~This story was originally published in Turnrow (2001).
Afternoon sea the color of midnight.
Sky egg blue, kissed with raspberry. (Sun out of the picture.)
In the center an arch,
layers of barren rock scooped by the wind and salty spray of eons into ribs, spires,
hollows fit only for magnificent frigate-birds
Rigoberto Castro lifted the photograph, holding it up over the equipal table, away from the island of shade cast by the leaves of his banana trees. He held the photograph as an actor would, grandly, his thumb he did not notice making a big greasy print on the front of it.
"Esto será la portada del libro," he said. This will be the cover of the book.
"Fabulous, yes?" she said. Her name was Consuelo Kennedy. Her English was perfect, if spiced from a childhood spent in Mexico City. She sat on the other equipal chair, one long leg thrown over the other. Her sun-browned feet were encased in Italian strap sandals, her jeans (so Vogue) ripped just so at the knees. She was the one who had taken the photograph at Clarion, leaning out of a helicopter.
"This will be the cover," Rigoberto Castro said again. He stared into Consuelo's lovely heart-shaped face as he said it yet again: "This will be the cover of the book."
And so, of course, it would be.
Rigoberto Castro had a flair for the dramatic, his wife Beatrix always said, and when she said it she rolled her eyes like a saint, engulfed in flames, imploring heaven. Beatrix had been obliged to speak to him recently about his new habit of wearing an ascot. Before they were married, when they were novios, when Rigoberto was twenty-two and Beatrix barely twenty-three, she had been obliged to speak to him about his habit of using an ivory cigarette holder. "Riggy dear," Beatrix had said, Riggy dyahr, in her plummy BBC accent, "You fancy you look like a movie director, but you look rather like Roosevelt. An old man with snaggly teeth." Rigoberto Castro did have snaggly teeth, which were now stained with the coffee and nicotine of five decades. He was sixty-nine years old, and with a bum ticker, too. Mitral valve prolapse.
Rigoberto Castro had a new hobby: publishing. His business before he retired was real estate development (hotels, shopping malls, condominium complexes) and he had done roaring well at it. His house in the Las Lomas de Chapultepec section of Mexico City brimmed with art (Boteros, a José Cuevas, one very rare seventeenth century Virgin of Guadalupe) and his garden of five hundred square meters was filled with truck-loads of exotic plants and sculptures (Zuñigas). He had a house in Valle de Bravo, a house on a cliff in Carreyes, a pied-à-terre on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He drove a silver Cadillac. His driver drove the Cherokee Jeep. Beatrix drove him crazy. All she wanted to do was paint. Landscapes in acrylics.
The business was Christmas: banks, stockbrokerages, insurance companies, industrial groups bought these brick-heavy coffeetable books for their important clients and government officials. And then there was retail. What the market wanted was something on Mexico, something with photographs, big, four-color lipstick-red and lime and mango-orange splashy. Yeah, a little text, dribbling of filler. The first year the Christmas book was on the handicrafts of Oaxaca (he judged it trite); last year, the colonial mining town of Zacatecas, which no doubt sold better because of the cover, of a luxury hotel built into an antique bull fighting ring. This Christmas, his third Christmas, Rigoberto Castro would do something truly breathtaking: a coffee table book on the Revillagigedos. Rrrr-vee-ya-hee-hay-doze--delicious the way it tripped off his tongue--those three specks of dirt, ash and volcanic rock strewn across the Pacific Ocean five hundred kilometers southwest of the Baja California peninsula: Clarion, San Benedicto, and Socorro, plus La Roca Partida. For the text he'd hired a marine biologist from the National University; for the photographs, Consuelo Kennedy.
Soft morning sky, tufts of wispy,
Black rock with charcoal rivulets wedged against the sky
like a slab of cake.
In the foreground: a mountain of ashes, rivulets and gullies,
a jumble of pumice-gray stones.
And something in the lower left-hand corner--
it appeared smaller than the moon on his thumbnail--
what boy in khakis and a fanny-pack?
"This is San Benedicto," Consuelo said, passing him another photograph. "I shot this one from the helicopter too."
The paper felt cool, still moist between his fingers.
"Y ese individuo?" And this individual? Rigoberto pushed at the tiny figure with the pad of his thumb.
"Sofía von Holtmann."
"Oh, oh, yes." He blinked hard. "Yes, yes of course." Sofía von Holtmann was the professor of marine biology from the National University he'd hired to write the text. He sucked in a lungful of smoke and then slowly let it seep out his nostrils. San Benedicto was boring. It was just a hillock of volcanic debris inhabited by blue-footed boobies.
"You know what my favorite part of the trip was?" With both hands Consuelo flipped her hair behind her shoulders. It was the color of a zopilote's feathers, black and shiny clean; her silver earrings glittered and caught in the strands. She placed both elbows on the equipal table and leaned towards him, her teeth a row of perfect pearls.
Rigoberto held his cigarette the way the French do. He was wearing one of the shirts he'd had made in London, open at the neck--no ascot--the better to reveal his gold chain from which hung (below his sternum) his medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, warm against his skin. Jutting his jaw forward he exhaled a stream of smoke, thick as a rope.
"The way the ocean sings," Consuelo said, "all around San Benedicto."
Her perfume wafted towards him, fresh and light, like garden-clippings, or lettuce.
"It's the volcanic rock," she went on, "pumice, there's so much of it of all different sizes floating in the water and when it tumbles with the waves against the shore it actually hums and whispers, it's like--"
Her gaze penetrated into his very soul. He could not hold it; he lowered his eyes, to the top button of her blouse, a flesh-colored silk, very loose. He took the cigarette from his lips.
Slowly, she raised her face towards his.
"You've got an odd spot there, at the edge of your eyelid." She slumped back into her chair and locked her arms over her chest. "Have you been checked for melanoma?"
Zoom in to canvas:
Blood red sunset.
Purple silhouettes of coconut palms bent
all which ways with a breeze.
Water the colors of a bruise.
Land a great gray lump.
In the far corner of his five hundred square meter garden, Rigoberto Castro stood in the doorway of his wife's studio grimacing as if he'd smelled spoilt milk.
Consuelo Kennedy had left, he had filed away his photographs, he'd buzzed the maid to clear the glasses from the equipal table, empty the ashtray. And then he'd raced to the master-bathroom to check his face. Indeed: a raised speck, the size of the head of a pin. He'd scratched at it with his fingernail, cruelly, until it bled. But it would not come off. He'd rung his cardiologist, but the line was busy. And so to distract himself (and for lack of anything else to do this desert of a Sunday afternoon) he'd gone back out to his garden to wander here among his Zuñigas.
He owned three Zuñigas, small headed pot-bellied Indian women cast in bronze. Their heads were covered with body-length bronze shawls and they wore mute Buddha-like expressions. They had all been modeled on the same weary-looking and hook-nosed individual (a dead-ringer for the neighbor's cook), though one was shorter, one with knobby elbows; one was folded into a big-kneed squat. He had acquired them at auction.
The one furthest from the house had a pigeon perched on its head. (Ah well. It was the maid's job to sponge off the poop. Every morning.)
Inside her studio, Beatrix daubed her brush on her palette and, squinting beady-eyed into her canvas, began dotting in the coconuts. Large and shapeless in her smock, she hummed a tune that sounded like a nursery rhyme, perhaps, sana, sana, colita de rana... The doorjamb pressed sharply into his shoulder as Rigoberto watched her give each coconut palm three identical symmetrical nuts.
There'd been a time when Beatrix reminded him of Dolores del Río in La Malquerida: those witchy eyes, marble-smooth forehead, sharp man-square jaw, limbs lithe and dare-you-touch-me firm as an Amazon's. They'd met on board, in '48, two days out of Southampton and six hundred miles west of the Azores. He could remember it like yesterday the way under the still, starry sky they had danced over the slowly tilting floor, his face in her golden hair, his hand on the chiffon-swathed small of her slender back. The fox-trot, the rumba, their suede-soft shoes shuffling, her heels clicking. He even remembered the way her skirt--he would raise his arm, her hand lightly in his, she would whirl away and back--would swish, swish back against his trousers.
Now, forty seven years under the water, his wife had become someone else: stout, lips pursed, every movement deliberate. Now, as he watched her dab her brush in her paint, the flesh around her chin seemed to swell and fold as if it were filled with sand. Now, she touched her brush to the canvas as if she were pricking blisters.
Rigoberto viewed her acrylic landscape with distaste. No one would buy it, ever. She would subject orphans to it, or nuns, or geriatric patients. Because she believed in charity.
And then his wife was signing her name in the bottom right hand corner: Beatrix Watson de Castro, a silly little star to dot the "i." She dipped her brush in a jar of thinner and at last, with the air of a bedraggled tern, she looked up.
"Yes Riggy." She had a nose like a short thick beak.
He closed his eyes against the atrocity of her landscape.
He breathed the words, "Why don't you attempt an abstract?"
"Don't fancy abstracts." She said the word as Aahb-strux. She began to scrape, scrape at her palette with a palette-knife.
"Why don't you paint our garden then?" Because he owned a garden of splendid specimens, banana trees trucked up from Cuernavaca, ocotillo flown from Coahuila, orange, lime and lima trees, fiddlehead ferns, bougainvillea, flowering judas, corallilo, coconut palms, fan palms, periwinkle, jojoba, plumería, spikey valentine-red hawaiianas, not to mention the three very ancient knarly-trunked ahuehuetes. (The landscape architect he'd flown in from Miami. Economy class.)
It occurred to him, as it frequently occurred to him, that his wife might come out of this eyesore of a shed and set up her easel snug to the house where she could paint in the shade. (She might get a facelift and color her hair.)
"You know I have allergies."
She began to hum again in a high and wavery voice, the sound of which, to Rigoberto, was like the smell of the paint thinner, toxic, surgical.
"I have melanoma," Rigoberto announced, and he thrust his face forward to show her the speck half-hidden in a fold of the limp gray flesh that sagged beneath his eyelid. "I could have melanoma," he said, "people my age get melanoma. Do you think it could be melanoma?"
His wife screwed the cap back on the last tube of acrylic paint with a thrust of her elbow that might have knocked a small child unconscious. "No," she said without having looked. "I do not."
Facing him full-on, she narrowed her eyes to slivers and placed her arms akimbo.
They had been married for forty-six years. He knew exactly why his wife was looking at him like that. She had recently been obliged to speak to him about his new habit of repeating himself.
"Melanoma," he said and then, as he marched back out across the emerald expanse of his five hundred square meter garden, again, through his clenched teeth he let it loose over his shoulder, evil bird: Melanoma. A shiver of fear fluffed its wings. Melanoooma.
Wide lense shot:
Riot of green, colors like confetti.
A neat path of chipped flagstone winding its way among the three Zuñigas.
A pond, clear-bottomed and still.
An adobe wall topped with barbed wire and broken glass set in a frosting of cement.
A slight breeze; the chink-chink of sprinklers.
Shadows stretched long in fading afternoon light.
Rigoberto Castro framed the scene with the two right angles of his thumbs and index fingers. He was sitting on his equipal chair at his equipal table, which was cleared now, its leather top wiped clean. His wife would have started another landscape (similar in theme). He was not in the mood for watching television. He might have taken the dog for a walk, however, he did not own a dog.
Perhaps that was the problem. His wife could be unkind, self-absorbed, dedicated to stupid art and what would it matter? He could sit out here in his equipal chair in his five hundred square meter garden in Las Lomas de Chapultepec with a shihtzu, a bichon frise, or a little pug. He might name it Rocky, or Perry. It would sit loyally at his side. Meanwhile, he would enjoy his drink and his Dunhill. He might reach down and scratch its ears. It would loll its tongue out and pant, softly, gratefully. If he were to toss something (a stick? a Dunhill carton?) the dog would catch it. The afternoon would pass.
But no! It would dig out and chew to shreds the fiddlehead ferns, it would lift its leg on the Zuñigas. No! no! Definitely: Not.
Oh, such were the perils of this doddering retirement: the mind, unmoored, drifted into such absurdities! Before he retired, if he=d had an unscheduled ten minutes, he would have whipped out his notebook and scribbled plans, schemes, summed costs, compounded percentage quarterly yields. But what had happened was, he'd been too good at it. Rigoberto Castro had hauled in so much money that his money --in stocks and bonds and an offshore Netherlands Antilles account yielding LIBOR plus three--was making more money on that money, never mind any new money from, say, some condo complex. For years, like a man left to flounder in the open ocean, he'd been swimming madly towards shore, until --it took him a year or so to realize it--he was, the fool, beating his arms and legs against sand.
He'd had a dog once. For one day. It was a gift from the owner of a bath fixtures factory. It was a Portuguese water dog which, though it had whined and snarled, he'd tossed off the side of the boat in Valle de Bravo. It was a water dog, he'd shrugged, wasn't it? Well, it wasn't totally his fault that a stiff wind picked up out of nowhere and turned the surface to chop. The black head bobbed over a line of waves. "Rufus!" Beatrix kept calling into the wind. "Roooooofus!"
Fleecy lambs gamboling up a gentle green hip of a rise.
Behind a stunted bush of ironwood and a miniature prickly pear cactus, a tabby cat poised to pounce.
a desert of sea,
glittering and glassy.
"Exquisite," Rigoberto Castro murmured to himself and laid one hand over his fragile heart. "Exquisite, exquisite," he said as he slid the photograph of the island of Socorro back into its jacket.
At his desk in his office (directly above his wife's bedroom), he sat looking out onto his five hundred square meter garden. The late afternoon sun had pushed the shadows of the trees and the Zuñigas down the lawn like slicks. He lit another Dunhill, using a tabletop lighter mounted on a fist-sized block of beeswax-yellow jade (which Beatrix had bought him at a duty-free shop in Hong Kong in 1975).
His chair was a throne of quilted jet-black leather, soft and cushy as a child's cheek, while his desk was hard: ironwork and beveled glass. He reached across its vastness for a Mont Blanc fountain pen, one of twenty he kept in a red Morocco leather tumbler, and he began to edit. Because Professor Sofía von Holtmann's text accompanying the photographs of the island of Socorro was not acceptable. It was authoritative, crisply written, but controversial and as such uncommercial.
Writers and academics, he thought, as he drew thick smudgy lines through words like "environmental degradation," "displacement of endemics," "habitat destruction," and (a back-of-the-throat rumbling sigh) "diversity," they are like architects and plumbers. They want to dictate the whole when they have been hired to execute a mere piece of it. They've put no money of their own into it, taken no risk.
He found them exasperating, tiresomely naïve and didactic, like his children.
The one was a Communist. The other was a vegetarian and she was married to a Communist. And his youngest, whom he prayed for every single day, was killed in a boating accident nineteen years and fifty-one days ago, at the age of sixteen. Rigoberto and his wife did not have grandchildren, that they knew of. (As for his nephews and nieces, they were insufferable. Fortunately, they lived in Monterrey.)
What was left of the text on the island of Socorro when Rigoberto Castro had finished shredding it, was very little, other than three brief accounts of misadventure.
The first featured an English botanist named James Colnett, who in the year 1793 christened the archipelago in honor of the Count of Revillagigedo, that last and most capable of the viceroys of New Spain. Some sailors of the Spanish Royal Navy had discovered Colnett anchored off Socorro's beach of crushed shell, and mistaking him for a pirate (after all, Sir Frances Drake was said to have taken on water here en route to the Indies), they smashed his "bottled monsters," and hauled him over to the mainland where they shackled him into a dungeon cell six feet by six feet and fed him slop and water by the swallow for thirty-two days.
Then came John Smith, with his notion to turn Socorro into a sheep-filled little New Zealand, this in the days before refrigerated ships. He died not long after he arrived and all abandoned the island of Socorro but the (now many thousands of) sheep and a few feral cats.
Thirdly, there was the story of Andrew Jackson Grayson, Colonel, U.S. Army, an ornithologist who in the year 1867, on a visit to Socorro, was shipwrecked.
Twilight: three dark figures,
two standing, one squatting,
under the jacarandas and the ahuehuete, silhouetted
against the thicket, the ferns.
Sky electric orange above the gridiron of Mexico City.
A thin faraway drone of buses and trucks and automobiles.
And then flook: the spotlights came on.
From the window Rigoberto Castro could see his Zuñigas staring into his house, blandly, as if they were waiting for something. Like a bus. (He had bought the Zuñigas originally for his cliff house in Carreyes; later, he'd thought of installing them in the patio of his house in Valle de Bravo (a sharp-planed rhomboid of a space, which sloped down towards the towards the lake). But shortly thereafter he had purchased the pied-à-tierre in Manhattan and he'd gotten so caught up with that--moldings, baseboards, light fixtures--that he told the auction house to simply deliver the Zuñigas to his backyard.)
His wife had named the Zuñigas Clara, MaríaSol, and Binky, but he could never remember which she'd said was which or what had possessed her to name one Binky. His wife was still in her studio; he could see the glow from its harsh fluorescent rods, even from here. His hands fidgeted lightly on the glass surface of his desk, leaving a confusion of tiny, cloudy fingerprints.
Black specks on the skin were common after the age of sixty-five, Rigoberto told himself. He felt an itchy quivering under his ribs (was that his aorta?). Many of his acquaintances had them, didn't they? On the side of the nose, on the cheek. They had specks, little black specks. Which could be (that word! he curled his toes) melanoma.
The text on the two smaller islands, Clarion and San Benedicto, was fine. Rock formations, volcanos and birds. Something about fish. All in order, good job, he would cut the check (sometime in the next six months if he happened to get around to it) for his marine biologist Sofía von Holtmann.
He had met La Profesora but once, when he'd summoned her to his office to sign his contract. She was a child-sized woman who had the perversity to wear flat shoes. Her thin dust-blonde hair was tucked behind her ears and her face was tight and hard. Like a child, she wore no makeup.
These modern women, Rigoberto thought, childless and wanton, they are plagued by unnatural ambitions. They are like: Americans.
He lit another Dunhill and then, the cigarette clamped in the corner of his lips, he swiveled around in his quilted black leather chair. Behind his desk hung his new Botero framed in sparely elegant gold-leaf: a matador in a suit of lights and a snug black cap, with a pancake-shaped face and baby-sized features. Squat and bizarrely broad, the matador looked as if he had been forcibly inflated. But whether they were conquistadors or nuns, princesses or matrons, whores or bankers in bowler hats smoking cigars, Boteros were always squat and bizarrely broad, as if they had been forcibly inflated. And that--yes, yes! he would admit it: yes--that was one of the main attractions of hanging a Botero: anyone looking at it would know exactly what it was. He had acquired the Botero at auction.
But, I am a man with melanoma: the certainty had beached itself in his mind.
He stamped out his cigarette in his Baccarat crystal ashtray, and then because it felt heavy on his neck as a stone, he sank his head into his hands. He sat that way for a long time, feeling with his fingertips the sandpaper landscape of his face, tracing the ruts and checkerboards of his sixty-nine years, and feeling, feeling, and again feeling the almost imperceptible firmness of that speck--vile speck!--beneath his eyelid.
Presently he heard--very faintly--the hum and ting of his many plant heaters as they began to work to warm his exotic plants and palms through the cool mountain night in his Mexico City garden of five hundred square meters. And with this, he sat up and he looked down at his hands folded in his lap, and he considered them with wonder, so splotched and withered, the nails gnawed and ridged, as if he had not seen them in twenty years.
Clear glass on black velvet.
Rigoberto Castro had taken the photographs out of the frames in his office because he could not bear to look at any of his children. The two that were living were Communists. (His youngest was killed in Acapulco. His speedboat flipped, the impact knocked him out, he drowned. His name was Carlitos and Rigoberto prayed for the salvation of his soul every night before he went to sleep.) As for his wife, she had removed her portrait (black and white, in décolletage, a rope of pearls, those posed, rabbit-gentle eyes) and hidden it from him. Because she'd found out about an affair of his, with his secretary, and although it had ended badly and the woman had moved with her parents to Tijuana and it had happened several years earlier and there wasn't anything worth remembering about it (certainly not the part that happened under the table during Elvis' lisping "You're Nothin' But a Hound Dog"), nor anything he wanted to remember about it (especially not that he, Rigoberto Castro, ever deigned to set his foot in such a glitz-dump as Las Vegas), his wife was not going to let him forget it.
The lights in his wife's studio were still on, he was thirsty. He left the text and Consuelo Kennedy's photographs scattered across the immensity of his desk and he made his way downstairs, switching on the lights and adjusting the picture frames the maid had left askew as he went. His house was a mansion, although it felt cozy to him because he knew it so intimately, every light-switch, every ashtray, frame, José Luis Cuevas, socket, wallpaper, Turkish carpet, black leather ottoman, Botero, sofa, every sink, every faucet, every tile, plank, chip in the plaster, the Talavera vases, the rose-streaked marble fireplace with its neat bundle of split pine logs.
His house Rigoberto Castro had bought built, and for a good price, although in his time he'd built dozens of structures: hotels, apartment complexes, condominium towers, office buildings, strip malls. He'd hired the architects, he'd hired the plumbers and masons and landscapers and carpet-layers. He'd put up the capital, he took the risk. Sometimes it was well worth it, other times no, but the trick was: Have the nerve to do it. In the end and on average they paid off, all these projects in Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara. And now, years later, sold and re-sold, his projects were like islands lost in a vastness of construction.
In the kitchen he peered out the back window to the garden: Beatrix was still in her studio painting, painting.
He poured himself a glass of water and he sliced open a lime. He stood there in his wife's kitchen for a long while, probing the speck under his eyelid, sipping his water as if it were precious.
POV bed, flash to:
His deerskin jacket hanging limp on a mahogany valet.
On the commode a Talavera vase of cut flowers.
A dog-eared Luis Pazos,
a Tiffany clock,
a packet of matches.
Over the bed, his wife's 18th century Virgin of Guadalupe, a dusky madonna
in a cloak of stars.
Beneath his satin sheets, Rigoberto Castro lay in his sea-blue polka-dot pajamas; his velvet mules with his monogram embroidered in gold he'd placed neatly on the floor by his night table. He whispered a quick prayer for Carlitos, then crossed himself and kissed the knuckle of his thumb. He glanced back at the Virgin. It was the one good piece of art that belonged to his wife and she'd left it here when she'd moved into Carlitos' old bedroom down the hall. If it were up to Beatrix, he thought, the house would be filled with hokey little paintings of geraniums on a windowsill, Indian girls carrying baskets of flowers, still-lives of pottery and pumpkins and avocados C acrylics culled from some turisto Saturday street bazaar. He curled his lip with disgust. He swatted off the light.
"Cartoons" was what she'd had the temerity to call his paintings. Just the other day he'd found her standing arms akimbo in front of his newest José Luis Cuevas, an oil of three figures in teal-blue which he'd hung above the mantel of his pink marble fireplace. "Such slopey little heads. Tch," she'd clucked, and rolled her eyes. "Hoovered out their brains, what."
His wife was still in her studio. The skin beneath his eyelid was weeping with irritation. But he'd finally gotten through to his cardiologist (an old friend he still played tennis with once in a while). He told the doctor that he had melanoma. The doctor's laugh sounded like a coughing cat. He offered to fit him in a week from Tuesday.
Rigoberto Castro lay alone in his bed, a raft on a sea of tightly nubbed oatmeal-colored carpet, as he drifted down into a dream that was like a movie he was both starring in and directing. He was eating huevos rancheros with spicy sausage in a restaurant near his old office because he was not yet retired. In his ascot--a polka-dotted sea blue tucked silky soft up to his adam's apple--he was talking with someone from FONATUR, a fat man with a nose like a potato--Regino in El Río Escondido. So the government agreed to build an airstrip and a water treatment plant and level out and asphalt a road to ring the island of Socorro.
Rigoberto would build a beautiful hotel, all sweeping onyx planes and soaring atriums swagged with bougainvillea, bright tropical blossoms, the whole it drenched in sea-shine. (The condominium time-shares would be plaster and stucco, hived behind the parking lot.)
"With a cost-effective interest rate subsidy and a tax credit," Rigoberto insisted.
(Oh, chunks of butter-pure profit! Deep in the brush, he thought, the thorny scrub, he might construct an English folly for himself. A pagoda perhaps; a ruin of a Greek temple, a pink marble pineapple with a wee window and a door?)
Socorro would be something like Mustique, they agreed, mumbling with their mouths full of egg, poking at the yolks with their forks, making tacos fat with beans and spicy sausage--Exclusivo! Exótico! They would offer packages with SCUBA diving and deep sea fishing, excursions to the volcanos of San Benedicto, and the weird stack-like geological formations on Clarion. There would be bird watching and whale watching. But of course, there would be golf.
However first: FONATUR--at its own expense--would have to round up all those sheep.
Downstairs, a door clicked shut. In his bed, Rigoberto tossed fitfully, wrapping himself tightly in his goosedown duvet. And then, in his dream, he landed on Socorro with his wife and somehow his silver Cadillac was there and the road was already built. They drove all over the island with Consuelo and Sofía in the backseat like two obedient daughters, Consuelo smiling her pearly smile, Sofía with her thin lips pressed together, and everything--the hills and the scrub and the little spring and the way the ocean spread out forever all around--looked exactly like he'd seen it in the photographs. Except that there was movement: breeze rustling the brittle gray grasses, foam slithering on the sea, clouds drifting like ghosts near the horizon.
At last, they came to the crescent-shaped beach of crushed shell (where the hotel would be built). He pulled up, the wheels crunching over the shells, a sound like the bones of small birds breaking. He left the women in the car and he began to hike through the creosote bush and paper-thin red romerillo, the thorns of prickly pear cactuses catching on his pantlegs, his ankles twisting and shoes sinking into the sandy ground. Soon he came upon a clearing where there was a black tarpaulin held up with sticks, the great bat-like swaths of it flapping tik tik in the breeze. It sheltered a camp stove and a tin pot of coffee, still hot to the touch. Someone was alive in this place--and somehow, he knew that this person had swum here, through the shark infested waters (however desperately depleted the biomass) all the way from Acapulco.
"Hello!" Rigoberto called out in English, cupping his hands around his mouth. "Hello!” he cried again, his voice rising to the timbre of a little boys. "Hello!" And he woke himself, blinking into:
His heart thudded in his chest, small and sore, clenching and clenching like a fist. Blood whooshed through his ears. He let his head sink back into the hollow of his pillow. Soon, he could be dead. He was retired.
But he wanted to travel, to Indonesia! To Bali where they might enter moss-covered temples and eat yogurt with pepper and sweet spices, watch barefoot men in batik skirts sound gongs and drums and xylophones. In a rainshower warm as melted stars, he might stroll with his wife through valleys terraced with lush paddies greener than cut emeralds. Or Anarctica!
Oh yes, yes, Antarctica, he thought he might like to take a Lindblad cruise through the Straights of Magellan to see those wind-swept icebergs off the shores of Antarctica.
He went often to his house in Valle de Bravo, most often by himself. He had a few friends who went there on the weekends and he was sometimes invited to their houses for lunch or tennis. Their houses were crowded with spouses and friends and the children of their children. What he kept the cliff house in Carreyes and the pied-à-terre in Manhattan for he did not know. Gems of real estate they may have been, but he and Beatrix never went there and they were a lousy investment.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
An archipelago of things went into this story titled after, ahem, an archipelago:
: The stunning cover image on Archipielago Revillagigedo: La última frontera, text by Harry Moller, photographs by Gabriel Figueroa Flores;
Consuelo Kennedy, a blocked writer with a fancy for eyebrow piercings, a character in another of my short stoies, “Manta Ray,” who had the urge to reappear;
My many years of living in Mexico City, during which I became familiar with certain attitudes of certain denizens of certain neighborhoods;
A passing (blessedly brief) interest in verbal tics;
An ongoing enthusiasm for playing with image patterning.
ABOUT C.M. MAYO
C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books) which was a selected a Library Journal Best Book 2009, and Sky Over El Nido (U Georgia Press) which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She has also published a travel memoir of Mexico’s nearly 10,00 mile-long Baja California peninsula, Miraculous Air (Milkweed Editions). Her website is www.cmmayo.com