How Gringos Die

Serge Jensen’s family came to northern New Mexico in ’78 for the Molymine above Questa. Cutbacks in space technologies and the recession—that seemed to weather Reagonomics just fine when it came to serious industry—killed the national appetite for molybdenum. Serge’s dad, while out of an engineering position, had discovered a love. The Jensen’s would stay in New Mexico; moving a little west to the tiny town of Tierra Amarilla, ninety miles north of Santa Fe.

John Jensen started a little cattle ranch and put Serge to work on it. Serge did everything; from cleaning and feeding the animals to keeping the three acres of vegetables. He grew ferociously.

The trouble with TA, for Serge, was that there was not one Anglo kid his age. He would have made friends with the chicano boys, he really wanted to, but wasn’t allowed. Serge was a friendly boy. He’d never been in a fight. No one ever started them with him because he’d always been so much bigger than everyone his age.

Serge had been to Albuquerque a few times for Christmas shopping and Denver once. He thought he wanted to get out of TA but whenever he was out, he wished he was back there. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he loved it there, maybe more than his father.

Serge had to deal with passive racism nearly everyday. Anglos weren’t particularly welcome among the Hispanics and the tendency was amplified by youth. Jese Montoya and Maury Guzman were the two central pachucos Serge’s age. They hated Serge. He was Anglo and, worse, gringo. Maury had given him one chance when they were twelve. He said, “Que pajo?” nice as you please and put his hand out. Serge’s fate was sealed. He didn’t even know how to shake hands right.

Jese had said it first. It was at the gas station when Serge and his dad were in town picking up some chicken feed. Serge stayed in the pickup. Jese came by and called Serge out, calling him a fucking honky, as would become the usual. Trying to get him to fight. Serge didn’t. The pattern repeated in fifty variations over their teenage years. Serge was always alone and he was scared; too scared to even respond. His cool surface was nothing but simple fear. It was perceived as bad-ass behavior and only fed Jese and Maury’s bored race hate. They became more aggressive.

One day Maury caught him walking out of Rita’s Diner. Maury rushed up behind him and kidney punched him viciously. Serge didn’t flinch or stumble. He just turned, angry and terrified. He’d never been hit by a person before in his life. He’d taken plenty of shots from the milk cows and willful lumber on the ranch but there was a profound psychological difference. He just stared at Maury, who was himself frightened at that point. There they were on the brink of the fight that had to come someday. Serge was a hell of a lot bigger, and Maury was alone. Serge turned and walked away. His passive refusal to fight, mixed with his constant backing down, intimidated Maury and Jese more and more. They began to talk about killing him. Somewhere in their junior year of high school the talk became more than bullshit.

On an unseasonably hot day in the spring Jese and Maury found Serge outside of town. He was fishing on a little bridge in the tiny river. Jese had a cherry ’67 Continental lowrider and they were cruising. It was only primer coated but the engine and interior were perfect. Jese swung the car off the highway and idled down the dirt road toward Serge.

Serge heard them coming before they even turned. He had an impulse to bolt. He didn’t though and when they turned off the highway he froze up. He didn’t look, he just made sure he had room to move if they tried to run him down. Jese braked the lowrider about twenty feet away. He called out the open window, “Hey, honky. Come ’ere.”

Serge ignored him, scared. Jese pounded the door of his car with an arm out the widow. Serge startled. Jese repeated his request. Serge was more mad than scared then. He lost too much face by flinching at the sound. He got up and put his fishing rod down. He didn’t even care if Maury pulled a knife on him again. Serge knew he wouldn’t stab him since he hadn’t before. And even if he tried, Serge had a skinning knife on his hip that he was quite handy with.

He walked to the lowrider where Jese still had his left arm dangling out the window. Jese beckoned him closer, pointing with his lips to the side of the car. Serge bent over and leaned down to the window.

Jese brought a S&W .22 revolver up in his right hand and said, “I got something here for you, fucking honky.”

Jese put the pistol up in Serge’s face and shot him right in the forehead. The sound, even of the small caliber, was terrifically sharp in the confines of the car.

The round skipped off his skull, and Serge barely flinched.

Serge reached in the car, almost slowly, blood streaming down his face in pulsing waves. Jese was unprepared for anything to happen but Serge to fall down. He didn’t even try to shoot him again. Serge pulled him out through the window by a shoulder and his hair. Jese dropped the gun in dirt, trying to dislodge Serge’s grip.

Serge stood Jese up and then slammed his head against the roof of the Lincoln. Jese’s cheek broke. Serge let go of his hair and stood him up. He’d never hit anyone or anything before. He balled up a fist and hit Jese clumsily. Jese went right down into the dirt. Maury jumped out of the passenger’s side but didn’t try to come around the car.

Serge picked up the gun and threw it in the river. He picked Jese up with his left and hit him a few more times with his right. He only hit him in the face. Jese was trying to fall, going completely limp. Serge never knew how strong he was till that day. Jese certainly hadn’t either. Jese was unconscious after taking four more punches. He hung like a dead fish. Serge switched his grip to both hands and threw him over the hood of the car.

Serge stood beside Jese, looking at Maury, with half his face coated in bright red blood. His eye strangely white and blue in the middle of it. Maury was scared shitless but couldn’t move.

Serge reached into the lowrider around the chain steering wheel and pulled the keys. He threw them way back into the ponderosa woods. He felt his head and looked at the blood on his hand. He went over to his fishing pole, gathered his things, and walked home, dripping blood all the way.

When Serge got home he told his panicking mother all about his afternoon. He fell off the bridge and hit his head trying to get a hook loose from some chamisa. She got him cleaned up and managed to stop the bleeding with some pressure and moleskin. There was no doctor readily available. He’d have a terrific scar and a groove beneath it where the bullet had gouged his skull.

He’d never lied to his mother before but in seventeen years Serge had never had a friend. He was reasonably certain that he had just made his first two.

Summer 1996, Milano/Bologna


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