The story started some place in the Southwest. It began as a small clump of dust, loosened from the sole of a pair of sneakers made in China. The shoes belonged to the story’s hero who, when it was all over, became larger than life. He had, some said, died and been reincarnated. All in the blink of an eye.
Dust from the man’s shoe had traveled across the border, between Mexico and the United States. A pale tan residue lifted into the wind, on a day so hot and dry nothing but a particle of dust would have even noticed. There were, one teller of the story was heard to relate, crickets spread across the desert, and they all began to sing.
Night fell, without a lessening of the heat. The man whose shoes pointed toward the sky lay where he had fallen, next to the border fence, on the Mexican side. Only the dust from his boot had gotten across, though the man’s goal had been to come to America and make his fortune.
The dust glided through the air that first night. There were no clouds, which was good, because otherwise it might have rained and the dust would have turned to mud or been washed away, never to have been heard from again. If you were standing out in the desert, where lights are nowhere to be seen, a multitude of stars could have caused you to exhale slowly. A sliver of moon hung pensively, off to the side.
The dust did not want to go far that night. It lifted to a higher place, where the air currents sailed it north. The little beige particle had heard about San Diego and liked how the named rolled off a tongue. Plus, it was a name not unfamiliar to a morsel of dry soil from that side of the border, where saints were much more commonplace.
A woman with long gray hair and the hint of a moustache above her lip told the next part of the story like this:
The little piece of dust, you know, it was nothing really. Like dandruff or sand that blows in the door. It decided to come down from the sky and take a look around. This kernel of dirt from a tiny village in the Mexican mountains, not far from Guatemala, had never seen such highways and cars, and so many lights. Well, you can just imagine what went through its tiny mind when it first saw San Diego.
Meanwhile, the hero of our story who had risked everything for a dream, lay in the hottest part of the desert, where no one but the coyote was apt to find him. At that moment, his soul was beginning to sneak away, climbing right out of his chest, where sweat had gathered before the man collapsed.
The next part of the story isn’t quite so clear. Some say the dust allowed itself to fall, wanting to see where letting go would take it. Others claim the wind at the higher part of the sky took a break and smacked the dust onto the ground. A man in a bar on the south side of town, in between swigs of Corona soured with lime and after wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, said the dust had taken the form of a man as soon as it hit the ground.
Meanwhile, a scorpion had marched its spindly black legs up onto the dead man’s arm. The man didn’t know, of course, what was happening, now that his soul had departed.
One old man, who snuck across the border too many years ago to count, and whose three gold-capped front teeth winked in the candlelight, heard that the dust slept in a downtown doorway all night.
The little dust was very cold, he said, being so far north. The poor thing was not used to this weather. But what most people do not understand is that this dust, it was not stupid.
Seeing the blue and green sleeping bags, lumps of stuffed nylon filling each of the spaces in front of doors, the dust understood how it might stay warm. It slipped underneath, at the corner of a bag, making sure not to slide further in, where it would surely be crushed.
At the same time, the dead man’s soul hovered over the border, between this side and that. Without the man and his dreams of a better life in America, the soul had a hard time deciding whether to keep moving forward or turn back around. Being an old soul, a bit worn at the toe but carrying the wisdom of countless generations, this presence, which was like breath, water and light all rolled into one, thought a quiet life on the porch overlooking the dead man’s corn and bean fields in Teptapa would suit it just fine. The soul had no use for gadgets made in China or a red Ford pickup truck, like the man might have wanted, and the soul was not the least bit hungry at the moment. It had also been around enough time to understand what the dead man had not yet realized – that the other side is often not better than the side where a man was born.
It’s at this part of the story where the song comes up. Musicians fight over who wrote their lyrics first but credit is generally given to a band in Tijuana. The Border Boys, as they are known, recorded a tune called Wetback Dust. As the song relates, neither the border patrol nor the drug dealers, and not even the President, could stop the dust from the shoes of millions of Mexicans from making its way over, under and in between cracks in the fence, and settling down for a good long time in the United States.
This Is a Woman
Excerpt from Crocodile: Memoirs
From a Mexican Drug-Running Port
Five Scenes from Six and Renaldo
The Music Inside
The Ear as Rifle
Tania Van Winkle
Arriving in New York for My Grandfather’s Funeral
Notes on Summer
Notes on Continuation
Spanking Without a Cause
You Are Here
Brother and Sister
The Ugly Duckling