Exaggeration and Blank Verse
That's Why God Made Mexico
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And that's why God made Mexico
A place where we can lay low
Where the Cuervo goes down nice and slow
And the warm winds blow
That's why God made Mexico

~Tim McGraw

The CTU conference room was always just another part of the office, a room I could walk into and not even see. Now it's too shiny and clean and bright to be real, and I don't want to sit down or touch anything because I know I'll get it dirty.

And my coworkers, the men and women standing around the room, sipping coffee and staring at me like I was just dropped off by aliens...they're too bright and clean and shiny too, and it's impossible to believe that I ever was one of them, or that I ever could be again.

"Jack?"

Christ, they're all looking at me like they expect me to whip out a can of lighter fluid and barbecue a live puppy.

"Jack?" Someone touches my arm and I jump a mile, going for the knife that isn't there because I had to leave it at security.

"Whoa, Jack, turn it down!" Tony takes a step back, hands up. Everyone else in the room draws back too.

I close my eyes and try to breathe. CTU. Safe. Safe. Shit. "Sorry, Tony. Hair-trigger, I guess. Sorry."

He nods and lets his hands fall, taking a step towards the table. "If you want to take a seat, we're ready."

I grab a chair and pull it around so my back's to the corner. Clear view of the whole room. Safe.

I'm less secure here than I am in Mexico, because here there are rules and I can't remember them all and if I break one there'll be trouble. Down there there aren't any rules and as long as you're just as much a badass as everybody else in the room, or you're Salazar's guy, there won't be any trouble except the kind you want there to be.

Black and white and gray, and the black-and-white world is scaring me these days because if you're not one you must be the other, and I may not be completely sure what I am anymore but I know I'm nobody's white knight. If I ever was.

Tony's started the briefing, and I try to listen and answer questions when it's expected of me. Play the game, be Jack Bauer: CTU Agent instead of Jack Bauer: Mercenary Freak for a little while. Think of it as another layer of acting instead of a reversion to a true self that may or may not exist. And overthink everything while you're at it, Jack. Jesus.

"...Chappelle faxed some questions over," Tony goes on, passing a sheet of paper down to me. "He would've been here in person, but short notice..."

"Yeah, sorry about that," I say, attempting a smile. "Turns out, drug lords haven't caught on to the day-planner and schedule-in-advance school of management yet."

Nobody laughs. Tony shuffles more paper. I picture what would happen down on the hacienda if someone didn't laugh at one of Ramon or Hector's jokes.

"How much padding did you give yourself on this job, Jack?" Gael asks, and I think about lying so he and Tony won't set up a meeting to discuss Phase Two.

Be a good soldier. "About twenty-four hours. Told them I'd be back tomorrow, finished my delivery this morning." This was the first solid proof that the Salazars were really trusting me, sending me alone to LA on a job. All my briefings before now had been hurried conversations on Mexican pay phones, or well-spaced-out occasions when I'd simply vanish from the hacienda for a few days. I'd come back grinning and high and reeking of smoke and tequila, and everybody would just laugh, because Wild Man Jack could get away with that sort of thing...once in a while.

"Okay." Tony makes a note. "You know what, Jack and I can finish this in my office. The rest of you can go ahead and take off."

Everyone makes their way to the door, some of them offering me anxious smiles or pats on the back. I try not to shudder when they touch me. They try too, but I'm better at it.

"This won't take more than a few hours," Tony says apologetically once we're in his office. Yeah, and then Gael will come up here and we'll do three hours on Phase Two. Don't bullshit me, Tony. "I'm sure you'll want to see Kim tonight, maybe go home for a while."

I stare at him blankly for a minute before it clicks in my head. He means the house. Where my furniture lives. "Yeah, sure, I suppose."

He glances up from his paperwork. "You don't sound too enthused."

I suppress the quick flash of rage at his challenging me. What would Hector do? What would Ramon do? Feed him his own liver...on toast. "Come on, Tony, you know it makes things harder. It would be better if I could just stay down there and not break character for these meetings. It screws with my head."

He nods. "Deep cover's a bitch."

When have you ever done deep cover, kid? I snarl in my mind. "Yeah. Let's get on with it, okay?"

***

I have to take three quick shots of tequila before I can open the door for her, and when she breaks off the hug to wrinkle her nose at me, I wish I'd had more. "Geez, Daddy, you couldn't take a shower?"

I take a careful step back and fold my arms tightly across my chest. "I'm supposed to be making a delivery, honey, sleeping in my car."

She bites her lip, knowing she's broken the moment but not able to stop herself. "Your character can't get a motel room for an hour to rinse off some of the stink?"

"How about a compromise?" I say, trying to smile. "I'll change my clothes while you order the takeout."

She nods and goes for the stack of menus in the kitchen, where the appliances are dark and unplugged. "What do you want, Daddy?"

To go back to the Salazar's. To be a car salesman in Receda. For you to be eight years old and looking at me like I'm a hero instead of somebody you used to know. "Whatever you're hungry for, honey."

I slip back into the bedroom, where the furniture's covered in plastic sheets and the clothes hang in motionless musty rows. I grab a flannel shirt and pair of jeans that probably date back to college, and while the clean fibers make my skin prickle and my heart jump, it's not as bad as it would be with something fresh and pressed and new. I fold my dirty clothes into an awkward pile- Kim's right, they stink, a stale reek of sweat and booze and hot Mexican dust- and shuffle back to the living room, where she's tugging the slipcover off the couch. "No, leave it-"

She looks at me, eyes and mouth tight and annoyed. "Daddy, it's your stuff. You live here. You can sit down."

"I don't want to get it dirty," I say helplessly, wondering why nobody up here in this bright shiny polished-chrome world can understand that.

"How about a compromise?" she mimics me, pulling the sheet off one cushion but not the other. Half her mouth tips up in a little smile, just like her mother, and only the fact that a CTU vehicle dropped me off and my own car's hidden in a ravine six miles outside the city keeps me from bolting right out that door and heading for the border.

She ordered Thai food, and it's spicy in exactly the wrong ways, and try as I might I just can't bend my mind around her talk about therapy and her last few classes and the upcoming job hunt in a rough economy. I have nothing to contribute because there's nothing I can say that isn't confidential, and she keeps giving my bottle of Cuervo a disapproving stare that just makes me want it more. The evening wears on and my bones start to ache and I feel myself get jumpier, and she keeps asking me if I'm okay until I want to either beg her to leave or hit her hard enough to make her stop talking.

What would Hector do, what would Ramon do, what would Jack-in-character, Jack-in-Mexico do...

As soon as the door closes behind her I'm in the bathroom, on my hands and knees, scrambling for the box I hid behind the sink. Spoon, lighter, tourniquet, syringe, peace. Sob of relief and mourning. Exhale.

I walk slowly to the bedroom and stare at the plastic-swathed bed for a moment.

No fucking way. Not even juiced up. Even if I could fall asleep in it, waking up in that bed would destroy what fragile grip on role and reality I have left.

The bathroom won't work either. The tile's hard enough, but too pretty, too shiny, too clean.

I change back into my dirty clothes and go down to the basement. The cleaning woman and her mop and vacuum don't come down here. A thick layer of gray dust coats everything.

I lie down on the cool cement floor, wadding my jacket under my head for a pillow. Junk flows through my veins, sweat cools on my skin, dust fills my nose, and I sleep like the dead.

The next morning a nameless CTU drone drops me off at my car. In a heartbeat I'm in the southbound lane racing for the border, thanking los santos y los angeles that this time I can still go back.

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