La Loma: A Mexican Prison Monodrama
“This is how the world works. This world, anyway.”
La Loma is a dramatic one-character play about a young American imprisoned in a Mexican border town jail. Jeff Garrison, a photojournalist on his first assignment, sets out to write a travel article about Mexico for a Texas magazine. But before he can complete his assignment, he is framed and arrested for drug possession by Mexican federales in a border town bar and held indefinitely in a squalid jail. In the months to come, Jeff faces danger, endures loneliness, and experiences firsthand the hypocrisy of the jail system. He learns the hard way about friendship, and the high cost of survival in a hellish world where life is cheap.
Jeff Garrison – A young man.
La Loma, a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The present.
(Lights and soft guitar music come up in a jail in La Loma, a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Cell walls are grey and the floor is cement. Attached to one wall is a cement slab held up with chains and covered with a blanket. This serves as a bed. Above it is a small, barred window. Against another wall is a toilet bowl without a seat, and a faucet above it. This serves as a combination shower, toilet and sink. In a corner, between the toilet and the bed, a set of wooden crates serves as a pantry. There are canned goods, books, candles and a camping stove. A small wooden barrel sits next to the crates. On the wall hangs a small American flag. In another corner, there is a crate with a burning candle on top. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling. Music fades.)
(Jeff, sitting cross-legged, rocks a bit, then stops. A maniacal look in his eyes, he speaks directly to the audience in a conspiratorial tone.)
Sometimes, I hear him. Him! I do. Limousine in the drive. My consul bringing a big surprise.
(A crazy laugh)
(crawls toward audience, on his knees)
Do you hear him? Do you?
(another maniacal laugh)
(Jeff sits, hugs his knees, rocks some more)
LIGHTS BEGIN FADING
(Jeff stands on the slab, looking out the window. He then turns and begins to flip playing cards into the open end of the barrel)
When I first came here, I didn’t know a thing. Nada. Sure, language was a problem. The Spanish I knew was limited to a Taco Bell menu. Me, I took a year and a half of French in high school. Maybe I should have gotten my ass thrown in a French jail? Oh well, maybe next time.
(gets up, picks up cards from the floor and returns the barrel to its place)
So, why am I here? For doing nothing, if that makes any sense. Down here, that’s about as clear as it gets.
Did I mention my name? No? It’s Garrison. Jeff Garrison. I’m from Camfield, Texas. Do you know it?
I used to, but I haven’t seen it in almost four years. Why? Because I’m here. In La Loma.
Did you know, La Loma means “the hill?” A small hill. A little hill. That’s the best translation I ever got.
It’s funny. Most hills go up, then come down. This hill is all going up. The hard way. There’s no coming down.
One good thing about being on a hill, though. It’s higher than the rest of this border town. It’s got a nice view. If I look out my window, I can see Texas.
(goes to slab, looks out)
There, past the courtyard. Texas! Ten blocks away. That’s all, just ten blocks. Ten blocks.
(crosses to stove, crouches, lights it, adjusts flame. Pours water from a jug into a pan, sets it on stove to warm)
By now, I’d have my BFA in photography. But everything’s on hold. Until something changes.
Hey, I was doing great. Good grades. Plus, I got my first assignment from a magazine, VACATION WEEKLY.
They wanted me to do a travel article and gave me a choice. Key West or Mexico.
Since I’d never been to either place, and Mexico sounded kind of exotic, I decided to come down here. (kills a roach by stepping on it) Damn roaches. I guess I should have picked Key West, huh?
But I’d seen photographs of Mexico. The Day Of The Dead, all that spooky stuff. I like it, what can I say? So, this seemed a good way to come down and have a good time, all expenses paid. Sitting back in Camfield, it sounded okay.
(checks on water on the stove)
Where was I? Oh, right, my first assignment. I was going to do a portfolio of a border town. (looks around, laughs) Like this. Then I was going to do a series on churches. Mainly for myself. For my spooky side.
(sticks his finger in the pan to check on the water. It’s hot, and he jerks his hand back)
Ever been in a Mexican church? The first thing you notice is how old they are. Older than God. And dark. And how much light can come from candles. Hundreds of them. Each candle is a kind of hope. That’s what I’m told. You see them blazing, and that’s where it get spooky. You start to think about how much misery there must be.
Me, I decided to focus on statues. Saints. All kinds. You know why? They’re gory, really gory. They’ve got blood, not real blood, maybe red paint, all over them. The saints look like they’ve been dipped in blood. Makes you wonder. Makes our statues back home look anemic or something.
(goes to crate, gets a jar of instant coffee)
It’s crazy that they let me keep this stove. What if I wanted to burn this place down? Maybe cement and stone don’t burn so well.
(makes coffee, drinks from cup)
What do they say, celebrate the moments of your life? (laughs) That’s me.
No, the reason they let me keep my stove is because they don’t feed you here. State prisoners have to rustle up their own food. You have to look out for yourself. And there’s a commerce system here. Buy what you can, bribe for what you can’t. Free enterprise.
Hey, I don’t mind telling you, getting locked up in a Mexican jail was never one of my dreams. (slight pause) Want to know how I got here?
It was easier than you think. I made no effort at all.
Right after I crossed the Rio Grande, I stopped in one of those little border bars. The ones with the salsa music and chili pepper lights? You got it. Smell of stale beer too.
I’m sitting in this bar, “Rosa’s.” A girl brings me a beer. Then she brings me another. She’s got a nice smile. Makes me think of Jennifer, my girlfriend back in Camfield. Wishing she had come to Mexico with me.
After the third beer, the girl comes and sits down with me. She’s got her hand on my thigh, massaging it. Feels real good. Neither one of us knows what the other is saying, but we’re both smiling a lot. Pretty soon my hand is on her thigh. I’m thinking, this is nice.
All of a sudden, I see a bunch of cops. Federales. They come storming into the bar. Now, I’m a little high, but I know something’s wrong. Maybe somebody got stabbed. But then I see they’re coming in my direction. The girl gets up and disappears.
Cops are all around me now. They’re all talking, but I can’t understand them.
One of the cops gets down. On all fours, like a dog. He’s looking under the table. What’s he looking for? When he comes back up, he’s got a big smile on his face. He drops something on the table. A bag. I see it. I look at the smiling cop, then the others. I’m a little drunk, but I start to catch on. I’m thinking, this doesn’t look so good.
(Jeff, heard offstage briefly)
Hey! Lighten up! Take it easy. What’s the rush? Huh?
(Jeff, thrown into the cell, falls to the floor. After the cell door slams behind him, the lights come up. Slowly, Jeff gets up and brushes himself off. He wears glasses, a cotton pullover and huaraches. He checks his lips and they are bleeding. He looks around the cell for the first time)
(to an unseen guard) Hey, what is this?
Why am I here?
Talk to me! I’m not playing around. I’m an American! Can’t you see that? You can’t do this to an American. I’ve got rights. Ever heard of rights?
(in shock, he looks around cell)
So, it’s funny, huh? Think so? Yeah, real funny. What do you think you’re doing? Tell me! Just what do you think you’re doing?
What is this place, some kind of holding cell? What are you going to do? Keep me overnight, put a little scare in the gringo?
(to guard offstage)
Don’t mess with my camera. Don’t do that. Just hand it to me, okay? Hand it over and I’ll forget this ever happened.
What? (slight pause) It’s a stove. For camping. You want it? Take it! I don’t care. Just give me my camera. (acts out with his hands) Give… me… my… camera. Give it to me. Don’t you ever understand sign language?
What are you doing! Don’t do that! Don’t smash my camera!
(incredulous, he watches the guard)
What do you want? Money? Yeah, you know that word. Dinero. That’s it, right? Hey, I can play this game. (searches his pockets) Arrest a gringo, shake him down for a few bucks. (discovers his pockets are empty) You took my money! You creeps! How can I bribe you if you already stole my money?
Listen, I’m an American. Got it! (pronounces it slowly) A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n. You can’t do this to me. Just wait. All hell will break loose over this.
Don’t just stand there smiling. Talk to me! What have I done? Tell me. Let me in on it too. (angry) If this is a joke, it’s not too funny.
(quickly moving back and crouching next to the slab in fear) Hey, hey, hey, wait! Hang on a minute. There’s no need for that. Think about what you’re doing. Think about it. There’s no need for that. Don’t point that thing at me. Jesus!
(sits on slab) Okay, okay. Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m…I’m sorry. But you need to understand. There’s been a big mistake and I’m a little upset. (struggles for a word) Comprende?
Yeah, a mistake. That’s all. You just got the wrong guy. So please, don’t point that gun at me.
Hey, I don’t blame you. Mistakes happen, right? Even back home. People get arrested all the time for stuff they didn’t do. There’s innocent people on death row. Everybody knows that. Me, being here, it’s the same. But hey, I don’t blame you. You were just following orders.
Tell you what. See my camera bag? On the floor? Yeah, over there. That’s it. Um…dinero. In the side pocket. Take it, it’s yours. Just let me talk to someone.
You don’t understand me at all, do you? Well, don’t worry. I’ll get all this straightened out. You’ll see. For now, put the gun down. (motions) Just-put-it-down. Put it down. Good! Okay, that’s better. (sigh of relief) Yeah.
It’s like this. I’ve never had a gun pointed at me before. It’s a …surprise, that’s what it is.
Hey, where are you going? Don’t leave. Come back. We need to settle this. (moves off slab) You aren’t leaving me in here, are you? I’m an American citizen. You can’t just walk away from me. Listen! I didn’t do anything wrong! Come back!
LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK
(Jeff stands centerstage, facing the audience. He holds his ankles, pants around his feet, being stripsearched)
(in pain) I’m not holding anything! What makes you think today is any different from yesterday? Don’t you guys ever get tired of this?
(Jeff screams in pain, then pulls up his pants and moves to stage right, looks back at the pace he was just before)
I left, but my body didn’t. I left, even if it was just inside my head. I went to a place where I could be safe.
I must have been nine or ten. A creek ran by our house. Next to the creek, some trees. In one tree, my buddies and me built a treehouse. That was our world, our safe place.
Sometimes, I went there by myself. My Dad was weird on me, what can I say? He started in on me when I was pretty young. Made me have sex with him. What could I do? How much power does a nine year old have? So, I’d leave. Go to my treehouse, even if it was just inside my head. No pain there. If you were me, you’d do the same. Wouldn’t you?
In the treehouse, no one could get to you. You were safe. You could dream. Look over the trees, across the town. You could see the future. And you know something? The future always looked better.
If you want to survive, you’ll find a way. The pain’s not so bad that way. For me, it’s a treehouse. Maybe it’s different for you. But you understand, don’t you? It’s how we survive, over and over.
I’d have done anything to stop those stripsearches. Stripsearch. That’s a funny word for rape. Hell, they weren’t looking for anything. They wanted to get their rocks off. Show who’s boss.
When it happens, I can hear screams. Loud, sickening screams. It took me awhile to realize they were my screams. Over and over. But I was safe. I was in the treehouse. They couldn’t touch me, not really.
(Jeff assumes the stripsearch position again)
I see the trees. The creek. I can see a long, long way.
LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK
(Jeff sits on the floor next to the toilet. He is battered and bloody. He sees someone approach the cell. Wary at first, he then seems surprised)
(rushes to the door) Wait a minute. You speak English? You’re American, aren’t you?
(shakes hands) I’m Jeff Garrison. Yeah? How did you know?
(looks around) Yeah, I guess it is a small place. I haven’t seen enough to know for sure. And I’m not sure I’m going to make it through the whole tour. Even if it’s a short one.
So, what’s your name?…Mitchell? Mitchell what?…Oh, okay. Just Mitchell.
(feels his head) How do I look? Feels like I need some minor surgery. I’d kill for a few stitches.
Good question. I don’t know why I’m here. All I know is that I was sitting in a bar, drinking beer. And now I’m here. The cops said they found something under the…
What’s so funny?
Heard it before? But I haven’t talked to you before.
Happens all the time, huh? Great. So what happens next?
What do you mean, wait. Wait for what? Hey, where are you going?
Mitchell! Wait! I’ve got some questions.
(quietly) Yeah. See you around.
(Jeff looks around the cell, then slowly goes back to the place where he was sitting)
LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK
Christopher Woods has published a novel, the Dream Patch, a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues, Heart Speak. His photo essays have appeared in Public Republic, Glasgow Review and in Narrative Magazine, among others. He lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas, and shares an online gallery with his wife Linda at Moonbird Hill Arts.