The man explains the world for the benefit of his wife and daughter as yellow-winged vireos chase each other through the open stanchions of the garden restaurant, scolding and cawing in imitation. It’s still the cool of the early morning: the Central American sun hasn’t gotten over the leathery green cocoplums yet. Nystrom stares at his coffee in misery. His mind had been a merciful blank this morning, almost as if time and distance had finally started to do their work. Then the pundit showed up.
“”Well, the Canadian government is no different than the Soviet Union. They have total control of the media. And the French are corrupt. They’ve been bought off.” The man is heavyset, in his fifties, with a goatee and shining bald pate. His daughter nods, rapt, while his wife eats tortillas in green sauce, head down, shoulders hunched. Nystrom watches through dark glasses over the corner of his book, his body deliberately angled away from them.
“That’s what I’m saying, Daddy. Like at school. What about my rights? What about my freedom of expression?”
“Holidays—what do they think the word means? Holy days! Hey senorita! Would you warm up our coffee already?”
“Yes, sir.” The waitress curtseys. She looks to be in her sixties—a slender brown-skinned woman with neat hair in a plain gray dress. She comes out again with a heavy ceramic pitcher and pours coffee for the family, as the man keeps talking. Nystrom is the only other customer, so she comes over to his table and refills his cup too.
“Thank you so much,” he says pointedly. “Everything’s delicious, by the way.” She doesn’t meet his raised eyes, and if the man and his family hear, they give no indication.
“Except for a tiny corner of the Northeast and those wackos in Southern California—” His arm flings out in emphasis, knocking the pitcher out of the waitress’s hands. Blue and white pottery smashes against the red tile patio. The man looks at his sleeve in disbelief. “There’s coffee all over my Irish linen.” The woman does not answer. She is immediately on her knees, picking up the shards and putting them in a napkin.
“Well, that’s a free breakfast,” the man says to his family.
Nystrom thumbs out money from his wallet—more than he owes. He stands, pulls off his glasses, and says, “You don’t have to be rude.”
The man blinks at him in disbelief, then chuckles. “Oh, I bet you just love them, don’t you?” The daughter stares a hole through Nystrom, her face crinkled with revulsion.
On the long walk through the resort town streets to the dock, Nystrom flexes his small fists uselessly, his agitation all the way back to square one. This vacation isn’t working after all. It’s been eight straight mornings of silent flight in the immense blue of the Belizean reef: of slow-motion barrel rolls and Immelmans over red and orange sponge gardens; of shadowing heavy-jawed iridescent parrot fish as they crunched up bits of coral; of watching long silver barracuda hang motionless at the edge of visibility like spear blades. But it’s been empty sensation and spectacle, a sentence suspended, not commuted, and even so small a thing as the scene at breakfast is enough to wipe away any illusion of recovery.
His manager at the bank called it compassionate leave, insisting he take the extra week, not out of sympathy but because his work had suffered. He’s still not over losing Maryann. Not hardly. Now she breaks through the barriers he’s set up and into his thoughts again: it’s four in the morning outside some club in Tribeca and she stumbles and falls against a parked car, laughing. He goes to pick her up, and as he does, she giggles, “Hurray, it’s Little Miss Goodguy.”
Nystrom spends a long morning diving, then lies on the brilliant white beach alone in the crowd, smothered in sun-block—the tropical rays burn his pale skin without tanning it. He takes his regular dinner on the restaurant patio, surrounded by happy couples from all over Europe and the Americas, and after his coffee, Nystrom is jittery, restless. He’s sick of being a tourist among tourists. The morning’s encounter has set off something inside him.
He takes a nighttime stroll into the shanty town behind the resort, where the waiters, dive boat crew, and hotel maids live. He ends up in front of a gray wooden shack festooned with conch shells and orange plastic flowers, with a hand-painted driftwood sign over the door saying “Local Motion Bar.” Punta music roars from inside, beckoning him in.
The room is dark and lined on one side by a varnished plywood counter faced with aluminum stools. He is the only white in the place and a dozen men—they’re all mature men except for the woman behind the bar—turn to stare at him. Their hard, creased faces show no interest in him: in fact, they’re clearly displeased he’s shown up, and his stomach falls. He’s aware how unimposing he is. But he’s not going to make a fool of himself by walking right out again. He grins, pretending he’s welcome, and goes to the bar.
Bottles of rum and whiskey stand on a plank against the wall. Above them hangs a gold and blue illuminated clock with “Lowenbrau” across the face in cursive neon. The rest of the room is taken up with card tables and folding chairs, and a brushed steel jukebox, source of the thumping punta. Cheap Christmas lights dangle from the tin ceiling
“What you want, boss?” Unlike the men, the barmaid gives him a bright smile. She’s in her thirties, plump, with dreadlocks and an orange sundress. She leans forward, puts her elbows on the bar, and looks up teasingly into his face. “Choose your poison,” she says. “We got Legspreaders, Pantyrippers, Daterapers, whatever you want.” He hasn’t gotten used to these local sobriquets, these sardonic acknowledgements of what a boat drink is supposed to do, so he glances at the list on the chalkboard and asks for a Clam Diver. A moment later he figures it out and winces.
The drink hits Nystrom hard from his first big swallow. His head becomes zeppelin-like, buoyant and awkward, and it’s as if his lips and tongue are shot full of Novocain. He can barely ask how much he owes. He almost stumbles on his way to a table, but after half a drink, he’s half persuaded that he isn’t such a sore thumb. The men stop staring, the red and green lights grow fuzzy and the blaring punta trumpets fill his head until there’s no room for bad thoughts.
When his drink is empty, the barmaid asks him if he’d like another, and if he’d like to buy a drink for her as well. That’s a good idea—the least he can do. One of the men takes over the bar, and she sits down next to him and talks. Her name is Daisy. She’s a massage therapist as well as a bartender. She has three young boys. The older two, it seems, get up to all kinds of skullduggery, stealing mangos and sneaking crabs into motel rooms. The youngest is a baby.
Nystrom finds it remarkable how well he’s getting on with her. Perhaps not many whites come in here, and she’s impressed with his courage. She teases him about his pale skin, and his thin blond hair. She’s never seen anything like it, she says, running her fingers through it. Her hands are large, warm, and strong, and smell of cocoa butter. Near the end of his third drink, she undoes the top of her dress, and pulled out one of her heavy breasts.
Nystrom does a big double-take for her benefit. “Well, that’s just beautiful.”
She giggles. “You like it?” she asks, cradling it. “I got another just as good.”
“I bet you do.” He reaches out and touches it, his thumb and two fingers on either side of the wide aureole.
The men at the bar pay no attention. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about her taking her breasts out and showing them.
“Give it a squeeze,” she says. He does, and a burst of milk squirts from the black nipple. “Surprise.” It runs over his fingers and he brings them to his mouth. The taste is sweet and faintly grassy.
“You like that?” He nods. “Listen, I got to work ’til eleven.” She slips her breast back under the rough cotton, and drops her hand on his leg. “Then I’ll give you a massage. I’ll rub you real good.” He nods, and she excuses herself.
Her smell hangs in the air, along with the tactile memory of her hand rubbing his scalp, squeezing him high up on the inside of his thigh. He’s heard talk about these kinds of adventures, on the dive boat and in restaurants. She’ll want money, but it will hardly amount to much. He’s never paid for sex, but he knew lots of men did on a tropical vacation. Wasn’t he hoping for this kind of solace when he walked over here? Isn’t he ready to touch a woman again?
But like the diving, it will just be sensation—an anonymous, impersonal distraction. And it’s not really anonymous, is it? The room is electric with a bitter, unspoken contempt. The men at the bar are waiting for him to fulfill their worst expectations. Even now, they’re shooting glances at him, judging him. He’s about to become a cliché, a dirty joke. If he goes through with it, it will feel good, then bad, then worse, and it will never go away. On top of what happened with Maryann, he’ll be a white man who prostituted a black mother.
She’s at the other side of the bar, her back to him, her ear bent to a telephone receiver. He is heavy-legged, uncertain of balance, and the walk across the room is a trial. He puts his hand on her arm, hoping his touch is considerate.
“I have to go,” he says.
She turns in surprise. “Don’t you like me?”
His tongue is thick. “You shouldn’t do it. You’re better than this.”
“Better than what?” Her mouth is still smiling, but her eyes are clouded.
“Think about your children.”
Two of the men at the bar curl their lips in amusement, their shoulders shaking. They’re laughing at him. No, they’re laughing at her. Daisy cringes, stung. Suddenly he’s glad the bar is between them, and he can think of nothing better to do than leave a twenty on the bar and make himself scarce.
In the morning, he tosses listlessly in bed. He has no desire to go down to the dive boat. Instead, he packs his bags and catches the ferry to the mainland. To hell with the resort. To hell with diving, and tourists, and the whole twisted set-up. On the boat, he thumbs through the guidebook, looking for a place to go without attractions, a place that won’t be polluted with people like himself.
The road to Dangriga takes Nystrom in a long arc through an Eden-like valley, with low dark verdant mountains on either side. The valley is given over to groves of young orange trees, only a few feet higher than a man, with sharp green waxy leaves, and bright fruit that strains the boughs. Groups of men walk along the road, wearing white smocks and carrying machetes. Braving the shooting pebbles, Nystrom rolls down the windows of his Jeep to inhale the orange-laden air.
He’d asked the clerk at the car rental if there were still any mahogany plantations to see, and the man had laughed. “Your people took all that. They sucked everything dry, then said, ‘here’s your freedom.’ The white man does what he wants. No offense, boss.” Nystrom assured him none was taken.
Maryann had come into his life out of nowhere. On the last beautiful summer day two years ago, he’d gone to a party on West 78th, at the place of a friend he’d known at Rutgers. He sat down next to her on the postage stamp of a terrace, and was immediately taken by her pretty face, long raven hair, and tragic-comic self-deprecation. After a few minutes of conversation, she’d asked him if he was flirting with her, and he said of course he was.
“Be careful, I’m the fragile type.”
“Really? You seem more like a femme-fatale.”
“Oh I’m fatal all right. Everybody just dies when they get to know me.”
“I think I’d like to get to know you.”
“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
They dated over the fall and winter. She talked about herself a lot, her tone manic and upbeat, the content morose. “I just now on the phone permanently destroyed my relationship with both my parents. Let’s go get mojitos.”
She smoked too much, drank too much, lived on French fries and doughnuts, laughed constantly, stayed up late, wore twelve shades of black, earned next to no money at a record store, and when she could afford to, snorted cocaine. It was all quite exciting, and he fed greedily off her energy.
“I’m the kind of girl bankers like you come to the East Village to meet. I’m a trophy skank.”
“I’m not really a banker. I’m more of a faceless numbers cruncher.”
“Cool. I want to lick your facelessness.”
She was oddly hot and cold about sex. Sometimes it was like living in a porn video. Sometimes she didn’t want to be touched at all. She was often sick. At first he ascribed it to her being rundown from her unhealthy lifestyle. Then he realized she was hiding something.
Finally, after spending over two hours in the bathroom in the middle of the night, she confessed. “I have Crohn’s disease, okay? My asshole is broken. So you can leave now.” She sat across from him in her tenement kitchen, staring him down under the single dangling bulb, the table between them covered in cracker crumbs. She looked awful—her skin washed out, her face drawn. “I mean, who wants a girl with a broken asshole?”
“I do,” he said. The moment crackled with possibility. Obviously, this was the point at which other men had bailed out. The temptation to break the pattern and be the hero was irresistible. A few weeks later they were engaged.
She made him happy, made him feel alive. What more did love amount to? He’d had that with other women, at least for a while. But with Maryann, it was love plus something—love despite something. He’d never had an opportunity to be brave before, and he liked it.
He comes over a rise, and has to quickly brake to keep from overrunning a roadblock. Soldiers wearing camouflage and carrying M-16’s walk up and down a line of stopped cars. One car has been pulled off the road: its doors, hood, and trunk are all open, while soldiers poke through the insides like butchers examining a carcass. Two men in smocks are on their knees on the grass, their hands behind them. A tall stocky soldier in a red beret comes striding up the line, and Nystrom feels the blood drain from his already pallid face. The soldier’s large, fierce head fills the window, and he says, “Police. Show me your passport.”
Nystrom has to yank his bag out of the back to find his documents. While he searches, the soldier keeps his finger on the trigger of his rifle, not over the guard for safety the way soldiers in movies do. The man looks at his passport, and asks, “Tourist?” Nystrom assents. The man steps back and waves him forward.
He guns his shiny red rental past the other cars, all worn to dusty grays and browns. They are filled with groups of men, all mestizo, all of them wearing a face of stoic indifference. The other soldiers don’t even look at him, and after going around the barrier, he gratefully up-shifts, putting the scene behind him. Local politics, a class and race thing. The government and its police are Afro-Indian, the term he mentally substitutes for “black.” The mestizos are working the farms and getting the short end of the stick.
A line of shanties along the road lets him know he’d reached the outskirts of the town. He passes a black shuttered building whose sign offers, “Karaoke and Lubricated Condoms,” and a long tin-walled Quonset hut with a sign over the gate that reads, “Lumber and Coffins.” A dirty, burning, cat-piss smell permeates the air. The town proper lies on the other side of a creek spanned by rusted steel trestle-work. Its lone motel is called Cedric’s Guest House.
Cedric, a reserved elderly man, no taller than five-three and wearing a checkered vest, makes ceremony of showing Nystrom his room in the low cinderblock compound. “Warm shower, towel, and television, with Jeopardy, the Wheel of Fortune and all that.” The cat-piss smell has followed him inside. Cedric says it’s something people burn to ward off mosquitoes he says, then tells Nystrom to be sure to hook the chain at night. The warm shower is a heating coil soldered to the shower head, powered by an electric cable ending in exposed copper wires twisted together. It takes Nystrom some time to work up the nerve to stand under its lukewarm spray.
As Nystrom walks into town he sees no whites, or mestizos, or anyone on the streets who could be called light-skinned. Passers-by stare openly at him, nudge each other, and point. The dirt streets of the town are wet with recent rain, and narrow wooden walkways line the main avenue. He takes to stepping off the walkway into the mud, deferring to pedestrians coming the other direction. The first time he does it, a matronly woman in heels gives him a curt nod. After that, both men and women take ostentatious pleasure at seeing him hop down and give way. An ancient man in a worn striped suit steps into his path, and with a sneer, extends an open begging palm. Nystrom grinds his teeth as his Dockers go squishing into the muck.
“Hey Mister,” a boy says. He’s about twelve, barefoot, in cut-off jean shorts and a white T shirt. His eyes are large and brown, and his face is determined. “I need help for school, please.” Nystrom keeps walking, but the boy tags along at his elbow and shakes the back of his shirt.
“Some help for school, please,” the boy repeats. He grabs the back of Nystrom’s belt, bringing him to a halt.
“What kind of help?”
“For books. They cost a lot of money.”
“I need two dollars.”
“I’ll give you a dollar. That’s it,” Nystrom says firmly. He’d never give money on the street in New York, but this isn’t New York. As it turns out he doesn’t have a single, and has to go to a fruit stand to change a larger bill. He ends up buying bananas, which he gives to the boy along with the dollar. “He needs it for books,” Nystrom explains to the frowning lady at the stand.
“Not too damn likely.”
“Thank you Mister. Thank you a lot,” the boy said, and he gives Nystrom’s hand a hard pump before turning and running off down the street. Nystrom also doubts the money will go for books, but he’s happy to at least be thanked.
The proprietor of King Burger is a chubby, sad-eyed man in his thirties who serves him reluctantly— won’t look him in the eye, gives him only the attention necessary to take his order. Nystrom takes his hamburger and plantain chips to the corner, while the other customers keep their distance. The T.V. over the counter is tuned to Fox, with the sound off. Sean Hannity’s face, flaccid and red with anger, looms over the shop.
By the time Nystrom starts walking back, the sun is setting, the shop stalls are closed, and the streets are empty. The sky briefly glows a lurid electric blue, and then a moonless and cloudy tropical night drops, hot, wet, and smothering. The dim street lights run out blocks before his motel. He hears pounding electric music in the darkness, along with the voices of young men yelling and laughing, and the crash of bottles, and he shrinks against the walls of the houses, trying to blend into them. Once inside his room he fastens the chain, and for good measure, jams the single flimsy folding chair under the doorknob.
In the middle of the night, he wakes up restless and hot, replaying his last months with Maryann. Two months into their engagement, she’d moved into his place in Brooklyn Heights, letting go of the cubbyhole she’d had off Tompkins Square. They played the happy couple: she took him to hear Joanna Newsom at McCarren Park: he took her to the Walter Findlay Gallery. Then he came home from the bank one evening to find her unconscious on the floor, blood leaking from her black leather skirt.
Three weeks later she was home from the hospital with a plastic bag taped halfway up her right abdomen. The bag attached to a plastic flange over the pink knob of small intestine that now protruded from below her ribs. An illeostomy, they called it.
“I can drain the bag into the toilet without even taking it off, see? Which is good, because this thing, like, never stops leaking. Ever. And it’s never coming off.” It was as if she’d been training for this situation for years: she’d finally gotten a gallows to match her sense of humor. “Look at that. I just got shit on my engagement ring.” She held it up to the light. “That’s so premature. I think the seventh anniversary is shit. It’s either shit or smegma, I can’t remember which.”
There was nothing to say, so he kissed her. “Oh God,” she said, and for the first time since he’d met her, she began to weep, slumping wetly against him in need and gratitude. He can’t help liking that part of the memory, which makes the rest of it worse. He jumps out of bed to stop it right there, and distracts himself by standing under shower spray for a long time, waiting to be electrocuted.
He dresses with the first hint of dawn through the dirty window. The streets are blessedly empty for the moment. This is a better way to see the town—without its inhabitants. The cinderblock houses are faded pastels. The slanting early light gives them a gauzy loveliness, as if he’s stepped into a Gaugin. Only now does he notice the arch and sway of the palms, the rustle of breeze in their fronds. The cat-piss odor has died down: now he smells flowers and fresh dirt.
A figure rides a bicycle down the street directly at him. It’s the boy from yesterday. He comes to a stop, straddles the ancient, battered single-speed and grins up at Nystrom. “I was hoping I’d find you.”
“To thank you for the dollar for my school books. But I still have to find another dollar.” The boy laughs, and Nystrom laughs with him to show he doesn’t mind.
“What do you do?”
“I work for a bank. I help people get money to buy houses.”
“You give away money?”
“Not exactly give. They have to pay it back.”
The boy considers this for a moment. “What is snow like? Does it hurt when it falls on you?”
“No, it’s like tickling.”
“How cold does it have to be for snow?”
“Anything below zero centigrade.”
The boy grimaces. “If it’s twenty here, I need a big coat.”
“That’s because you’re used to the heat.”
The boy’s name is John-Albert. Nystrom reflects that there’s something magical about describing snow to a boy who’s never seen it.
“Are you hungry?” Nystrom is. The boy smiles broadly, showing white, sharp teeth. “I was thinking that you and me have breakfast together. I know a good place.” Nystrom understands that the breakfast will be on him, but John-Albert is skinnier than a boy should be. This is better than giving him a dollar.
The boy takes him to a café down a muddy side-street. It’s a plain sort of place, but the cleanliness of the wooden walls and the careful, neat print of the chalkboard menu speak of pride. The woman behind the counter gives him a disapproving look when he comes in: so be it. Up until recently, she would have been treated the same way in many places in America, wouldn’t she? They order eggs with toast, juice, and coffee, and John-Albert orders bacon and ham as well. John-Albert asks him how big is his house, and did he have many servants, and Nystrom explains what an apartment is, and how a cleaning lady isn’t a servant.
The food comes and puts an end to conversation as John-Albert addresses his plate with concentrated fury. Other patrons sit down, and each of them, it seems to Nystrom, gives him a glare of disapproval. Perhaps this boy is well-know to them. Perhaps he was encouraging the local nuisance. Suddenly he thinks of a scenario in which a white man might show up early in the morning with a young black boy.
John-Albert grins and says, “I’m ready for another juice now.”
“Sorry—I have to leave. I have to get to the airport.”
But John-Albert shakes his head, keeps grinning and points to his plate. “I need more bacon too.”
The next twenty minutes lengthen out endlessly, as John-Albert orders and eats a second breakfast. Clearly he knows what’s going on and is playing it for all it’s worth. Nystrom finally asks for the bill against John-Albert’s objections, and has to say crossly, “That’s it. I’ll miss my plane if I stay any longer.” As he goes out the door, he hears loud muttering and is glad the accents are too thick to understand.
The coolness is gone. The sun is over the trees in a clear, pitiless sky. John-Albert follows him along, wheeling his bicycle. “Hey Mister. You have a phone card? If you’re leaving, you don’t need a phone card.” Nystrom gives him his phone card. “What about school money? I still need books.” Nystrom says nothing: he walks quickly, taking long strides, and John Albert runs to keep up. “What’s the matter Mister? I thought we were friends. Don’t you want to see my house?” Going to the boy’s house—that would really fix him. What if the boy went to the police, told all kinds of lies? He’d be lucky to get out of town alive. He’d end up paying the boy’s father everything he had. “Don’t you want my address Mister? You can send me presents.” He’d like to throw the boy down and kick him. Instead, without breaking stride or looking down at him, he hisses, “Get lost, you little bastard.”
The boy disappears. A moment later though, a stone catches Nystrom square in the back, and he runs the rest of the way to the motel, trying hard not to look behind him.
The thing to do is get out of town right now. He can spend the next two nights in a motel near the airport. He slings his bags in the rear of the Jeep. He should have asked for tinted windows: the sun is turning into a beast today.
Even when the signs for coffins and karaoke are well behind him, he catches himself looking in the rearview mirror for the flashing lights of an unlikely pursuit. He’d just wanted to buy a poor boy breakfast, for God’s sake. Now he feels like a pederast—feels as if he’d actually done it.
There’s an old man standing alone by the side of the road in the burning sun. Nystrom sees him from a long way off, so he has plenty of time to think. Hitchhikers were common in Belize, according to the guidebook, which predictably cautioned against picking them up. But the heat is awful. It must be torture to stand out there. The man hopelessly extends a thumb with a resigned air, acknowledging the inevitable rejection before it happens. Nystrom still wants to do one good thing before he leaves here. He slows down, stops, and opens the door. The man is wearing the typical white smock and sandals, under a faded canvas boating cap. He gives a yellow toothed grin through a stubbly gray beard, and wipes sweat from his forehead. “Oh Senor, thank you.”
Nystrom offers him his bottled water. “Thirsty?”
“I got my own.” The old man shows him his plastic water jug.
“I’m going all the way up the highway, all the way north to the airport.”
“Good,” the old man says, “Perfect.” He put his foot on the edge of the open doorway, and slips his fingers around the seatbelt strap. “Good car,” he says. He pats the seat for emphasis. Then he puts two fingers in his teeth and whistles. From the culvert by the side of the road there is a rush of bodies. The rear doors and hatch of the Jeep are being opened, more men in white smocks climb in, laughing and speaking rapidly in Spanish. Nystrom’s only Spanish is what he’s gleaned from ads on the subway. The old man observes all this with beneficent approval. “My family.”
“So I see.”
The old man steps aside and a huge burly young fellow with a heavy beard sits down in the passenger seat. “Buenos dias,” Nystrom says. The man doesn’t respond.
The old man gets in back and Nystrom turns to look behind. “My nephew,” the man says, indicating the giant. “My brother, my other brother, his friend.” The four of them squeeze in the back, their thighs pressed together. Nystrom registers only that the men are short and their faces show no comprehension of the old man’s English. One of them holds a clutch of black handles that rise just over the car seat, and after a moment, Nystrom understands that these men are orange grove workers, and that the handles are attached to machetes.
The old man nodded proudly at all of them again. He’s not old, Nystrom sees now, he’s forty-five at the most. Nystrom was confused by the lines in the man’s face, and his thin frame, which is not, in fact, wasted with age but rather worked and worn to cordlike muscle.
“We got a long way to go. Lucky we met you.” the man says, by which Nystrom understands that he is to put the car in gear and drive.
“Good,” the man says, after a few minutes. “I got more family up north.”
“I guess this is the only way to get around. I guess there’s no bus.”
“No bus,” the man agrees, and turns to his brother and begins a conversation with him and the two other men. It’s a merry conversation that Nystrom is not meant to be part of.
So many breathing bodies overwhelm the air conditioning, which has been barely adequate with a single passenger. The heat from the sun directly overhead is rising from the black asphalt into the frame of the car itself. Glare seems to come at the windows from all angles, and even behind his dark glasses Nystrom squints. Sweat trickles down his neck, his back sticks wetly to the vinyl seat, and the car fills with a warm, locker room smell.
The big man next to him leans back and sprawls, his elbow touching Nystrom’s. “Ask him to buckle the seat belt,” Nystrom says. The conversation behind him continues uninterrupted, and Nystrom has to repeat himself loudly.
“The seatbelt. No es seguro. Es … peligroso,” he said, grasping at words from the signs not to ride between cars.
The old man speaks to the nephew, and after a moment, the nephew bats Nystrom’s arm with the back of his hand and makes a curt comment. The older man translates, “He says if you drive carefully he won’t need a seat belt.”
They knew what they were doing, of course: that someone might stop for a single person, but not a swarm like this. He pictures them waiting in the shade of the culvert, and laughing at the thought of tricking an unsuspecting stranger. Not only is the long drive he’d hoped to enjoy ruined, but now there’s the painfully obvious question of whether he should be afraid.
“You a tourist?” Nystrom can only nod. “Beautiful country, right?” the man asks. “You can grow anything here, it grows like a fire. I used to grow ganja, man. Acres and acres. We’d take it out and put it in a pothole in the road and run a truck over it, mash it down real good. Then we’d put it in a bag, tape it up tight, put it on a tire, float it all out to a seaplane, take it to the states.”
Again, Nystrom smiles and nods.
“You want to know why I speak good English? I work with this guy from Los Angeles, for years. He’s in jail now. It’s good business, but rough, you know?” The man thrusts his leg in between the front seats and pulls up his trouser to show a jagged purple pockmark in his calf. “That’s nine millimeter, bro. That’s where they went in to save my leg.”
“La musica.” The words come from behind, and at first Nystrom doesn’t understand. The old man’s leg disappears. Then the brother’s brown hand pushes past his shoulder to turn on the radio, twisting the dial impatiently, flashing through weak voices and snatches of music until he finds a channel coming in strongly, playing salsa. He turns up the volume until Nystrom’s ears hurt. In the rearview mirror, the brother’s scowl breaks open into a lupine grin.
The man leans forward and shouts in his ear. “You like?” Nystrom shrugs. “We’re going to a party. Theres’ going to be music, dancing, food, beer.”
“I have to catch a plane.”
“You’ll get your plane. Don’t worry.”
As they drive on, the sun slides down in the sky until it shines directly into the driver’s side of the Jeep, filling the car with brightness and heat. Nystrom squints behind his dark glasses, and twists the shade this way and that as the road curves, trying to give himself some kind of relief. The music is too loud: it feels like the drumsticks are beating on his forehead. He aches to urinate, but feels ashamed and unable to mention it. Up ahead, the road forks. The highway to the airport is to the right. Nystrom shifts lanes to follow his route, but there is a chorus of sharp objection in Spanish.
“No. Take the other way,” the old man shouts, “We have to go the other way.”
“I’m sorry, I’m going to the airport.”
“Hey, don’t worry about the airport. Plenty of time for that. We go this way now.” He doesn’t try to hide his irritation. The nephew says something and spits on the plastic floor mat. “You’d better do what he says,” the old man remarks, clearly wanting to stay out of whatever business his nephew might have with Nystrom. Nystrom takes the left fork.
Nystrom considers ramming the car straight into one of the maddeningly picturesque palm trees, then watching them all fly past him in a cascade of angelic white cotton smocks and auto-glass. At least it might stop the radio. He reaches to turn it down but the nephew grabs his forearm. The pressure is intense. The big man then takes Nystrom’s upper arm between his fingers and squeezes experimentally. Nystrom catches the word, “pollo,” and there is a prolonged burst of laughter from everyone. The old man explains, after he catches his breath. “He says you feel like chicken.”
They leave the orange groves, and there is only jungle on either side, for a long desolate stretch. The roaring salsa has a strange soporific effect on the men, or perhaps the heat catches up to them, and they begin to doze. Nystrom is alone with his fear, and his memories.
For weeks, after Maryann came home from the hospital, they lived in a state of unreality. He tried to lose himself in the specifics of the medical and financial issues. He’d never known so much about anatomy, antibiotics, and disinfectant, and of course there were bills and devious letters from the insurance company, all the things he was better at, more careful at, than she. There were expenses too, that the insurance didn’t cover and she couldn’t afford, and he met those himself. He kept his mind off the future, telling himself he had to get through this stage of acclimatization first. Neither of them mentioned thee wedding.
One night he woke up in the dark knowing something was wrong. He shook Maryann and said, “Are you all right?”
After a moment, she’d said, “Yes,” then, “no,” then, “Where’s my bag?” He turned on the light. They were both covered in it. Her bag had ended up down by their feet. “Well,” she said, “another shitty start to another shitty day.” When he didn’t laugh, she said, “Oh fiddlesticks,” and they lay silent for a time.
After they’d cleaned up, and he’d stuffed all the bedclothes into a plastic bag, he asked her to sit down on the naked mattress. He put his arm around her shoulders, but she was limp under his touch, waiting for him to say it.
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I wish I could. I think it’s best I just be honest about it.”
And that was that. She disappeared from his life with remarkable convenience. Once he’d said it, she had no interest in talking to him. He kept expecting there to be another scene, but there wasn’t. Calling off the wedding was easy: evidently these things happened all the time, and the caterers and the hall were only too happy to pocket his deposit. He tried to check on her, but she never answered her phone, or returned his calls or emails. Eventually, he wrote her a long letter. It was a failure of his own character, he said. If it was any consolation, he felt like he was in hell over it. He hoped writing the letter would make him feel better, but as soon as it was in the mailbox he knew it was pathetic. Then he’d had trouble at work. Then he’d come here.
The sun through the driver side window is broiling alive in his seat. The singer on the radio howls, “Cuando cuando?” over and over again. The men in the back are awake now and laughing. In the mirror, their faces blend into one another, like a pack of dogs, and the breath of their salivary cackling is humid on his exposed neck.
They come into a town, and Nystrom downshifts to approach the knot of traffic at the red light of a crossroads. Time seems to slow down too, and he takes in the green and yellow awning over the market, the Pepsi sign in the window, the single-pump gas station without an office, only a card-table under canvas tenting. He comes to a halt behind the other cars at the light. Men, women, and children bustle through the street, laughing and talking, and he envies them all.
Past the nephew, through the car window, blue and white stripes catch his eye. They run horizontally across an otherwise gray and dull two story concrete building fronted by wide steps. Heavy blue glass lamps hang on either side of the door. It’s a police station. Soldiers lounge on its steps, like disaffected youths on a brownstone stoop. There is a rapping on the window. Nystrom rolls it down to speak to the sharp-faced black soldier with a rifle over his shoulder. Two of his fellow soldiers stand a few yards away, smoking cigarettes and looking hard at the car.
“Police,” the soldier says. He bends down, peers into the car, and takes in the big nephew, the old man, the other three men, and the stack of machetes.
“Mister, ” the soldier says softly, “I think maybe you got some kind of a problem here.”
“No sir,” Nystrom says. “There’s no problem at all.”
Edward Porter’s short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, Booth, Printer’s Devil Review, and Inch, and has been anthologized in Best New American Voices 2010, and Best Indie Lit New England. A former Madison Fellow and MacDowell Fellow, he has an MFA from Warren Wilson, and a PhD from the University of Houston, where he was a fiction editor for Gulf Coast. Currently he teaches creative writing at Millsaps College.