The First Meeting
Manny Bustos is a fourteen-year-old orphan who lives on the streets of the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Just across the bridge is the city of El Paso, Texas—a short distance, but a world away. Below the bridge is a "muddy trickle" of water, all that remains of the once proud Rio Grande. On any given day, beneath the bridge, packs of hungry children begging for money cry out to the tourists who are crossing above. Oftentimes, the tourists will toss coins down to them and laugh to see the urchins fight over their cynical offerings. Manny hates working under the bridge; he is much smaller than most of the other street kids, and generally does not fare well in the desperate competition. Soon, however, he will not have to worry about any of this. The fact that he is young and small will no longer matter, because he has strength, speed, and a willingness to work hard. From all that he has heard, that is "all that is needed" on the other side, and he has resolved to attempt the crossing tonight.
Robert S. Locke is "above all things, a sergeant." Outwardly, his bearing is impeccable. He stands with his back "ramrod straight...[he has] graying...hair and a straight mouth...steel blue eyes...a uniform...incredibly neat and sharp and true." Robert is the epitome of a soldier, but his outer image reveals nothing of his tormented soul. Unseen scars cover his mind and thoughts, and he must constantly drink to alleviate the pain caused by these wounds. Stationed in El Paso, Robert performs his obligations as a soldier flawlessly, but each night that he is not on duty, he crosses the bridge to Juarez, where he drinks "evenly and professionally" to anesthetize his brain. If he does not do this, "all of his friends from all the [past] battles [will] come...to visit," and, professional though he is, he cannot stand that.
On this particular night, Robert goes to the Club Congo Tiki, a place he frequents because it is "incredibly ugly and in such poor taste that it [is] almost not real to him." Fittingly, the Congo Tiki helps him to leave the real world behind and allows him to sojourn in a place of dreams where his "old friends" cannot come to call. It is Robert's habit to sit at a table in the back corner of the establishment, and to drink methodically, until he is in such a fog that he is "blind...[to] all other things."
Out on the streets, Manny crouches in the darkness, waiting for the best time to attempt his crossing of the river. There are many dangers that threaten those preparing for the run. The worst of these are the street wolves, who seize young boys "with large brown eyes [and] long lashes" like himself, and sell them for money. There is no protection; the Juarez police are no help, and the border patrol does not care if the street kids are "hurt or used or killed." Suddenly, enormous floodlights explode upon the river, exposing hundreds of people trying to cross to the opposite shore. In the panic that ensues, there is a complete loss of order, and Manny finds himself in the clutches of four street wolves who are ecstatic with their find. Manny kicks as hard as he can between the legs of the man who holds him, then runs for the alleys in a desperate effort to escape.
Manny races up and down the labyrinthine maze that takes him around the bars and cafes frequented by the soldiers from El Paso. When he finally eludes his pursuers, he finds himself in the alley behind the Club...
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Congo Tiki, where Robert Locke is vomiting up all the liquor he has consumed during this night. Manny passes by closely and tries to slip the soldier's wallet out of his back pocket, but Robert, despite his drunkenness, grabs him by the wrist with "more power to hold him than [Manny] could have imagined."
Without saying anything, Robert begins striding purposefully down the street, dragging Manny along with him. The sergeant is only partially aware of what he is doing, as he struggles not to see the ghosts which assail him relentlessly—ghosts of "friends...good men" in Saigon, El Salvador, and a host of other places whose names he cannot recall. When he gets to the bridge, a police officer steps out and respectfully confronts him. Manny complains that Robert is forcing him to go along against his will. The policeman, after telling the sergeant to let the boy go, asks if what Manny says is true. As the fog clears in his mind, Robert remembers that Manny had been trying to steal his wallet, but he also realizes that if he reports this, the policeman will come down hard on the boy. Prevaricating, Robert tells the officer that Manny had been guiding him to the bridge, and that in his drunkenness, he, Robert, had inexplicably grabbed the boy's arm and had dragged him along with him. The policeman, knowing that both the sergeant and the urchin are lying, waves them both away. Robert crosses the bridge and the boy disappears into the night; this is the first meeting between Manny and the sergeant.
The Second Meeting
Manny's whole being is focused on the basic elements of survival. Always on the edge of starvation, he has no time for the finer experiences of life, such as learning. Nonetheless, the boy harbors a deep appreciation for the great military general Pancho Villa. Next to the bullring in Juarez is the Rio Brava Hotel, where the illustrious general came when he took the city. Manny knows that this is true because the building's walls are pocked with bullet holes to prove it.
One Saturday, when he is begging at the adjoining market for cast-off vegetables, Manny looks up and sees the American sergeant walking toward the Rio Brava Hotel. He remembers that the soldier had not told the police that he had tried to steal his wallet. Manny thinks that the sergeant must have a generous nature and might be responsive to further begging. There is something else, too, that draws Manny to the sergeant, but with his limited experience, he cannot define what it is. Boldly, Manny follows him into the hotel cafe and stands by his table, regarding him silently.
After a short moment, Robert notices the boy and remembers him from the night at the bridge. Simultaneously, a waiter spots Manny too and rushes up to seize and drag him away, but Robert stops the waiter. Handing the boy a menu, Robert invites him to eat. Manny cannot read the words, but seizing this unimaginably great opportunity which is inexplicably being presented to him, he asks the waiter for "eggs...perhaps a steak...frijoles...tortillas"—every kind of food he can think of.
As they wait in silence for their meals, Robert asks the boy his name, and Manny answers proudly, "Manuel Bustos...it is from my father...he was as yourself, a soldier." It is clear that the boy is lying, but to Robert it does not matter. When the food comes, Manny eats ravenously, shoving everything into his mouth with his dirty hands. Watching him, Robert remembers having seen a monkey eat this way once in Saigon. The monkey had been starved by its owners, but had suddenly come upon an officers' picnic and had broken loose. A snake had swallowed the monkey soon afterward, Robert tries to tie the events in his memory with the concept of justice, but his tormented mind cannot quite make the connection. He senses that, even under the best of conditions, "justice doesn't often work that well" anyway.
When Robert is finished eating, he pays the bill and walks away without saying anything more. Manny packs up the food that remains and scrambles after the sergeant. The pragmatic part of him is amazed at his good fortune in finding someone who will give so much without asking for anything in return, and he is determined not to let such a good thing get away. There is something else, too, though, something intangible, "something other than the food," which tugs at the boy. Without completely understanding why, Manny senses that the sergeant "must not be lost again."
Manny finds Robert near the main entrance to the bullfighting ring. Manny craftily tells him that he is an expert on the sport and can explain to him anything that he might want to know. Robert, who is paradoxically both drawn to and repulsed by the opportunity to see "the killing" involved in the advertised event, cryptically warns Manny to "take care...that a snake does not swallow [him]." He then suddenly becomes aware that his perceptions are beginning to regain their clarity. He rushes to the liquor store to get more of his drug of choice so that he can anesthetize them again. Manny accompanies him, and on the way, confesses that his father is not really a soldier. He replaces this original falsehood with another lie, insisting now that his father is "an animal" who will beat him and his poor mother and sisters if he does not come home with money.
Robert, who knows all about lying to himself, recognizes that Manny is still not telling the truth. Taking a sip of the scotch he has bought, he talks abstractedly about killing and death, and wonders if a bull knows he is supposed to die when he steps into the ring. The two return to the bullfighting ring and wait for it to open. Manny tries many different approaches in trying to extort money from the sergeant, offering to fetch him some cigarettes, and stealing a poster depicting a matador off a wall to present to him, but the alcohol is working, and Robert is preoccupied with his own thoughts. He does not seem to hear what Manny says.
As they sit in the bullring, Manny is filled with excitement, mesmerized by the spectacle of the bullfight unfolding before him. Robert, in contrast, withdraws even further within himself, waiting "for blood, for the fight...[the] death wait," as he has so many times before in war. Robert has eyes only for the bull, who fights bravely but is inevitably cut down in "spinning ugliness and blood-stink." He has hoped to find meaning in the ritual slaughter, but he instead has just discovered confirmation that truly, "it's for nothing...only a game."
When the carnage is over and the audience is screaming its acclaim, Robert turns and rushes through the crowd. He walks precipitously to the Club Congo Tiki, and retreats to his corner to drink himself once more into quiet oblivion. Manny, who is following, is denied entry by a bouncer. Thus ends the second meeting between the street urchin and the sergeant.
The Third Meeting and After
Manny does not see the sergeant for a week after that. When they do meet again, it is in the alley behind the Congo Tiki. As before, the sergeant is leaning against the wall, being sick from the night's drinking. Manny greets the soldier and follows him as he walks to the bridge. Along the way, he shows Robert the cuts on his back that he says his father has inflicted because he has not brought home enough money. At the bridge, the sergeant hands Manny a five-dollar bill, and in the instant that he receives it, the boy perceives a gentle "softness" in the man that he cannot name. For the first time in his life, Manny wonders what might happen if he reveals himself to the sergeant, if he dares to trust him and tells him the truth. Manny has never told anyone the truth before, and he thinks now about what that might be like.
The next night, Manny meets Robert again in the alley. This time, he tells him candidly that he is alone in the world and that he will not be able to survive much longer. He then expresses his hope for a better life on the other side of the bridge, and appeals to the sergeant to help him. Robert understands the grave risk the boy is taking, daring to show his weakness and vulnerability in a world where doing such a thing is infinitely dangerous. Manny asks with heartbreaking directness, "Will you help me?" Robert is reminded of the countless times he has been asked this question by callow soldiers
in the jungle places...when there was nothing [he] could do for them, when they leaned against the earth and died.
At first, he sees nothing that he can do for this boy now. To his own astonishment, however, Robert finds himself telling the boy, "Yes. I will help you." He thinks it and means it, and as he turns to walk to the bridge, he begins to plan how he will consult with a legal officer to find out how he can get papers for the boy. Just then, four men appear in the alley, armed with knives and chains. They are the street wolves again, come to take Manny for the money they will get from selling him to those who would want to buy a fourteen-year-old boy with "large brown eyes [and] long lashes."
Robert, who is "above all things a soldier," confronts the men, even though there are four of them, and he knows how it must end. He fights in deadly silence. One after another, the street wolves fall, but the sergeant, like the bull in the arena, takes a terrible punishment. As he finally sinks to the ground, Manny reaches for him, to help him down, but Robert shakes his hands away, and reaches into his back pocket for his wallet. "Take it," he tells the boy:
take it and run and cross and get the green card and live there...it is what you want...what I want for you.
Manny cries out in protest and in grief, "No...not this way!" The sergeant, however, cannot hear him. As Robert's eyes cloud over, the friends who have haunted him for so long come to meet him, and he finds that he does not fear them anymore.
As the police approach, Manny knows that there is nothing more that he can do. He takes the wallet then, and runs for the river, and the crossing.