Caught up in a scheme to smuggle his deported uncle back across the border, a young American must fight to save his family, himself, and the woman he loves
At eighteen, Roque Montalvo is a gifted guitarist and a hit with women, but the rest of his life is a struggle. Orphaned at birth and scraping by in a rough Northern California town, he helps support his hardworking aunt and tends to his ex-marine brother—a physical and emotional wreck after his tour in Iraq. Then, to make matters worse, his uncle gets snared in a workplace raid and federal immigration agents deport him back to El Salvador. When Montalvo’s loose-cannon cousin, himself a former deportee, shows up unannounced, he draws Montalvo into a scheme to rescue his uncle and bring him back home. It’s a perilous undertaking in the best of cases, now that gangs and organized crime control the smuggling routes, and the risk ratchets higher when Montalvo learns he’ll be transporting not just his uncle, but also a Palestinian refugee and a young beauty destined for the clutches of a fierce Mexican crime boss. A gritty, realistic, and unforgettable adventure where all borders are tested, Do They Know I’m Running? tightropes the perilous line between menace and hope, danger and home.
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About the Author
Before becoming a novelist,David Corbett (b. 1953) spent fifteen years as an investigator for the San Francisco private detective agency Palladino & Sutherland, working on several high-profile cases. In 1995, he left to help his wife set up her own law firm, and in 2000 he sold his first novel, The Devil’s Redhead, a thriller about a reformed pot smuggler trying to save his ex-girlfriend from the deadly consequences of her own misguided sympathy. Corbett’s second novel, Done for a Dime (2003), begins with the murder of a blues legend and turns into a battle for the soul of a small town. It was a New York Times Notable Book and was nominated for a Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International. Next came Blood of Paradise (2007), which was nominated for the Edgar and numerous other awards. It was named both a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post. Corbett’s fourth novel, the critically acclaimed Do They Know I’m Running? (2010), tells of a young Salvadoran-American’s harrowing journey to El Salvador to retrieve his deported uncle. It received the Spinetingler Award, Best Novel: Rising Star Category. He has also contributed chapters to the two Harry Middleton serial novels. Corbett’s most recent book, a collection of short stories titled Killing Yourself to Survive (2012), is offered exclusively through Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.
Read an Excerpt
Do They Know I'm Running?
By David Corbett
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
ROQUE SAT UP IN THE PREDAWN STILLNESS, STARTLED AWAKE BY a wicked dream: menacing dog, desolate twilight, the sticky dampness of blood and a sense he was carrying some kind of treasure, something he'd have to fight to keep. Rising on one elbow, he glanced past Mariko toward the bedside clock. Three-thirty, the hour of ghosts. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he told himself it was time to go.
Gently, he tugged the sheet from her sleep-warm shoulder. She'd want to be wakened before he gathered his clothes and slipped out. "This kind of thing isn't known for its shelf life," she'd told him once. "I want to make the most of my chances."
Twenty years separated them—practically a crime, given he was eighteen. He realized there were probably clinical terms to explain the thing, especially since he was motherless. In his own heart, though, it felt simple—they both were lonely, he liked her a lot, she seemed to like him back and he enjoyed getting his ashes hauled, an inclination she happily, at times rabidly indulged. The sex was always instructive, seldom routine, often kinky, especially once she cracked open that second bottle of wine. If any of that's a problem, he thought, let somebody else worry about it. Every important connection he'd ever had was with someone older than he was—musicians, librarians, a cop here and there—why should this be any different?
She had her back to him, sleeping on her side, pillow balled tight beneath her chin as she snored. The dim glow of the clock reddened her shoulder, and he traced the back of his fingers across her arm, caressed her hip, the skin tight and smooth, then guided his thumb along the little trough of muscle in the small of her back, moving on from there to cup one plump cheek of her culo with his palm. She stirred finally, burrowing her face into the pillow to stifle a yawn. Lifting her head, she whispered over her shoulder, eyes glistening with sleep: "It's you."
He took a moment to study her profile in the dim light, the distinctive shape of her eye, the girlish lashes, the pudgy nose. "You were expecting ...?"
She blinked herself awake, moaned and barked a raspy cough into her fist. "Hope springs eternal."
Roque waited. "Oh yeah?"
"Tell you what—do me a favor, before you go?" She wiggled her can.
The musk from their earlier lovemaking still lingered, mixed with the vaguely floral tang of cold wax from a dozen tea candles scattered across the hardwood floor, their flames spent. "Just go back to sleep," he said, recalling the scene from earlier, tiny tongues of fire all around as they thrashed and rocked and cried out, shadows quivering high up the bare white walls. Mariko, a Buddhist, had a flair for the ceremonial.
"No, I mean it." Her voice was fogged with drowsiness and she writhed luxuriously in a kind of half stretch, burying another yawn in the pillow. "It's okay."
"It feels, I dunno, wrong. You half asleep, I mean."
"For God's sake, Roque, it's all wrong. That's what makes it so delicious."
Sure, of course, that's what this is. Wrong. He shook it off. "You know what I'm saying."
She flipped over, finger-parting the tousled black hair framing her boxy face. "There. Awake. Better?"
"Don't be mad."
"Who says I'm mad?"
"Shush. Kiss me."
He leaned down, instantly hard at the touch of her mouth, even with her breath sour and hot from the wine. It scared him sometimes, the intensity, the need. She wasn't what any of the guys he knew would call a cosota linda, a looker, and with that a song lyric ghosted up:
So make your mark for your friends to see
But when you need more than company ...
They'd met back in May during Carnaval, San Francisco's biggest Latino celebration outside El Día de los Muertos, with samba dancers shimmying through the Mission in feathered headdresses and Bahía skirts while drum brigades hammered out a nonstop batucada. Bands of all kinds and every level of smack played hour-long sets throughout the weekend: ranchera, salsa, bachata, calypso, charanga, cumbia, reggaetón. It was Roque's maiden gig with Los Patojos, a salsa-funk outfit in the Azteca/ Malo/Santana mold but with a jazzier edge, and when Lalo called him onto the stage near the end of the set he introduced him as "The best young guitarist I've heard in a long, long time—Roque Montalvo!" They ran through three numbers to wrap up the hour, a reggae-inflected tune-up of Tito Puente's "Mambo Gallego," a timba reworking of War's "Ballero," and the finale, a double-time cumbia vamp on an old Byrds tune:
Don't forget what you are
You're a rock 'n' roll star
"Hey!" Her rough hands locked at his nape and she tugged at his shoulder-length hair. "Where'd you go?"
He shook off the memory, busted. "Sorry, I—"
"You'll make an old lady self-conscious."
"Don't talk like that."
"I mean it. Really—"
She cut him off with another kiss, lingering, a nibble here and there, a swipe with her tongue. Refocused, he reached down, probed gently with his fingers, parting the feathery lips to get at the warmth inside, already moist. She moaned, a deep soft purr from the back of her throat, encouraging him, guiding him. He'd been such a wack lover when they'd met, all the usual young slob faults—the selfishness, the fumbling, the rush. Except for two girls he'd met at gigs, his pre-Mariko love life had been limited to pumping the muscle and wishful thinking, and the two exceptions had been disasters of opposite kind, the one girl just lying there in sweet-natured panic, the other thrashing around in such unconvincing bliss he'd almost stopped mid-fuck to ask if she was having a seizure. Mariko had taught him to relax, focus, think of it as dancing. Not the best analogy, perhaps, musicians being such clueless dancers, but he'd come around.
She said, "I want you inside."
"I didn't say quick. I said inside."
She guided him in. As always, he shuddered—so perfect, that feeling, like finding home.
"Just that," she whispered. "Don't move. Okay?"
She hooked her legs around his, locking their bodies tight, nuzzling her hips against his before returning to her kisses, deeper now. Another moan, this one longer, rose in the pit of her throat, followed by a tremor quivering up her spine.
Despite himself, Roque's eye strayed toward the bedside clock. Three forty-five now. Soon Tío Faustino would be out of bed, getting ready to leave for the Port of Oakland where he worked hauling drayage. Tía Lucha would be preparing breakfast and getting ready for her shift at Food 4 Less. Godo would be stirring too, if he'd slept at all.
Drawing back his glance, his eyes met hers. She broke off the kiss, unwrapped her legs. "I know you have to go."
"It's just, you know—"
She cupped his face in her palm. "It's all right."
Godo was his half brother, back from the war. He spent his nights lurching around in bed, popping painkillers and antidepressants, chasing them with beer, unable to muster more than a few minutes' sleep at a time. Better the insomnia, though, than the nightmares. It was why Roque couldn't share the room anymore. No telling who or what Godo might mistake him for when he bolted awake, screaming.
"Sorry," he said, thinking: You're saying that a lot.
"Don't be." She brushed his face with her fingers. "It's been lovely. It always is, Rocky."
It was one way she teased him, mispronouncing his name.
"Roque," he corrected, his part of the bit. "Rhymes with O.J."
"Yes. How sad for you."
He lowered his head, touched his brow to hers. "I love you."
She turned her face away. "I told you—"
"I mean it."
"What difference does it make what you mean ?" Like that, the mood turned, as it did on occasion. Too often, actually, and more and more of late. "How many times—"
He pulled away and gathered his clothes from the floor, threw on his sweatshirt, stood up to tug on his jeans, sat back down to lace his high-tops. You're acting your age, he thought, unable to stop himself, at the same time wondering if he really did mean it: I love you. Maybe he was just raising the stakes, he wasn't sure.
To his back, a whisper: "Roque?"
He wanted her to reach out, touch him, say it: I love you too. Or just: I'm sorry. But neither the caress nor the words came. He launched up and crossed the room, kicking several tea candles across the floor like little tin pucks.
Wood-plank shelves faced each other down the dark hallway, stacked with unfired pots, bowls, vases: Mariko Detwiler, Fine Ceramics. The clay smelled cold and damp and it made him think of fresh graves and with that another song lyric teased its way up from memory: The house is dark and my thoughts are cold.
He thumped down the porch steps, the fog cool on his skin, the air dank from the nearby wetlands. Lingering beneath the chinaberry tree in the dark front yard, he watched as the hall light came on and her silhouette materialized in the doorway. Timidly he ventured a farewell wave. She did not wave back.
CINCHING THE HOOD OF HIS SWEATSHIRT TIGHT, HE BEGAN TO RUN. Craftsman bungalows lined the block, some tricked out like minor museums, others sagging with neglect. At the bottom of the hill he skirted a thicket of blood-red madrone and turned onto the river road where he had the gravel berm to himself, dodging waist-high thistle. The solitude gave him space to think.
He knew what the chambrosos would say, it was all because he was an orphan—the sloppy lust for cougar poon, the pissy sulk upon leaving, even the musical gunslinger ego bit to soothe his pride. And sure, from as early as he could remember he'd sensed an absence at the center of things. Her name was Graciela, she came to the States a Salvadoran refugee, pregnant with her first child, a boy. Three years later she was dead, a massive hemorrhage within hours of delivering her second son. And so there they were, Godofredo and Roque, two American brothers, a toddler and an infant—different fathers, both absent; same mother, now dead.
They got taken in by their spinster aunt, Lucha, also a refugee. Roque knew zip about his old man and what he knew of his mother came from a handful of faded snapshots and Tía Lucha's tales, not all of them kind. He came to think of his mother the way some people regard an obscure and troubling saint. Mi madre descabellada, the unholy martyr.
As for Godo, he'd never forgotten what it was like: three years old, slow to English, wary of strangers, possessive of his mother who one day went to the hospital and never came back—and for what? Some little shit weasel of a brother.
THE SIGN AT THE STREET READ "HUNTINGTON VILLAGE," though no one could tell you who Huntington was: a trailer park, home to several dozen Salvadoran families, as well as Hondurans, Guatemaltecos, the inescapable Mexicans, even a few Pacific Islanders. The streets were gravel and the shade sparse, no laundry hut, no playground, no management on the premises. Here and there, a brave patch of grass. He lived in a single-wide with Godo and Tía Lucha and Tío Faustino, his aunt's marido. She was no longer a spinster.
It was temporary, their living here, so Tía said, just until she and Tío Faustino could reestablish some credit. It wasn't really their fault, of course, losing the house—a crooked mortgage broker, a Mexican no less, had slipped an extra loan into escrow, more than a hundred Latino victims in the scam. It would take years and lawyers and more money thrown to the wind before any of that resolved. Meanwhile they lived as best they could, crammed into six hundred square feet, Tía and Tío, Roque and Godo.
Passing the gravel bed near the gate that served as parking, Roque noticed that Tío Faustino's rig was gone. That meant it was already four—Tío had left for the Port of Oakland, to get in the queue for container pickup. Roque redoubled his pace until he could make out the random tinny carillon of Tía Lucha's wind chime swinging from the doorstep awning.
Pulling up outside the trailer, he tugged his key from his jean pocket and slipped it in the lock, opening the door as quietly as he could, only to find his aunt waiting in the kitchenette, sitting at the table in her plaid robe, sipping Nescafé.
"You're up already," he said clumsily.
She responded using Spanish, peering over the edge of her cup.—Is it your turn to be the problem around here? Her eyes were sad and proud and blasted from exhaustion, her hair lying tangled across her birdlike shoulders. Her face was narrow and dark, weathered, an indígena face; shortly she would slather on pancake to lighten its complexion in preparation for a day at the cash register.
Roque went to the fridge, saw a can of guava nectar and another of 7UP, his weakness, picked the latter and popped the lid, all to avoid an answer.
—I don't expect you to be a virgin. Your mother named you for a poet, it's your privilege to act like an idiot. You're using protection, yes? Please tell me that much.
"It's not your problem," he replied in English, a way to assert his distance. It was one of those ironies, how the older ones praised the new country but stuck to the old country's tongue.
—Not today, but when the baby arrives and you have no clue if it's really yours?
"It's not an issue, okay?"
She cocked her head, studying him.—You're telling me she's a boy?
He rolled his eyes, put down his can and ambled over to the table. Agony aunt, he thought. He'd read the phrase in a book recently and thought instantly of Tía Lucha. Leaning down, he kissed her graying black hair, the texture of stitching thread, a smell like almonds, some dollar-a-bottle shampoo.
He switched to Spanish.—We'll pretend you never said that.
On the shelf behind her, Salvadoran sorpresas, little clay tableaus made in Ilobasco, shared space with skeletal Day of the Dead figurines. He'd often celebrated El Día de los Muertos with her, it was why he'd never felt singled out for misery despite his mother's death. He learned not to take it personally. Sorrow was inescapable, a condition, not a punishment.
—We'll pretend because it's not true, or because you're ashamed?
—Don't make me angry, Tía.
—So it's a girl.
—And she's not pregnant.
—She can't get pregnant.
Tía Lucha studied him like he was suggesting something impossible, or infernal.—She told you that?
—Can we change the subject?
—Oh Roque, don't be a fool, women lie, especially about that.
—And then they come and tell you, "I can't believe it, it's a miracle, a blessing from God." How old is this woman?
Roque turned to head back toward his brother's bedroom.—I'll check in on Godo.
She closed her eyes and rubbed the lids.—Don't wake him, please.
Acidly, Roque thought: Godo asleep? Now that would be a miracle.
He sometimes wondered if being parentless wasn't a blessing in disguise. It gave him a kind of freedom from the usual attachments that seemed to hold others back. Life would be more fluid for him because love and desire and ambition would be a question of choice, not obligation. And yet, if that were true, how would he keep from merely drifting? Wasn't that what love and respect were about, providing gravity? Otherwise there was just loneliness.
The oven door stood slightly ajar; an aromatic warmth greeted him as he bent down to peer inside. Two plates covered with napkins rested on the middle rack.
—One of these for me?
—You know it is.
Using a dish towel, he pulled out one plate. Beneath the napkin, he found his breakfast: pureed black beans with cream, fried plantains and yucca, corn tortillas.
He joined her at the table with his plate, wondering how angry she would get if he added some peanut butter. He'd been known to plow through an entire jar in a single sitting, until she told him that if he didn't stop he'd end up in emergency with a bowel blockage. Even as he stole a glance at the open oven door, secretly craving the other plate, Godo's share, he pictured the jar of crunchy in the fridge. He was ravenous. Sex did that to him.
Excerpted from Do They Know I'm Running? by David Corbett. Copyright © 2010 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Character of Strangers
Using Fiction to Inform the Immigration Debate
By David Corbett
In my writing classes on character, I require students first to sketch powerful scenes from their own lives, then to describe carefully people they know well. The first is to help them objectify their own emotions, the better to use them to dramatic ends; the second is to test not just their powers of observation but empathy.
This past year, one of my students remarked that these exercises proved more personally useful to her than years of therapy. I chuckled at the time but she touched on a sneaky truth: Writing requires one to be a more insightful person, not just a wag with a snappy prose style. And there is indeed something curative not just in self-analysis but in trying honestly to describe someone we think we know. We shortly discover the curious truth that everyone remains in some way fundamentally mysterious. Even our closest loved ones. Even ourselves.
Done honestly, this kind of work can't help but elicit a certain humility. That's true of all forms of responsibility, of course; being responsible obliges us to admit our limitations. But as the public square grows more poisonous, with dueling hatreds trumping discourse, I often feel that what's lacking is just this kind of honesty and humility. We've come to prefer heat to light, as though secretly hoping for a conflagration.
Listening to the immigration debate in particular often makes me wonder if those who regard immigrants so inhospitably actually know any living, breathing Latinos, Asians or Africans. The slurs one reads and hears have all the hallmarks of un-reflected fear and shame and guilt projected outward onto the strangeran old trick, perhaps as old as man. But it was listening to such remarks, even as I saw the litany of Latino names among Iraq war casualties, that obliged me to take my own homework seriously. And so, in my latest novel, Do They Know I'm Running?, I've tried to imagine more intimately the lives of Latinos I know.
This is a tricky business in a culture that is both increasingly polarized and all too often politically correct. There is an unfortunate history here. Too many attempts by Caucasian writers to depict minority characters reek of presumption, projection, self-congratulation. White messiahs and dark monsters proliferate. Or else timidity takes over, populating the page with nothing but the sweetest folks imaginable, creating a gentler but no less self-serving variety of falsehood.
Believing that what was genuinely needed at this time was a more sincere, empathetic but not sanitized attempt to imagine the lives of people we think of as different, and remembering one of my favorite quotes from John Coltrane"If there is something one does not understand, one must go humbly to it"I tried in Do They Know I'm Running? to depict a Salvadoran-American family dealing with both the damage of war and the nightmare of deportation.
I did not do so blindly. I know such a family well and have visited with its members and its extended network of relatives and friends both here and in El Salvador. And I live in an ethnically diverse part of the country, enjoying a wealth of Latino neighbors, friends, acquaintances. But, again, trying to honor my own lesson plan, I knew it wasn't enough simply to describe others I've met. I needed to see myself reflected in them, and them in me.
And so, in building my protagonist, Roque, I drew not just on a Salvadoran friend's son and certain young Latino musicians I know, but my own early struggles to be a musician, the hardship, the ambition, the uncertainty, the uneasy sense of having a gift, fearing it will only take you so far.
For his aunt, Tía Luchathe word lucha means fight, or struggleI drew not just on a strict Salvadoran matriarch I know but three other women, one I knew personally, another I knew through a friend's stories, and the third who was imaginary. All four had one thing in common: they each rode herd over a household of men. The first was my childhood best friend's mother, an indomitable Italian with a spine of fire; her name was Phyllis but the boys teasingly called her Philly the Greek. The second was the writer Luis Albert Urrea's aunt, whom the family nicknamed Tía FlacaAunt Skinnya tiny chain-smoking virago who wore owl-shaped glasses and came home from her job at a tuna-canning factory in Tijuana with bits of fish guts on her shoes (or, at least, that's how Luis tells it). The third was the character Aunt Matilde from José Donoso's masterful story, "Paseo," which had a formative impact on my writing.
Roque's uncle, Tío Faustino, was based not just on a Salvadoran trucker I met but on my kind, stubborn, wistful father, who was introduced to my mother while disassembling the engine on his car.
And Roque's brother, Godo, who serves in Iraq and comes home broken, tapped into not just the personal accounts of vets I interviewed but my own cocksure belligerence, which has earned me trouble more than once.
In this way, like virtually any other halfway competent writer, I tried to join inner and outer, strong and weak, commendable and damning, tried to see a reflection of myself in these people and them in me, without becoming blind to what remained different, unique, irreconcilable.
I can't help feeling that what is missing from our national debate on immigrationand many other issuesis a similar kind of effort. It might, as my student joked, at least be therapeutic. It would no doubt help mitigate the fear so readily manipulated by demagogues and other phonies. More importantly, it might just help us forge better communities, into which inevitably a stranger must enter. How we greet that stranger defines who we are.