In the hills of San Diego, spiderholes and cardboard houses like the set of an apocalypse movie let men who didn’t belong there—never women, only men—hide and sleep. Fifty yards away, citizens lived in giant homes and shopped in giant stores and drove giant cars along giant roads. The citizens might as well be giants because they never saw the men hidden between the gaps in the hills with shrines to the Virgin and stories about older gods told in thick Mixtecan by men whose ancestors devoured conquistadors in rituals no Jesuit Inquisitor could completely burn away.
An anthropologist talked about the illegal immigrant problem with the people of the city. The citizens did not know how close they were to the camps. Moms in minivans shared stories about stolen things, mystified about their true value: “Somebody stole my pool cover, three bags of charcoal and the big gallon jugs of pool chemicals . . . Do you think they’re having a pool party in some meth lab?” They assumed the men had snuck up from Tiajuana and ran back south with their stolen goods.
The men lived behind the shopping center, invisible to the consumers there.
“People will steal anything,” said the anthropologist. In his mind, he wanted to ask, “Are you sure they’re the ones who stole it just because of their ethnicity?” but he didn’t want to tell people how they should think, until he finished his study.
The anthropologist could’ve told the women of the shopping center about the real value of things. Pool covers hid spiderholes. Charcoal cooked dinner, and then the ash mixed with piles of garden trimmings to mask the pool covers over the spiderholes from INS helicopters. Chemicals got dumped out, and the plastic jugs were used for both water and toilets.
The satellite view of San Diego took shape in the anthropologist’s mind. Plants got moved to better light. Ditches drained the floods. Roads cut into the hills where hands guided the black tar. From the satellites, looking down, the picture of the city was a billion brown-skinned men like ants in dirt-colored denim carving civilization into the hills while anything white hid in cars like metal pupae.
At the camp, birds in scrub trees jumped out for the bits of trash and food that got left alone a little too long. Sometimes someone crafted traps out of discarded wire to catch a bunch of birds to eat, but the birds weren’t meaty like chickens. Men were better off just raising chickens.
That’s what this kid said to the anthropologist, with a Honduran accent that sounded like fistfights. “Men were better off just raising chickens.”
The anthropologist brought cigarettes and notepads and this schoolbook Spanish that made people think he was a cop or a social worker. He was an anthropologist.
The anthropologist met this older guy that had a good reputation around the camp playing cards with teenagers.
The anthropologist was led over to this older guy by a Mixtecan boy who sneered and kept his hand on a holstered knife. Nobody would trust the anthropologist without the old guy’s approval. The anthropologist knew that right away.
The older man was slipping boys Coca-Cola, and playing cards, and talking in Spanish about the places they could go to find work.
The anthropologist asked if he could sit down to play cards. He showed cash and he claimed to need instruction on the game even though he knew they were playing poker because they had seen poker on American television shows. The anthropologist bet with the men and lost slowly, on purpose. When he ran out of money, he threw his hands up, and laughed. He asked the older man if he could talk to him a bit and let the kids duke it out a while.
The old man corrected the anthropologist in flawless English. “Dude, they may be young, but they’re no kids.”
“My mistake,” said the anthropologist.
“What do you want to fucking talk about?” said the old man.
“I’m a professor, like I said, at UCSD. I’m trying to tell the world about the people here. How you live, what kind of society you have, and where you sleep,” said the anthropologist. “Your community is invisible if someone doesn’t say something.”
The man scoffed. “You guys come through here all the time. It’s either a college student or some fucking doctor of something. You tell me the same shit, too. I’ll tell you the same shit I tell them all. I’ll show you my home. You can’t see it from here but it ain’t far.”
The old guy gestured up the hill to the spiderholes, through layers of scrub brush and the food tied up in bags hanging from trees. Real coyotes were never far from the human coyotes. Coyotes sniffed through the camps during the day, when the men were working, so everything was hung from trees.
The older guy walked the anthropologist around two large bushes near the top of the hill. Fallen brush and dust covered a sky-blue tarp held in place by rope and chunks of concrete.
“You want a soda?” said the older man.
“Take off your shoes,” said the older man.
“I said, take off your fucking shoes.” The older man took his shoes off, and placed them next to a tree. “Seriously, dude.”
The anthropologist tugged his boots off. He worried he might be robbed of his shoes and he’d be unable to run through the scrub in the dark. He looked around. He figured this was probably a set-up and he’d go along with it as long as it didn’t get violent. He tugged off his boots.
The older guy pulled back part of the tarp. The spiderhole was as deep as a general’s trench. Inside, the two men could stand and walk around a little. Cardboard walls held back the dirt. Pinned across the walls a thousand tiny starlets—all of them white and most of them blonde—made ecstatic faces as ants and roaches crawled all over them.
“This place is . . . ” said the anthropologist.
“What?” said the older man.
The older man grabbed a card table and two lawn chairs from a pile outside the spiderhole and set them up on top of the cardboard bed. He had a kerosene lamp too. The anthropologist sat down on a chair on one side of the table and the man sat down on the other side. The man closed up the tarp and lit the lamp, and the two men could sit down like civilized human beings in a dirt bunker covered in bugs and porno. The air was heavy with mold.
“Who’s your decorator?” said the anthropologist.
“Oh, nothing. Just looking at the walls.”
“Yeah,” said the man. “The bugs did that.”
“You’ll see in a few, dude. Don’t freak, okay?”
The older guy had Cokes swimming in what was, presumably, melted ice in a cooler. He offered one to his guest, and the anthropologist accepted the drink. The anthropologist tried not to think about the insects that would be crawling over his socks below the table. The anthropologist smiled like he meant it and wondered if he really had to drink the Coke in his hands, or if he could just hold it a while.
The older man produced a cup out of nowhere—a coffee mug with a busted handle. He blew out the dust, and wiped at the inside with his bare hand. He poured his own Coke into the mug.
The anthropologist had two notepads in his pocket and some pens. He asked the older man for permission to write their conversation down, promising anonymity.
The man shrugged.
While the anthropologist was busy scribbling, the older man slipped his mug below the table to pour some whiskey inside. He didn’t offer his guest any whiskey. The anthropologist pretended not to notice.
The anthropologist asked why the man came up here from Mexico.
“No work in Mexico,” said the old man, “There’s work here.” The older man took a long drink of his coke. He didn’t say anything else.
And the bugs moved the pictures on the walls.
The ants undid the tacks and adjusted the images. A green lawn mower pushed away all the women. Images of golden wheat—all from the photographs of magazines and the packaging trash that blew around from the open dumpsters and the road litter—images of food and corn and vegetables exploded on the walls.
The anthropologist froze. “What the . . . ”
“You know Indians and Mexicans—and most of the Mexicans are fucking Indians—been here longer than you white people,” said the older guys. “Well, you white people kicked us out. Our gods, dude, they don’t just leave because you want them to.”
“Are the bugs some kind of trick?”
“Fuck, dude, you don’t believe in it. Just watch while we talk. Better than a fucking television.”
The anthropologist stuttered a nervous question. “Do you . . . Do . . . Do you have any family in Mexico?”
The image changed. Beautiful women—virgins, all of them—in white dresses with white teeth and marbleized magazine skin emerged from the walls. Slowly their tiny images melted together like a novelty poster until the pictures filled in the pale figure—one woman, a beautiful bride with a ripe stomach and sad eyes.
“I got this girl pregnant,” the man said. “She was fourteen, and I was sixteen. Our parents made us get married. I left school to work with my wife’s father before we came up here.”
“What kind of work did you do before you came here?”
The woman melted into the shuffling. The ants and roaches pulled out pictures of men. They merged into a man beside the girl’s wedding-shaped face. The man’s mouth opened into something stern, like a command. The image stayed there in the wall for a time. The ants and roaches crawled into the gaps to escape the picture.
“Whatever. Mostly we picked crops, but we did anything we could find. Wasn’t much work. I had to find work, though. I had to buy food for my wife. She got fat. Then there was this fat little gringo whiter than you. Boy couldn’t have been mine. He was born white. I guess he was mine. Looked like his mother.”
The man pictured in the wall changed. His mouth widened into a gaping darkness. Like cards reshuffling in a deck, the insects adjusted the pictures on the walls. Labels from bottles of Coke poured red waves from the center until a tongue and a uvula spilled to the floor. Then, only black. Bits of magazine ads and discarded cloth and a single doll’s head—a white child—hairless with filthy eyes hung in the center like a pagan idol, smiling down on the two men.
The anthropologist tried to stand up. The illegal immigrant grabbed the anthropologist’s hand hard to hold him down. “Relax, dude. You’re not here to do evil. You’ll be fine.”
The anthropologist’s hands trembled too much to write well. He did his best out of habit. Writing down the man’s words made it easier to control his fear. In his mind he repeated his mantra that he was here to observe only, and not to judge.
“When’s the . . . ” said the anthropologist, “Um, when’s the last you saw your family?”
“I haven’t seen any of them since I came up here.”
Images of happy families driving cars. Smiling faces sitting down to dinner. Pre-1970, American Suburbia, in all its sweater-vested glory.
“Do you send money back to your wife?”
The tractors returned, harvesting smiles and sowing discarded denim and bits of newspaper ads. People looking for employees, no doubt bilingual was preferred. Then in a flash the denim and the paper was a giant quilt of a hand. Ants and centipedes and roaches crawled all over it like a giant’s rotting corpse. This picture hung there with bugs crawling on it: death displayed in work.
“No,” said the man, “I don’t know anything about her or that boy. I don’t send them shit.”
“You said you don’t think he’s yours?”
“He was mine, I think. She was white as a fucking statue. The boy was light, too, like her. That’s all. I don’t know. It’s been a long time now. How old is he now . . . I was seventeen.”
“Sixteen,” said the anthropologist.
“You told me you were sixteen earlier.”
“Close enough. I’m thirty-five now. What is that?”
“He’s nineteen, maybe eighteen.”
“Yeah, he’s all grown up now. He’ll probably come up here looking for me. He’ll try to kick my ass. Maybe he’ll fucking stab me.”
“Why did you leave your family?”
“I told you,” said the older man, “There was no work. Up here, there’s always something.”
“I mean, why don’t you write your wife a letter? I mean, why don’t you ever go home or contact home?”
“You married, dude?”
“Don’t ever get married to some whore who gives it up before the wedding, and if you knock a girl up don’t let anybody fucking push you to the altar with her, either.”
The denim shuffled back behind the cardboard. The pornographic imagery returned. Torn milk cartons and obituaries covered the newspaper ads.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said the anthropologist. His hands had wound to a stop. He watched the walls in wonder. He observed a team of ants unpluck the tacks and shuffle the bits of paper and cloth and trash. Sometimes if a tack wasn’t strong enough, an insect held the object in place. Icons of the Virgin Mary emerged from one corner of the room like a parade. Ants and roaches and various beetles and bugs each carried a corner and walked down the side of the unholy wall like when the ants made off with the picnic in an old cartoon.
The anthropologist was speechless. He crossed himself without thinking.
The man snorted at his guest’s piety. “At my wedding, my wife wore white. She was six months pregnant, fat as a pig, and eating everything. She woke me up in the night to make me bring her food. She wore white like a fucking virgin.”
“Were you married in a church?”
“We were. Everybody was, like, having a good time and acting like it’s the best damn day of our lives. And we were, like, supposed to be so in love, and everything was, like, fucking wonderful. Dude, it fucking wasn’t.”
“Did you love her?”
“Of course,” he said, “I still do.”
“But you won’t contact her?”
“No, and let me finish.” He took a long drink of his spiked soda.
The anthropologist waited. The parade of virgins managed to cover the entire wall. It disappeared behind the corner of the cardboard walls. Pieces of meat came next, all in a wave like in a stadium. Sausages and steaks and fried chickens and roast chickens and juicy hams spread in rows like a grocery store meat counter infested with insects. The meat rumbled like an earthquake and it was just the insects moving below the paper.
The older man took a deep breath. “Where was I?” he said.
The anthropologist looked down at his notes, and saw nothing at all but empty paper. He blinked. He said, “Your wedding.”
“Right, and the girl’s fat as a pig,” said the man, “She’s so fat. Everybody’s pretending like she’s not pregnant or anything. Nobody says anything. Not even the priest says anything. Then, we say the stupid vows. We have a big reception at her uncle’s house.” The man fills up his mug while he talks, under the table. It’s almost all whiskey now. “After it’s all over,” he said, “Afterwards, me and this big, fat, disgusting pig I married go back to her dad’s house and go into her bedroom and she spreads her legs like a fat whore and I can, like, feel the baby kicking when we’re fucking. Like, the kids kicking around like he’s part of it. Fucking awful.”
The anthropologist averted his eyes from the wall. He scribbled furiously to jot down the whole story, even though he wass already thinking how he wouldn’t be including this story in the final study.
The old man kept talking. “Then when we’re done fucking and we’re lying there, she, like, asks me to go to the kitchen and get her a glass of milk. A glass of fucking milk. We just got married and we just fucked and now she wants a glass of milk. Fucking weird.”
“So,” said the anthropologist, “You hate your wife, so you don’t go back?”
“No, I loved her,” said the man. He shook his head. “That’s just how weddings are. We stand up in front of her family and then everybody lets her be a big, fat whore. And then I’ve got to take care of her and buy her stuff and give her money for the kid. I’ve got to be a man because I stood up in front of God and my family and spoke some fucking words. But I don’t feel like a man, you know? I’m just a fucking kid that got dragged by our families because I knocked this girl up. Anyway, dude, it’s confusing. Fucking life, right?”
The anthropologist skimmed back over his memory and tried to take notes of what he had heard before. “You said,” he began, “I think you said that you first came here to America with your father-in-law?”
“What happened to him?”
The tractors returned and harvested the meat on the wall. A road between blank pages of illegible text rolled over two-dimensional hills. A line of roaches crawled down from the hills to the sanctuary on the floor. A centipede with flailing legs, like a semi, churned down the paper road. When it struck the cockroaches the road became a wave of light bulbs that spread out from the center like cards shuffling.
The room seemed brighter.
“He got hit by a truck when we were coming up here. He and two other guys were hit by this truck when we were crossing over. Middle of the night and the truck came out of nowhere. That was years ago.”
“The other men seem to respect you,” said the anthropologist, “They respond to you. And you have this . . . ” He pointed up to the cardboard walls of the spiderhole.
“I been here longer than most of them been alive. The coyotes know me. The whores know me. The other men know me. I help people find work, too. I tell them where to go, and who to talk to. I don’t charge nothing, either. I’m no fucking coyote. I work for a living.”
“How do you feel about the coyotes?”
“I don’t feel a damn thing,” said the older man. He stood up. He poured the rest of his mug down his throat. “You know, you doctors, or whatever you are, come down here every few months and talk to us. Doesn’t seem like it’s doing much. Nothing changes.”
“Do you want things to be different?”
“Not really. This is my home. I like it here. You be careful. Some of these guys aren’t nice like me. This is our place. White people belong over by the roads.”
“I’ve noticed,” said the anthropologist.
“It’s getting dark out. Where’d you park your big fancy car?”
“I’m by this shoe store.”
“I know the one. We buy construction boots there, and they fucking hate us and talk shit about us in English but they keep taking our money. You tell them if you see them that they need to be careful because lots of us learn English enough to know when people are talking shit about us.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said the anthropologist.
“You can’t come back here, you know,” said the man.
He pointed to his walls.
The anthropologist reached a finger out to a pin. He pulled it loose and a little strip of denim fell to the floor. The insects shuffled the wall and now it was all a bunch of car ads lined up like shoes in a store. “I’d like to come back again,” said the anthropologist.
“You can’t,” said the man. “You only came here now because I wanted to show you the same shit I always show people so you get it in your head that you don’t know shit about us and you never will.”
“I’d really like to learn more about your wall.”
“Dude,” said the man, “Only reason I show this to you is so you know you don’t belong here. I’ll walk you to your car,” said the man. “It’s getting dark.”
Outside of the spiderhole, the sun had mostly set. The moon was up in the sky, somewhere, past the haze of city lights and all the smog blown down from LA. The anthropologist had a flashlight on his keychain. He turned it on to see better between the trash fires and the brown bodies sleeping on cardboard beds. He tried not to flash it in someone’s eyes.
The older man kept talking. “You know why you’re so scared after dark here?”
“Because I’m an outsider?” said the anthropologist.
“Yeah, but not in the way you think,” said the man, “It isn’t really your skin, your clothes, or the way you speak Spanish. Dude, we all had to get up here. Until we cross over, nobody wants us. They fight like hell to keep us out. When we get here, they hire us to pick strawberries, fix their cars, and make their gardens pretty and you make some good money. But you have to cross first. Until you cross over like we did, you aren’t one of us.”
The anthropologist overheard the young men that had beaten him at poker talking about becoming movie stars. They passed around a white bottle and took long drinks. They drank rainwater from empty plastic jugs that used to hold toxic chemicals. Bags of food and bags of feces hung from the trees side-by-side in the night like gamblers’ pinatas.
The man walked with the anthropologist up to a dumpster behind a shopping complex, but the older man wouldn’t go any further onto the blacktop. The man rested his hand on the edge of the dumpster. His feet were still on the dirt. Only his hand crossed over to lean.
The man pulled a cigarette from a back pocket and a lighter from the front. The man had a sick sheen of sweat from all the alcohol. He had tired eyes. He looked at the anthropologist with human, bloodshot eyes.
The anthropologist wanted to look back and see something as amazing as the living wall. Instead, it was just a man, stinking of liquor sweat and California dust, and his sun brown skin as worn as old vinyl.
The two men waved at each other.
Back in his car, the anthropologist pulled out from in front of a shoe store. He drove past a tuxedo-rental place. In the morning teenagers would come by to get ready for prom. Fathers and uncles and best men would come by with grooms so they could all attend weddings.
In the ravine that night, clumps of men wandered through the hills and the roads into the smog and the light pollution.
Once over, they built cities fifty yards behind the shopping centers where American citizens talked about the things that seemed to go missing, with no idea what things were really worth.
The anthropologist thought of seeing San Diego from a satellite. The city sprawled like an ant mound with automobile pupae and skyscraper skeletons where the men who had forgotten the names but remembered the rituals climbed into heaven on dusty ropes.