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March 2015 Issue [Story]

No Slant to the Sun


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.

Soon they were winding their way along the seashore, the road getting progressively worse, the houses sparser, everything so green it ached. It was one in the afternoon. The sun baked the roof of the bus. People dozed, their heads thrown back or cradled in their arms. Though the windows were open, the air seemed hardly to move, as if it were another medium altogether, solid, heavy, like sludge. Lunch had been at an authentic café, ticos (that was what the locals were called) all around them, going through the motions of fork to mouth like anybody you’d see anywhere. That these people, this place, existed independently of him and everything he knew had astonished him all over again, as if he’d gone outside himself, a ghost drifting through another reality. He tried to capture it with his camera, snapping dutifully away, but the images simply flashed by on the tiny screen, attached to nothing, and no one would ever see them, he knew that. The waiter had brought plates of rice and beans. Some sort of fried fish. And rum punch, thank god for that, though if he stopped to think about it he’d have to wonder about the ice cubes clacking away in the depths of the pitcher and where exactly they’d come from.

The driver jerked at the wheel, shifted down, then up, then down again. Sten felt his stomach clench. They passed a scatter of houses, a grocery, a school, and suddenly both shoulders of the road were thronged with boys in white shirts and dark trousers and girls in matching blouses and skirts marching through the ocher mud either to or from school, he couldn’t say which, half of them going one way and half the other. Maybe it was double sessions, maybe that was it. Or siesta. Did they have siesta here?

Someone had told him that education was compulsory for everybody in the country, grades one through eight, after which it fell off to practically nothing. But that was all right. At least they were literate, at least they could do sums, and what more did you need for a tourist economy? Language skills, maybe. Their waiter at lunch spoke a hopped-up Jamaican dialect, a kind of reggae English, but you could hardly understand what he was saying. Still, just about everybody had at least some English, thanks to Imperial America and the consumer fever that kept spiraling outward to every corner of the earth. What a gulf there was between needs and wants, he was thinking, all these things, these appliances, these handheld devices — but what he wanted now, or urgently needed, was a rest stop. And something to wet his throat, bottled water, a soda, gum, did anybody have any gum?

Carolee was dozing, her head pinned beneath his left arm, sweating there, his sweat and hers conjoined. He tried not to jostle her as he reached for her bag, for the water in the plastic bottle with the screw cap she’d remembered to bring along and he hadn’t. The bag — one of those black over-the-shoulder things she insisted on wearing looped across her chest so the street punks couldn’t make off with it — was on the floor at her feet. He leaned into her, bracing her, and felt the muscles in his lower right side grab as he reached down for it, just a pinch there, a reminder of the intermittent back pain he’d been having and the exercises the therapist had given him to keep limber, exercises he’d been neglecting because he was on vacation, on a cruise ship, and all that seemed to matter on a cruise ship was eating and drinking — you weren’t getting your money’s worth unless you put on twenty pounds and calcified your liver.

Leaning forward and using his wife’s slack form as a counterweight, he managed to extract the bottle without waking her, and now he was unscrewing the cap and rinsing his mouth before taking a single long swallow. It seemed as if he were always thirsty lately, thirsty back at home, thirsty on the ship, thirsty under this sun, and he wondered vaguely whether it was age-related, the first sign of some as yet undiagnosed syndrome — the dreaded acronym — that would bring him down in a dark bloom of imploding cells. The tires screeched. There was a bump. Another bump. Carolee jolted awake on a ragged intake of breath. “What?” she gasped, her eyes straining to focus.

“You were dozing.”

He gave her a minute to come back to the world, the bus, the rank invasive odor of the overheated sea and the sodden jungle. She’d been into the rum at lunch too, rum black as oil, in a smudged glass two-thirds filled with Diet Coke, no ice. Neither of them was used to drinking this early in the day, but then why not, they were on vacation, weren’t they? And he was retired — or pre-dead, as he preferred to call it. Party on. Everybody else was.

“I was dreaming,” she said.

“Me too, but I was awake. You got any gum?”

She shook her head. “Water?” she said, making a question of it, and she bent to reach for her bag before she saw the bottle clamped there in his sweaty hand. “Which I see you already found.”

He handed her the bottle, and she unscrewed the cap and took a sip herself. “Ugh,” she said, making a face. “It tastes awful.”

“Hot enough to put a tea bag in. And I’ll give you even money they fill it from a tap someplace, like in that movie, what was the name of it, in India?”

“No,” she said. “No. This came from the ship.”

He glanced out the window. More children, more school uniforms, a tienda with a wide-open door and maybe drinks inside, Coca-Cola, Croosh Naranja. He saw tethered goats, palms, bananas, clothes on a line, a squadron of white-haired men playing cards at a table set up in the courtyard between whitewashed houses, the whole business flitting by so fast it was like a movie at the wrong speed. And then, without warning, the bus veered left at a fork in the road, and they shot down a narrow tunnel of vegetation, branches snatching at the roof, dogs and chickens scattering before them. Carolee slammed into his shoulder, loose as a puppet, and there went the water, the bottle hitting the floor with a soft liquid thump before vanishing under the seat and then reappearing an instant later as if it were some magic trick. “Jesus,” he said, “what’s this guy trying to do, kill us?”

The next moment he was on his feet, making his way up the aisle toward the front of the bus, bracing himself against the seat backs. He was a big man, six three and 220 pounds, most of it still in the right places, and he filled the aisle. People turned to look at him — the ones who weren’t lost in a rum haze, that is — but he focused on the back of the driver’s head and tried to keep his balance. There were eighteen or twenty passengers, couples mostly and mostly around his age, and he knew the majority of them by sight, if not by name. Of course, many more people, almost two thousand, had boarded the cruise ship in San Diego, but you got to know or at least recognize the ones who tended to go on expeditions like this one.

“Excuse me,” he said, leaning over the driver, “but I wonder if you couldn’t slow down a bit?” The windshield held an image and then snatched it away, dodging like a Brahman bull. The engine labored. The driver shifted down, shot an impatient glance over one shoulder, and then turned his back.

“Excuse me?” Sten repeated. “People are getting upset back there — I’m getting upset.”

The driver didn’t seem to hear him. And why? Sten noticed now that the man was wearing one of those iPod hookups, the buds fixed inside his ears like decorations, like the black wooden plugs his son’s friend Cody wore in his stretched-out earlobes. The bus kept moving, but time slowed. Sten studied the man from above, the shining mahogany crown of his head, the ears like knobs you could take hold of and twist, the sparse growth of stringy hairs snaking out of his chin. The music was so loud you could hear it even over the noise of the engine. Reggae. The eternal reggae they played everywhere on this side of the country as if it were vital to body function. He hated reggae. Hated this jerk who wouldn’t slow down or think to stop someplace so people could relieve themselves. And he hated to be ignored. So what he did, as tenderly as he could, was jerk the cord so the buds popped out of the man’s ears, and now the bus slowed, and the driver — what was he, thirty, thirty-five? — was paying attention to him all right.

“Go sit,” the man said, glaring over his shoulder. He made a motion with one hand, as if shooing a fly, then dug a pair of opaque black sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and clamped them over his eyes.

“I said, Could you slow down? is all. You got old people on this bus. What’s the hurry?”

The driver ignored him, fixing his gaze back on the road. The buds dangled at his throat, the music now audible as a metallic thump and the thin nasal complaint of a voice lost in the mix. The bus accelerated. “You sit,” the driver said without turning his head. “No person is permitted up front.” And he pointed to a sign, faded and sun-blasted, that read stay behind line.

Sten didn’t move. He just stood there, looming over the driver like a statue, one hand gripping the overhead rack, the other braced against the seat back. “And how about a pit stop? Any restrooms out here?” Even as he posed the question, he realized how foolish he sounded. He could only imagine what the driver must have thought of him, of all of them, privileged white people demanding this and that, here today, gone tomorrow. What did this guy care? There’d be another boat tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

Finally, the tension tightening like a cord between them, the driver whipped his head round, his eyes visible as two indistinct drifting spheres behind the black lenses. “Five minutes,” he said, the reggae pulsing at his throat, radiating up from the neck of his bright print shirt. Reggae. Thump-thump, boom. Thump-thump, boom. “Five minutes and we are there. You sit. Now.

Five minutes? It was more like fifteen — and you can bet he was checking his watch all the way, his stomach doing backflips and his bladder sending urgent messages up his nervous system to his brain, which by now had burned off any lingering aftereffects of the rum so that he could focus on what was important. Like escaping this sweatbox. Like pissing. Wetting his throat. Getting all this over with so he could go back to the boat, take a shower and stretch out on the bed, shut his eyes and dream of absolutely nothing.

The driver finally slowed down, but only because the road was barely passable here, so trenched and riddled it looked as if it had been shelled. They were jolted from side to side as the vehicle dipped tentatively into one hole after another, the wheels grabbing for purchase, the chassis shuddering and the transmission crying out with a grating whine that had Sten wondering whether they were going to wind up walking back. “All we need,” he rasped at Carolee as she rocked into him. “You think Triple A makes calls out here?”

The nature walk wasn’t sponsored by the cruise line, but the concierge or fun director or whatever you wanted to call her — a short, grinning, wide-faced woman in clopping heels and skirts that rode up her thighs — had pushed the brochure on them along with brochures for a dozen other activities ranging from river kayaking to a self-guided tour of the local sloth sanctuary, map included. The brochure had featured a sleek two-tone modern van, silver above, blue below, and a light-skinned tico driver with a neat haircut, a welcoming smile, and a chauffeur’s cap, not that Sten cared whether the man behind the wheel was a Swede or a Mandingo, but the reality was something else. Here you had this surly thug for a driver and a shabby decommissioned school bus that had been painted over so many times it looked as if it had grown a hide. Nobody had been particularly happy about it, but they all climbed aboard and squeezed into the seats designed for children in some other place altogether, Lubbock or Yuma or King City, and told themselves, At least it’s cheap.

He was staring gloomily out the window, getting more irritated by the minute, when they came to a shallow stream that seemed to be incorporated into the road along with the blistered rocks and scum-filled potholes, except that it was flowing, fanning out in front of them in a broad rippling pan. The tires eased into the water with a soft shush, spray leaped up and fell back again, and all at once he was thinking of the fish that must have lived there in the deep pools, tropical fish, the characins and Jack Dempseys and brick-red platies he’d introduced to his aquarium as a boy. He slipped into a reverie, picturing the glowing wall of tanks in the pet shop he’d haunted after school each day, remembering the pleasure of selecting the fish and paying for them with his own money, of setting up his first aquarium, arranging the rocks, digging in the gravel to plant the — what was it? — elodea. And the Amazon sword-plant that looked like a miniature avocado tree. And what else? The little dwarf catfish, the albino ones, and what were they called?

He hadn’t thought about that in years. Or the way his mother had recoiled in mock horror from the tubifex worms he kept in a Dixie cup in the refrigerator to preserve them. Fish food. The thread-like worms, the smell of them, the smell of the aquarium itself when you lifted the top and the world you’d created breathed back in your face. He began to feel his mood lift. Carolee was right. This was an adventure, something to break the routine, get him outside his comfort zone. The brochure had promised all four types of monkey, agoutis, sloths, peccaries, maybe even an ocelot or jaguar, and here he was getting worked up over taking a leak. He almost felt ashamed of himself as the bus emerged into a muddy clearing scored with tire ruts and the driver pulled over to one side and applied the brakes. Everybody looked up.

“Now we have arrived,” the driver said in his textbook English, swiveling in his seat to project his voice down the aisle. “Now you must debark.” The buds were back in his ears. The dark glasses caught the light. Outside was the jungle. “Two hours,” he said, and the door wheezed open.

They were all rising now, fumbling with cameras, purses, daypacks. One of the women — Sheila, sixtyish, traveling alone with what must have been a gallon of perfume and the pink sneakers and turquoise capris she’d worn every day on the cruise, breakfast, lunch, high tea, cocktails, and dinner — raised her voice to ask, “Do you meet us back here or what?”

“I am here,” the driver said, bringing two fingers to the wisps of hair at his chin. He stretched, cracked his knuckles. “Two hours,” he repeated.

Sten peered out the window. There was, of course, no restroom, no Porta-Potty, nothing, just half a dozen mud-spattered vehicles nosed in around the trailhead, where a sign read nature reserve, in Spanish and English. Across the lot, in the shade of the trees, there was a palapa, and in the palapa a single titanic woman in a red headscarf. She would have something to drink — a soda, that was all he needed — and behind the palapa, in the undergrowth, he would find a tree trunk to decorate and all would be well.

They disembarked in a storm of chatter, Phil leading the way — or no, Bill, his name was definitely Bill, because Sten recalled that there had been two Bills at their table for lunch, and this was the bald-headed one. Not that it mattered. There was a momentary holdup because Sheila, who was next in line, couldn’t resist leaning in to ask the driver where their best chance to see scarlet macaws was, and they all had to wait as the driver removed the buds from his ears and asked her to repeat herself. They watched the man frown over the question, his eyebrows rising like twin smudges above the rim of the sunglasses. “No sé,” he said finally, waving at the lot, the jungle, the trail. “I have never —” and he broke off, searching for the word.

Sheila looked at him in astonishment. “You mean you just drop people off and you’ve never even been up there? Aren’t you curious?”

The driver shrugged. He was doing a job, that was all. Why muddy his shoes? Why feed the mosquitoes? He’d leave that to the gringos with their cameras and purses and black cloth bags, their fanny packs and preposterous turquoise pants and the dummy wallets with the expired credit cards to throw off the pickpockets while everybody knew their real wallets were tucked down the front of their pants.

“Come on,” Sten heard himself say. “You’re holding up the line.”

Outside, in the lot, the sun hammered down on him all over again. He waited a moment, gathering himself while Carolee tried simultaneously to tighten the cord of her floppy straw hat and loop the strap of the black bag over her head, and then he was striding across the lot toward the palapa and the woman there. “I’m getting a soda,” he called over his shoulder. “You want anything?”

She didn’t. She had her water. And no matter the taste, it had come from the ship.

When the woman in the palapa saw him coming, she pushed herself laboriously up from the stool she was sitting on and rested her arms on the makeshift counter. She must have weighed 250, maybe more. Her skin shone black with sweat. Like the waiter at the café, she was West Indian, one of the Jamaicans who’d settled in Limón — there was a whole section called Jamaica Town, or so the guidebook had it. Very colorful. Plenty of rum. Plenty of reggae. Trinkets galore. “Good afternoon,” she said, treating him to a broad full-lipped smile. “And how may I be helping you?”

There was a plastic cooler set on the ground behind the counter in a spill of green coconuts. Above it, nailed to the crossbeam, was a board displaying various packages of nuts, potato chips, and candy. A paperback called El Amor Furioso lay facedown on the counter.

“You got any sodas back there?” Sten asked. He’d almost asked for a cerveza but thought better of it — he was already dehydrated. And he had to piss. Badly.

“Cola, Cola Light, agua mineral, pipas, carambola, naranja, limón,” she recited, holding her smile.

“Cola Light,” he said, reaching for his wallet, and then he had the can, lukewarm, in his hand, and he was wading through the trash-studded undergrowth in back of the stall, his fly already open.

At first his water wouldn’t come, another trick of old age — your bladder feels like a hot-air balloon and then you stand over the toilet for ten minutes before the first burning dribble releases itself — but he employed the countermeasure of clearing his mind, thinking of anything but the matter at hand, of the boat and his berth and the way Carolee had looked in the new negligee she’d bought expressly for the trip and what he’d been able to do about it, and then, finally, the relief came. He took his time, christening a tree that was alive with ants, tropical ants, ants of a kind he’d never seen before and would likely never see again. If he was lucky.

A long suspended moment drifted by, the ants piling up and colliding over the cascade of this rank new element in their midst, insects throbbing, birds calling, everything alive all around him. The sun barely penetrated here, and where it did the leaves gave off a dull underwater sheen, the air so dense he half-expected to see sharks cruising through the trees. There was a smell of rot, of fragile earth. Something hooted and then another something took it up and hooted back. He might have stood there forever if it weren’t for the mosquitoes — here they came, rising up out of nowhere to remind him of where he was. He shook and zipped up, and only then did he rediscover the can of soda in his left hand, an amazing thing, really, an artifact, an object of manufactured beauty transported all the way out here to quench his thirst and pump aspartame into his bloodstream.

He cracked the tab and wet his lips. Cola Light. It tasted awful, like the amalgam the dentist put in his teeth. No matter. It was wet. He took a swallow and started back around the fat woman’s stall, the shade of the trees giving way to a blast of naked sun so that the headache came up on him all over again and he couldn’t help wishing, for at least the tenth time since they’d left the boat, that he’d remembered his baseball cap.

That was when things changed, changed radically. He was standing there blinking in the light and feeling in his shirt pocket for his sunglasses when a noise — the slamming of a car door — made him look up. There was another car in the lot now, an old Chevy, and it was parked right beside the bus. The car was a faded yellow, the finish worn through to rusted metal in so many places it might have been spotted, like one of the big cats that were purportedly roaming the jungle behind them. He saw three men, ticos, their heads shaved like the driver’s, two with goatees, one without, and they seemed to be dancing, flailing their arms and jumping from one foot to the other as if the ground had caught fire.

Todo!” one was shouting, the one without the goatee. “Empty sus bolsillos, wallet, cell phone, todo!” There was a flash of light, two flashes: the goatees had knives. And the one without, the one doing all the shouting, he had a handgun.

The one with the gun saw him then and pointed it at him, though he was a hundred feet away. “You!” the man shouted, his voice so shrill with the rush of adrenaline it was almost a shriek, almost girlish. “You come over here!”

Sten could feel his heart going, accelerating like a flight of ducks beating up off the surface of a pond, flap, flap, flap. It was an old feeling, a feeling that took him back to another time and place, a seething green overgrown rot-stinking place like this one all the way across the ocean on the far side of the world. There were tropical fish there, too. Monkeys. Men with guns. He dropped the can and lifted his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot.”

The man with the gun was careless — he was a boy, really, all three of them were boys, nineteen, twenty years old, their limbs like broomsticks poking out of their baggy shorts and oversize T-shirts and their faces ablaze with excitement and maybe something else, maybe drugs. The weapon was just an object to him, Sten could see that in an instant, like a plate of food he was carrying from one table to another. A shoe. A book. A used CD he’d found in a bin at the record shop. He didn’t respect it. He didn’t know it. He didn’t even know how to take a stance and aim. “You,” the man repeated. “Right here, pronto!”

Sten shuffled forward, his feet gone heavy suddenly, so heavy he could barely lift them. He saw Carolee there with the others, her face rinsed with fear, the brim of her hat askew. Everybody was tightly bunched, purses, cameras, and backpacks dropping at their feet while the goatees prodded them with their knives. There was a blanket there, he saw that now, spread out in the sun-blasted mud to receive the loot. It was one of those Indian blankets they sold in the tourist shops up and down the coast, the colors garish in the harsh light.

When he was there, when he’d reached the one with the gun and allowed himself to be shepherded into the group with a quick hot punch of the barrel in his ribs, he was startled by the faces around him. These were the faces of dead people, drained of animation, their eyes fixed on the ground as they gave up what they had, dropping wallets, bracelets, and wristwatches into the pile as if they were tossing coins in a fountain. Sheila was murmuring “Oh god, oh god,” over and over. Another woman was crying. The man with the gun prodded him again and said, “Empty it, todo — vaya!

He exchanged a look with Carolee, then pulled his pockets inside out and dropped the contents on the pile, card key, dummy wallet, a pack of matches, his cell. He was thinking there was no sense in getting shot over nothing, no sense in getting excited, but then the one with the gun nudged him again and he went cold all over. They were amateurs, children playing at cops and robbers, infants, punks, too stupid even to be scared. Why would they be? This was easy pickings, old people, seniors so frightened and hopeless they could barely twist the watches off their wrists, let alone defend themselves. “Todo!” the man repeated.

Everything came into focus suddenly, the two goatees with their hands in people’s pockets and down the front of their shorts, Sheila whimpering, Please, no, not my passport, the driver shut inside the bus and the fat woman vanished altogether — in on it, both of them, he was sure of it — and the carelessness, the unforgiveable carelessness of the one with the gun who barely came up to his shoulder, for Christ’s sake, who’d turned away from him, turned his back on him as if he were nothing, less than nothing, just old and weak and useless. What he’d learned as a nineteen-year-old himself, a recruit, green as an apple, wasn’t about self-defense. It was about killing, and does anybody ever forget that? Mount a bicycle, lace up a pair of skates, shoot the rapids: here it was. In the next instant he hit the man so hard from behind he felt the shock of it surge through his own body even as he locked his right forearm across the man’s throat and brought his left hand up to tighten the vise, simplest maneuver in the book, first thing they teach you, Choke off the air and don’t let up no matter what.

The gun dropped away at the moment of impact, and it wasn’t as if he was merely applying pressure to the man flailing in his arms — he wasn’t doing that, no, he was immobilizing him, because that was what he’d been trained to do and he had no choice in the matter. It was beyond reason now, autonomous, dial it up, semper fi. Everyone froze. The two with the knives looked as if they’d been transported to another planet, helpless, stupefied, scared. And then Bill, his bald crown raking at the light, bent to pick up the gun, treating it like some pedestrian thing somebody had dropped in the street, an umbrella, a checkbook, a pair of glasses, his face gratified and composed, almost as if he meant to hand it back to the man kicking in Sten’s arms. Somebody screamed. The man kicked. Sten held tight, tighter, even as he watched the other two drop their knives in the mud and scramble for the car.

The engine sucked fuel, the wheels spun in the mud, and then the car was fishtailing across the lot, spewing exhaust and fighting for purchase. Sten watched it go — they all watched — as it threw up clods of earth and finally plunged into the tunnel beneath the foliage where the deep holes gathered and the stream sank into its pools and the brick-red platies darted and hovered. Then it was quiet. The man in his arms had gone limp, like an exhausted dance partner, and the only thing Sten could think to do was move back a step and lower him to the ground.

Sheila started up again, invoking god, and then Carolee was in his arms and they were all gathered round, staring down at the man in the mud. He was on his back, where Sten had dropped him, eyes open and staring at nothing. He looked shrunken, no girth to him at all, his oversize shorts and new spotless white T-shirt hanging off him like flour sacks. And his ankles — you could have wrapped two fingers around his ankles.

“Is he — ?” somebody said and now somebody else, a boxy officious-looking man with a pencil mustache Sten could have sworn he’d never seen before in his life, was bending over the body checking for vital signs, ear to chest, finger to wrist. The man looked up and announced, “I’m a paramedic,” and began alternately kneading the supine man’s chest and blowing into his mouth.

This was something new, something the guidebook hadn’t advertised, a curiosity under the sun that beat down steadily on the ocher mud of the lot, and everybody just stood there taking it in, minutes slipping away, the heat exacting its price in sweat, the fat woman emerging from her stall and the bus driver stepping tentatively down from the bus as if the ground were rolling under him like a treadmill. The main attraction, the man on his back on the ground, never stirred. Oh, there was movement, but it was only the resistance of the inanimate to a moving force, the paramedic thanklessly riding the compression of his two stacked palms, then breaking off to pinch the nostrils and force his own breath past the dry lips, the ruptured trachea and down into the deflated lungs. This was a man, this paramedic, who didn’t give up easily. His mustache glistened with saliva and the top of his head humped up and down as if at the climax of some insistent sexual act. He kept at it, kept at it, kept at it.

Carolee’s voice was very soft and at first he didn’t know whether she was speaking to him or the paramedic. What she said was, “Is he going to make it?”

He didn’t know about that — he didn’t even know what he’d done. The only man he’d ever killed in his life, or might have killed, nothing confirmed, was a dink 200 yards away on a moonless night when the flares strobed out over the world and he was in something very much like a panic, his rifle on full automatic.

“We should get him to a hospital,” Bill said, still holding on to the gun as if he didn’t know what to do with it. “I mean, is there a hospital here? In Limón, I mean?”

“There must be,” somebody said.

“But where is it?” Bill wondered. “And if we — I mean, should we move him? Maybe there’s damage there, a neck injury” — and here he raised his eyes to Sten’s — “like in football, you know? Where they bring out the stretcher?”

Up and down the paramedic went, up and down, and now the fat woman was there, peering over Sheila’s shoulder as if to make some sort of positive identification of the body on the ground — and it was a body, a corpse, not a living thing, not anymore, Sten was sure of it — and here was the driver, too, his eyes masked behind the sunglasses, the lower portion of his face locked up like a strongbox.

“Driver,” Bill said, and he seemed to be panting, like a dog that had run a long way up a steep hill, “we need to take this man to the hospital. Where — dónde — is the hospital?”

The paramedic, without breaking his rhythm, looked up and said something in Spanish to the driver, something that had the cognate os-pee-tal in it, but the driver just shook his head and turned away to spit in the dirt. “You don’t want,” he said finally, shaking his head very slowly. “You want el médico forense.

Os-pee-tal,” the paramedic insisted, and Bill joined him, aping his pronunciation: “Os-pee-tal.

The fat woman emitted a pinched labial noise as if she were unstoppering a bottle, then turned — fat ankles, splayed feet in a pair of huaraches that sank into the mud — and started back across the lot. Sten could still feel the blood thudding in his ears, though he was calming now, what was done was done, already thinking of the repercussions. Certainly he’d acted in self-defense, and here were the witnesses to prove it, but who knew what the laws were like in this country, what kind of flaming hoops they’d make him jump through — and lawyers, would he need a lawyer? He scanned the group, still milling there, clueless, but no one would look him in the eye. He wasn’t one of them, not anymore — he was something else now.

Sheila came up to him then, to where he was standing with his arm around Carolee still, and pressed his hand. “Thank you,” she murmured. “You’re a hero, a real hero.” Then she bent to the tangle of things scattered on the blanket to reclaim her purse and passport — her precious passport — and as if a spell had been broken, they all came forward now, one after another, to sift through the pile and take back what belonged to them.

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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January 2010

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