A short story
“In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Since his wife’s menomorphosis turned their world upside-down (or rather leftside-right and right-left), Gregory Sama’s life was one of monotony. Which is how he liked it. Too much excitement wasn’t a good thing for a man his age and in his physical condition.
During Alma’s strange episode, she switched all her habits from left to right and right to left: her sleeping side of their bed, how she wore her purse, her eating hand. She even bought a car with the wheel on the right and then drove it into the side of their garage.
Since then, Gregory had retreated into a safe, silent world — the refuge of Balbo’s library.
It was the only place to go in his sleepy Ontario town. Balbo’s forward-thinking fathers had managed to secure millions of public dollars, thanks to sitting government members at both the provincial and federal levels following the 2018 and ’19 elections who helped them build a new, ultra-modern library.
The hexagonal three-storey structure’s top floor was devoted to fiction, each wall representing a continent containing the best it had to offer within its borders. The second floor held non-fiction and followed the same pattern. The first floor was all computers and technological devices as well as a Tim Hortons kiosk and spiral staircase that rose up through the centre.
Considerable debate had filled the press about the number of continents that should be represented. Six ultimately won the day, with city council convincing the public that Europe and Asia should be separate while the Americas were one.
The library opened a few months ago to great fanfare and proudly bore the slogan: “Balbo’s Total Library: The World Welcomes You.”
Gregory was in the Americas room thumbing through One Hundred Years of Solitude. Feeling sleepy, his eyes tried to follow Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s tale before watering over into a dreamy haze as he started reading words between the lines.
Such a funny expression, reading between the lines. In pictures, that’s all you did: take in what was between the lines. Or was that just an illusion? Maybe looking at what was drawn by an artist within the lines of his canvas frame was just a mirage meant to take you elsewhere. Like the Mayan zodiac calendar which hung on the wall in front of him and told him his astrological sign was Kame, which means death. Or those strange illustrations he’d seen in a sign outside the restaurant at the resort he and Alma had stayed at following her episode.
The illustrations on the sign made them chuckle, as they exchanged possible meanings for each one: bleeding arm man, no feet allowed, man with gun, and single-breasted women not welcomed. The only recognizable symbol was the last: no smoking.
Through that word mirage of his book, Gregory had found himself walking through the doors again of the restaurant and, like a character in an episode of The Twilight Zone, entering another dimension, another place and time. Who was that actor again? Vic Morrow. In the 1983 movie version of the TV series he played a racist, bitter hard-luck businessman whose anger over losing a job promotion to a Jew turned into a rant against all visible minorities.
“I’m an American! I’m an American, does that mean anything anymore?” shouted out Morrow whose real-life hell on the set turned out to be as final as his fate in the movie — he was killed in a stunt helicopter crash during its filming.
In the movie, he walks out of a bar and into another dimension: another place, Nazi Germany, and another time. Like Morrow, Gregory found himself in another place-time: Mexican time.
“Aaargh! My hand! What happened to my fucking hand?” he screamed.
Standing at the door of the shanty, Gregory looked down at his severed left hand and saw the blood pooling onto the floor around him. Feeling faint, he steadied himself from falling with his right hand against an old wooden table.
“Chico, d’you not looking too good,” said the restaurant owner, Juan Antonio, who help him sit down in a chair. “And d’you making a mess on my floor.”
He motioned one of his servers to bring over a towel, quickly, which he wrapped around Gregory’s left stump.
“Ambulance. Doc-tor. Call…for help,” Gregory whispered the words and felt his strength seeping out of him with every drop.
“No, no, no Chico,” Juan Antonio said. “Here we no call emergencia because la policia come. No good when la policia come.”
Juan Antonio started telling him of a run-in with some officials but his words swirled around Gregory like a fog. The scene in front of Gregory started to fade as he felt his body slump like a drunken man falling into a stupor, the words “d’you awright?” coming at him, sounding like he was being mistaken for a Jew. Like the Morrow character.
Gregory opened his eyes one last time and looked down at the floor, next to the pool of blood at his right shoe-less foot.
At their Paradisus Blue Bay Mayan resort, Gregory and Alma were startled when they stepped out of the pool, dripping wet, and saw Ferdnando standing in front of them, holding a towel.
“Hola,” he said, a slanted smile on his unshaven face as he bit down on a toothpick. Gregory thought: If looks could kill…
Ferdnando had been the driver of the shuttle that took them to their resort from Cancun airport. Gregory had no pesos or, worse, no American dollars on him so he’d managed a quick getaway in the lobby without being seen. Until now.
“¿Cómo estás?” That smile again.
Gregory bolted, leaving behind his sandals and Alma at the poolside. He burst through an alcove that led to their thatch-covered building and his right foot landed in a basin of warm water where a woman’s hands started gently caressing it, cupping some of the liquid and spreading it over his foot with her fingers.
“Señor, d’you ha to put both feet in,” Ximena said as she sat him down.
The letter x in Mexico fascinated Gregory. It was everywhere — on road signs, in people’s names, on business signs. In the country’s name.
“Here, the letter heh we say he or hi — like Mehico. So my name is He-mena,” she explained, the throaty pronunciation adding masculine muscle that was at odds with her sultry, female form.
“D’you know, Jesús did this to his — how you say? — discípulos,” she said, motioning to the washing of his feet. “Justo before his death.”
Ximena looked up at him with big, brown eyes. Gregory, red-faced, placed a forearm down to cover his lap. He started to fall into a swoon and caught glimpses of this strange den he found himself in. Nearby, several other men sat on stools, their feet inside basins and women at their heels. On the walls were the Stars and Stripes and placards that read, “Make America Great Again.” All the signs on the wall were in English.
Just where in the hell was he?
Between shuttered glimpses, Gregory thought he saw Ximena reach out with her left hand toward a dagger etched with symbols while her right hand seized hold of his ankle.
Gregory’s eyes jolted wide open.
“I remember you very well sir. You were sitting on a chair at a table in the outdoor patio at your resort. You had just taken a photo of an agouti, which some people with smaller minds have confused with our superior species. They are vile vermin and should be exterminated! You looked up to see me scurrying along the roof ridge of the Paradisus Blue Bay Mayan. You pointed and several other resort guests started to look up and take pictures before I was gone.”
He spoke perfect English, which wasn’t as surprising as the fact that he spoke at all. He was a coati or coatimundi, which comes from the raccoon family, not a rodent like the lowly agouti.
He stood before Gregory on his hind legs and addressed him like a perfect gentleman. His tail curled behind him, the coati wore pince-nez and a tuxedo vest. One hand rested on a cane with an ornate big ball that had some fancy symbols etched on top that Gregory couldn’t make out.
The coati — he called himself Daniel — was referring to rodents like the one Gregory captured in a photo during his trip to the resort with Alma. Usually, the agoutis would fill the grounds at dusk and start feeding and occasionally you would find one or two inside the forested, canopy trail that led from the hotel lobby down to the pool — a place safe from humans. Occasionally, you would find a brave one venturing out near crowds and that’s when he took out his camera to catch the moment.
“A three-piece band was playing La Cucaracha, going from table to table and looking for handouts from the rich Americans and Canadians. Putas!” Daniel spat out. “Their very sustenance is predicated on the crumbs that fall from your table, especially since the Dark Times engulfed us.
“Like the rodents you thought cute enough to capture in your photograph Gregorio,” he said using Gregory’s Italian birth name (and how did he even know his name?). “Ah, but you didn’t know then that the very same agouti whose image you downloaded on to your computer and shared with friends and family ended up on your plate later that night. Yes, while you sat down at La Terraza later that night to a meal of what you thought was grade-A Mexican beef, you in fact were gorging on agouti. The same agouti I hunted down, fatally bit in the neck and then sliced up and had placed on a plate and brought to you on a platter. The beast’s impaled head was planted on the beach in front of your resort and from the pool it looked like a pig’s head with a halo of flies like a crown of thorns. I do hope you enjoyed your feast.”
From where he stood, Daniel could see the Adam’s apple in Gregory’s throat rise and drop and he could tell he was trying to stop his stomach from heaving. The feeling reminded Gregory of that other more serious event, his heart attack, which he had mistaken for heartburn.
“In retrospect, those were the good days,” Daniel said, grunting a laugh. “Imagine that! Even us poor Mexicans enjoyed the niceties of modern life then, like cellphones. The poorest of the poor still had their own iPhone, iPad or iWatch. And although the connections were spotty, we had wifi — you remember it on the resort! Today, we run around barefoot in the dark.”
Daniel paused, cleared his throat and continued.
“The agouti represents the evil that robbed us of all that. That’s why my little agouti friend — he squealed like a pig when I sunk my teeth into its heart — ended up on your plate Gregorio.” He winced and tasted something acrid on his tongue as he heard his name again . “And that’s why I served him up to you and your dear, sweet Alma.”
A slight volcanic eruption in his stomach, but Gregory stopped the full explosion.
“I will admit I didn’t know what to do about that nasty little business that came out of its nether regions. They say you expel waste when you die. I guess it’s the same with tiny rodents. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, so I just decided to fry it all up together in a pan. Waste not, want not eh?”
Finally, the heave. The violence. The expulsion. Gregory succumbed to the full eruption, feeling his entire inner being spewing up and out of the top of his head, his eyes bulging to bursting then looking down to see what came out, how it looked like a round pattern of hieroglyphics, before falling flat on his face.
Days like this, Gregory felt like time had stopped and the world opened up to him like one big vista on a desert highway that leaves behind the hurly-burly of crazy city life with all its tensions and daily deadlines and politics to reveal a quiet expanse, a peaceful Eden. One with cobblestone roads and clay tile roofs. And palm trees. All those tall palms, their leaves swaying in the breeze like the hands of God keeping His creation cool and content.
Even the Sinaloa Crows offered a curious kind of peace and serenity. The jet-black bird that stalked the resort reminded him of Poe’s raven, with its dark demeanour and look of foreboding, but its fanned-out tail was impressive and if you could accept its crow-cry, it was almost a thing of beauty.
A short distance away was the sound of waves crashing against the shore, the balmy breezes, the music over the speakers accompanying the aqua aerobics, the mounds of food and endless streams of margaritas, pina coladas and Coronas.
Gregory felt a queasiness but managed to quell it.
He lay there in a hammock with his girl — his high school sweetheart. Alma had overcome a difficult year with grace, strength and dignity. The loss of his job. She went through the change and that strange interlude of switching all her habits from left to right, right to left. She also underwent breast augmentation late in life only to find she had cancer and had to have a mastectomy. Alma handled that too with courage and maturity, unlike him. Even when they lost their son Dante to mental illness following that episode, she persevered and so did their marriage. They celebrated by using up their scant savings and flying to this resort on the Mayan Riviera.
Swinging gently with Alma, his eyelids grew heavy and he thought that life could not be sweeter than this. He nodded off and dreamed that Alma had sunk and disappeared in the hammock before he jolted awake to the sweet swaying in the breeze.
The respite didn’t last. The band struck up La Cucaracha and tiny Antonio, the teenage pool boy with the cleft lip who was at the service of Gregory ever since he was given a peso tip, ran up to the couple and pointed toward the winding, canopied trail that led to the exit of their gated resort.
“Señor! D’you and la señora must leave now. Bad man coming. Gringo. Very bad. A bus is waiting to take you and the other guests!”
Gregory and Alma didn’t hesitate. They raced through the darkened pathway, leaving behind their sandals, and came to a stop at the portico leading into the hotel lobby where awaiting them was a small bus — the “d’yellow bus” that Antonio had told them to look for. They boarded in a rush and other hotel guests filled the empty seats.
The bus raced through the long, winding street and out the front gates of the resort.
The bus driver then stopped abruptly and ordered all the passengers to get out and board another bus parked nearby. It was a local transit vehicle, one used in Playa del Carmen — a rickety, creaky collection of metal, bolts and rivets on wheels. The driver, who went by the name of Johnny Tequila, pulled a u-turn at the main road outside the resort and sped away.
He raced his Centro bus through the streets as if being followed in hot pursuit. Gregory and Alma and the rest of the passengers bounced and bumped inside the vehicle, feeling every lurch of gear and lunge forward. Over the driver a sign asked passengers to not “moleste” him. They chuckled when they first read that on an earlier bus ride in Playa del Carmen. They weren’t laughing now.
The Centro bus bounced violently over the speed bumps that marked the way on the road toward the exclusive resorts and condominiums. (“Condoms,” their driver Eduardo called them earlier, much to Gregory and Alma’s delight. “We have lots of condoms here,” he said. “I bet you do,” Alma said.) Eduardo had complained about all those speed bumps as he drove from the airport to the resort. (“We have too many bumps on our roads,” he said. “If you want a souvenir from here, take one of our bumps.”)
After the last of those speed bumps, Gregory felt the bus hit what he thought was another one but heard a squeal beneath its wheels.
The driver didn’t stop and would not answer questions from the confused passengers : Where are you taking us? What’s happening? Why are you driving so fast? He only stopped to change drivers — a tall, thin Mexican with a pencil moustache took over for the rumpled, squat Johnny Tequila with handlebar whiskers who started them off on their wild ride.
All day and into the night, the bus rolled through Mexico: west and south through the Yucatan peninsula, then on through to Veracruz and starting on the northward journey into dirty, crowded Mexico City. It rumbled through the Mexican no-man’s lands and busy populated centres.
The bus stopped once more at a gas station and for a driver change the next day, then continued up north — through Monterrey with all its American manufacturing plants until Gregory saw signs for Laredo, Texas. As night fell upon them again, the bus slowed and struggled over rough terrain again, through the dark underbrush that grew next to the Rio Grande. Finally, it rumbled to a stop and the driver motioned the weary, frazzled passengers to exit.
Gregory staggered out and saw Fernando standing there, his back against a giant wall. He smiled his crooked smile, toothpick clenched between his teeth. The moonlight glinted off the gold molar at the back of his mouth.
“Amigos, d’you ha’ reached de end of de line. D’you must now cross over.”
Gregory looked past his finger to the wall Fernando pointed toward and then up to the very top. He felt that tight tension again in his chest.
“Are you fucking kidding me? How in hell are we supposed to get over that wall? And do you know what’s waiting on the other side?”
No sooner had he finished talking than another Mexican crawled out of the underbrush and hoisted a ladder against the wall.
“¡Ándale! Hurry!” the man shouted, motioning the passengers one by one to the ladder. Gregory and Alma were first in line.
He let his wife go ahead, trying to convince her that everything would be okay and he would watch her back. Gregory went to kiss Alma but Ferdnando pulled her away and forced her to start scaling the ladder.
Alma got to the top of the wall where she faced a blaze of bright lights and what felt like a hail of hot fire and lead. Gregory was close behind. Then he too saw the night split open with light. He swore he saw stars and stripes before falling forward once again.
Gregory found himself on the ground clutching the Mayan zodiac piece that had fallen from its place on the wall of the library. The building was empty. Slowly, he stood up and tried to remember where he was.
He stumbled out of the Americas room and jumped on to the spiral staircase where he made his descent.
Down two floors to the foyer and then bursting out the front doors, Gregory fled from that six-sided nightmare. He went to slam the door behind him, forgetting it was state-of-the-art hydraulics that cushioned its closing and the only thing that snapped was the socket in his shoulder. Windmilling his arm as he winced in pain, he walked down the leafy path that led to the street and away from Balbo’s Total Library.
From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a small furry creature pivot on his path and disappear.