A Ballad of Empty Bellies on the Border
April 19, 2012
Buck Newsome feared the Lord Almighty, but nobody else, and he had no use at all for the man in the fancy robe who preached God’s word in a tongue he could not understand. Newsome didn’t read the Good Book much, but he knew that, if he wasn’t sorely mistaken, one of God’s words surely had something to do with compassion, and the man in the fancy robes either didn’t know it, had forgotten it, or just didn’t give a damn anymore, and by gawd, it was about time he did.
Buck Newsome stomped – with red face and cool, lethal eyes – alonside the dirt and trash of a South Texas sidewalk, a border patrolman who had grown tired of kicking hungry illegal aliens back beyond the Rio Grande. He didn’t mind removing them to their homeland. Hell, that was his job. He just hated to see them go home with their bellies as empty as their hopes.
Newsome glanced back at the old woman and the boy who toddled along after him. They owned nothing and were wearing the only possessions they had. The old woman’s dress, a collection of patches and rags, dragged the ground, and the boy rolled his eyes and slobbered. His jeans were torn and hadn’t been washed since he put them on for the first time. He was barefoot, the bottom of his feet as tough and scarred as shoe leather. She was worn out, and he was mentally retarded, and together they had fled Mexico, escaping to the land of promises where even an old woman and her backward grandson could find work and pennies to buy their bread.
That was the promise.
Buck Newsome knew better.
The old woman had crawled to the foot of the church and prayed. She prayed all night and all week. At first she prayed for a job, then a roof over her head, then food for her grandson, and finally she just prayed that God would end her misery. God may have heard her. Buck Newsome came along and answered that prayer.
In the year of ’51, he had seen the banjo-bellied, cigar-smoking, high-rolling farmers of the Rio Grande Valley sneak wetbacks across the border, work them hard for weeks, then frantically call the Border Patrol to arrest them as illegal aliens. No passport. No visa. No papers of citizenship. It was easier to send the wetbacks home than pay them.
And there was always another unfortunate and unsuspecting soul wading the river to take their place at the bottom of a ladder with no rungs. Some he carried back across the Rio Grande and set free, whether they knew it or not. Some he buried in dry ground. No name. No age. No next of kin. He simply laid them away with a short scripture among the weeds and never amidst the flowers.
Somewhere in the church, if he wasn’t sorely mistaken, the man in the fancy robe was blessing souls in a tongue that Newsome could not understand and forgiving sins and washing them away in hundred-dollar bills. And the farmers were all singing Jesus Loves Me, but not the wetbacks in the field.
Newsome had found the old woman and the slobbering twelve-year-old that morning, sitting alone in a back alley of Edinburg. They had left San Luis Potosi and ridden on a crowded bus until she ran out of money. Then they had walked the crooked road for nine days, searching for salvation just north of the river.
All she wanted was a job. But no one was hiring an old woman with a mentally retarded grandson who slobbered on himself, and she could not leave him because she was all he had. They sat down in the night and were waiting to die together, although the grandson did not know it. The boy didn’t know anything except that he was hungry, and he devoured the cheese, crackers, and sardines that Newsome dropped in his lap.
And now, by gawd, Buck Newsome was dead set on teaching the man in the fancy robe about compassion if he had to do with the blunt end of a rusted shovel. He banged on the cathedral door, and a lovely young lady opened it.
“I want to see the padre,” Newsome told her.
“He’s in the gym doing his morning exercises,” she answered.
Minutes later, the sweating Irish padre swaggered into the room, red-haired and hairy-chested, his fat belly – usually hidden by a fancy robe – hanging out over a pair of silk boxing trunks.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“This woman and her grandson need help,” Newsome replied as softly as his brusque voice could manage. “If I’m not sorely mistaken, they are of the same religious faith that you are, and I thought you might be able to help them.
The padre nodded.
The woman, crying, fell to her knees and kissed his hand, and he blessed her. She had never expected to be so close to someone so holy.
“She doesn’t need her soul blessed,” Newsome said, biting off his words like tobacco and spitting them in the padre’s face. “She needs her belly full of groceries.”
“We don’t have the money to give everyone who knocks on our door,” the padre said.
“I thought the Good Lord said to feed the poor.”
“He had better resources than we do.”
“So you’re gonna let her and the boy walk away hungry.”
“We’re here for lost souls.”
“But not hungry ones.”
Buck Newsome narrowed his eyes and folded his arms in defiance. “I take the poor ones across the border every day and turn them loose,” he said. “My orders are to stand there and make sure none of them come back.”
“How can you keep them out?”
Newsome grinned. “The Good Lord gave you a Bible. He gave me a pistol.”
“We both have our jobs to do.”
“I’m taking a bunch over this morning,” Newsome said. “I suggest you be packed and ready to leave in, say, fifteen minutes or so. You can preach to them all the way home.”
The color drained from the Padre’s face. “You can’t do that to me.”
“I can deport pretty much who I damn well please.”
“That would be a grave mistake.”
“It’s a mistake I can live with,” Newsome said.
“I’ll have your badge,” the padre said.
“Probably,” Newsome said with a nonchalant shrug. “But, if I’m not sorely mistaken, you’ll have to get back across the river first.”
“The river’s not that wide.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Newsome said. His grin was a scar and devoid of humor.
The padre frowned and looked hard at the patrolman. He blinked.
Newsome knew he would.
“I can spare her ten dollars,” the padre said at last.
The padre paced the room. He was sweating again. He had no problem dealing with the devil. But Buck Newsome frightened him. God may have been the judge. But Newsome was the law. God only condemned mankind. Buck Newsome carried a gun.
“How much is enough?” he asked.
“If I’m not sorely mistaken,” Newsome said, “it’ll take about a hundred to keep them bed and get them back to their village.”
From his safe, the padre hesitantly and gingerly removed a cigar box filled with hundred-dollar bills. Newsome pried one of the bills loose and handed it to the old woman.
A tear touched her eye. She was rich. Maybe not forever. But for a day, she was rich.
Newsome turned to the padre and said, “May the good lord take a liking to you. I don’t.”
Late that afternoon, he loaded the old woman and the boy in his pickup truck, carried them down to the bridge at Hidalgo, and pointed them south toward home. A bus would pick them up before sundown. Newsome thought for a moment he saw her smile. But maybe he was sorely mistaken. Maybe it was only indigestion. That happened sometime when a full belly had never been full before.