NOT FOR LONG - CECELIA CHAPMAN
By the time Hugo recognized me, he was already drunk, his female companion gone. He said he was staying in a nearby hotel, so he sat drinking and talking to me over the bar. After my shift, busboys helped walk him up the hill to my apartment. He passed out in the hammock, drunk, true, but absolutely not the rumored addict or alcoholic. My former soft-fleshed, bratty-boy employer was a hard-boned man with thick, scarred hands that made sandpaper sounds while he slept, clenching and unclenching hammock rope.
One key in his pocket. Wallet with three credit cards. Cuban passport, completely blank, except for one rubber-stamp seal of a jaguar in a bleeding tree, a smiling baby in its mouth, marking his entry into the country yesterday and a date of birth making midnight, two hours ago, the first minute of his thirty-seventh year alive. Pale blue handkerchief with the initial A. Made to order linen jacket with a welt under the left arm. Woven sandals. Tissue-thin Uluwatu t-shirt.
I was picking through him when he opened one eye, chuckled and passed out again. I was doing this, I felt he understood, because I brought him into my home. And for other reasons; second-hand stories followed him, obsession, loss of fortune, wife, a long trial, his disappearance, and his rare sightings that were like jokes. I kept a practiced eye on him through the night, from my bed to his terrace hammock. I didn’t want to regret bringing him home.
Yachts jockeyed into harbor early. Winds were ripping open the black crack on the horizon, a sliver of black sky had remained through the red dawn. Now it was widening, as if night had won.
“I saw her.” Hugo said this to me, watching the street, drinking espresso.
“The woman I saw. The woman everyone said I didn’t see. I’m going to tell you something. Then forget it. I went for a run. It was a beautiful day. I thought about you. You just left the company, the country, him... I’m sorry. I always respected you, and you left it all, for your writing. I can see you made a better life. I wonder what I have?
“When I went for that run, I was feeling good. Alison and I just made love. Had I known, well, it was the last time... We planned the day together, I took time off work. We weren’t connecting, I was afraid she was seeing someone. I asked her if she wanted to go on the run, she said she’d wait in bed for me.”
Cards printed with bleeding hearts pierced with arrows and dripping blood lined the threatened parade route. Tied in trees and posts, they made a whirring, rattling sound. Some came loose in the high breezes, flopping on the terrace, like fish thrown on wet sand, slap of flesh. Torn flamboyant flowers covered everything. Scarlet petal carpet like skin on my floor every morning.
“On the run, in the hills, I found a woman fallen on the ground. She was warm, breathing, but unconscious. I covered her with my sweatshirt. Running back, I found people with a cell phone, they called an ambulance. When I returned to the woman, she was gone.
“That should have been alright. But a beautiful woman is hard to forget. I told Allison. Not that I thought the woman was beautiful, but that I had found her, then that she was gone, and that is why it took me so long to return. She laughed at me. Allison laughed. Not unlike her. I still remember the way she turned over, got out of bed, laughing.”
Long before this religious festival, same time of year, was a rain celebration involving human sacrifice. The celebration occurred in jungle ruins, surrounded for miles with carved rock rattlesnakes the size of a curled-up man. One day, all the snakes disappeared. Later, I saw them in the museum, in the capitol, so many of them. Immediately real, they seemed more alive than in the bush, fleshless, angry creatures in a cold white room. When I returned later, I could not find them anywhere.
“The day was ruined, our time together, somehow, now I know, Allison distant. I can’t remember what I did, but after that I started drinking, heavily, other things... made bad judgements, hiring employees who embezzled. Allison left. She divorced me, she took the company, proving I was incompetent. Well, no, first I just didn’t show up for three weeks and when I did, a guard stopped me. When Allison sold the company, I was in jail for fraud, accused by her. My father died suddenly, the shock, I never saw him...”
“But where have you been living and what exactly...?”
“None of that matters now... I drank hard for three years...
“...I was in a bar when a ship comes in, sailing vessel, really something, sleek, maybe 50 crew, big money just floating in... fishermen are laughing and yelling at the women walking down the ramp. This is the first time they have seen this, women who want women in a group like this, entering their port, their town. The women are hugging, kissing, in shorts, barely shirts. Fishermen are yelling, ‘Make me captain!’ The owner of the boat I’m working on points and says he wants that pair. It’s Allison. With that, woman I saw. They got into a taxi.
“I sobered up fast and borrowed a ‘friend’s’ taxi. They weren’t hard to find. The rest of the afternoon was spent watching the hotel beach deck where my ex-wife and the woman were drinking. Bickering, holding hands. It lasted an eternity of hell. I thought my anger would burn me in the taxi, the whole taxi, just ignite it, or attract lightning. Gone in flames, like that. I thought a lot of things, I remembered a lot more. I would have gone in, maybe bought them a drink, but I smelled like fish guts. I’m not happy in designed bars with white canvas tents and umbrellas and the way I was feeling, well, I’d just better stay low. Eventually they went looking for a taxi.
“I took them back to their ship. Allison got out of the taxi first, not a glance at me. The other woman paid, checking me out, hungry. So I pushed up my dark glasses. She backed out fast. I lived off her look for a long time, it set me free, it’s true, truth sets you free.”
Hugo parsed sea, jungle and street. Big girls slinking through town in holiday dresses, sexy with red lips, holding hands with little girls carrying the chicken home for lunch. Tourists at cafe tables drinking breakfast beers, waiting to record the procession with small devices in their hands. Little boys racing all over. Men talking outside the bar. Nuns crossing the graveyard, the church square. Women stopped in the bakery door, blocked by a boy pulling a horse spooked by the cards snapping and whistling in winds. The balloon man twisted a jaguar from a balloon, enigmatic screeches erupting from the felt tip marker passage across taut latex leaving hieroglyphic spots, teeth, bloody claws.
Thunder purred in liver-colored clouds. Flashes of light snapped far out to sea, like something broken, beyond repair.
Hugo sat across from me on my bed. Cleaning his sunglasses with the handkerchief, he looked me straight in the eyes for a long time, searching for something. I guess he didn’t find it, I didn’t see any questions in his eyes. He put his sunglasses back on and wandered to the terrace.
“I stopped drinking. I answered an ad for a personal assistant, whatever that meant. I didn’t have a bad life. I had a nice little place on the hill, good food, surf. I was broke, living day-to-day. But I had work fishing, on charters. And I could always find someone, some tourist, to buy drinks. I spent a lot of time doing that. Sometimes I fixed computers and made easy money.
“My new employer sold weapons, rented guards he trained himself. He was a fitness freak with a father high up in government. He liked me. We listened to music, I showed him how to surf, we went fishing, hunting. Sometimes we ran barefoot on the coast, sleeping out with nothing but knives. I kept account books for him, made arrangements. He read Hemingway in English, and asked me about many things, and told me interesting things I found useful later.
“One night, we got drunk and I told him what I’m telling you now. He said I should stalk her, scare the hell out of her, maybe let her live, in fear, it’s better. He liked fit people around him, he didn’t like hot-heads, complainers, whiners. He had me train early in the morning with the guards in the camp. It cooled me off. He said it’s easier that way.”
I followed Hugo’s scan from sea to beach to street and graveyard jungle. I tripped on a chair, dizzy from light changes. Hugo was at the far edge of the terrace focussed on a woman, two men paced behind her. She, walking down the alley past relic stalls, festival booths, stopping for questions, photographs, notes in a tiny notebook, picking things up to look at here, talking to a seller there. But not for long. Hugo let out a sharp whistle, piercing, like he was calling a dog. Everyone on the street looked up, but could not see through the flamboyant tree branches over my terrace. The woman turned her head around and around. She looked to the men behind her. Her body melted into a grotesque posture, flat-white panicked face, in the shadows of the church where she threw herself against the wall.
BIO: Cecelia Chapman lives in Northern California. She produces short video and images, and writes short fiction that examines the way we live and think, the human hunger for adventure, mystery and illusion.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago