The Tortilla Curtain

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9780143119074: The Tortilla Curtain

A freak accident causes two couples-a pair of Los Angeles liberals and Mexican illegal's-and their opposing worlds to collide in a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

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About the Author:

T. C. Boyle is the author of eleven novels, including World's End (winner of the PEN/FaulknerAward), Drop City (a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award), and The Inner Circle. His most recent story collections are Tooth and Claw and The Human Fly and Other Stories.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART ONE

Arroyo Blanco

1

AFTERWARD, HE TRIED TO REDUCE IT TO ABSTRACT terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces—the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye—but he wasn’t very successful. This wasn’t a statistic in an actuarial table tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this wasn’t random and impersonal. It had happened to him, Delaney Mossbacher, of 32 Piñon Drive, Arroyo Blanco Estates, a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car with personalized plates, and it shook him to the core. Everywhere he turned he saw those red-flecked eyes, the rictus of the mouth, the rotten teeth and incongruous shock of gray in the heavy black brush of the mustache—they infested his dreams, cut through his waking hours like a window on another reality. He saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan’s elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fines herbes at Emilio’s in the shank of the evening.

The whole thing had happened so quickly. One minute he was winding his way up the canyon with a backseat full of newspapers, mayonnaise jars and Diet Coke cans for the recycler, thinking nothing, absolutely nothing, and the next thing he knew the car was skewed across the shoulder in a dissipating fan of dust. The man must have been crouching in the bushes like some feral thing, like a stray dog or bird-mauling cat, and at the last possible moment he’d flung himself across the road in a mad suicidal scramble. There was the astonished look, a flash of mustache, the collapsing mouth flung open in a mute cry, and then the brake, the impact, the marimba rattle of the stones beneath the car, and finally, the dust. The car had stalled, the air conditioner blowing full, the voice on the radio nattering on about import quotas and American jobs. The man was gone. Delaney opened his eyes and unclenched his teeth. The accident was over, already a moment in history.

To his shame, Delaney’s first thought was for the car (was it marred, scratched, dented?), and then for his insurance rates (what was this going to do to his good-driver discount?), and finally, belatedly, for the victim. Who was he? Where had he gone? Was he all right? Was he hurt? Bleeding? Dying? Delaney’s hands trembled on the wheel. He reached mechanically for the key and choked off the radio. It was then, still strapped in and rushing with adrenaline, that the reality of it began to hit him: he’d injured, possibly killed, another human being. It wasn’t his fault, god knew—the man was obviously insane, demented, suicidal, no jury would convict him—but there it was, all the same. Heart pounding, he slipped out from under the seat belt, eased open the door and stepped tentatively onto the parched strip of naked stone and litter that constituted the shoulder of the road.

Immediately, before he could even catch his breath, he was brushed back by the tailwind of a string of cars racing bumper-to-bumper up the canyon like some snaking malignant train. He clung to the side of his car as the sun caught his head in a hammerlock and the un-air-conditioned heat rose from the pavement like a fist in the face, like a knockout punch. Two more cars shot by. He was dizzy. Sweating. He couldn’t seem to control his hands. “I’ve had an accident,” he said to himself, repeating it over and over like a mantra, “I’ve had an accident.”

But where was the victim? Had he been flung clear, was that it? Delaney looked round him helplessly. Cars came down the canyon, burnished with light; cars went up it; cars turned into the lumberyard a hundred yards up on the right and into the side street beyond it, whining past him as if he didn’t exist. One after another the faces of the drivers came at him, shadowy and indistinct behind the armor of their smoked-glass windshields. Not a head turned. No one stopped.

He walked round the front of the car first, scanning the mute unrevealing brush along the roadside—ceanothus, chamise, redshanks—for some sign of what had happened. Then he turned to the car. The plastic lens over the right headlight was cracked and the turn-signal housing had been knocked out of its track, but aside from that the car seemed undamaged. He threw an uneasy glance at the bushes, then worked his way along the passenger side to the rear, expecting the worst, the bleeding flesh and hammered bone, sure now that the man must have been trapped under the car. Stooping, palm flat, one knee in the dirt, he forced himself to look. Crescendo and then release: nothing there but dust and more dust.

The license plate—PILGRIM—caught the sun as he rose and clapped the grit from his hands, and he looked to the bushes yet again. “Hello!” he cried suddenly over the noise of the cars flashing by in either direction. “Is anybody there? Are you okay?”

He turned slowly round, once, twice, as if he’d forgotten something—a set of keys, his glasses, his wallet—then circled the car again. How could no one have seen what had happened? How could no one have stopped to help, bear witness, gape, jeer—anything? A hundred people must have passed by in the last five minutes and yet he might as well have been lost in the Great Painted Desert for all the good it did him. He looked off up the road to the bend by the lumberyard and the grocery beyond it, and saw the distant figure of a man climbing into a parked car, the hard hot light exploding round him. And then, fighting down the urge to run, to heave himself into the driver’s seat and burn up the tires, to leave the idiot to his fate and deny everything—the date, the time, the place, his own identity and the sun in the sky—Detaney turned back to the bushes. “Hello?” he called again.

Nothing. The cars tore past. The sun beat at his shoulders, his neck, the back of his head.

To the left, across the road, was a wall of rock; to the right, the canyon fell off to the rusty sandstone bed of Topanga Creek, hundreds of feet below. Delaney could see nothing but brush and treetops, but he knew now where his man was—down there, down in the scrub oak and manzanita. The high-resin-compound bumper of the Acura had launched that sad bundle of bone and gristle over the side of the canyon like a Ping-Pong ball shot out of a cannon, and what chance was there to survive that? He felt sick suddenly, his brain mobbed with images from the eyewitness news—shootings, stabbings, auto wrecks, the unending parade of victims served up afresh each day—and something hot and sour rose in his throat. Why him? Why did this have to happen to him?

He was about to give it up and jog to the lumberyard for help, for the police, an ambulance—they’d know what to do—when a glint of light caught his eye through the scrim of brush. He staggered forward blindly, stupidly, like a fish to a lure—he wanted to do the right thing, wanted to help, he did. But almost as quickly, he caught himself. This glint wasn’t what he’d expected—no coin or crucifix, no belt buckle, key chain, medal or steel-toed boot wrenched from the victim’s foot—just a shopping cart, pocked with rust and concealed in the bushes beside a rough trail that plunged steeply down the hillside, vanishing round a right-angle bend no more than twenty feet away.

Delaney called out again. Cupped his hands and shouted. And then he straightened up, wary suddenly, catlike and alert. At five-foot-nine and a hundred and sixty-five pounds, he was compact, heavy in the shoulders and with a natural hunch that made him look as if he were perpetually in danger of pitching forward on his face, but he was in good shape and ready for anything. What startled him to alertness was the sudden certainty that the whole thing had been staged—he’d read about this sort of operation in the Metro section, gangs faking accidents and then preying on the unsuspecting, law-abiding, compliant and fully insured motorist ... But then where was the gang? Down the path? Huddled round the bend waiting for him to take that first fatal step off the shoulder and out of sight of the road?

He might have gone on speculating for the rest of the afternoon, the vanishing victim a case for Unsolved Mysteries or the Home Video Network, if he hadn’t become aware of the faintest murmur from the clump of vegetation to his immediate right. But it was more than a murmur—it was a deep aching guttural moan that made something catch in his throat, an expression of the most primitive and elemental experience we know: pain. Delaney’s gaze jumped from the shopping cart to the path and then to the bush at his right, and there he was, the man with the red-flecked eyes and graying mustache, the daredevil, the suicide, the jack-in-the-box who’d popped up in front of his bumper and ruined his afternoon. The man was on his back, limbs dangling, as loose-jointed as a doll flung in a corner by an imperious little girl. A trail of blood, thick as a finger, leaked from the corner of his mouth, and Delaney couldn’t remember ever having seen anything so bright. Two eyes, dull with pain, locked on him like a set of jaws.

“Are you ... are you okay?” Delaney heard himself say.

The man winced, tried to move his head. Delaney saw now that the left side of the man’s face—the side that had been turned away from him—was raw, scraped and flensed like a piece of meat stripped from the hide. And then he noticed the man’s left arm, the torn shirtsleeve and the skin beneath it stippled with blood and bits of dirt and leaf mold, and the blood-slick hand that clutched a deflated paper bag to his chest. Slivers of glass tore through the bag like claws and orange soda soaked the man’s khaki shirt; a plastic package, through which. Delaney could make out a stack of tortillas (Como Hechas a Mano), clung to the man’s crotch as if fastened there.

“Can I help you?” Delaney breathed, gesturing futilely, wondering whether to reach down a hand or not—should he be moved? Could he? “I mean, I’m sorry, I—why did you run out like that? What possessed you? Didn’t you see me?”

Flies hovered in the air. The canyon stretched out before them, slabs of upthrust stone and weathered tumbles of rock, light and shadow at war. The man tried to collect himself. He kicked out his legs like an insect pinned to a mounting board, and then his eyes seemed to sharpen, and with a groan he struggled to a sitting position. He said something then in a foreign language, a gargle and rattle in the throat, and Delaney didn’t know what to do.

It wasn’t French he was speaking, that was for sure. And it wasn’t Norwegian. The United States didn’t share a two-thousand-mile border with France—or with Norway either. The man was Mexican, Hispanic, that’s what he was, and he was speaking Spanish, a hot crazed drumroll of a language to which Delaney’s four years of high-school French gave him little access. “Docteur?” he tried.

The man’s face was a blank. Blood trickled steadily from the corner of his mouth, camouflaged by the mustache. He wasn’t as young as Delaney had first thought, or as slight—the shirt was stretched tight across his shoulders and there was a visible swelling round his middle, just above the package of tortillas. There was gray in his hair too. The man grimaced and sucked in his breath, displaying a mismatched row of teeth that were like pickets in a rotting fence. “No quiero un matasanos,” he growled, wincing as he staggered to his feet in a cyclone of twigs, dust and crushed tumbleweed, “no lo necesito.”

For a long moment they stood there, examining each other, unwitting perpetrator and unwitting victim, and then the man let the useless bag drop from his fingers with a tinkle of broken glass. It lay at his feet in the dirt, and they both stared at it, frozen in time, until he reached down absently to retrieve the tortillas, which were still pinned to the crotch of his pants. He seemed to shake himself then, like a dog coming out of a bath, and as he clutched the tortillas in his good hand, he bent forward woozily to hawk a gout of blood into the dirt.

Delaney felt the relief wash over him—the man wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to sue, he was all right and it was over. “Can I do anything for you?” he asked, feeling charitable now. “I mean, give you a ride someplace or something?” Delaney pointed to the car. He held his fists up in front of his face and pantomimed the act of driving. “Dans la voiture?”

The man spat again. The left side of his face glistened in the harsh sunlight, ugly and wet with fluid, grit, pills of flesh and crushed vegetation. He looked at Delaney as if he were an escaped lunatic. “Dooo?” he echoed.

Delaney shuffled his feet. The heat was getting to him. He pushed the glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He gave it one more try: “You know—help. Can I help you?”

And then the man grinned, or tried to. A film of blood clung to the jagged teeth and he licked it away with a flick of his tongue. “Monee?” he whispered, and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together.

“Money,” Delaney repeated, “okay, yes, money,” and he reached for his wallet as the sun drilled the canyon and the cars sifted by and a vulture, high overhead, rode the hot air rising from below.

 

 

 

Delaney didn’t remember getting back into the car, but somehow he found himself steering, braking and applying gas as he followed a set of taillights up the canyon, sealed in and impervious once again. He drove in a daze, hardly conscious of the air conditioner blasting in his face, so wound up in his thoughts that he went five blocks past the recycling center before realizing his error, and then, after making a questionable U-turn against two lanes of oncoming traffic, he forgot himself again and drove past the place in the opposite direction. It was over. Money had changed hands, there were no witnesses, and the man was gone, out of his life forever. And yet, no matter how hard he tried, Delaney couldn’t shake the image of him.

He’d given the man twenty dollars—it seemed the least he could do—and the man had stuffed the bill quickly into the pocket of his cheap stained pants, sucked in his breath and turned away without so much as a nod or gesture of thanks. Of course, he was probably in shock. Delaney was no doctor, but the guy had looked pretty shaky—and his face was a mess, a real mess. Leaning forward to hold out the bill, Delaney had watched, transfixed, as a fly danced away from the abraded flesh along the line of the man’s jaw, and another, fat-bodied and black, settled in to take its place. In that moment the strange face before him was transformed, annealed in the brilliant merciless light, a hard cold wedge of a face that looked strangely loose in its coppery skin, the left cheekbone swollen and misaligned—was it bruised? Broken ? Or was that the way it was supposed to look? Before Delaney could decide, the man had turned abruptly away, limping off down the path with an exaggerated stride that would have seemed comical under other circumstances—Delaney could think of nothing so much as Charlie Chaplin walking off some imaginary hurt—an...

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