“I know you so well I can feel you.”
He was sitting in the last chair under the last lonely palm tree, drinking beer out of a bottle and cleaning the sand off a pile of small shells. The sugary chords of a bolero drifted over from a palm-thatched hut where a man in a lime green shirt washed glasses in a bucket of water.
It was her all right. He could see her coming, guessed it was her rounding the curve in the highway and dropping down along the upper part of the beach where the construction company trucks had packed the sand down hard. He saw her coming, hid his head behind the pile of shells, and downed the rest of his beer. He didn’t have anything against his sister in particular; normally they got along just fine. But he could feel it inside him: with Elisa came changes he wasn’t ready for.
He was tired, beat, blown out, flat, limp, weary, wasted, in love with a bottle of beer and a bolero and the soft murmur of the waves. Full of a deep yearning for this lonely palm tree, the afternoon sun, those few fat jolly clouds dotting the sky. But, while he could hide his eyes, he couldn’t keep his ears from hearing the sound of her motorcycle drawing closer along the beach, and he had to accept the idea that the vacation he’d been taking from himself was coming to an end.
He looked up from the pile of shells and smiled at her with his one good eye. Elisa cut the engine and coasted the last few yards along the sand. Her helmet was strapped behind her on top of a small knapsack, and she wore a long red scarf around her neck. That was so much like Elisa: the scarf, her hair trailing behind her in the breeze, the bike rolling along the beach.
“Just as I thought,” she said, “lazing around under the last palm tree on the beach.”
“Check out those clouds over there,” he said, just to have something to say.
“I wish there were more of them. I’ve been totally frying myself for the last fifty miles,” Elisa said, striding over to put herself rudely, indelicately, between her brother’s arms. Héctor hugged her fiercely. Maybe she was bringing something besides the heat of the road, her sweaty shirt, the harsh sun in the blue Sinaloa sky, but she was his sister after all.
“’Nother coupla beers, engineer?” asked the man tending the little bar. He watched them with a broad grin.
“Make it four, Marcial,” said Héctor through Elisa’s hair, surprised to discover it didn’t smell like that lemon shampoo their mother had always used on them, that smell that came back to him now and then like so many other smells from his childhood.
Elisa stepped back, brushing the hair from her face, and dropped into a chair.
“This is the most beautiful place in the world,” she said. “No. It’s the second most beautiful place in the world,” answered Héctor, sitting down. The metal chair sank another inch into the sand.
“Right, the most beautiful place in the world hasn’t been discovered yet. Isn’t that how it goes?”
“No. The most beautiful place in the world is about half an hour from here, down the beach, that-a-way,” said Héctor, pointing.
“That’s hard to believe,” she said. She stared out at the ocean, trying to tune into her brother’s rhythm, get in touch with the peacefulness of the place. No easy thing, coming off a full day on the road at eighty miles an hour, the thoughts buzzing around inside her head at twice that speed.
The barman, whom everyone called La Estrellita and who’d inherited the restaurant from his uncle, came out from behind the wooden counter, walked across the sand, and set the four bottles tinkling against each other onto the table. The late afternoon heat played off the frosted bottles while the ocean purred on, the light starting to change. The same two fat clouds hung motionless, nailed against the sky. “So what’s new, Héctor? What have you been doing with yourself?” asked Elisa.
“There’s not much to tell. I’ve been working for a fisherman’s co-op out of Puerto Guayaba, about a mile up the coast, helping them build a sewer system for the town. But it’s been a long time, I’ve had to study about as much as I’ve had to work. I forgot a lot of stuff. Engineering stuff, flow rates, specs, that kind of thing. So I work some, take long walks along the beach. I’m the Lone Engineer. Sort of like the Lone Ranger, but without the gun.…That’s about all there is to it. It’s somewhere in between being an engineer in a factory and being a detective. But a lot lonelier than either one of them.…You don’t kill anybody, you don’t rip anybody off. You work with real people, they say hello to you in the morning, you hang around and shoot the shit together. You don’t owe anybody anything. I like it that way.” Héctor looked at his sister with his one good eye. The other lay unmoving in its scarred socket, like a decoration, staring at nothing or looking fixedly out at the waves, the hovering gulls.
“You quit wearing your eyepatch?” asked Elisa.
Héctor lifted his hand to his face and touched his glass eye, running his fingers along the scar.
“It’s a pain in the butt. The sand gets under it and then it gets all teary.…It’s like something out of a horror story.… Some old lady who puts her dentures in a glass of water by her bed and then in the middle of the night they come alive and bite her in the neck.”
“That’s gross, Héctor.”
“How about you? How’s Carlos? How’d you…uh… how’d you find me?”
“Your landlord, The Wiz, back in Mexico City, he told me where you were. He said you asked him to send you some books every now and then. I thought about it for a week or so and then the day before yesterday I jumped on my bike, and here I am. It wasn’t too hard to find you.”
“No, I just thought…”
They looked at each other. Elisa reached across, took her brother’s hand, and squeezed it. But she let go quickly, not sure she was sending the right message, picked up a bottle of beer, and touched it to Héctor’s.
Six months, one week, and two days ago, Héctor had killed a man. That didn’t matter too much. Another man’s life was another man’s life. The guy deserved to die. The problem was that in the middle of the gunfight a stray bullet had found the head of an eight-year-old boy. The boy didn’t die, but he was going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life. Héctor didn’t think the bullet was his. It was the other guy’s, it had to be. No one had connected Héctor with the gunfight. The dead man took his name and his credit cards with him to the grave. No one else knew anything about it. Except Héctor, who couldn’t forget.
He went to the hospital once to see the kid. He found the room, the boy covered in bandages, his empty stare. That same night he left the city, without knowing where he was going, not that night, or the next one, or the next. The story’s simple enough. When a man can’t get away from himself, he does what he can to get away from everything else, he leaves home, leaves town, leaves the country. It’s all a matter of running fast enough and far enough until he loses his own shadow. And now here was Elisa, come to remind him of everything again…the kid in the oxygen tent, his empty eyes.
“So what’s up, Sis? You come to take care of me, or did you come to take me away from my little spiritual retreat here? What’re you afraid of? Maybe you should have just stopped back there at the last beach up the road and gone for a swim. Left me in peace.”
Elisa looked at her brother, and her eyes went hard. The music burst out again from the palapa, the same bolero by Manzanero that Héctor had been listening to over the last few months.
“Give me a break, Héctor. If there’s anything I can’t stand it’s self-pity. I can smell it from a mile off. You know me, I’m a goddamn expert in it. Or did you forget already? I spend half the time fucking up and the other half wishing I hadn’t, feeling guilty and sorry for myself, and then starting the whole damn process over again. I’m your sister, Héctor. Remember me? Now I wish I’d never come.”
“It’s okay, Elisa. Feeling sorry for ourselves is a family tradition,” said Héctor. He took hold of her hand without looking at her.
“It’d be nice to spend a few days hanging out on the beach. I brought some books. I brought a picture of this boyfriend I had back in grade school who I haven’t seen in I don’t know how long. I brought a couple of Roy Brown tapes. You know Roy Brown? The Puerto Rican Bob Dylan. I even brought a book to learn how to play the flute.…I can’t believe it! I forgot the fucking flute. I’m not in any hurry, Héctor. There’s no rush. I’ve got a whole week to decide if I’m going to tell you what I came here to tell you. Maybe I won’t even tell you anything at all. What do you think?”
Héctor stared up at the palm tree. Thirty yards above their heads palm fronds tossed in a light breeze.
“Books?” he said. “What’d you bring? I’ve already read all three volumes of Runciman’s History of the Crusades four times over. That goddamn Merlin hasn’t sent me one mystery novel since I left. And of course, there’s no bookstore around here. You can’t even get a newspaper.”
He didn’t wait for Elisa’s answer, but tried instead to put on his carefree beach-bum look, tried to think about something else. But Elisa wasn’t that easily fooled.
# # #
The routines of his life in the little town weren’t enough to keep his mind from whatever it was Elisa had come to tell him. Sometimes he was convinced everything had been decided from the moment he saw her driving her bike down onto the beach. All he could do was wait, take the time to readjust, accept the inevitable: his return to the city. Sometimes he pretended he’d be able to ignore the call of the wild and stay where he was, a kind of White Fang tamed by solitude. He went back and forth. One day deciding that destiny didn’t exist, the next day convincing himself that it did; and so it went, while he waited for Elisa to make up her mind.
It turned out Elisa was as crazy about his Aznavour records as he was, and they spent whole afternoons together listening to the singer’s honey-sweet romantic ballads, watching the grass grow, watching a lilac bush. Héctor went for walks around town, drank beer, they sat around together and reminisced about a family trip to Acapulco when they were kids. And all the time he kept going back to look at himself in the bathroom mirror.
The most definite sign came when he left off drinking beer and went back to Pepsis and lemon crush. This new sobriety was directly connected to the seriousness of his impending return. Beer was one of the luxuries of loneliness. Finally on Friday, with four more days still to go in Elisa’s week, he tried to give himself up.
“Come on, Sis, out with it. What’d you come to tell me?” he asked, sitting down on the floor in front of her. She sat on the couch, reading a book of poems by Luis Rogelio Nogueras.
Elisa looked up from the book and smiled.
“You’ve still got four more days, what’s your hurry?” “Give me a break, Elisa. I didn’t have a chance from the start. As soon as you told me you were going to wait a week, that was it. I’d already lost.”
“I just don’t want to feel guilty about it. I’m trying to be a good girl. I don’t want to pressure you into anything.” “To each his own, Elisa. It’s my fault for coming here to hide away in the first place, and it’s your fault for coming here to take me back again.”
“There are still four days left, Héctor. Don’t worry about it. You’re just curious, that’s all.”
“What do you mean, don’t worry about it? Four days from now I’ll probably agree to anything. Now at least I might be able to defend myself against your craziness.”
“How about if you give me two more days? You wouldn’t want to spoil my vacation, would you?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, Elisa. All right? Tomorrow afternoon. And however it turns out, whether or not I accept whatever it is you’ve got for me, we stay here another day together.”
“It’s a deal,” said Elisa, and she went back to the poem she’d been reading before.
# # #
The meeting took place on the beach. Elisa had gone ahead on her bike and Héctor followed on foot. It was late in the day, the sun going down like a picture postcard, the waves beating against the sand with a melodic murmur. Elisa wore a white bikini and when she came out of the water Héctor could see the scars from when she’d had her appendix taken out. She was an attractive woman, shining wet skin, her body outlined against the dying sun. He stuck his face in the sand to get away from the idea of incest, but it followed him there. So he took the idea between his hands and dissolved it little by little in the sand, running it through his fingers. A light breeze blew along the beach. It was a travel agent’s dream: palm trees, a burning sun sinking into the water, a subtle wind to break the heat of the fading day. Everything just like it was supposed to be.
Elisa slipped into a yellow terrycloth dress and kissed her brother on top of his head. Héctor looked up at her and smiled.
# # #
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne had two exotic last names, a degree in engineering from the National University, and one eye less than most people. He was thirty-five years old, with an ex-wife, an ex-lover, one brother, one sister, a denim suit that made him look more like a social anthropologist than a detective, a .38 automatic in a drawer in his office in Mexico City, a slight limp from an old bullet wound in his right leg, and a private investigator’s licence he’d gotten through a correspondence course. He had a marked predilection for soft drinks, lemon-scented aftershave, crab salad, the bossa nova, and certain Hemingway novels (the first ones and the next to the next to the last). His heroes were Justin Playfair, Michel Strogoff, John Reed, Buenaventura Durruti, Capablanca, and Zorro (although he knew he was never going to get very far with a cemetery full of heroes like that one.) He slept less than six hours a night, he liked the soft sound ideas made when they came together inside his head, and he’d spent the last five years bearing up under the strange weight of an inexplicable fatigue, awash in a sea of memories, reliving wasted passions, idiot love affairs, old routines that had once seemed exciting. He didn’t think too highly of himself in general, although he did have a good deal of respect for his capacity for bullheaded stubbornness. Maybe all of this somehow explains—aside from the fact that explanations tend to be unnecessary—why Héctor kept playing with the sand until he’d dug himself a regular-sized hole in which he buried the dead man, dead six months now, and the injured boy.
Elisa waited until the sand was smooth again and then led Héctor back toward the house, preparing herself for the story she had to tell, working hard to resist the drowsy, gentle murmur of the waves.