This is the third chapter, and it is a long chapter. Take it in a little at a time. Or just go for it. Read it through in one go. That works too. You're welcome.
Three -- The Ladder
A year and some months after Mary's death, April, 2007, Al and Ricky boarded a flight in Miami for Guatemala. The flight was crowded with Central Americans, Venezuelans going to their newly built vacation homes in Antigua and Puerto Limon. Al watched their teenage children, and the way Ricky looked off to the side when they came around the curve in the ticketing line, trying to avoid eye contact this early in the morning with anyone who shared the generational anxiety, the identity malaise that was the American experiment. A scar marked Ricky's right cheek, a burn mark from an accident as a three year old when he'd fallen and done a face plant onto the fire poker lying on the ground in his Uncle Tony's Vermont ski chalet. He naturally tended to shield his right side from people. It would take someone who really knew him well to notice.
Guatemala City had a busy, prosperous feel in the rainy season, flying in over the mountaintops and the black rain clouds gathered on the ridges of the Continental Divide. They stayed in the city for the night and caught a taxi the next day for the bus terminal, and bought two tickets for the Pacific coast town of Monterico. The bus ride took five hours, the last thirty miles down a rutted dirt track crossed by three rivers, and let them off by the surf shop in the center of the sleepy little hamlet.
Ricky stepped off the bus and stretched. His long legs and arms were still catching up wth the growth spurt they had recently put on, and his mind seemed to be saving itself for some later exertions. Also, he was undergoing video game withdrawal.
Here we are, bud.
Your Mom loved this place.
Look at the sign above the surf shop, Dad.
They crossed the street, lugging their duffel bags. The sign was a neon colored painted barrel curve wave and a Keith Haring graffiti surfer shooting out the end, crouching.
Coconut Juan upgraded since the last time we were here.
That was five years ago.
Coconut Juan himself was sitting at the counter, his feet up on the glass, chatting in Spanish with an American girl. He was a little portlier than last time, but his dyed blond hair and brown, leathery skin was the same. He smiled in recognition when he saw them. The American girl looked at them and went back to reading a newspaper.
Coconut Juan. You remembered.
You had taking lessons. Few years ago. Coconut Juan, he never forget the cara. Where is the mama?
She's dead Juan. Cancer took her last year.
I am very sorry, my friend.
We want to rent a couple of boards and go surfing for a few days. Hows the surf?
They went in to the board room and he took care of them with two boards that he set aside and waxed. Ricky wanted a seven foot trick board and Al chose an eight foot hybrid, not quite a long board, short enough to get through the surf and long enough to provide some stability for his 185 pounds. He was no expert, but still spry enough to at least pop to his feet once in awhile on a gentler wave. Al asked him about the town, about his business.
It's changing, my friend. Very much busy all the time now. Estrange people.
They not surfing. They not enjoying the beach. They only fly in and say adios. Two, three days. Very estrange.
Well, who knows. Maybe they've discovered oil or something.
Yes, banana oil.
They had a laugh together. Ricky was getting bored and looking discomfited by the American girl reading the newspaper. He strayed over to the far wall display with the baseball hats and teeshirts while Al paid with the credit card for the boards.
Okay, Juan. Gracias amigo.
No hay problema.
Look at this.
Ricky was holding a stone tablet he'd picked up off the floor where he’d uncovered it under a tall stack of teeshirts with some parrot design on the front. It was an inscribed Mayan godhead, the face in a scowl like some figurehead of war and then some hieroglyphs below it. Al guessed it was a cheap reproduction, something Juan had picked up at Chichen Itza and kept in the shop as decoration.
Yeah. It was underneath the tee shirts. It was on the floor.
They looked at it together. Coconut Juan came over and took it out of Ricky's hands.
No for sale, my friends.
It's nice, said Ricky.
Al was getting anxious to sit down and have something to eat. The sun was getting low in the sky.
Come on, Ricky. Let's check in and get some dinner.
Mom would love that.
You're right. She would have.
She would love that.
Sometimes Ricky freaked him out with his insistence that they treat Mary in their conversations as if she were still with them. But it was true that she had, on their last trip to Guatemala, fallen in love with everything to do with Mayan lore and iconography and had been teaching herself to do basic hieroglyphic inscriptions using what was known of the Mayan alphabet. She planned on doing presentations in the school district in her retirement after completing her last year in the library. Unfortunately, life had cut short her plans. Al was still sort of bitter about it. They left the surf shop with the understanding that they would be back early the next morning for the boards.
The Hotel Costasol rented out cabanas that were linked around a small kidney shaped swimming pool and the restaurant and bar underneath a palm thatched roof. The office was on the corner of the road, air-conditioned. A young Guatemalan girl in shorts had her feet in flip-flops up on the desk, and a boy about twenty leaned against the wall. They both slowly straightened as Ricky and Al came in the glass door and approached. After the paperwork, the girl walked them down to their cabana, formerly the Casa Coleman, the original vacation home of Jonathan Coleman, a Colorado Springs orthodontic surgeon. The engraved wood paneling of the door showed dolphins and palm trees. His name was on the magazines in the bookshelf along with his address. Ricky thumbed through the books and the magazines, the guest register, while Al walked around the apartment and checked drawers below the sink and chatted about what he saw.
Okay, we're in business. Spatula, forks. There's a, what must be a juice press. Hey Ricky, this is nice.
Yes, it is.
You ready to do some surfing?
This isn't going to be anything like Plymouth Beach, you know that.
I've been here before, Dad. Don't you remember?
Yeah, but you were too young to really surf.
I remember the waves, though.
Let's take a walk down the beach. There's still some light in the sky.
The road to the beach led past house lots where squat, bare-chested workers cleaned tools and chatted in low voices, and streams of silty water oozed onto the road from the piles of sand and recently busy concrete mixers. Stray dogs watched Ricky and Al from the empty lots lined with scrub and acacia trees from where birds lifted in flocks into the salmon-streaked sky. They could hear the pounding waves. Two surfers, wet hair and barefoot, carried their boards and made their way back to their lodgings. Ricky and Al listened to them chat about the break and the swells in English as they went by. Dozens of harlequin land crabs scuttled away from them at the edge of the road and into the mangroves, and puddles of rainwater from the most recent deluge still filled the potholes. Ricky and Al picked their way around them.
Over the rise of dunes, there was the pounding Pacific, a series of white, spilling, irregular lines approaching from the setting sun and, at the back, walls of dark water rising, lifting three or four surfers at a time. Their boards carved out unpredictable tracks across the face of the waves before spinning back over the top in a controlled dismount, or careening through the air in a final spinning tumble into the wash. Ricky and Al walked along the sand and down to the edge of the high tide. The beach stretched in a crescent two or three miles to the south and ended in green headlands in either direction. Father and son made their way slowly south along the water's edge in the dusk.
What should we talk about, Dad?
Ricky surprised Al with the outcroppings of his budding maturity and adult judgment. Just as he'd been sinking in thoughts about Mary and how different their lives were without her. She'd been the pivot of the family, the spark plug. Everything had run through her. Without her presence, there just didn’t seem to be much of a life. Except Ricky sometimes could read his mind and with an expert touch would lift him out of despondency.
I don't know. Are you watching the waves?
What's the pattern? Gotta catch the pattern, Ricky.
I am, Dad. Let's go in.
I'm not wearing my bathing suit.
Who cares? Come on. I'll race you.
They swam and had showers, leaving puddles of water all over the tiled floor of the rental. As they walked down to the restaurant, both of them were silent. After Mary's death they spoke rarely, just catching each other up on the bare essentials, numbed by their shared pain. The tiki lamps around the pool let off a smell of sandalwood. Two French Canadian couples in their late twenties laughed in French and splashed in the water. Ricky and Al took a table near the bar. The waiter, a teenaged boy about Ricky's age, brought out the menus. Al ordered a Bohemia Negra beer.
What do you want, Ricky.
I don't know, Coke?
Una Coca-Cola? asked the waiter.
How old are you, fifteen?
You're not old enough for beer, are you?
Yeah? You sure?
Yeah. Your Mom would roll in her grave.
Don't say that, Dad. She's not in the grave, remember?
They studied the menus. On the television above the bar, the news came on the state channel, the bartender was about to flip the channel when a man at the bar stopped him. American, large, wearing flip flops, Bermuda shorts and a guayabera. Something about the man's interest piqued Al's curiosity. He watched the television, trying to understand the story. The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry was welcoming a delegation of smoothly-dressed diplomats in dark business suits from the Iranian Minstry of Antiquities, something about the indigenous people of the southern Mayan region who still conserved knowledge of the antique culture, particularly the mathematical theories of the ancients. The Mayans in particular, who extended their rule over the ancient tribes of the lowland regions, kept astronomical records based on their observations and then smething about the cultural center that had recently been unearthed in Obero. The Foreign Minister of Guatemala, a pretty and charming blonde in a long, frilly skirt, welcomed the Iranian delegation and spoke to the cameras about the importance of the Mayans, and the new government's programs to improve the conditions of the indigenous, etc., etc, and the welcome for the brother Iranians committed to the region for the good of world peace, la paz mundial. In her mouth it sounded like a sensible program. Al felt a great admiration for the idealism of the Guatemalan Foreign Minister, even though he knew it was baloney of a particularly original and redolent aroma.
What are you going to have? What's on the television that's so important?
Oh, nothing. Iranians in town. Some kind of delegation. Meeting with the President.
Wow. You understand a lot.
Well, you got to listen, Ricky. There's a pattern, like in everything.
I'm having a Tex-Mex burger.
I'm having the same, son. Sounds good.
Mom would not approve.
You're right. Let's forget the burgers. Shall we have the pollo en crema?
Yeah. That's better. And tamarindo shakes.
Okay we'll order three shakes and you and me will split Mom's.
Okay. Sounds good.
Al watched some more television. The American at the bar paid for his drink, joked a little with the waiter, and then left, ambling away in a hefty, oversized gait. The French Canadian couples were also gone. In fact, they were the only customers in the restaurant. The waiter took their order. Al asked him if there were a lot of guests staying at the hotel.
No muchas, said the waiter, smiling and shrugging his shoulder. It's the rainy season and the roads, pesimas, he said.
What's pesimas, Dad?
Something like extremely pitiful. Beyond the pale.
You know when the priest consecrates the host and it becomes the Flesh of Our Lord?
Do you believe?
Do you believe it's possible?
Well, I suppose it's possible. But it would be a stretch.
You're not saying this just to comfort me?
No. Well, maybe I am.
I'd like to think Mom is here with us in our hearts and literally here when we drink the shakes.
So the tamarindo has become Mom when the waiter brings our dessert?
Well, yes. If we invoke her memory and our desire is strong enough and pure enough.
That's crazy, Dad. Sorry I can't go there with you on that.
But in your heart you know it's possible.
I'm not sure. Look, can't we just enjoy the food in Mom's loving memory?
Okay. You're right. That's a nice way to put it, I guess. To Mom's memory and her love for us and for all of nature.
On the way back to the room, a French Canadian woman, back again for more, smiled up from the water. In the dark, a cat crossed the road and wanted to be let in the door. Al paused on the vestibule. He studied the carved door, the skinny orange cat looking for food. There were strange stars in the sky, a smudge of light on the horizon where the sun had gone down. All manifestations of life, even the arrangement of inanimate creation, all spoke to him of the presence of his wife somewhere. Nobody knew where the soul ended up after death, but Al was sure of the continuity of personal identity and that some day he and Mary would be reunited. If only he could convince Ricky of that. But faith was something that had to be born in someone. It was out of his control. It couldn't be implanted by reasoning or by force of example. Ricky would someday find his way to seeing the light of God's true love.
Ricky was reading a Time magazine left behind by Coleman on his last visit in the spring. Al wondered at the deal he must have had with the Costasol hotel. Maybe he was a silent partner and had funded the expansion. There was still a lot of building going on, judging by their walk before dinner.
What are you reading, Ricky?
Do you know Joe Klein?
I've heard of him.
Something about the buying up of the American economy.
Who's buying it up.
I see. Well, that's capitalism for you. Money flows like water until it finds its level or it levels everything it finds.
Al picked out a book, Kook by Peter Heller, from the doctor's shelves, about a middle-aged guy who learned to surf and travelled down the Pacific coast as far as Mexico. It was good, with some decent descriptive passages, and it reminded Al that he was not alone in his quixotic desire to take up surfing at a relatively advanced age.
The next morning dawned in a rain. It stopped while Al made coffee from a left over bag of Guatemalan dark roast left behind in the cupboards. They needed to shop later on, after they'd surfed. Al walked up to the surf shop, skipping over the puddles, and collected both the boards from Coconut Juan's shop and returned before Ricky had stirred from his bedroom. They drank cups of black coffee. Ricky was quiet, serious. They put on bathingsuits and slipped on the flip-flops, and walked down the road to the dark sand beach carrying surfboards like lances under their arms.
The waves rolled in with an insistent determinism. It dawned on Al with the force of a dull crack that he might not be a strong enough paddler to get beyond the break. They watched a couple of girls in skimpy bikinis duck diving and getting pushed back and surfacing again into the face of the breakers. If they could do it, he would too. This was the test he had been waiting for. Ricky waded in without a second's thought and flipped onto his board and dug hard with the outwash. Al thought he could pick a better spot away from the peak and walked down the beach to the south and into the water. It was mild, no more of a shock than bath water. This was good. The sun behind was also encouraging. He clambered on and set to working his arms while keeping his feet pinned on the tail of the board. The first couple of waves he tried pushing the front of the board down before they broke and got pushed back a little before popping up on the other side and settling quickly as he could while keeping the nose of the board above water. Then he paddled hard, but seemed to get nowhere. He looked up and saw the waves looming larger than life. The next one broke over the top of him. He hung on as the water sucked him off the board and pushed him end over end. When he came back up, sputtering, the board was at the end of the tether and still pulling away from him. He found it, climbed back on and turned it out to sea just in time to get caught by the white water of the next wave. He dove out of reach, but the next time up for breath out of the water, he looked around and was five feet from the sand.
He let the next wave wash him back up on the beach. A few freshly arrived tourists were sitting in the sand over by the fringe of the dune grass. He looked back out to the water and saw Ricky still paddling, patiently getting further ahead, and gaining on the edge of the impact zone, the white water washing over him as he dove under it.
This was as trying as anything, maybe as tough as running the half-marathon in Vero Beach the summer before last. But Ricky being out there on his own bothered him. He would have to figure out a way to beat the waves. He watched the pattern of the sets, trying to figure it out. After awhile he figured there was about a twelve second interval between the swells, five, maybe six minutes between sets. If he timed his entrance into the water at the end of the largest wave of a set, and was quicker getting through the initial couple of near-shore breakers, there was a short lull that could possibly see him out to the edge of the impact zone.
After resting in the sand cross-legged for a few more minutes he tried again. This time, paddling as hard as he could, his arms feeling like they were set in concrete, he came to the edge of a rising swell and settled over the back of it, out of the white water and into the translucent deeps. There was Ricky, paddling over to him.
You made it.
Yeah, finally. I didn't think I would.
I tried catching a couple.
Did you get them?
Watch how these guys do it, Ricky. You got to be in the right place.
I'm getting the hang of it.
There were about five or six other surfers in a little knot that spread itself out to the north of them, just off the peak. The waves were breaking to the left. Al let the swells lift under him and drop him off their backs. At the top he could look down into the water. There were some manta rays playing underneath them. The beach was about a half mile away. Then he looked back and saw the first set wave building behind him, looking like it would topple over before it reached him.
Come on, Dad. Catch this one.
The other surfers were letting it go. Al paddled hard as it lifted him and looked over at Ricky, doing the same. For about a millisecond he semed poised at the top of it before he was barreling down the impossibly steep shoulder, hanging onto the board in a freefall. Ricky had popped to his feet and had somehow managed to twist to the right the way you were supposed to. At the bottom, Al was still, somehow, on his board. He tried popping up once the white water had begun to lap at his tail. But the attempt was off balance and he went careening into the wash. When he came back up to breathe, he was caught in the zone and spun by the next two waves. This time he knew enough to relax. The foam still sputtering in a white valley around him, he began the long, slow padle back to the deep. He looked around for Ricky, but couldn't see him. The lineup was way beyond him, waiting for another big set. A panic attack crept up on him, with his arms heavy from paddling. He dove beneath a few waves, his heart in his throat. But Ricky was out there, he was sure. The next set arrived and he was still paddling out wide of the peak. One surfer popped up and looked down at him, momentary fear in his eyes, in the trough. He zipped low and cut back past Al, paddling hard for the crest before it breached. There was Ricky, paddling over to him again, cheerful as ever.
You having fun?
I caught that last one.
I saw you.
It's your turn. You're gonna catch one.
I hope so...It's nice out here isn't it?
We're too far out, Dad.
Ricky paddled towards the beach, trying to stay up with the group of more experienced surfers. Al thought he'd catch his breath. He watched the beach. There were more people on it now. It was about mid-morning. He was getting hungry. The water was so warm, though, he thought he could stay in forever.
A few sets later, Ricky had caught three waves and managed to cut back over the top of one when the white water closed it down. The enjoyment was really just being out there, sharing the experience with Ricky. If he figured out how to do the popup on these steep mamas before they left in three days for the mountains, he'd be glad.
One more wave, and he got to his feet this time, but hunched over instead of crouching. As he straightened too late, the board shot out from under him. He was flying, then spinning and tumbling under the churn of the wave. He held his breath, waiting for the power in the water to subside so he could shoot up and breathe. Although unashamed, Al decided that was it for the morning. He was done. Instead of turning back out, he grabbed his board and waited, holding his breath as the next monster clamped its white jaws around him. Spinning and sputtering, he caught the board, clambered back on it, and paddled the rest of the way in, standing at last in a few feet of water as a more experienced surfer zipped past him, still being pushed by the shore break right onto the sand.
Picking the board up under his arm, Al walked up the beach to the dunes a distance and turned to study the water. The large American man from the bar the night before was standing about ten feet from him, paunchy, wearing board shorts and a beach hat.
Nice out there?
Just a little too much for me.
Better you than me. You're a brave man.
Just trying to keep up wth my son. Beautiful here.
A nice place. Almujahedins taking over though.
Almujahedin, he said, pronouncing carefully. Terrorist organization. Targeting Guatemala as an entry point to our underbelly.
The Al Qaeda splinter group? Really?
Yeah. They say they're interested in building infrastructure, improving the roads.
Isn't that a good thing? They could use better roads.
That's what they say.
Al sighed and looked around wistfully.
This was my wife Mary's favorite place of all the places we'd been together. She wouldn't be happy with it becoming a terrorist stronghold.
How long were you married?
Almost twenty years.
Yeah, that takes some getting over. Are you on Facebook?
Yeah. I don't do much on it though.
Neither do I. Robert Newman's the name.
Al Lyons. Nice to meet you.
The two men shook hands. Al was younger by more than a decade and indebted for the friendly conversation. He waited patiently, leaning on one foot and then the other. Newman was content with standing and watching the water. Out on the water, Ricky was surfing a wave, doing a legitimate job of it, shifting the board and then dropping down on it and letting the water push him along to the beach. He was about 40 yards to the south, clambering out of the water.
Have a nice day, said Al.
Hey, you too. Take care of yourself.
Al walked down to where Ricky was standing. For a fourteen year old he was almost as tall as Al, but inside, where it counted, he was still a little boy.
Looking good, kid.
That was my best one.
I almost stood up. I feel like I'm almost there.
Yeah. Just gotta keep working at it, Dad.
Ready for breakfast?
They walked back down the beach to the road. The tide was starting to go out. Al thought that a few more days and they would forget they'd ever been anywhere else. Hunger was making him almost delirious, though. He thought of Mary and said a prayer to himself for her.
Your Mom would be proud of you, Ricky.
I know, Dad. She didn't care that I wasn't playing football. She was proud of me for standing up to you on that.
You're right. She was. And you were right not to play. Although I think you would have found it a worthwhile and rewarding challenge.
Dad. Don't start.
Well you brought it up.
They were silent. The ugly subject of football had reared again. Now it would take awhile. Al thought he should have just let it go. Next time Ricky brought it up, just not say a thing. First he'd been angry with Ricky for not going out for the high school team in ninth grade. As an eighth grader he'd been the leading rusher for the program, primed for high school success. Mary, of course, had backed her son up in his decision to take a couple of years and find out what he really loved to do. The day in ninth grade he'd said football was boring, Al had exploded on him and accused him of being a quitter. The worst thing he'd ever called his son and the worst insult he could think of. And Mary wasn't around anymore to explain to Ricky that Al's passions sometimes got the best of him. Why did he care so much? Had he no life? His son's triumphs in his former arenas lit some vicarious flame in the hippocampus region, the circuitry charred out in the extended adolescence of American males, stuck in some Johnny Unitas loop of positive stimulus. Self-doubt settled like a filter in the air, a momentary pall on the day. How absurd could he be, a middle-aged man pretending to master a sport for boys half his age so that he could relate to his son? It was preposterous and made him into a half pretentious nitwit. But then, he thought, it was fun. F...U...N, the three letters that justified any pursuit. This was the de facto philosophy of the street he argued against sometimes with Ricky. How fun was not enough. But as a defining concept, a rule of thumb...as long as you didn't hurt anybody. As long as the basic needs had been met, and so you were basically talking about a higher pursuit. Interchangeable concepts. Fun. Good. The smiling grace of the Puritan heartland. Fun. The some day over the rainbow, the prettiest girl you ever saw, the Higgs inside the Higgs Boson.
The hot shower calmed him down. Afterwards he sat in the chair and saw himself wasting the rest of the day in a lazy funk. The sound of the water running reminded him that Ricky was still brooding, sunk in his own thoughts as he took his turn.
The thing about Ricky was his soul was better, more refined by the waves of time. That was the way with sons. They were generally improved versions of their fathers, and it was what eventually made everything all right. As a father, he could officially just relax and spend some time in a chair, half-dressed, because Ricky would take care of business, kick his ass into shape and get them up to the corner to do the shopping they needed to do.
Dad, come on. I'm hungry.
The town was within walking distance. It consisted of the crossroads deli market run by German hippies, the Yoga Institute further up in the hills, various bodegas along the road in both directions, north and south, the Computer Center where you apparently coud connect with your social media, and various tourist restaurants and hangouts such as the Gilded Iguana which advertised Live Music Tonite in neon colored, non-erasable chalk on the board outside the palm-lined entrance. Al and Ricky walked into a bodega and bought provisions with the quetzales Al had changed before getting on the bus the day before, eggs, cans of black beans, some root vegetables, a bag of oranges, two loaves of Pan Bimbo, and two cases of Dos Equis. There was a bank down the road that ran towards the northern end of the beach past the surfer camps. This was the next stop. Ricky wanted to stop in and see Coconut Juan, so Al checked out the map of the area on a bulletin board provided by the Monterico Chamber of Business while Ricky went in. He heard him chatting with Coconut Juan. The American girlfriend was in there also, along with a young boy who was the helper.
Mr. Lyons, come inside.
The American girl was calling to him. Al walked inside and over to the counter. Coconut Juan was sitting on a stool looking at him. The girl was doing something under the glass counter, arranging some of the trinkets on sale. Ricky stood next to Coconut, also waiting for Al to come in and walk over to them. When Al reached them, he waited for some clarification as the grave looks on both their faces demanded. Coconut Juan held up the tablet, the Mayan reproduction Ricky had spotted and liked the day before.
Dees ees ahora de su hijo. You must to know because ees un peligro para mi y para ustedes tambien. Peligro. You know?
Yeah. Corrientes peligrosas, said Al. What's up?
There ees men looking for thees. You eh, keep, eh, hide.
Los de Almucha.
Look. I've been hearing about them. What is going on? How could this, this fake... be dangerous?
Ees no un fake, Senor Lyons. Ees el Chocomal. The eh, key to the universo Maya. Es una cifra importantisima.
So now it's Ricky's?
Yeah, I knew it was good.
Ricky picked it up and was setting to walk out of the store with it when Coconut Juan stood, leaned over the counter and grabbed him forcefully by the shoulder.
How much? asked Al. How much did you pay for it, Ricky?
Look, no way. Give it back.
Dad, Ricky implored.
Coconut Juan let him go. He had a frenzied look on his face, still standing.
Es que no entienden! he wailed in a bitter tone. The American girl, with a worried look on her face, looked up.
Mr. Lyons, Juan believes his life is in danger because of that thing. All he's asking is you take it and get it away from here. Please. Take it away.
Why doesn't he just bury it? Hide it or something?
He's scared they'll find it and kill him.
I see. So if they find us they'll kill us.
There's that possibility.
What is it?
I don't know, she said, throwing up her hands in a gesture of futility.
A national treasure, I guess. Juan's very patriotic. He wants to give it to the National Museum in Guatemala City, but he's scared, he thinks everybody is working for the Almujahedin up there in the capital. They have a lot of money, you see.
So why don't you just dump it in the ocean?
I've been trying to get him to do that. He just refuses. Won't go there.
No, no dump, said Coconut Juan, waving his hands in front of him back and forth frenetically.
Rick was walking fast with the tablet out the door.
Hold it cowboy. Let’s put a bag on that.
What? You believe all that stuff?
You never know. When in doubt go with the prudent thing. Let’s not take any chances. When we get to the hotel we can figure out a place to put it.
Uhm, like my suitcase?
Maybe caution would dictate otherwise.
We’ll talk about it later, Dad. Let’s finish the shopping and head back to the apartment.
Coconut Juan gave them a striped plastic bag and wrapped the tablet in newspaper and taped the wrapping. Ricky put the whole thing in the bag as if he were handling a fish, insisting with his body language that he was above all the subterfuge and paranoia.
Cuidelo con su vida, muchacho.
What’d he say? asked Ricky.
Take care of it, said Al.
Mom would love this.
A gaggle of dirt bikes came down the rutted road, careening around the corner in a high frequency whine of red-lining engines. The men sitting on them had baggy yoga pants and no shirts, beards, scarved wrapped around their heads and faces like some cohort of skinny middle class college students on a long weekend masquerade binge. They slowed down enough to not run anyone over. They gave Ricky and Al quick, nonchalant glances as if they did not belong.
That’s them, said Ricky
How do you know?
I don’t know how I know. Just sensed danger. A voice.
A voice, huh?
I know. It sounds crazy.
Well, son. We need to get some food.
The tablet gave the trip a new sense of urgency, as if the sky had opened up and a wind had wafted away the dull, humid air of every day. Al thought of the way time passed and left you with only a residue of memory and how this new possession, like a slap in the face or a cold-water bath, invigorated their steps. They walked shoulder to shoulder and crossed the road as buses and trucks made their way up and down what was after all the highway to Escuintla and from there points north to Tapachula and eventually la frontera and south to Salvador and Colombia and all along the road in both directions was the chain of the mountains that rose out of the jungle. He’d read once in a newspaper, one of those human interest features from Reuters about a man who’d walked the whole length north to south of the PanAmerican highway and was headed back the other way, expecting to complete his journey in the farthest northern town of Alaska, was it Barrow? Now with the tablet, he and Ricky seemed like they were somehow linked in a similar life and death exploration. What had Coconut Juan meant by a cifra, was that a secret code, a number containing the answer they all were looking for. What would that be?
They finished the food shopping and were walking back to the apartment the back way, passing the cemetery at the north end of the beach. Ricky was carrying three plastic bags with each hand, plus the bag with the tablet. Al had a bag of oranges, the two cases of beer and a box of Ramen noodle packs that were on sale at the last bodega. Around the corner of the cemetery, the road ran onto a path that cut parallel to the beach through the dune scrub. They came out of the shade of the ceiba and flamboyant trees that lined the road. The sun was beating down on them. In the other direction along the trail came the American man from the morning’s encounter on the beach. Al looked up and saw him and kept his gaze steady as they approached. The man looked up and smiled as he saw them coming. What was his name? Robert Newman, brother to the famous actor but without the baby blues.
Surfer father. And surfer son.
How ya doin Robert?
I’m fine. I expect you’ll be pros by the time your time is up.
Well, the waves here are a little over our heads. Otherwise this place is perfect.
Yeah, but its overrun.
Hey, what more can you tell us about the terrorist threat in the area? You look like someone in the know.
Robert scratched his head and looked up and down the beach.
It's not good. Look, if I were you, honestly? I'd get on a plane out of here as fast as I could. This place is about to pop.
Pop. What do you mean?
Almujas been running guns through San Jose for about a year. They're planning to take-over, and when they do, it won't be pretty. It's going to go down any day now.
The American pulled some sunglasses out of his bathingsuit pocket. He polished the lenses of the sunglasses with the fabric of his oversized bathingsuit and then produced a pair of binoculars out of the other pocket.
Good view from here of the water and if you look way out on the horizon you can see subs.
Al put down the box of noodles and the bags of oranges and beer. Ricky refused to do the same, looking on with exasperation as his father took a turn with the binoculars.
Can you see them?
Yeah. What are they?
They looked like little pill bugs poking up above the water on the horizon.
Submarines. Built in the jungle by teams of Iranian engineers. I've even seen choppers lifting stuff with guys hanging from ropes.
Al pulled the binoculars away from his face.
How do you know all this?
You know that line from the movie - if I told you I'd have to kill you?
Okay. So you're some kind of government spook.
Like I said, I'm only telling you 'cause you asked. This place is about to pop.
He scratched his head one more time.
Only thing is, nobody seems to be doing anything about it. I'm sending word up the line and I have yet to see any reaction. Task Force South is asleep at the switch. That scares me more than the ships.
Ricky. Let me have the tablet.
Al gave the binoculars back to Newman who put them away carefully in his bathingsuit pocket. Ricky put his bags on the sand and Al took the bag with the tablet. He ripped the tape off the tablet and unwrapped it.
What do you think of this? he asked Newman.
What is it?
A Mayan artifact, apparently. Ricky bought it off Coconut Juan at the surf shop. He was very worked up about it.
Didn't want to sell it to me at first. But I convinced him, said Ricky.
Newman took it from Al and turned it over, studying it.
How did you convince him? asked Al.
I explained to him how the Mayans were the first fully written system and told him I'd read the Popol Vuh in 5th grade which wasn't really true since Mom read it to me, but how they had the concept of zero before anyone else...
How do you know all that?
Mom told me.
This is very interesting. And Coconut Juan came to have it, how? asked Newman.
He’s a collector, I guess, said Al. I thought it was a fake.
This is not a fake. Could be the one the Almujah web sites have been referring to. There's been all kinds of chatter about something like this. The Chocomal. There could be some people very interested in this.
That's what he was all worried about. Said they'd kill him for it. Why?
I don't exactly know. I do know Iranian scientists, along with Chinese and some Russians, have been looking for some time, almost twenty years for some archaeological clue. Their experts claim they know about a secret code they've been working on for building what you might call a doomsday machine. Ancient secrets of Mayan astronomers, apparently, on the frequency of sound waves. There have been some disappearances. Blamed on the drug cartels. But some people suspect the Almujah boys are the ones behind them.
Well, what do you think we ought to do with this?
Keep it out of their hands. If I were you, like I said, I'd get out of town. It's been nice chatting.
Okay. Let's go Ricky.
Al put the tablet back in its bag and they picked up their bags and the box of noodles. Newman disappeared down the trail and out of sight.
Looks like the tides going out, Ricky. Look at the surfers.
There was a knot of them beginning to form again out beyond the breakers. It would have been nice to have binoculars to watch them from up in the dunes, but then again, it wasn't strictly necessary. The senses were our window on the world and it helped to keep them clean, exercise them every day. People working on computers such as his brother Anthony, now half-blind, might have been a genius but he had all but destroyed himself in the pursuit of his arcane academic interests. That's why he had wanted Ricky to play football, for the extra-alive richness of it, the mud and proximity to danger, the heightened sense of being connected to the source of all creation. All that talk about the Almujahedin and the submarines out on the horizon seemed very far away, not real at all. Al wondered if it was some kind of phenomenon like deer being caught in headlights, the calm that had come over the two of them, Ricky and he, as they walked back to the apartment. The sun set out on the water behind them, and the parrots flocked in the trees inland under the turquoise clouds.
They surfed for three days straight while the rain clouds swept in and the tides came in and out. It was the heaviest deluge in years. The low lying beach town did not suffer badly, but on the television at the restaurant bar the newscasts had stories of floods and drowned bodies washing up on the beaches of the Caribbean coast and the alligators gorging themselves on the dogs and cats caught in the sweep of the flood water.
Ricky got very good. Even in the low tides he could manage the ladder, the erratic patterns of telescoped waves breaking far off shore in the early evenings. Al struggled still, getting to his knees on the board. His face took on a swollen look with the battering he was receiving. He had not shaved in days. He would go home while the sun was hanging above the horizon in a melting after-image and cook dinner and drink a couple of bottles of beer to get over the pain in his joints. Then Ricky would come in and shower. They ate silently, both of them awkward without the intervening voice of Mary to save them from their self-pity. Al tried starting a conversation but it was never on something that Ricky would respond to. They would run down the day's surfing, and then Al hit on the idea of talking about the future, conjecturing about the state of the world. Ricky had many ideas on this, gleaned from the pages of Popular Science and the like, and Al liked to hear the wild and, in his opinion, absurd theories that had sprouted forth. Men would live in bubbles on distant plants, or in domes under the ocean. Ricky thought he might like to design such living spaces.
On the fifth day Ricky had a hard time getting out of bed at dawn as they had been doing. He struggled to the kitchen and had his coffee with lots of milk and sugar. Al sipped on his and had a thought, observing Ricky's sluggish progress to the kitchen chair.
Hey. Maybe its time to head up country to see Evelio.
Okay. When do we go?
Well, We have five more days before we're due to fly home. We could go for a couple of days up to San Juan Grande and see if we could find him. Remember the cafe there with the hummingbirds?
If you've had enough surfing.
I don't know. I'm kind of exhausted.
I mean it's been fun. But I might need a break.
We've been going all out for three days. At least you have.
You too. Lets go up to the mountains.
Yeah, okay. We'll give Coconut Juan the boards and go rent a car.
After a breakfast of noodles and tuna fish salad with toast, they packed their belongings into the two duffel bags and laid them by the door. Al finished off the coffee in the pot and hurried Ricky along. He was stuffing the tablet down inside his duffel bag, taking out clothes and sneakers to make room. Al didn't know why he was suddenly in a hurry. It was one of those inexplicable mood changes. Now that it was time to go, he just wanted to get on the road and out of there.
Come on, you can finish later. Let's get the boards back and get the car.
I'm sorry. I don't mean to nag.
No, you're right. There's only so much time. Although I'm sure you could have done it, Dad.
Maybe. Next time I'll get a better board. You'll see, Ricky. That'll make all the difference.
There was a crowd outside the surf shop. It was as if the entire town had congregated on the corner, with a clutch of jeeps painted in the insignia of the Policia Nacional parked at odd angles in the road. Most of the people were silent. Ricky and Al cautiously approached the crowd outside the door. A policeman saw them and motioned for them to leave the boards against the wall. Through the bodies, Al saw Coconut Juan's American girlfriend crying inside as a policewoman hugged her around the shoulders. He turned around and there was Newman still in his bathing suit, his wizened, brown, shirtless, sagging chest heaving as he stood on his toes in his flip flops to get a view inside. A wailing ambulance came around the corner and screeched to a stop behind the police jeeps. There was mud spattered on the back windshield. The back door came open, and the paramedics hopped down and stretched their legs.
Que paso? Al asked a stoutish gentleman in a button down short sleeve shirt and a baseball hat of the Suchitepequez FC.
No, un hombre asesinado por arma blanca.
Parece que el dueño. El Juan este del Coco.
Pobre señor. Que nos cuide Dios.
Coconut Juan's dead.
Ricky didn't say anything, clearly thinking, trying out this new idea. Newman looked at them both from a distance with a strange, expressionless face that Al interpreted as fear. It was already starting. He took Newman's fear to possibly be a reflection of his own. You could create your own reality if you put your mind to it. But the reverse could also be true, that your fear could transmute into a collective nightmare of the highest order. But the individual's soul could never be extinguished or even altered, for that matter. That fact remained and it explained the calm feeling that came over him again. Or maybe it was Ricky. He was a pretty cool customer. His legs churned up the road and he darted to avoid the motorcycles that zoomed by.
That's them again, Dad.
Why do they all ride motorcycles all day?
It's the best way to get around here.
The car rental place was an air-conditioned island of calm. The man behind the desk got off his cell phone and smiled.
We need a car.
For how many days?
I don't know. Three, said Al.
The man took out a form and started to fill in the boxes. Al suddenly thought of Mary and had a sudden feeling of being out of time, as if floating in an endless vacuum. He could almost swear she was right behind him and he turned, half hopeful that she would be, that her presence would wipe away the nervous tension he felt. Ricky was starting to wander. But there was nothing there. He could swear, however, that her presence was almost tangible. He spoke to her, echoing the words in his mind, the last words he had said to her at the hospital.
You'll be here in my heart and watching over Ricky through my eyes. Don't you worry, Mary.
We have the Suzuki or the Hyundai.
The Hyundai is fine.
And Ricky, his body was tugging him in all sorts of different directions. This might be the last time they would spend together before he was off on his own life to somewhere different.