Page 21


JULIA AUSTIN GRAPHIC DESIGN Ruta Maya Coffee is grown by a cooperative of Mayan farmers In the highlands of Chiapas. Ruta Maya Coffee Is 100% shade grown, organic coffee, certified by the OCIA. 218 West Fount Street. Awn 1X 70701 512 472 9637/ 800 510 cum cubit:Lawn/ rutaineyand to the meticulous 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 Zocalo in Mexico City there was an old Art Deco hotel, not too expensive, between a metro station and an allnight 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. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15 OCTOBER 6, 2000