Three men faced her, seated shoulder to shoulder along a plank against the vibrating steel wall. They called the girl’s small brother Mine.

Mine, that’s mine, the boy had said for hours. He slept across their mother’s legs, she asleep on a plank, her black skirt crumpled in his fist and tugged above her knees. They were going from their village to Zapopan to Los Angeles in a truck with no windows. A camping lantern swung from a hook. The girl thought it was night, or near that.

The truck stopped, no one got up. The lantern’s swing increased. A pale wood crutch was dimly strobe-lit where it lay on the knees of a man, the oldest, and this man took from his pocket a long match and lit it on the crutch’s rubber tip. On his cheek was a violet-black mole the girl imagined might come alive.

I dislike sleep, he told the girl, matches keep me awake. He blew out the flame. On the toe of his boot, he lit a second match and brought the flame to his face then teased the stubble on his chin with the flame. The drivers were ‘stretching my legs’, one of them said outside, in English. She could hear them unwrapping food and popping cans and talking on phones. The drivers were paid, said the man with the crutch and the flame near his face, a considerable price. Those men are costly.

 

*
 

The truck’s hold, a small, dim cube, had a wall of boxed microwaves between the passengers and the loading port. Pitted roads – the girl imagined being pulled by horses. One white with spots. It liked to eat apples at stops. Closing her eyes, passing through the black screen of her inner lids, she entered Somewhere Else, where a horse eats roses from a white bush. Inside a rose’s core, a line of ants doubles back on itself. There are hundreds of girls in American clothes. The rose is thirsty.

She woke to the lantern swinging on its hook. The man with the crutch on his knees was whistling. She decided it was very late; the other two men on the plank were asleep. She decided they were cousins, or brothers. She decided there was such a thing as brother-cousins. They had on jeans and long-sleeved shirts, one man’s shirt ripped at the armpit. The matchman was the oldest, much. His broad eyes weren’t scary. Lids thin as folding paper. On his jeans, he struck two flames at once and whistled.

I’m damn tired, he said. I’ve got meanness in my dreams.

He blew out the match and lit another and whistled again, through the gap where a tooth was not. Mine woke, and so did their mother; she pushed her skirt down.

You hear that? said the man. Hear it now? He had the match to his ear.

The girl asked her mother how matches made flames.

They’re cursed things, her mother said and looked at the man. Somebody told me.

Mine had taken off his sneakers and was crawling on the truck floor, the bottoms of his white socks black as the floor, and every now and then he scratched his heel. Smaller than he should be, everyone told her mother that. In the corner, next to the rip-shirted man’s workboot, Mine found a length of wire, faded metal, bronzish, kinked in one place, and he threw it up and caught it, each time with a surprised laugh.

Give it, said their mother. This minute. She fanned herself with an advertisement she’d folded into an accordion. The lantern shone on the sweat in the vee-shaped creases at the corners of her eyes.

Mine threw the wire down the length of the truck. It shimmered as it flew. The man with the crutch reached down with difficulty and took up the wire, and Mine reached the man, and the man dangled the wire over Mine’s face.

Mine, said the man.

Mine grabbed for it. The man tick-tocked the wire, click-tocking his tongue.

Mine.

Mine was on his knees, holding up his hands, waiting should the wire drop.

Mine’s a kitten, said the girl.

Face of the dead, swore her mother softly.

 

 

*
 

 

The matchman was awake but seemed to be dreaming. He bent over, paused in the air like a mechanical doll, saying a few things she could hear, a few she couldn’t, the sound of the words, not the sense. He sat up and leaned out to touch a thing not there then yielded and brought his hand back.

Got something, he said to her.

He took a clear ball from his pocket and bounced it and caught it. His crutch rocked on his knees.

Do you know what this is?

He bounced the ball, softly enough not to wake anyone, not her mother, not even Mine in her mother’s lap.

Do you? Fortune teller ball. Tell me what you want.

I don’t know, the girl said.

This ball knows. It will tell you. In Los Angeles you will have a lipstick. In Los Angeles you will have kittens.

He bounced the ball and let it roll to the end of the truck by the boots of the other two sleeping men and took a match from his pocket. He lit it on his teeth, and an orb of spit leaked from his lips. He dashed his finger over the flame.

He said, Look, I am a clown.

He blew out the match. He repeated his trick – this match took five strikes on his teeth, cockeyed in his brown-stained gums.

Try, he said. He held it to her. No?

I don’t know.

Come here. I will teach you.

He pointed to the little space between himself and the rip-shirted man still asleep.

Come, he said.

She squeezed herself into that space. The matchman’s gut fell over his belt; his breath was bitter oranges. His eyes had no lashes. She was staring.

Fortune abandoned me, he told her.

He took out another match and let her look at it. Very quickly, he flicked it on the denim on her knee. It didn’t light.

Stop, she said.

So? You want to try?

She did. I don’t know, she said. She didn’t.

He flicked another on her skirt.

Tell this match the things you want, he said.

He took a match and put it next to her mouth.

Stop, she said.

He flicked it on her teeth, no flame.

Don’t!

He flicked it on his own and it lit. He held it to her face.

See? he said. Very easy.

 

*
 

She decided it was dawn. Only Mine was awake. The matchman’s hat brim sloped down over his eyes. The man whose shirt was whole snorted like a horse, her horse eating roses. Roses from the white bush. Eating ants in the roses from the white bush. In the narrow space between the men’s boots and the little drawstring bag her mother held between her feet, the children sat, drawing pictures with their fingers on the corrugated floor. Mine’s finger, drawing a broad arc, found a match. He held it in the beam of lamplight.

Give it to me, the girl said. She took it from Mine and held it to her mouth. Look, I am a clown. Look, she said again, with a deep voice. I am a clown. What is your fortune?

She meant to scare him. Mine cried his name and swiped the match. He held it to his own mouth like a moustache.

Careful now, she said. It’ll break.

He opened his mouth, a few tiny teeth, and put the black tip in.

Don’t, she said. Don’t do it. You’ll die.

She took the match away, and he cried his name. She thought their mother would wake.

See? she said. Mine, look. Look at me now.

She flicked the black tip against her top teeth, splitting the match as it flicked, one half flying away.

Dead! Mine said. Broked it!

As he crawled toward the match, the truck jerked him onto his back, and he stuttered the beginning of a curse he’d heard their mother say. The truck slowed, stopped, and the drivers’ radio turned off. Their mother and all of the men were awake. The matchman steadied his crutch.

Shut Mine up, said the rip-shirted man. He dropped from the plank to his knees and pressed his hand across Mine’s mouth.

Give him here, the mother whispered.

She held him, pressing her hand across his mouth. He twisted and tried to scream. The other brother-cousin turned off the lantern.

For many minutes stopped in the dark the girl stayed on the floor. Nothing would happen, her mother had told her yesterday. Just be quiet if we stop. The girl rubbed her feet together. She imagined they were in an upside-down barnacled ship, sunk to the ocean’s bottom. She can breathe underwater. In the privacy of her head, she makes words and drawings – her own name, in cursive, the way she learned it, the loops in the letters becoming malformed animals — she gives six arms to a hippo M, she puts a tortoise head on a dolphin P. The animals swim above her. Her horse with its head above water and its mouth full of rose lipstick and ants.

The truck finally moved. The matchman turned on the lantern and their mother let Mine go. He pushed against her chest and squirmed to the floor. There was a plastic water jug; the two cousin-brothers passed it back and forth while Mine looked for wires or matches. The matchman asked for a drink.

 

*
 

She’d been asleep for hours and woke in the lamplight to the rip-shirt brother grinning and sputtering in his sleep. Maybe he was in a TV show dream. Maybe she was in America. In America you could have your own show or your ears pierced three times in each ear. You could have a bra when you were nine.

She’d been on the floor a long time, drawing with her finger a zoo of impossible animals in aquaria and cages, shark teeth in the mouths of giraffes. The truck stopped.

Jesus.

What the hell, the drivers yelled, and other muffled things in English.

The drivers left the truck, slamming doors, leaving the engine and radio on. Her mother had woken and covered Mine’s mouth, this time with the child gone queerly limp without complaint. The cousin-brothers had their ears against the metal wall. One put up his arm and shrugged, as if to say he heard nothing.

She waited.

It’s bad when adults are scared. The matchman looked like he might sneeze.

There was a great bang at one end – the truck was being opened, without the signal they’d agreed on with the drivers. Someone turned off the lamp.

Come on out.

You all be quiet, whispered the matchman. Stay.

Come on out, said one of the drivers in English. It’s all right, the border was miles ago. He’d slid open the door of the truck and was taking apart the wall of microwave boxes.

You’re taking this all down? said a driver. You’ll just have to put it back together.

We don’t need to put it back, not now that we’ve crossed.

Daylight through a hole in the wall – the girl shut her eyes. A grainy breeze against her face.

Come out, now, said the driver. You have to see this.

The second driver helped the first with the boxes. More and more daylight, first at the very top and then through scattered gaps in the wall.

They don’t need to see it, said the second driver.

Don’t be an asshole. They can see it. Why shouldn’t they get to?

A door-shaped hole in the wall. Most of the boxes were gone; so many had been empty.

Compadre, said the first driver, holding out his hand to the rip-shirted brother, who looked away. No?

The driver looked at the girl. You? You want to come see?

She couldn’t see his face in the hard sunlight, but the hand he gave her was tan and spotted. She took it and stepped out, her mother, holding Mine, behind her. They’d parked the truck on the side of the road. There were no other cars. Flies zigzagged in her face. A flock of birds scavenged a gutted suitcase.

You all need to see this, the driver said to the men in the truck. You only see this maybe one time in your life. There’s no one out here, all right? I promise. Nobody.

The men came to the door-shaped hole.

Small steps, old man. No falling.

What’s going on?

The drivers led everyone beyond the road, into a plain of dirt. A place without trees or green. Mine tried to free himself from his mother’s arms so he could walk. They were going toward a strange, raised ring of dust, a small crater in the earth.

It’s a hell of a welcome, said one of the drivers.

Wait till you see it, said the other, wiping his nose with his spotted hand. We saw it come down.

They came closer to the little crater in the dirt. Smoke rose from its rim, where the dirt had rutted and turned rust-coloured and black. Stink of underground, stink of turned up earth and earthworms curling up in the dusty soil. Inside the crater was a foot-long piece of charred, rocky metal.

The drivers and the cousin-brother men surrounded it, evaluating, and the matchman stood back. The girl’s mother let Mine down to the ground, though she held him. He wanted to touch the rocky metal. He shrieked his name. One of the drivers paced around the crater several times, watching the thing inside as though it might move. Grooves and holes in it in a random pattern. A tiny black metal moon.

The matchman sat down in the dust a few feet from the moon. He looked like he wanted to sleep, but he watched the brothers, who took his crutch and poked at the moon with the crutch’s tip. One of the drivers came back with gloves on and an oily cloth. He crouched and picked up the metal thing, still smoking, and blew on it.

Goddamn, he said.

The girl went to him. She looked at the moon-thing, scabbed and pitted and smoking, that had fallen so near without her knowing. There was something very bad about it. It had scared her mother and the men. It was pretty, maybe, but you shouldn’t look at it. A few ants moved beside her shoe. Maybe looking for water.

Alan Warner | Five Things Right Now
Introduction: American Wild