Story — From the March 2015 issue

No Slant to the Sun

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There was no slant to the sun — it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat, making his underwear bind and the shirt stick to his back as if it had been glued on, and why he’d ever let Carolee talk him into this he’d never know. The bus lurched. There was a stink of diesel. Gears ratcheted beneath the floorboards, metal on metal, as if they were going to fuse or maybe explode into a thousand pieces at any moment. He looked beyond Carolee, out the window, feeling ever so slightly queasy, though everyone assured him the water was good here — potable, that was the word on everybody’s lips. Plus, the food was held to the highest standards and the glasses out of which they’d sipped their rum punch and rum Cokes and rum tonics had been scrupulously washed in hot sudsing pristine well water, because this wasn’t like Mexico or Guatemala or Belize, this was special, orderly, clean, a kind of tourist paradise. And cheap. Cheap too.

On top of it all, he had a headache. Or the beginnings of one. But that was understandable, because he’d gulped down three rum punches with lunch, so thirsty he could have drained the whole pitcher the waiter had set in the middle of the table, and no, he wasn’t going to drink the water, no matter what anybody said — not unless it came from a bottle with an unbroken seal. He rubbed his eyes. He had aspirin in his kit back on the ship. Cipro too. But that didn’t do him a whole lot of good now, did it? Anonymous streets rolled by, shops, people, dogs, ratty-looking birds infesting the trees and an armed guard outside every store — or tienda, as his guidebook had it — and what did that tell you about the level of orderliness here? Buenos vecinos. Welcome. Mi casa es su casa.

Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

The bus slammed through one of the million and a half potholes cratering the street and Carolee grabbed for his arm. The man in the seat across from him — Bill, or was it Phil? — let out a curse. “I wish he’d slow down,” Carolee said. Sten shot a look at the driver, at the back of his head, which had been shaved to stubble, the white annealed scar in the shape of a fishhook at the hairline, ears too big, neck too thin, and then he was gazing out the smeared window to where the ship lay fixed in the harbor behind them like a great shining edifice built by a vanished civilization — or a vanishing one, anyway.

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice crackling through its filter of phlegm as if he’d been transformed into Louie Armstrong in his old age, everything coming out in an airless rasp. “I kind of wish he’d speed up so we can get this over with. Nature walk. In this heat? Give me a break.”

“Oh, come on, Sten, lighten up.” Carolee was giving him a look he knew from long experience, her eyes wide and her head tilted just a fraction to the right, as if what you’d just said had thrown her off balance. She was enjoying this. If it wasn’t the birds and monkeys, it was the trinket shops and the little out-of-the-way restaurants everyone assured her the tourists hadn’t yet discovered in spite of the fact that they were listed in all the guidebooks and the waiters practically erupted from their shoes when the tour bus pulled up out front. She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine. What good’s retirement if you’re just going to sit there and rot? That was her line. He’d heard it all day, every day, until finally he’d given in, though privately he figured that since you were going to rot anyway you might as well do it at home, where at least you could drink the water.

“Didn’t you just tell me this morning how you need some real exercise instead of what, shuffleboard and bending your elbow at the bar?” She canted her head a degree more so that her hair, which she still wore long, swept across the right side of her face, and in that moment he felt the thing he’d always felt for her, the thing that had tugged at him now for forty years and more. “Or am I wrong? Did I mishear you? Huh, Mister? Was that it?” She poked him for emphasis, but playfully, copacetically, one stiff finger right in the ribs, and he couldn’t help smiling despite himself.

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is the author of ten collections of short fiction and fifteen novels, the latest of which, The Harder They Come, will be published this month by Ecco.

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