Car loaded, we turn left coming out of the fortress, on to the Pan-Pacific highway. The sun emerges in front of me, just off to the right. I look at the map; we’re going north east, following the tail of the Pacific coast of Mexico, towards the Guatemalan border. But we bend around to a southeasterly heading. To the left, a range of mountains runs parallel to the highway, and the coast. The road is good, mostly.
We slow behind the end of a line of cars and trucks. It looks like a toll. At last we reach the spot causing the slow down. There is a shallow trench carved across the entire span of the road. It’s no problem to pass over it, slowly. But it could take a tire out at highway speed. A beautiful young woman asks for money as we are stopped.
The sun climbs. The traffic thins. What’s left is mostly convoys of small cars and small pickup trucks. The pickup trucks are piled high with bicycles, mostly used and well-used.
We pull into a large parking lot, where a couple of the convoys have stopped. I go in, hoping to find facilities; thankfully, I do.
When I come out, John calls me, “Dean, ven acá.”
He stands with another man, who addresses me as I approach. “Hola Dean. Me llamo Danny. How are you feeling?” The Latino accent unmistakable, but the English is perfectly clear.
“A lot better, thanks. Pleased to meet you.” I shake his hand.
“Danny lives in Toronto!”
“Yeah, just coming home for Christmas.”
“Coming down to where, which one?”
“What’s with all the bikes?”
“We bring them down and sell them, or just give them away; you know, Christmas.”
“There’s a big demand for bikes down here?”
“Oh yeah, most of these ones,” he points to a truck, “are spoken for, already.”
“What else do you bring down?”
“We got a couple of cars, and other stuff.”
Another man walks towards us.
“What about the border? How does that go?”
“It’s not such a problem. You just have to know how the system works.”
The other man speaks to Danny in rapid-fire Spanish. “This is my cousin, Hugo.”
“Mucho gusto. Me llamo Dean.” We shake hands.
“Pleased to meet you Hugo. Me llamo John Fulton. Do you live in Toronto, too?”
“There are Salvadorans all over. Here comes my cousin Carlos, he lives in Cleveland. My other cousin, over there,” he points to another man, who notices and waves, “he lives in Philadelphia.”
“Amigos, it’s great to meet you. Maybe we’ll see you further on down the road or at the border. We gotto get going.”
“Buenos, hombres, mas tarde. Pura vida.”
“Igualmente. Have a great trip.” We shake hands.
John goes to the restroom. I look at the oil dip stick, its down; so I add a quart.
John returns. We get back on the highway. Just past a sign, ‘Tapachula 5km’, there is a small shack with a sign: ‘Inmigración’. “I want to make sure that we got all the documentation, and find out what happens next, leaving Mexico.”
I photocopy some articles and pay some fees. It takes ten minutes.
We stop at several pharmacies, entering town. None of them have the anti-malaria medication that I have recently decided is critical; how could I have been so cavalier about it? I know you have to take it for two weeks before it becomes effective, but I could start it now, and start to build some protection! John wants to pass the border as soon as possible. He bemoans the unsuccessful stops; so we get back on the main road which is the highway through the centre if Tapachula. As we pass through the centre of town, a large truck backs out of a slant-in parking spot. I stop and wait for him to get out. We’re in front of a large pharmacy; so I pull into the spot. “There’s no such thing as co-incidence, dude. I’m going try one last time.”
I ask a cashier. She directs me to one of the many pharmacists, moving about amongst the shelves that rise to the top of the high ceiling. They use ladders on rails to reach stuff at the top. A beautiful young woman approaches me, addressing me in English. I ask her for anti-malaria medication. She has to see if they have it. She speaks with an older man, and returns with a two small package. “You’re lucky. These are the last two boxes. Do you want both of them?”
“Yes. Is there anyway that I can get some antibiotics, too?”
“Normally, you need a prescription. What is it for?”
“For a respiratory-tract infection. What would be good for that?”
“I will ask the head pharmacist.”
She walks back to the man and speaks with him, again. He looks over his spectacles at me. She walks behind a wall of drugs. I can see that there are several rows of these walls, all lined to the ceiling. She returns a moment later with a purple and white package. “You take one, twice per day until they’re all gone.”
“Thank you very much Señora.”
I grab some insect repellent, and take two cold 1.5 litre bottles of water from a refrigerator, on my way to pay at the cash register by the door.
Outside it is bright and hot. John is sipping a beer, “I loaded up on ice and cerveja. Did you get what you were after?”
“We’re good, dude.”
The town is bustling. Most of the faces are indios[i]. A beautiful young woman walks by. I watch her as she passes. She continues past a uniformed officer, who likewise watches her go past; but then he returns my gaze, and nods his head.
The stream of traffic is continuous. John takes the driver seat. I stand in the road and stop the traffic. But the officer comes over, waves me into the car, and stops the traffic for us. We pull out quickly, I wave at the cop, and we get out of Tapachula, in a few minutes. We approach a ‘V’ in the road; a sign overhead indicates the respective destinations.
“The Quebecers said ‘right’?”
It’s too late, we’re going this way, now. We come around a corner and are, all of a sudden, in a centro. John circles the square. He pulls into a quiet spot, partially shaded, on the inside of the square, across the street from a small kitchen. We go.
A handsome woman comes from where she was cooking. She greets us, seats us, and pours two tall glasses of water.
I look across the square. It’s serene, but the ebb and flow of daily activities is steady.
It seems surreal to me; it’s so relaxed and idyllic. “How can it be like this on the border, huh?”
John doesn’t answer, because the hostess is standing before us. I point to a dish served to another patron, and nod. John does the same. She suggests “frescos naturales”, to drink.
Cicadas sound off. It’s like an oasis of calm here!
She brings the food. “Ah, mi amor,” I say.
She looks at me for a moment, holding the plates, then she smiles sardonically, as she places the dishes on the table. “Con mucho gusto, mi amor.” Then she’s back in her kitchen.
I smile at her. Everything is good.
We follow the directions on the sign ‘Frontera’, initially cautiously, but as the way is clear, and without traffic, we pick up a little speed. Around a corner, we have to stop abruptly to avoid colliding with the stationary cars and trucks. They stretch far along a road and onto a bridge, which bends around a corner, out of sight. I can’t see any offices. The bridge has a single lane in each direction, separated by a rail line.
We move forward, no faster than a crawling baby. After twenty minutes, we’re edging onto the bridge; it’s moved faster than I thought it would. Commerce is all around, money-changers abound.
“I’ll go take a look around.” He goes.
As the line moves forward, I can see down to the river. There’s a narrow sand bank, surrounded on both sides by dense green forest. Below the bridge women wash laundry in the river; children splash and play in the brown water.
John has been gone a while. A man knocks on the window and asks me how much for my bicycle on the roof of the car. I tell him that it is not for sale.
The pitch of activity all around, continues to increase; it is mayhem. All my stuff is on display through the dusty car windows. I look at the sun, now more than half-way down, and sigh. At this rate, we won’t even get to the border station by sunset.
I watch the money changing hands, trying to figure out the going rate. I go to one guy and hold a US twenty. He pulls out a fat wad of colourful bills, and peels them off slowly, one by one, looking me in the eyes. I hold his stare with the twenty in my hand. He stops. I hold his gaze, ready to withdraw my twenty. He looks down and peels off another, continuing to hold my eyes. He peels off two more then holds it out to me.
I return to the car and sit on the back bumper. A guy in a car behind me is moving to take the space in front of me. I walk back around the car and get in it. I rev it up, with the door open, and my left foot on the road. I put it into drive, and ease my foot off the brake until it budges forward, up to the bumper of the car ahead. I turn it off.
I go back to the back bumper. A train of cars advances forward on the right, squeezed between the two-foot wall at the edge of the bridge and the line of cars and trucks. John is walking along with Danny, the guy we’d met earlier. He trots up. “Hey, Danny’s got a deal going with the border guys.” He takes two cigars from the can. “Follow us.”
The train comes past. I rev up the car. My heart is pounding. How can I fit my boat through that narrow space? Another car tries to cut me off and get in before me. I move a foot in, he can’t get by. I slowly move it to the right, around the first car in front of me. He moves it forward a foot. But, I squeeze through, anyways, with less than an inch to spare.
I come around the corner, braking a bit to go slower than idle speed. There is still no more than half-a-foot[ii], altogether, on both sides of the car, combined. The train is getting away from me, around another corner, out of my sight! I scrape the passenger side mirror. This is no time to be squeamish about the paint job. I take my foot completely off the brake. The car flows forward, uncomfortably fast at full idle with less than half a foot of clearance on either side. I honk to keep people moving out of my way and grit my teeth at the occasional scraping sounds.
I catch up to the train, just as they’re slowing down at the border buildings; it must be Guatemala, on the far side. I squeeze into a niche to the left, right next to a truck on the rail line. The way forward is jammed.
I climb out the passenger window, and sit on the fender. Some small children draw in the dust-caked onto the windows of the car. The sincerity of their smiling faces cheers me.
A small boy points at the hood and says, “muy feurte”.
I nod at him, and put a smile on, “bastante, si.”
He grins and nods excitedly. <<¿I could wash your windows?>>
I nod. I feel tired. He runs off, excitedly calling friends to help him. Moments later he returns with the pack. They have a small container of mucky water and some rags.
I wait, nervously.
I haven’t seen John or Danny for over an hour. The sun is behind the trees. It is cooler now, but I’m sweating a lot.
Finally, John and Danny approach in conversation. They look relaxed.
“Hey what happened? You should’a come with us.”
I shake Danny hand, “respeto. ¿Que tal? I didn’t see where you guys went.”
“It’s no problem. John knows what to do, and the cousin of the border officer, who I’m doing business with, he’s gonna help you guys out. He’s Juan.”
A man joins us and shakes my hand. He looks soft. He is relaxed, nonchalant. He chews on a toothpick, and now spits pieces out to the side.
“Okay”, it’s Danny, “this truck here, right next to you, good driving by the way, the truck is going to move forward; you follow it. Juan’s gonna help you out at the counter. Okay amigos? I gotta get some stuff on the go. See you later.” He shakes my hand. “Johnny, tarde.” He pushes off John.
“Amigo”, John says, and swipes his hand through the air.
The truck engine starts, and rumbles, spewing a black plume in fits and gasps. John tries to come around the driver-side of the car, but realizes that he won’t be able to get in that way. He goes through the passenger window, and shuffles into the driver seat. I stand, back to truck number one, looking at truck number two, directly behind truck number one. I’m leaning against the back of the truck no. 1. It budges forward. The truck behind drifts an inch or two forward. I let go of truck number one, and put my arms up in the air; he honks. I find his eyes slowly, wearing mild surprise. Looking at him, I open my arms.
By now, a space has opened up behind me, and John places the car far enough out, to claim the position. As he pulls the car in, behind truck no. one, I take one step up onto the bumper of the car, and wave back, with a respectful grin and a nod.
John follows the forward truck, and then pulls into a space on the right, next to the border building. He turns the car off. I see Juan is lingering, nearby.
“What’s the story?”
“We went, and he met some guy in the office, terminal, whatever you call it. There’s a lot of business goin’ on here. He sold all of his cars.”
“Didn’t he say that he was taking them to El Salvador?”
“This guy wanted to buy them. Danny brought them to make a buck. He doesn’t care who buys them.”
“We went into the town, back there.”
“There’s a town?”
“Yeah. We went down an alleyway, and then you’re right on the main street of the puebla. About half a block down, on the other side of the street, we turned down an alley…”.
“…snaked around back there a bit, then up some stairs into an office. I think he’s the chief guy at the customs office. He buys the cars; obviously, he has the first chance. There’s a car lot with about thirty cars in it, right behind the office.”
A young man approaches us, offering his assistance to cross the border. “No, Gracias.”
He lingers. Juan walks over and says something to him, and he goes away.
“Do we have any cold beer?”
“Yah, it’s pretty cold.”
He reaches into the back, “you?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
He drinks half a can. “Ahh.”
I have a slurp.
“What’s goin’ on?”
“I don’t know, man.”
“Yeah, well, chill out, everything’s under control. I’m advising you to drink that beer, and if that doesn’t fix the problem, drink another.”
“This’ll do it.”
“Under control. Hey, look what I got.” He pulls a plastic tube from his pocket. “Eh?” He takes the cigar out and sniffs it. “Hmm, maybe later.” He replaces it in the plastic tube, and puts it into the glove box.
”Okay. Papers.” He holds out a hand. “I’ll get this thing rolling.”
I gather up all the documents that I can find: passport, driver’s license, vehicle ownership.
I wait, bored and anxious.
It’s dark when he comes back. “You gotta go, since yer the owner of the car.”
The first window I go to has two people waiting. They both finish their business quickly. The young woman is beautiful and sympathetic. She explains the process to me. I have to give her my passport to get the forms for the next window. <<¿Is it necessary? ¿Can’t I hold on to it?>>
<<No.>> She is polite, but definite.
I move on to the next window, as directed.
From the back of the line, I spy a man lingering along the counter. Slowly, he creeps towards the window behind which the clerk processes the business of the man who is currently at the counter. As this man finishes his business, takes his documentation and moves off, the interloper speaks to the clerk in a friendly, familiar manner, as he slides in front of the window. The clerk looks irritated. He looks around quickly then processes the papers. It takes five minutes, during which time more queue jumpers appear along the counter.
An hour passes. The line has grown behind me, but only shortened by one, in front of me.
I’m thinking about my passport; my back tightens. I feel a wave of revulsion and disgust at being required to do this idiotic lining up. I don’t know how I can continue to wait; but I have to, I don’t know any other possible way to get through this, and out of here!
The man in front of me, a burly fifty-year-old with closely cropped salt and pepper hair, berates a thin, greasy-looking man persisting along the counter. This new interloper takes a menacing step towards him. I step forward, like cocking a hammer. I want a reason! It’s become more important than the consequences; anything is better than being stuck in this line. I visualize a swipe to the throat then the head banging off the counter. My breathing steadies with the focus of my intent. A woman’s voice, from behind me, tells the interloper off with machine-gun fire expletives. The clerk echoes the message. The man slinks off, casting menacing reproaches, as he goes.
What was I fucking thinking!? Jesus! I‘m relieved, realizing how completely ready I was. It was close. I turn to the woman with the machine-gun diction, “Gracias Señora.” I bow my head.
She nods, curtly.
The line advances.
John comes up to me. “How’s it going?”
“Is someone watching the car?”
“Everything is under control.”
“What’s happened so far?”
“The first lady was really nice. But I had to give her my passport. Then I came here. People keep sliming into this line. But this guy, here, in front of me,” he’s at the counter, now; I nod forward. “He started arguing with people jumping the queue, and everybody else got on board to support him. So it’s moving, now, finally.”
“Okay. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“A joint would be nice.”
“No smoking in here,” he points to the no smoking sign, in front of which a man wearing a dirty white suit and hat smokes a cigar. He laughs, “anything else?”
I look at him, “nah, I guess not. I just gotta see it through.”
He nods over to the woman at the first window, “is that the first lady, there?”
“Yeah.” I nod.
“And not busy at the moment.”
He walks over. I can hear him asking a question, gesturing with his hands as he does.
The man in front of me turns, it looks like his business at the clerk is completed. He shakes my hand, and wishes me good luck. He walks off.
My transaction takes about five minutes. I join John at the first window.
He is fully engaged in conversation with the woman behind the glass. “¿Podríamos usted conducimos en alguna parte?”
“Thank you very much. I go with a friend. Thank you.”
He’s grinning, ear to ear. I smile at the woman, <<I got it all.>> I hold up the forms. I hand them to her. She looks them over.
John is still gazing at her intently. I tap him on the shoulder. “Where’s that Juan, guy, anyways?”
“I dunno, I thought he was with you.”
“Is he watching the car?”
“I paid some of the kids to guard the car.”
She types rapidly on the keyboard, watching the monitor. She presses a button, and a form prints. She takes it out, looks at it, stamps it with several different stamps. Then she puts a sticker on one page of my passport, and stamps it. She looks at it again. I see her forehead crease. What is it, now? She adjusts the stamp and stamps it again, repeatedly. She looks up, her eyes focus on my face, and she smiles, <<everything is in order. I used the wrong stamp, but it is good now. Here you go.>> She hands me all of the documentation, including my passport.
<<There is just the inspection.>> She points to the door. “You go out this door, and you will see a man wearing a uniform. Show him this,” she holds the pink form from the rest of them. “He will do the inspection and sign. ¿Claro?”
“Muchos Gracias, señora.”
“Muchos Gracias, señora.”
“Tanto gusto, hombres. Adios. Bien suerte.” She closes her window.
We go outside. The car is right there. The generalisimo with the dark sunglasses is there, looking it over. Danny walks by, “hey, you’re still here.”
“Just the inspection.”
He nods. He starts talking with the generalissimo. He laughs at something. “Do you have the pink form?”
I hand him the pink one. He hands it to the generalissimo, who walks around the car. He points in the window, and says something to Danny. Danny replies in an easy tone; the generalissimo laughs. He scribbles something on a scrap of paper, hands it and the pink form, to Danny. He looks over at me and waves.
Danny hands me the paper. “Okay. You’re done. When you drive out, they ask you for this”, he holds the scrap of paper, “it means you can go through. Adios.”
We go. I hand the scrap of paper to the guy and he opens the gate.
We drive down…? what looks like a laneway? It’s dark. I can hardly see anything. I turn right into a square that seems oddly quiet after the frenetic bustle on the other side of the building. The square is lit by one dim streetlamp, hanging low. I circle around the square; I don’t know what to do. There is only one way out. I pull out. The main street of the town runs parallel to the border. I stop at the intersection, and look around. I don’t know where to go. It’s so quiet and desolate; it’s like a ghost town.
I look at the map; but this is the map of Mexico. It doesn’t show any detail of Guatemala.
John is turned around in his seat, looking on the floor of the back seat.
I open the glove box to try to find another map. John’s cigar falls out. He sees it, “ah, there it is. Tanks.”
I put the car in park, and turn around to look for the maps in the back seat. John is working on his cigar. “Follow those guys.” He points after a convey of three cars going from right to left, in front of us.
I look at him; he’s got the blowtorch on the cigar; the orange glow lighting his face as he draws the air through it. He nods, “I was talking with the cute señorita. ¡Que guapa!” He laughs. “She told me to go left on the main street. ‘You can’t miss the highway’, she said.”
“I could miss a jumbo jet ten feet away.” I put the car into ‘drive’, and pull out fast, before some more cars coming along. About a hundred metres along, the road bends right, and into complete darkness. All I can see are the rear lights of the three-car convoy ahead of us on the road. Cars come up behind us, fast. The brightness of the headlamps hurts my eyes. I adjust the rear view mirror. I’m having trouble following the cars ahead.
“Where are we going?”
“I dunno. Where are we going?”
“I’m following those guys. What’s the first town?”
“Coatepeque. That’s where the woman at the counter lives. She said we should stay there, in a hotel, ‘Ver-heen-ya?’ Something like that.”
“Okay, that’s a plan.”
“Do you want me to drive?”
Yeah, but I don’t want to pull over; so “I’ll keep on driving, for now.” It’s stressful driving along at 120 kph, into blackness. There are cars in front, and cars behind; I can’t even see a shoulder to pull off the highway, even if I wanted to.
“Hey, you want?” He’s holding the bottle of mescal. “Remember, she said it was made from the flower only.”
I grunt a chuff of a laugh, nodding. I couldn’t make me any worse.
He pours and hands me one of the enamelled cups, half full.
He pours himself one, and we knock the glasses. “Guatemala! We made it!”
He chuckles and chugs his down, as I throw mine back in a quick reflexive action.
I can feel it on my spine as I hear the glug, glug, glugging as he pours himself a second long one. “I’d better have another.”
“I was just about to recommend that.” He holds it aloft for me to take it when I`m ready, “here you go.”
I take it from where he holds it, close to my line of vision. “Prost.” I spill some down my shirt as I up-end it too fast.
He blows smoke. “Hey, do you want a cigar?”
I can feel the mellowing effect of the drink. “Ahh, how ‘bout just a taste uh that one? That’d be enough for me right now.”
He hands it to me. I take a long haul. “It’s rough.” I cough, my eyes watering. I hand it back to him, trying to get my coughing under control. “Did…”, I hack. “… did the used car sales man give you that one?” I snicker a wheezy lungs-worth, then cough some more, gasping, “can you find me some agua?”
He hands me a bottle, laughing. I settle down. The rush from the cigar clears my head a bit. “Thanks man.”
He laughs some more.
Cars peel off to the left and right. There’s only one left behind, and one in front, now.
“There’s a sign, ‘Coatepeque’. We’re here.”
Was it ‘Ciudad Coatepeque’? I pull left hard, braking simultaneously, the car screeching and sliding a bit as we come around, into what could be the turn off into the town. But it’s a dead end! I stop hard, creating a cloud of dust. “Geez, sorry about that.”
I turn the car around to go back out, on to the highway. There is a sign. I can’t quite read it. It’s fuzzy; my eyes are fucked up. I click on the high beams. It reads, ‘Hotel Virginia’.
“Way to go!”
What? What does that mean? Oh, this is where we are trying to get to. “I meant to do that.”
We laugh. I’m so relieved, I’m practically euphoric.
I back into a parking spot near a door to the reception. It’s a broad entrance, bounded by two stone columns. A wall extends from both sides, shadowed by evergreens. I can see cabinas to the left.
The receptionist is beautiful. Her name tag reads, ‘Flor de Maria’.
The bar maid comes over with two beers. We regale them with our adventures.
As John talks and gestures expressively, almost as caricature, I fantasize about spending the night with Flor de Maria. I tell her how happy I am to be here. She insists that John and I should go into town; <<there is a festival>>.
I walk over to cabina 13. I drop my stuff and go straight into the shower.
I return to the reception, <<your taxi is here.>>
John walks in. “Our taxi is here.”
<<¿Will you be here when we get back?>>
“Si. Hasta luego.”
After ten minutes driving, we’re dropped at a corner of the central square. The cabbie directs us to a stair case. “Arriba, arriba.” He points upwards, and nods, “arriba”.
I look over, point upwards and nod. He nods again, and puts his window up. I can’t see him at all behind the dark tinting.
The host is a well-appointed middle-aged man, with a formal demeanor. It’s looks ‘higher-end’ than I would have preferred, but it’s lively and the patrons are pleasantly gregarious. We take the last two seats, at a small table next to a window.
I can see across the entire square. At the corner closest to us, a stage is set up. A young rap band plays to teenagers. Fireworks go off. Everyone cheers and hollers.
The food starts coming: grilled meat, sausages, bacon, a large beef steak, dumplings, filled with meat and grilled vegetables.
We finish with scotch and espresso. I’m tired, but I want to check out the action.
We go down and across the street to where the stage is, now abandoned. The park is almost empty. It was so lively, just moments ago.
On the far side of the park we find a bank and get some Guatemalan cash from the machine.
We wander a bit more, but nothing is open. The few people still about hurry to clean and close. Everything looks hazy to me. There’s a cab in front of us, pulling off. I call it. He stops and I open the door, “Hotel Virginia”. He nods. We pour in.
The reception is closed, she’s gone.
* * *
“It’s time to go.”
“It’s Christmas eve. It’ll be busy on the roads.”
“The car is loaded except for your shit and you; let’s go.”
I take a really quick shower, and then make an espresso. I drink it down, then make another and carry it out to the car with my bag.
“Here you go, dude.” I hand him the coffee.
“Hey! Thanks, man.”
It shouldn’t be too far to drive, especially compared to the past few days.
He pulls on to the highway, accelerating slowly. Tree branches overhang the road, obscuring the view forward, especially at the bends, which are frequent. Taller trucks clip branches as they drive by. But, the traffic is light. The air is fresh and warm. Yellow sunlight twinkles through the weeping willow canopy.
We pass a family, on a small moped. They’re all smiling. The mother has bags hanging down from her shoulders.
A truck loaded with beer drives by in the opposite direction. Two men holding shot guns stand in the back. I open a beer. I offer it to John. He takes it. “I like this Guatemalan beer.”
“Yeah, me too.” I take the cap off the second bottle, “they have good beer, here. So good, the beer trucks have two guys riding shotgun, literally.”
I slurp some back, as I rummage through the glove box. My efforts are rewarded when I find remnants of some kind of dried fruit. I gather them into a small handful and put them into my mouth. I swallow about half of it, scarcely chewed. Realizing my bad habit, I try to slow down and chew the food. But it’s really bitter. It must have gone bad, maybe mould, or something.
I hold it in my mouth, trying to figure out what to do with it. Uh, it’s awful! I spit it out the window. I finish my beer trying to get rid of the bitterness. I pull another beer and the flower mescal from behind the seat. “You?” I wave the bottle of mescal.
“Well, maybe a capful.”
I fill the cap and hand it to him. He throws it back and hands the cap to me. “That is good.”
I fill the enamel cup and take a gulp. It has a cleans taste, and it washes most of the residual bitterness away.
“What a nice day! It has a serenity to it. La gente seems positive.”
“They’re all happy!?”
I finish the mescal and chase it with beer.
My stomach is feeling a bit unsettled. I wish I had some nice strong marijuana to smoke. I pour the last dregs of the mescal onto my tongue, and pour another to the top of the cup. I drink down half of it. It burns on the way down, but I feel the anaesthetizing effect almost immediately. Perhaps I can kill any bad microbes in the dried fruit.
I like the way the trees canopy the highway. Everything is relaxed. People are mellow.
It reminds me of why I wanted to do this trip, hoping to find that feeling I remember from my youth, the time after all of the stores had closed on Christmas Eve. After people could no longer do what they were told: running around, obsessively, to buy mostly useless junk for people they mostly didn’t really know, they… mellowed. Maybe they’d let it go… . Maybe they were satisfied that they’d done what they could, and that was it, for now. And then, I imagine, the people actually started doing a bit more of whatever it was that they actually wanted to do, a rare state, indeed. But that feeling hadn’t come yet, as I had hoped it would eventually with the Y2K mania. But, when I left, it seemed like people would be worrying about it, and working on their projects, right up to the last second, and likely beyond.
I feel nauseas. I climb into the back seat and get a bottle of water. I drink a third of it down. I see the bag of trail mix crawling along the floor, like a slug. That’s where you got to. I grab it up, disregarding the sliminess of it. I climb back into the front seat with the booty.
I take a handful and munch on it, automatically; the fact that it had just been moving along the floor, just not that important. Maybe if I eat some more food, I can push the bad mess along and out, sooner rather than later. I hold the bag open, so John can take a handful. My stomach starts cramping. I take another handful and look at it. I can’t quite focus on it, but I’m pretty sure it’s moving! What’s happened to the trail mix? I extend my hand out the window and let it go.
It catches John’s attention. “Whatcha do that for?”
“It was the woman at the RV park; she gave me the peyote. Now, I remember.” I eat more trail mix, without looking at it. But my stomach feels worse. I drink more water and hope I can keep it down.
“Did you say ‘peyote’?”
“Yeah. This… uh, mature woman, at the RV park, on Interstate 8, not too far out of Tucson, it was her. She gave me the two joints,” I chuckle despite the raunch in my gut, “and this…”. I laugh some more, thinking about how she perked up and turned it on. “She must have been… she… she was no spring… she… mature, but she didn’t care. Uh, she was really nice to me.”
“I think you told me this story. What about the peyote?”
“I was never sure about it. It chews just like dried fruit. She gave it to me, and I didn’t think about it, I just threw it in the glove box. Actually, I completely forgot about it.”
“What made you remember?”
“Well, I thought it was pieces of dried apricot that got out of the bag. I was looking around for some easy munchies.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I ate it.”
“You ate it! How much did you eat?”
“I spit it out, when I figured out it was bad. But, I already swallowed about half of it, before I even tasted it. I thought it was rotten dried apricot. I imagine it would taste bitter, something like that. Maybe that is what it was?”
He starts laughing. “Well, you better not eat anymore of anything. It’ll all be coming up.”
“Should I pull over now?”
“Uh… Uhh.” My head is spinning. A large drop of sweat drips into my eye; it stings, but it doesn’t bother me more than the blurring of the vision. I can’t get the focus back. I can feel beads of sweat rolling down my forehead.
I can see that it is a beautiful day, but now it looks to be backwards, through a telescope, far away from me. I look up, through the telescope I see the silver-blue sky and tree foliage flow by. It hurts my eyes. I accept the certainty that I will be puking, for sure.
I can hear the turning signal clicking, and feel the change to gravel, from asphalt, beneath the tires. But were not going to make it. I put my head as far out the window as I can, just as a great wave rushes up from the bottom of my gut.
How could there be this much in my stomach? More pours out of me. The waves rack me. The sweat sprays off me. The car is stopped! I sit back down in the seat. I feel the warm breeze on my soaking wet face.
I rest my head back to relax. The breeze is so nice, but it’s still there. Everything starts to spin.
“I’m not done.”
“Wait. I’ll move the car.”
I can’t figure out what he’s talking about, but I can tell he wants me to wait. I hang on relaxing, just so, to stave off the pending wave. He does something, and then says, “okay.”
What is he talking about? I lean out the window as a hard little wave comes up, then an after-shock. I sit back down in the seat. I look down, the sunlight through the wrong end of the telescope, burns into my eyes. I can’t see anything out of the sunlight. I’m almost blind. I have a strange feeling that my legs are gone! I look at the clock, but it’s trying to tattoo the numbers onto my retina; I have to look away, so it doesn’t mark me permanently.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, what is that noise!? I look up, heavy raindrops slap the windshield. Then it’s gone. It’s sunny. I watch the water evaporate on the windshield, leaving little ring outlines of the former shores.
“You okay to go?”
We’re here… driving… somewhere, where is it? I look at him. He looks like he knows what he’s doing. I trust him; he’s trustable, I can tell. I nod. The stage rolls on through the telescope; looking at the scenery flying by makes me feel sicker. After a second to gather my resolve, I lean out to puke, but there’s not enough to come up. My stomach muscles are contorted. But, it doesn’t pain me; I feel as an impartial observer of it. It’s interesting, but I’m going to rip a stomach muscle like this. I have to sit down and lean forward. A gob of bitter comes up and splats onto a newspaper on the floor. “Water!”
“I have the water, here. If you drink it now, you’re gonna puke again, you know that. You want to try to relax for a few minutes?”
I can’t talk. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I know what he’s saying is true. I nod. I feel a bit better. Maybe it’ll stay down, now.
“God damn, God damn that bible pushin’ ma-a-han. You know I… smoke a lot uh grass, and I popped a lot of pills. But I ain’t never done nothin’, that my spirit couldn’t kill…”[iii], I sing along with the Blind Melon song playing on the stereo.
“I love this song. I love this album.”
The stage rolls by.
The scenery juts into my space, the depth of everything has expanded a hundred times. I can see details in the living veins on the tree leaves. They are lungs; they are the opposite lungs to those of the animals; I’ve never known it with so much certainty, as I feel it now. I point. “The lungs.”
He nods. “You look better. How is it?”
“The lungs are good. They are good.”
I look back to the trees. I see an insect on a leaf. It’s a small beetle. The air goes into it, and then the carbon dioxide effluence is expelled. The leaf flies by, gone. The stretching of everything has exposed many more colours. There’s a lot of violet in the spaces I don’t normally see, all shades of violet.
“Gooood jawb. Nawt a drawp iiiinnn the carrrr. Hooooow’s iiiiit goooooiinnnn’?”
I can see him now, sideways, he’s glowing. I have a hard time with the vowel sounds; they seem to hang on, obscuring the consonant sounds. I push and I move a bit sideways. He’s helping me. I’m going away from the beige colours, below.
“Those apricots were bad, eh?” When he laughs, he glows brighter. He looks like a blinking bicycle light; his whole body is a light bulb. I can see, even his feet glow in the gloom below.
The sound of it and the bright warmth of it makes me laugh.
I look up and see the oncoming cars. I switch around in my seat, and allow the automatic reaction to pull the seatbelt around me. I look down to put the clasp into the buckle. It makes such a distinctive snap. That’s better. The sweat on my forehead dries. I focus on the sunglasses case, on the dashboard. I grab it and take the sunglasses out and pull the cabled-arms around my ears. It feels like rain to my eyes. Everything is better. It protects me from all of the things projecting into me, the branches of the trees, mostly. I glance at the clock on the dashboard, just to see. It can’t tattoo my retina, anymore. I’m protected.
My stomach is being pulled downward into the seat, keeping me rooted here; I can only move gently and slowly.
There’s a tractor with a family all over it, around the saddle.
Then another papa driving a small dilapidated moped, a small boy sandwiched between him and the mama, behind; a huge cloud of blue and black smoke spits from the back end. They are nice and slow; I could jog that fast.
Another family goes by on a moped; there are two children. They are all happy and carefree.
The breeze blowing in the car is hot. I take off my shirt, leaving just the damp undershirt on. I can feel where the sun hits my arm, shoulder, and especially my hand. I can feel the chemicals, freshly synthesized in my skin, releasing into my blood stream. Ahh… .
Old school buses pass us. Sometimes they roll by with the landscape. We stop in traffic next to a bus, wildly undulating colours glow in a pattern on its skin.
“It’s a Bluebird, made in Cambridge, Ontario.”
He must be looking at something else. This thing has people on it, in it, and hanging out of the window of it. The whole thing is, in itself, a life-form. All of the people are part of it, forming a greater, composite, thing. A child climbs out the window and is helped onto the roof by his father, who is already sitting up there. He climbs onto his father’s lap. He holds his son with one arm, and a grip on the top of the thing, with the other hand.
“Can you get me a cigar?”
“Yes, sure, no problem.” I reach behind the seat. The first thing I touch is the can. I pull it out. I take off the lid. I’m momentarily dazed by strong smell, like a two-by-four off the forehead. Whoa! I regain my composure and take a bite from one end of it. The little red blow torch is exactly where it ought to be. I hand him the glowing tube.
The tape reverses in the cassette player and the bootleg of Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails[iv] begins playing; perfect.
We pass a sign overhead, ‘Esquintla 5km’.
“Esquintla? That’s where we turn up, I think.” He starts to open the map, then looking up. He jerks the wheel of the car. I feel the gravity pushing me over, towards him. He holds me upright with his arm.
I watch his face. He looks ahead to the right. I can hear the signal clicking. We slow. The car bends to the right. We stop. He looks me in the eyes. “Esquintla.”
He opens the map, and shows me some lines. I wonder what flows through them. What is it? What could be in there with that colour?
He blows out the smoke. “That’s it!”
We pull back onto the highway. We slow and stop. There is a traffic light, red. It’s a small puebla. A legless man in a chair with wheels on it moves along, beside the car. He looks me straight in the eyes. I feel years of toil and torment. I smile upon him with an uncontrollable urge to send positive to him. He stops moving along.
He points at me, smiles, and starts laughing. He laughs and laughs. At first, it’s bitter, perhaps. But he continues. On the surface, it seems maniacal. But it changes. He gets straighter in his chair. The resonance of the laughter changes, it pushes out acceptance, now mirth. He stops, smiling broadly. He lowers his pointed hand, and waves. We drift forward. I wave. The car accelerates forward, but I see him still in the left side mirror. He continues along his way, I see him point at somebody on the sidewalk. Then I can’t see him anymore.
John pulls into a modern-looking gas station. I could be stopping for gasoline in Newmarket, a suburban town outside Toronto, except there is an army of small only brown children just off the area where the pumps are. They are full of smiles. They all glow. They gawk and point at the car. I can feel the innocence, a wild freedom from the chains of knowledge and certainty.
I open the door and walk out into the full sun. Right away I know I am going to be sick, again. I can hardly see. If it wasn’t for the glasses, I would be completely blind. I lurch towards a small patch of grass, in a ring of curbing, using all my will power to get to the island of it. I begin vomiting as I reach it. I’m on my hands and knees. The grass is saving me. It’s protecting me. I roll onto my side, my eyes closed. The grass preserves me. I can feel it on my cheek and smell it in my brain.
I open my eyes. My entire vision is filled with a cone. It’s violet, and glowing green. It is alive, definitely. Life crawls on it, as barnacles on a whale. It could destroy all the life munching from its fertility. I look at the clouds drifting by, also clearly alive. I close my eyes and relax. Just as I feel the menacing destructive strength of the sun raining down on me, I know that the grass protects and nurtures me.
I get up. I can see John has moved the car from the pumps. He is standing with a man and a woman. I watch them. They move their hands as they speak. I walk over. Children climb all over the car. Some of them have rags and are cleaning it. They smile. One looks up, points at me, and says something to his companions. <<¿Señor does it go well?>>
<<Look, the clouds.>> I point up to the clouds over the volcáno. <<¿Do you see?>> I keep pointing. <<¿Do you see them? ¿Are they still? ¿Are the clouds still, or moving?>>
He says something; I can’t understand him, but he smiles benevolently.
<<They are always moving.>>
I look at John.
He introduces me. The guy is a soccer player on the Ciudad Guatemala team, and she, his wife. I’m distracted by her. I can feel her sex. She touches my arm. How could she make such an obvious sexual advancement, in front of her husband?
“Todo bien.” I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to show it; I won’t be able to hide it. I look at the guy, and then to the ground. I hear their animated tones. Positive energy. He says something at me. I don’t understand it, but I can tell the accent is Argentinean. <<You are Argentinean. ¿Both of you?>>
<<¡Yes! ¿How can you tell?>>
<<It sounds like Spanish with an Italian accent, like from Tuscany. This is my favourite accent, in human languages. I like the rhythm, like singing.>>
She laughs, a real laugh! It disarms me; by mistake, I look her in the eye. She sees, at once. I’m surprised at what I see in there. I can feel it, acceptance. Is that encouragement?! I look at John to see if he’s already noticed. He shows nothing. I look at the guy. I see no negativity from him. Is that encouragement, behind his eyes?!?
“We will take you to the turn off for Antigua. ¿You follow us, okay?”
I smile and point at John. We all laugh.
“Si. Gracias. Va. Todo está trabajando. No Problemo. Todo bien. Gracias. Tanto gusto.”
She embraces me. He embraces me. They each embrace John. “Ciao.”
I walk to the passenger side, and get in. I hear the thuds across the roof, and see clearly, in my mind, the kids crawling about on the car. They yelp and squeal in excitement and mirth. Now they are yelling. They all jump down on the driver side; something has captured their attention. John starts the car. “What happened? I thought they’d never get off the car?”
“I threw a pocketful of change on the ground.”
I can hear them hooting and hollering, <<thank you señors.>>
The red car in front of us pulls out quickly to an exit on the far side of the station. She looks out the window at us. We follow, pulling out slowly, until away from the children.
We follow, zigzagging through residential streets to a ramp for a highway. They pull over before the entrance to the ramp. We pull in behind them and stop. They both come back, and review the directions on the map, with John. They’re going to honk when we should take the next exit from the highway.
They take off. We join the highway from a standstill stop, heading up, into the mountains.
“They’re nice people. How’d you know they were Argentinean?”
“It’s Spanish with a Tuscan accent; I love the Tuscan accent. The Argentineans I’ve met before have almost always been at the forefront of cool. They very congenial, often; that’s part of it.”
“I could tell that they weren’t from here.”
The highway is steep. I can’t understand why we can go up a hill this steep! John looks relaxed, with everything under control.
The red car slows and drives beside us in the passing lane, blocking passing traffic. They both smile and point at the sign for the next exit, like synchronized swimmers. Their horn honks and honks. John pulls off at the exit. They wave as they drive on. I can hear the honking even though I can’t see their car any more.
It’s a relief to get away from the frenzy. I feel calmer.
John looks at the map, “I don’t know. Can you drive? I want to navigate.”
“No problemo.” It comes out of my mouth before any consideration, whatsoever. But now out of me, I don’t see why I can’t.
He shows me the serviette, upon which lines are scrawled. There could be a pattern to those otherwise random markings. John is talking, but I can’t track what he is saying. He points from the map of Central America and then at the lines on the serviette; I notice them pulsating when he looks back at the other map. What is going through those pulsating veins? And, where is it going?
Details, details, if I get bogged down with them, I really won’t be able to drive.
John seems completely unaware of the… . I guess that’s okay.
I walk around the front of the car to the driver seat. It is bright! The light is bright silver through a thick haze. As I get to the door, on an instinct, I pass it by to go and open the back gate of the car. There is something back here, I know I’ll figure out what it is when I open the door. I swing it open and see the espresso maker. That’s it!
I take the stuff to the front of the car, and place it on the hood. “Do you want one?”
“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea.”
The coffee maker is trying to tell me something. It moves amorphously, bulging and swelling, simultaneously narrowing in offsetting places, mostly along the vertical axis; I can’t figure out what the information is; maybe some kind of a warning?
I down the first shot right away, hoping to somehow figure out the message through the ingestion; what is it trying to tell me? I know the intent of the communication is benevolent. My stomach lurches as the coffee comes in. I can feel it snaking out, into my veins, going up to my brain. But what is it trying to say? I’m perplexed; I feel like I should know it, from that.
I brew one for John, and take it to him. I make another; I must know what it is trying to tell me; I know that it’s important.
I sit in the driver seat and adjust it for my shorter legs. I feel confident. I pull out from the spot slowly. We move higher. Slowly, I take the car up the steep slope. The sun becomes completely obscured by the increasing mist. I can’t tell even the general direction of where the sun might be coming from. I see clearly, the minute detail in the paving of the road, upon which we drive. I have to look ahead; so to stop dwelling upon it; it’s a safety hazard. “I’ve never seen roads like this before.”
The mist becomes thicker yet. Colours dull. We pass people walking on the edge of the road. They appear thirty feet ahead of the car, emerging from the thick fog, still clinging to them as they move forward. Their skin is grey. No one smiles. We move slowly past them. I watch in the rear view mirror as they are swallowed, back into the fog.
“It’s a stress test for the cooling system.”
“What? It is?”
“She’s running a little warm.”
He’s talking about the car! What?!?
I look across the console; the temperature gauge is almost at the red line. I feel a cold sweat break out on my brow. I don’t want to stop! Something is not right here. The espresso maker was trying to tell me something. What if the car breaks down? There is something going on with the people. There’s something about them that is not quite right. I have a hard time taking my eyes from the temperature gauge. The car chugs. I feel my heart thump in my chest. “What was that?”
“At higher altitude the cooling system can’t work as well. But it’ll be alright.”
I’m not sure I believe him. I don’t want to look over at him and see that his skin is grey, too. What if he is really one of them, and not really John? We’re slowing. The car is chugging. The temperature gauge is next to the red line! If I push on the accelerator, the car chugs and bogs down. We pass more of the ghouls. They walk with their heads down, raising them and staring as we go by. My heart is pounding.
We crest a hill.
The highway straightens. We glide down a long straight, there’s almost no power left from the car; but it’s steep and the car picks up speed. The temperature gauge goes back to the normal position. The sweat cools on my forehead. I can feel it dripping down my spine, now cool.
I coast down the hills. I don’t touch the brakes. When we reach the bottom, I apply the accelerator so lightly, romancing the engine, and glide up the hill. I don’t stomp on it, but it feels stronger; I can keep on putting my foot down, and keep getting more power. I ease back. The car slows as we approach the crest. But then picks up speed, going down the far side, again. The air is clear. It’s cooler. I’m cold in my damp shirt. I start shivering. I put my window up.
“It is a little cool.” He puts his window up, most of the way. The speed is good.
“What’s that smell?” There’s a foul burning smell in the air. They’ve probably burnt all of the walking corpses in this valley. They must have figured it out, here.
“That’s burning brakes. These cars, see their brake lights on, all the way down the hill? They’re burning their brake pads. Remember coming down to the Sea of Cortes?”
I remember. “Yeah.” I nod. I glance over at him. He’s smiling. His skin is pink. “You’re Johnny, thank God!”
“You’re doing a good job.”
“Thanks, man.” The ghoul wouldn’t have remembered the Baja. I don’t see how they could survive there. This is definitely John. I look over at him again. I’m glad he made it.
At the crest, I see a rest stop, with a spot to park by the edge; it looks like it has a good vista. I pull into it. “I’m spent. Can you take over?”
He smiles, “no problemo.”
I’ve got to risk the water. I made it this far; I’d rather puke it up than die from thirst, now.
I get out of the car, drinking as slowly as possible. I walk over to the look out.
I have hyper-vision; I can see the veins on leaves, hundreds of metres down the valley. The sun warms my flesh and my spirit. The breeze takes the heat away. It’s fresh. “I feel better.”
“It’s great to be here. Look at it.” The concentration of it all, overwhelms me. The horizon starts to wobble. “Whoa.” I turn back and gulp some water; it feels so good; I envision a pristine, pre-European Niagara Falls, plunging, crashing, cooling, down my throat. But at the bottom, it’s 1999, turbid. Still, I think it’s going to stay down. I think it’s going to help. I can feel the water going into my blood stream, loosening it up a bit. I can feel cool emanating from my stomach. I look back to the valley; the sun hits me, clear into my eyes. Now everything is in black and white; but so many shades of grey! “So many shades.”
“It’s quite a sight. Let’s go and find Nick.”
I get in the passenger door. “He’ll appear when he’s ready.” I have no doubt.
John flicks down shades over his glasses and puts the car into gear, simultaneously. We come down the hill. The highway ends. We pull onto a small cobbled lane. A small sign on the right reads, ‘Antigua de Guatemala’. “We’re here.”
He notices the sign and barks out a laugh, nodding at me. We continue along the road. There’s a man on the right. He turns, he’s darkly tanned over pink. “Señor, por favour.” I wave him over. He comes along-side the car and bends slightly, to face me, through the window.
“Pardon señor. ¿Commo conducir a el centro?”
He mumbles something; but I can hardly hear it. But he points down the lane, jabbing his hand a few times. He jabs to the left, occasionally. Now he’s nodding his head and thrusting again with his finger pointing to the left, and nodding more. I nod. “Gracias señor. Gracias. Pura vida.”
I look over at John. His expression is asking me to tell him what the guy said. I laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
I look at him and mumble, pointing forward, and pointing left and mumbling again. I’m racked with laughter. “That’s it. That’s what he said.” I laugh some more.
John pulls over to a younger man, on the left. This guy is in a hurry. “¿Por el centro?” John looks and nods at the streets on the left.
“Si,” he pauses looking down the street. “Segundo, no, no, ¿Tercero? El cuarto, izquierdo.” He nods, smiles, waves and continues along his way.
“El cuarto. Buenos dias.”
We pull into town. A sign on the right has an arrow pointing right, ‘El Convento’. “That’s where we’re going.” I point, “right. Right, here!”
We pull up under a sign, ‘El Convento’, in front of large archway, completely filled with a large wooden gate.
A small door opens in the gate. I go through it and dark coolness envelopes me. I can’t see. I look down because I can only see the floor; the polished stone gleams. I go slowly. I hear John following behind me. “Can you see anything?”
A woman’s voice says, “buenas dias.” I look up. We’re at the reception. “Gracias. Buenos dias. ¿Miramos señor Nick Black?”
<<Well, he is not here right now. I believe he will be back in a short while. You must be his friends; we have been expecting you. If I could have your passports, please, I can complete the registration? ¿You have a car, is that so?”>>
I nod, smiling.
“I will call someone to show you where to park it.” She turns.
A young man appears. John pilots the yacht, following him walking, around the block, idling the car along, and around tight corners. There is a thirty feet high wooden gate between buttresses, the stone wall continues another twenty feet above it. He opens a door. It looks awfully narrow. But the car squeezes through with almost an inch to spare on each side.
We go into the large dirt yard. The hotel is beyond the far two-story stone wall. We pass through a door in another wooden gate with our stuff in hand, and enter a treed courtyard with patios along one side. We follow to the last patio, and he opens the door with a key. We follow him in.
<<This is your room.>> He looks questioningly at us.
<<¿Are these keys for us?>>
<<Oh yes. Pardon me.>>
<<It’s all good. Thank you very much.>>
He exits. The room is spacious and well appointed. I can see some of Nick’s things on a desk. The woman from the reception comes in. <<Here are your passports.>> She hands them over. <<¿Do you like the suite?>>
<<This is beautiful. Thank you very much.>>
<<There are three rooms.>> She points down the hallway, past the kitchen.
<<I’m so glad to be here.>> I take her by the hand and look into her eyes. She seems amused, but gazes back with a searching focus, smiling graciously, if not warmly.
<<You are most welcome. I am very pleased that you will be staying with us. If there is anything else we can do for you, you will be able to find me at the reception. Adios.>>
“Gracias Señora. Pura vida.”
She turns and offers me another beautiful smile. “De nada, señor.”
I dig through a sack for a pair of cleaner pants. I take a shirt. I splash water on my face and down my chest.
John is on the patio, smoking a fresh cigar, and drinking a beer. “There is a beer for you in the freezer.”
A freezer?! Alright! I fetch it and take it back to the patio, open.
The patio is cool, mostly shaded by thinly-leaved coniferous trees. A breeze breathes in. The temperature is perfect. I sit in the padded chair, and stretch out. “This is a nice place.”
“Not bad, at all.”
The sun shines in my eyes. I close them. I feel the planet revolving around, and the offsetting pull from below. This is a good spot to be in, right here, right now.
I reach down and take a drink of the beer. It slides down so easily. I get a whiff of a queasy feeling; it settles down; good, more puking would kill my mood. I relax.
“The beer is finished. It’ll be lime mescals with ice, now.”
“I’m so fucking good with beer. I’ll go and get some.”
“Hey yuh gents.”
“Nick.” I relax in the chair, paralyzed in feeling good exactly where I am, not wanting to lose it by moving. “This is a great spot you found.”
“Don’t get up,” he says with his typical, baseline sarcasm. Nobody could fake that! It must be the genuine Nick Black, no more a flesh-eating corpse than the last time I saw him.
“It’s great to be here, man.” He comes to shake my hand; laughing, “it’s great to see you, dude. I love it here.”
“Nice to see you, too.” He backs. John comes out through the patio doors, and hands Nick a glass. “John. Thank you. What do we have here?”
“Dean, you still got beer?”
“I’m good, thank you.”
“Well guys, I’m glad you made it. I love it here, too. I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for your little trip. Cheers. Uh, what did you say that is, Johnny?”
An older lady appears tentatively. She holds towels, “¿Señor Nick?”
“Señora Ouvida. ¿Me permite presentarle a mi amigos, Juan, y Dean?” He gestures to each of us, in turn.
I stand, and bow humbly, “encantado señora.”
John likewise, “tanto gusto en conocerle.”
Nick takes the towels from here, thanking her profusely, and trying to give her money. She refuses; finally he abates. She retreats.
“Gracias señora”, I call after her. She turns and nods, graciously.
“Hey, you guys have got to meet my friends, here. Come on, let’s go! He takes us around and introduces us to the hotel staff that we encounter. He jokes with them, and gets smiles, and always, “Gracias.” We get to the reception, “Señora Guadeloupe, mi amigos Dean y Juan.”
“Hello again, Dean and John. Señor Nick, your friends are gentlemen.” She smiles broadly at us.
“Gracias Señora. Adios.”
He leads us out the main entrance, into the blazing silver-yellow. “Where are we going?”
“Let’s get some food. There’s a bar over here, with good food.” He leads us across and fifty feet down the street.
We speak to the surfer-dude bartender. “Are you from Argentina?”
“Yes I am. How can you tell?”
“It’s something about the rhythm of it. Me llamo Dean Cassady. Mi amigos, Nick y John.”
<<Pleased to meet you. I’m called André. ¿What would you like to drink?>>
“Cerveza, por favour.”
He looks at John and Nick. Nick says, “tres.”
He nods, and looks back at me as he pours; “so how did you get here?”
“I drove from Toronto.”
“Dean, we’re going to sit over here, okay?”
I wave blind, nodding.
“You drive from Toronto, in Canada?”
“Yes. John and I arrived here less than an hour ago.”
<<¡What a long drive that is!>>
“Mucho distancia, passado. Adelante, mucho cosas para manejar. Vamos por Costa Rica, mañana.”
He nods, and holds out his hand between pouring beer.
I shake it, “André, do you know where I can get smoke?”
He glances at me, briefly, anew. He nods down the bar to a man seated there. “That’s my friend, Carlos. Carlos, Dean.”
“¿Que tal, hombre?” I shake Carlos’ hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Dean.
“Where you from?”
“What’choo doin’ down here?”
“Just stayin’ over. We came here to pick up my friend”. I point to the table, where Nick and John sit.
“Where yuh goin’?”
“Costa Rica, drivin’.”
“You’re drivin’ to Costa Rica?”
“Yeah. I drove from Toronto.”
“All the way from Canada?”
He shakes my hand, again, “wow man! That is a long drive!” He shakes his head, absently, and says, as if to himself, “that’s a long way.”
“Where are you from hombre? Your English is good.”
“I lived in the states for a while. I’m from Honduras.”
“How do yuh like it here?”
“I like it.”
“It’s beautiful here.” It reminds me of Oaxaca. I wish I could have stayed a couple of days there.
He hands my something wrapped in plastic? How could it be?!?
“Gracias, hombre. ¿Quánto…?”
“No, no. ¡Feliz Navidad! No hay de qué. Have a great time here. I gotta go, right now. But look, we’re havin’ a party here tonight; you and your friends should come.”
“Yeah. We’ll do that; I’ll see you later. Thanks very much hombre. Feliz Navidad.”
He says something to André and turns to me, “Ciao Dean.”
I wave, as I turn to join John and Nick at the table. The window they sit next to is a smoky-coloured yellow glass, set in lead.
They’re speaking with the waitress. She is well appointed. As I approach the table, she asks me what I’d like to eat?
“Pollo?!” I say it in the strangely, natural-feeling, potential question.
“Bueno.” Almost a chuff? She withdraws.
Still standing, I take the full pint and hold it up, “cheers.”
“Hey Dean, there’s a party here tonight. She says she’s going to be here with some of her friends.”
“That’s good. Good job. I love this place.”
After lunch, Nick leads us to the right, past the hotel, through the stone arch at the end of the street. We enter the old main square. The church is a large, with a mustard-coloured stucco façade. We walk around the square. John has his camera out. He directs Nick and me to several locations and takes the shots. I’m drunk; I lurch around taking photos of doors and windows, all weathered, and beautiful in their own way. A man rests on a horse, under a stop sign. It looks to me, as if he’s in some sort of a costume, like a conquistador; it’s comical and slightly menacing at the same time. He moves off, waiving.
We come back down the street, I think it’s the same street, and find a booze shop with cigars. John gets three boxes of no. 4s. He asks for <<the best rum>> and takes a bag of limes from a barrel. The owner also hands him a small container of salt. “This place is civilized. What about beer?”
“No beer here. You have to walk down this street”, Nick guides me to the entrance as he speaks. He points to the corner, “go right, three blocks, right again, and it’s about half a block down.”
“Could you get some cola?”
“No problem. See you guys later.” I walk down the street to the first ‘right’.
There is a ‘T’ at the end of the ‘three blocks down’. Across the street there is a beautiful stone arch. I walk through it, on to a residential street. There are no commercial shops on this side of the stone wall. Branches hang low from the trees. It seems so removed from the hustle and bustle around the shops on the other side of the wall. I sit on a stone bench under a weeping willow. The haze is thinning, and the heat from the sun is strong. But there is just enough shade in this spot. The gentle breeze takes the heat from my skin. Ahh… it’s so peaceful here…
I open my eyes, refreshed.
I come out through the archway. I see the beer store, just to the right. I take a case of beer in a reusable plastic crate, two bottles of red wine, and a 1.5 litre bottle of cola.
I try to take a short cut back to the hotel, but I don’t recognize anything. Nearby, I hear women speaking English, in lively, playful conversation. I stop in my tracks and turn my head to the right. I’m in front of the entrance to a building. I smile at the woman facing me. She’s a honey-blond; she looks straight back at me, in the midst of her discussion, and says,”…isn’t that right?”
“I reckon.” I feel my smile broadening into a grin. This magical place holds adventure for me around every corner. I stride over to them and place my stuff down. “How yuh doin’?”
The paler blond with well-sunned skin, says, “how yuh doin’ yourself?”
“Good. I like this town! I like it a lot.” I take a beer and pop the cap with the handle of my knife. The beer is only cool, but it works. “Would you like a… ‘cool’, beer?” I look at all of them. They hum and haw, “what kind of wine do yuh got there?”
I make a whining noise, and say, “I got some of this.” I make a different irritating pitch, “and I definitely got some of this.” They politely chuckle. “It’s the red kind.” They make some nice, happy, woman sounds.
I use the corkscrew in the knife to open one of the bottles.
“I’ll get some glasses”, the straw-blond with the sunburn says it. She scurries up the stairs.
The brunette, with the nice blue eyes, holds out her hand, “let’s have a look at that.” She sips it from the bottle, swishes it around in her mouth, and then swallows it down. “That’ll definitely do.”
I feel blood surging around my body.
“Try that Sonia.” She hands the bottle to the honey-blond.
Sonia gulps some back. “Yup, it tastes like the red kind, alright.” The two chuckle. “Here Tess.” She hands it back. Tess takes a couple more of swigs.
The straw-blond walks down the stairs with three wine glasses. She sees Tess drinking it from the bottle. “Well, I guess we don’t need these.”
“I’ll have one”, I say. She hands me one, and I pour it, and hand it to her. She hands me another glass. I pour one for each of them. I hand Tess the last glass.
She smiles, “to the stranger in Antigua.”
They clink glasses against the wine bottle, I hold.
I finish the bottle. “That turned out pretty good”, I say trying to read the label, “and one less thing I have to carry! Thanks for helping me out.”
I’m so close. I look directly into Tess’s eyes, “is this where yer stayin’?”
“You look strong.”
“I am strong.” I can see her eyes dilating. I look into the back of her retina, I’m falling in; I like the feeling.
“Do you have a freezer that we can put some of this beer in?”
I can smell her, as I follow her up the stairs, staring at her wagging hips and beautiful female back side. “What are you doing down here?”
She turns before the top, smiling. Then she continues to the top, and waits for me. I set the case down, and embrace her, savouring the pungent musk flavoured with wine. “We’re with the Peace Corps.”
I kiss her whole mouth and push my tongue through and around with hers. “I believe in peace.”
She takes me by the hand to a room with three beds, and locks the door… .
* * *
Someone tries the door; there is a soft bump. There’s a knock at the door. “Uh, Tess? I gotta use the toilet!”
“Oh. Just a minute.” I kiss her. We get up. I squeeze against her and pull her by the cheeks to me. I grind against her slowly, automatically.
“I’m in a suite at the hotel that used to be a convent. It’s really nice. A couple of my buddies are staying there, too. There are some parties, this evening, why don’t you come over; bring your friends, or not; whatever.”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. I’m Dean. They’ll know me at the reception.” I grin, “pura vida.” Those eyes have me, but I don’t have them. I’m just in the right place at the right time; it’s like a miracle.
I finish getting the minimum of clothing on in a fluid motion, as Tess unlocks and opens the door. I grin uncontrollably. No one is there, “Melly?”
“I’m in here”, somewhere else.
The beer is where I left it, at the top of the stairs. Melly comes out of an adjacent room. “I couldn’t wait.”
Tess blushes. I pick up the beer, look Tess in the eyes, and walk down the stairs. I wave over my shoulder as I go.
I walk down the street a little ways, and recognize where I am. I wonder why I got lost before?
I go into the hotel and walk through to the courtyard, and across it to our patio. “What did you do, brew it? We were going to call the police.”
“I took a wrong turn, along the way, and what not. But I got it. It’s not that cold, though.” I take it into the kitchen and fill the freezer with four, then fill the little fridge with ten.
I return to the patio. John and Nick smoke cigars. John says, “There’s one last dark half corona for you.”
“I should have smoked it, seeing as how you smoked a whole can on the way down.”
I shake my head. “No way, maybe half a can, at the most. John smoked most of them.”
“Lime mescal for you?” John gets up.
“There is fizzy water in the fridge. I’d like lime and that, with ice; if you would?”
I light the cigar. The thick, blue smoke drifts out of my mouth slowly; I like the chaos in the patterns as it ebbs and flows, eventually dissipating, caught by a slight breeze.
John comes out with three full glasses. He hands me one, one to Nick, and places the other down on the table.
The sun is low, just above the wall on the west side of the courtyard. John goes back into the apartment, and returns with two Frisbees. He drops a Frisbee on my lap, and picks up his drink as he walks out to the courtyard chewing on the cigar. He places his drink down on a small retaining wall at the west end of the courtyard, turns and waves the Frisbee. Nick takes a position near the patio, at the east end of the courtyard.
I relax in the chair. I feel tired, but not sleepy.
“Cassady, where are yuh?”
I take a big slurp from my drink. Ahh, the feel of the piercing cold splashing around is good. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I go into the kitchen. I take out some grass, but I don’t have any paper to roll it in.
I stride out and through the courtyard, through the front door, and out to the smoke shop. He’s closing the shop, but he gets me the paper. He just hands the thin carton to me. I hear the locking of the door, behind me.
I roll my joint inside then take it out to the patio, but five of the hotel staff are playing Frisbee with John and Nick. Oscar throws it; Nick compliments him on his throw. Maria can’t get it to work. She throws it up onto the roof. She places her hands over her face, apologizing.
John climbs up to retrieve it. “No problemo.” He wobbles, and it looks like it could be a problemo. But he regains his balance and tosses the Frisbee down.
They are so thrilled and excited about throwing the thing around, like children in their mirth.
Nick climbs the walk along the east wall to get the other stranded Frisbee. I take a throw and trash a plant. A middle-aged man, whom I’ve not yet met, momentarily hesitates, but then breaks into laughter. His hands are brown on the palms, maybe he’s the gardener. He picks it up and throws it back to me.
They laugh at the awkwardness, ours and theirs, but the very act is so free of pretention and reservation; it is so comfortable being with these people. The sun sinks behind the western wall; the courtyard darkens. Everyone, instinctively take stock of the time.
Each of them, in turn, thank us for teaching them the Frisbee, and retire to their own affairs.
The sky is clear. John hollers at me, as I retreat to the patio, “what’cha doin’?”
“You’ve had enough medicine today.”
I sit and light the fat joint. It’s a compressed skunk, strong and musky. I can feel my body loosening.
I hear, “oh shit!” It’s John’s voice.
“I killed this planter. Wait a minutes. Hold this.”
“It’s trashed John. We’ll just offer to pay for it.”
“Wait. There, look at that.”
I walk over. There’s no one else in the courtyard. He’s using garden twine to contain the cracks. “That engineering school comes in handy for a few things. We do have the baling wire.”
“Not necessary. The twine is working exactly right.” He’s as drunk as I’ve seen him since Palm Springs. It’s not obvious, but for the occasional eccentric wobbles. Nick is putting up the white flag, in retreating to our patio. John retrieves his glass, and follows.
I bring three from the freezer. I take the joint from the ashtray, and hold it in my mouth as I decap and hand out the bottles.
“Where’d yuh get that?”
“The bar. The guy just gave it to me.”
“Isn’t this a great town?!”
“You’re preachin’ to the choir, buddy. It’s great here, I love it. I met a small cluster of Peace Corp. women on the way from the beer store. Everything that could go right, did go right!”
I look at him, straight in the eyes. “There were three of them.”
“At the same time?!”
I shake my head slowly, as I chuckle. “No, nothing like that. But there are the three of them. I invited them over. I told them we were invited to a party.”
“How are they?”
“Nice. Really nice.”
“Each of the three are knockouts, actually.”
My joint spent, I re-fire the cigar. I feel the pungency rolling around in my mouth. The beer is cold. “I’m liking this Guatemalan beer more and more.”
Dusk is passing fast. In the deep blue sky, shots of fireworks spring up. I get up and go inside.
“Yuh wanna see what time it is, in there, buddy.”
I look at the clock on the stove. “It’s 5:45.”
“Wow!” I hear his lowered voice, to John, “it feels like eight-thirty, nine.”
I get my bag in the main room, and look in each of the three bedrooms. There is no luggage in the middle one. I drop my stuff on the floor, and flop down on the bed.
* * *
From somewhere, I hear Nick, “it looks like he’s passed out.”
“Let him sleep. I’m pretty sure he ate some peyote for breakfast. He was puking all morning then he was really fucked up.” I hear the two of them laughing and I smile.
* * *
“Hey. Hey, Dean. Wake up. It’s almost nine.”
“Uh? Are the Peace Corps girls here?!?”
“No. We’re gonna go to the Mexican restaurant.”
Neither the cute waitress, nor her friends are at the Mexican restaurant. The guys are restless; we leave. I follow, but my heart isn’t into it.
We walk into the central square. It looks like a riot. Fireworks are shooting off in every direction. Some blast into the crowd like bazookas. Sulphurous smoke fills the air. Nick speaks with two tall women. He introduces us, but I can’t retain the names. I follow them into the church. We sit. Droning voices start almost immediately. I nod. Nick is helping me to stand, “Dean, Dean, stand up.”
Everyone is standing now. I look around at the obvious wealth of the place. They’re passing around a bowl to put money in. I put some in, and pass it along. I want to get out. I look around. Where’s John? He’s too smart to get into this shit.
I think about the spirituality I felt earlier in the day, and how much more real it felt, compared to this… ceremony, and wonder how people could believe in this stuff.
But here I am, in Antigua de Guatemala, my first time at Christmas Eve midnight mass! I set my mind to try to stay awake to savour the experience; but the ridiculousness of the thought makes me chuckle aloud, involuntarily. Immediately, I feel guilty for the sacrilege of it.
* * *
Finally, it’s over. We herd onto the street. The mayhem is toned down, but the fireworks shooting along, at ground level, like a cheesy Hollywood action movie, keep the smell of sulphur in the air.
The tall strawberry blond takes my hand and leads me with Nick and the bigger one. We visit a series of bars. At each I drink a beer that I don’t need. At the third one, I retreat to as much solitude as can be managed; the place is full of people. People I don’t know bring me beers. I have three full ones before me, and the one I’m working on.
Some guy comes over and gets right in my face. I wonder what his freak is? Then I realize, with a start, that it’s Johnny. He sees my recognition and breaks out in laughter.
“Wakey, wakey. Want a beer?”
“Oh yeah, I only have… four. No more. No more. Take one of these. Take two.”
“You seem so… awake.”
“Huh, uh huh, everyone seems more awake than you.”
“Uh, guys, I’m just gonna slip out.” Nick’s appeared from somewhere.
“What about the big Dutch girl? She’s pretty steamed up.” John says.
“Well, that’s why I’m going to slip out. She’s a bit more than I want to deal with, right now.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“I’m going to bed.”
“Back at the convent?” I start to laugh. “I’m just about finished, too. How do you get there?”
“It’s about five doors down.”
Johnny’s laughing a big barrel laugh again, “now you need a beer.” He flags the waitress out of nowhere, and places an order.
While he’s occupied doing that, Nick bends closer to me, “I don’t want to be a party-pooper, I’m just going to go.”
A string of firecrackers goes off, nearby, momentarily startling me. I look around, trying to figure out who did it. When I turn back, Nick is gone.
“Whoa. Where’d Nick go?”
“I don’t know.”
“The big brunette is over there.” I can see her now through the crowd, “She ain’t gonna be too pleased.”
“Well, there’s a lot of meat here.” I look through and see the strawberry blond, “I kinda like the blond.”
“I don’t think she’s in play.”
“That’d be fine.”
I hang in for five minutes. John gets distracted by something. I exit the same way Nick did.
* * *
There’s a noise. My eyes open, involuntarily. The sky has brightened a bit. I’m on the couch. John comes into my view, “how are yuh?”
“Uh. Ahh. I need some more sleep, I think.”
“Where’s Nick? Did things work out?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember how I got here from the bar. I gotta get a bit more sleep.”
“There’s a good idea. I’m gonna catch me some winks, too.” He goes. I get up from the couch and walk to the middle bedroom. It’s nice in the quiet darkness.
* * *
I wake and go into the kitchen to get some soda water from the fridge. Nick stands in front of it, downing a tall glass of orange juice.
“How’s it goin’?”
“Uh”, he hadn’t noticed me, “uhh.” He shakes his head, “I didn’t get too much sleep. She just left. I wish you hadn’t have brought her.”
“Lots of times I’d have been all over something like that. But, I just wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to sleep.”
I’m confused, but I’m too tired to worry about it now. I nod.
I open the fridge, but change my mind; I open the tap and let the water run for a moment before filling a glass. I down it, leaving the water run, then refill and turn the tap off.
“What’s up with John?”
“I don’t know. He was up, a couple of hours ago.”
I hear some shifting, then “uh?”
I open the cava, and pour three tumblers. Nick tops them with orange juice.
I go to the small patio, and sit back down. I feel the blood rushing around in my head. Nick comes out. I see John emerging from his room. He sees us on the patio, and comes out.
“Did anybody get his license plate?”
He’s got the butt of a cigar in his hand. Nick sees it, and starts hunting around for the same thing. They both light up butt ends of cigars, and start, happily, smoking them. The smell is foul. “John, you left your orange juice inside. I’ll get it for you.”
I return with it and another glass of water for me.
Salud amigos. Happy Christmas.” We clink and drink.
[i]. “indios” – ‘indians’, non-Euasian aboriginal inhabitants of Central America
[ii]. “half-a-foot” = six inches = fifteen centimetres (15cm)
[iii]. “The Pusher”, 1968, Hoyt Axton, this version, by Blind Melon, from the album Nico, 1996
[iv]. “Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails”, see Ron Hawkins at http://www.ronhawkins.com/