I walk into casa gringo. I miss my home, in Palmira.
Jelly is back, temporarily, I can only hope; he has assumed his former room. Karina has her stuff in the room I’ve been using.
Despite cleaning and mopping the whole place, the last time I was here, it is filthy again.
I’m tired; I want to get through whatever work I have to do. I go back to the car and grab a load from the back of it and haul it into the front room. Karina and Jelly get up and help me get it all out of the car and into the house.
I’ve got my security deposit, a month’s rent, from the house in Palmira in my pocket. Richard gave it to me this morning; I think they are the same bills that I gave him when I moved in. The three of us go to get groceries at the supermercado.
We drop the groceries off at the casa, then walk over to the booze store, through the back streets of the barrio, and across the small foot bridge, over the river. This little tributary of the river is the boundary of San Rafael. As we come across it, coming back into the barrio, the heavily ladened air begins to surrender the moisture it can no longer contain. A fine mist of a rain begins to fall on us and the six bags of booze we carry.
We come through the gate into the casa. I see the cigars I found while collecting all of my stuff from the house in Palmira, left out on the porch.
The two of them walk on, into the house. I pick up the cigars; I put one in my front pocket, I leave one out, and I put the rest into my back pocket. I light the one left out, and take a few puffs to heat it up.
Jelly comes back out to the porch, with a surprised look on his face. I hand it to him. He takes a few puffs, and slowly let the smoke come out from his mouth, “nice.”
He holds it out to me to take back.
“Yeah. You take it.”
I pick up the bags of booze, and take them in to the kitchen. In the process of looking for a place to stash the cigars, I notice the espresso maker; I make a shot.
I take the coffee, a beer, two glasses and the bottle of brandy out to the porch. Jelly is lying back on the couch, smoking the cigar. He has an exhausted yet ecstatic posture and expression; I can’t help but laugh at it. He sits up. Noticing the bottle, he makes room on the couch for me, “dude!”
“Yes, dude. There is method.” I handed him the bottle of brandy and the glasses carefully, to preserve the espresso precariously held in the other hand with the beer. I sip the coffee before downing it. Slowly, so he knows what I am doing, I take his cigar. At the same time with my other hand, I take the fresh one from my front pocket, rip off the end with my teeth, and light it from his.
When I have the new one going well, I hand his back. “There we go.”
“There you go, sir.” Jelly nods to one of the brim-full glasses of brandy, sitting amongst small puddles of brandy on the table. “That one’s yers,” he points with the bottle.
I get up and walk around him to the table. I bend down to it, and slurp a mouthful off the top; so I can pick it up without spilling any more.
I look up at him, “it’s good!”
He is looking at my glass, and bends into me. It takes me a second to realize that he is refilling my glass to the brim. He straightens up again, grinning on the verge of laughter, “huh? Have some more.”
I lean over to repeat my slurping manoeuvre, but start laughing as I notice that he is moving the bottle, already leaning over, close to the rim of my glass, right next to my face. I take a quick slurp, and he is refilling it as I keep trying to take it down from the rim. I break out laughing and it spills all over the table.
“Now you’re going.” He laughs.
I haul back on the cigar to keep it hot, between laughs. He mops the spilled booze with a stinking tea towel, he snatches from the floor.
“Let me see that bottle.”
He picks it up again, as if to refill my glasses, “uh? Uh?” He hands me the bottle.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good. Chile, it’s from Chile. We’ll have to remember that one.”
“Perfect with the cigar; oh yeah!”
Karina comes out holding a loaded grocery store plastic bag, in one hand, and three glasses, full of ice, held bunched together, in the other. She has a torpedo of pop under one arm, and the cutting board under the other. She’s smiling with some kind of intent. “Cuba libré!”
She sits down next to me, and places the cutting board between herself and Jelly.
I smack my drying tongue across the drying top of my mouth, “yeah, that’ll work.”
“I think I love you.”
“You can do the honours Romeo.” She takes a knife and limes out of the bag and hands them to Jelly. She glances back at me, slyly, as if it is tricky for a woman under thirty to get Jelly to do something, like make a drink.
Jelly finishes the bottle making three glasses of rum and ice, with the same amount of brown pop, and a squeezed lime in each. “Now that’s a Cuba Libré!” He holds two glasses high, marvelling at them.
“Cuba Libré!” He hands one each, to Karina and I. He picks up his glass, and swirled the liquid around with a finger, licks the finger, “now that’s a Cuba Libré!”
Glass held high, he takes a deep breath, “here’s to friends, our health, and of course, to Fidel’s health.”
He drinks half of his glass.
Looking at him, I’m thinking, ‘he’s definitely got the contentedness thing down a whole lot better than I do’. I down my drink, to the ice.
“We should go out tonight.”
“You could be on to something, Quasimodo.”
“Olé”, he laughs. “Uh?”
“I’m thinking about it. But, I think I need more smartness juice.” I push up, into the house and down the hall.
I hear, “I got something for yuh…”
But I pass beyond the point of being able to hear it enough to understand it. In the kitchen, a virgin bottle of the nicer rum sits on the counter. “Gotchuh!”
I grab it, three more limes and the bag of ice, melting on the counter, and turn back in a continuous flowing motion, back down the hallway, towards the front porch.
But they are now sitting in the front room, facing each other on two large, ratty chairs. I pause, trying to suss out the situation.
Karina operates her video camera, capturing Jelly’s rant about how he’d spent his time away from Montalba. He’d met a woman on the Nicoya. He describes each place he stayed along a repeating theme of mounting tension. Karina encouraged the dissertation with taunts, otherwise it’s a monologue.
I go to the porch and make another Cuba Libre, and reheat my cigar. I purposely make a cloud of the strong smelling smoke. Then I light the joint, hold the smoke from it, and then send it into the dissipating cloud of cigar smoke. I heat up the cigar again, to replenish the olfactory camouflage.
It’s nice alone here in the cool, damp air, lying on the couch. I stretch out. What a day…
* * *
What is that? What is that…whistle? Ahh, the bars. There is a man in a uniform riding a bicycle down the street? Is he the one that is whistling? He glides down the street, from the north, going south. He toots the high-pitched whistle, as he glides past the house.
I’m in Montalba.
Mist hangs in the air. I’m cold. I can hear the whistle again, some distance away; it fades even as it sounds. After the echo of the whistle is gone, I can here no sounds of people. I can hear the stream, not too far away, behind the house. The streetlight hurts my eyes.
I go inside. It’s dark, and quiet. I can see the mattress on the floor by the light of the digital clock; it’s 3:00. I lie down on it. I smell stale cigar smoke. I can hear snoring. I have a faint feeling of… crowding…
* * *
There’s banging at the gate! I roll over. My joints ache. “Jelly, Jelly.”
I walk out the door. “Momento.” I say it quietly, and put my finger in front of my lips. I recognize him, “Diego. ¿Que tal? Jelly? I’ll go get him. Momento.”
The clock shows 7:00. The door of the first bedroom is ajar. Jelly lies on the bed. I call him a few times from the doorway. The rhythm of his snoring continues. I walk over and place my hand on his shoulder and shake it, just a bit, “Jelly, its Diego. Are you supposed to be working today?”
“Diego is here, are you workin’ today?
“Uh. Oh. Ah Fidel, I hope yer doin’ better than me.”
I get out of the way as he rolls off the bed. He’s wobbly on his feet, but he follows me out.
“Nada”, I wave to Diego.
I sit down on the couch. I notice the full Cuba Libre resting on the floor beside the couch, where I could have reached it last night.
“You wanna go down the river today, eh? Eh?”
I don’t really feel like it, “ugh…”
“Okay, I’ll take the job, but we gotta take Dean to the put-in. We can do that, eh? Dean, let’s go, buddy.”
“Diez minutos. ¿Okay, está bien?”
“Yeah, yeah. Bueno.” Jelly is in charge, now. He finds his stride naturally, from the centre of attention, like all of the pieces of the puzzle fitting together. He’s in motion. I take a breath and have faith.
Diego revs the engine. I can hear him pull out. The engine noise fades.
I look at the kayak I bought from Dave. Jelly looks at it. He pulls stuff out of it. “It looks good. That’s a nice paddle. I’m gonna get you another throw bag, and, uh, do you have a wet-bag?”
“I think there’s an extra around. I’ll find it.”
“No problem.” He goes inside.
I go to the kitchen and make coffee. I place one on the floor, by Jelly’s door. “There it is.”
“Yer the bomb.”
I get the stuff I need from the mess in the front room, then stride back to the kitchen and start rolling a joint. Jelly comes in. He looks completely conscious and ready to go. “We gotta go!”
“It’ll be really quick.”
“Just bring it.”
“I’ll come when he gets here.”
There’s the honk out in front.
“I’m on my way.” The espresso maker blows, “you want to split it?”
I hand him his half, and roll the second joint very fast. I put the two joints into a little plastic bottle, for just such a purpose. There’s another honk.
Diego’s at the wheel. We load and get in, pass through town, and past the CATIE grounds along the straight heading south out of town.
We come down the muddy switchbacks to the put-in. I help them unload. The smell of the spray charges me. I’m happy I’m here, now. There’s activity all around as people hurry to get onto the river. I see Angelika. She’s guiding a raft. She says I can follow along if I want.
I’m a bit tentative on the water. Angelika yells over directions. I get going pretty good, following her raft.
After a few tipping points, through which I am able to keep my head above the water, I lose it going down a medium rapid.
I’m disoriented, under the water, but it’s not like it was unexpected.
I lean forward, and try to get up on the right side. My face comes out of the water and I gulp in a lungful of air. But I can’t keep it above the surface. At least there’s no emergency for air. I can do this. I keep leaning forward, and with my paddle on the right, I push and bring my head out, trying to get the back blade up; but I’m stuck!
Suddenly, I swing upright. I lose my balance and almost swing over the other side.
“There you go, Bub.” Oliver is laughing.
“Aw, jeez’; thanks, man!”
“Yo! No problem. You alright?” I’m glad to hear his carefree drawl. I nod, as I catch my breath. “There’s an eddy right over there.” He nods towards it.
“I’m good dude.” I see Angelika, further down the river; she looks back and sees me, and smiles for a moment before returning her attention to driving the raft. Oliver continues on, to the rafts he’s running with.
I feel good.
I take it easy, but not too easy; that would spell disaster.
I see Angelika on the shore and paddle over there.
“You go for a swim?” She has amusement in her eyes.
It makes me smile, “well, almost. But disaster was averted, with the help of my guardian angel.”
“I’ll say. I’ll see you around.”
I keep going for a bit, then pull in at a landing just above water falls. I get out and have a smoke and take a drink.
I continue. Whenever I arrive at a rapids I’m not sure about, I pull into an eddy and watch a few rafts and safety kayaks go down it, to figure out the easiest way. I’m happy to get to the gorge; I’d love to swim, but I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize making it to the take-out.
At the take-out, it’s all business, loading up the truck, and heading back to Montalba. I ride in the back of the truck with the gear, and take my wet suit off on the way.
They drop me off at the casa. My back and inside my legs are sore and tired. I soak for a while, in the luxury of the hot shower. When I get out, Karina is home.
“Hey what’s up?”
“I went down the river!”
“Rock on! How was it?”
“I made it.” In a lowered voice, I say, “just barely.” I grunt a little laugh. “It was great.”
“Hey, let’s get pizza.”
We walk out, past the movie theatre, along the east side of the park. “This is a funky town.”
“Yeah. I like it. I got some great stuff over the past couple days, in this park”, she points across the street, “and another one, up that way, I think.” She points vaguely north.
“You should go down one of the rivers.”
“You know I was a river guide when I lived in the Yukon? Been there, done that. Maybe I’ll go when I come back through.”
“Take a set of keys. If someone else is living at the casa by then, ask them if you can stay anyways.”
“After. I want to show you the stuff I got today, and the Jelly stuff, last night. He’s so full of it.”
“What is ‘it’? What’s he full of?”
“Ah, he’s just him. It’s… bravado. But he’s always looking out for people around him, he’s just… sort of, doing it on the sly? He’s a really cool guy, and that stuff is just… totally on the surface. He likes to tell stories, and he’s good at it.” I never would have got up and gone on that run down the river; he was the one that made the difference. “He’s positive. It’s just a style thing. Can you think of a time where more mellow ever hurt a situation? Huh?”
“I know you are.” I smile at her, remembering how freaked out I was with my car in Atenas.
We walk over to a bench in the park with the pizza. I crack the beer I brought from the casa; I wonder if the Guardia Civil is about?
It’s getting dark. There’s not much on display tonight. I finish my half of the pizza and eat a piece of hers.
“Whad-do-yuh wanna do?”
“I’m going to sleep tonight. I’m going to leave early. I’ve still got some stuff to pack. But come back and I’ll show you some of the stuff I got today, okay?”
I smell the garden around us and stretch. “Yeah, yeah, sure; okay.”
At the casa, she shows me video of a concert. It’s marching music, to a funky beat. The musicians dance as they go along. The audience dance as the musicians march along. A whistle sounds off amongst the chorus of percussion. Steel drums pang. It reminds me a bit of the islands music.
“Where is it?”
“There’s a big park, I think it’s,” she looks around the porch, getting her bearings, “north. That way,” she points north. “North?”
“I think so.”
“Now, look at this one.” She loads a different tape into the camera, and clicks her mouse to rewind it to where she wants it to start.
It’s her ‘interview’ with the well-oiled Jelly; he seems like a drunken, braggart, and an idiot at that. She’s looped a few sections over and over, accentuating and exaggerating it.
“You gonna show it to him?”
“I dunno. I told him I was doing it. We set it up. He was up for it. He knew what he was doing.”
“Yeah. You should show him.”
“You’re uptight about it.”
“I just think that you should show him.”
“I’m going to, in the morning.”
The candle blows out.
She goes in. I drink beer on the porch.
Oliver, Brian and Jelly show up. I get a fresh bottle of guaro, from inside. We drink on the porch.
Oliver says, “come on, let’s go to the disco.”
“Dean, it’s my last night! You got to come out tonight. Hey, did I steer you wrong on the river today, huh?”
“Yuh did good, for sure. It was cool.”
“So come out for my last night in town.”
“Yeah, alright. I’m just gonna make an espresso.”
* * *
At 1:30 I stagger, partially consciousness, and fall on to the mattress on the floor in the front room. Even though it spins erratically as I lie on my back, I’m glad to be here.
* * *
Karina wakes me, and says goodbye.
Jelly’s ride falls through. He’s mellow. He’ll find another way.
We go to the train station café for food.
I finish and go to the café that makes cappuccino. I have my book to write in, and the copy of “Guns, Germs and Steel”. I start to write. But I abandon it. I read the book, instead.
After a while, my ass is sore and I’m hungry again. I go back to the casa. Jelly and Linda are in the kitchen. I get a beer from the fridge, but it slips out of my hand, rattles down the inside of the fridge and bounces off the floor. I catch it as it rebounds.
“Way to go. It’s just like Pojo.”
“Pojo?” I shake my head.
“You’ve never been to Pojo’s, in La Suiza?”
“Never. Yet. Where’s La Suiza?”
“You know, on the highway, past CATIE, the highways goes all the way around to the left, after the bridge?” I nod, thinking about it. “You could go, right, along a road.”
“Oh, yeah, La Suiza. I remember the sign.”
“Aw, we gotta go, if you ain’t been there.”
“What does he do?”
She laughs. “Sorry. He bounces bottles off the floor.”
“What does he bounce it off of?”
“Concrete. It’s a concrete floor! You gotta see it. We gottah take Dean.”
I look at my beer, placed on the counter. Beads of condensation have already formed on it. It sits in a little puddle. I open the fridge and replace it with a fresh, unbounced bottle. “I’ll have this one, then we’ll go.”
We load into the car. Brian walks down the street, towards us. I can see his eye brows perked up, sensing, something, maybe free booze and drugs? Linda spots him and challenges him, totally unnecessarily, “Brian, we’re taking Dean to Pojo’s, get in.”
The atmosphere is pregnant with moisture. I can feel it in the air as I swing my arm around. Rain would lower the humidity, and cool the air. But it’s not coming down. I pull out from the curb, cruising slowly through the barrio southward to join the highway past the main commercial section. It runs straight and level past the non-descript CATIE grounds.
After the bridge, I turn right at the spot where the highway has a hairpin curve, to the left. I pull along the broken pavement, at reduced speed. There are plenty of slow-moving vehicles going along the road, in both directions. Most of it is agricultural equipment. People of all ages walk along the side of the road. Most of them wear a school uniform of one sort or another.
We move only slightly faster than a march. Boys call out after the car. Brian answers back. He calls out randomly, ‘hello’, to people along the way, as one might call to an acquaintance.
“Dean, do you have to roll the window down to open the back gate?”
“Yeah.” I start to roll it down.
“Yo.” He, Jelly, crawls to the back, and opens the gate outward.
“Ee-haw.” Linda climbs over the seats and out onto the back gate, dangling her legs down.
We’re stopped behind a tractor, towing a wagon of sugar cane, waiting to make a left. A couple of boys talk to Linda and Jelly. They climb on board and sit on the back, with the two of them. The tractor makes the left. I accelerate to a swift trot for a minute-and-a-half.
“Hey Dean, can you slow it down; so the boys can jump off?”
I slow it down and see the boys jump off. One of them wipes out. Both laugh as they go.
There is activity everywhere. It seems like some kind of a fantastically complex orchestrated dance, with the music embedded in the sounds of the motion. Coming into it, I feel as a part of it.
The skin on my left becomes hot, almost instantly, when the sun breaks through weaker patches in the cloud. Now they come in greater frequency, and last longer. The white light is become blindingly bright.
The dashboard clock shows ‘3:33’ as we cruise towards the strip of shop fronts. Linda points to a building on the left side of the street, about a hundred metres on. “There it is, Dean.”
This is downtown La Suiza. People stroll past us along the broken sidewalks. I pull to the right and ease it to a stop across the street from a sign that says ‘Bar el Canada’.
“Jimmy Rockford[i] parking spot.”
“Yeah, this is definitely a spot.”
The street is bustling with people. It’s a small pueblo. I’m surprised by the pedestrian traffic.
Jelly slams the back gate at the same time as I slam the driver’s door. There is synchronicity here!
Inside the bar, vague black outlines jostle from the blackness. The floor is sticky. There is cigarette smoke in the air. I get a bit of a chill. A black blotch loses enough vagueness for me to recognize it as an unoccupied table. I move towards it; my eyes are beginning to pick up more light. Linda leaves my field of vision and moves into vagueness. I can just make her out talking to people at the bar. The big one looks like Loco Lee; he’s in the midst of recounting a story, in the cadence of East Coasters. He sees us.
Linda is saying something to him. He looks over again and makes his way over, “…has he not? Well!”
“Hey Lee, someone told me you are from Canada, is that so?”
“How do you spell ‘story teller’, as one word, or hyphenated, or two, separate, words?”
He looks at me, slightly quizzically, but he doesn’t really miss a beat, “why, that would be a single, compound word, would it not? ‘Storyteller’.”
“So you haven’t seen it?”
“Si. I want a beer. I can see the show later if it’s a real delay for getting a beer. You? I’ll buy you one?” I point at Brian, and raise my eyebrows?
“I’m sticking to guaro, this week.”
“Guaro. You?” I point at Jelly.
“I’m gonna stick to Cuba Libre… I’ll have a guaro, too.”
“Rodeo girl, wahdyuh want?” I look at her and place my hands on her shoulders, with my thumbs on her collar-bones.
“I’m gonna have a beer. Yah Baby! That’s why we’re here!”
“Come on”, Lee says. He starts walking to the bar.
The guy behind the bar, drying a glass with a towel, says, “Lee, how’s it going?”
“Pojo, this is Dean. He’s writing a story about driving to Costa Rica, and living in Costa Rica.” He turns back to me, “what happens in the end?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t got there, yet.”
“Is it true, you drove here?” He dries his hands on the towel, and takes mine. “Linda, it’s good to see you.” He hugs her.
“I’m happy to be here.”
“So is it true?”
“Yeah. I drove down here.”
“Where’d you come from? Where’d you start?”
I imitate his native Toronto pronunciation, “Ter-rawn’-na, that’s it.”
“I lived there for thirteen years.”
“I liked it there.”
“Why’d yuh come back, here?”
“Uh, well, my mother was ill, and I had a few hassles going on up there, you know?”
“I take your word for it; it can happen to anybody. You sound just like a Canadian with a Spanish accent.”
He shakes my hand, “that’s a compliment.”
“Beer.” Linda says. “Dean’s never seen it. Go on, show him.”
“Okay. Is that all yuh need?”
I grunt a half-laugh, the Toronto-tico accent is funny. “Jelly, over there, is getting a guaro and a Cuba Libre, and Brian…”
“Don’t tell me. A guaro?”
Brian is looking over. He holds up two fingers, like a peace sign.
“Two of them. Got it.”
He fixes the drinks, and holds up his index finger, “just a minute.” He takes the drinks over to the table, and greets the guys.
“I want beer. I want beer.”
I look at her.
“You gotta see it.”
“I want beer.”
“Okay, he’s gonna do it for you.”
Lee goes, drawn into the irresistible allure of finishing a story. He starts up where he left off.
“Okay, my friends.” Pojo puts the cork-topped plastic drink tray down. “I’m gonna show you Dean.” He points at me momentarily as he says my name, while in the motion of swinging open the fridge below the bar. He takes out two Bavarias. “Bavaria?”
“It works for me.”
Linda’s nodding, “bring it on, Baby!” She claps her hands, once. “Bring it on!”
Pojo doesn’t talk, he looks at me for a second, then bounces the brown bottle off the concrete floor. In one continuous motion, he places it on the vertical bottle-opener, attached to the far side of the bar. Gravity holds it there. He glances at me, at the same time grasping the second bottle. He keeps looking at me as he bounces, and catches it. He breaks the gaze at the last instant, placing it into a second, wall-mounted bottle opener. Then, he gently depresses the first bottle, carefully managing it, keeping the cap held, ever so lightly, on the bottle top. Now he has the second in his other hand. He brings them both, simultaneously, onto the bar before us, and withdraws, silently, backing away. More people have come in.
“Watch this.” Linda is still excited.
Slowly, the beer caps rise up, on an irregular, shifting column of foam!
“Wait”, she says as my hand reaches out for the closer bottle. “You gotta see the whole thing.”
We wait a few more seconds, then she says, “there yuh go.”
“I was your first.” She giggles.
I drink back a quarter of the bottle. “It was so good.”
“Oh yah, Baby!”
“Fuckin’ yeah!” She’s looking over at Brian and Jelly. “I want you.” She points at the table, “that’s right, you Baby!” She walks over and sits in Jelly’s lap long enough to drink his Cuba Libre down to the ice.
I join them at the table, with half a beer.
Lee wanders over, “did you order some food?”
“Someone said that the food here is good,” Brian says.
“Someone told you right.” He orders food, and brings a round of drinks back to the table.
A young woman comes over and speaks with Linda. Linda introduced us to her, Julie, a river guide, from New Brunswick. She has a tall, skinny tico boyfriend. He shakes my hand with a manic, crushing grip. I look at him in the eyes. I have to match his grip, so it doesn’t break my hand. I look at him, not concealing my boredom with it, thinking, ‘buddy, this is a sure way to lose that cute little squeeze you’ve got’.
They move on. Brian starts, “what’s up with that?”
I shake my head, and smile broadly.
The food comes; it’s good.
It’s after 5:30, maybe, 6:00; we pile into the car. Linda and Jelly again sit on the downed back gate. They say ‘hello’ to people along the way, in a familiar manner. I honk at people and wave out the window. People light up, and then look hard to see who it is.
Brian sits beside me. He randomly reached over and honks the horn.
* * *
“Hey, I’m going. I’m outta here.”
“Is it morning already?”
“I’m outta here, buddy.” He holds out his hand.
I take it and he pulls me up, and into a sitting position. “What’s yer agenda, international man of mystery?”
“I’m goin’ home. I got a ride and changed my flight to today.”
“Are yuh ready?”
“I’m stoked! I’m ready.”
“It’s good to meet you, man. Be good, but even more importantly, ‘be’.” I hug him and chuckle. “Dude.”
“Dude, yer gonna be a famous writer.”
“We’ll see, dude. Pura vida.”
“Adios amigo mio.” And he is gone.
I get up and walk to the kitchen; I make some coffee. I’m happy to have the place to myself. But it stinks of neglectful human occupation. The floor is encrusted with dirt. It’s not functional; this situation is serious; I need professional help.
* * *
I walk out to the porch; I look to the left. She’s there, the colour curiosity, next door, flaming red hair frames narrow set blue eyes on her pink face. The matriarch of the family in the next, and conjoined, house to the south, is Nuria. She’s always ready with some kind of advice, I’ve noticed. The weirdlings are there too.
Both of the ‘offspring’ have the flaming red hair, but set on light brown skin with dark brown eyes. Both are strangely tall for their age; I think she’s nine or ten, just about as tall as I am, and he is twelve or thirteen, about half-a-foot taller than I. I can see over both the parents. The colour of their hair clashes with the skin colour, like a really bad and inappropriate hair dye job.
<<¿Nuria, how are you?>>
<<Dean! I was just thinking about you.>>
<<¿Not again?>> I chuckle; she smiles. <<¿Do you know someone who cleans houses?>>
<<¿Could you ask if they would clean my house? ¿How much should it cost?>>
<<If it is very dirty, it will probably be two thousand.>>
She is happy to help. She clucks and quacks. She says there is a neighbour, a short way up the street, on our side, who will do the cleaning for me. She says that she will arrange it in the morning.
“Muchos Gracias, Nuria. Buenas noches.”
* * *
The doorbell is ringing. Is it night time? What? The doorbell rings, again. It’s light out. I pull on the jeans enough to walk down the hallway. The front door is open. I can see through to the middle-aged woman at the door. She has dark, short hair. She looks bored. She straightens as she see me approaching. I recognize her as a woman living in a house, five or six doors up from mine.
We greet. She introduces herself as Marte. She comes in. She doesn’t flinch. She looks into places I’ve been avoiding. She points to something behind the toilet and says something I can’t understand.
“Oh yeah? If you say so. ¿Uno problemo?”
I like her.
She says she needs stuff: a bucket, a mop, she details the type of mop, detergents…
I give her a 2000 colones note. “¿Okay?”
She leaves. I go back to the bed.
* * *
What is that banging!? Ah yes, Marte. She must have left the door open when she went for supplies.
She bangs down the hallway. I pull a shirt on and go out to the kitchen. She’s on the back porch, at the laundry sink, running the faucet.
I pack coffee into the bucket of the espresso maker, fill the bottom part halfway with water, screw on the top part, and turn on the stove to the lowest flame possible. I place the maker, just so, on the end of the four points of the grate; so it is directly above the flame. The narrow base of the espresso maker just barely bridges the gap at the centre. She bangs past with a bucket of water. “¿Café?”
“Si.” I watch her bang down the hall, into the front room. I pour off the coffee. I make some cream hot, on the stove. I take it to the front room. She takes it from me cautiously, eying the dark brew suspiciously. I show her the cream, “caliente, okay? Si quiere???” I raise my eyebrows. Her expression of suspicion remains unchanging, like the Buddha. “¿Caliente?” I start to laugh at the stoniness of her disposition.
She pours some in; do I detect a softening of the stiff resolve on her lips? “¿Cómo lo hace?”
<<The coffee is grown on Volcáno Montalba. I get it at a place in the Mercado Central, they grind it for me. I have a small espresso maker. You know, you screw it together, and… the pressure from the boiling water, pushes up through the coffee…>>
Her eyes are glazing over; maybe she reckons it couldn’t be as bad as having to listen to my bad Spanish; she tries a swig. “¡Que forte!”
“¡Eso! It has taste”, I say triumphantly!
She looks at me quizzically.
“Bueno, que tu le gusta esto.” I nod at it, uncertain if I said, ‘good, I’m glad you like it’, or not.
She pours the last of the milk into it, and holds the cup high, as if to indicate that she may drink it, at some undefined future time.
I go back and make two shots, for myself, which I shoot straight back. Boom! I can feel it boiling in my stomach.
I take the writing book, a pen, and the camera. As I am walking out the gate, <<Marte, there was this guy who redirected the river through a place to clean it out.[ii] ¿Did you ever hear that one? Adios.>>
I stop at the train station café, for casada. Its unspectacularness is offset by the reliability of it, and the fact that it is the closest place to where I live, serving food in the morning.
I’m looking at the notebook, reading the part about driving down from the Nico border, Johnny and I, driving in the dark, at the end of December. Passing the border was harder than I’d expected. I was stressed, out all the way down. I had to take a piss! Oh yeah! Not too much fun.
It seems so far away. I’m glad to be past it.
I pay and pack up my stuff. I get up and walk north. I go right, east along a street. I’m looking for the stepped laneway. Javier lives on that carless lane. If I can find his place, I’ll see if he’s around.
There are the steps; I begin going up them. This is it; I never forget a way that I’ve been along, even if only once. The lane narrows and flattens out, level. A boy sits trueing a wheel of an upside-down bicycle.
“¿Conoces, El Cubano?”
He looks up and wipes his brow with back of his hand. Inside the door behind him there are quite a few bikes. He reaches back with his left arm, and bangs on a shuttered window, behind him and to his left.
Someone speaks from behind the shutter; I can’t understand the words, but it is Javier’s voice.
<<Someone is here for you.>>
“Hombre. ¿Qué tal?”
“Hey Dean. Mucho gusto, hombre. I am very good. ¿Y usted?” He smiles.
“Yeah, man. I have peace of mind at the moment. I’m happy to find you, dude.”
“Mucho gusto, hombre. Come in.”
I address the kid fixing the wheel, “Gracias. Pura vida.”
His place smells like cooking onions and garlic. I breathe it in, “gusto mucho, este aroma, Homes. ¡Que bueno!”
He smiles broadly. “I’m cooking lentils for couscous. I got red peppers, green onions, ginger, and of course, the garlic.”
“’Gastrónomo’. Just cookin’ up some food.”
He pours a cup of wine, and hands it to me. He knocks it with another mostly-full bowl.
There are no chairs in the large, sunken living room, just mats and pillows, and a low table. The floor is a mosaic of mats and rugs. There is a stunningly attractive woman there, looking at me, sitting with a muscular guy who is not smiling at all.
“I like your place.”
She sits on a bean bag with headphones on, now reading a magazine.
“That’s Luc, there, and…”
Involuntarily, I stop being able to process audio input, anymore. The noises from Javier sound like the teachers in the Charlie Brown television cartoons, fading. I can’t understand anything anyone says. But I can tell by the body motions that Javier is introducing me. I’m having a tough time tracking anything at the social level. I breathe in slowly and deeply, and close my eyes so I don’t stare at her.
I aim my eyes to where I expect Luc to be. I greet him with a nod, and slight bow. “Hombre.”
He doesn’t take off his headphones; he hardly blinks acknowledgement of me.
I completely missed her name. I look to her, looking at me again, “Encantado, mi amor.”
She nods slightly, looking me in the eyes. I breathe out slowly.
“You’re going to like this, Dean.” I wrench my eyes from her, back to Javier. He places a pot on the table. “All the roots in this tea, I foraged locally.”
Whew, that was close. I look at him. “Cool.”
The two of them move to the table. Luc sprawls length-wise, opposite.
Javier stirs the tea. “Let it steep for another minute, Dean. I want you to hear something.” He changes the compact disc in a player attached to an amplifier. The speakers look good. Funky blues guitar comes on, crystal clear. There’s a heavy, funky backbeat drum.
“Ali Farka Touré.”
“Yeah. I like it.”
“Take this.” He hands me a slender book, “Alturas de Macchu Picchu[iii], Pablo Neruda.”
He opens it and shows me the pages. “It’s bilingual, Spanish on the left. Take it.”
“Dude.” I look him in the eyes; he’s made up his mind. “Thanks, dude. Thanks very much, man.”
He clasps my forearm, continuing looking me in the eyes, “con mucho gusto hombre.”
He releases my forearm easily, “now, the tea.”
We drink tea, and rap about trends in society.
“I’m trying to figure out, how it all started, that which became what it is now society, the emerging ‘global society’. How did it start, and what happened to it, so that it became this, strange… machination?”
“You were reading the Jared Diamond book. How’s that going?”
“Yeah, it’s, so much, something I’ve long speculated about. But, I’m on a spur of my own. Oh yeah, I forgot to write this down, but when, after having figured out the best of the grasses to eat, then how to plant it, and eventually, harvest it, wheat and, barley,… was it barley, the first two grains?”
“Yeah, I think that was it. Go on.”
“It was when they had a certain amount of excess, that they knew, on past experience, would rot, … or… they had to find ways to allow it to last longer, … it could be stored, more and longer; I’m trying to figure that one out, the innovation, the technology that enabled storage and thus accumulation of grain, because, that’s the point at which currency was invented, storable, transferable human effort. Do yuh follow me?”
“Yeah, bring it home; where’s it going?”
“Oh, who knows where it will go? But right now, I meant to look it up, on the internet, ‘what was the technological innovation, or innovations, that enable the storage of grain? How did it happen?”
“There’s a site in south central Turkey, called Catal Huyuk, I think it’s considered the oldest civilization; like seven thousand, or seventy-two hundred BC, something like that. They had fortifications, and I think, one, maybe the earliest, building for storing grain. But they did it in clay pots before, I think… Good question.”
“Yeah. In clay pots. If there weren’t too many, right, you could keep them at your own place; like, I’m thinking about something like a yurt, … always, potentially… mobile, before permanent settlement; and there’s a reason for that. But even if you were to assume some kind of semi-permanent habitations, at a certain point, there just wouldn’t be enough room to keep all the excess, let alone take it all when they changed locations, when the ‘semi-’ part of the equation was in progress. They may have gone into a ‘strong room’, like a bank, to protect it from roving tribes; also, it would have been designed to provide the best storage conditions. It would have been the first permanent structure, designed to be durable, or having evolved so, eventually. And when they went to the stone or brick building, they then had to do the accounting dude! Then, cuneiform, right? Or something like that; the first writing was accounting entries! Knowledge value! There was the storable, transferable human effort, then, almost right away, there was the dependency on accounting! What do yuh think?”
“It’s cool. But I think I got to finish making the dinner. I’m making dinner for Luc and Raqhel. Why don’t you stay, and have some dinner?”
That won’t be practical. I won’t be able to concentrate with that creature at the same table, and her boyfriend. No, that won’t work. “Thanks very much for the offer. I’m going to go to take care of some business that I started, I got a cleaning lady, a woman on my street, Marte. I have no idea what’s going on. It’s the first time, and I, well, we, both her and I, have to figure out how this works. Let’s have dinner tomorrow or the next day, or whenever. Eh? But soon; this week? And bring the cd?”
“Take the cd. Take it.” He takes it out of the CD player, and puts it into a case; he hands it to me. “And you don’t have any excuses now, you know where we are. You gonna come back here soon, okay?”
* * *
Marte is just about finished; she tells me she’ll just be a few more minutes. I can hardly believe she’s still here. She lists the modifications she’s <<had>> to make. She asked the landlord, on my behalf, if it was okay to rip out the plastic cover on the bathroom floor. She makes a look of mild pain, every time she says it, “el suelo de la baño”.
She says that it is much better now, with a slightly strained smile. The marble floor running along the hall shines; before it looked like a dirt floor. The water room, the bath room, looks like a different room altogether.
<<¿What did you do with the old floor?>>
She put her hand on her hip, and makes a soft wincing expression, <<much difficulty.>> She nods.
Then back to the normal stoic expression, and she says she’ll clean the fridge, next time.
<<¿If you want to do my laundry, how much would that be?>>
She stares me in the eyes, hand still on hip, searching for something? <<¿How much laundry do you have?>>
<<Here it is. That pile there, and maybe the sheets?>>
<<A thousand.>> She looks away.
“Bueno. Gracias. ¿Y mas para la casa?”
<<Uno mil mas y uno mil, dos mils.>>
I nod, “bueno”. I hand her the colones. She stuffs the notes into a pocket, without looking at it. I begin to pick up the laundry.
<<No, no. Get out of the way. I’ll do that.>> She muscles me out the way abruptly. I can see that she is smiling.
She wraps it up. It’s a very large load. She turns to me. <<Maybe it would be better…>>
* * *
I drop it off at her back porch. She introduces me to her daughter and grand daughter. “Adios. Hasta la pronto.”
I walk back down the street and into casa gringo. It has a neutral smell. I kick off my sandals. The floor is clean and cool. I strip, caring not where the clothes land. I’m nude in the kitchen, getting a beer.
I take it down the hallway, but stop. The hallway is smooth, polished marble. I stand, gripping the cool floor with my toes. The beer tumbles down my throat, smoothly. I get the bag of grass, and my rolling equipment. I sit down on the hallway floor and roll one. It smells nice. I light it and blow the smoke out in patterns.
I grab another beer, and pull on a clean pair of shorts, on my way to the front porch.
Here, lying back on the couch, I’m soothed by the familiarity of it.
[i]. “Jimmy Rockford”, is a reference to the character, played by James Garner, in the 1970s (NBC September 13, 1974, to January 10, 1980) television series, The Rockford Files, where the scenes of the main character, James Rockford, arrives at where he is going, in his car, and almost invariably rolls, unobstructed by other cars, nor the need for any kind of ‘parallel-parking’ to a stop, directly, or almost directly, across the street from his destination, simply jumping out, and making his way directly across the street, while keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic.
[ii]. “…this guy who redirected the river through a place to clean it out ” refers to the Greek mythological story of Hercules, specifically, ‘The twelve labours of Hercules”, for the fifth one of which, he was required to clean the huge stables of Augean, housing a horde of healthy, and immotal, livestock; the stables had not been cleaned for 30 years; Hercules accomplished this task, in one day, by re-routing the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth (somehow not also washing out the animals).
[iii]. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, Pablo Neruda, ISBN 0-374-50648-5 © 1966 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.; translation copyright © 1966 by Nathaniel Tarn; twenty-fouth printing, 1999