A Snake in the Desert

It came from Oaxaca, from the deepest kind of south, from where the agave smolders in the sun and the fireflies melt through their jars at night. The bottle’s long gone, but I can still taste the smoke in the sweat on my lips. There’s salt in there, too, and now I want a lime.

The crickets are so loud that we don’t hear the rattlesnake until it’s right under us, a coiled shadow quavering in the tumbleweeds. My legs freeze but my torso is too drunk to react, and I feel myself falling in slow motion, arms flailing wildly, vectoring in on the thing’s pitchfork tongue like some cartoon farce.

When it stops rattling, I know I’m fucked.

There’s a blur of fangs. A spray of venom. My left cheek goes numb and a cloud of dust puffs up from where my skull hits the ground.

Rosa is laughing so hard she can’t stand up straight.

The last thing I see before passing out is a squiggle on the graveyard floor, racing back to Mictlan to brag about the size of its prey.

Then — now — I’m staring at the dark side of my eyelids, and my mind is slithering back through time.


I never planned to visit Juarez on the Day of the Dead. This city is frightful enough without skeletons dancing through its slums and zombies marching across its streets.

I came here on business, to award a contract to the small manufacturing company I’d selected to build parts for my company’s medical equipment.

In the States, we could have knocked out the whole meeting over a coffee break. Signatures, handshakes. “Nice doing business with you.” “Excited about our new partnership.” And so on. An hour, maybe two.

Here it takes eight. The Mexicans give us a tour of their facility — no brisk walk-through, mind you, but something you might expect from a curator at the Louvre, a chronicle of every last joint and cog in the place. We shake hands with everyone from the CEO to the toothless crone washing dishes in the cafeteria. We spend another two hours rehashing the prices that we’ve been negotiating the last two months and, sure enough, the Mexicans try to squeeze another couple pesos-per-unit out of us, rambling on about some rare earth metal shortage — but my lawyer’s having none of it. And the whole time they’re calling for one recess after another, purportedly to converse among themselves but really, I suspect, to avoid whatever drudgery awaits them upon our departure.

Eventually we sign the contracts, and I want nothing more than to drive my rental car back through the familiar grid system of El Paso to some soulless hotel with a bar full of bored, waylaid Texan women with wedding bands concealed in their handbags.

But we’re not through yet.

The Mexicans lead us upstairs to an executive lounge with panoramic windows. Beyond them lies a labyrinth of hovels, a squalid madness sprawling out in every direction. The streets of this city are a tangle of intestines spilled by some Aztec war god: Roads loop back and cross themselves, peter out into footpaths, terminate abruptly where the western fringes of the city collide with mountains of grime. The residents have painted everything in wild flourishes of yellow or green or red, as though they are mounting a rebellion against the desert’s drab palette. But the sun is a stubborn despot; it cracks all the colors, drains all their verve.

Carlos circles the room and hands out cigars. After a few puffs I realize that they’re good — mind-bogglingly, knee-bucklingly good — and I remember that this country’s political relationship with Cuba was never predicated on Soviet-era dick-swinging.

At some point our legs give out and we collapse into leather couches. Carlos, looking from me to Arnie and back again, asks: “You like drink? Women? You like smoke?” He pinches two fingers together and lifts something imaginary and definitely-not-a-cigar to his lips.

My company’s lawyer and I regard each other uneasily. We rarely interact outside of work, and I get the impression that we’re both thinking the same thing but that neither of us wants to risk saying it. Something like: “All of the above, amigo, with a bag of coke on the side.” I nearly call for a recess.

In the end, Arnie answers judiciously. “How about let’s start with food,” he says, “and we’ll see where the night takes us.”

The Mexicans — there are four of them, all middle-aged men, with roles at the company that seem largely fungible — exchange some rapid-fire Spanish and a volley of collusive grins. Then Carlos speaks again: “Very good. We have a treat for you.”

Ten minutes later, the six of us are packed into an American-built SUV with bullet-proof windows, careening down streets so narrow that our side-view mirrors are whistling over fences and scraping mailboxes. We change directions so many times that I feel like we’re the pea in a con-man’s shell game, and by the time we park, I have no idea how far we’ve traveled, or to what part of the city.

What I do know is that we’re staring up at an unmarked building that’s like every other building in Juarez, all garish color and barred windows. Except that at this one, there are small parties of suit-and-tie diners gathered around tables on the roof, each flirting with their assigned high-heeled, beer-hefting, bare-breasted waitress.

This rooftop is clearly our destination, but to get there we must pass through the lobby of the unremarkable building: a poorly lit, mostly empty cantina, peopled by just a few old men sipping tequila. They’re watching soccer on a cathode-ray television that looks like it might have survived the Alamo. A dark-skinned, top-heavy hostess appears from behind a pair of batwing doors toward the back of the room, greets us with a smile, and curls her forefinger, as though such a gesture is necessary to convince us to follow her.

I take up the rear behind the others. Just before we reach the batwing doors, four women file out of another door to our right.

Arnie, who is directly in front of me, turns and seizes my shoulder. We both stop where we stand, letting our Mexican hosts go on ahead of us.

“Holy shit,” he says, and he’s got his lawyer-smile on now.

I see what he means. All four of these women are beautiful, but one of them is looking directly at us, coming toward us, her heels clicking against the stone floor. She is not an employee of the cantina– she is not wearing the half-uniform of the waitresses or the hostess — but she is clearly a pro. Heavy make-up, red lipstick, push-up bra. All the signs.

And it doesn’t matter. The woman that approaches is an archetype, the first and last of her kind, Eve in the garden, juice dribbling from her lips, made irresistible by her knowledge of forbidden things. She is my daughter’s age.

She puts one hand on each of our cheeks and says, in a voice just louder than a whisper, “You go upstairs to eat now. But you come back down later for something else, yes?”

“Yes,” I’m saying, and Arnie is nodding his assent. “Yes, we’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”

Her smile widens and she whispers her name. Rosa. Then she’s letting go, disconnecting, sliding her fingers down the fronts our bodies.

I watch her walk away, and for a moment time gets all slippery and the spot on my left cheek where her hand had been goes numb.

There are stairs beyond the batwing doors, and once we’ve started the climb Arnie nudges me in the ribs. “We might have to share her,” he says. And I laugh.

I have no intention of sharing her.

The next couple of hours are a beer-tits-meat rotation fit for a viking’s wet dream. As soon as we sit down there are frosted mugs in our hands and nipples in our faces, and before long we’re all three sheets to the wind, laughing uproariously and watching things bounce. We eat three, maybe four courses, a massacre of livestock slathered in peppers so hot that our eyeballs spring leaks. We sample delicacies I’ve never heard of: escamoles and tripitas and chicatanas. When the Mexicans offer to translate, Arnie and I take one look at their mischievous grins and shake our heads. Ignorance is bliss.

When the meal is over, one of the waitresses mounts my leg and rubs my distended belly. “You are full?” she asks, giggling.

I nod idiotically.

“How long you stay in Juarez?” she asks.

“Until tomorrow,” I reply.  “I leave in the morning.”

“With your friend?” she asks, and she nods at Arnie.

“Yes,” I say. “We leave tomorrow morning. To El Paso, then to Chicago.”

“Then you must go out tonight,” she says. “Party!” She raises her arms and shakes her tits. She’s giggling again.

“I agree,” says Arnie, standing. “I’m going to hit the head. When I come back, I expect you and this lovely lady and our hosts to have a night of debauchery all planned out for us.”

We watch Arnie stumble away. Then the woman says: “You should stay tomorrow night, too. For the celebration.”

“What celebration?” I ask.

She and the Mexicans answer at the same time: “Dia de los Muertos.

I don’t need a translator for that one. I shake my head. “Too much fun for me,” I say.

Carlos waves a hand dismissively. “Not in Juarez,” he says. “Down south, yes, it is a big party. But here we are far north, a border town. There will be a few neighborhoods that celebrate, but nothing too crazy. Not like down south.”

The waitress pushes her chest against mine and whispers into my ear: “I am from the south. There are many others like me. I know where the parties are, tomorrow night.”

“Oh yeah?” I ask, my curiosity piqued. “What goes on at these parties?”

“Virgin sacrifices,” she says with a laugh, and she plunges an imaginary dagger into my chest, letting her hand rest there afterwards.

“That’s horrible,” I reply, grinning. “We had better make sure there are no virgins in the city.”

At first she does not react, leaving me to wonder whether it’s my sense of humor or her grasp of the English language that’s at fault. “Some of the parties are very innocent. Families go see graves and drink afterwards, or before. But some are not so innocent. Some are much more fun. Celebrate life,” she says, letting her hand slip to my lap. “The things that make life.”

“That does sound fun.”

“So you stay, yes?”

I shake my head again. “We really can’t. We need to get back to work.”

“Your friend is in no hurry to get back to work, I think,” says Carlos.

He points over the railing behind me, and I turn to find Arnie on the street below, waving up at us with one arm. The other is wrapped around Rosa’s waist.

“Nice doing business with you boys,” he calls out. Then he adds: “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The Mexicans hoot and cheer. Carlos stands and makes a crude gesture with his hips. A party at a nearby table joins in.

I just shake my head. You son of a bitch, I think. You snake-in-the-grass, underhanded prick.

Arnie bows — Rosa laughs — and we watch them sauntering away together until they round a street corner and disappear from view.

Carlos pays our bill and our waitress makes one last, spirited attempt to sell me on some sordid Day of the Dead party. When I politely decline, she asks if maybe I just want a postprandial blowjob, nothing fancy, no costumes or parades, just a few minutes in a room downstairs, and I turn her down again.

The drive back to my hotel in El Paso takes nearly an hour, and the whole time I’m wallowing in jealousy, conjuring up images of Rosa, inwardly cursing our company’s lawyer. I’m so busy cultivating vitriol that I’m ignoring the Mexicans’ polite questions, grunting noncommittally as they rattle off the names of restaurants where I can find the best menudo the following morning. It’s not until I’ve brushed my teeth and settled into bed that I’ve convinced myself that I’m being irrational, that I’m letting a few glimpses of a Mexican prostitute poison my mind.

She wasn’t even that beautiful, I tell myself. Couldn’t have been. No one is. And even if she was — so what? I’ve got a wife at home, and two kids. Think about them, I tell myself. Think about work. Think about this weekend’s football match-ups, or about that doctor’s appointment you’ve been meaning to make, or about famine in Africa. Turn on the TV and think about what’s playing. Rent a porn and think about that. Think about anything, other than Rosa.

She’s all that I dream about.


I wake up with a hard-on and a clear mind, a combination so rare I wonder if it might be a sign of the apocalypse. I make a decision: I’ll stay in Juarez one more day. I’ll call Carlos and get the address of the nameless cantina we’d visited last night. Then I’ll swing by and have a few drinks with the old men in the lobby, see if Rosa’s there. I’ve got to get her out of my system, and I figure the best way to do that is to get into hers.

A few phone calls later, my flight has been changed and my hotel reservation extended. I consider calling Arnie to tell him not to expect me at the airport, but I don’t want to hear him boast about last night’s bedroom exploits. I send him an e-mail instead.

I spend the day in my hotel room, dialing in and out of conference calls, reviewing the details of our newly signed contract with my counterparts in supply chain. Before long it’s five o-clock, and I’m showering and shaving and ironing my best shirt like I’m a high schooler on a hot date. It’s pathetic.

When I finish ironing I look into the mirror and find that the shirt is still wrinkled. I yell at myself for being so pathetic. I literally, audibly yell. I stare my reflection and berate it for being such a pathetic, lowlife piece of shit.

But inside the hotel’s elevator, on the surface of the brushed aluminum door, I find a different reflection. This one is still me. It’s the same person — I’m the same person — but I’ve been deformed and perverted by the warped, scarred metal. There are wrinkles in my face, bulges in my figure, imperfections everywhere, and I smile because now I match my shirt. I decide that I prefer this reflection, and I take a step back to fully appreciate it.

Fifth floor. Then the fourth.

I’m feeling better. Good, even. Excited about Juarez, about Rosa. Very excited. Maybe too excited. My breathing deepens, my heartbeat accelerates.

The third floor.

I’m at terms with my excitement. I’m relishing the adrenaline as it surges through my veins, welcoming the waves of euphoria as they wash over my mind. My eyelids slump and my mouth drops open.

Second floor, now.

Eons condense to seconds. I flex my muscles to keep my body from falling apart. I open my eyes for a split-second, just long enough to see the sweat on my reflection’s brow.


The doors open and my reflection is gone. I zip up my fly and hail a cab to Juarez.


I’m drunk on the streets of a far-flung Juarez suburb, pushing my way through skeletons, shielding my ears against the din of the mariachis, trying to find Rosa.

I ask three different people the time — ¿Qué hora es? — and get three different answers. There’s no time on these streets. Nothing objective. Just a million individual slipstreams, intersecting randomly.

A skeleton takes off its face to reveal a sweaty, wrinkled, yellow-toothed human visage, and it puts one arm over my shoulder. The phalanges at the end of its other arm are wrapped around a bottle, which it thrusts into my chest.

The old man takes one look at my face and decides I can’t speak Spanish. He points at his bottle and raises an imaginary glass to my mouth. “Mezcal”, he says. “From Oaxaca.” He wants me to drink, and who am I to turn down the dying on the Day of the Dead? I upend the bottle and together we salute whatever demon-gods preside over this infernal holiday, then I pour hellfire down my throat. When I look at the old man again I’m glassy-eyed and pucker-mouthed, and I yell “A los muertos!” because I can think of nothing else to say, and the old man grins wide as a baboon and repeats my toast in his own gravelly voice, and I swill more liquor.

When the skeleton dons its face again, the mezcal is half gone and Rosa is tugging at my arm. I try to stop her — to tell her that I have to return the old man’s bottle — but when I turn around he’s nowhere to be found.

“Where did you go?” I ask Rosa. And: “Where are we going?”

“I find bar. We sit down. Special drink.”

“But I’ve got all this,” I say, brandishing the bottle of mezcal.

“It is okay,” she says. “But I find special drink. Very special. You must try.”

“Okay,” I say, and the asphalt seems to buckle under my feet as I’m dragged out of the crowd and into an alley.

We’re headed for a wooden door, unmarked and nearly unhinged, barely visible at the far end of the alley. There’s a troll perched on a stool in front of it: a short, round Mexican with a stained undershirt and a mouth full of broken teeth. He looks up and flashes us a grin that might have petrified Medusa, then he pushes open the door. Rosa passes through it but before I can follow the troll seizes my arm.

“She’s not your friend, my friend,” he whispers in perfect English.

No shit, I want to tell him. But I only laugh, wrench my arm free, and stumble into the bar.

It’s a dim, damp place, an above-ground rathskeller with a grudge against Thomas Edison. The floorboards creak with every step I take, and there is no music to deaden the sound. There are perhaps a dozen other customers distributed between barrel-top tables and a row of wobbly bar stools, sipping booze and laughing and groping each other. A few of them are prostitutes, and I notice that they’re all staring daggers into Rosa, who is watching me from her seat at the bar, patting the stool beside her.

I sit, and Rosa says something to the bartender in Spanish. The bartender looks at me and frowns, then turns away and reaches for a bottle.

“I want to fuck you on someone’s grave,” I say.

Rosa is unfazed. “I don’t think we can,” she says. “Not tonight. The graveyards are full of people celebrating the Day of the Dead.”

“They can watch,” I say.

She smiles and shakes her head. “We will get arrested. You do not want to get arrested in Juarez, corazón.”

“Come on,” I say, and I set my hand on her thigh. “There’s got to be a graveyard somewhere in this city with some shadows or bushes.”

The bartender has returned, and he’s holding two shooters of milk-white liquid. They remind me of the ouzo I drank in Greece years ago, when my wife and I were island-hopping on our honeymoon.

He and Rosa speak in Spanish, too quickly for me to catch anything. During their conversation they glance in my direction every so often, so that I can tell they’re talking about me. I don’t mind; I like the attention.

Eventually the bartender sidles off to another customer and Rosa leans in close. “He says there are no graveyards around here, not in the city. Not that we can visit tonight. But if you really want, I can take you to a little graveyard in the desert. It is a scary place, though. Where the cartels bury their dead. Do you want to go there?”

“Absolutely,” I say without hesitating.

“Okay,” she says, but there is no eagerness in her voice. “I have to tell my boss.”

She whistles at the bartender and holds her thumb and pinkie to the side of her head, the universal sign for a telephone. The bartender ambles over and produces a landline desk phone from somewhere behind the counter. It’s the kind of thing you might have found blinking on a hotel’s nightstand in the 1970s, back when phones were anvil-heavy and indestructible. Rosa picks it up and punches a sequence of keys — the numbers are worn off — then rattles off some Spanish to whoever’s on the other end.

“All set,” she says. “Let’s celebrate.”

We drink the mysterious white liquor. It is smooth and unexpectedly spicy, a little like mulled wine only thinner, stronger. My body warms as I sip it, and for a fleeting moment I’m outside the city, in the arid, sweltering, unpeopled arroyo, and I’d swear there’s sand on my lips.

“What is this?” I ask.

Cajetotl,” she says. “An Aztec drink. Very old, and very hard to find.”

“And very good. But I think I prefer mezcal.”

“Mezcal is good,” she says with a grin. She reaches out and grasps my belt buckle and pulls gently. “But cajetotl is, how do you say? Afrodisíaco.”

I grin and swill the rest of the white stuff. Rosa does the same.

When I try to pay the bartender he holds out a hand and shakes his head. “Gratuitamente,” he says.

On our way out I lock eyes with a bearded American sitting at a table in the corner. His pants are around his ankles and a hooker’s head is bobbing up and down in his lap. “Fuck you, gringo,” he says, and he flicks me off as we pass through the door and out into the alley.

I think we’re going to get back into the car, but we don’t. Rosa takes my hand and we just start walking. Away from the lights. From the dusty cityscape. There are fewer skeletons here. The music is soft, distant. The asphalt crumbles we are walking on gravel. Then sand.

And then there are none of those things.


When I come to, Rosa is straddling my chest sucking rattlesnake venom out of my face. I wait for her to spit before I kiss her.

Then she stands up and her lips are gone and I’m staring up at the night sky. Only it doesn’t look like any sky I’ve seen before. The stars are like lightning bugs, darting back and forth, blazing trails of white light on my retinas. There was a moon around earlier, I’d have sworn, but there’s no sign of it now. When I try to hoist myself up my head swims and my elbows buckle. I’m back in the dirt.

Something is wrong. Is it the mezcal? A lingering effect of the poison? I wonder if I should be in the hospital. Surely I should go to the hospital.

The soil here is loose, recently turned. There’s a piece of plywood protruding from it at a rakish angle. Someone has carved two words into it with a pocket knife: Allison Gray. No dates. No epitaph. Just the name. It doesn’t sound like a drug dealer’s name.

I look up again to see if the sky’s gone back to normal, but instead I find Rosa standing over me with her hands on her hips, smiling. Even when she’s blurry she’s beautiful. Why is she so goddamn blurry?

When I motion for her to join me on the desert floor so that I can fuck her, she just shakes her head. For a moment I’m confused. We came all the way out here, to the middle of the desert, in the middle of night, on the Day of the Dead, so that I could fuck Rosa in a graveyard. She can’t just say no.

I ask her what’s wrong.

“We did not come here to fuck,” she says.

“I did.”

But she shakes her head again.

For a long moment, I just watch her. I watch her blurry chest rise and fall with each breath. I watch her hips as she shifts her weight from one leg to the other. I watch her eyes divide and multiply. She says nothing. She just lets me watch.

“What’s happening to me?” I ask.

“Poison,” she says.

“The rattlesnake?”

“No,” she says. “The drink. The white drink.”

“You poisoned me?” I ask. I try to laugh but my mouth won’t comply.

“I drugged you,” she says.

“Why?” I ask.

But I already know the answer. It’s been following me around for the last twenty-four hours, slinking ariound in the shadows. It’s been disguised in lipstick and mascara, hiding on the invisible end of mysterious phone calls, obscuring itself in Spanish. It’s not the skeleton behind the mask. It’s not the snake in the tumbleweeds. It’s not a cheek full of venom or a bottle full of liquor. It’s a residue, an afterthought – a drop of poison in a strange white drink. It’s a field full of dead Americans in the Mexican desert.

Christ, I’d made things easy for her.

“Am I going to die?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Not yet. We need proof of life. Your company will pay, yes? So we will keep you drugged until then.”

Then. Then you’ll kill me. Then I’ll die.

I peer up at Rosa’s face. She looks a little less blurry, now.  A little more smug. A little too upright. There’s a strength in my hands that wasn’t there before.

I’ve never raped anyone.

Her surprise lasts only a few seconds. Then she’s face-down against the grave and I’m tearing her clothes off. I press my hand against the back of her neck because I want maggots to crawl up out of the earth and fill her mouth and spill their seed in her throat. I want to fuck her so hard that Allison Gray gets off.

The drug she gave me slows me down, softens my resolve. Softens everything. Well, fuck that, I think through the haze. She’ll just have to suffer longer. Suffer until I’m done.

After a few minutes of grinding and squirming I’m hard enough to do some damage. I pry her legs apart and slam into her. I want her to scream, I want her to hurt, I want her to remember pain years from now when she tries to drug some other hapless American, but the truth is I’m enjoying things too much to put my heart into it.

I can’t bring myself to hit her. I try to tell myself that she deserves it, that she’s literally been murdering me all night, that black eyes and broken teeth are the least she’s got coming to her, that wrecking her beautiful face might be my parting gift to the world. And I laugh. I laugh while I’m raping her because I feel too guilty to hit her. It’s ridiculous. Just so goddamn preposterous.

When I stop laughing I realize she’s not struggling. She’s even bucking and moaning a little. When I take my hand off the back of her head she turns to me and smiles.

And then she’s the one laughing.

I pull out, roll over, and retch onto Allison’s grave.

What a fucked-up way to die. Twenty-four hours ago I was a happily married technology executive lying in an El Paso hotel, scolding myself for contemplating infidelity. Now I’m a rapist hunched over a shallow grave, staring into a puddle of my own vomit. I’m vaguely aware of Rosa getting to her feet, pulling down her skirt, shuffling away.

When I look for her, all I see is makeshift gravestones. They fan out in every direction, crooked and misshapen and rotting, and I wonder which one is Arnie’s.

Then Rosa is back with a switchblade and a piece of plywood. I think she might stab me but she only smiles. Fangs. My cheek goes numb.

I lie down again. The sky is worse than it was before. I close my eyes so I don’t have to look at it, then find that I can’t open them.

So I listen, instead.

I hear scraping. It’s rhythmic, methodical. Rosa is carving something into her piece of plywood. I think I know what.

A rooster crows in the distance and I want to laugh. It must be three o’clock in the morning, nowhere near dawn. Even the roosters don’t know what time it is in this fucking place.

A little bit later, I hear the faint but unmistakable rumble of an automobile engine in the distance. It grows louder, closer. Probably a truck or an SUV. There’s something wrong with the fuel pump or the chassis or god-knows-what, and there’s a faint, metallic rattle, like someone put shrapnel in a blender.

They’re coming to pick up Rosa, probably. Or to help bury me. Or maybe she’s been telling the truth and they’ll throw me in the trunk, take me to their hideout in the mountains. Snap a few photographs, record a quick video. Put a bullet in my forehead and pitch my body into a mass grave.

My eyes are shut but there’s light dancing over their lids. Twin beams. Headlamps. The rattling is loud; the shrapnel from the blender has moved into my ears. I want to yell at the drugistas to fix their fucking engine.

There is a massive cross painted on the side of a mountain west of Juarez. There are letters painted there too, a Christian message in Spanish. I don’t know what it says. I do know that the letters are the height of a 13-storey building, and that they were put there by church volunteers, Catholics so destitute that they can’t afford a hovel in the city itself. Instead they live in the shadow of that mountain, sustaining themselves on corn tortillas while their children play with half-deflated soccer balls.

For a brief moment I think about God. Then a rooster crows and I laugh until I spit up blood.

The truck is here now. Its tires are cracking gravel and crunching twigs.

When it stops rattling, I know I’m fucked.

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