Dateline South Texas

Liars and Fools

My arrival in South Texas was a fluke, an accident of circumstance. A friend of a friend was Starr County correspondent for The Monitor, the afternoon paper in the “big city” up the valley, McAllen. Starr County fell into a kind of No Man’s Land of news coverage — too far south for either of the San Antonio papers to reach, too far east for the Laredo daily, and a weekly newspaper that wasn’t worth shit. The county was covered by The Monitor, which wasn’t shit either.

The presence of a reporter in Rio Grande City didn’t mean that anyone really cared what happened there. The editors in McAllen just wanted to have someone in Starr County in case there was a big drug bust, or a fire at the high school, or something happened that would make The Monitor look bad if McAllen didn’t know about it. “One story a week, maximum,” my friend’s friend, who had done his time in Rio Grande City and wanted out (he was balling a divorcee up the Valley in Harlingen, and the late nights and long commutes were getting to be too much for him) promised me. He drove me around for a while in his funky old Volvo and then took me to McAllen to meet his editor. This white guy — Jack was his name, real nice, but he had a bad heart and didn’t want any trouble — eyed me doubtfully. To my surprise he agreed to pay me a couple of hundred dollars “moving expenses” (my duffel bag) from Austin.

It was a pretty sweet deal. The Monitor’s office was in an apartment at La Borde House, an old hotel favored by cattlemen and oil & gas attorneys. The Monitor paid half the rent and paid for the telephone as well, and there was a computer in the room and daily maid service. The people in town were friendly enough, especially after they no longer believed there was an undercover policeman or a Federal agent in their midst, but it was hard to be an outsider in a community that made its living in secret. No one told me anything that they didn’t have to tell me, and sometimes people seemed nervous even to be seen talking to me.

“Work” consisted of a routine that began each morning before the sun rose. The first stop of my morning, after coffee, was the basement of the courthouse, to the sheriff’s office and jail, to see if anything violent and/or newsworthy had happened overnight. The Starr County Sheriff’s Department was small, probably no more than a dozen or so officers, including the sheriff himself. The first few minutes of my visit were always spent in an outer office, trying to squeeze information out of the chief deputy. The deputy had been a cop in Houston and risen to the rank of sergeant, and as a consequence he had a pretty healthy distrust of reporters. He was friendly and personable in that small-town, rural-county way, but he always answered my questions with the same few words: “You’ll have to ask the sheriff about that,” or, if he was being particularly familiar, “You need to talk to Gene.” Eugenio “Gene” Falcon, Jr., was the elected sheriff of Starr County.

Gene Falcon looked like exactly what he was — a former high school football star, with wide shoulders and a thick neck, and brown hair cut close at the sides and back but hanging down across a round, ruddy face. His cheeks were flushed, the color of a teenager’s who has just taken his first strong drink. The sheriff was from one of the “good” families in the county. His brother was a doctor — my doctor, in fact. It was only natural to wonder if the two brothers shared confidences and my bet was that almost certainly they did. There were no secrets in Starr County, someone had told me, a fact that was professionally to my advantage.

The morning in question the chief deputy led me right in to see the sheriff. That should have been my first hint that something was wrong. Gene Falcon was on the telephone. When he saw me he started speaking Spanish to whomever was on the other end of the line. The conversation was brief. After a moment the sheriff put down the telephone receiver.

“I guess you heard,” Eugene Falcon said, as always picking his words slowly, “that we had a little excitement last night.”

It was a critical moment. A reporter doesn’t like to show how little he really does know — especially not to cops. With policemen you want to act as if you know nothing, which the average cop will not believe and will, therefore, speak freely, suspecting that you already know everything. At least that was my theory.

“What happened?”

“There was an escape from the jail.”

Instinctively my hand reached into my back pocket for my notebook. The interview had begun.

The sheriff had on the desk before him a sheet of paper with a description of three men and he read slowly and clearly, drawing out each syllable. The first two were wanted by courts in Harris County, their probations revoked. By profession the men were, if my memory is correct, burglars. The third man was in jail for something less serious. All three had been awaiting transfer to the state prison.

“None of them can really be considered dangerous, huh? I mean, it’s not like we have three escaped killers, is it?” The regret in my voice must have been unmistakable.

“Anybody who just escaped from jail is dangerous. Let’s just say that they weren’t convicted of violent crimes.”

“How’d it happen? How did they get out?”

“I just told you.”

“But I don’t understand, sheriff. How did they get away?”

At that stage in my moral development there were only two kinds of people: those who lied, and those who simply refused to answer difficult questions. My own weakness often led me to lie — and what you don’t like in your own character you like even less in others.

“What do you mean, ‘get away’?” the sheriff asked. “I just told you.”

“Okay. Let’s go back. The jail doors were accidentally left open. What time was that?”

“As near as we can estimate,” the sheriff said, “early morning.”

“The jail doors were open —”

Eugene Falcon nodded his head. He knew where the question was going. He answered before it got there.

“The dispatcher was asleep.”

The escapees had walked out past the sleeping radio dispatcher/jailer. That was that. One for the sheriff. He had told the truth, to his considerable embarrassment.

“I’m going out,” Gene Falcon said, standing and offering his fleshy hand, “to check some of the ranches in the county. Why don’t you come along?”

“I’d like that.”

“Give me about twenty minutes. I still have a few calls to make.”

“I’ll meet you —”

“In the parking lot,” he said.

Outside, the sun was gathering strength. Standing on the courthouse steps there was an unpleasant tingle on the skin of my forehead and along my wrists and under my arms. It was almost winter but my pores were open, preparing for another long day.

To the north, the Border Patrol operated inspection points on the roads leaving the county. The patrol’s officers had instructions to look for the escapees as well as for the usual illegal aliens. To the east and west, the sheriff’s own deputies were cruising back roads and visiting ranches to ask if anyone had seen suspicious movements on the land. There were other men on horseback, and the state police were sending an airplane to check the more remote areas of the county. It was all, of course, totally pointless. To the south, the thin waters of the Rio Grande were flowing darkly, not far beyond the edge of the courthouse parking lot. If you fired a pistol, the bullet would land on the far riverbank — on the “other side,” as it was called on this side.

All three escaped men had ties to Mexico, either friends or family. One was married to a woman from Reynosa. The sheriff had mentioned that there was a “possibility” that the men he was looking for had crossed the river, but it was almost certain they were there now, at that moment sitting down to a breakfast of beans and beer among friends. It was a possibility, yes, Sheriff Falcon had said. It was the only possibility.

The sheriff appeared, dodging cars on the parking lot. Most of my contact with Eugene Falcon had been in his office. If you hadn’t before seen the sheriff away from his desk, the sight was somehow encouraging. Like most of the respectable men in the county, Sheriff Falcon’s body was going to fat, but it was a slow process and he was at the point where the extra weight was attractive. Gave him substance and authority.

There was no outward sign of the office Eugene Falcon held. He could have been a rancher, and his family did own property in Starr County, but someone had told me that they had nothing there — no cows, no water, no oil or natural gas. Just land.

Blink your eyes once and you were already out of Rio Grande City. The two lanes grew to four, merging into the highway that reached all the way to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The scenery was not very impressive. The Rio Grande was still close enough to smell the water, but the big farms in the Upper Valley had drained so much from the river that the land was shriveled and colorless — except white dust, caliche, everywhere.

Over the steering wheel the sheriff pointed at a fence shimmering on the horizon. He turned on the radio and chose a news broadcast from Laredo. Car accidents, county commission meetings, cattle prices, high school football — there was no mention of the escape. The sheriff switched to a Spanish-language broadcast and my ears strained, like muscles flexing, to understand.

“How’s your Spanish? You learning any?”

“Un poco.”

“Well you better learn ‘un poco’ more if you want to survive in this part of the world.”

“I will.”

Sheriff Falcon looked at his passenger—sizing me up, as if he were measuring me for a suit.

When the lawman spoke next the question was direct and threatening. “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“What is it?”

“Where do you go every week? People say that they’ve seen you coming and going with an overnight bag. You sure you aren’t driving up to Austin,” the sheriff asked, “carrying a package for one of our local ‘businessmen?'”

“I go south, not north.”

“South where?”

“Mexico City. I go to Reynosa and catch the afternoon train to Monterrey. Then the night train to the capital.”

“Mexico City? What’d you want to do down there?”

“Walk in the parks, visit museums, go to bookstores. I practice my Spanish. I’m one of the few people who really likes Mexico City. I’d live there if the air was clean enough to breathe.”

The sheriff nodded to acknowledge that there really are people in the world who would travel all night on a train to go to a bookstore or to visit a museum. But Sheriff Falcon’s own interests were more practical.

“What if something happens here while you’re down there? Who’ll write up the article and send it to the newspaper?”

“Nothing happens here, Sheriff. That’s the beauty of Starr County. I’ve been here for almost six months and the only excitement we’ve had is a fire at the school, one barroom shooting and this escape. Everything else has been a routine story that if I don’t write today I can write next week. Going to Mexico City is a risk that I’m willing to take.”

A lot of people didn’t like the Rio Grande Valley. They thought it was “too close” to Mexico. For me the problem was completely opposite. Mexico wasn’t close enough.

For me all of Mexico could be distilled, focused into a single image, a scene out of a photograph by Casasola: a horse thief standing against a wall as an impatient row of federales waits to shoot him. At the thief’s feet sits a dog, well-trained and patient. To me, both man and animal were romantic figures. There was nothing like either of them on this side of the border.

“Do you think I ought to fire her?” the sheriff asked.

There wasn’t any point in opening my notebook. This morning the sheriff would be telling me the truth, not the facts.

“Who?”

“The dispatcher.”

The sheriff’s car turned onto a dirt road. The state police plane was in the distance overhead. Somewhere up there sunlight was bouncing off silver wings and then the reflection was rising and disappearing in the gaudy clouds as the plane turned to make another pass.

A breeze blew through the window. The wind gave me a sensation of power. In Starr County there was none of the cynicism about the press that you see in big cities. It was a little scary. In the hallways of the courthouse my own stories were quoted as if they were written by God. Factual or false, biased or impartial, once something appeared in the newspaper it became real.

There was a reason for our “posse” this morning, after all. It had nothing to do with catching the escaped prisoners. The sheriff wanted to feel me out. He wanted to know if the newspaper was going to make a stink about the sleeping deputy. Sheriff Falcon was in a bad position. Firing people in a small town is never easy. This was still a county where the candidate won who got most of his family and friends out to vote. The dispatcher had family, and Sheriff Falcon didn’t need any enemies. He was waiting for my answer.

“I don’t think you need to fire her, Sheriff. Anybody can make a mistake.”

Gene Falcon’s thick forearms twisted and their strength was transmitted directly to the wheels. Suddenly there were shadows to the west, beside an arroyo. No trees, no buildings, nothing to cast a shadow, and no wild animal would be out in the open in the first heat of the day. They had to be men.

“Just wetbacks,” the sheriff said, reading my mind.

“Aren’t you going to arrest them?”

“That’s the Border Patrol’s job. If I had to arrest every illegal that passes through this county I’d never have time to do anything else.”

The underside of the jeep scraped over a big stone. The thought suddenly occurred to me that we hadn’t seen any cows. Maybe there really were no cows. Maybe cattle were just part of the county’s pretense of legitimacy, a cover for the real business of smuggling.

A grand jury had issued a report estimating that more than 50 percent of the population of Starr County was involved in the drug traffic. Just before my arrival, the United Nations had described this tiny Texas county as an example of a community corrupted by drugs. Everyone, it seemed, was either running dope or related to someone who was. There were even rumors about the sheriff. There were, of course, rumors about everyone in Starr County, even me, but Eugene Falcon wasn’t everyone. He was the chief law enforcement officer, and one day the rumors would turn out to be true. One day white men in gray suits, FBI agents, would come to take him away.

But that was in the indeterminate future. The morning of our posse Eugene Falcon was still the best man in the county. He was still a straight-shooter. He was just a poor public official caught between the customs of one culture and the laws of another. That didn’t mean it was difficult to do his job and be honest. It was impossible.

The dust outside began to swirl. The sheriff raised his hands from the steering wheel. He was signaling helplessness.

“You don’t understand how we operate down here,” Gene Falcon seemed to be saying, defending himself against charges which had not yet been made. “We’re in the United States of America, okay. I know we’re north of the Rio Grande and we have to play by American rules, but in our heads we’re still Mexicans. You can call it corruption or whatever, but down there, across the river, and on this side too, a public official has to have money to spread around, to keep people satisfied. To have it to spread around he has to be taking money.

“It’s that simple. If he says he isn’t, he’s either lying or he’s a fool. Between the two, we think being a fool is worse.”

Eugene Falcon stopped the car again and leaned forward on the steering wheel. For a terrifying moment it looked like the sheriff was going to cry. Behind the steering wheel the round face contorted. Eyes closed. Gene Falcon
sneezed like a gunshot.

Sunlight like the flash of a camera exploded across the windshield. The car sped up and then slowed in front of a gate. The sheriff got out. He walked, it seemed to me, like a duck. It must have been the boots.

The ranch fence was short and squat, topped by spiraling circles of barbed wire. The gate itself was a common cattle guard, made of crossed aluminum beams mounted on a frame of wooden four-by-fours, secured to a thick post by a chain and padlock. The sheriff stood on the toes of his boots and reached over the top of the post. When his hand reappeared the tips of his fingers were holding a small key on a brass ring.

Eugene Falcon opened the padlock. He pulled the heavy chain from around the post and swung open the gate.

My interest focused on the hands resting in my lap . . . contemplating each knuckle, each fingernail . . . the lines in my palms. A short lifeline, someone on the other side of the river had once told me.

Next my thoughts turned to Mexico City, a more pleasant meditation than my reduced life span, or Gene Falcon’s “corruption.” Near the Zócalo in Mexico City there was an old Art Deco hotel, not too expensive, between a metro station and an all-night cafe. A week there, away from the conflicting loyalties of the border, seemed to me like a good idea.

The sheriff opened the driver’s door and slid into the car. Gene Falcon stopped the car again and got out to close the gate.

“Tell me something, sheriff.”

“Sure.”

“Every ranch I’ve visited, it’s the same. There’s a lock and a chain on the gate, but the key is kept hanging on a hook on the other side of the fence. If a thief comes to steal the cows or whatever, won’t he just use the key — or if he can’t find the key won’t he just break the lock?”

The sheriff swung the gate closed. He picked up the chain and wrapped it around the wooden post.

“That’s a question I can answer for you,” Eugene Falcon said. His face was etched with relief now that he knew he wouldn’t have to fire any one. “You make the same mistake civilians always make. Any cop will tell you that a lock isn’t to stop a thief.

“A lock,” the sheriff said, “is to keep out the honest people.”

Lazily the toe of my foot kicked the surface of the roadway. A small cloud of dust rose. The sweat was running down my cheeks and the back of my neck. Sunlight flashed again across the windshield. The sheriff put the car in gear and the wheels rolled moodily forward.

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax was never part of the 50 percent.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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