“Fuck you,” he said rising his Colt to my chest.
That’s it, I thought. This is where I end.
The gun was intensely black, its barrel only a few inches from me. This is what it feels like, I thought. I wondered if the bullet would cut across my body. I wondered if I would fall on my back under the force of the metal piercing through my flesh and hitting my bones and arteries. Maybe I would drop on my knees or take air like in movies. Maybe there would be a white flash and the last thing I’d see would be the dark blue sky over my head.
“I didn’t steal from you,” I said. “And I don’t know who did.”
“Fuck you, maricón!” he replied, pressing the gun against me. “You think you can fuck me? I’ll bust a cap in your head right now, motherfucker. Me vale madre, I don’t give a shit.”
I had always thought of guns as tools, as nothing more than glorified wrenches or screwdrivers. I had always found their efficient coldness to be raw and inert. Yet at this moment, José’s gun had become an organic, sensible thing in my mind. It was still a tool, but it was also the tool that would take the life out of me.
A black, shiny instrument of death. The man holding it wasn’t important anymore, all that counted was the amount of pressure the trigger would need to engage the firing cycle, allowing the hammer to hit the pin that would spring against the .45 cartridge, releasing a bullet at a velocity of 825 feet per second, the extractor pushing the empty shell up through the ejection port as the slide would jerk backwards.
I would probably be dead before the shell could touch the ground.
“I didn’t steal from you,” I repeated.
You know the story that says time goes by slower when you’re about to die? It’s not just a story. I could see and hear everything around me during these long, endless seconds. I still remember a dog barking. I remember the wind and how nice it felt on my sweaty skin. The Arizonian dust at my feet. My ears buzzing under the sunset clouds.
Was the safety on? Was there even a bullet in the chamber? I hadn’t seen José cock the gun. I hadn’t heard anything.
But it didn’t matter because twenty pounds of marijuana had vanished from José’s house and I was his prime suspect in the disappearance. Considering twenty pounds of Mexican weed could sell at about $45,000 on the street, José was seriously pissed and was looking for anyone who could have stolen from him.
Unfortunately for me, I had been living in his garage’s yard for two weeks when this went on, sleeping in an old trailer among discarded tires and used auto parts. I knew about his business. I knew where the stash was and when the bags would be moved.
I was the perfect culprit.
“Me vale madre,” José shouted, waving the Colt in my face.
Unfortunately for him, I hadn’t touched his marijuana. I had been out in the desert all day long scouring for a group of illegal immigrants I heard had been spotted by Park Rangers in the morning. There I had found a column of five men burdened with homemade burlap sacks, slowly trudging up North to the highway where they would likely be picked up and brought to Phoenix.
I hadn’t been nearly close to José’s house for the last ten hours.
“Motherfucker,” he said.
I felt myself exhale.
Then I arched to the left and grabbed the gun.
It’s hard to explain what happens in our brains when we’re threatened. Our will to live grows much stronger than we could imagine. Much, much stronger. It makes us do crazy things, being threatened, impossible things, even, things we could never be capable of doing in normal times. It makes the fear retreat. There is no anger, no panic, no real emotion anymore when facing an imminent death. Our entire soul is concentrated in the simple act of surviving. Our reflexes become faster. Our muscles become unexpectedly stronger. Our instincts are heightened.
I don’t think José really understood what happened. I don’t think I did either.
Taking the Colt from him was the only thing I cared about.
Both my hands were suddenly wrapped around his hands. He tried to shove me aside but I pushed him away and elbowed him in the face and the throat as he started ramming his head forward, the gun still in his hand, the black and shiny gun still inside his closed fist in spite of the blows to his ribs and shoulders — “Chingate,” he kept hissing, “chingate,” with me punching and kicking wherever I could until we tumbled down together and I managed to head-butt him out of pure luck, splitting both our foreheads and making his nose explode in blood — the gun now in my own hands and pointed at him, pointed at his fucking head, who’s getting dicked now, huh, what you gonna do, motherfucking shit fucker, who the fuck you think I am — nothing but a tool, a glorified wrench, an elaborate screwdriver, right?
José looked at me with blood trickling along his red face.
“Fuck you,” he said again.
I didn’t say anything because I was trying to catch my breath, realizing I had held it for what seemed like an eternity.
My hand was still extended with the Colt at the end of it, aimed at José. No way I would lower it. No fucking way I would lower it.
“You gonna kill me?” he asked. “Chupa mi pito, bitch. I ain’t afraid of you.”
I lowered the weapon.
My shadow was lengthening on the sandy ground. I realized how small and vulnerable I was, alone in this world. What the fuck was I doing?
What the fuck am I doing?
I thought of José’s friends and of what they would do if they saw me like that. I thought of José’s wife and kids. Would Elena be able to shoot me? I knew there was a gun up the kitchen cabinets, out of reach of the children. Would I give her the chance to shoot?
What the fucking fuck am I doing?
“Shut the fuck up and listen to me,” I said. “You move and I’ll fucking rip your fucking head apart, hear me?”
But none of what I was saying sounded right. The adrenaline was already receding and my limbs were heavy, and I was hurting a lot from our short fight.
“I didn’t fucking steal your shit. I was out in the desert all day, you stupid asshole!” I shouted. “Elena saw me leave. Your niece saw me leave. The whole fucking neighborhood saw me leave! And you try to pin this on me? I don’t give a goddamn fuck about your drugs! Are you completely fucking retarded?”
The Colt still in my hand, my knuckles white from clenching it.
“I’ll stick around until you figure why your shit is missing, and then I’m gone. You get that? I’ll fucking stay until you get this sorted out with your brainless homies. You know why? Because I didn’t fucking steal anything!”
José closed his mouth and slowly moved his legs to sit down.
“Don’t try to fuck me,” he said.
“I am the one with the gun, asshole.”
“Now I’ll find a motel to wait at until you call me with news,” I said.
“A motel where?”
“Fuck you, that’s where. I don’t want you psycho sneaking up on me.”
“It ain’t over,” José said as I limped to my car, not leaving him from sight, watching him as I sat behind the wheel, watching him as I backed up and watching as I sped away, the tires screeching in the street corner.
The motel was sterile and bland as all chain motels are, but it felt good being back to a bit of normalcy after fifteen days spent sleeping in a trailer, in the backyard of a semi-notorious drug smuggler. I didn’t sleep much that night.
In fact I didn’t sleep at all.
I thought of simply calling it quits and getting out of here like my ass was on fire. I thought of going to the police. Both ideas were bad. Fleeing would have only looked like I had something to hide, and would have made José’s last ounce of trust for me vanish instantly. As for talking to the police, well, talking to the police would have simply been a death sentence for me.
Snitches get stitches and all that.
I didn’t feel like having a contract put on my head so I stayed in my motel room and tried to focus on the TV instead of doing anything reckless. The gun was staying by my side at all times, just in case. I kept it on me when I went out of the room to get snacks and sodas at the vending machine. I had it in hand whenever I heard a strange noise at night, or when people unlocked a neighboring door.
Having a gun near me felt good. It gave an illusion of protection. I could pretend I’d use it in the event someone came for me.
I was afraid as shit and felt invincible at once.
On the third day my cell vibrated on the nightstand. The caller ID was blocked. I knew it was José calling me from a burner phone.
“Look,” he said. “We need to talk.”
“Let’s talk, then,” I replied with his Colt on my lap.
“Face to face,” he said.
I laughed. I stepped out of the window area and went in the bathroom.
“Not gonna happen, man.”
José swore in Spanish through the speaker.
“We found the cabrón who stole me,” he then said. “And we also found the cabrón who told him where the mota would be. Hijos de sus puta madres with no spine. They wanted to turn to the Norteños. ”
I closed my eyes and had a deep sigh of relief.
I gave José the address of the motel where I was at and told him I would leave his gun in my unlocked room for him to pick up. The room was paid for one more day and my car had an almost full tank of gas. I was ready to go.
“I won’t be here when you come by,” I said.
He didn’t reply immediately.
“Look, carnal,” he started, stopping mid-sentence. “You’re a fucking animal, you know that?” he said after a long pause. “A vato loco.”
“Fuck you, José,” I said, and I could tell he smiled when I hung up.
The sun was high in the sultry sky when I left the motel room, José’s gun in full view on the undone bed. A simple tool, nothing more than a glorified wrench or screwdriver.
I never saw guns the same after that.
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