NOVEL EXCERPT: from MY AMERICAN FRIEND

At ten the next morning I left Adrienne’s and caught a cab back to the Hotel Catedral. I was feeling anxious. I had two days to get something to my editors. Two days. Twelve-hundred words. Four or five revisions. A lot of work and a little time when all I had was a pile of notes. It was like saying you were going out to run ten miles, you’d already warmed up, and now all you had to do was get out on the road and move one foot in front of the other for eighty or ninety minutes.

Sitting at my desk, I had no idea what I was going to do. I wanted something to say that would blow this whole thing open. But I didn’t have enough. The photo wouldn’t do it. The knowledge that millions of cezas moving from the capital to the mines to Mercor and into the pockets of the paramilitary as compensation for their fine efforts to quell the protests wouldn’t do it either without rock-solid evidence. It was still a nation of laws even if one small group made them up for themselves.

Late afternoon I filled my shoulder pack with notebooks and walked down Insurgentes to the D’Monica Cafe. I hadn’t been there in weeks. I wanted to go back to a place I’d spent time in when I first got to Tulipanes. Where I felt comfortable. Where my face was known even if nothing else about me was. I wanted to see the old men again, to hear their voices. Maybe sitting there would open up something that was impossible to come to in my room reading my notes over and over and trying to flesh out ideas without success.

Two of the old men were there and I took a table near them. They didn’t talk. They stared at the traffic on Insurgentes. I wondered where the others were? Taking a day off? There must be plenty of afternoons and nights that one or more of them missed due to a doctor’s appointment or a family commitment or to just bag it and break routine. There was a face at another table I recognized. She worked at a travel agency near the zocalo. She was on her cell phone, talking in a low tone.

“Are you alone?” the waiter asked as he set a menu on the table. It made me feel I was still a regular even though I hadn’t been there very often since switching to the Hotel Catedral.

“Today, yes. Just me.” There’d be no one else. And it was as if I was finally admitting Richard was never coming back. Had it been four months since he was taken away by men paid by the government but working for Mercor?

“Do you know what you would like? Or do you need more time?”

I didn’t need to look at the menu to know what was on it. I’d had coffee and a roll at Adrienne’s and a liter of water in my room. That was all I’d taken in for the day. I was hungry. Very hungry. But a lot of food might dull me instead of the opposite. “Just a coffee right now,” I told the waiter when he came back. A good buzz would do more for me than a big plate of enchiladas and beans and tortillas.

I sat there wondering what it was I wanted to do? What was important was the question? Another of the old men came by and sat down. The one who dressed the best and was the most animated. There was an immediate building of excitement in their voices as he’d brought some bit of news I was sure they were waiting for. Maybe if it was good enough it might be drawn out over several days. There was so much excitement that I was tempted to ask them what it was all about? Maybe it was something I could use and send in to Express. Something that would develop quick. I imagined a nonsensical headline: “Old Man Finds Out About Those Missing, And They’re Not Really.”

I sat there listening for half an hour, not making the progress I’d hoped for. I had starts and stops and x’d out paragraphs. I went back to the imaginary headline, then back to Richard. And then I realized, that was it. The topic I’d been avoiding. The one about ex pat Richard Lynch. About knowing him in college and New York. About him as an undergraduate resisting the urge, or the threat, to back away from the President’s office as the rest of us had so we wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail and pay a fine. The story would be about Richard, and at the same time it’d be about the place, about Tulipanes and the ongoing war and the corruption and the questions that remained unanswered: Who might be responsible for the arrests and murders and why…

He wasn’t coming back. No miracle was going to happen to make him appear at my door with a smile on his face and a bottle of tequila in hand to get things started. It was a thought that came against my will. I’d never see him again. Any hope I might have for the opposite drained out of me just like that.

The waiter came by to see if I wanted a second cup of coffee? I shook him off. My hunger was back and I ordered the enchiladas special. When he brought it I went at it with the same zeal I’d noticed Richard ate with. In the intense heat and war zone atmosphere of Tulipanes nothing could be taken for granted. Not the next meal. Not the next day. Not making love with your companion. It might be over tomorrow so you lived in the present with all of your senses attentive to the moment: taste and touch and sight and sound and smell. It was a cliché, but it was one that’d passed the test of time in a life you knew from an early age on was finite.

I heard the language of the old men. One of them spoke. Then two of them at the same time. It wasn’t an interruption, but a way of getting as much in as fast as possible. It wasn’t beyond humans to be able to talk and listen at the same time.

One of them was going on. His voice rose and fell. He caught my eyes but didn’t interrupt what he was telling the others. I wondered what he thought of me? What the three of them thought. They’d talked about me by now. Many times, perhaps. Did he, they, know who I was? Had they ever asked the manager of the Hotel D’Monica what I did? Did they know Lieutenant Diaz had come to see me? After years of knowing the manager, it’d be a question as natural as any other. A journalist from the States, the answer would come. It’d be an interesting bit, but not enough to impress the old men. They’d lived too long for that. They knew what was impressive and what wasn’t. A name, a function, a title, a list of accomplishments would be impressive in context only. In the context of Tulipanes. Their land. What kind of journalist would be the first question? Pro or con? For the people of Tulipanes or against them? Or, was he someone just here doing his job, glossing the whole thing over for a paycheck?

They continued talking as I finished every bit of food on my plate, the bowl of red beans, the four corn tortillas that came with it. My water glass was empty and the waiter refilled it. That went down fast, and after another one I was refreshed. After that I paid my bill, stood up and walked down Insurgentes, away from the zocalo. I had nowhere special I wanted to go to except that I wanted to head into unfamiliar territory, to see and feel Tulipanes again as I hadn’t since my first weeks there.

Then my phone rang. Two clanging rings, a pause, then two more before I was able to dig it out of my bag. It was Adrienne. “Where are you right now?” I asked.

“On my way to Progreso, Robert. I’m almost there. I’m getting some gas.”

“I thought you were leaving this morning?”

“I was, but other things came up. Now I’ll have to spend the night. That’s why I’m calling, to tell you so you know and can make other plans for yourself. I wasn’t sure what we decided?”

“Is this a night you want to be alone?”

“No. But I’ll have to now. So is it going well for you?”

“No, it’s not. I haven’t started anything. I have absolutely not a single word down. But now I know what I want to do. I’ll tell you about it at the hotel.”

“You’re coming to Progreso?”

“I don’t want you to spend the night alone, unless that’s what you want.”

“Are you sure you can do that? How will you come out?”

“The next bus. I just turned back to the direction of my room. I’ll get a change of clothes. Is it the hotel you always stay at? Have you made reservations?”

“Yes. But I’ll call back and add your name so you can go up. I’m not sure what time I’ll be there.”

“I want us to go to Cape Canaveral tomorrow. Let’s stop there on the way back. I want that ceviche again. I can’t live without having another plate of it. Then we’ll fire up that jukebox and dance, even if we’ll be the only ones doing it.”

“Are you sure you have this much time?”

“Of course I’m sure. I’ll work on the bus. Pen’s are still useful writing instruments. They’ve taken an unwarranted hit in the computer age.”

“Okay. I’m happy you’re coming out. I will see you there.”

“I’m glad I’ll be with you tonight.”

“I’m so glad too, Robert.”

——–

“You’re here as you said.” Adrienne was in the door. Then she was next to me, bending so our lips touched.

“It goes,” I said. “Believe it or not, I got a lot done. Once I knew what I was doing, it fell into place. Anxiety turned to fear, and that’s always a good motivator. Desperation is the mother of inspiration.”

She dropped her bag on the floor, sat on the edge of the bed and untied her shoes. I turned in my chair and put my feet up on the desk. A bottle of Presidente was within reach and I took a sip, then another.

“Do you want one? There’s more in that little refrigerator.”

“I’ll have some of yours for now.”

When her shoes were off I handed it to her. “What did Charles want you for?”

“I had to meet with him and his people. He wanted to show me another section that got done and to make sure we agreed on an order he had to put in. I have to go back in the morning.”

“It’s all fine then? It’s fit to report on the eleven o’clock news?”

“Are you being cynical?”

“Nah. You know how people hate to hear bad stuff before they go to bed. And that includes me.”

“It’s only seven. There’s plenty of time for things to go wrong. Maybe I should turn off my cell phone?”

“Maybe we both should. I have other news to report.”

I let my legs fall to the floor, jumped on the bed and grabbed her by the waist. “Come here with me.”

“Wait.” She held the bottle out away from the bed. “Let me put this down and use the bathroom.”

The toilet flushed and water ran. Adrienne came out rubbing her hands together. Then she rolled onto the bed into my waiting arms. I gave the two points on her shirt each a peck, but she pulled back.

I said, “Do you need some time? You must be tired. You had a long day.”

“No, that’s not it. My day wasn’t any longer than yours. I don’t think we should do this right now. I need to shower. And maybe you do too.” Her nose made two little jumping movements.

“No. It’s all right. Let’s do it just like we are. I’d use a bad stereotype, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

She turned on her side and smiled. “Don’t even say it, Robert. You were making such good progress, but if you keep it up you’ll ruin the mood.”

“You’re not that sensitive, are you?”

“In certain places I sure am.”

“I know where those places are.”

“You do? Peut-être vous peut-être vous pas.”

“And that means?”

“I said maybe not all of them.”

“Now you’re the one…”

“What about you? I interrupted your work. You should keep going with it, shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t want to think about it right now. I want to be with you. That’s it. That’s what will make me happy.”

Our arms locked together. We stayed like that for a minute. Then her hands held either side of my face. I wanted to stay with her in that room forever. The two of us alone in there, the rest of the world outside. But the thought came, and it was a strange one to have at that moment, that someday I’d leave Tulipanes and go back to New York. Adrienne would leave there too. To another land. Another desperate country in the world that needed IAEP’s assistance. That was a lot of places. Maybe she already knew where she was going next. She knew more than I did. I read it in her eyes, but I never mentioned it. I was afraid of the answer. Why pry the box open when I didn’t need what was inside it? That would be for another time, and I’d never stopped wishing for that time to come later than sooner…

(2008)

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