a child riding our burro Romeo through the fields with my father as he collected bananas. My goal was to stay in San Esteban and live like a real farmer. My own father, though a farmer in name only, was merely a glorified collector for the National Fruit Company—my dream borne on misreading his work. But this work is gone. No matter that it was backbreaking labor. My father promised a bounty to me someday, never telling me what I know only too well, today. Everywhere he went, he had friends. He was a happy and amiable man, though I recognized this later as drinking himself to death, which runs in the family—I’ve been sober for a decade.
As the last of the company’s operations thinned, and the mechanical contraptions from overseas began to fill the warehouses with dust, Maria and I made a practical decision to move to the city. We were country kids who never imagined life beyond the lifting of fruit bales; daily washing from our hands the familiar sap that made everything we touched tacky enough to stick; the stench of fires burning to fend off vermin and flies. What would we do now without the NFC? My father never lived long enough to know that his son’s destiny would be inextricably wound with his own, and yet so different from it. He died, ten years younger than I am now, a fly riddled fruit-picker facedown in a ditch.
After moving to Tegucigalpa, Maria found work at a local restaurant that caters to the tourists; as if to prick the edge of my bitterness, I call them transients. In the bar with dirt on its floor, questionable deals between strangers go down thanks to her boss, Don Hidalgo.
We do what we can to make a living, and making a living is becoming more about mere survival.
My passengers are from everywhere. Tegucigalpa is an alternative universe they have found themselves stranded in; what they are doing here I cannot say. All I know is, the more well-dressed they are, the worse they are as customers—for tips that is. Businessmen from America with their shiny shoes, they don’t look at me. The men with their blonde wives may be worse. They reluctantly take my bus, and if they do, they complain about it. I’m as put off by them as they are making stink eye at my secondhand bus. But if they only knew what goes down on the roadways between the fancy hotels and the airport, they might feel more indebted to me. Still, I look at them as my charges, my children; they are the innocent. They provide my livelihood. My problem is not theirs.
Toncontín is not an airport I will fly out of, nor do I have the illusion of freedom that I will. If I did, I would never come back.
Here’s what I have: bus paid for—not always running reliably—what can I do? Family safe and accounted for. It is a good living. With tips I can clear a month’s earnings in two weeks, and the Maras understand this. The payout eats my profit. But if there are more demands, I might as well give them my bus, take my chances going north. My cousin in Fresno who set out last year—without his family, no less—tells me this is what I need to do.
“There’s a good life here,” he says. “Closer to what your father hoped for you. Strawberries, lettuce, garlic.”
What does he know? My father’s hopes for me were delusions I’d faithfully followed for twenty years. Even if we make it to America, we are likely to be sent back almost as fast. Or will become separated. If possible, worse off than now.
Other people take vacations. I take my lunch and park at the turn off to the highway, wondering if, after they have boarded their plane, my passengers see my bus on the road below, and appreciate their safe delivery to the airport. I watch the lumbering silver belly of a 747 clear the fence, and then glide over my bus with an earthshaking scream of relief as it bounds into the sky.
We were on vacation in Roatan, once, Maria and I, but the return trip by boat turned Maria green as those fields for NFC. Now I sit in my bus and eat the delicious pozolé she makes for the staff at the Norse Inn, and I think about escape.
Maria is a solid woman who conveys fearsome authority—the kind that puts young men on notice. I once suggested that she might drive the bus for me, though she could understand no earthly reason why I made such a comment. Being evasive, I turned my comment into the source of her pride. “For unruly passengers,” I said. “You would help me put them in their place.” I watched a smile play over her face.
My daughter Christina, after graduation, went looking for a man, and after working for six months at a hotel laundry, she found him, married him and moved to Guatemala. He manages a small hotel on Lake Peten Itza, far from this mess. If I’m lucky, I see her once a year. Maria talks of going there. “Early retirement?” she suggests.
My boy Hernando is getting old enough to become curious about the evil of young men and boys with guns. I do not let him watch the television, because he talks of what he’s seen on the school grounds; I fear what has happened—and could happen—to him. He has been robbed of his pocket change by these thugs. I’ve heard suggestions that I should cobble money together and send him to America. But this would crush Maria.
For my son, I live, hopefully, by example. By hard work that, though it no longer wears my fingers raw in the summer, or makes them feel dull and brittle as dry wood in winter, shows him where a man should be. That family is the only loyalty. I believe the cell phone boys do not have any other family—for whatever reasons of fate—and the Maras are their only loyalty. My telling the cell phone boy to go home to his mother is wishful thinking. Magical thinking.
Luckily, I believe, none of my passengers noticed my exchange with the cell phone boy, or if they had, it must appear a casual acquaintance.
My route runs between the hotels in town and the airport and through the menacing streets of Comayagüela. If any passenger asks of the dangers, I deny it right off. I rely on the transients and have no desire to watch my business disappear. Still, my cousin Fernando has ideas. “Hire a security guard,” he says, which I cannot afford, nor could I trust such a person. Anyone will betray you if the money is right.
On my break, I often go to visit Fernando at work—he unloads baggage at the airport. On this day he tells me a bus was hijacked and found outside San Pedro Sula, a skeleton of crusted metal. Seven bodies scattered, shot point blank as they tried to run from the fire. If I do not consider it, it becomes just another news story about some unfortunate people, not my business.
I can never leave the bus on the main street, as I have in the past. For retribution and failure to pay, they’ve been known to booby trap them, or to fire bomb them down to their rims. I tell myself that I’m safe, but Fernando advises me to think otherwise.
“Then where should I park it?” I ask.
“Don’t ask me, papi, I’m just saying.”
Fernando says he can get a gun for me, though I try to keep my mind off it. What would I do, flash it for the next cell phone boy? With my luck, the Maras will be watching. Brandishing a gun would assure them of my willingness to engage. A death sentence. Still, I’m not so sure my brash attempt to send that boy away isn’t also.
As I sit and eat lunch just beyond the highway from the airport, there is no one approaching me. I can see in the cardinal directions and breathe easy for a few minutes. Just the steady traffic barreling to and from the airport. I would have enough time, I think, to react if I had this gun, though I’m not quite sure what my reaction would be.
In the evening I watch our new television. Fernando had this flat screen delivered, a housewarming gift. Don Hidalgo provides for our electricity, and a young man, possibly his son, comes to collect weekly. I have become paranoid that Maria is using her wiles with him. She is available, it seems at all hours for his private instruction in accounting. All so that I might sit by light and read La Prensa—or watch all the good deeds our so called incorruptibles want to parade before us. More children, just a head shorter than the hooded police officers who offer them on the nightly news program for the spectacle of discipline. All of this theater, so the police may say, we are protecting the citizens.
We all nod in assent, but mutter doubts under our breath.
Maria reads the newspaper in the kitchen, face hidden from the TV, every so often looking up with a question on her lips.
When she exclaims in shock that they have taken to killing policemen now, reading it in the news, I feign surprise. Does she not read between the lines?
The police look like military here, but we don’t let that fool us. Many of them are children, too, and incompetent. Whether or not they are in the pocket of the gangs and the drug traffickers is a question when one has a run in with them. They are, generally, ineffective. Their murder is, on second thought, not so surprising.
I’m not sure if talking to Fernando helps or hinders me. If anything, he adds more fuel to consume my sleepless nights.
He talks of the gangs using motorcycles, what he knows to be a rising scourge for my work. “They will come upon you with a bang and slip away. You’ll never know what hit you.”
Presumably, he means a bullet. I resist being sarcastic, and saying something about painlessness.
“I would think they’d want you to know who’s targeting you,” I offer.
“Does it matter?”
I make the inferences, expecting he’ll try to tell me something I haven’t considered. But he just looks at me as naive.
“Take the gun. It will put your mind at ease.”
My lunch hour is a zone of defiance for me. I convince myself for the few minutes it takes me to get a spoonful of pozolé down, that my effort is sane. I watch planes fly in and out overhead and am comforted by the notion that someone is able to escape this city, this country, this life. If they can, so might I. In the midst of this reverie, I see a motorcycle slow at the turn off—are they looking for me?—and I get the bus in gear and scan the barriers.
At the isolated intersections I am in the habit of driving through lights. What are the police going to do? It would be an embarrassment—even suicide—for them to gamble with anything so trivial as a traffic violation when they fear retribution as much as anyone. They travel in groups anyway, packs of hooded and armed boys meant to instill the notion of safety.
I keep to irregular patterns, never stopping at the same place or time each day. Though this of course, is fraught with its own dangers.
As I drive to the first hotel, I pull up to the intersection and traffic is heavy, blocking an escape, and my heart is in my mouth. I stare forward, seeing the bare movement of someone out of the corner of my eye, but I choose not to look directly. Maybe my constant anticipation of a surprise attack will prevent it. Just concentrate on the cratered roadway.
Yet there is a knock at the window. A cell phone in a proffered hand.
“Open up,” the kid says. “You need to take this.”
I’m seething with anger, and my stomach, roiling.
The boy is the uniform of disaffection: low slung jeans (he could not run if his life depended on it), oversize jacket (what’s hiding there?) and slouchy baseball cap with a red B logo. (Aspirational?)
The first time it happened, it was a shock. “Is this a joke?” I said to the boy holding the cell phone, realizing the mistake I’d made as I tried to accommodate him: never presume anyone is going to give you something you could possibly want on a street corner.
I’m obliged—it’s the boy I’ve been avoiding. Through the sickening mouthpiece I smell cheap alcohol or perfume. I think of the woes of adolescence, and my own son the same age as this one.
“You pay this now,” the affected voice says on the smelly cell, “and you will not be killed. Pay each week.”
The caller pretends this is a normal business transaction, and I feel the ultimate humiliation. I recognize the voice as the collector of the Maras, who goes by the name Silva Seven, and he demands double what they have been getting from me each week—and which I cannot possibly afford. Where are the police now?
I could not answer Silva Seven’s message with anything but a grunt. I won’t do him the honor of a reply, and I don’t think he cares, really, as long as their money comes in to fill their coffers.
That night, the pressure is on me and I itch to tell Maria about the extortion racket. I switch on the TV. A hooded police officer marches a boy to the podium. He is half the policeman’s size. I turn the volume down, cutting the sound off at, “We are making good efforts against…”
Lies, artifice and deception.
I do not want to worry my wife, but I have become evasive.
I lose my nerve when Maria tells me, off hand, in a grating and light tone something overheard from Don Hidalgo during her shift, as if she could not possibly believe it. She says, “This is considered the most dangerous city in the world. Can you imagine?”
In the abstract, it means nothing; I think: war zone.
“Fernando would have something to say to that.”
“You should forget that culo, he’s up to no good.”
I think of the gun.
In fact, she asks me if I have heard about the extortions. I tell her, “It’s nothing to be concerned about,” aping Fernando’s words. “I am on a busy route. Besides, they only go after commercial carriers.”
In fact, they avoid commercial carriers for the small, easy to pinch private operations like mine.
My wife talks about the Inn. “We are getting a boost next week from the medical convention. I will have to work late. Will you pick me up?”
Of course, I say, of course. But how late? Being on the streets after dark is inadvisable. Though I stand to benefit from this convention, also.
“I will let you know,” she says.
Late at night, I will sit in my bus alone, and I will walk out defiantly, with a gun in my belt, and I will lead my wife back home, to safety.
After a week of living in fear of an attack, watching in the shadows every casual approach or passing, I am fatigued. I decide to accept Fernando’s offer. During my break, I drive to the airport parking lot.
“You don’t have to touch it,” Fernando says. “Peace of mind. I’ll put it in the tool box.”
I tell him about the Maras’ latest demands, and about the last cell phone boy, a boy who could be his or mine, all things being equal.
“But I’m not married,” Fernando says.
Of course, he doesn’t have the security of a family. Fernando lives like a poor bachelor with no desires and is content keeping an unremarkable lifestyle—though I do wonder about the gun. Unless he is involved with contraband in that baggage claim free for all. For all I know, he could be embroiled in a protection racket.
“You only have to watch your own back,” I tell him.
“And yet, I’m watching yours,” he says.
Still, the gun. “If I don’t have to touch it, how will I use it?”
“That’s easy,” Fernando says. “It takes one second to learn. But you won’t have to, see, because the next kid that approaches you will run for the hills the instant he sees it.”
“Straight to the Maras.”
“Maybe so—but they want available targets. Just stay on the main roads.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Then just keep it handy. Don’t worry.”
I watch him and make note of how he checks the chamber, latches the safety.
“Just remember, they know where you live,” is Fernando’s helpful reply when he sticks the gun in the tool box.
So, I will have to shoot them all, I think, concocting a scenario that vexes me that night as I lay down in the light from the moon. They could just as well attack at night. Would they be so brazen?
“Someone from a motorcycle,” I recall what Fernando said. “While you drive. They will not risk getting caught themselves. As dangerous and foolish as they may be, however, they are, ultimately, small time.”
What does that mean? I’d asked.
“Life or death,” he said. “Small time.”
The roadside vendors, the flower sellers, the churro man, the newsagent, have become wary of public displays. What has this country become, when gangs control the markets?
At one time, the transport community was a tight-knit group. Lately I’ve noticed the other drivers have stopped collecting outside Benito’s. When we pass each other now, on our dangerous routes, we wave, sometimes, half-heartedly, and go on our way, acting too busy to chat about football, or the ineffectual local government—though we all have plenty to talk about. Now we are living examples of what’s failing in this country, and our shame drives us into our darkened rooms. If we talk, it is into our hands, avoiding discussion of the Maras. I hate to think what fear is driving us to, preventing us from talking as if we will burden each other with the Maras’ collective demands, afraid to upset an artificial balance by discussing our oppression. We keep our noses in our newspapers and pray for an answer in the dregs of our cafe con leches.
We have all been driven to this work that, if pressed, is doubtful any among us would claim it as our dream. At my dark moments, I would gladly go back to the fields. Sitting in my hot bus with one eye on the taillights ahead of me, and one on the lookout for the sad boys as I suck in diesel exhaust, Fresno begins to sound like paradise.
Somehow, Maria knows.
“How could you just give our money away like that?”
“You are one to talk,” I say, recalling the young man who comes by on Saturdays. “What about Rodolpho?”
“And you are implying what, exactly?”
I want to tell her he expects favors, but I don’t say it.
“You don’t understand, Maria. They’ve threatened my life.”
“Why don’t you go to the police?”
“You’ve seen the news, it’s futile.”
“What if you don’t pay? Will they come to our house? Will they come hunt us down as we work?”
“Then why don’t we leave?”
“Where do you think we would go?”
“Back to San Esteban.”
“What is there for me now? For us?”
“We could run a hotel. I have some contacts in the industry, now.”
“That takes money, Maria.”
“Something you’d rather give away to some gang bangers.”
At that, she shuts me down.
Maria insists she will gather up our savings and go away with Hernando and stay with our daughter’s family in Lake Peten Itza—she doesn’t know what else to do.
All of which she did in the next few days. I awoke to Maria and a terrified Hernando in their quiet bustling to get out the door with our life packed in two large suitcases.
She did not ask for a ride to the airport, did not want to make an unnecessary event out of it. She got there by a ruthless taxi, no more safe, really, than my ride. I watched him drive up the street slowly, peering through the window.
“We will call,” she says, and insists that she is not leaving me, but that somehow, I need to “deal with the consequences.”
I am at a low point that week when, in the middle of my fugitive dinner, the hum of the generator winds down to silence. Then the bulb clicks off, and the TV fizzles out. In San Esteban I never cared about electricity. Now it has become a symbol of our life in Tegucigalpa. The chorus of crickets that used to calm me is what I hear. In the near distance, a motorcycle buzzes down a street, and for a moment in the terrifying dark, I think they are coming for me. I sit for awhile like that and hear—nothing. Just more night sounds. And it reminds me how unused I am to the nights since moving to Tegucigalpa. I’ve taken to carrying Fernando’s gun wherever I go.
In the darkness of my empty home now, lit by guttering candlelight, I almost begin to enjoy it. Perhaps enjoy is the wrong word. I begin to feel it is taking me back to the long days of harvest, when I would sit on the porch and have a cigarette and a beer, and smell the smoke of burning leaves wafting from the fields, enchanted by my own sweet memories. Just a few years ago.
You don’t know how good you have it until it is completely, irrevocably, gone.
I make my rounds, collecting tourists at three major hotels, the stragglers, the ones who did not plan ahead and have no idea what they’re getting into by using my unmarked bus service at the last minute. But I will do my best to deliver them without incident. Their hotel soap fills my nostrils. I do not betray my disdain for them, for their red scrubbed faces and floral scented armpits. I’m unnerved when some offer me a few American bills in broad daylight—a small fortune—which I smuggle to my heavy heart.
The gun makes me uneasy, and I conceal this—the gun and my feelings—as best I can.
On my lunch break I drive by the airport lot, hoping to talk to Fernando—maybe he can find me a job there, another kind of dead end.
I do not see Fernando, and so I stop at one of the turnouts before the main highway. I’d hoped Fernando would join me in my torment, but I suspect he would not be caught dead on my bus.
On my cell phone I notice a message.
Maria is a welcome thought. Her message is forgiving. She has settled in with Hernando and they are staying with Christine—who is expecting, by the way, she says. Why don’t I come and visit—there’s a bustling tourism. “Lots of transients,” she says with a smile in her voice.
She also says the words in a commanding way that suggests no alternatives. They must need bus drivers there.
I want to leave. I see myself driving to the banks of the Humuya to deposit the gun in the coffee colored waters. For how long it will take, I do not know, but I will drive. I will drive my bus away, far away.
I still have the bus, my wife, my children. I’ve got more than my troubled father, under the hand of the NFC. We’d just need to be in another place. Why stay here—this city I’d never felt at home in?
There it is, hope again, rearing its head.
As I’m tearing into my lunch, some leftover tortillas and a bit of ham hock I’d had for the third day this week, I see the gangbanger. At first, I’m merely alarmed, but then I see him striding with the determination of an executioner. The hair on my neck stands up when I see that cell phone in hand. With a groan I fumble under my seat, the tortillas tumbling. I’m resolved to handle this and will brandish the gun; the mere thought makes my heart race.
But the kid, he’s not so young. I’ve never seen him before. He’s at the eager parting with his teenage years, and he has what strikes me as pathetic wing ears that remind me of a bat.
As I reach for the gun—I cannot locate it in the lip under the seat, where I meant to put it for handy access when I drive—the kid raises his arm. That isn’t a cell phone. Before I can start the bus and get moving, he reaches my window.
“You were warned.”
Bat wing ears means business and puts a gun to my temple. I try to evade him, leaning from his reach in a way that may just egg him further to his intentions. I’m too late.
Two shots. It is so loud I don’t hear anything but the rushing of blood in my head, from my head. All is as slow and dreamlike as if it is happening underwater.
I throw my hands to my head as the shadow of a 747 roars above the bus.
Am I dead?
I’ve stopped breathing, but it’s because I’ve held my breath. And in a clarity that stuns me I look down at my lap, at my tortilla scatterings. My clean hands. The roar subsides, I look to Bat Wing Ears, who angrily whacks the gun, which did not fire—a miracle. We’ve both been spared.
Bat Wing Ears, smacking the gun butt and wrenching on the trigger, seems to know that it won’t work. In his anger, annoyance, frustration, he thrusts the gun into his pants and turns on his heel. He points two fingers at his eyes, then points to me, angrily.
I remember and locate the gun—in my belt at my back.
Reaching for the gun feels more terrifying than facing the one that was put to my temple. “I’m in control,” I think, but I’m so out of control.
A boy marching away, a boy who intended to end both our lives right there.
“Wait,” I yell out to him. “Why don’t you change your life?”
It’s despair turned into action.
Now that I’ve been spared, I can’t resist retribution.
Fernando looms over my consciousness like Diablo, as if driving me to this point. I can hear Maria’s voice.
My father worked his entire life to end it in a drainage ditch. The temptations of the bottle—I won’t go back to that. Just as I refuse to think of my father as the alcoholic failure he was—I prefer to see him the happy man loading bales of bananas—I refuse to think this was all in vain, a mistake.
I raise the gun and take shaky aim.
“Hold on,” I yell, just as he is disappearing around a bend, and I squeeze the trigger, flinching, unsure of how to fire. The shot makes a deafening pop and I can’t help but feel I’ve now made my fate, and what if I hit him? Though I never have a chance.
Sometimes, in the depth of my frustration, I can imagine the worst outcomes, and then…
As if I’m free.
The glee that pulling the trigger releases in me, the power, is unheralded. The shots ring and snap, deafening and satisfying, and they strike the foliage, a road sign, the earth.
The first one sends a clear ping and sets some branches swaying. The second goes wide and whistling. After that, they all sound the same, setting in my ears a permanent ring tone.
At the behest of my celebration which I’m counting in my ringing ears—is it five or six?—the Policia arrive, another shadow.
No matter the number of shots, it’s one too many.
They train their bullhorn on me, shout me silent at the door of my bus.
In their overloaded Isuzu, painted military gray, five boys stand sentry in the back with Kalashnikovs—pointing at me—faces covered by black bandannas. They swoop in and surround the bus as I shake free of the gun, which falls from my hand and thuds to the dirt.
“He went that way!” I yell as they corral me, guns poised at the ready. “Did you see where he went?” I ask, now overjoyed that they’ve come to my rescue—or if not quite overjoyed, resigned.
Robert Detman has published writing in more than fifty literary journals, including the Antioch Review, New Orleans Review, The Smart Set, The Southampton Review, and The Tusculum Review. His short stories have been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and nominated for the Best of the Net.
website: www.robertmdetman.com twitter: @literarydetman