But there were three reasons why, on this afternoon, Luke had no plans to go around the block the other way. First, every step mattered when it came to walking with a cane, a dead foot, and a couple of ramshackle lumbar discs like the ones working to keep him vertical. Shortcuts mattered.
Second, these tough guys weren’t going to mess with a cripple, even an American with a smirking, puffy white face that they’d probably like to cave in with their heels. At their age it was about wanting to slay the lion, not kick the one-eyed cat. You rise up by taking down kings.
And last, Luke kept thinking about his birthday. Thirty-four equaled mid-thirties. A lot of guys might not give much thought to this age, but for professional athletes, your mid-thirties were when you started flinching and looking over your shoulder for the Career Grim Reaper. Teammates gunned for your position. Opponents smelled blood. And management started checking for the end-date of your contract.
Even now, removed from the game, Luke sensed a shift with this new age. He could be walking without a cane right now, striding confidently down the cobblestone street, and these dope dealers would still just shrug him off. A man too young to frighten but too old to be an actual threat. If Luke feared anything about their youth it was not its latent violence. It was the health of that youth. The confidence of that youth. To them, he was invisible, and there’s nothing to fear when you’re invisible except the possibility that you’ll never be visible again.
It was just as bad around young women. He’d sometimes drop by a bar downtown for a quick drink or two and—if he were already seated, his limp unnoticed—a woman in her early- or mid-twenties might strike up a conversation. He was an easy target for their flirtations: too young to be a full-on creep and too old to actually stand a chance with any of them.
Luke passed by the dealers now, looking straight ahead down the road, the cane clacking with each step. He didn’t want to fully ignore them and seem arrogant. He glanced to his right. There were six or seven of them, wearing fútbol jerseys or muscle shirts, smoking cigarettes and laughing at jokes Luke couldn’t understand. They sat around a silver payphone on some wrought-iron benches that may have once belonged to a park. Their hair was gelled back or else cut short and combed up into black thorns.
An approaching roar made Luke shuffle to the roadside, and seconds later one of them came squealing around the corner on a bright green ATV, two wheels leaving the ground before skidding to a stop in front of the others. The tallest and oldest-looking of the group approached the rider and playfully shoved him off the seat to take his place. The rider shoved back. Then he noticed Luke, who was staring and leaning on his snakewood cane. The young man gave a quick lift of his chin in acknowledgement, and Luke replied with a half-nod before hobbling along.
He passed a few stray chickens and then a small dog barking behind an iron gate, the bars spaced wide enough that it could have simply stepped right between them but never did. An old man approached from the other direction, a drooping plastic grocery bag hanging from his fist. The two of them nodded as they passed. Luke recognized him already as a neighbor on this street. He figured the man recognized him too—the lame gringo leaving the high brick fortress.
Luke turned the corner and began the descent. The cobblestones dropped at what seemed a forty-five degree angle; the handle of the cane pressed into his palm as he fought against them, against gravity and a sinewy fear. He veered off to the sidewalk, which he tended to avoid because the curbs were often over a foot high.
At the corner he squeezed past a taco stand where a group of construction workers stood eating their lunches, the air seasoned with grilled beef, cilantro, and spilled Coke. It gave way to the fumes of traffic, and even at a green light Luke worried about being too sluggish to react should a bus or taxi careen toward him. His right foot flopped along as usual, like a half-dead fish in the sand, and the heat and noise raised his pulse in a way that flared up his back pain. There were pharmacies all over town, and he wondered if it were possible to get any narcotics. But pills had always made him nervous. An uncle of his had accidentally overdosed on methadone when Luke was a boy. The good and bad that came from pills always seemed to come too easily.
When he finally reached the Oxxo store, Luke slipped through the glass doors into the glorious chill of air conditioning and squinted beneath the fluorescent glare. His pulse slowed and he breathed deeply as he took a large lemon-lime Gatorade from a cooler and clacked over the white tiles to the cashier. The liquor stood on shelves behind the register. Luke pointed at a pint of white tequila on the lowest shelf. He couldn’t remember the name and was too far away to read the label. The cashier’s hand hovered over the shelves as he waited for Luke to acknowledge he was getting warmer.
“Blanco,” said Luke. “Sí.” He nodded and kept pointing.
The cashier said something Luke couldn’t understand.
“Pequeño,” said Luke. “A little one.” He leaned his cane against the counter and used both hands to mime something small. The cane fell over, and he struggled to bend down and pick it up off the floor. He’d been buying cheap tequila to save money but also to keep himself in check. The bite and burn of it kept him from drinking too quickly, and its morning aftermath from drinking too much.
With his cane in his right hand and a brown paper bag in his left, he wandered south in the direction of the Malecón. He had no destination but he knew he couldn’t return to the casa right away. Esteban might say something. Something about getting his mind and body right.
Luke passed El Party, the nightclub that sent waves of bass up the hill every nightfall. It was quiet now and there was nothing to see except the silver spiral staircase near the entrance. He imagined women in stilettos and mini dresses coiling up the narrow steps.
He considered finding a place to sit on the Malecón, to watch the sand sculptors or just stare at the sea. But there’d be too many tourists, too many college students. Too little shade from everything bright.
Which is why it made so little sense that Luke settled on crossing the street and resting at the park, which was nearly all concrete and flagpoles. The slim shadows beneath the palm trees offered little relief, but he eased himself onto a bench anyway and removed the Gatorade from the bag.
Nearby, an old woman tossed bread to gulls. A man with stooped shoulders and knotted fingers plucked a guitar. A pack of teenagers walked past in school uniforms: the boys in white polos and navy shorts, the girls with short skirts and high socks. One of the boys closed his eyes and sang falsetto while wiggling his hips. It was to make the girls laugh.
Luke sipped the Gatorade. His shirt was damp with sweat, sticking to him, and he became more aware of the rolls of fat on his stomach. In one of the only deep pockets of shade, beneath the park’s largest palm, a young couple was making out, touching each other’s faces. The woman’s skirt rose up her leg as she leaned further into the man. This, too, had come to Luke with age—an appreciation for a young woman’s skin. Her thigh looked as smooth as the inside of a seashell.
It had been two months since he and Shannon had had sex, and three months since the time before. When they’d fight—even if it was about money or parenting—the subject of sex always arose. He’d say she was cold, uncaring about his injuries, and was sickened by his fat and lameness. And she’d say something like, “You’re only ugly when you hate yourself.”
Luke sipped some more, until the bottle was half-empty. Then he glanced around the park for any police, opened the pint of tequila, and poured half of it into the Gatorade. He tilted his head back and swallowed, feeling the heat of the day on his face, squeezing his eyes shut against the sun.
Machine noise cut through the windows and walls, shocking Luke out of sleep and onto his feet. His ankle buckled and pain flashed through his back. He held himself up against the closed door, staring at his bed for a moment, and then scanning the room for the light on the walls. At first he thought it was morning and the sound was from the studio. But orange rays slipped through the window slats, the way dust did in the morning, and he realized it was verging on night. The noise returned, a motorcycle howling back up the street.
Luke rubbed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and then patted his hair down where he felt it sticking up. He opened the door and walked to the railing overlooking the neighborhood. The motorcycle had turned around and was making its run again. The green ATV followed in its thundering wake.
More than pain, more than confusion or fatigue, what he felt was a cavernous thirst. He staggered to the kitchen for water but stopped when he noticed Esteban reclining on a sofa, watching the news in the adjacent living area.
“How’s it going?” Luke said.
“For me or for Calderón?” The Mexican president was on TV, speaking at a podium adorned with the eagle coat of arms. The footage was spliced with images of the northern border. Stacks of seized brown packages beside a display of automatic weapons. Federales in black ski masks patrolling the streets. Esteban hit mute. “Missed you at six-thirty.”
“What was at six-thirty?” asked Luke, and immediately he remembered their dinner plans. “Oh shit, I’m sorry.”
Esteban stood up and walked to the kitchen. He ran his hand along a large limestone abstract that stood in the corner. “I knocked on your door.”
“Yeah, I fell asleep.”
“You fell asleep, huh?” said Esteban. He opened a bag of chips that was on the counter. “Was that sleep or you get struck by white lightning?”
Luke grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it at the water cooler, and drank it down before replying. “Same time tomorrow. On me.”
“On you?” Esteban sauntered back to the sofa with the chips. “Maybe I’ll order some lobster. Maybe some caviar will wake your ass up.”
Luke clenched his jaw and headed up the staircase to the patio. A cockroach slowly climbed the wall, and for a second he thought about smashing it with his bare hand. But instead he just winced and dragged his dead foot up the steps.
The sun was straight ahead—huge and orange and floating just above the sea. Omar stood silhouetted beside the pool, watching it. He turned at the sound of Luke, and immediately a grin spread over his face. He waved him over. “Ven aqui. Hurry.” He held a glass and handed it to Luke. “You almost missed it.” And he patted Luke on the shoulder before jogging down the stairs to make another drink.
Luke held the cocktail up to the fading light. It was pale green—the limeade from lunch. A slice of lime floated on the surface. He took a sip and immediately felt a glimmer of clarity cut through the murk of his brain.
Beside him, on a wooden pedestal, stood a sculpture carved from dark gray basalt. It resembled a huge avocado except for the top, which had a vaguely shaped head and arms and large breasts, like a primitive fertility icon. A second stone—smooth and round—was set in a hollow in the center, to act as the fruit’s seed, or maybe an embryo.
Luke lay his hand over the second stone and felt it tremble. The motorcycle and ATV took another pass, and he couldn’t tell if the earth had really shook or if he’d imagined it—the trembling coming only from his hands or maybe the sensation between his eyes. He had a vision of the vehicles going by again and again, shaking the house until all the sculptures fell to the floor and smashed. He took another sip of his drink as he walked to the back of the patio, then he leaned against the railing overlooking the street, staring at the group on the corner. Fucking tough guys. Fucking punk-ass cabrones.
The glass was almost to his lips again when Omar, who had quietly returned, noticed and scolded him. “Wait for the sun!”
Luke pulled his arm down, spilling a little of the drink on his leg. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
The sun was already half-buried in the horizon as they walked back toward the pool and the avocado sculpture. They settled into chairs, abstaining from speech, watching the sun vanish. When it was gone, they drank. Luke’s thirst still burned in the back of his throat. “This stuff’s dangerous. I could drink it all day, like Kool-Aid.”
Omar nodded slightly, still staring at the afterglow. “Did you swim today?”
Luke shook his head. “No, man, I didn’t swim.” He stood from the chair, leaned back a little to stretch his spine, and shambled once more to the back of the patio, overlooking the darkening road. A streetlight shone above the drug dealers, some of whom were now shirtless. Lean and tattooed. He didn’t know why, but Luke wanted them to notice him, to see him staring from his perch. He’d lock eyes with them. Maybe wave at them in the dusk.
“What you doing?” Omar came up behind him, grabbed him by the elbow, and led him back toward their chairs. “Stop looking over there. That’s the ugly side.” He swept his free hand toward the purple sea and sky. “This. This is your view. You stare at this… .”