George’s flesh burned, pinking him like a suckling pig.
Shade, any shade, felt good. And while the overhead awning had best intentions of blocking out the midday sun it was a little too thin, too warped and too rotted by all the salty air to be of any good. The sky devil slashed between slats of corrugated metal with beams of heat through missing bolt holes and the thinned, rusty overlays. George adjusted his knapsack again moving the straps as the shirt underneath was drenched in sweat playing the white man’s game of hike and burn. And losing.
He had never been in any place as humid as this either. Even the Chicago waterfront in summertime allowed a breath of cool wind now and again as it whipped across the lake. But here the noonday heat forced the wind off the face of the world with such a hatred it was motionless with fear.
George’s mother wore her newly acquired, wide-brimmed leather hat. The chin strap dangled as she kept watch over their diminutive heap of luggage. George watched as she eyed the porter who now couldn’t have cared less. His wide grin faded as he heaved a hotel-sized push cart their direction and found the pile of luggage was bigger than the tip he would likely get. George had also seen the man look him up and down, too, hadn’t he? The porter’s grin flipped in the opposite direction as George stepped from the cab. It was only a flash but George saw his eyes squint to size him up as his head turned in concentration.
It was a fleeting thought to George who stood facing a boat that could only be described as rickety. Somewhere across the waterway George hoped to escape the heat but like the metal structure overhead the boat, too, was well into giving it’s way back to the sea. George hoped not to join them at the bottom. Rusty and pock-marked with holes in the hull just above the waterline gave George the kind of pause expected any passenger who was accustomed to first world travel.
Along the shoreline earlier, through broken Spanish, George had ascertained the name of the island: Ixchel. “E-shell” he turned the consonants over in his head hoping it would translate to his lips should the time come to say it aloud.
According to the local Padre Ixchel had been the furthest reach of the Mayan empire. While he was aloof about the details it seemed the inhabitants had been conquered by the Spanish in what was likely a day trip. The locals, at that time anyway, had been praying to their goddess of fertility when the Spaniards came ashore. In what amounted to a light skirmish the land had converted from sanctuary of a Goddess to the more matriarchal subdued Isla Mujeres. Far less interesting in both pronunciation and mysticism, George thought.
Wandering the shoreline George had been able to find a number of boats that might be interested in passage down the coastline but when the deal was offered, to the island, it he got a customary wave off. The local Mayans frequently spat into the water when the topic was discussed. It seemed information was free but there would be no trips, at any price, to the island aboard private vessels.
When she finally awoke following George on his quest to gain passage they were regularly accosted upon asking. Near as George and Kathryn’s Spanish could discern each response was a maldicion. Their simple phrase book didn’t make it clear if the captains of rag tag boats were making light of their interest by cussing at them or proffering some amount of omen.
By chance Kathryn and George had found a local ferry boat that was due to drop locals at the island on it’s regular trip. Key would be packing all of their belongings as the next boat wouldn’t return for another week. Assured they would be able to find some type of lodging the two arranged for transport across the 20 kilometer waterway but each set of instruction was met with the same phrases and a spit at the ground.
Up the gangway Kathryn pushed the cart as their porter looked on. He did them the service of shouting to anyone who might be in the way. George watched the awkward combination of smart and dumb casters bobble the cart and worried the bag carrying his underwear might hit the deck spilling open as a breeze would carry his dungarees out to sea. With a pop they would each become miniature parasails and slide across the warped, sun bleached planks of the dock. Waiting passengers would gasp as each tighty-whitey spirited into the air and gently skimmed the incoming tide. Beyond the ferry terminal they’d rise higher and higher toward Cuba like reverse refugees.
With a final push and a quick call for help the porter relinquished his job to the deckhands aboard the boat. The bags were stowed and the porter stood at the edge of the dock, not interested in coming any further than the edge of the slatted metal walkway. Kathryn handed some cash to George to relay down to the man.
“Buena suerte con su pila de mierda” the porter said with a wry smile without the slightest sweat on his brow.
The ferry’s lower seating area, devoid of air conditioning, was filled with hard wooden benches and a mishmash of lonely faces from the mainland. Their eyes flicked toward the waterway at the tiny, dark speck on the bright blue water ahead. Mumbling to each other George could scarcely make out pieces of their hushed conversations. Parcels stacked chock-a-block throughout the crowd of mostly women. The few men who were among the crowd looked out the open windows as the boat rocked and picked up speed. Even with ventilation the humidity and stench wrinkled George’s nose and he was fully resolved not to sit there.
“I’m going up top” George whispered.
His mother smiled a “don’t go too far” smile that George only barely saw as he exited and rounded the doorway.
The stairs made a hollow, metallic thud with each step George took upward. The hot air of the lower deck left his skin as he emerged into the open, sun washed top. From there he could see the massive viewing tower of the port growing smaller in the distance. A few dozen benches topped the deck only sparsely filled with a handful of tourists.
The water below the ferry changed from a mostly opaque green to a crystalline blue. As speed picked up the wind warmly rushed across George’s face. He felt the air began to cool and dry the sweat from his face.
From this vantage point he could see the length of the island ahead. George held out his hands and closed one eye as if navigating from his own sextant. His arms stretched palms out making two L-shapes he could hold the whole island between his fingers. He fished the instant camera out of his knapsack, leveling himself against the railing to capture the island in the distance. The camera whirred as it spat out a print which George stuffed into the backpack.
The ferry, now in open water between the mainland and the island, rocked more from side to side. A scatter of tourists sat on top looking at one another as the boat tossed a bit into the wind. Some laughing, drink in hand, only a few beginning to look sick from the chop.
George grabbed the handrail to steady himself watching two dark-skinned kids strap guitars around their necks at the front of the boat. In practiced cadence each strummed their instruments to check tune. Their voices chimed in together as they welcomed the “bisitors” and counted off their song.
George smiled at their bravado. These two kids, nearly his age, played well and sang loudly over the wind and noise of the boat.
“Oh jeah I…I wanna tell you sumthin’” they sang. As George listened his smile grew wide watching them stand at the front of the crowd and belt out this Beatles mainstay. The music sounded like an old radio as the wind carried it in and out of earshot.
The ferry swayed with the waves jostling George hard against the rail. In his mind he imagined being thrown overboard. He would drop quickly out of sight as his call for help would be drowned out by the chug of the boat. George would find himself in open water surrounded by jellyfish and sharks. His hands would sting as he batted the floating jellies while the sharks would begin nibbling at his toes, taking them one at a time until there was nothing left.
His mother would be too occupied with the baggage to notice him missing until she sat down. And, perhaps a week or two later would call out to him with no reply. Her brow would furrow, she’d call again, but he wouldn’t come. Never frantic, his mother would simply assume a posture of indignation and, as she had with George’s father, close off that portion of her life. It would become as footnote, a sigh in a matter-of-fact conversation.
“I hope he’s doing well. I wish him the best.” She’d say, looking off into the winds.
George snapped to watching the island draw closer. Soft white sand beaches retreated into the undergrowth and up into the hills beyond. The green of the plants was inviting down low but changed to deep and mysterious the further inland he could see.
The two musicians, who often called out their own names — Riko and Palle — tried to harmonize as best they could on the cusp of pubescence. Their slapdash rendition of “I wanna hold your hand” was full of, what was the word, George thought? Gusto.
These were only half right to George as he watched the two make their way across the top deck and through the scatter of passengers.
“I’m Palle! We wanna spend your tiiiiipsss.” he sang to a man making them both laugh. The pasty man put down his Sol beer and fished a few coins from his pocket. George took out his instant camera and pointed at the duo as they came close.
Palle, the older of the two and lead guitarist, made his way down the aisle dipping his tip bag in and around the passengers. George snapped a photo just as both turned their back and faced away. Damn, he thought.
One couple tried to ignore Riko with a feigned smile but Palle persisted by slyly dipping up and down toward them then again turned his back to the couple and backing quickly into them. He shimmied up to the woman who was sitting along the aisle. She couldn’t hold it in and giggled as she elbowed her husband for some cash.
Palle turned around and bowed low putting the satchel in easy arms reach while he continued to play.
The other, Riko, stood adjusting his guitar’s burlap strap. He continued to strum away as he made his way down the aisle on the other side of the boat.
“We wanna spend your tiiiiips!” the two sang in chorus.
Palle looked over his shoulder and with a big toothy smile shouted, “My brother! Take it away Riko!”
Riko launched into a solo. He changed the pace of the song turning it more flamenco. As he seemed to flick at the strings he also used the railings to tip-tap-tap other rhythms in between bigger strums making his guitar sound crazy and almost tropical at the same time.
George noticed as Riko was working around people during his solo his footwork wasn’t all dance. He was using his bare feet to open the passenger bags set on the ground. As he would push up against people they would back away, laughing and looking at their friends never noticing his toes pulling their wallet out of the bag.
Riko would spin and with the deftness of a soccer player swiping a wallet across the aisle to Palle. The two had the tourists mesmerized never noticing one was sending and the other receiving goods. George watched each push the trinkets into a box neatly tucked under one seat, nobody the wiser.
George was astounded by the simplicity of it. He turned to his mother who was laughing at the absurdity of the two kids and didn’t notice them stealing.
As the boat began to dock Palle and Riko walked their show back toward the stage finishing out the song with one last sustained “ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaaaaandd!”
Riko turned his guitar upside down and shouldered a few belonging from the stage while Palle slung his guitar over his back. The two never broke character and kept the audience clapping as they walked right past everyone toward the back staircase, grabbing the box in stride as if it were a piece of equipment.
The crowd continued clapping and a few people whistled as the two disappeared down the steps to the lower level. Show and a steal. Welcome to Ixchel, George thought.
George considered saying something to his mother but didn’t. lThe do-gooder in her she would just ruin the day for a couple of kids who were already doing every shop in every port town do. At least these people got a show and a laugh for their trouble.
George leaned over the railing just in time to see Palle and Riko leap from the boat onto the dock. A porter, arms piled with boxes, was knocked sideways but continued on, never looked back.
That’s right, you never look back if you’re on the run, do you? Riko and Palle didn’t.