Border Scare by W. Anderson Lee
I had hitched a ride with the Dirty Miner in the white conversion van just outside of Del Rio.
I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, but I was looking to head more or less into the Big Bend. Whether that meant I made it the full way south into the National Park or just anywhere out in all of this remote didn’t matter to me as much as just going somewhere did.
For the past two months I’d been in Austin listening to the old timers talk about how it wasn’t what it used to be and the kids talking about how if they could just get their jeans a little bit tighter, everything would be okay. Or something like that, I wasn’t sure. I liked it enough when I arrived, but a few weeks of busy city life coupled with a rare non-stop rain that seemed to last the entire duration of my trip had me desperate for a disappearing act. With all of their plethora of alleyways, green spaces and happy hours, cities just don’t seem to do it for me anymore.
So I ended up here, in the cab of the Dirty Miner’s van headed deep into the smaller, rawer of Texas’ two southern humps.
I’d become about as close with my host as one can be in a four hour drive through the desert. When my thumb in the air had been greeted by the tail lights burning red on the back of the scratched up, patched up and primered here and there conversion van, I have to admit I couldn’t help but think, “Child molester.” My parents, my aunts, the public school system, growing up in the late 70’s it was made abundantly clear to me that anyone driving around in a white van was looking to exchange candy for kidnapping.
As I ran to the passenger side door and slipped inside, his scratchy throat managed to cough out his greeting, “Hey there Mr. Who?”
“Hey,” I wasn’t sure really as to whether it was a question or not. I found a comfortable spot for my ass to rest and tried to maneuver my feet around the pile of books on the floor in front of the glove compartment.
“I said, hey there Mr. Who?”
“Anderson, eh? That’s a name.” He looked into the rear view mirror and then reached across the van with an extended hand, dirty fingernails, a deep tan and all.
His handshake was vigorous, and extended. Finally, he said “I’m Dirty Miner,” in an accent I couldn’t quite place as Canadian or Appalachian. Maybe some Chinese in there? The shake continued for another twenty or thirty seconds before he released my fingers, slapped me on the knee and hit the gas, literally leaving our previous location in his dust.
He kept looking in the rearview mirror, which obviously made me immediately suspicious, but he was doing 75 down US 10 and I figured that I’d hang on for the ride and be further into the particular “middle of nowhere” I was aimed for in no time.
“Where you headed, Andrew?” he asked. I got a syllable or two out before he burst out laughing, “Nah!” literally cracking himself up, I swear the lines in his cheek went the whole way through to the inside of his mouth, “I know, I know. It’s Anderson, right?”
“Hey whatever works for you man, appreciate the ride.” He looked at me very strangely then, and again into the rearview mirror.
Finally, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peaked into the back of his van. To my surprise an incredibly attractive woman sat in the seat just behind him. She was a blonde, but more gray than anything at her age, which was hard to determine given the way her eyes lit up. She was gorgeous, and I wondered how she had ended up with this ugly old, bearded, wart-nosed guy driving this shitty old van. She smiled at me.
“Hi,” I muttered. I was a bit taken back, partially I suppose because I hadn’t realized anyone else was in the vehicle, but mostly I think because I sort of had a crush on her immediately. “I’m Ander–”
“Hi,” she tilted her head a little and the sunlight slipped in through a busted part of the conversion van’s blind. I was in a movie and falling in love fast. I’d never fell head over heels for a stranger before.
“That’s Ran Over Rachel,” the driver shouted. “You could say she’s my lucky charm.”
I wasn’t sure if lucky charm equaled significant other, but after a few more seconds I realized I was staring. I quickly reached back to shake her hand. She leaned forward, passed the shake, and hugged me. As she did, I noticed a young boy sleeping way in the back on a mattress laying on the floor of the vehicle.
“I’m Rachel,” she reconfirmed, skipping the adjectives. She kissed me on the cheek and sat back down. “That’s Tommy.”
“So where are you guys all headed?”
“El Paso, I’ve got a big gig going on out there,” Dirty Miner was chewing the nails on his left hand and fiddling with the radio trying to find a station with the other. His knee kept the wheel relatively straight.
“I’m a music promotor.” He looked at me, waiting for a response.
“Oh, cool, I actu–”
“Emphasis on the pro,” he interrupted. The wind blew heavy against the side of the van and, completely absent of panic, he used his knee to steer us back onto the road after all four tires had hit desert.
It seemed old Dirt fancied himself pretty savvy. I’d been on the road long enough to know that crazy people are often intelligent, if not pure on genius. That knowledge never did much to make me feel any more comfortable around them, though.
The miles went on, we all talked. Dirty Miner told me that he had received his nickname after climbing out of a sewer tunnel he’d been living in out in LA decades back. When some other homeless people saw him they asked him how it was down there.
“I struck gold!” he said he’d told them. “I found a severed arm with a watch still attached to it.” The way he told it, the find made him king of the homeless for a few weeks. Until he finally tried to pawn the watch and discovered it was fake gold. When he realized he was just wearing a dead guy’s watch, he split town and hadn’t been back to California since.
I tried to gather how Rachel was related to him.
“So who’s the kid?”
“That’s my–” she began.
“Don’t you even mind, Andy-boy,” Dirt interrupted again.
“I’m not social services, man,” I tried to reassure him that all was good.
“And we ain’t the New York Times,” he said matter of factly. Seemed hard to argue with him.
As we hit Marathon and redirected the shaky white van south on 385, things began to lighten up.
“Ran-O,” Dirt called back to the woman, “Gonna mind grabbin’ us a beer or two?”
I looked at him, smiled a little, hell I wasn’t driving, and then at her. She reached behind her seat into a plastic blue cooler and produced a single can of Shiner Bock, Texas’ favorite dark lager. She handed it forward to me.
Dirt smiled my way, “She never lets me drink at the wheel.” That was the first sign of common sense I’d noticed from the driver.
“Here’s a quick fix,” he stood up, half-ducking in the van, one hand still on the wheel. She quickly moved up underneath him and took over his duties as driver. He kissed her on the cheek, his ass in my face, thank god for him wearing overalls or I’m sure bare crack would have scathed my cheek.
“You’re out,” he pointed at me with his thumb and then pitched it over his shoulder. I moved to Rachel’s old seat and he presumed the position of shotgun.
Over the next hour or two things lightened up. Dirt kept the odd remarks coming but as I lubed up a little I became a bit more comfortable calling him out on his b.s. I dare say, we became friends. The boy in the back never said a word, if he ever even woke up.
Rachel had slowed the van down to around 55 miles per hour as soon as she began driving, and every time we’d go up a hill that dropped to around 45, even less sometimes. So when we’d begin to go down one steep hill, she’d let it get above 65mph for a little extra oomph up the next one.
“Hey let’s pull over, I know of a swimming hole here at the river,” Dirt yelled suddenly during one of these roller coaster bobs. I wasn’t particularly interested in swimming myself, and Rachel mildly protested, but it had become clear to me and probably to her years ago that it was easier to comply with Dirt’s whims than to argue. The van came to a halt along the side of the road, no water in sight.
Dirt reached into the pile of books and clothes and random collateral at my feet and produced a small, striped bag. He undid the zipper on the attache and produced a small glass jar and colorful glass pipe.
It turned out the entire stop had been less about dipping into the Rio Grande, still miles and miles away, and more about toking a bowl outside of the radius of the still sleeping child in the back of the van. Dirt packed it, hit it, passed it to Rachel. She declined.
“When we stop at an actual river, maybe.” As she passed on the offer I found myself unable to do the same.
Minutes later we were back on the road, Rachel again at the wheel performing her speed down the hill to hope you can make it up the next one.
On one such down and up I noticed Dirt, who was looking at me or through me or passed me, I could never tell with his squinty eyes, his facial expression changed completely and he slouched down in his chair, chugged his beer and pitched into a plastic bag.
“Dump it,” he said and handed the bag to me. The lights lit up behind us. Dirt had seen it before we had a chance, an officer of the law was hiding at the trough of one of these valleys just waiting for someone to try and use the momentum of a few extra miles per hour as Rachel had been doing.
She pulled over immediately.
“What the shit, now?” Dirt punched the dashboard, and he probably would have put a crack in the vinyl if it hadn’t already clearly suffered such blows enough times before to be more of a net than a dash at this point.
“Step out of the vehicle!” the cop was large, I mean he was incredibly tall and thick enough that he wasn’t fooling anyone as to the state of his obesity. I could see him through the driver side mirror as I peeked between the front seat and it’s seatbelt. The fat state trooper stopped just behind the back of the van, still in view in the mirror.
“Step out of the vehicle!”
Rachel was frozen. Dirt looked at her, then back through the rear windows. “What the fuck? Why doesn’t he come up here?”
“Step immediately out of the van, this is your final warning!”
Dirt opened his door, the cop reacted, moving to the other side of the back of the van.
“Sir, get back in the vehicle, I need to speak to the driver.”
“You said to get out, she’s freaked out ‘cause you’re acting like a dick and won’t get out, so here I am.” I could see the officers face through the back window. The kid between he and I was slowly stirring as the conversation outside grew louder.
“Sir, I need to speak with the driver.”
“Well I already told ya, she’s the shit out a chicken scared of you.”
“Sir, I need to speak–”
“Why don’t you turn off that record, it’s obviously broken. What’d you pull us over for?”
“Why does the vehicle smell like marijuana?”
“What?” Dirt revealed the old ignorance card.
“Is this your vehicle, sir?”
“Yep, it’s my van.” Dirt looked back at the van, pounding on the rear door as though he were proud of the old girl, but I figured it was supposed to be some type of signal. If he thought I was going to get out and help him sass off to a pig out here in the type of wilderness I imagine a cop could shoot a vanful of non-Texans and drive away clean, he was crazier than I’d imagined.
“I’m going to need to search the vehicle, sir.” I have never liked the fuzz. I’ve been related to them, I’ve had friends grow up and become cops. What I know of them can be summed up in one run on sentence. They speed like hell and all have a pact where they never pull one another over, therefore they’re above the law, and they are almost always guys who were dickheads in high school, or nerds in high school, and are just looking for a way to continue the experience of being a bully or reverse the tables and become a grown up bully themselves. I’ve never even once, not even for a moment, met a cop who actually cared about what is right and wrong.
By the time I finished the thought, Dirt was in handcuffs. I was a little surprised that he hadn’t put up more of a fight.
The officer of this West Texan law was now walking forward to the driver’s side door. The boy in the back of the van was now completely awake and uncertain as to whom he should look at more strangely, the dick with the gun walking up to his van or the strange guy sitting inside of it.
I kind of put my hands up and outstretched them toward him as if to say, “It’s fine, it’ll be okay.” He slid back onto the mattress a foot or so away from me.
“Ma’am,” the cop knocked on the window which she had yet to roll down. “I’ma need to speak with you.”
Rachel opened the door, explaining via gesticulation that the window would not wind down.
“Why does your vehicle smell like marijuana?”
Rachel said nothing.
The officer repeated his query. And again. And again. All to a similar response.
“Listen,” he shouted, backing up a few steps onto the road so that he could see both Rachel and Dirt at the same time, “One of ya’ll needs to tell me what’s going on here. Are you in possession of marijuana?”
“We ain’t got no weed, man,” Dirt continued to proclaim.
The cop moved closer to Rachel again, keeping one eye on his handcuffed prisoner at the back of the van. As the copy began to speak with Rachel, she began to cry. I wasn’t sure if he even knew I was still in the van at first, but then he called out “Come on out of there you two”.
He and Rachel walked around to the other side of the van, and she opened the door.
“C’mon, Tommy,” she said, and he sort of slid out of the vehicle. I followed her.
“Who are you?” the cop asked me, but before I could answer, “You know what, I don’t care. Ma’am, do I have permission to search this vehicle?”
“That’s my house, you can’t search it!” Dirt cried out, moving towards the cop.
“Take another step and I will put you in my car, son!”
Dirt stopped. Rachel began crying even more.
“Ma’am, you can either give me permission to search this vehicle,” he moved toward the van, peering inside, “or I can take you and your child down to the station and when we find it, we’ll put you all away and the boy here will be put into custody.” At that Rachel exploded with tears, she fell to her knees. The kid started crying. Dirt’s face was a volcano.
“Just tell me what you’ve got in the van, if it’s just a little bit I’ll let you go, you’ll be fine.”
Finally Dirt nodded to Rachel, who’d created a small swimming hole of her own of tears.
He then put me in handcuffs, I suppose just to be safe, and did the same to Rachel. Surprisingly, and it honestly was a surprise, he didn’t cuff the kid.
I was compliant, just watching it all going down. I was essentially not a part of it at all, I had no emotional tie to these people, or at least I shouldn’t have. But there was something about Rachel, and I could now tell that whoever the kid was, she loved him very much. I’d even grown a little fond of Dirt at this point. The officer ducked into the van. He came out with the little striped bag and pulled the small glass jar of marijuana out of it. Then he found the pipe. And then another pipe, two more, five pipes in all. He put it all back in the bag and set it on one of the van’s seats.
Then he opened the back door to the van. He opened the first suitcase, tossing clothes deeper into the van and some out onto the dirt ground, the van’s exhaust still smoking all over them. He opened the hood of the vehicle. Kicked the tires.
There was nothing. He was clearly looking for something big, hoping we were smugglers come up from Mexico.
He walked back to Dirt. “I pulled you over because you were speeding back there. You were doing,” he paused and looked at a notebook in his hand, “let’s see, 71 miles per hour. After I approached the vehicle, I could clearly smell marijuana. Were you smoking marijuana today?”
Dirt didn’t say anything, he looked over at Rachel, still cuffed, still crying. “Well it doesn’t matter, I didn’t find any usable amount of marijuana in the vehicle.” The statement was strange, considering I’d seen him pull the glass jar full of weed buds from the little striped bag. “I’m gonna write you a ticket for possession of paraphernalia, you understand?” Dirt looked up at him, passed the mountains that were his fat cheeked face, but didn’t say a word.
“Do you understand?” the cop repeated. Dirt barely nodded.
“You listen here though, son,” Dirt was probably two decades older than the cop. “You head back up through Border Patrol,” referring to the United States Border Patrol stations that were posted on every road near the US/Mexico border, “they will tear this van apart if they smell that.”
He uncuffed us all and said we were free to go. We were all back in the van in a few minutes, Dirty Miner with a ticket in hand.
Nobody said much as we pulled away. I had been harassed by cops before, but it was usually with some reason behind it. Vagrancy, public drunkenness, parking overnight somewhere I shouldn’t have. But there was no way this cop could have smelled marijuana on a vehicle where Dirt and Rachel had made a point of pulling over so they wouldn’t smoke it in the van with the kid inside. Nevermind what one might think about two adults smoking pot while in charge of a young one. Marijuana is now legal in some states, and it’s clearly been proven to be safer than alcohol. Rachel had not smoked any, and she was the driver. Essentially, no wrong had been performed.
The officer followed us for some time, about 30 miles before he finally pulled off to the side of the road and turned around. The he vanished in the opposite direction.
Why the pig–and I do use the derogatory form here with purpose; he was helping no one, upholding no justice, just acting the way a fat man with a big gun is bound to act–decided to let us go is probably a simple matter of our location. We were hours from the state police station, and it was probably too big of a hassle to haul us all the way back there on a few grams of marijuana possession. He gave Dirt the paraphernalia charge because it didn’t involve bringing anyone in. After fifteen minutes or so we all began talking again, at first Dirt was just fired up and bitching, but soon we were all laughing, making jokes at his double chin, his use of the word “son”, at how lazy he was. At the stereotype he’d allowed himself to become.
He had succeeded to scare us, though, particularly at the thought that his entire plan was to call Border Patrol and inform them of our possession of the pot he didn’t take from us. Perhaps he was such a dick that he’d rather lose the bust himself in hopes of a bigger charge against us by the Federal Government.
Instead, we pulled over a few minutes after he’d turned around. Rachel had calmed down. The kid in the back, it turns out he was mute, had been silently laughing, pretending to shoot out the window at the policeman as he followed us. As we piled out of the van I noticed a small creek had pooled into a nice sized swimming hole.
The boy ran for it, arms in the air. Rachel kicked her head to the side, looking at Dirt, who then produced the striped bag and plastic blue cooler. We all walked down to the swimming hole and finished off their stash.
As the night went on, as Rachel and Dirt stripped down to their undies (to varying degrees of my chagrin and delight), I found a grand solace in the notion: somewhere an overweight, underpaid cop was telling a story to a slew of similarly fat, stuck in nowhere Texas pigs about how he’d riled up this whole crew of hippies, as I’m sure he’d refer to us, for absolutely no reason. “I sure put a scarin’ on ‘em,” I could hear him say.
I kicked my feet up in the warm water, cracked another beer, and watched the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen fall asleep under these desert stars. You lose some, yeah. But tonight, we’d won in a way that would be hard to see defeat hold us down ever again.