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Highway 61 Visited

I'm riding Highway 61 and stop to buy cigs in some Iowa town along the Mississippi. These two Mexican kids ask me for a ride. They've just hopped off a boxcar on a train they thought was headed through to St. Louis. But after just sitting for several hours, they got impatient. They have several 40-ouncers of Budweiser clinking around in a knapsack.

One is named Carlos. Came from San Luis Potosí, former windshield cleaner, 21 years old, thin as a stick, trying for a mean Mexican mustache, trying to act hard but coming up innocent.

The other is Miguel, from Monterrey. He's been roaming the Northern lands for 10 years now; he's 30, pudgy-faced from the drink, and with a mean streak that can't quite erase the fact that he was as innocent as Carlos just a few years ago.

They started drinking early in the day and are now at that half-drunk stage where they chain-smoke Winstons and talk nonstop. They tell me of a Mexican widow who befriended them in northern Iowa, giving them room and board in exchange for work on her house. Before that, they'd both been in the pen, Miguel for assaulting a police officer in Memphis, Carlos for driving under the influence and possession. But their luck changed with that widow. She cooked them three meals a day, and the work was easy.

Miguel becomes more and more wistful, taking longer hits from his Bud and wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve. You see, that woman had just lost her husband of 30 years. He'd been her first and only man, but his illness was a long one, and they hadn't been, well, "together" for the last nine years of his life. Woman of almost 60 and a wildcat. Stripped Miguel naked and straddled him on a chair in the kitchen three times a day. Said she'd marry him to straighten out his papers, and said that she loved him.

But what Miguel really wants is to go back to Memphis. There is this white girl who loves him there, yes? But he can't go back to Memphis because he almost killed that white cop there, the racist motherfucker. He shoves another beer in my face. ¡Que vivan los mojados! Long live the wetbacks! Fuck the migra! We go see that white girl in Memphis, yes?

And now Carlos tells us about the time he got stabbed and how it felt good to die, yeah, that's what dying feels like, it's this warm peaceful thing, he's not scared of it anymore. One of his best friends stabbed him with a kitchen knife in a trailer on the outskirts of Kansas City after some absurd drunken argument, and his girlfriend screamed and held him, and the ambulance came, and the doctor said it was a miracle he survived.

Miguel still can't take his mind off Memphis, where he got drunk and disorderly on Beale Street and punched the officer who arrested him. He asks me if I know Memphis and I say I do; he asks me what the name of the club across the street from B.B. King's place is and I say I don't know and he smiles, satisfied that he's caught me bullshitting. This angers Carlos.

"Chinga tu madre," he says. "este cabrón nos da un ride, and here you are dissing him!"

The stories come and they come: the evil boss, the beautiful white girl, the train ride at dawn, the 57-year-old widow that fucks like she's 17, and her tears.

How Miguel remembers those tears! He chokes up every time he remembers those tears, and Carlos knows not to say anything now.

And Carlos, near tears himself, says that there are angels out on the road, looking out for the wetbacks, angels that assume the form of Mexican widows who appear in all-white towns -- obviously sent by Jesus Christ himself to tend to lost boys.

Carlos wants to go straight, he really does -- no more drugs, he swears. But he'll never give up the 40-ouncer. Ask a Mexican to give up a 40-ouncer and you may as well cut off his balls, and yeah, he wants to send money back home, wants to build a house for his madrecita, wants to marry, have kids and stop this nonstop journey.

And in the end, Miguel, who's much more hardened than Carlos, just wants to go home too . . .

But they're too far from everything and everyone, and there's that cop in Memphis waiting for them, and an immigration detention center in Louisiana with their names on the computer . . . and so they're fugitives. They can't, or won't, go home. Their home is the road.

We pull into the Greyhound station in downtown St. Louis. The Gateway Arch is glowing dim above the banks of the oldest of the old rivers. It's five minutes before midnight. They'll get on that midnight bus to Memphis. Fuck it. Memphis is where they're headed, warrants and racist motherfucker cops and all; maybe they'll even find a job there.

"Fuck the police," Miguel says, suddenly sober and earnest as can be. "I gotta see Mary one more time. Did I tell you she have my baby?"

They're cold and I give them a couple of sweatshirts and they hug me and they say that we wetbacks always stick together and that we'll meet up again someday . . . on Beale Street.

Because Mexicans, they love the blues.

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