The border patrol agent studied the flat windshield of my geriatric Winnebago last night and, "You retired?" asked. Stickers at the windshield's corners advertised State Farm Insurance, affiliation with the American Association of Retired Persons and expired permission to enter a military base in Iowa.
I chuckled. "No. The guy who owned it before the guy before me, maybe," and chuckled again, "Or the guy before that. But not me." And then I laughed.
But the border patrol agent did not chuckle. He did not laugh.
"Could you pull over, please?"
And, "Sure," I said, unfazed. But as I began to roll into secondary inspection I glimpsed a sheriff's car directly behind me, headlights blazing. I merged fully into that moment then. Suddenly I was nowhere but in that wide place, under that high aluminum ceiling, in that floodlit desert dark. Technically I was legal. But only technically. The border patrol would not niggle the technicality. The sheriff might. But the sheriff pulled then through to the highway, and, relieved, I tramped down onto the tarmac.
"Your registration is expired, you know," the agent said. We stood behind the motor home. I gripped my file of paperwork. "That sheriff's deputy probably would have harassed you if I hadn't asked you to pull over."
The agent was tall and blond. He stood bug-eyed, away from me, examining me warily, watchfully. He held up a pair of suspicious scales in his mind. He seemed prepared to measure my response against some counterweight of gut truth. And with reason. The average age of a motor home pilot is certainly much older than my 30 years. We stood just 20 miles north of the Mexican border; well after dark; the Winnebago a tumbledown version, unkempt, '73. I had not been able to bathe or shave in a couple of days and even well-scrubbed I am not clean cut. Add to this the expired Florida license plate, the fact I was driving on a temporary Arizona registration, with a Texas license, and en route to southern Kansas via New Mexico. Everything signaled alert. But I showed the agent the paperwork, and, "I write things," offered as explanation for the whole of it.
A second agent, a Chicano with a stern brow, had marched past us. He was now in the motor home rifling my earthly effects.
"What kinds of things do you write, Mr. Cooke?" The agent's eyes were wide and focused and poring over the temporary registration and driver's license I had handed him.
"Fiction. Mostly about Mexico and the Southwest. I'm all over the place like this. I was in San Diego earlier this year, then Tucson. Now I'm going home for the holidays. Then on to Austin."
I heard the slat of plywood that covers my water tank drop. The clap of its fall was familiar to me. A foam rubber mattress fits atop that plywood. I sleep there.
I suggested, "I can show you the title for the thing, too, if you want. I'm not transferring it until I get to my sister's place in Ft. Worth. That's why I have a temporary registration."
"Yeah, okay," he answered. But when I turned toward the Winnebago to fetch the title he stopped me.
And a third agent appeared then, sternly-browed also, marching past us to enter my hovel.
Later I envisioned them all comparing notes:
"What was his story?"
"A would-be writer."
"What'd he have in there?"
"Just books, and boxes of papers, and two bicycles and food."
"One whole side of the thing was books."
The two agents finally stepped down out of the motor home. No longer stern, the Chicano was even smiling. I realized then that the blond agent had been playing the good cop, while the Chicano and the third agent had been playing the bad cop. The blond agent returned my file of paperwork and apologized for the inconvenience. But without reason. Waiting in a Greyhound at that very same checkpoint I once witnessed the border patrol seize a fat stash of marijuana from the belly of the bus. Through the office window I saw the agent cut the shipping package open and then pump for himself a victory fist. Another time, an hour or so north of there, I watched agents take five undocumented immigrants off of a bus I was riding--one of whom sat right next to me. I understood from the moment I pulled into the checkpoint what might happen and why.
About 2. a.m. I arrived in Albuquerque and found a place near Old Town to park the Winnebago. A side street off Central Avenue. Perfect. Quite cold last night. But I discovered the stove's propane burners will heat slightly the motor home's interior from about the waist up. The burners do not really warm the beast, but they do make it bearable. I bought the nag in Tucson with a credit card and two thousand dollars saved from a student loan. It didn't matter to me then that the heater was broken. I opened a window a little that I might not suffocate.
I saw a girl smoking crack, I think, as I wound down from the drive this morning, as I began creeping toward a sleepiness. I saw her through my rear window. She was in a dead space between the back of a laundromat and three garbage dumpsters. A flash as she lit something with a lighter. Then she would walk about jerkily, quickly, in circles, twitchily, in triangles, in circles, in circles, then back to the wall where she began. There she would rest her head against the wall for a few instants, as if in anger or in devotion. And then another flash and she would begin the twitchy stomping again. She wore only a t-shirt in that cold. She did this three times. She was a clockwork toy. It lasted maybe ten minutes. Then she disappeared.
Wood floors. Large windows. I discovered this cafe in my first passage through Albuquerque. I've sat in it every passage since. This corner table is choice. I can see the whole of the cafe from it, and, through the window, the grounds of the University of New Mexico. It's the lunch hour now and the counter is quite busy. I feel no compunction for my extended occupation of this table though. More than half the tables are occupied by students with textbooks.
I am without an address and will stay so until I return here to Albuquerque. This city is not my home. I have never really spent any time here. And yet it is the place to which I will return. I guess I might call it my home. It's as much a home to me as any other place. Regardless, I won't be settled again until I come here to Albuquerque to live. And that will be sometime after this long circuitous journey. Here then in Albuquerque I will try to finish my unfinished novel. I've invited Deborah to join me. A long shot.
I will continue on from Albuquerque about ten or so tonight. I should have time then to think some on The Don Quixote Piece or work The Sandra Texts.
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