Tuesday, July 24, 2012
The police had cordoned off the sidewalk and were beginning to make arrests. Something in the air was making Héctor’s eyes water, and the cops were wearing masks that made them look like giant grasshoppers and which might have made him laugh if he hadn’t been so frightened. A dozen or so protestors had planted themselves on the sidewalk and were refusing to move, waiting for the cops to come and put plastic handcuffs on them and drag them off to the waiting vans. Héctor didn’t know which way to turn but whenever he saw two or three cops coming he moved off in the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He remembered some minnows he had seen once in a store, how they darted from one end of the tank to the other, desperately trying to avoid being scooped up in the net, as if they knew that their fate lay in being impaled on a fisherman’s hook. The strobe lights on the police vans kept flickering, making him woozy and even more terrified than he already was. He wished that he had never decided to go for a walk, that he had never let his curiosity get the better of him. Whatever this protest was about it surely wasn’t his business to get mixed up in, and now if he got arrested he was certain they’d find out he had no papers and send him packing. How could he pay back what he owed the polleros for bringing him across the border if he couldn’t stay in the city and work? How could he ever come north again, with no money? His cousin was going to be furious when Héctor called him from jail. Maybe they’d stick him in some prison and let him rot, surrounded by strangers. Héctor had never been in prison but he’d heard the stories. If you were lucky, they said, you only got beaten by the guards; if the other inmates went after you, you were finished.
A voice was issuing from a bullhorn, shouting insistent commands, but Héctor couldn’t understand what it was saying. There were screams from across the street, a concussion, and then the mist of whatever it was that was stinging his eyes suddenly hit him head-on, blinding him, burning his nostrils and throat. He bent over, choking and retching, and as he stumbled someone running by struck Héctor’s head hard with his elbow in his haste to escape. He dropped to his knees but immediately forced himself up again. Unable to see, he staggered away from what seemed to be the center of the fumes and the noise. People were rushing past, shoving, grasping, crying, and through his closed eyelids he sensed the pulse of the strobe lights, the shadows of figures moving all around him. He trod on something soft that he thought must have been a human hand, but whoever it belonged to was evidently either unconscious or simply oblivious to the pain.
He struck something hard with his shoulder and knew at once that it was the wall of the building that soared above. Feeling his way along its surface, clambering over fallen bodies, he bashed his leg hard against a standpipe and let out a cry. He touched one of the building’s glass doors, tugged desperately at the handle, but found that it was locked tight. He could hear the sickening sound of a truncheon being struck against a body, no more than a few feet away, and winced in anticipation of the coming blow, but it didn’t arrive. As he reached the corner of the building something jutted against his chest and he realized that it was the cordon set up by the police. He grasped it with one hand and ducked underneath, then slipped away down the side street, still unseeing and in terror for his life.