Dangerous Curves - Curvas Peligrosas - ...the serialization
Mi verso es de un verde claro
Y de un carmin encendido
My verse is light green
And it is flaming crimson
Stepping on Don’s mattress with his shiny black work boots, Rick half vaulted and half hauled himself up onto the top bunk. His roommates in Room 2 already had thrown their gear on their beds. He was grateful to be alone in the room. The pine planks supporting the mattress creaked and threatened to crack as he stretched out his legs. Pushing his black knapsack to the head of the bed, he rested on it as if it were a pillow.
He closed his eyes and listened while other members of the group bustled around the hallways, excitedly sorting through the donation bags.
The group. The mission team. Three months ago he and his pastor, Donald Pharr, arrived at the church hall in Williamsport to sip instant coffee, swallow doughnut holes, and meet the seventeen strangers with whom they were going to spend these two weeks.
What a mistake. Why’d I let myself get talked into this? His attempts to concoct clever excuses to back out intensified as the departure date drew closer. I could get sick. Maybe I should lose my passport. Please . . . Maybe I can fake a concussion at Sunday pick-up. But, except for simply not wanting to go, he couldn’t come up with a convincing enough excuse. At least a reason that Don would buy.
It seemed as if he had stuck his fingers in a Chinese handcuff. The more he struggled to pull himself out of it, the tighter it got. School would be finished the week before they left. It wasn’t as if he needed to work during the summer. Vacation time. It was either this or sit around the house editing lesson plans for the fall. I suppose I could have caught up with the books I had set aside promising myself I’d read. Get done some of the chores she wanted me to finish. Maybe I should stay and work up some new drills for my Middle School soccer team. Oh, forget it. There just wasn’t a whole lot of energy anyway. Someday I’ll get around to fixing that leaking faucet. Someday I’ll order the mulch. Someday I’ll get around to writing those letters I promised I’d send.
But, as Don kept reminding him, their church had raised enough money to cover both of their air fares. So was that the real reason? Obligation? But that didn’t stop Rick from still trying to figure out why he said he would go on this trip in the first place. He liked Don well enough, but not that well. It wasn’t as if they were really close friends. Was it boredom? Was it the excuse to see some real history? Was it because Don kept pulling him along? Don admitted that he didn’t want to go alone. That feeling of being like a seventh grader walking into the cafeteria never does leave you. Was it because what I really want is a chance to get out of town? Or is it simply because I am too indifferent to make decisions? It was simply easier to let Don decide. Rick thought the last reason the likeliest.
“Come on, Rick, it’ll do you some good,” he remembered Don telling him. “You need to get out of yourself. You could use a change of scenery, a change of weather, just a change of any kind.”
During the drive to the orientation meeting, Don himself finally admitted to Rick the truth about why he decided to go. For six years he had been trying to persuade the congregation to get involved in some kind of mission outreach, but it wasn’t going to happen until he went first. Made sense. You can’t push a rope uphill.
But whose bright idea was it for them to spend two full weeks on this trip? Oh, hell. Why did I say yes? That morning when he and Don walked into that church hall he knew he’d regret going. What an assortment they were. He cynically thought: how many are here really because they need a distraction, a thrill? How many think they’re really going to save the world? Lord, do I really have to spend two weeks with these folks? One third looked like they were all over sixty. The oldest in the group boasted how she was seventy-four and still kicking. She explained she was bringing her grandson, Billy, with her, but apologized for him because he couldn’t make the meeting due to a doctor’s appointment. Another third, Rick figured, were about his age or older. Worse, a third of the group was teenagers.
Besides Don, one other pastor volunteered to go: Evelyn Rumley. As soon as the Reverend Rumley began to speak, Rick wanted to run out of the room screaming. He would have bolted if Don hadn’t driven. Either run or stuff a sock in her mouth. Despite being well into her fifties, she was a recent graduate from seminary. God help us, she’s enthusiastic. The Reverend Rumley announced she already had printed a daily schedule that sketched out their daily devotions. “Please bring your Bibles,” she urged, “and if you’d like, you could keep a journal and I’d be happy to serve as your spiritual guide and discuss with you your feelings.”
“I just might do that,” a gleeful Rick began to snicker. Don hushed him. Privately, Don himself realized she was going to be a pest the moment she arrived at the Saturday morning orientation meeting wearing a clerical collar.
The leader of their group, Samuel Eduardo Ramirez, would be the only fluent member of the team. His mother called him Sam-well, his wife called him Sammy, his little boy called him Poppy, and everyone else called him Sam. It helped that he had grown up in southern California and was part Mexican on his mother’s side. It was he who got Presbytery excited about sponsoring this trip, the first of its kind for the region. Before he moved into the Bloomsburg area from Kentucky he had conducted several of these mission trips through his old church. Since he couldn’t get a sufficient number of members from his new church interested in volunteering he figured that if a bunch of the churches got together maybe it could happen.
Acting as host, master of ceremonies, and circus ring-master, Sam had them each introduce themselves and tell each other what they were expecting from this mission trip. Jane, a plump middle-aged woman, introduced herself to the group by making the group say hello to each one of her five puppets. The children there would love them, she gushed, plus they were useful at teaching wonderful messages about the love of Jesus.
When it came Rick’s turn, he lied. He said he was hoping to serve Christ as best he could. Nudged by Don, Rick added how he spent one college semester in Barcelona, but that was over eleven years ago and he hadn’t used his Spanish much since. He mentioned with a wan smile how he was to try to refresh his memory and practice rolling his ‘r’s’ by going over some of his old school textbooks and tapes. Another way to get familiar with the language, he wanted to suggest to the group but didn’t, could be by playing favorite classic DVD’s and clicking on the Spanish subtitles. He was going to try that with some of his favorites. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Maltese Falcon. The Mark of Zorro. He did try, but that got tiresome real quick.
On a whim, he tossed in a joke about him being interested in playing a little soccer down there, how he planned to bring along several soccer balls. One of the older ladies sitting in the circle, her knees pressed together, said how nice that was – “wasn’t it nice that he would show the children in Honduras how to play soccer.”
Did he hear right? Rick and Don shook their heads at each other. Sam winked at them both. Rick stared at her amused until he finally said: “Actually, I was hoping to pick up a few moves from the five year olds.”
Rick’s heart suddenly felt heavy. He felt alone and far from home. He wished for home. But home was gone. If he were to admit it, he was homesick. Missing home. Missing her. From bone to brain, he was worn out. His closed eyes and the comfort of finally being able to stretch out his legs fully invited a yawn. The yawn invited another until he drifted off. Sleep betrayed his will in favor of hidden desire. Dreams he had long tried to avoid arose . . .
. . . Rick stands in a roomful of clocks. Coo-coo clocks. Digital clocks. Grandfather clocks. Dozens of clocks sit on a glass mantel. None indicate the same time. Something knocks the mantel off the wall, it falls, and the clocks break as the mantel shatters into pieces. Dawn enters the room, surprisingly pregnant. She cuddles up with Rick on a sofa the way a little girl will with her father. Rick gets up and starts straightening up the room, stuffing trash in a bag, when he spills a canteen filled with coffee. Before he can wipe it up it drains down through the floorboards. He exits through the door and the room changes into a fishing vessel battered by a terrible storm. A strange woman sits naked on a sofa. Tenderly he covers her with his robe. There is a strange warmth in the room . . .
Don tapped his arm. “Hey, you hungry? Supper time.”
“Oh, man.” Rick rubbed his closed eyes and slung his legs over the edge of the bed. “I didn’t realize how sleepy I was. Though sometimes I wish I didn’t have to sleep.”
“How do you stop dreaming?” Rick asked with his eyes still pressed closed, not expecting his pastor to answer. Nor did he really want him to answer.
Don patted Rick’s leg. “Come on. I’ll wait outside.”
Together in the darkness, dusk already spent, they walked down the irregularly spaced concrete steps toward the dining hall, pushed open the swinging wooden doors, screens inserted in the top half of each door, and immediately they noticed they were the last to arrive. The doors banged behind them. On the wall directly opposite them hung an eight foot reed tapestry depicting three brilliantly colored birds -- the reds like scarlet and the yellows bright as the sun -- perched amongst leafy green branches. Beside the reed tapestry was a felt red banner onto which a cut-out of a white dove bearing an olive branch in its beak had been stitched. Three carved-wooden hangings depicting local scenes -– burros carting sacks across their backs, rows of terra cotta houses, a lady in native dress carrying a basket on her head -- hung on the far left wall above a giant framed map of Honduras. Over on the far right, a sign was taped above the door to the kitchen. It read: Vente de refrescos. Next to the kitchen door sat the five-gallon Aqualar water cooler which periodically gurgled on its own. Pushed up against the length of the kitchen wall were two serving tables. The floor of the dining hall was formed of smooth concrete. It appeared to have been once painted but the paint was long rubbed away. Three chandeliers made of decorative iron hung from the ceiling, the light bulbs dim. Two aluminum, 42-cup coffee urns sat on a wobbly table immediately to the left of the entrance, the amber lights on both glowing, announcing, inviting. Drink me.
Everyone in the room looked up at them as they scouted for vacant seats, preferably together. Besides their complement of nineteen, another mission group was present. They had arrived from Ohio two weeks ago and were returning to the States tomorrow. Rick, seeing the strangers, scrunched up his face – he didn’t feel like sharing.
The three eight foot long tables, set up in a horse-shoe shape, were covered with a white vinyl tablecloth, and every few feet there was a brown ceramic vase containing artificial flowers, daisies and violets. The vases themselves were decorated with pictures of green turtles. Don and Rick spotted three free seats scattered about, but the one near the end of the nearest table had Sam’s dog-eared Spanish dictionary spread spine side up at the place setting. The second open seat was opposite that chair, next to where Carolyn Rose was seated. The third was at the far table in the midst of the other mission group. Don sprinted for the seat among the Ohioans and sat down on the metal folding chair. Rick threw a dirty look at him. Tomás, seated on the other side of Carolyn Rose, nodded at Rick.
Sam, sporting his Penn State cap, burst from the kitchen, flinging open both doors. Clutching a bottle of Olancho hot sauce like some prized trophy, he grabbed his chair, the metal chair squeaking as he dragged it back. “Armando says we are ready. Listos? Si! With respects to our new U.C.C. friends from Akron: this may be your last night but it is our first night here. If you don’t mind I’d like to offer tonight’s blessing. There’s a traditional one I was taught on a trip several years ago in Nicaragua. We can even sing it if you’d like. Kevin? Did you bring your guitar? You left it in the bunkhouse? Don’t worry about it. It starts like this in Spanish: Gracias Señor por el pan. Try repeating it after me. We’ll do it twice if we don’t get it the first time. Gracias Señor por el pan. Thank you Lord for the bread. Y da pan a los tienen hambre. And give bread to those who hunger. Y hambre de justicia a los que tienen pan. And hunger for justice for those who have bread. Gracias Señor por el pan. Amen.”
“Amen,” both teams responded in clumsy unison. For the kitchen crew, the collective ‘amen’ was their cue to bring out the pans containing the tortillas, beans, vegetables, potatoes. The meat they served up in large stainless steel serving pans was a broiled chicken seasoned with rosemary. The Ohioans were the first to get in line at the buffet table.
Rick decided he could be either silent and sullen or charming. He chose charming. He leaned forward and caught Tomás’s eye. “Excellent car, by the way. That is one fine automobile you have there. V8? Six speed or five? It is ‘Tomás’ isn’t it? My name is Rick.”
“Welcome to my country, Ricardo. Thank you for being here.”
“Nice to be here. And, by the way, Rick will do. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to see a Mercedes here. I’m a bit of a fan. I use to drive an old beat up one. Gear box was stripped to all bloody murder. Your coupe took me by surprise.”
Carolyn Rose replied in a monotone. “You should be careful about your assumptions. Not everyone in Honduras suffers from poverty.”
Oh, brother, Rick thought, how come whenever she opens her mouth it sounds like a put-down? “That’s obvious,” he jabbed back. “A golf course on one side of the street, shacks on the other.”
“I’ve visited the United States many times. On business and pleasure,” Tomás interjected. “Are our nations that different?” Carolyn Rose looked away from Rick, letting her eyes fasten on the trappings of the familiar room, her eyes eventually landing on the reed tapestry with its red and yellow birds.
Rick shoved the beans on his plate around with his fork. “You got me there, Tomás.” One tine of the fork was bent out of line from the others. With that one he tried to poke a bean and pick it up.
“Permit me to inform you more accurately,” Tomás continued. “My city includes some very fine neighborhoods. Yes, we have our poverty. But which county doesn’t? We all are burdened by those persons who either due to ignorance or moral failings cannot lift themselves up. I’d very much like to escort you around sometime. Our shopping malls might even surprise you. We aren’t as backward or as primitive as you might think.”
“I didn’t say you were backward,” Rick replied with a fly and easy chuckle that mystified Tomás. “Hey, this is just my first time here. I’m still trying to figure out why I am here. And sure, I’d love to take you up on that offer.”
“I will see if we can work it out. I am aware that you have been assigned to a very small village in the western hills and after that then, I believe, to a town north of here for your second week. Perhaps we could steal you away for a day.” Tomás smoothed his slick hair. “Anything for a new friend, right Ricardo?”
“Looking forward to it,” said Rick as he drained the last of his coffee, swallowing grounds. “If you don’t mind me saying, your English is very good. Far better than my Spanish. I can barely read the road signs. I only know enough Spanish to make a fool of myself.”
“My family has relations in Miami also. And San Diego. I visit them often,” Tomás said off-handedly, as if that was sufficient enough of an explanation. “We appreciate those who make the effort. Ours is a straight-forward language. Precise. Unlike yours. Many of us have found how important it is for us to learn your language early. I was fluent by the time I was eight years old. English, naturally, is the language of business. Yes, we do appreciate those who make the effort, such as my sweet Rosacita here. She is quite capable, though she still misses some of the cultural . . . how do you say? ‘Nuances?’ Yes, the nuances. The idioms. That is it. Those you can only learn by living here for years,” he said, reaching his right arm around Carolyn Rose’s shoulders.
“Like ‘burning your bridge after you cross it,’ right?” Rick quipped before he pulled back and looked closer at Carolyn Rose. “And what’s your story? Are you really a Presbyterian missionary?” Rick slid his hand out toward the nearest vase, his finger toying with a petal on one of the plastic daisies. “You do travel in style. A Mercedes missionary,” he teased.
“Far more comfortable than a second-hand school bus,” she said coolly, in a tone announcing that she didn’t wish to play. With her fork she speared a cucumber slice, rubbed it in the salad dressing on her plate, placed it in her mouth, and chewed slowly.
Okay, thought Rick. She wins the prize for the snow queen. So why bother trying? Screw it. He pretended he had more coffee to drink. He finished the rest of his meal in silence, retreating inside himself and tuning everyone else out, letting Tomás entertain them, until the noise from the other tables made him look up. The members of the Akron mission group stood up in one abrupt motion, leaving Don sitting alone. Their leader spoke: “Excuse us, but it is time for our Bible study.” Each member of the Ohio group picked up their chair and followed their leader through an opening in the sliding doors and down the three steps into the adjoining room.
They also left a mess on the tables where they had eaten. Sam shook his head at their dirty plates, cups, silverware, and crumpled up napkins. Many of the plates still had food left on them. Rick thought he heard Sam mutter something under his breath in Spanish. Was that a faint hint of a smile he imagined he saw the edge of Carolyn Rose’s mouth? Nah, he dismissed. Probably a suppressed yawn.
Banging his empty cup on the table, Sam announced loudly, intending his voice to carry into the adjoining room. “We’re not tourists, folks, and this isn’t the Plaza Hotel. How about four volunteers to help clear the dishes?”
There was a rush to clear the table. Bless those church people who have a way of needing to be helpful. More than four volunteers jumped up to take the dishes into the kitchen. Chef Armando, assisted by the other two aproned members of his kitchen staff, pointed out where they should stack the dirty dishes. They showed the gringos where to scrape off the leftovers. The worst of the leftovers might even end up being used to feed the dogs that patrolled the center.
“Excuse me, Sam,” Evelyn spoke up. “Aren’t we going to have devotions also? I’m prepared.”
“I’m sure you are.” He glanced at his watch. “Hey, folks,” Sam announced to the room, “how about we come back in an hour?” Evelyn made a face at Sam that looked as if she had swallowed a pin. “Or how about in thirty minutes? Our friends from Ohio might be done by then,” he added. “But if not we’ll just meet here. It might be good for us all to debrief what we’ve seen today. Is that a deal? Thirty then?”
“Good by me,” Don agreed from the far table, lending his pastoral vote. The rest of the group voiced assent. Evelyn’s mouth sagged.
“Okay then. Eight o’clock.” Sam looked over at the coffee urns and wiggled his cup at them. “Any coffee left?”
“Give me your cup,” said Rick, standing up. “This is good coffee. I’ve got the java jive and it’s got me. Very thick.” He shouted over Sam’s head. “You want some, Don?”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Anyone else?” Rick offered.
“Mas fuerte, muy rico,” said Sam emphatically. “Wait till you hit the back country. I’m glad someone else here appreciates real coffee.”
“Yeah,” Rick said. “You know it’s good when it stains the mug, right?”
“Oh, you bet. Sure you haven’t been here before? Just wait. Out there they boil the coffee using an old sock.”
“Appetizing.” Rick looked down at Carolyn Rose. He couldn’t figure out why she bugged him, but he also couldn’t avoid noticing that he kept noticing. Her supple breasts. The way her skirt swayed. The way she flicked her ponytail. Was he jealous that she belonged to Tomás and he could have his way with her? Was it her air of privilege that annoyed him? He never was comfortable around that kind. But they did make such entertaining targets. No wonder Tomás had claims on her. Roosters and hens. Or was it more like the fox in the hen house? “You want some?” he asked her, reaching down to take her cup. “How about you, Tomás?” Tomás, however, was too busy enjoying the attentions of Deb who eagerly hovered near him keen on clearing his dishes.
Carolyn Rose placed her palm over her coffee and replied over her shoulder, “I’m fine, thank you.” She then placed her plate, silverware, and cup on top of Tomás’s before he allowed Deb to detach herself from him and carry the dishes into the kitchen.
While filling his and Sam’s cup, Rick looked back and saw Tomás and Carolyn Rose pushing their chairs away from the table and getting up. His eyes followed them as they exited the dining hall. Okay, goodbye to you too.
A Rick distracted by his thoughts filled the cups to the brim so he walked back to the table balancing them carefully. A little slopped over the edge. He handed Sam’s toward him. “Got the last of it. We’re sucking grounds.” Nursing his coffee, Rick sat in his chair sideways and surprised himself by smiling as the young people gravitated toward each other and moved as a mass outdoors, the boys and girls doing what they should be doing. The girls tossed and twirled their hair. The boys pushed each other and gawked at the girls. The girls pretended they didn’t know they were being gawked at. The girls sat in a cluster on the concrete bleachers that had been built on the other side of the dual soccer and basketball court built next to the dining hall. Some of the boys began to kick a soccer ball. Except for Billy, Rick noticed. Rick had the teacher’s instinct for identifying the misfits. Billy lingered by himself inside the dining hall and studied the large map of Honduras hung on the far wall. His grandmother got up from the table and walked up next to him. Rick swung back around in the chair and caught Sam’s eye. He wagged his head in the direction of the teenagers. “It’s got to be exciting for them.”
Sam put down his dictionary, removed his reading glasses, and started cleaning them with the bottom of his blue T-shirt. “I just want to make sure there’s no babies in nine months. Presbytery will have my ass.”
For the first time since leaving Pennsylvania Rick laughed easily. He didn’t often laugh easily. But he drew delight from watching the teenagers move and maneuver according to historic mating rituals. More than delighting in them, he envied them. He missed the tease and banter that comes whenever you’re in the same room as a female who interests you. What will they be up to tonight, he wondered? How many hearts will be broken by the end of these two weeks?
Sam spotted Wendy and Teresa exiting the kitchen. “Wendy, Teresa, join us,” Sam invited, patting the table. Teresa sat down in the chair Carolyn Rose had occupied. Wendy stood behind Sam and started rubbing his shoulders.
Sam began to melt and surrender to the impromptu massage. “Okay, Wendy, you’re going to be popular this trip. Do you do feet?”
“You know each other, I presume,” Rick said.
“Same church, yes.” Wendy replied. “Somehow Mr. Wise-ass here talked me into going. My husband too. That’s him talking with Pastor Evelyn.”
“Is she your pastor? I’m still trying to figure out who’s who around here.”
“Oh, no. Lord no. We’re from Bloomsburg,” she said with a smack of pride.
“Okay, yes, I think I remember. It is still a bit of a fog. You guys were the last ones picked up, right? Hard to believe that was almost 24 hours ago.”
Sam collapsed even farther forward, his forehead resting on the table. “A little lower please now. Oh, yes, right there.”
“That’s enough, buster. Larry is getting jealous,” Wendy said, slapping Sam on the top of his bald pate. “You’ll have to wait till later for more.”
“I’m in room number 2,” Sam said with a lewd smirk.
Wendy settled into the seat next to Sam and looked over at Rick. “How about yourself? What’s your story?”
“Sorry,” Rick said, taken aback by Wendy’s directness.
Teresa touched his arm gently. “I too would be interested to know what brought you to us?”
Rick paused and peered down into his cup. “Tears and a long journey,” Rick quoted.
With confused eyes, Teresa looked over to Sam for help.
“No, really. Sorry. A bad joke,” Rick apologized. “Why? Why am I here? I guess I simply had the time. I’m sorry. You see, mine is the advantage of teaching school, I suppose. You might know how it is. Up in the States we get our summers off. My pastor -- over there -- Don, hey, Don, why don’t you join us? He talked me into it. He didn’t want to go alone. I unfortunately sit on the church mission committee. Don’s been trying to get something like this going in our church for a while.”
“Your wife didn’t want to come?” Teresa asked. “Taking care of your children perhaps?”
Rick swirled the coffee in his cup. “No, no children.”
The tone in Rick’s voice prompted Sam to change the subject. “What subject do you teach?”
Rick brightened and relaxed. “History. Well, actually High School Social Studies. Don’t know why we can’t call it ‘History’ anymore.” He turned toward Teresa. “I guess that’s why I’m particularly interested in our weekend at Copan. For my ninth graders I teach from a textbook on the Americas. Most people get confused. They think America only refers to our country rather than the whole continent. We’re all part of the New World.”
“Yes, I hope you will study our history. And guess what Sam-well?” Teresa said eagerly, like a child who cannot wait to surprise her parent with a present. “God is good to us. You picked the perfect weekend to visit us. The weekend we are scheduled to be in Copan they are celebrating the Festival of the Virgin of Suyapa. It is a very lovely festival. There will be much music and dancing. If we get there early enough we can even see the ceremony when they crown the Copan Queen.”
“I know all about your schedules, Teresa. If you say 10 AM, you mean 2 PM. Honduran time. But let’s do try.” Sam greedily rubbed his palms together. “If there is a queen there has to be her court. All those sweet young things.” Sam leaned back and serenely placed the back of his one hand onto the palm of the other and rested them on his lap. “I love these trips.”
Teresa laughed lightly. “And we love you, Sam-well.” Rick noted again how precisely she enunciated Sam’s name.
“Glad somebody does,” said Wendy. She then reached over the table and touched Rick’s arm and demanded his attention. “First trip for all of us it seems.”
“So, if I may ask -- how about you and your husband? What brought you here?” Rick asked.
“Sam insisted. Plus our hospital gave us time off to come here. Authorized leave for continuing education, they’re calling it.”
“Bloomsburg or Geisinger?”
“Geisinger. We’re both nurses.”
“Oh. Which department?”
“I’m in NICU. Larry is a nurse anesthetist. Which means he’s pretty useless.” Wendy saw the blank look in Teresa’s face. Wendy then spelled it out. “N-I-C-U. We call it ‘NICU.’ It means the ‘Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.” I’m part of a team that takes care of premature babies. My husband helps prepare patients for surgery. Mostly he just knocks them out.”
Teresa nodded. “I do understand now. Thank you.”
“I never knew that that’s what NICU meant either,” Sam volunteered for Teresa’s benefit.
“So you’re our medical team!” Teresa exclaimed gleefully, clapping her hands, suddenly connecting who was who. “Sam-well told me you would be coming. Wendy and Laurence Santo Salvo. Yes, I am very pleased to meet you.”
“Sam here promised we’d mostly been needed for the group, in case of injury or if somebody should get sick.”
“I lied,” said Sam.
“No surprise,” Wendy frowned, adding a labored sigh of feigned exasperation.
Despite being confused by the banter, Teresa continued. “The village we are going to visit hasn’t had any medical personnel or brigades visit them in a year. The nearest clinic is an hour away by automobile. The nearest hospital? Yes, it means hours to drive there.”
Sam finished her thought: “. . . and there’s nobody there that has a truck. Right? So they walk.” Sam reached up and tickled Wendy’s chin. “I think you’re going to be very busy.”
“But don’t think you’re going to help us, no indeed, Mr. Ramirez. No way are you getting out of doing manual labor.” Wendy reached over and cupped Teresa’s hand. “Teresa, you’ll be my translator, right? Please. I don’t need him interfering.”
“It will be my happiness. It will help most with the women, I believe.” Then Teresa snickered and blushed at the prospect of her own joke. “I think they would not trust our Sam-well.”
“Alright, so fill me in, Teresa,” Sam cut in abruptly. “Where exactly are we going? You said back at the airport that there’s been a change in plans. So where are we heading?”
“We will be in the west. Only six hours from here. Maybe a little more. We are going tomorrow to a little village in Santa Barbara. It is a place called Las Mercedes. I think we will leave early in the morning. Right after breakfast.”
Sam reached over and tapped Rick on the arm. “That means we’ll leave sometime around 11.”
Teresa ignored him. “We have undertaken an important housing project there. They are hoping to build twenty-nine habitations for all the families who live there. Homes? Yes, homes. I am believing five of the foundations have been begun.” Her eyes twinkled. “But we will find out tomorrow.”
“So we are digging. Welcome to Honduras, friends and lovers.” Sam interlaced his fingers and rested his hands on top of his head. “I’m so glad we brought our tools for repairing and painting the school. Looks like its shovels and rocks. What a wonderful vacation.”
“Did you get that criticism too?” interjected Don, who had pulled up a chair behind Sam to join the conversation. “Some folks in my church think this is a vacation. Drives me nuts.”
“What gets me blistered,” Sam replied, “is all those twits who criticize us for going on these oversea trips.” He tossed a wadded up napkin at Wendy, which bounced off her and landed in front of Rick. “Hey, Wendy? What did that elder at our church say when we first proposed coming here?”
She squared her shoulders and narrated in a mechanical monotone: “Why go on foreign missions when there is enough work to do here the United States?”
“You know, of course, who the ones are who say that all the time? They’re the guys,” griped Sam, “who sit around on the fat asses and don’t do anything for anybody anywhere. Well, I have an easy answer for them. I say, ‘This is what I’ve chosen to do -- what are you going to do?’” Sam plunged into his tirade. “Hell, the only thing I’ve discovered in my brief tour through these years is how there’s two kinds of people in the world: those who weed the flower bed and those who let the poison ivy take over.”
“That’s pretty,” remarked Wendy.
“Fact is,” he continued, “there’s quite a few adults, and maybe some kids too, who I’d love to bring here and sweat them. Let me take them to the trash dump and let them sort through the feces to find a moldy chunk of tortilla for them to feed someone else. Let me have them sleep in the gutter near the bus station beside a glued-out adolescent, hooked to the damn glue because his mother had no other way to mask the hunger pangs and knock him out when he was a baby. Let me take them into the hills and have them pick coffee beans from 5:30 in the morning till late afternoon and get 50 cents for their hundred pounds. Let me take them to a village where the parents are grateful for a decent toilet in the school yard and hopeful that their children might learn to read.”
A cloud of sadness fell heavy across the table. Sam looked up at them red-faced. “Sorry, folks -- I didn’t mean to get carried away.”
Deb broke the tension by banging the kitchen door open with her rump. She pivoted into the dining hall rubbing her hands and sweeping her blonde hair away from her eyes. “What did I miss?” she asked.
Rick bent backwards and called out: “Here, Deb. Join us.” As he called out to her he reached behind Teresa to tap the top of the back-frame of the seat Tomás had vacated. “You’ll want to hear this. Teresa is telling about where we are working. You said you wanted your adventure. It seems as if we’re going someplace deep in the hills.”
Deb skipped to the table, delicately touched Rick’s shoulder, and sat down with an eager wiggle.
“They are a very poor people,” Teresa began explaining to her audience. “They have a school there but no teacher. It is very sad not to have a teacher. They have had no teacher for most of the year.”
“How do you mean, ‘no teacher?’” Rick asked.
“The government kept promising to send someone but no one comes. It is a village no one notices.”
“Can’t they hire someone?”
Sam interrupted: “You’re thinking gringo, Rick. How would they pay the teacher? I’m betting these people earn maybe $80 a year, if that. Subsistence farmers.”
“Sí,” Teresa confirmed. “The men and boys grow what they can on the plots they rent, but mostly they harvest coffee for the landlords.”
“Please tell them how much they earn,” Sam urged.
“Perhaps 20 Lempira for a day’s work in the field.”
Sam translated. “That’s about the price of two beers.”
“Dear Lord,” said Deb.
Sam’s voice dropped into a softer tone. “On my first trip to Central America -- that was part of a group working with Habitat for Humanity -- our group leader, Doug -- the fellow who taught me that Nicaraguan grace -- had us play a game of Monopoly. Except this game was Central American monopoly. He broke us up into six teams. Five teams of us received various envelopes of play money. As it turned out the sixth team had received 70% of the money. There was no way we were going to win, even when the five of us teamed up against them. Doug also let them keep changing the rules.” Sam cracked his fingers. “What they use down here isn’t play money.”
“It is better to ride on top of the elephant rather than walk in front of it,” quoted a melancholy Don.
“Or better than walking behind it,” added Wendy.
Deb spoke up: “I just couldn’t believe what I saw today. That little boy in the airport wouldn’t let go of my hand.”
“I love your heart, Deb. But please, do watch yourself. You’ll want to save all of them. The bitter truth is that you can’t save any of them. This trip could be very painful for you,” Sam warned. “It helps to keep it all very clinical. I promise you it can be very beautiful, but it also can be very brutal.”
“There is a terrible beauty here,” Rick commented softly. Catching himself, he looked over at Teresa. “So what’s the story with Tomás and that Carolyn?”
“Ah, Caro-leen Rosa. She has been here for six months now. She comes to us through Church World Service.” Teresa sensed why Rick was asking about her and felt the need to explain. “She really is a very fine person,” Teresa assured protectively. “I am glad you are here because she has been quiet for many weeks. I think she is very tired. I am glad she will help me this trip. I think you will be a fun group for her to spend a week.” Rick’s stomach tightened. “Yes,” Teresa said, “I believe she misses her home and her momma and papa. When she first arrived to be with us she was very excited. We all use to go out to laugh and dance in the clubs together, when we could. It must be difficult being so far from home.”
“And Tomás?” Rick pressed.
“Ah, yes. Tomás is . . .” Teresa hesitated. “ . . . a man of decision.”
“He is certainly Latin,” Deb purred.
“So am I,” protested Sam.
Wendy slapped his shoulder. “You’re a taco. Tomás is the whole enchilada, with guacamole sauce.”
Teresa continued as if she were reading from a script. “We are grateful to have a person of his skill and influence helping us with our work. He has much influence with the local municipalities. His father’s bank has provided many helpful loans.”
“Oh, Teresa, my dear, you are being polite,” Sam interrupted. “Forgive me, Teresa. You’re being careful about your place.” Sam folded his hands and placed them in front of him on the table. “Listen. Tomás is one of the gentry. His type plays Monopoly for real. I call them the ‘caballeros.’ I may be a dumb wetback but I’d rather that than some aristocrat. I’ll admit I may be misjudging him. ACC could use some influence and God bless him for being involved here. But I remember on my first trip how someone also came from the gentry. He lasted a day with us. I remember him looking at the folks we were working with and all the poverty and I overheard him saying how he just couldn’t imagine why these people chose to live this way. He didn’t know that I spoke the lingo. It has been my experience that guys like him just don’t get it. It’s like there’s some giant gulf between their world and everybody else here. How can I describe it? Here now, let me explain. There is a mall over in Tegucigalpa that beats anything we have in the States. Hell, you can buy a Lexus in the middle of the place. I went there last year trying to replace a pair of sunglasses I had broken. In one of the stores I found the identical pair, but it wasn’t as if I could afford them.”
Teresa, defensive, intervened. “Tomás has been with us now for a year. He has done much good.”
“And I’m real glad,” said Sam apologetically. “You know me. I’m just blowing hot air.”
“I would have thought that he’s exactly the kind of person who can really help ACC,” countered Rick. “He’s impressed me as someone with clout.” Rick tried to pin Teresa down. “Don’t you need that kind of influence? Top down is how things happen in countries like this. Right? Especially if he gets the local leaders active. Seems to me that is a good thing. Develop connections. More resources.”
They all stopped the moment they heard the sound of someone petulantly tapping a toe. They all looked up from their conversation to see Pastor Evelyn standing behind Rick’s chair. “If it is okay with you, Sam,” she said importantly, “it is now time to call everyone inside for devotions.”
At that exact moment, the smelly teenager banged the dining hall doors open, shouted “Fire!” then spun around, slamming the doors behind him. Two Honduran men, the caretakers of the compound, followed seconds later and walked over to Teresa. The first man leaned over and spoke in her ear. Sam tried to eavesdrop.
“Fire? What? What is it?” said Deb anxiously.
“Fuego en la montaña," Sam spat out.
“Huh?” asked Don.
“I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget. There’s one of those fires up in the hills behind us. Like the ones we saw driving in here.”
“You’re joking?” Rick probed. Sam shrugged in reply. “You’re not joking,” Rick concluded.
“A fire!” Deb exclaimed with alarm. “Do we need to evacuate?”
Teresa spoke calmly. “This happens very much. Our men will take care of it. It has been so dry, there has been no rain.”
“What about calling the fire department?” asked Evelyn, though it came out as more advice than question.
“We could try,” replied Teresa sincerely. “But I do think there would be no one there to answer the phone now.” She looked at Sam and Rick. “Reuben here asked if any of your men would like to help, it would be much appreciated. Reuben says they need to go to the ridge where they need to, what do you say? Make a path, a space?”
“A fire break,” Rick guessed.
Teresa nodded. “You know about these things.”
Rick shrugged. “Yup. A little. I used to be ‘volly,’ -- a volunteer fire fighter, I mean. My wife hated the smell of smoke in my clothes.” Rick tossed the wadded-up napkin at Sam. “What do you say, Sam? Shall we round up the boys? First night in Honduras. Sure, let’s go fight a fire. It makes perfect sense.”
“Hey, don’t be so chauvinistic,” said Wendy bouncing up from her chair and skipping around the end of the table. “I’m coming too.”
Rick screwed up his face at her and pointed down at her sandals. “Well, fine by me, Wendy-Lady. But I would recommend you change shoes.”
As soon as they stepped outside the dining hall the smell of burning brush filled their nostrils. The hill above Monte Carmelo glowed red. Yellow flickered behind the water tank. Sam rounded up those who were ready to climb into the hills and they met Rick at the shed where Reuben handed out their few shovels and rakes.
“Hey, guys,” Rick instructed. “There’s not enough tools to go around so form teams of two. One to hold a flashlight and the other to work the line. Don’t bother with the fire, just clear the brush out of the way. Did you hear me? I’m guessing it’ll burn itself out.”
The smelly teen along with Billy rushed to grab the shovel from Rick’s hands and dash up the path. “Calm down, boys,” Rick hollered after them, cupping his hands to his mouth. “Don’t rush! Follow the Hondurans. Follow their lead. They’ve done this before.”
But the boys ignored him. The smelly teen raced around one of the lodges toward the fire with Billy close at his heels. Suddenly, with a shriek, Billy slipped, fell through a bush, and tumbled down an unseen slope. The top of a thick tree snared him, preventing him from tumbling down into the ravine. By the time Rick, Don, and Sam reached him, he had crawled back up to the path. They hauled him up to his feet. Not bothering to brush himself off, he grinned and raced off uphill after the smelly boy.
Shining his flashlight after him, Sam started laughing. “These kids are nuts.”
“Tell me about it. And I have to teach them history.”
Two by two the impromptu gringo fire brigade climbed up the narrow path and spread out along the jagged hillside. Rick could see Larry scraping away the dry vegetation while Wendy held the flashlight for him to see. The red glow gradually increased to a glow of flickering yellow. Soon they could see flames creeping along as the fire consumed what little brown vegetation remained. Rick paused and cocked his ear for he thought he heard the faint song of a bird coming from the smoky hillside. It seemed to be calling out, but there was no reply. Few sounds are so forlorn as a bird singing for its mate and receiving no song in return.
Reuben, moving across the face of the slope behind the water tower, waved for Rick to bring his metal rake and join him. Rick struggled against the grade, grabbing roots and branches to keep himself from sliding downhill. At one point he had to climb under a barbed-wire fence, tearing a hole in the back of his shirt. Eventually he reached Reuben, who pointed toward the stretch where he wanted Rick to rake. Rick scanned back across the slope where he had come from. Spotting the lights from the flashlights Rick could see how the team had spread out along the top of the entire hillside. The fire seemed to be moving along the ridge rather than over the ridge toward the buildings. Reuben smiled at their success, then quickly frowned. He spoke rapidly. “¡Cuídate! he said intently. “Culebras.” Rick couldn’t pick it up. Reuben gestured at Rick by wiggling his finger. “¡Cuídate!”
“No comprendo,” Rick replied, frustrated that he couldn’t work the language better. He thought he could speak enough but obviously not when it really mattered.
Reuben winked at him, then, putting two fingers to his mouth, whistled. The other Honduran caretaker appeared at the edge of the hill, a silhouette against the red glow. Reuben whistled again and pointed back toward the lodge. Gently patting Rick on the back, Reuben shuffled back down the hill. Rick followed him feeling proud. A connection made.
Outside the tool shed, Rick found Sam helping the other Honduran caretaker collect and count the shovels and rakes. “Sam, help me here. Reuben was trying to warn me about something up there. I didn’t understand him. It seemed important.”
“I’ll ask.” Sam touched Reuben on the elbow and got his attention. They talked together in rapid Spanish. Sam slapped Reuben on the shoulder then turned to Rick.
Sam started laughing. “Boy, are we dumb.”
“He was warning you about the snakes.”
“The fire. The snakes.” Sam could barely squeeze the words out between coughs of laughter. “The snakes were running from the flames. Snakes here are nasty. Especially the little ones. Reuben was getting a little worried.”
Back at dormitory room #2, Sam and Rick sat side-by-side, hunched over on Sam’s bottom bunk. The other fellows in the room were trying to get to sleep but Rick could tell they weren’t really trying hard. Nobody was snoring yet.
“Lord, that was fun,” Rick said.
“As predicted. You never know what’s going to happen next. Welcome to Honduras.”
“Glad to be here.”
Don pushed open the door to the room, his face blackened from soot. “I had to pull that stupid kid out from another tree.” Don wiped his face with his handkerchief before throwing it on his bunk. “I believe it is time for a sip.”
“You brought something?” Rick asked greedily.
“You bet. Look.” Don reached into his duffle bag, found his toilet kit, pulled it out, un-zippered it, and removed a small pink plastic bottle normally used for storing shampoo. “Only the best. A little brandy. Want a sip?” Don said, offering the bottle to Rick and Sam.
Sam yanked the Penn State cap off his balding head, tossed it onto the pillow, reached under his bed, pulled out his duffle, shoved his hands into it, and pulled out two black cowboy boots. He turned them both upside down and poured out onto the wooden floor two fifths of bourbon. “I brought some too.”