One guy, when he walks, El Chino said, one guy can stray all over the place. One guy can wander, especially in the desert. And I know, I’ve been walking in the desert. But when you got two guys walking, it’s harder for them to stray because they keep each other on a leash a little bit, sort of like a flock. A flock goes straight because there’s so many animals in it, the animals balance each other, all the mistakes get balanced, you know what I mean. Like a straight line. One guy can’t draw a line very good, but a bunch of guys, all drawing together, can draw it straight on. Now these two guys, the guys who were walking, who were keeping each other from wandering, their names were Alvo and Lalo. Alvo was a little older than Lalo, but they were pretty close. They were walking for a long time and kept thinking that they were lost, but you know you can’t be lost unless you know where you’re going first. These guys weren’t walking to el norte, it wasn’t like that. They didn’t know why they were walking. Maybe they were walking north but it wasn’t like that. They were just out there, you know. You know how sometimes you can’t help being out there, can’t help being out in the desert, like when you lift your head up, or you put your head down and it’s in a desert and there’s nobody, and there’s nothing, and you’re there in the middle of that. That’s how it was. And Alvo was older than Lalo, but they weren’t father and son, they were too close in age, about ten years apart, ten or twelve years, an age difference that means they couldn’t be father and son and they probably wouldn’t even be brothers, and they probably aren’t friends either. They wouldn’t be friends. They weren’t, actually, they weren’t friends. Alvo would never call Lalo his friend. Lalo, though, he would call Alvo anything, anything except father because they were too close for that, but it wouldn’t matter. Their age was like their leash that kept them together, that kept them walking straight, walking straight where neither of them would have went by themselves, because by themselves they would have been wandering. But then it got more complicated. Because the imagination is the opposite of a leash. And that’s what these two guys had still, imagination. The imagination is more like a whip than a leash. Or like a gun to your head, you know, because you can’t walk very straight with a gun to your head. Or maybe you can, but only because there is someone holding the gun, but there’s not always someone holding the gun, you know, sometimes there’s just a gun, just floating there, straight against your head. And the imagination will make you wander a little bit, but also make you think you aren’t wandering, you know. It’s dangerous.
And so Alvo and Lalo started talking about where they were going, and one of them said that he thought he heard something about how good the place where they were going was, and the other was like, Yeah, I heard that too. And one of them said, If he knew what he thought he knew, then they were walking toward el norte, and the other said Yeah, that he had heard a lot about that place, and it went on like this, and pretty soon they knew exactly where they were going, you know how that can happen, like a flock, like a flock with imagination. But then Lalo, the younger one, he started falling behind. Every few minutes Alvo had to slow down, or turn around and wait for Lalo to catch up. But Lalo wasn’t that far behind. Not far enough for Alvo to sit down. So Alvo just slowed down for a few minutes and turned around to look back. And this made the talking difficult. They would start talking and then Lalo would start falling behind and they would have to stop talking, while Alvo paused and waited for Lalo to catch up, and it went on like that, their walking setting their conversation, giving it spaces, and you know what that does to the imagination. It makes it worse. And pretty soon they didn’t only know where they were going but they couldn’t wait to get there, you know, because of the imagination, because of the gun. But Lalo kept slowing down, and Alvo had to stop to wait for him, and soon Lalo was limping, and they weren’t smiling at each other anymore, and they didn’t have to talk either because they both knew it all, and they only had to say, And the wages up there, And the women, And the trucks, And the fields, And the buildings, And the women, and that was all they needed to say, just a few words, because their imagination filled in the rest, and so did the gun, it filled it all in for them. So soon Alvo didn’t want to wait anymore, and Lalo kept slowing down, and so Alvo was saying Hurry up if you ever want to get there, and What’s taking you so long, and You ain’t ever gonna get there limping like that. But Lalo’s limp got worse and worse, and you know what a limp does to the imagination, it makes it big, it makes everything else seem better, and you know what that does to the limp, makes it worse, so Lalo kept slowing down. And so finally Alvo said, Okay, you wait here, I’m gonna keep on, thinking he was going to get somewhere, and he kept walking, but then there wasn’t anybody to talk to and you know what that’s like, he still had his imagination but he didn’t have anybody to say it to, and remember when they started out they didn’t even know where they were going and now look at them, two imaginations fighting over the same place, and so Alvo said, It’s all Lalo’s fault, and Lalo was thinking, That fucker Alvo, leaving me stranded out here.
El Chino paused for a moment. He looked at me. Something devious in his eye. Or maybe just something right.
You know what people are like out there, El Chino continued, in the desert. They talk about everything. That’s where the best talking happens. In the middle of nowhere. Even when there’s nobody to talk to. Even when it’s only you and your gun that’s still the best place to talk.
But who can really tell what direction they were walking in? It seemed like Alvo was moving fast and Lalo was crawling over the cactus, but who knows if it wasn’t the other way around, and then Alvo was laid flat, Lalo running through the catclaws, and they were together again, on a leash, and they were just looking at each other, not sure who was saying what.
And they kept on. And when they came to a ravine they walked right through the ravine and when they came to a thicket they walked right through the thicket and they kept walking north, siempre, north not for any reason, like before, but because that was the way people walked, and that was how they leashed each other, not straying, just north, all the time now. And one time they even crossed a snake, but it was a dead snake. A big one. It looked like it had been killed with a shovel but there were no shovels out there, there was nothing at all, but the snake’s back was broken, like it had fallen out of the sky, and that’s what they thought, and they looked up, but there was nothing up there either. And so Alvo picked the snake up and said that they should bury it and Lalo shrugged, and they looked at each other, and then Lalo said that maybe they could eat it, and Alvo nodded.
Like a couple vultures, he said, and then he dropped the snake, and it fell, stiffly, and they kept on walking. And then it was day. And it was hot. It was night. It was cold. And it was day. They talked and they crawled and they stood and they walked. That’s all they could do. And the gun and the leash and the flock and the two of them, out there, in the middle of nothing, talking and walking. They had water but they drank it, pouring it into their mouths, wet and warm, and then they sweated and the water went back into the sky, high and hot. And then even the water was gone, and then they were on the ground. They were crawling, Alvo first, then Lalo, Lalo first, then Alvo. They were looking for water. They were looking for north or looking for south, it didn’t matter which one. And then they had to start to imagine harder than before, you know. And so they stood and opened the bottles and raised them over their open mouths, but nothing came out, but they drank, or imagined that they did. And so they started wondering why they were there. And maybe, they thought, maybe they were there because they were escaping something. They were escaping where they had been, escaping the steps that they’d been taking, and they imagined that each step, on the ground, was escaping the last step they had taken, and they felt like they couldn’t escape fast enough from where they had been, from where they were, from where they were going, and that’s why they didn’t turn around, and that’s why they couldn’t stop. Why they kept imagining. The gun, the ground, the fence. Trying to get away from their footprints. Trying to even get away from their own feet.
And there was nothing for them to do then, but talk.
Are we getting close? Lalo asked and Alvo nodded, but the answer wasn’t an answer, it was an echo. Are we getting close? Close to where? Is that the way North? Are we going North? We gonna die out here? We’re gonna die? And so maybe they did die out there, El Chino said, you see what I mean. Maybe Alvo would have lived, but he went back to Lalo. Maybe they both would have lived, but they didn’t. Maybe El Norte goes north at first but then it turns around and you’re back in the south, you know. That’s a story we got. We got el norte in our blood, but our blood is down here in the south. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s everybody’s fault. There’s a lot of reasons, but there’s no good reason. It’s instinct and it’s imagination. It’s momentum and it’s a big fence. We got that story in our blood. We got each other in our blood sometimes too, which, you know, that’s dangerous.
“Alvo Lalo” is an excerpt from John Washington‘s novel Dustmarch, which explores the borderlands and migration from southern Mexico to the Punjab to Arizona and much in between. The author was a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City where he finished Dustmarch and worked on an anthology of fiction about migration, Antología de cuentos migratorios, forthcoming from Sur Plus in Mexico in 2013. He has published on upsidedownworld.org, thesmartset.com, pulsemedia.org, among others. His novel Cry Out Abba is forthcoming from Aqueous Books.