Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the continued adventures of Oscar Sloane

He walks toward the taco stand, the smell of tongue in oil. The woman behind the grill smiles briefly at him, her front teeth framed in gray. He reads a couple of the fourteen prescriptions of Dr. Jesucristo painted red and yellow on the wall behind her. A solemn, skinny girl brings him a bottle of beer. The woman flips a tortilla on the grill without looking at it. She lifts a charred onion to a plate and stares at him with unexpressive eyes. You knew Maria de los Angeles? But it’s not a question. She already knows the past and the present, possibly the future. Yes. It was her father, she says. Everyone said there was something. Such a shame, we said. He was only passing through. I know—she leaned toward him—what you’ve seen. Her eyes were still dull but her voice had changed. Go, she said.

The monkey moved sinuously, flattening itself against the wire of its cage. He plucked a frangipani blossom and tossed it among moldering banana peels. The sound of the waves blotted out the heavy door closing.

He drove along the river--barely running now, the hills dry except for yellow flowers tumbling from bare branches when the wind blew. An old man appeared at the side of the road. The crown of his straw hat was broken. He lifted his arm and the car slowed in billowing dust and when it cleared the man was gone. La Palomita, it’s not far. They drove on in silence. I knew someone would come one day, the old man said finally, barely moving his lips, as they approached three shanties, burros and cows grazing and chickens pecking in the brush, pink impatiens and oleander. It’s up that way. Derecha. There’s a fork, derecha derecha. You see a stream coming down a hillside and the cottonwoods grow big. He turned and walked toward a hut covered with dry palm fronds, a clothesline where worn cotton dresses rose and fell.

He was trying to remember what she had told him. He took a pull from his canteen. Suddenly it rose up beside the narrow ruts. He stopped and got out of the car. Already he could smell the cold breath of the earth. This was something that men did. He no longer had much to lose. He walked toward the ragged entrance, dripping with vines, their blind brown roots reaching out to clutch at stone. The skulls of three birds formed a triangle in the center of the arch. He stepped over it. The quiet click of his lantern bounced back toward him and he heard something skitter deeper into the shadows. Someone had built a fire here long ago. The two bodies, one of them small, were mostly bone. They faced the rock—rivulets of condensation, nests of mice and spiders the size of children’s hands, implacable eyes gazing out of the darkness.

Señora Lupita is still selling tamales. Hay de pollo y de elote! she cries. No, mi vida, no tamales de piña hasta martes, she laughs. Señora, he tells her, I know you will never have tamales de piña. I no longer believe in them. He asks for dos de pollo and dos de elote, preparados. As she unhusks them she tilts her head and glances up at him, her black eyes like a lark’s. Mijo, she says, I know you’ll be going soon. You should have asked me before you started keeping company with Maria de los Angeles. Que chingadera. Tamales de pollo y de elote! Si, mijo, there was something not right. We all knew it, even before she was born. Her father came from somewhere else. They say he came from California. You know, it used to be Mexico, but now—my son lives in San Jose. He married an American woman and they have three daughters, all bien blancas, ojos azules. After it happened we never saw him. He just disappeared. My sister-in-law told me she heard he went somewhere on a fishing boat. Her cousin said he went out into the sea, across the ocean. I don’t know what’s over there. But what kind of life could he have anywhere, after all?

He cabled his office overlooking Market Street, the scent of Chinese food wafting in the open windows, their sills covered with flies. Heading west, it read. Take a holiday.

In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers left this bay to blazon the seal of the crown across the Philippine archipelago. Their ships were built by Indians from virgin mahogany felled in the hills. The phosphorescent tree covered with clam shells glowed like moonlight by the lagoon. But the white sand had turned an ordinary color, flecked with glass and charcoal, as he headed north to Vallarta and took the first tramp steamer bound for the islands.

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