As soon as they called the First Class passengers I stepped to the head of the line, hurried down to my seat and braced myself for the crowd that came slumping past minutes later with their loose, swollen bags. Any of them could stop, pretend to cough or adjust a strap, and a runty hand could pull out a cobbled together shank which he’d stick into my chest, my neck, my cheek where it would clatter against my teeth, again and again, sinking through the soft meat of my eye. I left my seatbelt unbuckled, ready to fly up and fight my way back to American soil. When the stewardesses began their pantomime of safety I was able to relax a little, probably only because by that time I’d finished two vodka tonics. I was hoping to drink myself to sleep, but as we reached cruising altitude and the ice in my drink tumbled under the collar of my shirt, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
When I was first told they were sending me to this country to do an accounting of the Canadian mining firm’s books, I told them I couldn’t. I said, “My wife is sick.”
There was silence on the other end of the line and I was suddenly unsure if I’d ever met the man to whom I was speaking. I’d assumed he was the same Steve we’d had over for dinner a few years earlier. My wife had made enchiladas with mole sauce. Steve had picked around the plate, ate half his salad and a few scoops of refried beans, leaving two perfectly formed enchiladas like a big old fuck-you to his hostess who’d spent hours in the kitchen, lifting the skin off broiled peppers.
The man on the phone eventually said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.” Another pause, as though this made what came next acceptable, “Your flight’s tomorrow, at seven.”
“A.M.” he explained.
As turbulence wobbled the plane I leaned my head into the oily leather seat and breathed deep, but this made the pressure in my chest expand into a lead weight.
Half-way through the flight the woman beside me turned and grinned until I stopped pretending to be asleep. She was an American, a Mississippian, she clarified, and was going down to visit her daughter, who was about to marry a young man from the country’s elite. She wore a beige suit like an ill-fitting exoskeleton. Every inch of exposed skin – face, neck, hands – was layered with foundation and powder so a smell of petroleum oozed out from beneath gusts of perfume. Her eyes were small and a beautiful blue, startling to find rooted in that puffy, twitching face.
“They’re very nice people,” she said, then admitted that in fact she’d never met them. “But they own three coffee plantations. The wedding is going to be at one of them.”
Despite her grin, she was clearly horrified that her daughter was about to be swallowed up by a family of brown people, no matter how rich they might be, no matter how comforting the word plantation.
“You know, they’re not actually Hispanic, they’re Spanish. I mean, they have no Indian blood at all.”
Eventually, she left me alone and began searching through her cavernous plaid handbag, setting off an incessant clinking of lipstick cases against her cell phone, wallet, makeup case, the tinny rattle of loose change. At one point she pulled out a photograph in a gaudy metal frame. In it a beautiful young woman in a tight fitting white dress leaned against a stone wall. The woman stared for a few minutes then, with an elaborate sigh, dropped the frame back into the purse.
I’m sure I looked like a compatriot, an overweight, middle-aged man with thinning hair gone white expect a few strands of black that looked permanently wet. The starched collar of my button-down shirt, the faint pinstripe on my suit pants, and the shine of my black shoes all suggested not only that we were both Americans, but that back home we might even have been friends, would’ve invited each other over for dinner parties where we’d drink too much, flirt clumsily at the fridge, then turn our energies to moaning about our ingrate children, the awfulness of youth in general, and the folly of anyone who disagreed with us about anything. And, I knew, we were compatriots of a sort, but I was too tired, too angry at being on that plane when I should’ve been home with Joyce.
I’d promised no more trips after she got sick. I told her I’d work from home, or at least from the American headquarters of the firms I audited. But, it turned out, this wasn’t possible, and so every few months I was off again – Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa – in each place working to make sense of the tangle of fraud that constituted the local office’s financial records. I had a particular talent for this, an ability to see through bureaucratic madness and to articulate a legally defensible financial record. Typically, I went down to the capitals of these godforsaken places and took a limo to my hotel – the nicest in the country, holdovers from colonial days – and the next morning another limo would ferry me to the offices that were always staffed half with gringos who looked like they’d had too much local rum, and half by locals who hadn’t quite learned how to smother their bitter scent. I was given my own office, usually that of some recently fired executive, and I would make sense of the confusion they’d all bred in their frenzy to pull minerals from the earth.
We descended through a scrim of clouds. The city clung to a tangle of ravines at the foot of sheer, black mountains, the lower slopes of which were smothered with shanty-towns. The downtown was marked by dull gray buildings and a few half-finished concrete towers. Our plane touched down with a jolt, the seatbelt cut into my gut, then we seemed to be rising again before slamming down a second time, the engines whirring, the smell of burning rubber filling the cabin. Then we were there, trembling on the runway.
None of the three men holding name-signs were waiting for me when I came through customs. The glass doors weren’t tinted and the near-equatorial sun set off a pulsing headache behind my eyes. When I checked my cell phone, set up with world-wide access, it said, Looking for Service.
Maybe it was my exhaustion, my hangover, or the soldier who stepped away from the wall, eyeing my bag, but I felt suddenly weightless and lost, as though waking from one dream into another when I should’ve been back in the real world, not caught in this greasy airport with the high, rising scream of a woman at the customs point as soldiers tossed her underwear, her socks, her shirts to the floor, then held up a pair of blue jeans and scythed them in half with a knife. Whatever the reason, I panicked and joined a clump of passengers heading for the glass doors.
“Excuse me?” an American voice said. There beside me were two young hippy travelers, a boy and a girl, both grinning like idiots. They wore loose, dirty clothes that might’ve been hemp and stank of patchouli and sweat. Loose leather sandals showed off filthy feet, toenails blackened with grime, feet they surely planned to tan before going back home with dysentery and a few snapshots of indigenous kids atop a trash heap.
“Do you know which way the train is?” the girl asked.
“There’s no train,” I said, hurrying after the crowd.
As we rushed along, the tall, thin boy held up a travel guide and said, “No, it says there’s one that goes into the city center.” He said this with a kind of desperation, which was understandable. Stretching out around the airport was a dead zone of warehouses with metal shutters pulled over the doors. Power lines sagged from leaning poles. All this made it look that if there had once been a city here it had long ago been abandoned.
“No,” I said, “the book’s wrong. There’s no train.” I quickened my pace, hoping in their confusion they’d fall away.
“So, how do we get to the city?” the girl asked, scurrying to keep up.
“Take the bus,” I said, pointing at the crowd ahead of us, which bulged around the doors before squeezing out, like a clot of blood from a narrow wound. “Or a taxi.”
“Dude, isn’t that expensive?” the boy said.
“Depends on what you think of as expensive,” I said.
The girl was still smiling, bobbing her head as though we were listening to a good, thick reggae beat. Then we were outside in the too-bright light. Sitting at the otherwise empty curb was a black SUV and in it were two men wearing sunglasses. They leaned forward and though it was possible they were just trying to get a better glimpse of the American girl’s thin white shirt, I felt sure they were waiting for me and so I started walking faster, pushing through the crowd. Behind me the American kids were shouting. I hunched down and jogged to the orange bus. In that SUV a rifle could be sliding up between the men, scope swirling out of focus before sharpening in on the white hairs at the back of my head.
The bus driver was leaning in the open door and for a moment my Spanish abandoned me. I gestured at the door and nodded. I glanced back at the SUV. One of the men was standing in the street, pointing. Finally, I found the word, “Abierto.”
“Lo siento,” the driver said, stepping aside. I sank into a narrow green seat, my legs pinched up against my gut, suitcase and briefcase piled to my chin.
At that moment, I finally paused to wonder what in the hell I was doing. My limo driver was probably inside right now, he’d probably just gone to the bathroom, but here I was, in the open, jammed into this bus which was already filling up with peasants hauling bags of all shapes and sizes they’d managed to smuggle past the driver who screamed at everyone to toss their luggage onto the roof.
“Is this taken?” The American girl was smiling at me, pointing at the empty six inches of seat.
Once settled, her leg pressing against mine, she held out a hand. “I’m Allie.”
“Robert,” I said. Her hand was slim and cool and in the midst of my confusion, I held on too long, until she was forced to pull back with a pitying smile.
Soon, every seat was full and the aisle was packed. The American boy, Billy, was pinned between two fat ladies, his spiky blond hair brushing the ceiling as the bus lurched away.
“Is this your first time here?” Allie said, leaning across me to look out the window so her breast rested on my arm. I tried to see the road behind us, to see if the SUV was there, but the angle was wrong.
“No,” I lied, because it was easier.
“It’s mine. But I was in Mexico last year for a couple months. In the Yucatan.”
I tried to smile, though my mouth was so dry my lips stuck against my teeth.
We passed a few dozen warehouses and pulled up onto a truck clogged highway. Men bent beneath enormous piles of sticks, or stones walked along the road, their faces gray with the diesel and dust kicked up. We passed a line of auto-body shops where cars sat stripped and piles of tires leaned toward the street. Mangy dogs and naked children scampered in and out of the open garages while shirtless men hefted greasy tools and wiped their sweating faces with handkerchiefs.
“Dude,” Billy shouted, leaning toward our seat. “Have you ever been to Tonterrico? I hear the waves are awesome.”
I didn’t answer, all my energy focused on ignoring the puddle of what was possibly piss sticking my shoes to the floor.
At the bus station, I paid for my ticket and those of the kids, who patted their pockets as though they’d lost their wallets. I’d hoped this generosity would be enough to get rid of them, but they followed me to the hotel shuttle. There was no sign of the SUV, and as I was ushered to a plush red seat by a man in a tuxedo shirt and bow-tie, I felt a measure of calm returning. While the driver stood in the door to see if there were other passengers – there weren’t – I noticed that neither of the kids had backpacks, or, for that matter, bags of any kind. They looked tired and unwashed, though that, I knew, might be an affectation.
“Are you staying at the Palacio?” I said. These kids were pretending to be vagabonds, and so I knew they’d never put up the cost of the room, which was, considering the general destitution of this entire region, extravagant. But now that my confusion had receded, I felt sorry for them. They were scared and lost and I could help them out, a little.
Allie said, “We don’t have a reservation, but maybe. Is it nice?”
I said it was unquestionably the best.
“Well, so maybe we will,” Billy said, plastering his face against the window.
As the shuttle pulled away, Allie started telling a story about the time she’d traveled to Saint Petersburg and ended up getting in a cab whose driver promised to take her to a club.
“He said it was the hip new place. Then we got off the road and were driving through these warehouses and I got pretty nervous. I mean, I thought he was going to rape me or something, but then we turned a corner and there was this one warehouse, with lights and techno music. I guess I was just relieved, so I didn’t think it was so weird when the driver got out of the car. The music was so loud it was like shaking your head apart, and he opened the door for me. I didn’t step inside. I could see that the place was empty, I mean, almost empty, except this huge speaker stack and these towers of strobe lights and then I noticed like four or five guys, all holding baseball bats and on the ground in front of them was this guy, all beaten up. The guy on the floor looked up and shouted, “Help!” He was American. I started running. If I’d been wearing sandals I’d be dead. I ran and ran and that fat fuck of a cabbie couldn’t keep up and eventually I hid in this empty warehouse. I could hear the men go by, looking for me, and they came by again later. I was hiding behind this stack of metal barrels, but if they came into the warehouse they totally would’ve seen me. It was the middle of the night, you know, but I ran out and went to another warehouse, in case they decided to search that first one and I heard them, shouting, a ways off. When it was light I snuck out and walked back to the city along the train tracks. It was pretty goddamn scary, though.”
In all likelihood this was a myth she’d heard while traveling, or one she’d read on the internet. That it wasn’t true didn’t matter, what mattered was telling the story and the practice this gave her. In a few months she’d come down from the remote mountains to get drunk in gringo bars on the coast and talk about all the crazy stuff she’d seen. It wouldn’t matter if anything she said was true, because facts weren’t important, what was important was the idea of herself that traveling confirmed: she was brave and adventurous and open-minded and now she could go home thirty pounds lighter and filthy, which would frighten her parents enough to allow her to live off their money for a few more years.
“That’s totally fucked up, man,” Billy said, his face up against the window as we pulled past the gray government buildings. “Hey, isn’t that the Department of Interior?”
“So, are you traveling, or what?” Allie said, picking at the dirt ground under her nails.
“No, I’m here for work.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a consultant.”
“For what, the government?” From the hardening of her consonants it was clear she had me figured out: I was a bad guy and she was more than eager to judge, not all that different from my daughters, both of whom fancied themselves world savers. They had the security to use their educations and opportunities however they saw fit – one was an Assistant D.A. in New Jersey and the other was a school teacher in Brooklyn – all because I’d worked my entire life to make enough money so they could attend Columbia and Brown.
“Not the government,” I said. “Independent companies.”
“What kind of companies?”
“A mining company. I’m auditing their operations here.” I said this in a rush as though I was flustered, which I guess I was. That’s how I got any time my daughters started in on universal health care, or how awful American foreign policy was. Susan, our oldest, the teacher, was home helping Joyce while I was away and for her I’d pounded a sign into the front lawn: Thank You, George Bush.
Allie just stared, as though waiting for horns to sprout from my forehead. Billy was still muttering about this building and that building and the civil war.
“Aqui, El Palacio,” the driver said, easing to a stop.
I left the American kids frowning at the glimmering façade of the hotel and hurried into the revolving door. The lobby, with its slick stone floors and dribbling fountain, was empty except for a cluster of boys in bright red jackets and black pants who looked desperate to snatch my bag away.
In my reserved room I went to the drawer of the bedside table and found the promised handgun and shoulder hostler. I splashed cold water on my face, dried it on a plush towel, lay down on the slightly lumpy mattress, and watched the jerking ceiling fan.
I woke to the knocking at the door and groped for the gun, nearly falling out of bed, shouting, “Hold on. Just hold on.”
Through the peephole I saw a bellboy. He was barely five feet tall and so thin his arms and hands looked withered, his fingers long and spindly. He rattled away in Spanish, spraying spit.
“What?” I said. “English. Speak English.”
“Guests, down.” He pointed at the floor. “Wait. You. Guests.”
“Who? Who is it?”
He shook his misshapen head and pulled his lips up into what he must’ve imagined was a smile.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“No phone work,” he said, pointing into my room. “Guests. Down. Bar.” Then, probably sensing I wasn’t going to tip, he shuffled away.
I checked the phone. There was no dial tone, just a blank space. I checked my cell, hoping to call Joyce and make sure Susan had arrived. The phone said, Looking for Service. Before leaving the room I grabbed my briefcase. You could never be sure with these companies. They were often frantic and might want to see something to comfort them right away.
The bar was off the lobby, through a frosted glass door. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness, taking in the sour smell of bleach, half-full ashtrays, and rum. An oily sunset was smeared across the one window.
From a booth near the window a woman waved. It was Allie, and beside her was Billy. They were drinking tall, fruit-adorned cocktails.
“We were waiting,” she said, pointing at their drinks in which quivered flecks of poisonous ice. “Someone’s got to pay for these drinks, after all.”
Still in something of a daze, I joined them, settling the briefcase on my lap. The waiter appeared and soon we were sipping a round of beers.
“Are you staying here?” I asked, not quite able to pull myself fully into the waking world.
“Dude, are you crazy?” Billy said. “This place costs a fortune.”
“We found a hostel,” Allie said. “Not too far away.”
“Well, that’s great,” I said, tipping my bottle at them, then taking a sip and trying not to gag.
“But we thought we’d come and meet you for dinner.” She reached across the table to pat my hand, as though they felt sorry for me. At that moment her smile reminded me of Susan, with that smug twist to her mouth. I’d assumed these kids were in their early twenties, but now I thought they might be the same age as my daughters, late-twenties, on the cusp of realizing that life wasn’t a game, that it was hard and ruthless and that the main thing was to keep from getting completely and totally screwed over by others.
“Sure,” I said. “We can get some dinner. I bet the food’s OK here.”
“Don’t be silly,” Allie said, leaning forward to slap my shoulder. “Not here. We know a great place nearby.”
“Is that a good idea? The food can be pretty dodgy down here.” I touched the gun under my arm.
“Come on,” Billy said, biffing me on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine, man. It’ll be an adventure.” He stared at the briefcase on my lap, seemed about to say something, then just grinned dopily.
I should’ve gone to my room and back to sleep. Maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe, like that idiot Billy said, I just wanted to do something different, something that might help me slip for a moment out of my life.
“Just don’t order salad. You’ll be fine,” Allie said. “And you better get the check, big guy,” she said, then threw back her head and chugged the rest of her beer, clinking the bottle down on the table. Gasping for breath, she said, “Ready?”
They refused my offer of a taxi and so we walked, gathering attention on every street – three gringos ripe for a mugging, or, if the locals were feeling more industrious, a kidnapping. The chances of this increased the farther we walked, out of the governmental area, through what counted here as a “middle class” neighborhood and past a hostel with a few gringos hanging around out front. I asked if that’s where they were staying and they smiled dimly.
We walked on, into a slum. The narrow passageways between crumbling concrete walls were littered with garbage and an open sewer trickled down the middle. All the children were barefoot and ravenous, dark eyes glittering as they displayed their stumpy teeth. A clutch of them gathered around us, tugging at our pockets and sleeves and smearing swarms of bacteria over my fingers and the brass lock on my briefcase, so eventually I cradled it against my chest. What the hell am I doing here, I kept thinking, but I didn’t turn back. I began to wonder if I’d picked up some tropical bug and was in the early stages of delirium. Sweat soaked my back. I touched the handle of the gun again and again for comfort.
This was probably just the sort of thing Susan had done during her recent trip across India. She’d come back with a new wardrobe of sari’s, a streak of red dye in her light brown hair, and stories about the noble poor and our responsibility to them. Like Allie and Billy, Susan had played at destitution, renting rooms from families in remote villages where she could’ve easily been raped or killed. During her recent visit she’d worn me out with her stories and self-righteousness. One night, after listening to awful, jangling music for an hour, I’d helped Joyce to bed, hooked up the tubes, and said, “Well, that was quite a performance.”
“Performance?” she said, in the raspy near-whisper that was all she’d been able to manage for the past year. The brittle strands of her hair clung to the crisp pillowcase.
“Susan,” I said, kissing her papery cheek. “That music.”
Joyce closed her eyes and said, softly, “I thought it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” I said. She opened her eyes and at that moment she looked frightened of me. I tried to calm myself. “Don’t be silly, Joyce. It was awful.”
“No,” she said, closing her eyes again. “No, Robert.” And then she was asleep. Music leaked up from below for hours and I ground my teeth until my jaw throbbed.
I told myself that Allie and Billy weren’t much different from my daughters, which is obviously part of the reason I went with them: I wanted to protect them and, in so doing, I thought maybe I could teach them something useful. The longer I was around them, the more ragged they looked. Both were severely under weight, especially Allie, whose jaw was drawn so tight it looked painful, and she had the wild look of hunger, the kind of fear that could get her into real trouble. There was something black and feral in her eyes, as though they didn’t quite see you, only what she could get from you. She’d carried her Central American adventure too far and soon, if she wasn’t careful, would end up truly lost.
At the door of the restaurant the urchins fell away. At first my relief they were gone was so great I didn’t notice that the restaurant doubled as a brothel, but by the time we were seated at a rickety plastic table, I’d noticed the sickly girls, none older than sixteen, lined up against the far wall, shifting their legs apart so their tiny dresses rode higher. The bar stools were full of heavy men wearing cowboy hats which they tipped back on their heads to peer at us through the smoke-haze.
“Apparently,” Allie said, scooting up to the table, “the tacos here are killer.”
A tiny Indian woman with wildly unkempt hair took our order. I lied and said I’d eaten but that dinner was on me, of course. A few urchins approached the door warily, eager for us to emerge, drunk, easy targets.
When the food came the American kids bent over the paper plates and crammed everything into their mouths, even the lettuce, sauce dripping over their dirty hands, which they licked clean like dogs. I signaled to the waitress for another round of tacos, and they tore into them, letting out little groans of pleasure. Wiping their mouths on their sleeves, without a word of thanks, they pushed their plates away and grinned at me.
“Hey,” Allie said, sitting up straighter. She pointed at me. “Do you have any money?”
“What?” I said. “Of course.”
“So, like, do you think we could borrow some?” She cocked her head and grinned and when she did I noticed she was missing several teeth, as though they’d been pried from her raw, red gums.
“To buy stuff,” she said, so brightly, so stupidly that I pulled out my wallet.
“How much?” I said, peering at the lump of nearly useless local money and the crisp American bills behind.
“I mean, whatever you can spare.” She was still smiling, but it had a harder edge now. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked someone for money.
I pulled out two American twenties and handed them across the table. She squinted at them as though not quite believing I was so cheap, then slipped them beneath the table.
“That’s great. Thanks,” she said.
“Hold on.” I pulled out another two twenties.
“Thank you,” she said softly, folding the bills carefully and tucking them away. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Done with me now, the American kids started yakking about something, music, I thought, though the arcane names of bands, or brands, or TV shows proved impenetrable. I fell into the role of observer, watching men slip in from the street, skirt the far wall until they reached the line of girls, one of which would peel off and lead the man through a curtained doorway. One of the girls had noticed me watching and kept catching my eye, smiling, maybe thinking I’d be good for a big tip.
“So, are you like actually going up to the mine?” Allie said, cutting Billy off in the middle of one of his stories.
“The mine, are you going there?” She was squinting, as though I was far away.
“No. There’s plenty of work to do at the headquarters.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said, propping her knobby elbows on the table.
Like my daughters, this girl clearly had some fantasy about a world made up of good guys and bad guys. This was a liberal delusion, one that sensible people eventually realized was a limited and immature way of seeing the world.
“I’ve heard about that mine,” Allie said.
I knew she meant in Harper’s. Susan had mailed me a copy of the issue. The article focused on the displacement of the local population and the tensions this generated within the community and the possibility that it might reignite the civil war. In truth, I’d only skimmed the pages, bloated as they were with nonsense.
“I guess that makes you an expert, doesn’t it?” I said.
“I think it’s pretty fucked up,” she said. “I mean, how can you work for that company? They’re stealing those people’s lands.”
“Those people don’t own the land. That’s the point.”
“That’s such bullshit!” she shouted, slapping the table. The men at the bar turned on their stools.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, just above a whisper. “The opportunities that mine presents for this country outweigh the concerns of a few subsistence farmers.” I hated myself for getting sucked in, but I’d never been able to stop myself. Thanksgiving dinners always ended in acrimony in our house.
“Of course it does!” Allie was shouting now. Everyone was watching us. “Opportunities for the rich who’ve raped this country for hundreds of years, and for North American corporations. Which I guess is what your job is, right? Grease the fucking gears.”
There was something in her tone that made me think she wasn’t just someone who’d stumbled across an article, which had mentioned, now that I thought about it, the presence of international human rights organizations, serving as observers and even human shields for the local communities when the mining company sent in men to burn the villages. Seeing her indignation, I began to wonder if maybe she was one of these. Even brainless Billy could’ve been an activist.
“I think you’re simplifying things. The world isn’t that easy,” I said.
“It’s not?” she shouted. “What’s so complicated? Thieves come down and steal land, property, goods, and call themselves a company. That’s how it’s always been.” Her face was red and the cords of her neck stood out. A little vein pulsed along her forehead. Billy watched all this with a bemused smile, as though we were speaking a foreign language.
“That’s how a child thinks,” I said. “Just because you read something in a magazine doesn’t mean you understand anything.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? What fucking magazine? I guess you,” she lunged forward, trying to poke me in the chest, but the table caught her in the stomach, “are just naturally full of fucking wisdom, aren’t you?”
Before I could say anything she stood and stomped to the bar, squeezing in between two men. Billy fussed with the label on his bottle, then followed. They whispered together furiously while I finished my beer and gestured for another. Little peaks of their bitching rose into audibility every now and then. When I’d nearly finished my new beer, they went and sat at another table, back near the prostitutes.
Maybe at that point I should’ve left. But I’d seen the way the men in the bar were looking at the American kids, and though they were strangers, I felt responsible for them. I ordered another beer, told the waitress I was paying for everything the Americans had, and snuck a look at my cell phone, which was still getting no service. Though the lopsided clock on the wall said it was only six o’clock, dark had fallen. Back home, Joyce would be exhausted, barely able to shuffle to the bathroom where she’d strain to urinate, and then brush her teeth. Susan would have to help lift her mother into bed, hook up the tubes and set the level of the oxygen. These are things I’d done every day for the past year when I was home and I’d come to think of them as rites no one knew how to enact but me. I hated when reality imposed on this feeling, as it continually did when we had to hire nurses to help while I was abroad. This time, Joyce said she didn’t want a stranger. She couldn’t stand another bored, tired nurse changing her bed pan, lifting her frail shoulders from the sheets to slip her nightgown off before sponging her down, massaging her legs and slipping a clean gown over her head. I’d written out how to do all this in explicit detail for Susan, but I was worried something would go wrong. Joyce might die and even though I knew this was inevitable, knew that soon enough she’d be gone, I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t accept it. And now I was here, thousands of miles away and out of touch. I wanted to be there, to take care of her, to sit up in bed when I heard her sighing in pain, or just shifting her hips. I was alert in a way I haven’t been since Susan was born and for the first few weeks had only been able to sleep nestled between us. All that time I slept thinly, always aware of her delicate body on the mattress. Instead of thrashing around in the sheets as I usually did I was suddenly calm and careful, and it was how I felt taking care of Joyce, the slight weight of her body in my arms as I cradled her and lifted her up and set her down in the soft seat of her wheelchair. But what was I suppose to do when the man who might’ve been Steve called? If I’d refused to come down here, they’d have fired me, had nearly already done so because of my “personal conflicts” that were “hindering my accountability,” and if that happened we’d be left without health insurance.
Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice the two men join Billy and Allie. The men looked about the same age as the Americans, but were of a whole other world. Both men had cowboy hats tipped down over their narrow faces. I’d seen men like this all over the world, charming enough on the surface, but an inch down they were criminals. I could tell from the way they sat in their chairs that beneath their shirts were knives, or guns. The two men laughed, stood up, and gestured to the Americans. Allie and Billy complied. They knocked at a door on the back wall, which opened a crack, then let them in.
By the time I fumbled up out of my seat and across the room, the door was closed. The nearest prostitute grinned at me, tugging down the neck of her blouse.
I knocked and waited. While I did, I reached into my jacket and lifted the gun half an inch out of the holster, let it fall back. In my other hand I gripped my briefcase, full of financial papers and spreadsheets and my laptop computer. When no one answered my knocks I turned to the bartender, who avoided looking at me. “Abierto la puerta,” I said. The bartender smiled at me, then nodded and stepped around the bar and unlocked the door.
“Dancing,” he said, speaking Spanish slowly, as if I was a child. “Good dancing.”
A steep flight of stairs led down into a room that pulsed with blue light and a dense, throbbing music. The stairwell was smothered with water sodden posters – political ads, deodorant advertisements, and what looked like rock bands, men and women studded with piercings, sticking their tongues out and flicking off the camera as they danced atop blood red letters that had blistered and burst apart. The door above slammed, a lock thrown.
The music was too loud to hear voices in the room, the walls of which seemed to be shaking with the violent strobe light, and it took me a moment to recognize Allie and Billy at a table near a low wooden platform out of which rose a greasy metal pole. The Americans were laughing, bent doubled over as if in pain, and the two men they’d been talking with were smiling and smoking, holding what must have been joints out as the kids straightened up. There were half a dozen other tables, only one of which was occupied by a single man in a long trenchcoat, a baseball cap pulled low over his face. I sat at the table nearest the stairs, turning my chair so I could see if someone came down. A tiny, shriveled woman stepped from the shadows, her old body grotesquely squeezed into a leather bra and panties, her loose, cellulite thighs quivering as she stepped beside me and glared until I ordered a beer. Watching her slink back to the bar in the corner I noticed a wall, covered with leather straps, whips, and a long, thin machete.
I jumped when the music cut off, just long enough to hear Allie say, “Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m –,” and then the music erupted again, a crashing heavy-metal that felt as if it was scraping the inside my eyes. A silvery cloud drifted along the low ceiling filling the room with the overripe stink of marijuana.
At the far end of the wooden stage a heavy black curtain was pushed aside and a young woman walked out unsteadily on high, silver stilettos and nothing else, her small, high breasts not moving even when she tottered into the bright puddle of a spot light. She stopped in the middle of the stage and stood smiling shyly, her skin shining blue with sweat, or oil. She stared straight ahead, blinking heavily in the spot light, smiling. One of the men at Allie and Billy’s table stood up, stretching his arms over his head, leaning down to whisper something to Allie, who laughed and nodded. Slowly, as if everyone wasn’t watching, the man walked to the wall beside the bar and took down a short-handled black leather whip with three strands that sagged at the ends. Hefting it to test the weight, he walked back to his table, made another joke then, as the music rose to an even more frantic pitch, stepped onto the stage beside the woman.
I stared at my beer, but I could hear the wet, heavy snap of the whip and once I heard, through the din of the music a single cry of pain. Only when the music shifted between songs and I heard a woman’s voice, “No, I’m serious,” did I look up.
Allie was being pushed toward the stage by one of the other men, his mouth open, teeth flashing. Allie tried to turn, but the man grabbed her arms and spun her around to face the stage on which the naked girl was bent over, her face hidden by a fall of hair. Allie shook her head, but the man on the stage leaned down, grabbed her wrist and jerked her onto the stage. Billy, I noticed, was staring at his hands in his lap, as if about to go to sleep. The man on the stage held the whip out toward Allie. She turned to step down, but the man grabbed her arm and pulled her back and thrust the whip into her hand. I couldn’t tell, with the flashing light, with the blue haze, with the pounding music, but I thought she might be crying as she looked down at the whip in her hand, but I know that as she stepped up beside the kneeling girl she looked up, back at me, as if she’d known all along I was there. I put my hand on my gun, out of fear I guess, but also because I felt sure at that moment that I was in danger, that after she was done with the girl, she’d come for me. Then the fear left her face and Allie twirled the whip around head and gyrated her hips. Beneath the music I could hear the men cheering as I scrambled out of my seat, knocking over the untouched beer on my table and ran up the stairs, slipping so I hit my knee painfully, so that I limped through the door after knocking wildly until it was opened.
Outside the bar I got lost immediately, but kept hobbling until I found a larger street, lined with auto-body shops, against the fences of which snarling black dogs hurled themselves. I walked along the side of the road, tucking the gun back into the holster, my briefcase in the other hand, glancing back until I spotted a cab and flagged it down.
Now it’s nearly morning. Allie and Billy are surely dead, raped and tortured and robbed, all because they thought life was a game. In a few hours, the men from the mining company will come for me. We’re having breakfast here before heading to the office. It’s all there on my itinerary. The phone in my room is still dead. My cell phone still has no service and of course there’s no internet, so I can’t check on Joyce, can’t make sure Susan arrived, that they’re all still safe.
There’s nothing more to write. But I can’t stop thinking about what must’ve happened to Allie. I can’t stop thinking there must have been something I could have done to save her, to keep her safe.
In a few weeks her mother will start to worry. In a month she’ll call the embassy and her daughter’s degenerate friends to see if they’ve heard anything. She’ll sit up for hours, staring into the brittle, suburban dark, unable to even begin to imagine what might have happened, or what the world that swallowed her daughter was like. With no answers, there’ll be nothing she can do but wait and hope for some final word, for anything other than the silence.