Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Excerpt from The New World

-The following is chapter two of my novel, The New World.

The bus to San Pedro was like many that he had ridden while traveling through Mexico; an old, yellow, American school bus, the rules of student conduct still printed in unintelligible English above the driver’s head. The only noticeable differences about the trip were the exceptionally good roads and the lack of livestock. He thought Honduras might turn out to be a nice place after all. It perplexed him though. He had worked with refugees in the States, and many of them had been Honduran. Yet it was nothing like the disaster area he had envisioned. The countryside was fabulously green and made words like lush and fertile spring into his thoughts. Trees crowded beside the road and in the distance. He knew none of their names but loved most the elegant, small-leafed ones that reached higher than the rest and swayed in the wind. If he ignored the bus and all thought of the past, it seemed as if this were paradise.

It occurred to him that people might just be fleeing the overpowering humidity. It made him groggy and when the bus pulled into San Pedro he felt drugged, and a creeping sense of desperation.

He hailed a taxi and told the driver the address, adding, as Shane had instructed him to, that it was a colonia out towards the airport. The enormously fat, brown-skinned man behind the steering wheel raised one eyebrow and grunted. "The airport? One hundred lempiras."

The American did the calculations in his head. That was nearly eight dollars. He knew he was supposed to haggle, but he hated the very idea of arguing over money. One summer, at the Dominican mission in Mexicali, the brothers had enjoyed taking visiting relatives out to the markets to dicker and bargain with the vendors, but he had never done so. He always paid the asked price. It was worth getting taken to avoid haggling. He couldn’t explain his repulsion. He never said so but he believed it offended his sense of honesty. He thought that everything should just have its price and if the price was too high, people shouldn’t buy it. But he had never been popular with the brothers and if he had mentioned an "offense against his honesty" they would have never let him live it down.

Still, he could not afford eight dollars for a taxi ride. Reluctantly he entered the arena.

"Fifty lempiras."

This time it was the driver’s turn to be offended. His hulking frame shuddered as he rocked himself toward the open window and looked up at the gringo with wide, surprised eyes.

"Fifty lempiras! Can’t be done, friend. I have to live, you know." He settled back in his seat, looking out through the windshield shaking his head. They were quiet for a while. The American was still trying to figure out how to respond to this violent display when the taxi driver, apparently thinking that the silence was part of the gringo’s stratagem, spoke again. "Eighty lempiras."

The American heard an ultimatum. Six dollars. It was still too much, but he already felt dirty from the struggle and ready to give in.

"Fine. Let’s go."

Sam’s address was the sixth apartment in a two-story building that contained a total of eight apartments in all. It was dark by the time they arrived but there were streetlights on the dirt road that passed in front of the building’s courtyard and he could see the open fields surrounding the lonely edifice. A half-mile to the East more lights betrayed the presence of residential homes. He was in a Central American suburb. A flickering Pepsi sign loomed over those distant, shadowed houses. A towering water tank stood outlined darkly against the moonrise.

He paid the driver, who drove away suddenly and without a word. The American was left standing before a black, padlocked gate that opened onto the courtyard in front of the apartments, whose windows were illuminated with the glow of televisions.

His stomach churned as it always did before he began something, as it had when he stood in front of the wrought-iron gate outside St. Albert’s Priory in San Francisco to begin his religious training. Since his flight from Tucson everything had been a pause, an interim experience. Even at this moment, still alone, the only witness of his struggle and fears, he could turn around and plunge back into that pause, that journey from one place to another, and let it take him onward or even back home. He calculated that there was just enough money to return if he took the cheap buses through Guatemala and Mexico and fasted much of the way. Perhaps that would be sufficient repentance. Perhaps he could return and honestly try to become the man he had set out to be years ago.

A moment of decision was upon him. A new life or the old one?

He jerked the gate back and forth a few times and shouted "Buenas noches!"

A few people looked out of their lighted windows. Their brown faces were foreign and fathomless in the dusk. He couldn’t tell if they were angry, suspicious or curious. Eventually a young woman emerged from an apartment on the second floor and descended the stairs, keys jangling in her hand.

She entered the circle of light beneath the street lamp by the gate wearing tight-fitting jeans. It amazed him that people could wear pants in this heat. Even at night, stripped to his underwear, he had been uncomfortable. But this was not what dominated his thoughts as she approached, rifling through her keys. He was mostly thinking of how well the jeans fit her and studying the curve of her equally well fitting blouse and the way her shoulder length, black hair was swept over one shoulder.

Reaching the gate she looked up at him through the thin iron bars and smiled. He felt the lightning frustration he had always felt in the seminary when he met an attractive woman and recognized interest in her eyes. This was followed by the realization that he was no longer a Dominican priest-in-training and that it would be a pleasure to reside near a woman like this.

"Hi." She said. "Are you Paul Herlihy?" Her English was startling, clear and American. Her smile was large and inviting. Ample, well-formed lips showcased long, white teeth. They were the best teeth he had seen in Latin America.

"Yuh…yes." He stuttered, placing one open palm between the bars. "Who are you?"

She laughed, taking his hand and shaking it. "I’m Sam, Shane told you about me."

Stunned, Paul thought only about her smooth grip and the lovely the cinnamon skin of her face. Her laugh left something to be desired but, as other men, Paul found certain flaws easy to overlook in favor of others. She opened the gate and locked it quickly behind him.

"It’s not the best neighborhood." She explained. Paul noticed again the faces staring at him, and now at her as well, through their windows. Certainly this was a curious scene. The girl they had thought of as one of theirs chattered away in foreign gibberish to the gawking gringo in the courtyard.

"I thought you were a man." Paul tried to explain. "I mean, I only knew your name, Sam. Shane didn’t tell me you were a woman."

She gaped at him in real shock, then laughed raucously. "That sounds like something Shane would do. Does it bother you?" A concerned look came over her face. "I mean, will you be uncomfortable staying here tonight?"

"Oh, no. I was just………surprised."

"Because I was figuring you’d just stay and take over the lease when I leave in a couple weeks. If you want we can look for a place for you tomorrow, after I show you the school."

"No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I was just surprised, that’s all."

They were silent for a moment. Then Sam looked about, as if at the night. "Well, let’s get inside before the neighbors start complaining. They don’t have any right to, considering all the parties I’ve had to put up with, but hypocrisy is a tradition here."

They ascended the stairs and went into the second apartment, which had a black number six nailed to the door.

"I think the sofa is big enough for you." Sam pointed to a leather couch against the outer wall, beneath the only window in the small front room. There was a kitchenette and two open doorways, one leading to a full bathroom, the other to the bedroom. The living room itself was perhaps ten feet square.

"If it isn’t, you could remove the cushions and sleep on the floor." She stood in the kitchenette, washing cups. "I was in the middle of cleaning up when I heard your rattle. Are you hungry?"
"Uh… no. I’m fine. This is a nice place you’ve got here."

She snorted laughter. "If you like cold tile floors and cockroaches."

Paul glanced at the floor.

"Oh, there not out now. But in the morning, the early morning, when you go in the bathroom, it’s wild with ’em." She put the dishes in a small plastic rack to dry. "Did you want a drink? I’ve got beer and coke. Have a seat."

Paul sat on the couch. He sank in deep, relaxing for the first time in a long time and enjoying the opportunity to speak English again.

The couch was a luxurious item for the apartment. He imagined that it cost more than the small refrigerator that sat on the counter. "I’ll have a beer if you don’t mind."

He tried to repress the thoughts that ran through his head. He wasn’t ashamed of them. He just wanted to think clearly. When he imagined Sam coming over with a beer and sitting beside him on the couch and eventually writhing in his grasp, it made his stomach churn nervously. He was grateful that he hadn’t eaten all day because he was certain that he would have thrown up on the floor.

She came over with two bottles of something called salva vida, handed him one, then sat on a wooden chair that she dragged over from a small, matching table on the other side of the living room. She sat hunched over, like a man, though she was not even remotely masculine.

"I can’t tell you how good it is to hear an American accent." She said smiling. "At the school I speak English all day, but almost everyone there has an accent. Their vocabulary is pretty good but you can’t have a very good conversation when you’re stopping to explain words and phrases every other sentence."

"So the kids aren’t completely bilingual?" Paul had been hired to take over Sam’s job in the fall. She was the English and Literature teacher at Liberty Academy, a private bilingual school, but she was leaving at the end of June.

"Oh, I’d say that by ninth grade most of them are fairly conversational. But you’ll be teaching down to grade seven, and at that level their vocabulary is still pretty restricted."

"How did you end up here?" Paul already knew why she was here from Shane’s letter but he liked to hear a story from its source. Also he wanted to keep her talking. Asking questions would keep him from having to answer them and tonight he did not want to talk about himself.

"I was in the Peace Corps for two years, mostly in the capital." She looked at the floor as she spoke and Paul recognized a habit she had of pushing her silky black hair back behind one ear before tugging at an earring, a small silver hoop. "I heard about this job when my time was running out. I wasn’t ready to leave Honduras yet, so I took it." Her voice had acquired a strange tone.

"How much longer will you be around?"

"Two weeks. Until July first. Graduation is tomorrow, then there will be a week of inventory and a lot of sitting around. A week later, I’ll go."

They finished their beers and talked about their mutual friend, Shane Runkle. Shane was crazy. Paul told Sam about what it was like going to college with Shane. Sam explained how she had met him in Tegucigalpa when he came through a year earlier. Six months ago he had arrived in Brazil. Both of them had received letters from him describing his debauched life there, though Sam’s recollections led Paul to believe that he had received the edited versions of Shane’s adventures. Shane planned on coming back North to visit Paul in December. Paul purposely avoided discussion of his own past, not wanting to lie or tell the truth. Not at the moment. He just wanted to watch Sam push the hair back over her ear and make her earring sway and glint in the lamplight.

Finally, she said good night, rather abruptly, and said that she would wake him at six, after her shower. She shut the door to her room behind her.

Paul didn’t fall asleep for a while. He had been far from home for weeks but now, in the strange city that was supposed to be his new home, two thousand miles from his country, his culture, he felt out of place for the first time. He was not on vacation. And he was not going to be a priest. He was in flight, having exiled himself. And the dull freedom of travel was now punctuated by the memories that had finally caught up to him. He tried to bury himself in ridiculous fantasies about Sam, but always Alba jarred his thoughts. He remembered the odors of that decrepit building that had served as her home, and the stench of their sex.