Retracing Underground Tunnels

Two hours from the border and the glowing red light beeping from the backseat was already developing into a metal clanging sound in his ears. The rush of his worn wheels peeling down the black highway added a low buzz to the incessant bumping. He felt like he wasn’t on four wheels on the ground. He was floating, more miles away than any distance on the surface of the earth, in space like an asteroid to the borderlands of oblivion.

But, no, there he was with his hands gripping the steering wheel tight, watching the mountains give way to hills give way to open expanses of sand and shrubs that marked the Southwest. It wasn’t guilt he felt at his treachery; it was the utter vacuousness of dashed filial responsibility. The black hair on the back of his white knuckles glistened with the fetid sweat of extreme anxiety, he was grinding his teeth, a habit which had started when they hauled him in and didn’t end until his death. Looking into the rear view mirror at his own deep wooden eyes, which reflected a bottomless Mediterranean, Angel Semental knew he wouldn’t reach Mexico again.

His left leg began to shake lightly with the first tremors of premonition as he turned right, finally tracing the underground passageways that he had penetrated time and time again. The blaring beep of the back seat slugged the back of his head at an infernally steady tempo and he recalled when he hit his head on the string of miner’s lamps. He had only walked the few miles of this tunnel between lands twice before, but he remembered his subterranean itinerary in the placenta of the Mojave Desert like the belly of an Italian trawler that brought him due North from Africa fifteen years ago.

Pitching down the potholed road due South in his dusty Range Rover, he thought back two days to when the cops picked him up in Las Vegas. He had been drinking away a Tuesday afternoon outside on the strip—a luxury that his Sharia-bound father and even his liberal grandfather had never indulged in. The deputy took him to a special detention center and didn’t give him his driver’s license back—it didn’t matter, it was a paper plane anyway. Within a day he was sitting in an interrogation room facing two DEA agents: one who sincerely enjoyed the power of his position and hated immigrants almost as much as he hated himself, the other was just concerned with putting in his time so he could retire to a cleaner Mexico.

When they asked him about the contrabandista tunnel, he was instantly immersed into the memory of his departure from the Maghreb. His mother and father had paid two years wages to dig themselves out of endless death in Algeria factories and escape to the country that owned those factories. They were smuggled across the sea, but only Angel and his mother reached the furtive cove on the rocky Riviera coast. Staring at the institutional plastic table, he remembered the maritime tunnel of claustrophobia and the fatal will of the waves that beckoned with the saline promise of jobs and a better life.

He could hear so clearly the ageless calls from minarets, which gave way to the midnight crying of the Arabic HLM. To the beeping of the backseat, he could taste the salt of everyone who died trying in desperation to reach the northern border. The transient history of tragedy bored holes through to his childhood where they called him by a different name. No, the agents wanted to know about the Mexican tunnel, the dripping cavern he had only seen twice.

“Abdel Amin…” began the insincere one, “We know you’re helping Jose Estrella bring Los Zetas to the strip. Now, you have two choices.”

It was only a matter of miles now before he would reach the border at a point somewhere near of Mexicali where an inexhaustible iron wall stretched into the East and West. He could run for it there, get to Mexico somehow so that he wouldn’t feel desert-hot steel at the end of his ride. If so many people could get over… The dry digital beep was grating on the back of his brain like a belt sander. The screeching ghost of la Malinche reminded him of the agreement he cut with the agents to drive the length of the traffickers’ tunnel with a GPS tracker, from its mouth to the border.

He didn’t give any names, but he agreed to traverse the desert of his shame and retrace the wormholes of his memory in a private procession. Having proven himself as a hard-hearted and self-concerned businessman in the Paris taudis coca trade, Angel took an illegal flight from France to Mexico to work directly for the cartel. Without much ado, they started calling him Angel and he was passed through a rough underground tunnel with bundles of pura. He emerged into a basement filled with various types of handguns and rifles under a Vegas casino—his first glimpse of America.

He could feel the hollowness below his tires, the clandestine tunnel that he was giving away. After he traced the entire course to the border, no more immigrants would pass through to find work in the kitchens and laundries of sin city and Southern Cali. Out the driver’s side window he could see la migra scattering a group of travelers who dropped their only bags to run for their lives into the deserts of America. His teeth ground against each other with torschlusspanik as he imagined the massive border fence being extended underground thanks to his own debt and confusion.

How did they get him to agree to expose the dissident veins of the immigrant’s struggle? The reality of a simple car ride began to pierce the night of his recollections like the rays of a nuclear dawn over the desert. The beeping was now a deafening mechanical ranging and he was so close to the fence that he could no longer see el otro lado. He wanted to turn back; he wanted to drive straight through the wall, to never have answered a single question the DEA shot at him.

His forehead began to sweat, stringing his eyes like the salt wind that pulled his father into the Mediterranean during that remote crossing. His father died trying to keep the trawler’s ragged crew from his mother and now he was snitching on the drug cartel that had brought him to America. A last gasp of that ageless Ellis Island anxiety plunged him into a sea of disgrace and utter absence. He spit out a mixture of saliva and pulverized bone when he noticed the black SUV, his Jefe’s, parked in front of the fence, part of which was rigged with live explosives.

He slammed the breaks, skidding to a halt about twenty meters from the rusted blockade where he would escape the twisted hands of the law, safe from his own irresponsibility. The red-lit beep of the tracking device seemed to die down—he was in the hands of his familia, ready to escape into the tacit of an astral space apart. Estrella walked to the side of the Range Rover and shot the rat Semental through the window, before he could decide whether to run, after it was too too late.

When the DEA finally trailed Angel Amin his jeep was caked in soot and the plated metal fence of the border was twisted upward from a blast. Estrella was gone and there was a gaping hole between Mexico and the US. The length of the tunnel penetrating deep into either side was transformed into a caved in ditch that gave no one away.

– Michaël Veremans

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2 Responses to Retracing Underground Tunnels

  1. Marla says:

    This is a beautiful piece that takes us through the world’s common underbelly that is driven by the constant pressure of self-preservation.

  2. jaguarpress says:

    Sometimes you gotta squeeze… a lot of times you gotta squeeze in this world. Like swimmers in the cenotes of Mexico, paddling blindly in the thousand year dark.

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