As anyone who has ever passed through border crossings knows, customs is a sweaty, tiring, and stressful experience. On the border, life is always in crisis. The immediacy of this story results from that subject as well as the second-person narrative, which requires the reader to think about his or her own judgment. “Customs” concretizes split-second decisions, obstinacy, and the culture of hiddenness that the distinct sides (a governmentally imposed distinction) a closed border produces. At Customs, everyone has to be “gang-faced solid.”
It’s summer reading and writing time. Please send your flash-fiction submissions to [email protected]. 500 words maximum, though really a word count closer to 250 words would be better. Read thoughtfully. — Lyle Rosdahl
Customs by Marisela Chavez
Suppose you’re Customs Officer Torres working the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas. Late one evening, you get this young family — husband, wife and kid — crossing back over from Ciudad Juárez. It’s Ash Wednesday. All the lines stretch over a mile, reminding you, you hate religious holidays. Tonight, you ask everyone why they were in Mexico and look for hides by tapping a screwdriver along the vehicles like Molina showed you.
This family says they spent the day with the wife’s mother in Juárez. You ask for ID and the kid’s birth certificate. They’re prepared.
They declare nothing, nothing edible, the man says, nothing but a yard statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe, a present for his cuñada in El Paso. You don’t like something about the guy and ask to see this statue. He gets out, takes you to the trunk.
She’s beautiful, hand-painted, nearly four feet tall. Her brown face looks warm and forgiving — a tone captured only on the other side. You note the store she’s from.
Suppose you rip the statue out and hurl her onto the cement. A cloud of white plaster covers bricks of drugs — but you don’t do this. You slam the trunk closed. Your supervisor will question your worth if you’re wrong again and you don’t need that. A lane away, the drug dogs approach an old truck filled with headstones. You tell this guy to get back in and then cup your hands against the window to see into the backseat.
Their kid looks old to be swaddled like an infant, you think, at least 3 maybe 4. The wife says his grandma made him the blanket and that he likes to be wrapped in it like a burrito. She’s leaning over from the passenger’s with her mouth hanging open, waiting for you to smile. You don’t engage. You don’t like her either. You search the couple for something, a sign of secrecy, nervousness, fear, but they give nothing. They’re as gang-faced solid as you.
It’s hot. You feel angry. Maybe it’s the sad clown tattoo on the husband’s neck or the ash smudged across his oily forehead. Maybe it’s the fake coconut smell coming from the car or the plastic rosary dangling from the mirror. Maybe it’s the woman’s brown-lined lips, her pornographic mouth. You look away.
Make a decision — keep it moving, you remind yourself. In the heat, the whole bridge seems to heave.
Hold on, you say, and look again. The sleeping kid looks sick, or worse … you rap the window near his head with the screwdriver … he’s exhausted from playing with his cousins, the mother says, please don’t wake him. You imagine opening the car door and hurling the boy onto the cement, bones shattering to dust, finding bricks and bricks of drugs.
You focus when Molina’s voice calls the dogs off and directs the truck with headstones to pull over for a second inspection. He’s a drug-detecting genius. Your throat feels raw from swallowing so much bridge dust and exhaust fumes. A trail of tiny splinters runs along your gums like stitches keeping your lips bound. Like Jesus’ crown of thorns. Jesus was your age when he died, you remind yourself. Died on the job. Typical.
Suppose you tell the couple to have a good night and wave them through, then signal the newest guy to take over so you can grab a drink from the cooler and watch Molina make another bust. •