Nathan demands details from Rocio once again. She lowers her eyelids as she speaks. The way her eyes move furiously beneath the skin, as if she’s exhausted by his questioning, puts him in a volatile mood. She doesn’t seem to understand all he’s risking by talking to her.
“Come on, Rocio, I don’t have all day,” he says.
“I’m trying to remember.”
“Please try harder and try now.”
She has recounted her story before today. The first time was inside the maquiladora he manages. The second time was at a music festival. Their employer sponsors the festival each year, and Rocio, like all auto workers, had been given complimentary tickets to attend and discounted tickets for tequila and beer.
By their third meeting, Nathan believed Rocio’s story. What he would do with it, he did not know.
“What makes you think I want to help you?” he’d asked.
“I’ve heard things about you,” she said. “Good things. Even you don’t treat workers this bad.”
He’d scheduled that third meeting away from the city and far from anyone whom they might know. Together they piloted a panga across the Rio Grande to the desert. They spent an hour walking along a remote path scattered with cactus needles and dried succulent leaves. He recorded her statements as they walked. Later, he’d regret their open-air location. The sound of wind buried her voice at crucial points.
Rocio’s hair had been in a messy braid that day, and she wore a blue scarf that covered the top of her head. She described her manager’s sexual advances, how he spoke into her ear in a voice that made it seem like they were fucking.
The fourth time they spoke was in a car parked near the grasslands. No one was around for several miles.
Today is their fifth conversation. Unlike their previous talks, this one is by happenstance—they’ve run into each other at the yearly music fest.
“Where have you been?” Rocio asks. “Do you even plan to do anything?”
Nathan wishes he could leave. He wants to go home, get drunk, watch porn. Instead he is here listening to Rocio, and she has the nerve to act inconvenienced when he asks for the details again. She should thank him for talking to her in public, for believing in her. And he does. Her story has been the same each time she’s recounted it, which tells him that it has to be true. Liars resort to the actual, true-to-life details when asked to recount a story several times. He knows this from watching police procedurals. Since moving to Mexico, he’s had limited access to cable and to Americanproduced television shows. Out of everything he’s sacrificed for this job, he misses his police procedurals the most. And Leigh.
“Who knows that you’ve talked to me about this?” he asks.
“My husband and that’s it.”
“What have you told Javier?”
She pinches the bridge of her nose between her eyes. The music of the headlining band disturbs the air, the speakers crackle with electric feedback. All of the noise appears to have given her a headache.
“I’ve told him what I told you—”
“—and what I say to you? Do you tell him that? Do you repeat what I’ve said to you?”
“Yes. Is that why you haven’t called?” Rocio stares at him. “He is my husband. I tell him everything, but I tell him he cannot repeat.”
“Fuck!” he says and spits into the dirt.
The guitarist for the boy band takes center stage. The festivalgoers—the corporate office has estimated there are three thousand of them—scream their approval, at least the ones sober enough to muster attention to watch the show. Many more people are kicking up dust as they dance and fall down drunk. Red dust swirls at Nathan’s calves, dirtying his khaki pants.
A group of workers spot him and stumble in his direction. Their pack moves like drunken coyote. He steps away from Rocio, who, also seeing the men, turns her back and takes steps into the crowd.
“Nathan!” one of them shouts.
“What’s up? Having a good time?” he asks.
“¿Tiene alguna más entradas para la cerveza?”
Nathan shoves his hand into his pants pocket to retrieve the company coupons. “No more after this,” he says.
“Nice guayabera,” one of them jokes, punching his shoulder playfully. In the past, he would have punched the man back, but he is working on his temper. He’s growing tired of anger unless it’s for a good cause.
As the men walk off, he turns and waves at Rocio through the crowd. He puts his hand to his ear and gestures that he will call her. She nods and walks away.
The guitar solo ends, is replaced by the roar of a jet. Nathan looks up. The sun is so bright he must cup his hand over his eyes, but eventually he sees it—the military aircraft performing feats, midair.
In 2005, no place symbolized daring action more than Harvard. It was right after the launch of Facebook. With the company’s ascendancy and the attention given to its founder, it was clear then that Nathan and his classmates would rule the new century. Harvard’s supremacy had always been tacitly understood on campus, in its clubhouses and bars, in the university’s polished halls and lecture rooms, but Nathan’s generation embraced this dominance with new vigor. His business-school cohort was among the first to embrace the high-tech field with gusto, to believe information technology represented their generation’s shining city upon a hill. They created prolific online profiles and applied to start-up companies by the dozens. Many of them started their own companies. Nathan and his peers owned all the latest electronic devices, but despite his interest in tablets, e-books, and such, his intellectual interests drifted toward twentieth-century industrial models.
It started with a class taught by a visiting lecturer, Dr. Camille Beckwith Lin. Even the title of her course in the online catalog seemed nostalgic: “The Way of the Dinosaur?: The Model T, Late-Stage Capitalism, and Manufacturing.”
“How many of you know that in 1908 the automobile was similar to today’s iPhone?” Dr. Lin asked one day. “And what do I mean by that?”
One of the brilliant kids in the front row shot up her arm. Dr. Lin called on her.
The student, Kilby, spoke rapidly, as if her words needed to escape her mouth. “The Apple brand, beginning in 2007, was built around the success of the iPhone, just like Ford Motor Company was built around the Model T, which was introduced in 1908 and became the standard for American cars—”
“Yes,” Dr. Lin said, cutting her off, “and the technologies that allowed for the iPhone and Model T were used to advance other industries—”
“—like the military and aerospace science,” Kilby said.
“Yes, contributing to the overall growth of the nation’s economy,” Dr. Lin said.
Young Nathan found this history fascinating. By the fifth week in the course, he knew that he would work in the automobile industry.
Part of his interest was in Detroit. From what he’d read, the city was so unlike where he’d grown up in Fremont, Nebraska that each city seemed to reside in a different nation. His friend, Walt, class of 2006, had bought a five-bedroom house in Detroit for seventy-five thousand dollars. “Nate, there are no white people on my street,” Walt had told him. “Only me.” Walt said the city was teeming with investors whose purchases of abandoned property would help the city come back. “It’s the new frontier,” Walt said, and the opportunities of a frontier seemed like heady stuff to Nathan.
And so, his sophomore year, he applied for and received a competitive internship at one of the Big Three. The company paid his living expenses and guaranteed him a job the following summer. After graduation, they hired him to work in the Detroit headquarters. His official title then was Assistant Director of Labor Relations. It was an important title, a status position. He knew this by the way his mom repeated each word in his title when she talked to their neighbors. And his uncle would tell anyone who would listen that Nate oversaw twenty-five thousand employees and millions of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art robots.
Little did he know those would be his fortune years, a brief and fleeting moment of grace.
He leaves the music festival in an old car and drives along Montemayor toward the ranch he shares with other maquila managers. In the past, the grounds were used as an artists’ colony, but the executor of the estate has suspended the colony for three years in order to sort out its tax status and to raise more capital. There is a main house, a renovated barn, and a cottage in the rear near the wooden fence at the property’s edge. The cottage is where Nathan and three other managers sleep. He thinks about Rocio’s story as he drives. Today she paused less as she spoke, and her words (“vomiting,” “nosebleeds,” “urinate on myself”) hit like the fusillade she intended them to be.
Someone has knocked over the clay vaquero and it lies in two pieces on its side. The beer bottles next to it may partially explain what happened.
He drives onto the dirt path that leads to the ranch. His car bumps awkwardly over the uneven ground. At the entrance is a wooden gate in early stages of rot. At night, the gate is pulled closed to block off the entrance to the driveway. The last person home is responsible for closing it. Nathan sees that only a few of his ranchmates’ cars are here. He leaves the gate open for those who will come home late. Unlocked doors are the preferred mode at artist colonies, he remembered from when his ex-girlfriend, Leigh, attended one in upstate New York. She was on the east coast that year while he was in Detroit for his first internship. She’d said that the old cottages at her colony had multiple doors. “Doors in front, back, and on the side of every building,” she’d said. She sent him a picture of herself riding a white bicycle on the grounds, and in the herb garden, and in town with the other artists in her residency group. Are you composing music? he wrote back to her. That’s what you’re there for. She responded that she worked at night, finding those hours to be her most productive. “The residents here want openness,” she’d said. “It’s part of the charm.” Perhaps, he thought. But lately, unlocked doors on the ranch have made Nathan feel unsafe.
“Señor Harvard,” Sergio says to him as he exits his car. “Glad you made it home. So many of us aren’t home yet.”
“The festival,” he replies.
“Yeah, the music fest. Come to the kitchen, we’re toasting Justin. There’s just a few of us.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
Justin has only been in Ciudad Juarez for a year and already he is being promoted and sent back to the States. He is a twenty-something and on the fast track. Like Nathan was before the suspicions, before he was sent to Mexico.
He walks along a path shaded by green-trunked acacias. Someone has knocked over the clay vaquero and it lies in two pieces on its side. The beer bottles next to it may partially explain what happened. Sometimes the ranch feels to him like a frat house.
He walks into the main house—a former barn—and into their shared kitchen. The men are huddled in a circle with raised bottles. “Señor Harvard!” one of them says. “Wait, wait! Stop the toast until Harvard can join us. Grab a beer, bro.”
He grabs a bottle by the neck and joins them.
“Working late, giving them hell, huh, Nate?”
“I was at the festival.”
Justin stands opposite of him in the circle. His flushed face makes him look even younger than he is.
“Bro, I’m so very happy for you and your new position at headquarters,” Sergio says to Justin. “You’ve kicked much ass down here and you deserve this new opportunity more than anyone I know. Don’t forget us, especially when there’s a job opening.”
There is laughter and the clink of glass as the men salute.
The first time Nathan realized that cruelty brought him pleasure was during his summer internship in Detroit. One morning, at a simulated factory training for workers, he watched a woman with an owl tattoo bolt screws into a chassis. She did this each time the light before her blinked green. That was the extent of what her job would be. That’s what she did over and over again, as her supervisor stood next to her with a bored look. Nathan watched as he stood next to Kilby, from Dr. Lin’s class, who had also been granted an internship. Uneasy with what he observed, he made an awkward joke.
“That’s what you call a job with real potential,” he said to Kilby.
The worker and supervisor shot him a look. Sensing that they would not respond, he winked and grinned at them.
Over the years, he often used sarcasm when referring to workers in his district. All executives did. From line bitches to slaves, they used a variety of ugly names for their employees. Once you thought of them like this it was a small leap to closing a plant with just two weeks’ notice.
“Where are you staying this summer?” Kilby had asked that day as they attended the simulated training.
“Really? How far are you from headquarters? Can you walk there?”
“Pretty much. Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m in Grosse Pointe.”
“I really like it. It’s not next to headquarters, but I wouldn’t want to be out there where you are. It’s too suburban. Grosse Pointe is right next to downtown and everyone knows investors are pouring millions into that area. I wouldn’t be surprised if headquarters relocates to downtown in a couple years.”
“The cool thing too is it has quaint shops and restaurants and it’s where Jeffery Eugenides is from. The Virgin Suicides? Heard of it?”
“I think my girlfriend read it,” he said.
He let himself think about Leigh.
He tried to forget what it felt like to be on the brink of committing bad acts. Because he liked it. And he sensed cruelty was one characteristic that made him a good auto exec.
She was taking a totally different career path from him and still, somehow, miraculously, their relationship worked. She was the only daughter of Manhattan lawyers. She’d attended boarding school and had every opportunity in life that he, as a Nebraskan boy in a family with four kids, did not have. Dating Leigh had seemed risky to him at first. He feared he could not meet her expectations. Then he got the internship. If he could secure a future at the auto company, he might allow himself to get serious with her. He’d told Leigh that he wanted his own money, not her trust-fund savings. He’d joked that he didn’t want a reason to kill her like the women who were slain for their money on Dateline.
After the simulated training tour, the interns were taken to an actual assembly line in the factory. Even with earplugs, the noise inside was deafening. The upside was that it was too loud for him to have a conversation with Kilby. He wouldn’t be so lucky once the tour ended. As they left the factory, Kilby invited all of interns to her apartment that evening.
“Why not?” she’d said about the idea of them getting together after work.
When Nathan arrived at Kilby’s apartment, everyone was outside on the patio.
“Here’s our number one draft pick,” Kilby said as he stepped outside to join them.
He knew she meant the comment derisively, but still he enjoyed the title. He was, in fact, the intern the company executives wanted the most.
Kilby drank them all under the table except for him. They partied late into the night, and Nathan ended up making out with her in her bedroom. The other interns were passed out on her living room couch and floor.
“Oww, you’re hurting me, Nathan,” she said.
In response, he clasped his hand over her mouth. He pushed down slightly so her head sunk into the mattress. “Take it,” he said. She wriggled beneath his weight. Like a cat he held his position and stared, unblinking, at her attempts to free herself. He pushed her head down again to see what she would do.
It was only when her eyelids retracted, showing the whites of her eyes, and she made a gargled sound in her throat, that he let go.
She pushed him off and sat up staring with her mouth open. Then she got up.
“I don’t know what that was about but you need to get the fuck out.”
He smirked. “Okay,” he said.
He avoided Kilby after that. Her naked ambition was unattractive to him anyway. Leigh was just the opposite. Back then, Leigh didn’t know if she was going to stick with music or get an MFA in visual art. And she always, always asked for Nathan’s opinion on things.
After that night, he sought places for his aggression in addition to work. He took a martial arts class for a couple years, kicking and punching different partners each Tuesday afternoon. When he returned to Fremont each Christmas, he’d relentlessly chop wood for their fireplace. He’d swing his uncle’s axe over and over until the muscles between his shoulder blades burned. He ran marathons. And he tried to forget what it felt like to be on the brink of committing bad acts. Because he liked it. And he sensed cruelty was one characteristic that made him a good auto exec. Most people weren’t in touch with their aggression. They’d had it drummed out of them in church or school. But for whatever reason, he was in touch with his. He remembered the high he felt knowing he could have made Kilby do whatever he wanted her to do.
He felt a similar high on the night he betrayed his company. The automaker had filed for bankruptcy that year and suddenly everyone was expected to save the corporation.
“Nathan!” his supervisor shouted late that night. They were in their fourteenth hour of work. “I need you to answer this reporter. She’s asking how we arrived at the different options for early retirement.”
He looked at his phone. A lede from CNN Money caught his attention. It read that 12 percent of his company’s hourly workers had accepted the buyout and would be retiring. That had to be at least ten thousand people. wow, he texted Leigh. 10k workers took buyout. Leigh responded with the sad-face emoticon.
“Nathan, I asked you to respond to a reporter, not to text. I just emailed the journalist’s contact info to you.”
He got up and went to his computer. Why couldn’t his boss do this himself? Surely, he had a better idea of how the buyout options were reached. The most curious of them was the one where workers with twenty years of employment or more waived all vested interest in their retirement and any claims against the company in exchange for $150,000 cash. He wondered who would choose that. It clearly was a sucker deal.
Nathan bet the information was at this guy’s fingertips, but he was too fucking lazy to look himself. He hacked into his supervisor’s email to see what he could. What he found was a list of workers who had drug addictions or bad credit. Although his supervisor’s messages with another executive were cryptic, it was clear they had targeted this group for the cash option.
He gave the information on the targeted cash options to a different investigative journalist. It blew up in the local papers in Detroit, and soon he was on a plane flying to his new position as a maquila manager. Even though his name was not mentioned in the media, and he’d never been questioned by superiors, every now and then a colleague would drop clues that suggested the company suspected him. In the murder mysteries he liked, companies sent assassins after people like him.
And yet a killer never appeared for Nathan. Instead paranoia and anxiety showed up. Nathan yelled and threw things to get the production numbers that he wanted from his workers During one of his tantrums, a robot arm was destroyed. He never broke humans, though. Never violated employment practices in the way described to him now by Rocio. Instead he threatened, raged, and bullied. He screamed in people’s faces. He refused to talk to workers who didn’t do as he said. He could go months without speaking or acknowledging an employee. He used angry outbursts to create an atmosphere that was tense and off-kilter, and through that chaos he got what he wanted and what the corporation needed: increased output. But at the end of the day he remained blacklisted. Increasing his production didn’t translate into a promotion. During his annual performance review there was always some reason, some insignificant explanation for why the promotion wouldn’t happen this time.
His family back home didn’t seem to mind that he’d held the same position and title for years. His uncle would ask him each Christmas how things were going. “Really good,” Nathan would lie, unable to explain how he’d been blocked from ever becoming the superstar so many had predicted.
“You making us proud, Nate,” his uncle, a farmer, said.
Unlike his family, Leigh’s family understood that he had been demoted. Leigh demanded to hear his backup plan.
“I honestly don’t know. Gotta figure that out.”
“You should leave,” Leigh said. “Get a job somewhere else.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“It should be easy for you as well.”
The last time they spoke he noticed the crisp enunciation of Leigh’s speech, something he’d never paid attention to in the past. That day he couldn’t get past how differently they spoke. How his vowels were flat and endless. How his speech seemed to wander.
He felt mocked by Leigh. And by desert falcons as they circled him overhead. And by the joke of being called Señor Harvard by managers much younger than him. The mocking made him angry, and the anger was a meanness carried in his eyes and contempt that seethed in the silent responses he gave to stupid questions. When Rocio first reached out to him, she stood three feet away from him as she spoke. He had to tell her to come closer, and he watched as she hesitated. It was a look he’d seen on his mother’s face many years earlier, when she was startled by a large snake in their yard. He watched her quickly grab gardening shears, never taking her eyes off the snake. She inched forward and beheaded the creature with one snap of the shears.
After the toast, Nathan and Justin find themselves drinking more beer and taking a walk together on the grounds. Nathan watches his surroundings as they walk.
The Spanish moss makes the trees look bearded. He stoops to avoid a series of hanging vines and, in the process, startles a wren. It flies away.
“Nathan, man, is it true that you leaked secrets? You don’t have to tell me whether you leaked. My question is—what I want to know is—is that how you ended up here?”
“Do you think that’s something I would do?” he asks.
Justin wipes at the hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. “I don’t know. You seem pretty loyal to the company to me. I mean, the way you push your workers.”
“Well, thanks, Justin. And no, I was never accused of leaking secrets,” he says.
Justin seems unsatisfied with his answer, but he lets it go.
“What time do you leave in the morning?” Nathan asks.
“My driver comes at eight.”
Having reached a fork in the road, they stop walking. The path going east will take Justin to the barn and the one going west will take Nathan to the cottage.
“All right man, you get some sleep, and if I don’t see you in the morning, travel safely. Keep in touch, bro. And watch yourself around Kilby. She’s the VP of Labor Relations.”
“I will,” Justin says.
They grip hands and Nathan squeezes tight. They lock eyes until Justin looks away.
“Good night,” Justin says, then turns and briskly walks off.
Nathan’s cottage door is unexpectedly open when he arrives. It is pitch black inside and his cottagemates aren’t home. He thinks he sees something move behind the door, but he isn’t sure. Probably a lizard. If he were starring in a televised police procedural, he’d walk into the cottage, fall onto his mattress, and an assassin would step from behind his cottage door. He would see the man’s gun and then he would hear it fire. Spots of blood would stain his guayabera.
But he’s not in a police procedural, he’s in real life. And despite his whistleblowing he suspects he’s not even important enough to kill. Instead, he will spend the foreseeable future here, until he finds the courage to leave.
His phone vibrates and he checks the screen. It’s Rocio, again. Who does she think she is? How dare she demand his time more than once today? He hits mute on his phone and spits into the dirt. He thinks about the thin line between saviors and avengers. He kicks a small rock into the house. He waits and then follows it inside.