Raymond thought he heard a light tap on the outside of his trailer door, but perhaps not. It could have been the wind or a twig from the cottonwood tree he was parked under. He wasn’t expecting any visitors this evening. Raymond returned to his book and took another sip of tea. Again, a tap. This time he was sure that someone was knocking on his door.
He opened the door and saw a little Latina woman standing outside his trailer. She had dark matted hair held back in a bun. Her thin brown shoulders were covered with a white lace blouse, which was tucked loosely into a brightly patterned red skirt that fell to her feet. The last rays of sunshine in the west made her weathered face and deep-set brown eyes look yellow. Or were they jaundiced? Raymond thought.
“¿Dónde está mi perro?” she asked in Spanish.
“What?” Raymond said.
“Mi perro,” she said.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Tienes mi perro y lo quiero de vuelta.”
“Listen, lady, I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “Whatever it is, I don’t have it.” He shut the door. Wow, where did this woman come from? he thought. Some crazy-ass lady, probably drunk. Raymond threw the deadbolt and sat back down at the dinette. She reminded him of his ex-wife; sharp-tongued, small, demanding, and with an in-your-face attitude. He remembered the time he once took his wife to Cancun to try to salvage their failing marriage. She had tried to learn a little Spanish before the trip. Buenos días, ¿cómo te llamas? and adiós was all he ever heard her say. He had tried to learn a bit of Spanish, too, but that was many years ago. He did remember, Más cerveza, por favor, and ¿dónde está el baño? He thought the phrases would come in handy if he ever got trapped in a Mexican bar. Yet, he really didn’t ever have any use for Spanish again; everyone he knew back home in Wisconsin spoke English.
Raymond had just driven his Ford F-250 pickup truck and 30-foot Airstream trailer down from Eau Claire to Big Bend National Park in Texas, to escape an unusually brutal winter and his ex-wife’s family. He planned to camp by himself along the Rio Grande, read a book, hike in the desert, and try to spot some birds. Big cottonwood trees, which covered the campground, were just beginning to leaf-out when he arrived. Soon they would drop their seed pods, which would fall to the ground like giant snowflakes, and drift like white snow. The campground was full; twenty or so trailers, RVs, and tents were scattered around the flat floodplain along the muddy bank of the Rio Grande. Mexico was just across the river. Dark brown mountain cliffs sprung from lighter tan slopes on either side of the river. Yucca plants evenly dotted the landscape as if they were planted just so. The desert had yet to bloom in the early spring; Raymond had hoped for more color.
“Perro,” he said out loud to himself. “Dog,” he remembered that it meant dog in Spanish. Why he knew this, he did not recall. Hell, what was that crazy lady talking about a dog for? Who cares? She’s gone. Raymond opened his book and wrapped his hands around his mug of hot tea.
The following morning was crisp and bright when the sun finally rose over the mountains on the Mexican side of the river. Funny, thought Raymond, that the sun would come up over Mexico to his south. He would have to look at a map and orient himself. After breakfast, he left his trailer and drove up a rutted dirt road, pulling away from the river valley, and winding through the high desert. His goal was to explore an old homestead near a spring in the morning. The day was going to be hot, and he did not want to get caught in the afternoon sun. He did not see anybody else on the road or at the homestead. It impressed him how massive the park was and how dispersed the few visitors were. It was a beautiful yet inhospitable landscape. Raymond made a mental note to himself to bring some extra food and water with him next time he ventured out in the desert by himself.
The afternoon sun was intense. Raymond found shade under a cottonwood where he set up his folding chair and sipped an iced tea. Siesta time, Raymond thought. Soon the sun would set, and the dry desert air would quickly lose its heat. A roadrunner sprinted down the camp road. A woodpecker started a racket on a nearby tree.
Then he saw the same little woman he had seen the night before, coming down the road toward him. Her bright red skirt swished from side to side as she walked, causing little plums of dust to spin out behind her. Her black hair was now down around her shoulders. She had an unsteadiness to her gait. Raymond thought she looked drunk. She stopped in front of him.
“Aquí está su dinero. Quiero a mi perro,” she said while holding out a handful of crumpled one-dollar bills.
“I said I don’t know anything about your dog,” Raymond said.
“Dios mío. Eres un estúpido.”
Raymond understood enough from her tone that she was pissed off at him, but did not know the reason. She hadn’t bothered anyone else in the campground, just him. Raymond rose from his chair and stepped toward her.
“All right, time to go. Leave me alone,” he said.
She repeated herself in Spanish, then stuffed the bills down the front of her blouse, raised her middle finger, and turned on her dusty sandals to walk back the way she came.
The next day Raymond set out for the Chisos Mountains to find a Peregrine Falcon. He had never seen one before, and this acrobatic aerial killer was one of the main reasons he had come to Big Bend. Along five-hundred-foot cliffs over-looking the high desert below, he spotted a pair of falcons diving and reeling on invisible updrafts. Raymond returned to his trailer exhilarated and wished for the first time on his trip that he had someone to share his excitement with.
The woman came again in the late afternoon and rapped on the trailer door. Raymond opened it, and she started right in on him again, scolding him in Spanish, gesturing with her hands, and stamping her little feet on the hard, dusty ground.
“Stop it!” he yelled.
She started to climb the trailer steps to get in, and Raymond pushed her back. Again, she made for the door, and he grabbed her. He held on to both of her shoulders through her white blouse and guided her out of his campsite and down the road, not knowing what he was going to do with her. Her Spanish diatribe continued as she struggled against his grip. Curtains and tent flaps of curious neighbors opened along the way. Raymond tightened his hold as he continued to push her along from behind.
A park ranger in a light-green Suburban pulled up in a cloud of dust next to them. He put his hat on and reflexively touched the handle of his holstered sidearm as he got out of the truck.
“¿Qué pasa?” the ranger said to the woman.
Raymond released her, and she started sputtering in Spanish to the officer. Their animated conversation bounced back a forth for a few minutes as if Raymond was not even there.
The ranger then turned to Raymond and said, “This lady says that she sold you her puppy last week, and she wants it back now.”
“That’s absurd, I wasn’t even here last week.”
“She says that you are the same man who lives in the round silver trailer to whom she sold the dog.”
Raymond said, “I didn’t buy a dog. She’s crazy.”
The officer took the woman aside and spoke to her at length again in Spanish. Raymond could tell that she was not happy. The woman walked around in circles, kicked the dirt, wrung her hands, and pitched her head from side-to-side as she talked. His ex was like that, too, he thought. She always knew she was right and never listened to his side of the story. Raymond could see her now, stomping around the living room at her mother’s, waving her arms, and bitching about all the terrible things he had done. She’d pitch her head like that when she talked, Raymond thought.
The ranger returned to Raymond and said, “Okay, this woman says you bought her dog and didn’t pay her enough. She says the dog was worth one-hundred dollars, and you only paid twenty. She found out how much the dog was worth only after it was sold. She either wants you to pay her eighty dollars or give the dog back.”
“I told you, I don’t have her dog,” Raymond said.
“I got it. Listen, she probably did sell a dog to someone in a trailer like yours last week, and right now, you have the only Airstream in the campground,” the ranger said. “That is probably why she picked you.”
This was totally crazy, thought Raymond. This woman is drunk, insane, a grifter, or all three. He put his thumbs on his forehead and massaged his temples.
“Please just tell her to leave me alone,” Raymond said and then turned back to his campsite.
“Cabrón,” the woman yelled at him as the park ranger placed her in the backseat of his truck and drove off.
Raymond was not a confrontational person. He came to Texas to get away from all of this crap, he told himself. This whole episode with the Latina had him rattled. It was like his ex-wife had been reincarnated in her. He had planned to stay in the campground a few more days but decided to leave in the morning. He wasn’t sure where he would go.
The eastern sky was orange over the brown mountains across the border as Raymond pulled his Airstream up out of the Rio Grande floodplain. As he came around a bend, three javelinas scattered across the road. He looked up through his open window at the hillside to see the pig-like animals make their way up through the brush. Then he noticed a figure sitting on a large boulder directly above the road. The morning light was behind the rock, and, at first, he did not recognize her. As he came around the hillside, her red skirt and white blouse were unmistakable. She was looking right at him. He could feel her anger in her stare. Anger that was entirely unfounded, but never-the-less, welled up in her and boiled out with vitriol. He stepped on the accelerator, and his diesel engine strained against the heavy trailer behind as he lurched forward. He would be gone soon. This crazy episode would be behind him.
The campground road extended north through the desert for 20 miles or so, before reaching the first stop sign. From the top of a small hill, Raymond could see another vehicle far in the distance. The sun then peeked over the horizon, and a bright reflection lit off an approaching trailer. Another Airstream looked to be coming to the camp he had just left. Raymond thought he should warn them about the loco woman. Surely, she would pick up with them where she left off with me, he thought. He pulled his truck and trailer off to the side of the road and waited.
Rob and Kim had driven all night from San Antonio and were just a few miles from their destination along the bank of the Rio Grande. This was the first trip with their new Airstream. Rob had his window down, and the radio turned up loud on a country music station. Despite several cups of coffee, fresh air in his face, and blaring music, he felt drowsiness overcoming him. He pushed south toward the river while Carrie Underwood belted out a country song on the radio about a lost dog.
“Hey, did you see that man with the Airstream waving at us right back there?” Kim asked, herself half awake. “We just passed him.”
“The man. He was standing by the road waving,” she said.
“No, I didn’t see it,” he said. “You know, I think all Airstreamers do that, you know, wave at each other when they pass. We’ll get the hang of it.”
From her perch, high above the Rio Grande and the cottonwoods, she watched the shiny new trailer slowly descend the steep grade to the campground below. She then lifted her skirt to her knees and jumped down off the rock.