The Ride

It’d been a year since I decided to reboot my life and move back to the city where I was raised. My business had failed and my so-called wife had me thrown in jail on a trumped up charge. Meanwhile, she took a three-day liberty to clean out our bank accounts and possessions and hightail it back to the Rockies. At least we hadn’t had kids in the two-year mess. Although I still missed the dog.

Coming back, I sort of crash landed in the heart of the city, in a neighborhood called Mid-Town Heights, otherwise known as ground zero for the immigrant population. Driving the streets was like a scene out of National Geographic. Tall slender women covered from head to toe in colorful robes, men in turbans and skull caps and old women in woven conical sun hats all graced the side walks of the multi-ethnic neighborhood.

I developed a taste for East African sambusa, Central American pupusas and Vietnamese noodles. It was through soccer, though, that I got to know the people and found out about the school. I considered myself a hard-core player. Still, I had to prove it on the field, because soccer, or as they called it, futbol, was their life.

The school was where they went most nights to learn English and where I came on board as a volunteer. It was about the only worthwhile thing I’d done lately. The place looked more like some seedy government building than a school, and sat across from a gang ruled park, I called, the war zone.

They had me in a level 1 class helping the teachers with equipment, what little they had. I handed out copies and kept the roll book, but what I liked best was helping the students. I’d pull out one or two for tutoring. That’s how I met Tambo, and in turn, his older brother Jean, both refugees from a civil war in the Congo.

Tambo had learning problems, but there was something about him I liked. He seemed so much a stranger in a strange land and I felt strange too in my own land. I let up on him after Jean told me about what had happened. He’d been tortured, his wife raped and killed. Brain damage and trauma, I found out, made it hard to learn English.

Jean, on the other hand, had command presence and spoke English well. He could have been the Congolese president for all I knew. The students respected him and I heard a few stories of how he had helped people out in scrapes.

One night during the break, I was cooling my heels in the parking lot. A police helicopter hovered over the park with its searchlight poking through the darkness.

“Good evening, Pablo,” Jean said sounding like an African Maurice Chevalier from behind the glow of cigarette. Pablo was my soccer name. I liked it better than Paul. We talked about the World Cup and the chances for Senegal, which had just upset France in the opening game. I was surprised when out of the blue he asked me for a ride.

“Don’t you know anyone with a car?” I asked.

“It’s not just that,” he said. “I need someone I can trust, someone who knows the area.”

“What makes you think you can trust me?”

“Tambo says you’re an excellent teacher.”

“Hey, I’m no teacher. I’m a volunteer.”

Then he leaned over in a conspiratorial way. He got close, closer than our culture allows, which made me back up a step.

“There’s a man, a bad man, who’s been putting the scam on some people.”

“Why not call the cops?”

“Partly the language problem and the culture. Cops aren’t high up in most of our lands.”

“So they came to you. What do you propose to do?”

“I’m going to kill him.”

“Tell me I didn’t just hear that!”

“No, I’m kidding.” He chuckled in his baritone voice. “But he must be stopped. He’s a predator in our community.”

He went on to tell me about this guy’s con. His name was Koa Lengol. He was from Angola. He’d been a mercenary in Africa; spoke Portuguese, Spanish and probably French.

These days commercial real estate was dead. So he would lease a space getting a few months free rent. He’d set up a language school, get the students to pay up front promising them a visa or help with immigration and then he’d get into their wallets. When people started to get on to him, he’d simply walk away from the operation, change locations, and start all over again.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I picked up Jean in front of the school. We drove to the border where he said he’d gotten a lead. We spent all morning walking the U.S. side checking commercial spaces and asking people about the English Language School. By chance, I went into a liquor store. The Iraqi owner spoke English and told me the school was behind the alley on the second story. Of course Jean had a plan. He wanted me to pretend I had a Mexican wife who needed to learn English.

Sure enough the school was in operation. There was a class with about eight students. Down the hall I found an office with a secretary and the trappings of a real school, except the secretary had a top cut so low you could have fallen in and she didn’t seem to speak English or type.

Then the man himself appeared. Tall and lean, his eyes flashed from hostile to charming when I explained my situation. He pressed hard to get me to sign up and pay a registration fee. He was all snake and even had a business card as if that made it legitimate.

When I got back to the car Jean listened to every detail.

“That’s him.”

I showed him the business card with the name, “Kapo Melon. English Language Center.”

“He has many identities.”

Jean suggested we cross the border and have lunch. That sounded like the first good offer I’d had. As we approached the Mexican side, Jean pulled a gun from his waistband.

“What the hell? You can’t bring a gun into Mexico! They’ll put you away for that.”

“They don’t check you going down,” he said as he slipped the gun under the seat.”

“The hell they won’t. Damn, Jean, I can’t even turn around now.”

“Be cool, man,” Jean said. “We’re making progress.”

I was surprised when he instructed me to turn east and soon we were on a rough road heading parallel with the border fence into a Colonia I’d only heard of. As we wove through the maze of streets and bustling people, Jean told me that Koa was more than a con man. He’d been a mercenary leader in the Congo uprising. He’d committed many atrocities including the torture of Tambo and the brutal death of his wife.

If I’d had mixed feelings before, they were now gone. Koa Lengol was one of those guys who seemingly operated with impunity. He’d have taken you for your last quarter. For him, these immigrants and the U.S. must have been easy-pickings.

We stopped in front of a ramshackle house constructed of block and mortar and half-built additions. I had an urge to floor it and get the hell out of there, but Jean opened the door and hopped out. A man standing in the shadows of the house greeted Jean and they shook hands like they’d been in prison together.

He had the requisite shaved head, and tattoos, but was surprisingly hospitable. Inside, two teenage girls sat at a table in an open-air kitchen. An older woman stood behind a propane stove cooking food.

The girls, with their ratted hair, smiled flirtatiously. “Don’t even look at them,” the man warned before taking Jean out back. “They’re trouble.”

The old woman put a plate of food in front of me and gestured. The girls in the kitchen giggled, “Go ahead and eat, gringo.”

I was pretty sure I knew what happened at that meeting. The events starting in Africa seemed to slowly spin down and I felt like I was watching the gleam off the spokes with the proverbial wrench in my hand.

There was no gun to worry about when we crossed back to the U.S. I dropped Jean off on a corner near the school.

“Forget about this,” he said.

That was the last I saw of him. It didn’t surprise me when a few weeks later this item appeared in the paper: “Border Shooting Remains a Mystery.”

The semester ended and Tambo actually moved up to level 2. He doesn’t talk to me anymore. I guess I understand why. I got hired on as a teacher’s aide and I’m still playing soccer on the weekends. Most days, I try not to think about Koa Lengol.