We are what we pretend to be. Most of Modesto Reyes’ possessions were books. Included in his collection were two in the English language, though one was itself just another translation. They were Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut and a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings. The rest of his books were Spanish language, but they were chapter books or middle grade—books handed down, tossed aside, and purchased at the Salvation Army for a penny apiece, and as Modesto had become fluent in English over the years, he had no purpose for those save to practice his language, which he often did. He sang to himself, or hummed, watched Spanish soaps and listened to the Spanish-language radio. He had no one to talk to. When his mind needed exercise, he read books, as he did now, very early in the April morning before work. It would not be light for another two hours, and his unit had no overhead, so he read by a solar-charged reading lamp, and sat on his mattress and box spring with his back against the poured wall of his unit.
“We are what we pretend to be,” Modesto said aloud as he re-read the introduction to Mother Night for, say, the hundredth time. He didn’t know. Both it and his copy of Epictetus resembled fireplace bellows as they had been so over-worked with dog-ears and annotations, their pages turned and torn and stained yellow with years of finger-oils that their thicknesses had nearly doubled and fanned out from the spine.
Modesto Reyes was what he pretended to be. Modesto Reyes was an American.
Modesto walked forty-five minutes to work. April was too cold for him, much too cold. Much colder than Guatemala, could he remember those days. He packed on his many layers, doubled-up socks, work boots, long-sleeves coat, and cap. He would shed these throughout the day because even though he could see his breath in the dark air, he knew that at day’s end, it would be in the sixties. Damn these Nebraskan springs. Always the promise of warmth, but never the actuality. And today, tucked in his pocket, was Mother Night.
Faced with his long walks to work, Modesto had developed certain habits and routines to place his mind where it needed to be. He could remind himself, for instance, that the winter had just ended, and with it the snows so large that he’d actually had to tunnel out of his storage unit. He could remind himself that not once had snow or ice crept into his unit and that with his layers of blankets stacked a foot above his body, he had remained warm in his bed. As well, these walks were good for him. He was sixty-five at this point in his life, but could pass for fifty, and certainly looked better than many of the younger men at work. His remaining hair retained its carbon color, and his skin had maintained a surprising longevity even with all the years in the sun. He had so few wrinkles, in fact, that his scar from brow to lip still showed with pride. It was a scar he had received in Vietnam. There is no boasting about war. It was enough that he had the scar, and that it was known where he received it.
So by the time he arrived at work, a few minutes to seven, Modesto’s nasty April morning had transformed into an invigorating walk—a way to clear his head and revitalize his youthful demeanor. It is amazing what the mind can do.
When he arrived at the Parks Department shop, he nodded to two of the seasonals starting today—Steve Altstadt and Lee Hetfield. The seasonals had a habit of waiting in the far corner of the yard until the last minute before heading into the shop as a group. Modesto supposed it was some token of solidarity on their part, though he didn’t understand why there had to be an ‘us and them’ mentality at work. He rather liked the seasonals.
Inside, Modesto swiped his clock-in card and was greeted by an entirely new face: a young seasonal who didn’t even look old enough to drink. As Modesto walked toward the back of the break room, he paused at the foreman’s office door and said, curtly, “Hola, jefe.” His foreman shook his head and continued to write in the spiral notebook he used for everything. Modesto sat down, grateful for the relief, at the back of the room, opposite the television that was tuned to the tail end of the six o’clock news.
At almost precisely seven in the morning, three of the returning seasonals walked into the shop, clocked in, and took their seats in the back near Modesto. Zach got up from his EZ chair to adjust the television to the seven o’clock edition of the news. That day’s top story: Obama plans to run for re-election.
Juan Jones, the foreman, stood in the doorway to his office, one shoulder against the jamb, his feet crossed, and his reading glasses on the tip of his nose with his spiral notebook in one hand and the other in his pocket. Juan’s head tilted toward the dirty tile floor as he scanned the room over the top of his glasses.
“Just what we need,” Zach said. “Another four years of this shit.”
“Ahem,” Juan coughed. The new seasonal sat rapt with attention, hands folded on the break table, awaiting boss’ orders.
The next news segment: record snowmelt in the Rockies, were we going to see record rainfall this spring as well?
“Now this is what we need,” Lee said. “We need this rain.”
“We need rain like I need another hole in my ass,” Zach quipped.
“Ahem,” Juan coughed again. But when that didn’t work, Juan grabbed the spare remote control he had in his pocket just for this purpose and switched the television off. “It’s a new season, gentleman,” he said. Followed by: “Lady.” He nodded at Jodie, who couldn’t be bothered to lift her head from the Living section of the paper. “Y’all remember Steve and Lee and Kenny and Danny. Plus we got a new seasonal today. Everybody, this is Andrew,” he said, indicating the kid. “Andrew this is everybody. You’ll get to know them in time. Meanwhile, you’ll be working with Enjin. Otherwise, we’re de-winterizing equipment and starting our mowing routes. Crazy to say, but grass is already growing.
“And one last thing. We’re all switching to paperless, so get me a voided check by the end of the week so we can get you enrolled in direct deposit. Alright, let’s get started.”
Oh, Modesto said inwardly. A voided check was a problem for Modesto, for Modesto had no bank because Modesto had no real social security number.
The number Modesto saw on his W-2 every year was made up, and he was hired before the City started to photocopy social security cards. His W-2s ended up shredded in a public trash can, his tax returns left un-filed, leaving the American government with hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars by now that went unclaimed.
Let them have it, Modesto thought.
Modesto cashed his paper checks at a cash-for-gold business. They were horrible people, scum, but they gave him the green paper with a little bit cut for themselves. No questions. Rent was cheap, but it added up. Otherwise, there were no bills to pay as he had no heat, no water, and no electricity. He occasionally showered where he could, but otherwise cleaned himself twice a day with pet wipes. His unit was tucked in the back of a yard that closed and shut off its lights at ten p.m. He could urinate when no one was watching, and otherwise waited to use public facilities or the unisex bathroom at work for other matters. Food without refrigeration was the most difficult. He mostly had non-perishables, but these almost always required some cooking, and he loathed to break out his primus stove where he could avoid it. Often, he bought a quart of milk for protein and sometimes vegetables. Fruit, if they were in season. And though he had the money to spend on groceries, Modesto felt there was nothing low about dumpstering, as long as the food was safe and good. You wouldn’t believe what WalMart throws away. Perfect bags of potatoes (save a few green ones), whole cartons of eggs with no apparent defects and not even at the sell-date. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds. All uncooked meat had to be avoided, even though Modesto possessed means of preparation. He’d once been bedridden for three days with the shits and sweats after frying some tossed pork chops. If there was fried chicken, though, and it was still cold from the refrigerator, then it was good to go. Sometimes there would also be gallons of milk at the sale date, orange juice, almond milk, or even bottled water. That was the most amazing thing of all that non-perishables had sale dates. Modesto had a shelf of Rice-A-Roni that took nothing more than butter and water to cook. And the butter was optional.
This is how Modesto Reyes lived, and would live for the foreseeable future as long as he couldn’t find an apartment near work that accepted either money orders or cash.
But now with this new business of direct deposit, Modesto worked through the week, until Juan called Modesto into his office that Friday after work. Modesto found Juan seated in his office chair, typing away at an email with his index fingers. His reading glasses hung on the very tip of his nose.
“Modesto,” he said without turning from his computer screen, “I still need that check.”
“I don’t have a check,” he said. “I have no checkbook.”
Juan took his hands from the keyboard and looked over the top of his glasses at Modesto. “One second,” he said. He picked his landline from its receiver and dialed the extension for the administration office downtown. “Jackie? Yes, I got the last one right here. He says he has no bank… I don’t know; I’ve never asked him… He’s with me right now.” Then there was a longer pause. Juan’s chair swiveled of its own accord to face Modesto, and Juan pushed himself away. “We can finish this up Monday. I’m sure Mr. Reyes would like to go home, and so would I. Buh-bye.” Juan hung up.
Turning to Modesto, now, Juan said, “I think we’re in a bit of a pickle here.”
“It’s okay,” Modesto said. “I don’t want direct deposit anyway.”
“Modesto,” Juan said. “I think this goes a bit beyond this, and I think you might know what I’m talking about. I used to work at a dairy, you know.”
“Cow farm, specific to milk-production. Don’t distract me. What I mean is, and you see, Modesto, there’s rumors, you know. We know you’re Guatemalan…”
“I am American,” Modesto said.
“Yes, of course. I am too. I mean, I’m half Mexican.”
“No,” said Modesto. “You are American; I am American.”
“Just tell me, because I want to go home, and I also want to be ahead of this in case somebody downtown tries to fuck me over.” Juan stood up. He was tall only in comparison to Modesto, who fell short of five and a half feet. Juan looked down at the shorter man and asked the question Modesto had always feared would creep up on him someday: “Are you an illegal immigrant?”
Yes, he was about to say. But then, “I told you I was an American.”
The following week, Modesto had walked the entire way to work and clocked in when Juan called him into the office.
“Close the door,” he said. Modesto did. “I got a call, Modesto. It’s not good.”
Lead me, Zeus.
Juan said, “You’re suspended; indefinitely.”
Modesto had thought himself able to take such a blow, but he felt the blood drain from his face as the corners of his vision went black. He nearly fell into the chair opposite Juan.
“This is too fast,” Modesto said. “Why?”
“You lied on your application,” Juan said.
“And what was I supposed to do? That was nearly thirty years ago. I’ve put my life into this City.”
“It doesn’t change the facts. You’re suspended—“
“Fired,” Modesto said.
“What’s to investigate?” Modesto stood up in an angry flourish. He was letting his emotions get the better of him. He opened the door, turned to Juan, and said, “I’ve worked harder for you than anybody.”
Juan stood up and tried to follow him, but Modesto was already at the front door to the shop, trying to skirt around the tremendous Roman Tund. Before Modesto could get out of earshot, Juan shouted, “Lawyer up. They’re coming for you.”
For days, Modesto’s sleep was interrupted with sudden shocks: noises in the storage yard that sounded to him like ICE’s rude knock. Whenever he started awake, he consoled himself with Epictetus, and so his reading light remained on until its solar charge drained.
Even in the pitch black of his unit, however, he could feel the ridges, spines, and indentations of his pen pressed to book paper—all the notes he’d written down over the years since he’d happened across this book. He felt he could read them by touch alone. The book was his guide now, and to Modesto, Epictetus was a true companion. Perhaps he’d meet the man one day in Hades, where he could spend eternity in discourse.
He placed the book to his side and said aloud, “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want; welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” Epictetus had been a slave. So you live in a box. You’re a thousand times better off than him. Even kings sought counsel from Epictetus.
“Lead me, Zeus. Lead me, Destiny,” he said. Soon, he was asleep.
He returned only once to the district shop. He walked to arrive in the afternoon, right at the hour everybody would be preparing to clock out and leave for the day. This was Modesto’s last payday, and there was a check waiting for him with his name on it.
At the shop, he opened the door to a sudden hush. Everyone was there, but the door to Juan’s office was closed.
Zach stood from his EZ chair to step between Modesto and Juan’s door. The Venetian blinds in Juan’s office clicked shut. “Modesto,” Zach said, “he ain’t here. This is your check, that’s all.” Zach handed Modesto the envelope with his name in the window.
“So this is it, then?” Modesto said. All the eyes were on him. For thirty years, he had been invisible, a shadow. Even the new boy, Andrew, who was so shy that Modesto had yet to hear him speak, was staring at him, though now he was hidden behind his sunglasses. It was a trick they all pulled. Steve and Roman, their sunglasses were down too. Jodie only glanced at him before returning to the newspaper on the break table.
“It’s better if you just go,” Zach said as he approached him. With hostility? Zach put a firm hand on Modesto’s shoulder and said, “Go quickly.” He let go.
Modesto backed to the front door. He put his hand on the knob. “It has been nice to work with you all.”
Scarcely had he exited the shop’s gate when a Ford cruiser pulled up alongside him. Modesto stopped as two men stepped out. My God, this is it! He saw himself thrown into the back, maybe a night in jail, or not even. Would he be transferred to a truck, a plane, a boat? Made to suffer along with a dozen others in cramped compartments, shuttled across the Sonoran desert to Mexico, a land as unfamiliar to him as Europe? Would they even care to know he’s Guatemalan?
“Modesto Reyes?” one asked. They looked like WASPs: blond hair the both, blue eyes and green. They wore slacks and warm jackets, though spring had decided to arrive. Again the sunglasses. They stood in a position of power over diminutive Modesto. Modesto began to sweat.
“Yes,” he said.
“Mind if we give you a ride home? Sorry, where are my manners. Rob,” green eyes said, “and Royal. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I suppose you already know what this is. We looked up the address, but it’s in an industrial district. Where do you really live?”
“No,” Modesto said. “How can this be? How can you know?”
“We got a tip,” said Royal.
Modesto instinctively turned toward the shop. Did he see something just then in Juan’s window? “I see,” Modesto said.
“Come on, buddy,” Rob said. “Let’s get you home.”
Royal held the cruiser’s door open. Modesto stepped inside. Bring on whatever difficulties you like, Zeus. You have already given me the means to do myself credit.
Rob drove, and Royal navigated with an app on his phone. A forty-five-minute walk for Modesto took mere minutes in the cruiser. Before pulling into the storage yard, they confirmed with Modesto that this was indeed the place. They drove clear to the back corner. Everything had been peaceful up to this point, so Modesto exited the vehicle of his own accord and opened his unit.
“You see it,” Modesto said. “This is my home.”
“Plus one for vagrancy,” Royal said. And then, “Manager on the site know about this?”
He did. But for the blind eye that the manager had turned, Modesto offered only a shrug.
“Cool,” Royal said. “Well, have a good night, Mr. Reyes. Oh, lo siento. Buenas noches, señor Reyes.”
“¿Está todo?” Modesto asked. He wasn’t keen to remind them that they should be arresting him. Deporting his ass, as they say.
“You’ll be hearing from us,” Rob said. “Don’t run away now. Or do. What are we, the cops?”
Rob and Royal hopped back in their cruiser and three-pointed away from Modesto, leaving him in the low spring sun, his emotions in battle. What part of him was winning? Was it fear or relief. Confusion or anger.
For weeks, Modesto expected the WASP-duo to return, the next time with the power to take him out of the country. Modesto considered whether or not the cash he kept in his tin lunchbox was enough to ‘retire’ on. An old man, how much time did Modesto have left, anyway? Now that they knew where he was, he’d have to find a new place to rent. Or squat. Modesto had squatted before, sometimes with others. Now that he had no work out here, he could go to South Omaha and rent a place where they knew the language.
There isn’t enough money for that, not without a job. Then he’d find a new one. Hands like his were quick to work. It was true, however, that he would never find as high paying a job as he had for the City. That part of his life was over. And why? Because a man decides you are not an American.
It was late in May when Modesto had finished counting his cash rolls when a polite and unnecessary knock came on his half-open garage door. He recognized the old workboots of the day-manager, worn down to the steel. His name was Kyle. Modesto had only just hidden his lunchbox when he got up to receive Kyle, but the manager was already on his way down the lot. At his feet, he had left a sealed envelope from the Department of Homeland Security.
Within was a notice to appear in court. This, this is how deportation happens? It was all rather civil, and the notice gave time, date, and location for his appearance, and the suggestion that he find representation.
So he did. Modesto had nothing but cash but could easily make money orders. He was surprised when he went into an immigration law office an hour’s walk from home, that they accepted and regularly dealt in cash. He found himself in a waiting room in a seat against the wall. In the room, was a mother with two children on leashes, a teenage girl with green-dyed hair, gold hoops, rings on every finger, and a bedazzled t-shirt. Sitting apart from them, but within their conversation was a man with a sweat-stained white t-shirt. At the front desk sat a secretary, talking animatedly into the landline. There were two lawyers in this firm, and each of them was at the moment behind closed doors. On the coffee table in front of Modesto was an array of Spanish-language newspapers and magazines. A silent television in the corner was playing the local news closed captioned in Spanish. There was record snowmelt in Colorado, Montana, the Dakotas, and now Gavins Point Dam had decided to release even more water into the Missouri. Modesto heard no English.
He had with him his copy of Epictetus. In the weeks since he had been fired, he’d turned to Epictetus more than ever. He pulled it from his back pocket and nearly gasped when the spine came a bit more unglued from the pages. This book had been with him for years, through long days and lonely nights, it hadn’t just been a way to cope with life, but had been a friend. No person in living memory had offered Modesto the kind of conversation he had with Epictetus’ Discourses. As his life fell apart around him, so his book seemed to as well. His book, however, was an external thing. To become attached to a material thing is to be its slave.
Soon, the door to one of the offices opened. A tall, young white man with a five o’clock shadow and his sleeves rolled up saw a young couple out and to the front desk, where they paid in cash for their visit. Modesto was shown in. The white man held out a hand and introduced himself in stilted, clunky Spanish.
Modesto said, “I speak English very well.”
“Right. Come in.” The young lawyer closed his office door behind him and had Modesto sit in a thickly padded leather chair across a heavy desk. The lawyer’s office was bracketed with bookshelves, but while they weren’t lined end-to end, there were some law books to speak of. What interested him more were the philosophy books, but by the looks of them, they were introductory ethics texts. No Epictetus. Mostly, the shelves were lined with what Modesto assumed were family pictures, a wife and a kid, a signed Husker football, some very expensive-looking bookends, and an even more expensive-looking bottle of tequila.
“Do you drink?” the lawyer asked.
Modesto couldn’t remember his last drink. He shrugged.
The lawyer stood from his desk and grabbed two clean shot glasses. He poured and slid one across the desk blotter and held his shot glass up. He didn’t put it down, and he wouldn’t drink without Modesto’s compliance, so after a second, Modesto picked his own glass up and tipped it back. His lawyer did the same.
The lawyer tapped his shot glass on the heavily polished wood surface, pulled the bottom desk drawer out to put his feet on, grabbed a wood- inlaid pen to twirl between his fingers and said, “So. You have a number of options. To cancel your deportation, we can get you naturalized. Yay. Good. Easy. You’ve been in the country for what, forty-five, forty-eight years? I’ve never had anybody in for nearly that long. Now here’s the trick, you see. You have to prove that you’ve been here all those years. Contracts, Verizon bills, W-2s, photo IDs, anything with your name and a date on it. Your real name. Social is faked, but with your W-2s, we still know that it’s you on there. You’ve been with the City for what, twenty-two years? Perfect. You’ve got a good track record and employment history, except for that whole getting fired thing. So, how soon can you bring in some paper evidence that you’ve been here?”
Modesto’s mind tried to piece back together the list the lawyer had rattled through. It had all been so much, but as the lawyer had gone on, Modesto had realized that he hadn’t a shred of physical proof that he was in the country. But then the scar on his brow burned, and he touched it, saying “This, I got this fighting for the country.”
“No kidding? How come I don’t have that here?” The lawyer flipped through his typed up notes. “How’s this. Get a copy of your military ID. You’ve got a unit history, people that can vouch for you, military records and all that.”
“I was not Modesto Reyes in the Marines.”
The lawyer put down his pen.
Modesto continued: “I was Thomas King. I was not eighteen, either.”
The lawyer sighed, sucked air between his teeth, and said, “Of course not. We couldn’t have that kind of luck, now could we? I’ve never heard of this you know,” he said, pointing and smiling at Modesto. “Isn’t it amazing what people can get away with? My grandfather fought in Korea. Turned seventeen, called himself old enough, and lied to get in. He thought it would be better than the farm.”
“It wasn’t,” said Modesto. “Understand, I don’t have any of these things. Why would I? I served this country; I pay my taxes and receive no returns. I’ve only been here all my life, and so I am naturalized.”
“You are not naturalized. Ten years in the country and you may become…”
“But it says in the constitution!”
“Throw that thing out,” the lawyer said. “It doesn’t matter what it says. It matters how you’re perceived. I can call the City, and get maybe five years of W-2s from them, depending on how good they are with their records. Mr. Reyes, you’ve got to have some renter’s history, something you signed with a date on it lying around, no?”
Modesto didn’t. As he could never file for returns, Modesto saw no point in keeping his fraudulent W-2s. He kept no stubs from his paychecks. He had not even signed a document for the storage unit he rented. He had never had a credit card, a driver’s license, a bank account, and his long lost military ID showed the face of a much younger man with an invented name. “Would you have these things? What would cause you to keep them?”
The lawyer nodded in hopeless consent. Modesto felt certain that he was far from the first person that came in with a helpless case. But I’m not helpless, he thought. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I’ve been good, a good American. Dammit, this is not right.
Then the lawyer said, “Asylum. You plead for asylum. You left Los Amates when you were just a teen. So you fled. Why did you flee?”
“I did not flee.”
“Yes, no. Yes, you did. This is how asylum works. If you can show past persecution and a fear of future persecution, should the United States deport you, then you can plead asylum.”
Modesto could give this lawyer nothing that he wanted. So he shrugged.
The lawyer lined their shot glasses side to side and drew a line across them with the bottle of tequila. Modesto gladly shared a drink with the young man.
* * *
The two shared shots of tequila had knocked Modesto’s brains around his skull for a bit, and they had also given him a renewed taste. He felt that his own bottle of tequila was a mighty fair purchase with a portion of all the cash he’d saved over the years. The money he had leftover to him in his lunch box may have been finite, and though Modesto felt youthful and his energy was never low; he didn’t think he could spend what was left for him in whatever life he had left to live. Call these his twilight years. Maybe he’d spend them happy.
He wasn’t used to all this free time. The first few weeks after getting shitcanned had been muddled in fear and self-pity. Epictetus was his only drug, his only comfort. He’d re-read the Enchiridion maybe two-dozen times before he ever met that lawyer. And now the young man says, here, Modesto, this is your court date. He gave Modesto the address and told him what to expect. Naturalization was out. Asylum was out. It took some convincing, but Modesto had left the man’s office, agreeing that the best course of action was self-deportation. “That way,’” the lawyer had said, “they’ll give you all the time you need to put your affairs in order. You take yourself out of the country.”
Presently, Modesto sat on the edge of his mattress with a bottle of tequila, his radio tuned to Spanish-language channels, but always the current programs were interrupted with the news of the record height of the Missouri River, flooding because some men manning a dam in South Dakota decided they needed to release more water. Epictetus sat beside him, unopened. His garage door was entirely open, releasing a yellow slant of sodium light that split his unit diagonally.
All this on the radio was depressing. People were bound to lose their homes if this flood worsened. But look where I live. Would it be so bad to lose this?
Modesto feared the future. Feared Guatemala. He knew it no more than some dream that was slipping away. He couldn’t remember the street he had lived on. He couldn’t remember the names of his friends—but their faces still belonged to him. He’d never known his father, but so many hadn’t. The worst was that his mother’s voice was lost. He dreamt about her most, but the sounds he heard were incomprehensible, like screaming underwater, as words might sound to an unthinking infant. Modesto had long stopped dreaming in Spanish. He felt if he could only dig deeper, he could parcel out his mother’s words, but with each passing dream, she faded further into the ineffable.
Modesto reached for the bottle between his feet, but when he tipped it over and flinched at the horrible sound of dropped glass, he realized that he had gone clear through the last of his supply. This would not do. Seeing the pitiful bottle on the cold concrete, and next to it, the lunch box with so much cash, Modesto quickly calculated the distance to the nearest liquor store. There was still time, he thought, to get a drink before they closed.
Without hesitation, Modesto picked a roll of cash from the lunchbox, pocketed his Epictetus, rolled the door closed behind him, and set off at a trot.
In less than twenty minutes, Modesto had a new bottle of brown-bagged tequila.
“Here I am, Zeus,” he said to the ominous clouds in the night sky. “If you drown me now, you’ll drown this city.”
He took one step toward home when he realized that he wasn’t quite far from his old workplace. Modesto felt younger than ever. And quite contrary to what alcohol is supposed to do to a man, it seemed to invigorate him. If he wanted, he could conquer the world right now.
He about-faced and walked to work. It was late now. There were no lights on these roads, and what cars there were, were dead silent. Modesto tipped his bottle as he walked, careless to any passersby or hidden police that might find Modesto, the honest citizen with no criminal past save his existence, and lock him up for public drunkenness. Would they toss me in the back of a van then?
His walk took longer than expected, as he’d gotten turned around more than once. But on the last leg toward his old workplace, as he walked down the middle of the lonely street, he realized that one of the parked vehicles was not so silent after all. There was a flash of movement in the cab and Modesto immediately suspected it was an ICE agent. So they would come for him after all, it seemed. Modesto hid the bottle on his opposite side, stepped onto the sidewalk, and walked as straight as he could manage.
But that was no ICE agent. There was a man sleeping in that car. And not any man. It was Danny Timmons from work. Danny’s usual car was a Mustang, not this, this nondescript Ford. Modesto approached cautiously. Could something have happened to another of his old friends?
Modesto tapped the glass on the passenger side.
Danny, with the driver’s seat leaned all the way back, fidgeted. Modesto tapped again. Danny woke up. Bleary eyed, Danny started at Modesto, but perhaps gathering his wits and his vision, realized who was outside his car. Danny leaned across his seat and unlocked the door.
Modesto opened it. “Danny?”
“Modesto? What the hell happened to you?” Danny paused to yawn. “You left so suddenly. We saw those cops grab you and didn’t know what to think, man.”
“They weren’t cops. They were immigration agents.”
“No shit?” Danny said. “Well, I lost that bet. Sorry, but we had a pool going. Guess I’ll have to tell the guys.”
“Tell them nothing,” Modesto said. “I’m not here.”
“I wish I could believe you, man. But my dreams aren’t that vivid. You’re as real as me.”
If Modesto thought he was bad off, he realized that this man, who had much more than him, wasn’t living so well. It was clear that Modesto had wakened him. Danny wore a wife-beater and boxer shorts. In the back seat were his jeans, boots, and t-shirt he would wear to work the following day. Modesto fraternized little with the men, but he knew that Danny was married with children. So he asked, “What is happening with you? This isn’t your car.”
“No,” Danny said. “It isn’t.”
Modesto handed Danny the bottle of tequila.
Danny continued, “I lost the fucking ‘Stang. I lost a lot more, too.” He took another swig. “I was going strong for awhile, you know. I was up so much. And she just can’t realize it, you know? You’ve got to win some to lose some.”
“You have lost your wife?”
“I don’t know.” Danny drank again and handed the bottle back to Modesto. “Welcome to my home, compadre.”
“There are worse places in the world. Think of this,” he said. “You have something to go back to.”
“But you don’t. You’re really getting deported, aren’t you?”
“I don’t quite know what’s happening. I have a lawyer; he tells me what’s going to happen. He tells me I have this and this to do for the court, and a specific date, and then… I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m here right now.”
“Sure you do,” Danny said. “And my little surprise ruined your opportunity to shit on Juan’s desk.”
“I would never…”
“It doesn’t matter. You do whatever you want to do. Juan can go fuck himself anyway. Hell, I’ll help you break into the place if you want. Just need some sturdy wire-cutters and I’ve got a toolbox.”
“I have a better idea,” Modesto said. Modesto tipped the bottle back, bringing it down to half. “Finish this with me, and forget that we were ever here.”
This certainly is not Stoic behavior, Modesto thought. Certainly it ain’t, it ain’t, it ain’t. Modesto had no grasp on the time of night, other than to know that the sun was still somewhere on the other side of the earth and that the streets and homes were devoid of movement and light. That is until the pavement around his feet glittered blue and red.
Modesto had been arrested.
He woke up in the drunk tank, and this time, fear really did accost him. This was the final straw. All they had to do was ask for his papers. No longer was he the peaceful immigrant, but a criminal and a danger to decency. This was it, he knew. This is where they would throw him in the back of an ICE van and truck him out of the country.
He sat up not in a jail cell, but in a florescent lit, white tiled room, alone. He was attended to almost immediately and given plenty of water from a nearby cooler. The officer on duty who assisted him asked Modesto why he had no license, just who was he, and why had he refused to speak English the night before.
Two men entered from a door down a hallway. Modesto recognized them almost immediately: Rob and Royal, the ICE agents. The officer led them in, and one look at Modesto and Rob said, “No shit, buddy. Look what you’ve done and gone. You got yourself a lawyer yet?”
Modesto nodded. His head felt metallic.
Rob turned to the officer and said, “Don’t worry. He’s already on his way out. Say, Modesto, you want another ride home?”
“Where am I?”
“Not far,” Royal said.
Modesto shook his head. He stood up very, very slowly, but was arrested by the powerful sensation of nakedness. When he looked down, he saw himself fully clothed. He touched his back pocket where he kept Epictetus, but he wasn’t there. “My book!” he said. “What have I done with it?”
“Oh yeah,” the attending officer said. He disappeared for a second and came back with a Ziploc bag filled with loose, yellowed and marked pages, each one of them ripped individually from the binding of poor, old Epictetus. “We frisked’ya last night, and when we pulled this out, you about ripped our heads off. The officer pointed to a small cut on the side of his eye. That’s assaulting an officer if you care. We gave you your book, kicked you in the tank, and then you sent this all to confetti before passing out. We cleaned up after you, but you were done. Out like a light. Now if a book means so much to you, why’d you go and do something like that, huh?”
Royal took the officer to the side to have a private chat. Meanwhile, Rob handed Modesto the remnants of his book. To Modesto, he said, “It looks like there’s a lot of work in there. And probably a lot left to go. Your judge will know about this, so make sure to tell your lawyer too.”
“What’s the point,” Modesto said. “I’m leaving anyway. We have agreed that I am to deport myself from this country.”
“So you have. That’s the name of the game, buddy. I don’t wish it on you; I really don’t. I’m only in this game for the bad ones, and that’s not you. Get the fuck home, Modesto.”
Modesto’s court date was at the beginning of July, and by this point, the waters that had threatened Hamburg, Iowa had utterly destroyed the levees. They’d attempted to drop stones and sandbags from trucks and helicopters to stay the waters, but it didn’t save the homes in its destructive path. The courthouse in Omaha lies between the airport and downtown, placing it near the river, where the floodwaters had breached Nebraska as well. The airport’s pumps could not keep up, the water treatment facility had to be dammed and sandbagged. Bridges between Iowa and Nebraska had closed, and nobody had seen the surface of Interstate Twenty-Nine in days.
The courthouse was too distant to walk, and though Modesto begrudged paying for transportation, he took the bus, which luckily stopped just outside the courthouse. More than once, the bus had driven over streets inundated with an inch or two of water, and when Modesto arrived at the courthouse, he found the entire facility surrounded by sandbags. There was a ramp over the sandbags for vehicles to cross over and into the parking lot. By the time Modesto arrived, the bottoms of his jeans were dripping with brown water and his socks were soaked through.
Modesto found his way to the courtroom at precisely the moment his lawyer stepped through the door. The lawyer seemed shocked to see Modesto. He said, “You’re late. Way late.”
“I could not help it. The bus had to be re-routed; something to do with what streets it is and isn’t allowed to cross.”
“Forget about it,” the lawyer said. “Worked perfectly. The judge set your date ahead another six months.”
“A really good move on your part. Gives you all the time in the world to get your affairs in order.”
Again with this. What affairs do I have anymore?
“Cheer up, Mr. Reyes.” The lawyer put a hand on his shoulder and Modesto looked up into the young man’s face. He smelled tequila. “You’ve got all the time in the world.”
Modesto calculated how long it would take to walk home. There were unpleasant neighborhoods nearby, as there always are surrounding airports. It would take more than two hours. But he had no desire to pay full fare for a bus, having conducted no business at all.
He slogged through the water and moved.
After a half an hour of walking, he was in a neighborhood north of Cummings Street. His wet socks and boots hurt his feet. He felt loose skin start to slide around and knew that he would have very large patches of raw skin once his blisters popped. He needed to stop walking. And he wanted a drink. His travels brought him, fortunately (because there is no good or rotten luck, only Fortune, which spins on her wheel), to a junker El Camino with a for-sale sign resting on the dash.
As Modesto walked around the car, the vehicle’s owner stepped down from the swaybacked porch of his house. “That’s three hundred dollars, old man.”
“It will be here tomorrow. And so will I.” He wanted that car now, and if he had the money, he would gladly pay for it then and there. As it was, he could not go on in his present condition. He found the nearest bus stop and rode home.
When he arrived, he kicked off his boots and socks and left them to dry in the sun. He opened his tin box and parceled three hundred dollars in twenties. This he tied with a rubber band and set next to his stack of torn Epictetus pages. Why had he ever done such a thing?
With the remaining light in the day, Modesto sorted the pages in their correct order. He had in his possession one spiral bound notebook that was filled with some of his own ruminations. Weak philosophy, really. Nothing the sort that Epictetus could offer to the world. Modesto tore his writings out, leaving only clean pages in the notebook. He found his best pen and his pages of Epictetus. He copied until he lost the sun.
The following morning, Modesto returned to the man by way of the bus. The El Camino was there, but now the man demanded four hundred dollars. When Modesto had convinced the young man that he had only brought the three and would only ever receive that amount, the boy relented.
It was the first vehicle Modesto had ever owned.
Modesto Reyes backed the El Camino up to the garage door of his unit. And then he used the unit as any is supposed to. With the garage door fully open, Modesto loaded everything into the back of the El Camino save a frying pan, his primus stove, and his bottle of propane. He cooked himself an entire box of Rice-A-Roni with water borrowed from the front office, and then wiped his non-stick pan down with a clean sock.
The front office often had things for sale, from cardboard boxes to combination locks. Modesto bought thirty feet of nylon rope to tie down his belongings.
“You’ve just renewed your six-month lease,” the office manager said.
“Keep it,” said Modesto. “It is your money now.”
“We’re not allowed to do this,” the manager said, “but I’m canceling it. Modesto’s money order was still fresh in its envelope, uncashed. The manager returned it to Modesto and said, “I’m sorry things weren’t better for you.”
“You have done more than most.”
“ICE is going to come back, aren’t they? Look, as far as anybody’s concerned, I’ve had no clue about any vagrants around this property.”
“Nobody will believe you. Don’t cover for me. Besides,” Modesto said, “I think that these are the type of people who will forget about me easily. Most do.”
Modesto left shortly. He felt such a thrill, moving as fast as he did. Everywhere, for years, it was a walk here and a walk there. He’d been in trucks, tractors, troop transports, helicopters, naval ships, and airplanes. But nothing made him feel so free and alive as the open window of his own vehicle. His possessions were few and easy to carry. He did not know where he would end up, but he felt the comfort of Mother Night and Epictetus as they rode beside him, resting safely on his passenger seat. We are what we pretend to be. Modesto Reyes continued to be an American.
Modesto hit Interstate Eighty and headed west. Lead me, Zeus. Lead me, Destiny.
Frank Wees holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. He lives in Illinois with his wife.