NOVEL EXCERPT: from FOREIGN LAND

A light, careful touch wakes him. Anne turns, gasps. The face that leans over them is dark, with dark-rimmed glasses. “It is okay, it is Luis,” the voice tells them.

There’s another familiar face right next to it. Richard’s. He says, “We’re getting you out. There’s not much time. No time, in fact. Get moving.”

It’s still night but there’s movement all around. Haste in the stir. A race against the ticking clock. And what time is it? Three? Four? There’s no way of knowing. And it doesn’t matter.

Pack so they can get out of here before light comes up, are Richard’s repeated instructions. His orders. Hurry is the word that’s used a lot. A kind of beehive panic. Put your clothes on, stuff your things in the bags. Don’t even think about washing your face or brushing your teeth. Move as fast as you can. The fine details aren’t important. Escape is.

“Why weren’t we told sooner?” he says this in a high decibel.

“There was no other way to do it. This is sooner. Did you want a schedule and itinerary? Yes. It happened this fast. Let’s go.”

By the time they’re ready, out of the shed and next to the car, the first streak of light colors the horizon.

Soon a crack of sun appears. Bright. Too bright.

Time to get moving.

——–

Luis is behind the wheel. He’s their driver again. The last time seems both ages and minutes ago. He’s agreed to take them out of Progreso, to hook them up with another car waiting to take them across the border. That’s where hope is. The rest of their lives. The risk they’re running is less than that of staying; a thought he and Anne have had many times. There’s a payment that’s already been made. The last four traveler’s checks signed over to MARKET AVILA. Four hundred dollars. A small amount to take them to safety. He’s already thought about sending more down here when they’re back in New York. A thousand dollars isn’t a lot to fight a war. It isn’t too much for someone to give to a worthy cause.

They avoid the zocalo and take the side streets that skirt around the center of Progreso, a rugged city in the steaming jungle valley. Of blocks with one-story shops and cafes, small homes and markets, a church and bar on every corner. There’s traffic in front and behind them. Spaced out far enough so it doesn’t feel dangerous. They pass a wall that’s covered with slogans of the struggle: LIBERTE O GUERRA; FASCISTIA MARCHAR AUSENTE. Another painted on a metal lamppost stands out the most, the thick, black letters written one beneath the other: N.A.L.

A car that’s followed them for a mile doesn’t take the last turn with them. Every vehicle is a threat to interrupt their progress, and maybe much more than that. An accident might have the most serious consequences. So would an armed patrol stopping them.

He never thought he’d see and experience what he has at such close range. A guerrilla war. The tropical land. The poverty of the native peoples. The heightened state of tension they all feel.

They’re out of Progreso, on an isolated road with no other traffic. The yellow-sun-haze above the smoking hills suggests the start of another hellish day.

It’s safe here, Luis tells them. They shouldn’t have a problem until they come to another road on the other side of the hills, the main route, he emphasizes. That won’t be for an hour. After that they’ll meet the other driver.

Richard says, “There may be checkpoints even before we get to the border. We don’t know if they’re still set up. We don’t think they are. If we run into one be cool. Show no fear. There’s nothing going on. They may just look in and wave us on.”

The road winds up the hill. Sheer drops to the right. The rich, green valley below. A few hairpin turns and they continue their way up. They go around a dark-skinned man in silver jogging trunks ascending a steep incline with short, steady extensions of his legs. All alone, it seems impossible he made it up here on his own power. A competitive runner, he thinks, training for something more than the appearance of muscled calves and a flat stomach.

They cross over the high plateau and descend a steep decline. There’s some laughter and macabre joking going on even though it isn’t the time or place for it: “They’ll put all of us in a cell so small we’ll have to take turns lying down to sleep.” “They’ll riddle us with bullets so we’ll each be buried with three assholes.”

The small, poor villages they go through are occupied by people who refuse to emigrate to the capital and share the prospect of a horrible life as migrants in the slums. They’d never give in to the meager hope they might find something unskilled that would improve the lives they live out here, even if here they’re neglected and forgotten. Many of them, Richard continues, are illiterate and live on little more than beans, potatoes and corn.

The hyper rumble of the engine in the quiet morning makes him nervous. He’s looking out the side window into the thick brush. They hit a bump so hard it feels like a violent air pocket that makes them dip a few hundred feet. The hot day seems full of treachery. He feels panic. Instincts to run and hide possess him. He wants to stop the car and call a meeting to make sure there’s a thought-out plan that’ll work so they won’t be arrested. Ask a villager to take them in until it gets dark again. He wishes for night and its cover. But whatever’s to be done will have to be done now. They’re going ahead, not turning around.

Richard says, “This feels too fucking easy. Not a single green soldier anywhere. Luis, you’re sure everything’s all right here? This is the way we talked about?”

Luis answers with the most certain language.

“Beautiful,” Richard says.

In the situation, being what it is, hairy as all hell, he’s almost tempted to tell Richard to shut up. At the moment nothing seems worse than being where they are. There’s nothing beautiful about it. It’ll all be hairy and ugly until they get to safety.

Silence comes over them when Luis passes through a village of two small stores, a one-pump gas station, several clusters of houses that seem nothing more than handmade constructions added on to when more materials become available. Up what seems to be the main street, Luis pulls into a dirt parking lot and stops at a store, a one-story building with a gabled roof. A stand with crates of zucchinis, peppers, eggplants, papayas and mangoes is next to an opening that doesn’t seem to have a door, a rusted red-and-white metal sign above it: MARKET AVILA.

Anne says, “What are we doing here?”

Richard says, “It’s all right. Luis needs to go in to ask a few questions is all. Someone in there’s expecting us.”

He watches Luis get out of the car and head inside. Lights go on in his face when Richard adds this is where they change drivers.

More silence until Luis appears in the doorway and points at Richard. “Something’s come up. Maybe. I don’t know why he wants me. It should be all right. I’ll be back in a minute.”

When they’re alone he touches Anne on the arm. Regretful, he hopes she’ll transfer something different back to him that’ll make everything all right. They’re sitting targets here next to this place, MARKET AVILA, under the brightening sun that lightens the land.

Anne looks at him. She has nothing to send back to allay his fears. Everything they’ve been and are converge into the now. Right in this time. Touching her doesn’t set him free from how he feels. The walls that have built up around them since they escaped San Vicente, the ones that keep them here and keep them apart haven’t melted away. His heart beats fast. They’re targets.

When he turns to her there’s a strange look on her face. When she speaks it’s with a disembodied voice. “Nothing ever goes the way I think it will.” She looks him in the eye with a cool, despairing smile.

“I wish you hadn’t said that.”

“Oh no. Don’t think I meant it about you. It’s not that at all. I was thinking of me. The things I do that never work out. It seems you realize it when it gets difficult.”

He says, “Do you believe we’re doing this? We really are in trouble. Serious and dangerous trouble. If the army comes here now, knowing who we are, they’ll shoot first and say we were reaching for guns.” He goes quiet for a moment. He has the feeling he’s falling someplace he can’t see. “That won’t happen. Richard and Luis wouldn’t be with us if they thought the authorities knew anything about where we are.”

Anne manages a smile. Not one of the forced ones she gives when she doesn’t mean it, but one that’s wide and expressive. “Come on, we must be a pair of small targets in something that’s so big and gone on so long. We’re nothing to them.”

He says, “You’re right. We’d be more trouble than we’re worth. A couple of gringos on vacation. So what if we have a friend who wants to save the world, or a small part of it, and can’t help himself if he does.”

Anne says, “See, they’d let us go. Take Richard and Luis, and whoever else is inside. Give us the car keys and send us on our way. So long. You can leave now. We have who we want.”

——–

By early afternoon they’re closing in on the border. Each thought of it makes the tension in him rise. Much blood and suffering is connected to this border. There’s much to dread until they cross it, get to the airport and on a plane to the capital, back home from there. Until it’s dark and they’re in the air and sure no one’s coming after them, that knows who and where they are.

There’s nothing but light now. The road and light. A brilliant, golden sun reaching its peak position in the clear sky.

He’s in the front seat. Anne’s in the back. Their driver’s Manuel, behind the wheel of a mid-size Chevrolet well past its prime. Manuel’s been quiet since Richard introduced them outside MARKET AVILA. For the sake of comfort on a long ride, he thinks. A dark-skinned young man with plum cheeks and toothbrush cut hair. In his mid twenties, he’s made the evaluation. Wearing stonewashed blue jeans and a white t-shirt with the LOS ANGELES LAKERS team logo printed on the front, the number 24 on the back. A side job he’s taken on for money, he understands. And out of hate for the military that occupies the land of his ancestors. When you can get paid for revenge, that’s sweet.

By now Richard and Luis are half way back to San Vicente, or to wherever they’re staying these days. They’d said goodbye outside MARKET AVILA, shook hands and exchanged slaps on the back. He’d be up there, Richard had told him. Someday he would go back for a visit. To get together with him and check out their new home two blocks from the East River with the panorama of Manhattan from the roof. And, of course, they’ll spend at least one night at Teddy’s. On their second pint, he’ll comment, “It’s funny now. What a fucking vacation adventure that was.”

Anne will say, “More adventure than vacation, and that’s not such a bad thing now that it’s been over a while.”

The highway begins to climb into the hills. The air becomes lighter. The jungle thicker. The pavement narrower. A little later, on the way down the hill, over the trees, he sees a hawk bank. It makes a smooth, swift turn and dive. His eyes follow it until it’s out of sight. He looks for another one but there’s nothing more in the sky but a few thin clouds. They’re not flattened carcasses yet.

Anne asks Manuel. “Cuanto mas a ir?”

“Venti kilometers, circa.” Manuel shifts a hand side-to-side to show what he means. Twenty, or thereabouts.

Twelve more miles and they’ll turn off the highway onto the dirt road that will take them two more kilometers across the border. They’ll avoid the checkpoint, the inquisitive eyes of some fucking Inspector General, an assertive man who arouses fear and dismal thoughts in the minds of others, with a half-dozen dark, strong boys backing him up with automatic weapons.

The highway has many turns. They come out into an opening with a valley to their right. A scarred area of land blackened by fire. Heading west, he knows from the position of the sun. He’s become used to the heat. He prefers to feel it without being cooled by the wind that whips in the windows. He can live in this climate. Winter never had any appeal to him. The cold and slush. Huddled under a heavy jacket as he walks to the store or the subway. Someday he’ll come back to it. Not to San Vicente. But to another country like it and stay a good, long while.

He reaches down between his feet, brings up the red-and-white can of cola he’d bought at MARKET AVILA. The liquid’s warm but restorative. He gulps from it two times. “What the fuck…”

A turn around a sharp bend and Manuel slows the car. They’re all looking ahead where four green vehicles block the road. Men with rifles stand by a few stopped cars that will be checked out before they’re allowed to pass. There’s been a miscalculation. The road they were supposed to take has been passed by. They’ve all missed it. Or it wasn’t there. Whose fault, and why, isn’t a concern at the moment. Had they all been blinded by the sun at the same time?

This was another part of the trip they’ll tell their friends back in Brooklyn. A storyteller’s coup de grace that will make it seem an exaggeration: Holy shit, that’s not true! But it’s telling won’t be for another few days. When they’re rested and phoning news of their late return. “Wait until you hear this…”

There’s a violent shaking as Manuel turns off the road onto the tire-gorged ground and tall weeds. The old, beaten Chevrolet comes to a complete stop. It’s impossible to drive into the woods. Manuel turns his head to see what’s behind them. He looks to the front again. It’s too late to go on, to hope they’ll be waved through without being checked. A soldier has fixed his eyes on them. He makes a few moves their way, using his rifle to point them out to his companions.

A rust-brown pickup truck passes. The two men in it stare as they go by. The passenger, a man wearing a white cap, looks back and smiles like he’s just heard something funny.

Anne says, “Do you think they want us?”

Manuel’s eyes are wide open so all white surrounds his pupils. “No.” He shakes his head. “No, Senora, no. No se.”

“Did they see us? Have we given ourselves away?” There’s fear in his eyes he doesn’t try to hide.

His question will be answered soon enough. It’s as if he’s seeing himself in the mirror of truth. Some supreme moment’s approaching that will determine everything from now on. His fingers wrap around the door handle as he looks behind them for the road. In a flash he sees them home; everything they left behind continues to exist. They’ll make it if they just get out on the highway and go back. No matter what, they have to find the road into the jungle. That’s the safe passage that will get them out of the state to the airport.

Ahead, three soldiers jump into a jeep. A puff of dark smoke blows out of the back of it.

“Turn, turn around,” Anne’s telling Manuel. Her hands show him how to use the steering wheel. “Turn around and go back. We need to find the road now. Ahora. Por favor. Prisa. Prisa. A toda prisa!”

(2002)

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