The Routine

As Ustina drove she daydreamed randomly as to how she ended up here. Many years back she had been pissed off enough at whatever regime was in charge in The United States. Something had pissed her off enough that she was going to go some place that was foreign and mysterious. She loved a good old adventure and now after twenty-five years, that adventure is now their every day life. Alyosha let her drive and said very little. He always handled the kids. Now that he kids were that much older, he had very little to do. He was okay with this. It had been about six months since the last time they went to the coast. He really looked forward to smelling the salt air. They decided to move to the city years ago, knowing the schools were that much better.

They knew the routine well. They had discussed it often, practiced in their minds and even discussed scenarios if something where to go drastically wrong. They suspected it could happen to them, yet they believed the possibility was remote. The possibility was as remote as their ultimate destination. The drive to the beach is a straight shot south via the well lit and sporadically busy toll road extending almost to the coast. Usually during this four-hour stretch of drive they discussed the routine. This was not the stretch of road they were worried about. They worried most about when they got off the toll highway (autopista).

The last thirty kilometers, past the toll road, to their final destination was what worried them the most. It was a way of life here on the south side of the Mexican coast. You were pretty much on your own. Cell phone service was spotty at best. Police cars could be spotted occasionally. You never knew which were in cahoots with the cartels. They naively assumed there were very few.  

Ustina went over the routine with the kids. They know at least the cartels had the decency, for publicity sake, not to hurt innocent people. It wasn’t good for their reputation. If they were to steal a car, they wanted the car to be reliable and they wanted the transaction to happen fast. This being said, they were good at what they do.

The routine Ustina and Alyosha repeated back home and on several iterations during the trip, went like this. If somebody threatens us and the car the first thing they were to do was to unfasten the leashes used to tether the dogs to their positions in the far back compartment of the car. Specifically they are to turn around, and clip the dogs’ leashes on their collars and hang on to the end loosely. There would be no time for the parents to secure the dogs from the front seat. They expected if stopped, their routine is for one car to pass and then abruptly stop in front, while another car quickly comes up right behind. Then guys with guns would jump out to steal your vehicle. They instructed the kids to do as little as possible, secure the dogs and get as far away from the car as possible. Most cars were recovered quickly, however this was not always true for the dogs.

It was late in the afternoon, during the rainy season. Thunderstorms sat nestled in the surrounding mountains. They would be overhead soon. No sooner, the skies opened up with a vengeance. This forced their car to a slow crawl, as visibility was limited.

The kids were used to this routine, while driving to the coast, and never complained. The cartels were a way of life. Without conflict and violence a mutual co-existence was possible. The parent’s priorities were the safety of the children as well as the dogs. Despite what is reported by the American press, the cartels were not in the business of hurting innocent bystanders. Stealing dogs is not great for their reputation. If a cartel wanted to hijack a car, they wanted to do it rapidly and did not want to be delayed as dogs were attended to.

Today was an easy ride on the toll way. There were no delays of note. The dogs (Coco and Butter) were sleeping in the back cabin and the boys sat content listening to the music CD player in the car. The boys were born and raised in Mexico and did not have the influence of American pop culture. For this leg of the trip, they were listening to a double Elton John CD, popular back in the late seventies. One defines a classic as that which withstands the test of time. “Candle in the Wind,” fit that description. The song bellowed from their open car windows once the rain let up. It did seem appropriate.

Now living in the city, they had little need for a car except for weekly trips for the boy’s chess tournaments. Nice expensive cars were targets in this area of the country. They all were happy to drive down the twisting winding road to the coast. The air smelled of ocean, orchids and smoke from the fires set by the local fruit farmers. The harvest has been complete. Their days were now filled with clearing the fields of fallen limbs and discarded fruit packing bins and other remnants used in last year’s harvest. There were a few places on the road where they got an expansive breathtaking view of the ocean.  Low dark dangerous purple clouds obscured the sunset. This time of year they all knew where to look.

They reached this point earlier than anticipated, which made the drive more challenging. The sun poked randomly from behind the clouds. The harsh angle of the sun through the leaves created a speckled effect that made the world perform like a multicolored kaleidoscope. It was mesmerizing yet demanding on depth perception and concentration. Alyosha, although he had a license, never mastered to fine art of driving. Ustina, on the other hand, rather liked driving.  The anticipation of an extended hiatus at the beach also made driving that much easier. Driving back home was certainly more difficult.

As a family they liked each other’s company. The boys didn’t live a sheltered life. Their parents had both moved here as young adults having enough of their original country of origin. They had a certain infatuation of grandiose adventure.

Gradually the light started falling differently as shadow enveloped the car. This eliminated the dapple effect of light. The dogs panted in anticipation as if they had reached their intended destination.  This was unusual for them. Per usual in situations, needing one’s deeper concentration, they turned down the volume of the music. The children complained briefly. They knew the routine and they suspected something was remiss. A black car, with rusted rear panels, pulled up parallel to their car and eventually reached the same cruising speed. Even though they could not wait to get to the beach, they usually consistently drove the speed limit.

Ustina tried speeding up then slowing down hoping their closeness was merely coincidental. It was not, and for the first time on this familiar road they felt different, they were afraid. They’d practiced the routine and knew it well. Each one of them hoped they never had to use it. They drove side-to-side, bumper-to-bumper for approximately five kilometers. They only sounds heard were the tires on the road, the suspension of the other car and the bearings on their car. Alyosha lamented not having that fixed before this trip. That is something he should have taken care. For a few miles, there were two cars ambling down a secluded road, squeaking of neglect. It had a surreal vibe as if here they were in a video game world.

It was a narrow two-lane road and if a car came from the opposite direction, there would be no happy endings. This left Ustina with very little choice. She had to pull to the side of the road.  She had practiced this part in her head many times. In many of the scenarios she hit the gas pedal and hoped for the best. Today she stuck with the practiced routine. She knew there was no way she was going to put the children in unnecessary danger.

The black car with the rusted side panels started creeping closer and closer to their car. Once or twice, the cars touched car door to car door. An alternative was to try and outrun the cartel. Their car had more horsepower and could probably withstand the rigors of a high-speed chase better. Then again, when there were a few cartels there was bound to many more.

This did not happen as they practiced. They expected a sudden takeover of the car. What they got was a slow buildup of tension and an ample amount of time to wrestle the dogs and their leashes to the car’s middle seat.

Eventually they were forced to a complete stop and two imposing men surrounded their car. The two men were dressed far too warmly for the heat of the day. Surprisingly, they did not appear to have any firearms rather they approached brandishing machetes.  Machetes were not part of the routine.  Ustina, possibly in a state of shock, thought – “At least we don’t have to worry about school shootings.”

The barons barely had time to harass or intimidate as the boys were out of the car before words could be exchanged. Their Spanish was perfect, so communication with these men was quite possible.  The rebels mumbled something, in broken English in the boy’s direction. Neither boy understood what was said so their words were ignored. 

Two men slowly approached the parents, and without a word, Alyosha lobbed the extra key set to the larger mustached man.  The man in the mustache attempted to grab the keys in midair. He failed miserably. Both men, scrambled to find the keys in the reedy tall grass. They silently kept walking past the two bewildered men. They hurried, with out trying to garner additional attention. They rushed toward a trail that appeared to head toward the sea. They noticed the boys and the dogs doing the same. The footing was treacherous and demanded all of their attention.

The beach was shrouded in a fairly random and dense layer of fog. The boys were not immediately visible which injected fear into the parent’s heart.  The wind suddenly died down allowing the fog to hang in the air for an incredibly long time. Since visibility was limited they stood and listened.  They heard birds sing to each other, the gentle crash of the ocean at high tide, and a car door slam. Then the clouds, aided by a warm breeze coming in off the mainland, moved off shore. It was all so surreal and off in the distance stood each boy smiling and holding a dog with his respective leashes. Alyosha and Ustina had so many emotions invading their psyche, at this time and it was difficult to sort and prioritize each.

Ustina stood and cried as she saw their two kids standing sheepishly on the beach. Even though he tried to hide it, her husband fallowed suit. Once together, the entire family kept walking south with out saying a word. They knew the routine. The walk down the beach had a post apocalyptic feel to it mixed in with glimmering rays of hope. Their plan had worked and cartels were not this big scary thing everybody reported them to be.   Admittedly they weren’t working with a large enough sample size.

About two hours later they returned to the place where their car was stolen. There were many similar trails so this took awhile. As they reached the top of the proper embankment, there sat their age-old family car.

They approached the car with trepidation, did a lap around the car and met as family by the rear fender of the car. That was where they hid the extra key.

“Dad can you get the key? Said one of the boys.

They key was right where it always was. Father walked slowly toward the front of the car. And checked the backseat for hidden surprises. If there were any hidden there, he did not see them.

The front door was not locked. When he went to put the key in the ignition, there hung the keys they surrendered to the cartel. On the steering wheel sat a note that read.

“You need to get that bearing fixed.”