The poolwater dripped from Luke’s hair and chest and legs, dotting the concrete and vanishing seconds later under the Mexican summer sun. He reached behind himself, grabbed the white towel draped over the lawn chair, and wrapped it high around his midsection, covering his growing belly and the surgical scars on his lower back. He still had the arms of a pro ballplayer and looked good in a T-shirt, but when he took his shirt off he couldn’t stand the sight of himself, even peripherally. He reached down by his feet to grab his cigarettes, lighter, and a glass of white tequila with ice.
The patio roof of Casa Isabela overlooked two blocks of Old Town neighborhood, and beyond it, down the steep hill, the churches, bars, and ocean waters of Puerto Vallarta. For the past three days Luke had sat here, watching the horizon but also watching the neighbors in the foreground. Smiling men with machetes acting out swordfights with one another. Children in school uniforms playing fútbol in the street. Women raising their nightshirts over rooftop toilets. Above them all, clay roof tiles slid earthward like old-age skin.
He sipped the drink, set it down, and lit a cigarette. The downstairs stone carving studio was quiet. Esteban and Omar had set their tools down hours ago. The noise now came from the drug dealers on the corner. Stereos played American hip-hop while crewmembers took turns on motorcycles, roaring up and down the brick hill. Last night, Luke had borrowed some of the orange foam earplugs from down in the studio to sleep.
A hummingbird appeared among the red potted azaleas beside him. It levitated, moved backward, and then darted forward again, its beak and tongue shooting from the sweetness of one bloom to another. In the brief moments of hovering, its dark green feathers gave off a dull sheen and looked like the scales of a fish. Seconds later the bird and the rhythm of its wings evaporated, like everything else in this heat.
Footsteps rose from the stairs. Omar smiled broadly, a highball glass in each hand. “It’s happy hour.”
It happened every evening at this time—Omar emerging with a vodka cocktail mixed with whatever fresh juice Lalo, the cook, had made earlier that day. The first night it was kiwi green. Last night, a muddy tamarind. Tonight’s drink looked like the evening horizon.
“Mango,” said Omar.
He handed one of the glasses to Luke, who now sat with a drink in each hand and the cigarette hanging low off the corner of his lips. “Good thing my wife’s not here to see this.”
Luke set the new drink down by his feet, saving it for the ritual. It was one Omar claimed to perform every nightfall, watching the sun set over the darkening ocean and holding off on the first sip until the top edge of the sun—the final, slim arc—disappeared completely. Then they would drink. Right now, the very bottom was just starting to slip away.
And when, these past nights, it had disappeared entirely, the club down the hill seemed to sense it. The place was called El Party and emitted black light in dusktime, glowing there across from Parque Hidalgo and the twin steeples of Our Lady of the Refuge. Luke had passed it yesterday. A gleaming spiral staircase led to the second-story dance floor, beneath a thatched roof, among tiki torches.
He finished the tequila—ice hitting his teeth—while Omar paced back and forth behind him, looking down at the street and a motorcycle rumbling past. Luke waved him over with his free hand. “I got a question for you.”
Omar pulled a matching white lawn chair over and sat beside him.
Luke nodded at the pot of red flowers. “Lots of hummingbirds around here, sí?”
“Sí,” said Omar, wiping condensation from his cocktail and then drawing his dampened fingers over his mustache. “Especially early in the day.”
All three levels of the open-air casa were filled with sculptures, many of them by Esteban but most by Omar, who was the place’s caretaker and artist-in-residence. Sandstone. White and red limestone. Alabaster, volcanic basalt, and assorted varieties of marble. Luke found the works throughout the house—in the kitchen, the dining area, and several sculptures here, along the pool and beside the red Mayan hammock. Many were nudes or abstracts, but Luke had noticed at least three hummingbirds done in bas-relief.
“Do you know what kind? The species?”
Omar reclined in the chair with one hand scratching the back of his head. Luke figured he was in his late-forties, maybe fifty, but he was lithe and trim and ran three miles every afternoon in the heat.
“My wife loves the things,” said Luke. “She has feeders on our patio back in the States. I just want to know the name because she’s going to ask.”
Omar nodded. “Berylline? I think?”
Luke shrugged. “I don’t know shit about birds.”
Omar glanced at his watch and checked the horizon. “I love them.” He darted his hand forward and backward and smiled. “Drink nectar all day to get that quick. Always close to starving.”
Omar’s brow creased. “They—how you say it?—hibernate.”
“Huh,” said Luke. He wanted to say something else but failed. Instead, he braced himself on the arms of the flimsy chair and limped to the iron rail overlooking the street, where he tapped his ashes over the edge.
“You want a cigar?” asked Omar. “No Cubans where you live.”
Luke stepped gingerly back to his chair, his left hand half-covering his belly. “Cigars are for celebrating.” He shook his head. “No. I’m good.” Then he sat, nodded toward the horizon, and picked his mango cocktail up off the floor. “Here we go.”
Omar smiled and held his glass so that it almost touched his lips. Seconds later the last of the sun slipped beneath the sea. They drank.
After a few moments of silence Omar rose and walked across the patio to his two-room living quarters. He returned with an olivewood recorder and stood in back by the hammock, playing a sweet, high-pitched tune. A few minutes later came the dance-beat throb of El Party down the hill, faster than the beat of Omar’s song. Faster than a grown man’s pulse.
Stonedust poured into Luke’s bedroom, through the wooden slats of the balcony door. It mixed with blades of sunlight and in the dimness became a glowing smoke. The casa’s windows were without glass or screens. Huge cockroaches and tiny lizards sometimes scurried up the cool brick walls.
Luke lay in bed with two pillows propped under his head and another smaller one tucked beneath his lower back. An open book rested on his chest. Esteban and Omar were working in the outdoor studio, two floors beneath the balcony. The sky filled with the buzz, whir, and metallic shriek of their tools: pneumatic hammers, diamond saws, disc sanders, masonry drills, and old-fashioned hammer and chisel. Luke had arrived only four days ago, but already the din had blended into something resembling white noise, which actually made it easier to read. They would break at noon, but the light gray dust would continue falling. It settled over his bedroom every morning, and every afternoon while they ate lunch the housekeeper, America, made it all go away with Pine Sol and a mop.
A ceiling fan twirled overhead, and a small box fan stood on the bedside table blowing directly onto his face. This wasn’t merely to fight the heat; Luke used fans year-round, even in Michigan. In the winter he’d sleep with the blankets tucked under his chin and a fan on the floor, tilted upward so that it would send cool air rushing over him without chilling Shannon. He needed the fans not so much for coolness but simply for the touch of the air itself. He could never explain it to Shannon, how it soothed him. He’d grown up in Virginia with a creek running through his back yard, and when the windows were open the water’s soft gurgling would lull him to sleep. It was like this but different, like the creek but with air instead of water and touch instead of sound. The comparison never quite worked when he explained it aloud.
Beside the box fan were a half-filled bottle of orange Gatorade and the near-empty bottle of white tequila he’d drunk from last night. Luke took a quick sip from the tequila and several swallows of the Gatorade, some of it trickling down his chin and making a small orange stain on the chest of his white T-shirt. He’d felt dehydrated every day since his arrival. His urine had turned the color of rust.
Luke returned to the book, a history of the British Army during the Battle of the Somme. Over a million casualties. Two men killed for every centimeter of ground gained. He usually preferred mysteries, but these statistics and the graphic descriptions of wounds made Luke feel oddly relaxed. He liked reading about soldiers. In the U.S., football players were the athletes with warrior status, but he’d felt hints of it as a starting pitcher, standing on the mound with two outs, a runner in scoring position, and forty-thousand fans either on his side or at his throat. His career in the majors may have been cut short, but it had been long enough for this kind of understanding. It made his back pain and lifeless foot—at least once in awhile—seem worth it.
Like all power pitchers, the incredible torque from his legs and midsection had been far more important than the actual strength of his arm. During thirteen professional seasons of throwing low-nineties fastballs—thousands upon thousands of them—the contortions had slowly ground down the cushions of his spine. The slow burning pain of degenerated discs turned sharp and debilitating one night in Kansas City, culminating with the trainer escorting him off the mound, back to the locker room, and sending him to the hospital for tests. The results showed hernias of the L4 and L5 discs, and though he didn’t know it or believe it at the time, an eclipse had occurred, a sudden darkening of the atmosphere when things should have otherwise been light.
The initial surgery was an apparent success, but two months later came a recurrent herniation which damaged the peroneal nerve running down his right leg, leading to a chronic foot drop. In addition to the renewed spine pain, he was suddenly unable to flex his right ankle and toes. He walked with a limp—a fresh affliction.
What followed was a life beneath the umbra. Chronic pain. Unpaid bills. Depression and rage and fists sent through kitchen drywall. Crying daughters.
Luke was thirty-one then. He’d spent ten years in the minors and just three in the bigs, and he passed those early retirement days on the couch watching cartoons or reality shows or old movies—anything but sports. His short stint in the majors had still qualified him for lifetime health insurance and a pension of over thirty-thousand a year. So they could live, he and Shannon. But it was a type of life.
And even cheap booze got expensive after awhile. Luke drank to blunt the pain and he drank to sleep. He’d drink to work up the nerve to make phone calls to old teammates or his brother or even his parents. He’d drink to brace himself for Julia’s T-ball games or to slow his heart when it raced at random times. And he drank to create that gentle, temporary bubble of happiness that he sometimes needed, to prove to Shannon and the girls that he could be happy, and to prove that—should they ever have any ideas about leaving—there existed still some residue of a normal husband and father.
Two years of that and now four days of this: drinking in Mexico, where he’d come at the invitation of Esteban, an old friend. A baseball friend, with all the old baseball memories to rehash. Luke was thirty-three now, walking with a cane like an old man and drinking out of mourning. With orange Gatorade on his shirt and the grit of stonedust in his teeth.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. It was Shannon. They hadn’t talked since she’d dropped him off at the airport in Detroit. He’d only sent her a quick e-mail that night telling her he’d arrived safely.
He sat up a bit, wincing at the sharp sting in his back, and answered. “How’s my favorite gringa?”
“Oh my God, I can barely hear you. What’s that noise?”
“The guys working in the studio.”
“How can you stand it?”
He eased his legs over the edge of the bed, braced his free hand on the headboard, and stood to walk out of the room and into the hall. His brain trilled from the tequila, the roaring tools, and the images of soldiers’ mangled bodies lingering like a broken-off dream. “That better?”
“Much.” She asked about the weather and the house and how Esteban was these days. “Probably not worth asking how your back feels?”
“Probably not,” said Luke. “How are the girls?”
“My mom just took Julia to swimming lessons, and Brie is sitting here at the table with a coloring book. Summer break’s so far, so good.”
He nodded and took a few steps down the open-air hallway, then approached the railing and peered down at the street. Omar’s beat-up blue pickup was parked below, the bed weighed down with a pile of huge jagged rocks that would someday be smoothed and shaped and displayed.
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds. He closed his eyes and raised his face to the sun. A murky orange like an egg yolk flowed beneath his lids. A disc sander screeched in the distance. “Have you talked to Jimmy or Tom or anyone?” asked Shannon.
Luke opened his eyes. “Not worth talking about that either.”
Jimmy and Tom were neighbor friends trying to help get him work. Jimmy taught civics at a high school that needed a JV coach. Tom had a Suzuki dealership and thought people would love the idea of buying a car from a former Tiger.
“We’ll figure that out when I get back,” said Luke. “I need to think some more.”
“Your birthday’s in five days. I take it you won’t be back by then.”
“No,” he said. “A little after that. Just a little.”
“Are you safe there?”
“Am I safe?” He glanced down the road, to the lonely phone booth and empty benches where it was too early in the day for motorcycles and loud music.
“Because of the drug wars,” said Shannon. “And the travel warning. They just said a big cruise line is cancelling calls in Puerto Vallarta.”
“That’s all bogus. At least around here.” And it was true, according to Omar, who said even the dealers on the corner were just teenage delinquents. Harmless if you stayed out of their way. “People here are pissed about the American media coverage,” said Luke. “There was one murder a few months back and I guess it had nothing to do with drugs. The locals are terrified that travelers are going to overreact and stay home. Esteban says the only unsafe thing here is the tourist industry.”
Brie was saying something in the background. Apparently she wanted to say hi to him but then she didn’t. He heard her grab the phone and then set it down on the table in a loud clatter. Shannon picked it back up. “She wants lunch now so I have to go. What time is it there?”
“Almost noon. Just an hour difference.”
“You’re not drinking too much are you?”
“I’m not drinking as we speak.”
Luke said he’d call her in a day or two and then slipped the phone back into his pocket. A few beads of sweat had formed on his forehead. He retreated to the dark bedroom, closed the door, and then lay down, wincing as he shoved the extra pillow beneath his back. The box fan chilled the sweat on his brow and he closed his eyes for a few moments, taking deep breaths through his nose as someone outside switched to the pneumatic hammer.
A few minutes passed. Luke turned to his side and reached for the tequila. On the brick wall just above where the bottle stood was a brown-green lizard. It was only about two inches long and it remained frozen on the wall for several minutes, its right eye staring at him. Luke slowly reached his hand up so that it lay flush against the brick, beside the lizard, and he waited. After maybe five or six or seven minutes, the lizard began to walk across the wall and then over the top of Luke’s hand, its tiny claws leaving indentations smaller than freckles on his skin. Even minutes later, with the lizard now at the far end of the room, Luke could feel the miniscule pressure points on his palm.
Part 2 this Wednesday
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