First Place, Nonfiction, New Millennium Writing Awards IX, summer 2000
By Annie Rehill
[In the 1970s I dropped out of college, my confused but hardly unusual way of joining the social revolution then taking place. Here are excerpts from the story I wrote about it. For the full piece, see the New Millennium Writings link above.]
…I quit my university’s year-abroad program in France and moved to Amsterdam with my new boyfriend and his partner. They were hash smugglers.
Home turned out to be an abandoned storefront; Tommy had warned me…. “It’s a cracked house,” Tommy had explained. Dutch law provided that citizens could legally occupy—and eventually own—abandoned buildings, provided they improved the property. Tommy and Sam were stretching the law here, as Americans. But the storefront was on the outskirts of town and no one had bothered them in the six months they’d lived there.
During my four-month stay, the room changed. We did it in one day. Dumped the trash in garbage cans and dumpsters around the neighborhood, sifting out the good stuff. We discovered a broom and a couple of mildewed rugs, which Tommy hung over a rope in the lot and beat to death. We even unearthed an old couch, which got treatment similar to that of the rugs.
By the end of the day the mattresses were at opposite sides of the room, separated by the new living room. We sat around the heater smoking our reward spliff and drinking beer. “Why don’t we stay home tonight?” Tommy said after a few. “It’s kind of cozy now, don’t you think? We could get spaghetti stuff at the store and have an evening here. What do you guys think? I’ll play guitar.”
…We ate big breakfasts late, eggs and ham at the local place or granola and yogurt downtown at the hippie restaurant. Sometimes Tommy and I walked around the old city all day, stopping at the Rijksmuseum to gaze at Vermeers or Rembrandts. We stopped in café s and strolled through parks, imagining ourselves living in one of the wide-hulled wooden boats docked along the canals. Painted red, yellow, green or blue, most had lace curtains and flowers in the cabin windows. Homey. Comforting-looking.
…There was a lot of waiting. To kill the boredom, I embroidered birds, flowers, squirrels, trees, mountains on people’s denim jackets and shirts. Often I stitched away most of the day, and Tommy’s clothing became a conversation piece.
Then, suddenly, a deal would go through and everything went into high gear. We holed up at home and packed as fast as we could, to get it in the mail ASAP. We cut out book pages with Stanley knives, filled in bottoms of chocolate boxes, gutted stuffed animals.
We mailed small packages to addresses around Tommy’s native Burlington, Vermont area, at irregular intervals. We figured we could keep this up for another six months before somebody in the post office got suspicious. But Burlington had an international airport, meaning a lot of international mail, so it was possible we could conduct our business in peace for a while yet.
Soon it would be time to move on to our next venture. I wondered if I should return to Long Island and finish the one semester of college I had left…. Whatever we decided to do, we wanted to make as much money as possible first.
So in April, when Max, a turquoise-and-silver bedecked quasi-hippie entrepreneur from California, mentioned that he and his partner were seeking a couple for a drug run across Mexico, Tommy and I looked at each other.
…Thinking ahead was not among my strong suits in those days, but I would learn.
* * *
We helped pack the pungent, pliable black slabs…in Max’s living room. For two days we sat on an oriental rug that Max had imported himself, smoking hash and wrapping hash and drinking Lapsang tea and listening to Grateful Dead melodies on his top-quality stereo.
Previously I hadn’t liked Max much, with his jewelry and constant chatter about material possessions and acquisitions, but during those two days’ work I saw another side of him. He worked right along with us, joking and changing records and fixing tea and talking about music and telling Tommy about how you tell a good oriental rug from a bad one.
Something about the knots. I didn’t much care, but Tommy loved this sort of information. Tommy, seeing himself as an importer too, liked to collect random facts about exotic countries and the products they sold.
…Tommy and Max packed the eighty keys into a VW microbus, in an empty space on top of the gas tank at the back of the van. It was a tight fit. To access the space, they had to drain the gas tank so they wouldn’t blow us up, then blow-torch and cut into the metal plate on the inside of the van. This was tricky, because they had to aim above the gas tank without being able to see exactly where it ended. But they aimed high, and by the time they were close to the tank, they could stick their heads through and verify they weren’t going to hit it.
They packed it from inside the van, tight enough so it wouldn’t move during the sea voyage from Rotterdam to Veracruz, yet not so tight that the plastic would rip. Then they welded a new metal plate over the hole, covering it. Tommy built a big wooden box with a lid, so we could sit on it. They bolted the box onto the metal plate, and we packed it with camping gear: sleeping bags, blankets, propane stove with extra fuel cylinders, tent, lantern.
I had two jobs: lookout, and providing the domestic touches. My observation post was toward the front of the vast sheet-metal garage that Max and his partner had rented for this operation. I sat on a folding chair, with the kerosene heater four or five feet in front of me. There I worked on my sewing, creating lace curtains for the van’s windows, and a light-blue corduroy cover for the box’s foam-rubber cushion.
I took my jobs seriously, applying myself with diligence. If this was to look real, it had to be real, I reasoned. I would fix up the van exactly as if I were doing it for an extended camping trip. We were going to live in this van.
In late April, we shipped the van from Rotterdam to Veracruz.
* * *
Tommy and I flew to LA in mid-May, taking the indirect route into Mexico to avoid possible suspicion about coming from a well-known drug center…. After our playtime in California, a short-haired, scrubbed-up Tommy and neatly groomed Annie flew to Veracruz. The van was registered in his name; mine appeared nowhere in the papers. He had instructed me that if we got busted, I was to deny all knowledge of the hash.
“I’m not going to ditch you, let you take the rap alone,” I protested.
“But what’s the use of having us both rotting in a Mexican jail?” he countered, to my secret relief. My job, which I far preferred, would be to get the money to get him out. I knew they might simply arrest me too, if they felt like it, which allayed my guilt about being willing to let Tommy take the rap, if it came to that. But I wouldn’t abandon him. I’d get him out. Hopefully I wouldn’t be trying to get us both out.
I’d never been south of the border before. As the plane circled over squat palms and glittering turquoise water, a belt of fear squeezed my stomach. I’d been to Spain, but this was Spain’s Wild West. Random danger and poverty, death in surprising places. And here we were to break the law. Good thinking.
Our plane came to a bumpy landing on a runway that could have used some patching. We sailed through customs, were welcomed to Mexico, got in a beat-up cab. We were here. It was happening. Our task: to pick up the hashish at customs and deliver it to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, near San Diego. We would be informed later of our exact destination.
During the ride downtown, we stared, drank it all in. Dusty roads, palms, spindly bushes, stocky dark men in baseball hats and white cotton, women in black shawls carrying everything from babies to groceries. Sandals, shacks, more palm trees, avocadoes, mangoes, Coca-Cola and Marlboro billboards.
Then the city, old Spanish Mexico. Lacy wrought-iron gates, spreading shade trees, narrow streets with hairline sidewalks. More suits here and outdoor café s. The cab pulled up to the Hotel Veracruz and Tommy paid the cabbie, refusing his offer to help with our bags.
“Well, here we are, babe,” said my alleged fiancé as we walked into an airy blue-and-white-tiled lobby bordered with plants, dotted with wicker seating areas and little round tables. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
I’d been practicing my role as a young American on her pre-wedding trip. A secretary type, perhaps. Or some other sort of office worker. That afternoon we swam in the pool, drank fresh-squeezed orange juice and vodkas at the bar and walked around Veracruz, stopping at a café here and there for another drink, trying to decide what to do about the young boys asking us for money.
“If we give some to one of them, they’ll never leave us alone,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but how can we just ignore them?” said Tommy.
“Let’s not do anything today,” I said. “Let’s just watch; get some idea of the way things are here.”
Tommy agreed. Still, he could not resist giving away the bread that came with the octopus and olive appetizers we had at our final café stop.
* * *
Next morning around eleven o’clock, we got out of a battered early 60s Chevy at the edge of town, near the docks.
“Gracias,” said Tommy, paying the man.
“Muchas gracias señor,” I chimed in, smiling.
The driver waved, said adios, turned the Chevy around and putt-putted away. We faced a row of warehouses, behind which cranes and ships’ masts rose from the docks. A small shack stood alone. From the direction we’d come spread the city’s slummy outskirts. Ramshackle buildings and shacks, dirt, dust.
We walked to the shack. It was already steamy. We both wore clean, straight-looking clothes that we’d saved for this day. Nothing to distinguish us, not even bell bottoms. We did want me to be noticed, even if discreetly, so I wore a bit of eye makeup. No lipstick: too obvious, we’d decided. I had on a pale pink short-sleeved blouse and gray A-line skirt with matching pocketbook. Tommy wore a white short-sleeved shirt and stovepipe khakis. We both wore sandals. A wide-brimmed hat covered my head, a blue baseball cap. Tommy’s. We held hands. Tommy smoked a cigarette.
“You O.K., babe?” he whispered as we neared the shack. He squeezed my hand. Moisture glued our palms.
“O.K.. We’re just a happy couple on vacation.”
“We’ll be married at the end of the summer. Our parents are thrilled. We’re students. I’ll speak Spanish. Let’s discreetly take a couple of deep breaths.”
* * *
We had arrived. There was a sign outside, Aduana, “Customs.” We peered inside. A pudgy man in a dark blue uniform snored at a desk, head resting on arms, facing away from the door. A floor fan circulated cigarette smoke and heat. The desk filled nearly the whole room.
“Buenas dias,” Tommy said brightly.
The guard looked up, expressionless. “Buenas.”
“Somos aqui para nuestro auto,” I said.
“Ah si. Arriva esta semana?”
“Si, es en el nombre de Thomas Miller.”
“Bueno. No puedo hacerlo hoy,” he said. “You come back mañ ana,” he added. “The man who can do is on vacaciones. He back mañana.”
“Is the van here?”
“Señor, yo no say. El otro lo sabe. Ustedes vienen mañ ana en la mañana.”
“Tommy, let’s just go. The other guy won’t be here till tomorrow.”
Smiling and thanking him, Tommy took my arm, steered us back toward the edge-of-town slums.
“So are we busted or what?” I muttered, when we were safely away. We walked along cracked sidewalks so narrow we had to travel single-file whenever a car or a truck rumbled by on the pot-holed streets.
“I think they would have busted us right then and there,” Tommy murmured. “Why wait? What for?”
“To see who we’re working with?”
“So you’re saying we could be followed.”
“Maybe, but they already know where we’re staying anyway, if they’re on to us.”
“Making it pointless for us to split town.”
“If they’re watching us, yeah. But if they’re not?”
“Then we could get out of here. But they’ll wonder why we never picked up the van. They’ll take a closer look, find the shit and bust us at the border.”
“Because the van’s in your name.”
We considered every angle we could think of during the hour-long walk back to our ritzy hotel. The walk helped clear our heads, calm us. By the time we got downtown, we were sweaty, thirsty, tired of saying no to beggars. They were still boys, mostly. Beautiful olive-skinned young boys, eight to thirteen years old. They had dark eyes that would have been soulful if the determination to get whatever they could from us hadn’t made them hard, focused, steel….
Back at the hotel, we went straight out to the courtyard and two of the city’s rare ice-cold beers. “Dos Dos Equis, por favor,” said Tommy, using one of his rare Spanish phrases.
“Well, this is Mexico,” I said, “and the mañana thing is a reality here.”
“Yeah. So we just go back tomorrow, right?”
“If anything was wrong with the paperwork it should have been obvious today. Why would they wait to tell us?”
“I think we should just go back tomorrow.”
* * *
Quarter to eleven the next morning we set off again, in a cab. This time, unbelievably, the customs official we needed was at work. He found the papers, went off into one of the warehouses. We stood under waves of heat, watching as the beige VW van approached. We held hands and said nothing, did not look at each other.
Then the van was there, parked next to us. I saw my lace curtains in the windows and entered my character. I was a secretary who was engaged. I couldn’t wait to go on this camping trip across Mexico. I was excited.
Now the two guards were getting into the van, looking through it. I heard them open the box. I heard them admiring our camping gear and the van. One of them got out.
“I like to buy the gas from you.”
“The gas?” said Tommy.
“El petrol para el camion?” I said.
“No, no, señ orita.” He laughed. “Gas for the stove.”
“Ah!” said Tommy. “The propane! Sure!”
“Wait Tommy,” I said, “what if it’s hard to find? How will we cook?”
“Annie…” Tommy looked at me, almost menacing.
“Tommy, listen. If we’re camping we need to cook, right? We need the gas. How about we sell him just one?”
Tommy looked at the guard, who shrugged his shoulders. “One is bueno… how much?”
“Ah… how much you think?”
“Done. I tell you what, I give it to you. I give it to you as a present, because I am getting married at the end of this summer.”
“Ah! Married! Que bueno.”
“Si. We are very, very happy, and both our fathers are very happy. To express my happiness, I give you this gift, O.K.?”
“O.K. señor, muchas gracias. Much happiness to you and your novia. Many niños.”
Then Tommy signed some papers and everybody smiled and laughed at something and we drove away.
“My God,” I said. “Want a cigarette?”
I lit Tommy’s, passed it to him, lit mine. My hands were cold, but at least they had not shaken. My heart was turning somersaults; strangely, the cigarette slowed things down. Tommy looked fine.
“Frozen is more like it,” he said. “I feel frozen.”
“Too frozen for a beer?”
“Ah, no babe, not too frozen for a beer. But we’d better go pick up Max, have it with him.”
…As we drove to Max’s hotel, the Excelsior, I watched the women on the crowded streets, counting the uses they had for their shawls. Baby carrier, sun hat, raincoat, umbrella, scarf, jacket. I hardly saw a woman without one, somewhere on her. Mostly they were black. There were also white dresses, and white men’s clothes and white buildings and pastel-colored buildings, bright colors made even brighter under the brilliant sunlight in an azure sky.
Tommy looked tense now. The veins stood out on his bony temples, and the rounded forehead below his steadily retreating hairline was creased. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry Tommy,” I said, “the worst part might be over.”…
* * *
Three weeks later, we sat in a restaurant on the Pacific Coast.
“Well, only a few more days to go,” Max announced over steamed fish. “I called California today and the plane’s landing on Friday at daybreak.” It was now Monday.
…”What plane? I thought someone was going to drive down and meet you,” I said.
…”They changed the plan; they found a guy with a plane. There’s an old runway right on the beach in front of this hotel up the coast, used to be a fancy resort. It’s all run down now. Van and I found it last year.”
“Where is it?”
“Over on the Baja, which basically gives us two days to get there and one to unpack…”
…Wednesday evening we checked in to a hotel just north of San Felipe. There it was, right on the beach, halfway between the water and the hotel. A runway. Short, narrow, torn up in spots, but definitely a runway. Just big enough to handle small planes. Cottages lined the dunes on both sides of the hotel, facing the water and the runway. Children splashed in the peaceful waves and parents sat in canvas chairs on the runway. “Good thing this is supposed to happen early in the morning,” Tommy muttered.
Next morning we drove for about an hour, into the high red cliffs along the shore at Punta San Fermín. Surfers and scuba divers had claimed every spot, but we kept driving, higher, higher. Finally we found a deserted place. In front of us gleamed the Golfo de California, shifting blues and greens stretching out to meet the sky. Surfers clambered down through red rocks, searching for that perfect tunnel wave.
“O.K.,” said Max. “Annie, you sit in the front seat with the radio on low; look like you’re embroidering. If anyone pulls in or comes up from the beach, turn up the music and we’ll stop working. Tommy, we gotta get this plate off somehow.”
“We’ll have to cut it.”
“First let’s get rid of the box. We’ll have to put it outside.”
An hour later, Max bellowed like a karate black belt closing in for the lethal kick. The van shook furiously as he tore the steel plate back and forth, back and forth in frenzied determination. It was mostly off; just one last weld held it in place, too close to the gas tank, they thought, to risk cutting.
It worked. Immediately we sprang into fast-forward. Tommy ripped out the slabs and tossed them to Max, who dropped them on the van floor between the front seats. I grabbed them and loaded them into small suitcases; I filled six.
It was done in minutes. Five? Fifteen? Twenty? The boys screwed the box back in place and we drove slowly back down the cliffs. We dumped the ruined steel plate on top of a public-beach garbage can.
We had chosen rooms near a side door opening on the parking lot. We carried the overweight suitcases in to the rooms, along with some camping gear. Anyone watching would think we were just unpacking the car, we hoped. Afterward I lay on the bed, lit a cigarette. My legs were trembly and my eyes hurt.
…At three-thirty in the morning Max’s alarm stabbed through our nightmares and we were up, still dressed.
In silence we carried everything out to the van, which we had parked as close to the runway as we could, sliding-door side facing the beach. Then we sat on the beach, watching the dawn.
At 4:02, we heard a dull buzz in the sky, growing louder. “Wait till we see it,” Max whispered.
“O.K. now!” he said, as a two-seater plane hovered steadily lower over the runway. We grabbed the suitcases and ran toward the runway as the plane touched down, wheels bouncing twice, three times. My arms felt like they were being pulled away from my neck, and my legs bent like Charlie Chaplin’s as I scurried through the sand behind the guys, determined to keep up with them, not allowing any mental activity except what it took to move swiftly and silently.
As Max greeted the pilot and began heaving the cases in, he saw the woman in the passenger seat. “What the fuck is she doing here?” he snapped.
“Don’t worry man, the weight’ll be O.K.. See you in Diego.”
* * *
But the little plane could not lift off. It was too much weight. “Fucking asshole,” growled Max, as the woman jumped out and hurried toward us. By now several curious cottage dwellers, wakened by the ruckus, were watching.
The plane turned around at the end of the runway and tried again. Almost up… not quite… a dip, another dip….
“Shit he’s not gonna make it,” hissed the new arrival.
“Shut up! He’s gonna make it,” I shot back, as the two-seater did finally make it into the air.
Everyone on the beach watched the plane shrink into the sky, disappear into the gray dawn. Avoiding eye contact with the new woman, Max, Tommy, and I exchanged relieved glances, then walked quickly to the van. Before some curious husband could think of wandering over for a morning chat and a few friendly questions, Max drove us away.
“I’m Annie,” I said to the newcomer a few minutes later, “and this is Tommy and Max.”
“Hi guys, I’m really sorry about this. I’m Sally.”
“What the hell was he thinking of, bringing you?” said Max.
“He didn’t realize how much there was. He thought it was half that.”
…At Tijuana, the border guard glanced at our passports, stamped them, invited us back soon. On the American side, they asked us to pull over and step inside—except Tommy.
“I’ll just ask you to empty your purses here on the desk, please,” said the blond crew-cutted, sterilized-looking border guard. “You first,” he said to Sally.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” I asked. “I’ll leave my purse here.”
“Ah, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait on that.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because you might have something to flush down the toilet.”
“Oh my God,” I said, sighing and sitting back down.
“Well, and what have we here?” said Crewcut, brandishing a miniature silver spoon, “what’s this?”
“It’s an antique salt spoon.”
“Ha! It’s a coke spoon.”
“It’s a family heirloom,” I put in. “It was her grandmother’s and she was very close with her grandmother. She always carries it around with her, everywhere she goes, ever since her grandmother died.”
A pause. “Well, if you can lie that good you deserve to keep it,” said Crewcut.
“Thank you. But it’s not a lie.”
After sifting through each object in our purses, which we’d already done on the way to the border, Crewcut turned his attention to Max and the contents of his pockets. He pointed out that if he thought it wise, he could have us strip-searched. “But you kids aren’t nervous enough,” he concluded. “I think you got rid of it all on the other side.”
We looked at him pleasantly. “Now may I go to the bathroom?” I asked.
“Sure. Then come on outside.”
Tommy was laughing and chatting with two customs officials as he repacked the van, I saw with relief. He seemed relaxed, untroubled.
“O.K., thank you,” he called out the window as he drove us into the spanking-clean state of California. I thought of the black shawl I’d bought, wondering if it would make a good scarf in the northeastern winters of my college campus.