A Hair-Raising Tale ***
- - from the Spanish Main
A SHORT-TERM LOAN
By: Lorenzo Dee Belveal
Between the two of us we are worth something like eight-million dollars.
It might seem that such a sum should be more than sufficient for the needs of two men of the world whose habits, while not Spartan, can neither be described as flamboyant. And I would agree were it not for the fact that, except for about two-hundred dollars, the entire eight-million belongs to my friend across the table.
Meet Carmichael Xavier Brackenshaver; "Ceex" - as he prefers to be addressed. Combining nearly unimaginable affluence, handsome features, impressive physique and an almost-professional virtuosity on the twelve- string Spanish-guitar, he stands as one of the preeminent products of fickle and unfeeling fate. Indeed, Exhibit-A in my long-running case against the bald favoritism of outrageous fortune.
These dark thoughts fill my mind as Ceex and I sit in a dispirited, almost empty bar in San Pedro Sula; in the economically, spiritually and culturally undeveloped Republic of Honduras. The premises are comprised of a wood floor, and smoke-coated walls upon which hang a pair of bullfight posters and an heroic-sized coca-cola sign. A clutch of dusty artificial flowers adorns the cluttered back-bar, flanked by a couple dozen liquor bottles and a woven straw replica of a splay-legged horse and a drooping rider.
A worn-out bicycle leans against the rear wall, visibly mourning the loss of it's seat and front wheel. Two tired overhead fans make a half-hearted effort to stir up the musty atmosphere.
Should you wonder what two multi-millionaires (if averages applied) are doing in such a place, may I hasten to state that Ceex is responsible. He says he likes the "rustic feeling" it offers, which will document the fact that, for all of his wealth, his tastes can bear upgrading. It is to this end that I struggle with him.
Mr. Willliam C. Fields, savant, sage, epigramicist, and an inspiring example of what I would like to be when I grow up, once commented on the uneven condition of things by remarking, "What a pity that youth should be wasted on children." I shall now expand that train of thought by adding, "or that great wealth be lavished on the unimaginative!"
In Ceex's case even his musical ability blossomed without an iota of encouragement in the form of organized study. "A gift" is the way he explains it. To which I add, "along with your money, your blue eyes and splendid physique." But, although it rankles, I have held my peace.
Even as the albatross of impecuniosity hovers over my
shoulder, I have maintained a studied civility with Ceex, possessor of
more money than he can count, much less spend!
An unfortunate product of the most informal arrangements, his mother alternated between picking apples and packing smelt in the Evergreen State of Washington - and a father who was either a railroad brakeman or a tinkerer in a local repair shop, depending on which explanation you prefer. I have heard both.
From these origins of shame and privation, Ceex rose like a modern phoenix to his pinnacle of personal and financial attainment. From the very abyss of abandonment and poverty, with no hand raised in his behalf save his own, he had - through an unlikely co- joining of ventures in blackberry vending., shoehorns and buttonhooks, contraband smoking materials and timely flight - arrived in Honduras a few weeks previously with a king's ransom in cash, a Fleetwood Cadillac, and a palatial house-trailer that fills me with prurient envy just to think about it.
It should be noted here that Ceex resides in a ten-room
penthouse atop the tallest building in our city. The house-trailer is
only used for the staging of short-term carnal encounters; thus
avoiding the long wait that is a uniform characteristic of Central -
For reasons dealt with in greater detail in another account, Ceex had pressed the search for his change into the interior of his serving- maid's skimpy lower garment, occasioning, as might well be imagined, a ruckus of some proportions. (The lass may have been a product of gentle breeding, unused to such brash encounters. However I am more inclined to chalk her strong reaction up to either ticklishness or feigned protectiveness of an otherwise much-spent virtue.)
Howsomever, suffice it to say that out of the purest persuasions of sympathy for a beleaguered countryman, I went to his support. Through a combination of my almost flawless Spanish - of which language Ceex knows not a word - and consummate dollar-diplomacy, I was able to extricate the panty-marauder unscathed.
Properly grateful, he insisted on making a down-payment on his
obligation to me in the form of drinks and a sumptuous repast in a
pleasant public-house in our adopted city.
Although a product of a good stock and a natural bent to semantic intellectualism, I have been able to learn anything that interested me, with the single regrettable exception of how to make money. The accumulation of wealth has persistently eluded me.
On at least a half-score of painfully-remembered occasions, Dame Fortune has been within a merest whisper of succumbing to my blandishments. Each time, however, some last-minute reticence has robbed me of the bliss of consummation. As a result., alas, my nearly five decades of life have as often as not been spent hanging on the narrow ledges of financial embarrassment that scar the face of Mount Success.
While having never taken the full plunge, there have been some near things. Although never forced to drink the bitter cup of abject poverty, it has been close enough to my unwilling lips as to make its repugnant stench all too familiar. It was at such a time that this tale attends. In the vernacular of the moderns, I was afflicted in the region of the wallet with a serious case of the 'shorts'.
Expending physical effort in return for direct payment is an altogether admirable thing when practiced by those who know no better. But I also hold to the conviction that the aristocratic example is not without social benefit. How else are the laboring classes to keep the vision of self- improvement in focus before them, unless there are those of us who - by admonition and example - direct them along the high-road to the indolent pleasures of accumulated wealth., and its attendant hedonistic rewards?
It is for these reasons - rather than with any sense of denigrating the values of honest toil, that I have steadfastly devoted the larger part of my lifetime to the avoidance of physical exertion; except as it tends to accelerate the improvement of mankind in general -- and simultaneous elevation of my own personal spirit, in particular.
If such a philosophy be deemed evidence of fecklessness or lack of industry, I shall demur -- and continue to chart my course through the rocks and shoals of easier opportunity. Through a sea, let it added, uncontaminated by perspiration resulting from unseemly engagements on my part.
Ceex, on the other hand, stands as my opposite in all such respects. While having the financial ability to afford almost any degree of self- indulgence, he takes pleasure in what he calls 'working-out'. On two well-remembered occasions, I observed him carefully hang his shirt on a light-pole, borrow a shovel from a a city workman and eagerly join in the excavation of a great hole in the middle of a public thoroughfare. He justifies this strange behavior on the basis of "enjoying a good sweat."
His tastes in pleasure are only slightly less plebeian. Except for the opulence of his penthouse, his luxury automobile, and that magnificent trailer-house - that totally outstrips my poor powers of description - he conducts himself with all the dash and elan of a hardware salesman.
His attire, though quite acceptable in the ordinary sense,
fails utterly to reflect the imagination and innovation that his
station in life justifies. Nay, cries out for!
Only his drinking habits are, to my appraising eye, adequate.
A man who drinks scotch whiskey can't be written off completely. And
while I lament his predilection to what I consider an undistinguished
label, he holds it adequately - and in impressive quantities.
As it should now be abundantly clear, I consider Ceex something of a protoge. If all eventuates as I hope it shall, Ceex will be something of an inheritor of the wisdom I have gleaned from a life, if not at all times exemplary, at least never describable as commonplace.
"You're not talking much today," Ceex declared, as he swiped at a large green fly and missed.
"Thinking, my friend. Pondering. Examining the whimsies of blind circumstance and unforseeable destiny that have set me down in this sink-hole of ennui , to be a close observer of people with whom I can not identify - and who are engaged in activities that fail to interest me."
"That's your problem.," Ceex replied. "You spend so much time thinking you miss a lot. For example," he nodded toward the almost deserted bar, "have you had a look at the chick on the barstool up there by the cash-register?"
"I note that a pubescent girl is occupying that position," I replied offhandedly. "Does she interest you for some reason?"
"Two reasons," he said with a lecherous grin. "Get a load of those tits!"
"Ceex.." I replied with the cold edge on my voice, "you will learn as our association progresses - if it does - that while yielding to no one in the enjoyment of carnal pleasures, I consider the fairer members of our human family deserving of unvarying respect in public and the most attentive consideration in private. For example, I know the difference between a 'chick' and a young lady: They are both bipeds, but only one of them will reach adulthood with a full covering of feathers.
Another distinguishing characteristic that should aid you in classification: Chicks do not have protuberant breasts, and young ladies do!" I paused for emphasis. "As for teats, which you insist on mispronouncing, they are found on four-legged animals. Young ladies have breasts, as I noted earlier. You will oblige me to bear these anatomical features in mind in the future." He heard me out with mild detachment.
"Teats, breasts or tits," he intoned, "I would still like to bite my initials into them -- and then kiss them until they got all well again." He turned back to face me. "But she's probably a whore."
"And you are certainly a fool!" I exploded.
"You dont think shes a hustler?" he inquired quizzically.
"Not only do I not think so," I replied hotly, "but I am prepared to wager against it. Your trouble Ceex, is that you see everything, and observe nothing. Indiscriminate lust blinds you to evidence that would - to a more perceptive lecher - serve as reliable travel instructions to delights you can now hardly imagine. Be assured, my blind friend, she is not a courtesan in any ordinary sense of the term. Although it must be ruefully posited that all women are, for reasons lost in the unknown labyrinths of our genes, vendors of their own bodies."
"How, are you so goddam sure?" he shot back. "Do you know her?"
"Personally? Not at all." I inspected the object of his interest as he signaled the big-bellied bartender for another pair of drinks.
"She is a pleasant-faced little sausage, but I think I an seeing her for the first time in my life. However, dear Ceex, she is a familiar replica of hundreds of other maids who, man and boy, elicited some degree of interest on my part. She is a standard model, shall we say. Having stipulated that, I can now go further and tell you that I do indeed know her well. Our acquaintance goes back thirty years at least." Our libations arrived as he observed me through eyes limned in disbelief.
"She isn't anything like that old," he pointed out.
"What matter?" I asked. "I knew her before she was born. Perhaps before her mother was born." I tasted my drink. The whiskey had been drowned in a sea of half-chilled water. I downed it at a single draught rather than force it a little at a time. "Gad! What poison they serve here." I complained.
"Would you like something different?"
"If you please, Ceex. Only this time would you instruct the landlord to exactly reverse the proportions of whiskey and water - and I could make do with a sliver of ice, if such innovation has penetrated this deeply into the jungle." Ceex summoned the attendant and carefully relayed my recipe.
"Tell me a-bout the girl," he urged. "I think you're bullshitting me."
"That term is abhorrent among gentlemen.," I snapped. "You will discover as you come to know me better - if you do - that I am a man of inherent probity and verbal exactitude. What I declare to be truth is not so-labeled lightly. There are, Ceex., yet a few of us who have the preciseness of language to enable us to say what we mean, and the personal substance to mean what we say. I am one of those. Now, Sir, I shall have your apology - or bid you good day. What is your pleasure?"
"Aw, hell.," he stammered, "I didn't mean anything by what I said. It just doesn't seem to me that you could know anything about that little doll at the bar, if you never saw her before." I tacitly accepted his apology with a nod of my head, wet my throat with the much- improved potion before me and resumed.
"To begin, Ceex, observe the costume of the "little doll," as
you call her. The black and white shoes, white knit half-hose, blue
skirt and white blouse. Her attire, my friend, is so oft-repeated in
the streets of this benighted city as to suggest it as a uniform of
sorts. The pubescent practice of adopting fads in clothing leads me to
a firm conclusion that the object of your prurient interest is a mere
high-school student; which, if true, leaves you open to a charge of
"Let us now come to the matter of visible means of support. "You suggested earlier on., the likelihood of her being a woman of the streets. Not so, say I! First, she probably lacks the fundamental good sense required to make any kind of success in the fleshly engagements. Secondly, she sits at the bar - in close proximity to the nerve-center of this establishment; the cash-register. A prostitute would never do this!
"A prostitute would be at the side of the room, with her back to the wall. Such positioning would enable her to cast her eyes unobtrusively in either direction and pick up the signals of potential clients. This is basic procedure, dear Ceex! A vendor does not offer merchandise with her back to the tip. Eyes-front is the cardinal rule.
"Finally, please note the man who serves us is making change out of is pocket. Do you need more to identify him as the owner of this disreputable dive?" Ceex nodded in agreement,
"Note further, if you will, the nascent duplication of the flat, high forehead of our host, in the young lady on yon stool. Also, that the bartender ignores her - and she, him." I drained my glass.
"No. Ceex, your diagnosis will not hold up under professional scrutiny. I read the symptoms thusly: The 'little doll' is in her eighteenth or nineteenth year of life, and not yet finished with her secondary schooling. She is, as we say, an under-achiever. Her father is the proprietor of this house; and is - if I read the asperity of their relationship correctly -- less than pleased with his daughter's accomplishments to date. In due reciprocity, she is not the doting child that Louisa Alcott painted in such fetching tones." I sat back and waited for Ceex to order another brace of fresheners for us, which he did.
"Hell," he said., "that could all be true, but she could just as easy be a whore trying to stay in out of the sun. Why don't I call her over here and see what happens."
"If you need certification of my appraisal," I demurred, "you shall have it. But it will come from her father. Will that satisfy your most exacting requirements for authentication?"
"Yeah.," he replied, smiling broadly, "but if that guy really is her old man., we better be ready to fight!"
"Ever the direct actionist," I reprimanded. "Take notes as I show you how to glean information from an unwitting source."
The bartender returned to our table with the two drinks in one ham- sized fist, and a towel that prayed for laundering in the other. He leaned over the table and swabbed it down with the gray cloth.
"Innkeeper," I addressed him jovially, "my friend and I have a slight disagreement concerning the young lady seated by your cash- box. I say she is your daughter, on the basis of what is to me a clear family resemblance. Am I wrong about this?"
"You're right about that," he acknowledged. "She's mine. Got five more, too! Hell of a bunch of kids, I'll tell you, Mister!"
"A house-full, I'll warrant." I replied, "and responsibilities to match - what with clothes and education at today's prices."
"You can say that again, Mister!" our host concurred emphatically, "and it's worse when they don't want to study."
"Are you saying your daughter doesnít enjoy school?"
"No. Didn't say that. She likes it just fine. She must!" He stood erect and looked me in the eye. She's damn near twenty years old and still going to high school - she's got to like it! --But I've told her that whether she graduates or not., this is the last year. When this term ends, she's through! She's gonna come to work cause, goddam it, I gotta have me some help!"
"I can understand your feelings," I said thoughtfully.
"Yeah," he growled., adjusting the glasses before us, "but you know what she says? She says she wants to go to another school -- to study art, for Chrissakes! That's what she says. Leavin' me here to run this joint by myself. Kids today ain't no damn good, Mister. None of 'em wants to work!"
As the unhappy father returned to his lookout station behind the bar, Ceex spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. "You had it right," he granted grudgingly, "but I still don't see how you put it all together. Maybe I need my eyes checked."
"Exactly," I replied. "Modesty, it has been said, is the first rung on the ladder of learning. You have much to learn, Ceex, and by fortuitous circumstance, I have much to teach you. In that vein -- by way of furthering your education, it would be my pleasure to have your company on a short junket to the coastal town of Trujillo. I find it a bit on the rustic side, but a pleasant place, withal. Abounding., might I add as a form of enticement, in some of the most outstanding beauties to be found in these latitudes."
"What are you going out there for?" he asked.
"For five-hundred American dollars, if truth be told." I said. "This being the price agreed on, in return for my saving a seagoing bounder from inspecting the inside of our local jail. Along -with his -entire crew, might I add."
"Who is going to jail? I don't get it."
"Forgive the tangled syntax, dear boy. It's just that in even thinking about the treatment I received at the hands of that blackguard, passion well nigh overcomes me.'' I sampled my drink. It was barely acceptable.
"It happened a fortnight ago. "Word came to me that an American shrimp boat captain and some of his men had been arrested for heavily damaging a dance hall in what I understand was an epic struggle. In the course of the fracas, two local defenders were thrown bodily out of windows. Since the scene of the fisticuffs is on the second floor of said building, only heavy shrubbery below avoided charges of murder.'' Ceex's interest was clear.
"Having earned -- without seeking -- a kind of father-figure image among the traveling trouble-.makers in these climes," Ceex dropped his eyes in guilty remembrance of his own depredations in the Guanacaste Bar, "incidents of this nature are often reported to me, even before the miscreants are checked into durance-vile.
"It was so in the instant case. I arrived at the police station as two harried officials were still trying to determine names and citizenship of the prisoners and arrange for their lock-up. This process was vastly complicated by the fact that the Americans spoke no Spanish and - to be expected in this heathen land - their captors hardly knew a word of English.
"It is in a situation of this kind that I find my greatest usefulness. In no time at all I had negotiated a fixed fee with the shrimp-boat captain to represent them: The figure mentioned earlier. This was done in English, as you might well imagine. Then in the next breath I arranged to loose the toils of local law for the payment of a one- hundred Lempira multa. ---Remember that word, Ceex. Multa! It means a fine. Unless I am badly mistaken you be paying a lot of them."
He looked down at the table in quiet dejection.
"Truth to tell," I resumed "it developed that the dance-hall girls had fairly well 'picked the goose' as the saying goes. Among the lot of them, the gringos were able to 1ay only eighty-seven Lempiras in my outstretched hand. But an examination of the captains papers led me to believe that I was dealing with a man of substance. I provided the additional thirteen lempiras required to total the requisite one-hundred, took a receipt and escorted them into the street. My charges are still pending, Ceex.
"The captain suggested that I accompany them back to Puerta Cortes, where he promised to pay my surrogate fee and reimburse the six-dollars-fifty-cents U. S. that I had laid out to pay their legal ransom. Since it was late, the trip held little attraction. He then offered to leave a surly black man with me as hostage, until they could make the trip and send one of their number back to my rooms with payment. I did not warm to this arrangement overmuch, either:
The proffered hostage was a good head taller than I am, and built along the lines one expects to see in circus gorillas. For me to expect to detain that brute against his wishes, seemed to stretch possibilities beyond the bounds of reason." I took off half my glass.
"To shorten a dismal story, I took the Captain for a Gentleman and bade them godspeed. They vouchsafed their return within four or five hours, at most. I have not seen them since. Inquiries among waterfront denizens in Puerto Cortes only documents the extent to which I have been gulled: The Captain and his crew put to sea promptly on boarding their vessel, declaring Trujillo to be their destination - as shown in the harbor-master's records. Inasmuch as there is a shrimping activity centered in that vicinity,
I trust the information. My plan is to descend on the rotters and exact my fees -- with tribute! It could be that you will enjoy visiting an ancient colonial capitol of this fabled land, as well as -- should events require, provide some small assistance to me in the settlement of my business."
Ceex accepted my invitation heartily.
"There is another matter that deserves to be on top of the table." I told him. My solicitors are late again in the transfer of royalty and dividend collections. Pending arrival of these funds, I find myself in some straightened circumstances. My instincts are all against it, but if you might see your way clear to cover our incidentals -- aside from transport - on this junket, I should be most obliged to you. Of course you will be repaid the moment I effect collection from the absconded sea-dog."
"When do you want to leave?" he asked. For a man of such informal habits otherwise, Ceex is not one to dawdle at the switch after a decision has been made. In this, if not much else, he reassures me.
"Tomorrow morning would be agreeable to me, if it suits your convenience."
"Fine!" he said. Draining his glass, he laid a bill on the table and stood up. "Call me later and give me the details. I'd like to go with you. Sounds like fun!" I retrieved my straw from a chair at the side and followed him into the street.
Evening is the only time of day in San Pedro Sula, that should
not be prohibited by public statute. As I walked back to my hostel, the
setting sun painted the sky in a riot of reds and orange that Gaugin
would have died to duplicate just one. The purple hills behind the city
looked like they had been created and put in place an hour earlier. A
cool breeze washed through the streets as if trying to sanitize them
after the day's commercial contamination.
By the time I reached my rooms, the justifications for what I had decided to do seemed more than adequate. In actuality, I reasoned, the gambit was little more than the ingenious arranging of a loan; a short-term loan. But without the discomforts of borrowing, for either of us. And it would be abundantly repaid as soon as Bitch Fortune decided to give me a smile.
I made two telephone calls around eight. One of them was to brief Ceex concerning our travel schedule for the morrow. I took dinner at nine. Then a chapter of Proust, and slept like a child.
The only monetary transaction I abhor more than lending is that of borrowing. The entire notion of passing or receiving funds with attendant obligations for restitution within some finite time frame is an affront to the dignity of the recipient, and places the lender in the uncomfortable position of holding some kind of moral mortgage against the person and good name of the individual he has ostensibly accommodated. In fine, it is a shabby practice at best; to be avoided at almost any cost short of beggary.
Nothing can reorder pleasant relationships between gentlemen
faster than an amount outstanding between them. To interpose a loan
into a friendship is to sink a wedge of estrangement that, whether it
is repaid or not, will heavily damage - or sunder completely - even the
most intimate relationship. It is even better to steal from a friend,
than to borrow from him. In the case of cupidity or plain robbery, you
have only deprived him of the property you require. Borrow from him and
you will have cost him the pleasure of your association; whether or not
you meet the repayment schedule - or even precede it.
This unhappy train of thought had dogged me constantly from the moment I had obtained Ceexs agreement to accompany me to Trujillo and, beyond this not inconsiderable service in companionship, stand as paymaster for whatever outlays might ensue. On closer inspection I decided that I dared not thus jeopardize our association. While craving his attendance on the junket, it would have to be as equals. Anything less would be sure to lay a heavy blanket of unspoken obligations over each step of the way. In his interests as well as my own, an escape from the shabby benefactor role I had foisted upon him had to be found. And faced with such a stern requirement, one does what one must do.
When I stepped into the street to hail a cab the following morning, Ceex was already waiting with transport at the curb. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness and buried my face in a newspaper for the ten-mile ride to the airport. Doing so provided a time for planning strategy, and made me know that the current dictator of our sister "republic" to the south viewed the future with "utmost confidence!" Whether his feelings of confidence were strictly a personal matter, or promised some modest fringe benefits for his mistreated national minions was not clarified.
The authorities who preside over Central American airport procedures receive their professional training in schools for Singapore riot-control policemen. The only way to survive the boiling mass of humanity that fronts the airline counters of this region every day of the year, is to short-cut it entirely. I accomplish this by affecting an expression of grim determination and boring a course directly through the mob, their mountains of luggage, band-boxes, livestock and sniveling children; murmuring endlessly for the benefit of those I buffet and trample, "Excuse me, I'm a doctor. Excuse me, I'm a doctor."
Why this ploy always works is one of the eternal mysteries. Nevertheless, it never fails to put me in the forefront of things; saving me no end of physical and emotional hardships in the process. At the counter, I showed the lackey my credentials and ordered up the tickets to match our reservations. With this accomplished I paid over the correct amount, pocketed our boarding passes and steered Ceex to a restaurant area on the second level of the noisy and teeming terminal.
''Man, that was fast!" he offered admiringly, as we seated ourselves at a table in the almost deserted dining room. "The advantage of having a plan and following it," I told him. A waiter came for our order, which we briefly supplied.
"The vast majority of our species travels out of amnesia or boredom. They dawdle and delay at the moment of departure, trying to remember where they are and why they are leaving. This is the reason one regularly finds about the same order of mission and organization among the cattle in a busy stockyard, as among the customers in the confines of a busy airport terminal. It depresses me; hence, I refuse to participate in the general melee."
Our refreshments arrived. We observed the coming and going of a few customers. It was almost an hour until our scheduled departure and -- in such a setting, fired by a note of anxiety - an hour can be the spiritual equivalent of a week in a madhouse.
The public address system blared recorded noise that purported to be music, punctuated at intervals by ear-splitting announcements that reverberated like thunder at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We sought tranquillity in our libations. In due course Ceex broke into our silent musings.
"Sweet Mother of God!" he intoned, his glass frozen in mid-air.
"I doubt her son would permit her flying on the local airlines," I replied.
"Just look at that piece of pie!" he babbled almost reverently. I followed his gaze to the center of the room, where an exquisitely fetching young woman in abbreviated denim pants and a snug T-shirt was busily arranging several items on a chair. This done, she seated herself facing us across the distance.
"Pie?" I queried. "I had assumed you took breakfast before leaving your quarters."
"I sure did," he replied, "but I can still find room for that kind of dessert. Isn't that a piece of prime!"
"Attractive, to say the least,?" I seconded, "but I do wish you would refrain from casting the female in terms of comestibles. It gives me an eerie feeling that I may be traveling in the company of a closet-cannibal." The young woman cast her eyes in our direction momentarily, then took a compact from her purse and gave unneeded attention to her beautiful face. Ceex watched her as if hypnotized.
"How do you dope that one," he asked me, obviously harking back to my character reading of the previous afternoon. "Is she a Peace Corps worker - or an oil-heiress trying to get the nasty smell out of her hair?"
"An astute observation, my friend! In spite of her plebeian attire, she does reflect the carriage and assurance one discerns in the financially-arrived. "Yes, Ceex, I think you have hit on something."
"I'd certainly like to check out her properties, " he said lecherously. "She is positively someone to take home and play with." He waved the server down and ordered refills for us.
"In that case, Ceex, lay a battle-plan and press the trial of arms," I told him. He continued his close observation of the lady, who had by now obtained and was stirring a cup of tea.
"Tea!" he growled. ''What in hell is there in tea that turns off all the switches in a chick? Scratch that one! She probably knits sweaters in the afternoon and reads good books at night! Waiter, where are those drinks I ordered?" The lackey mumbled something and lengthened his stride toward the bar.
"Ceex.," I challenged him, "as a devoted despoiler of fair virtue, you have the imagination of a toad. Be fair! It's just the symbolism of the teacup that undoes you. You read all sorts of hidden meanings into the aristocratic beverage that exist only in your own mind. It's a well- known and amply documented fact that Catherine of Russia imbibed enough tea to float her royal barge; yet she left a record of unblinking debauchery that several generations of earnest laundering hasn't much diminished. No, my friend, the teacup means nothing; except perhaps that the lady has had her morning coffee and -- disdaining our example -- considers it still too early for spirits."
"Experience with tea-drinking broads has led me no place except to art museums and bookstores," he insisted. "As a category, they're a pain in the ass."
"Ceex, I deplore your language and rise to the defense of women as a class. Regardless of what they drink, the fundamental receptors - barring surgical alterations and an occasional error in genetic outfitting - are almost universally interchangeable. Show me a healthy woman, and I will show you a creature that is well within the erotic reach of a capable and imaginative man." I paused to take a sip.
"This presumes, of course, that we are discussing something less than immediate and total conquest. You still must learn that love, like squash, is a progressive sport. The first step, Ceex, is to arrange the game. I perceive that in this situation, doing so is well within your limited abilities. For me, it would be a childish exercise."
"You think you can pick her up?" he asked incredulously.
"Without doubt," I replied unhesitatingly. "Remember my backlog of experience in such matters."
"No way!" he replied emphatically. "A chick like that isn't about to settle for an old guy." No sooner had the words left his mouth, than a look of total remorse swept over his face. But I gave him no opportunity to apologize.
"Ceex," I said quietly, "I regret the brashness of character that permits you to reach for the cudgel of chronology in what I thought was a pleasant discussion between gentlemen. My age, let me assure you, is much more help than it is a hindrance. Years have brought me a fund of knowledge and sagacity in the affairs of genders that you may never acquire. I fear you lack the basic sensitivity required to ever reach any level of accomplished lechery. At the moment you are something of a sexual second-story man: Sneaking in through open windows, gathering up whatever you can comfortably carry - and disappearing into the night.
"While we ostensibly seek the same prizes, I prefer to ring the front bell and present my card with a nosegay of pretty compliments. These offices properly managed, milady is pleased to lead me on a tour of her premises -- and gladly press upon me, those things at which you can only snatch and grab." I allowed my eyes to stray to the young lady across the way. She was, indeed, perusing a book of some sort; seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.
"I'm sorry I mentioned the age thing," Ceex said. I waved my hand as if to brush the apology away. "But I don't think you can pick her up. For a hundred bucks, I dont think you can do it!"
"You think she's for sale?" I asked sharply.
"No -- I'm talking about a bet. I'll bet you a hundred dollars you can't move her over to this table." He reached for his wallet.
"My dear Ceex, your fatal flow stands revealed," I told him sternly. "Money is a faithful servant in proper hands but, the nectar of roses does not emerge at the tinkle of coin; nor birdsong, for a price counted out. Here we are engaging in the elemental confrontation of the universe: The attraction of maid by man. Would you reduce the very essentials of our existence to a common wager?" He continued to study the girl with hot eyes.
"I just don't think you can do it," he said. "A hundred says you can't get her to move from that table to this one." His eyes met mine across the short distance separating us, reflecting his unflinching challenge. I emptied my glass before speaking.
"I would estimate the span involved in that transfer to be something on the order of fifteen feet." I gauged the space with narrowed eyes. "I would like to make you a second wager, since this seems to be your day for financial risk-taking. In addition to taking up the initial challenge of moving the lady from there to here, I shall hazard fifty times that amount - if you feel up to it - that I can entice her to accompany me all the way to Trujillo! What say you now, my boy? Are you interested in a demonstration worthy of both the quarry and the hunter? For five-thousand dollars?"
"You're on!" he assented without hesitation. "It'll never happen - for five big ones!"
"Summon that ignoramus and have him fetch up another toddy for us," I directed. "This problem calls for a few moments in ordering up my strategy. Then you will see how a problem in feminine transport yields to the skills of a maestro." He signaled the waiter as I sank into silent meditation.
The success or failure of an approach to a lady, unaided by proper introduction, is determined in seconds. The entire issue hinges on whether you make her feel flattered or threatened by your uninvited sally into her personal domain. This opening move must be handled with dispatch and efficiency, if the eager adventurer is not to be met by the battlements of hostility on the other side.
Once the presence of the supplicant has been equitably
acknowledged, the gates swing open in response to the feelings of
confidence and reciprocal interest on the part of the candidate for
attention. The opening gambit, perforce, is at all odds the diciest.
In the instant circumstance I chose the tactic of open-handedness. Rising from my chair, I moved purposefully across the distance separating us and, begging forgiveness for my unseemly intrusion, introduced myself as a peripatetic journalist seeking grist for some implied essay on Central American travel. The lady responded with a guarded graciousness, tinged with reserve; and in the largely unspoken language employed in such situations, bade me expand my presentation.
"As a scrivener by profession, and presently engaged in an article dealing with the hazards - and rewards - of Honduran exploration, I must admit I can not resist an opportunity to interview such an attractive subject as you seem to be. My card. Miss à --" I handed the token to her. She glanced at it, then back at me. From the corner of my eye I could see that Ceex was a fascinated observer of the charade.
"Garcia," she supplied. "I am Constance Garcia. My friends call me Connie."
"Then, with your permission, I shall address you likewise since it is my fervent hope that we shall never be less than friends." She smiled pleasantly at my tender.
''Would you care to sit down?" she invited.
"I thank you most kindly, Miss Connie. However, since I am with a friend who is seated at the other table, would it be too much to ask you to join us - for some refreshment and pleasant conversation?"
There was a moment of indecision before the refusal.
"I would really prefer remaining here. Ask your friend over if you wish.'' The point was made and scored. Her intransigence puzzled me, but it was clear that her mind was made up. With a wave of the, hand I summoned Ceex, who came to join us. We took chairs at her table. A fresh round of 1ibations were ordered - with Connie opting for a second cup of tea. Ceek almost visibly winced.
"Tell me," I opened the second stage of civilities, "what brings a lady of your charm and obvious intelligence to this forbidding land?"
"History," she replied. "Honduras is almost a living history
book of Spanish expansion during the 16th and 17th centuries. I want to
see all of it before I go back to the States to get my degree."
"My father is Spanish. My mother is Norwegian."
"A rich blending of the best of Europe," I enthused. "'I'he intrepidity of the fabled Norsemen, mixed with the scholarship and social-ascendancy of the Iberian aristocracy. A rich brew, Connie! Most auspicious!" She lowered her eyes demurely at the fulsomeness of my praise. Ceex shot me a glance full of unvarnished admiration and returned to the making of concentric traceries with the wet bottom of his glass on the scarred tabletop.
"Forgive the cross-examination," I pleaded. "It is both the tool and the curse of my trade. Whence and whither?"
"I don't understand.''
"Excuse my lapse into conversational shorthand, dear Connie. It is a lazy habit and quite inexcusable. What I meant to inquire: where do you presently reside, and where are you bound in the "flimsies" accepted as aircraft in this wilderness?"
"I'm staying here in San Pedro Sula, for the time being. It makes a good base for travel - and I'm off somewhere every chance I get; to the old places in the country."
"I gather that your entire time is not devoted to your search for knowledge. You are engaged in other pursuits as well?"
"Yes," she replied. "I work in a local public relations office that has a lot of American clients." (Capital! Simply capital! The girl is a veritable gemstone of grace and judgment. I could have kissed her on the spot!)
"And where are you pointed in your current exploration?" I inquired, as Ceex hung on every word.
"I'm going to Puerta Lempira, this time. That's out in the Moskitia coastal area."
"I am aware of it," I acknowledged, "and from all accounts an exceedingly wild and inhospitable place, populated by bands of aboriginals, who have only recently left the trees to walk upright on terra-firma. 'Sambos' is the term by which they are idiomatically known, if memory serves me well. A most unsavory lot - and an altogether undocumented opinion, I must admit."
"I've heard it's pretty wild out there," she agreed "but I want to see for myself. It should be exciting!"
"Being a house-guest in the bosom of a family of headhunters should be nothing, if not exciting -- as you term it, dear Connie!" I said. "But is it prudent? In addition to the social unpredictability of the savages, this time of year finds the entire area under an almost constant downpour. As an added caveat, hordes of pesky insects make life a torture - even if one succeeds in avoiding the dreadful maladies they vector; and escapes drowning in the recurrent flash- floods that plague the area." She was now paying close attention to my discourse.
"No, Connie," I urged gently. Please reconsider. If the scholarly mandate demands probing the very bowels of this pest-hole of nature, do it in the company of a reliable companion and in a more salubrious season. Forgive my insistence, dear Connie, but I feel it my duty to dissuade you. The mere knowledge of your presence in that feral area, without escort would keep me in a constant state of dither until your safe had been documented for me. Indulge this, perhaps untoward, solicitude; but I should fret for your safety every moment!"
"But I have the trip all planned," she pouted prettily.
"Plans are always malleable in the face of new information. Revise your itinerary. I emptied my glass. "Ceex and I are on our way to the old colonial stronghold of Trujillo. Have you ever been there?" She answered with a negative shake of her lovely head.
"Trujillo is an absolute treasure trove of the very antiquities you seek: A score or more of ancient cannons, ripening in the sun atop a prominotory that once served as a battlement to protect the city from sea-borne enemies. Ancient walls and towers of the old government compound. Remnants of ships - and docks that felt the boots of Conquistadores hundreds of years before our oldest- remembered kinsman was born!" Her blue eyes danced as the magic of my description captured her imagination.
"Oh, I would like that," she said, "but I don't want to interfere with your trip. I hate being a nuisance to anyone. Ceex choked on the final ounce in his glass and covered his embarrassment by ordering more. Connie passed, having thoroughly sated her tolerance for tea.
"I won't hear another word!" I cried good-naturedly. "You shall be my welcome guest. There is no finer way to add spice to the banal peregrinations of commerce, than by the inclusion of an intelligent and attractive companion. You honor us! Right., Ceex?" He supported the notion admirably, considering the price of his doing so.
"Then it is decided," I stated firmly. "Ceex, will you be a good fellow and accompany Connie in the alteration of her travel arrangements. I have just remembered that this is the natal anniversary of the manager of my hotel. I want to prepare a note of felicitations and send it off to the dear fellow by messenger. With this accomplished, I shall rejoin you here -- or at the departure- gate, if our flight has been called. Agreed?"
They both acquiesced and Ceex saved me the embarrassment of asking him to settle our refreshment accounts. In spite of his obvious shortcomings as a beau ideal, the man does contain some of the raw materials of nobility.
I occupied myself for fifteen minutes in the news-butcher stands and on hearing the announcement of our flight departure, repaired to the designated portal and rejoined Connie and Ceex. All had gone off without a hitch for them. Connie was bubbling with merry excitement as I took her elbow and steered her up the boarding stair, into the aircraft, and ensconced us into a pair of seats near the front of the machine. Ceex followed, carrying the portmanteau I had left in his care - along with a smaller black bag which carried two bottles of scotch whiskey.
It doesn't pay to leave the last outpost of civilization without something to ease the rigors of travel; and, if events suggest, to mellow relationships with the denizens of the hinterland. And then there is snakebite to consider, as well.
"We left the ground at San Pedro Sula, forty-three minutes behind the scheduled departure time for our flight. Ordinarily I would have fumed at the delay. In this case I blessed Dame Fortune for having granted me the extra time in which to work out my assignment with studied deliberation; not to mention considerable finesse.
The trip to Trujillo was on a11 accounts an unmitigated pleasure. Connie sat beside me and chatted with animation and good sense about the country were over-flying. It was a source of no small surprise for me to discover that she had indeed acquired an impressive fund of knowledge about the post-Columbian exploits of the Spaniards; who first sacked and destroyed this unhappy land; then stayed on to colonize and rule it. Ceex sat in an aisle seat just behind us and did penance for his earlier lack of confidence in me.
When we were required to stop for half an hour in the coastal town of LaCeiba, Connie treated Ceex with friendly civility, but it was abundantly clear that my mature attractions better suited her, than those of our relatively unseasoned traveling-companion. The three of us found a Spartan coffee-shop for enroute refreshment. After some brief pleasantries and placement of our orders, Connie excused herself to freshen up.
"If I hadn't seen it, by God, I wouldn't believe it!" Ceex declared ruefully. I played the cool game for him.
"All a matter of technique, my boy! At the risk of underscoring what should now be obvious, you are watching the consummate artist at his canvas." I took a draught of the libation before me. "If you care a whit for your carnal development, you should be taking copious notes and committing as much as possible to rote.
The demonstration you are witnessing represents pearls of knowledge bought by a kings ransom spent in early pitchings and fumblings. With devotion to your lessons, I can save you that dismal period most men waste in cutting and fitting a style that suits them in female adventuring." He nodded in transparent admiration.
"You run a hell of an expensive school," he vouchsafed me, reaching for his wallet. "The way I figure it, you lost the first bet and -- if that damned tin kite holds together for another hour you win the big one."
"Quite right, Ceex," I agreed matter-of-factly.
"That leaves me owing you four-thousand nine-hundred." He laid several bills on the table. "I'll give you the rest of it when we get back to San Pedro."
"No hurry, Ceex, no hurry at all. I thank you." I picked up the money and tucked it into my pocket. "I must admit, however, that when Connie refused to leave her table the thought struck me that I had perhaps swallowed my own cravat, as the saying goes. It was a warm moment of tight traveling, Ceex. I warrant you! But all's well that ends well. I thank you! It is indeed a pleasure to take a sporting venture with a gentleman, regardless of the outcome." He listened to this elegy for his loss with a bland countenance.
"What's gonna happen when we get to Trujillo?" he asked leeringly, while watching the double-doors for Connie's return, "you gonna bunk up with her?"
"Please, Ceex! Such grossness of expression is not called for. Our romantic future is in the laps of the gods. One enters the maze and runs the course. If superficial attractions give way to stronger feelings, then who am I to argue with providence. Should the horses of desire run in different directions, so be it! In any case, I find Connie a perfectly charming companion. At this juncture there is no reason to look further into our brief attachment." I stifled a yawn and apologized for it.
"Well, if you decide to throw her out, just be damn sure you toss her in my direction," he offered. "Don't forget that I saw her first!"
"I'll keep your request in mind," I promised, "but first viewing is not a basis for tenancy. Scores of impatient prospectors picked and scratched over the ridges of the Mother-Lode before Henry Cormstock came along to sink his shaft. Ceex leered at the perhaps inept simile.
"Development is what counts, my friend. Development! Never forget it!"
Connie returned and the flight announcer shortly summoned us to board for the second segment of our trip. Connie and I resumed our previously-selected seats. An obese black woman preempted Ceex's space, requiring him to move toward the front of the plane. Mid-term in the flight he stretched and peered back over the few seats that separated us. Connieís head was pillowed on my shoulder in child-like contentment. The anguish that registered on Ceex's face was a window on the turmoil in his soul. I smiled benignly at him and, closing my eyes, lay my head back on the pillow. Connie's hand moved hesitantly to first touch, then lightly clasp, my wrist.
Trujillo, Honduras, is one of those unfortunate places that has already lived two lives and suffered two deaths. It now waits in limbo for its next incarnation.
The storied vanguard of imperial Spain first blew the breath of life into Trujillo in the early sixteenth century. A few decades of colonial glory faded like the rose and left it for dead until the second World War. Early in the nineteen-forties, the United States Navy invested the place with a big operations base; installed their functions in the commandeered buildings and operating facilities of the United Fruit Company. It is unclear whether the dispossession was a hardship or fortuitous accommodation for the fruit company, however, since the firm never made an effort to resume possession of its properties after the American military later abandoned them.
Over a period of several years, magnificent Trujillo Bay -- seven miles long and three miles wide -- served as a nesting-place for the great men-of-war that patrolled the Caribbean sea frontier. Planes flew air cover support, and carried out search-and-destroy missions from a military strip on a neck of land called "Castillo Point", situated a few miles out of the town.
Everyone who was fit to work was on the Navy payroll. Trujillans who had never before had more than a few dollars in their hands, were suddenly quite wealthy - by their own parochial standards. It all seemed too good to last. And it was.
As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Ships slipped their moorings, weighed anchors and steamed beyond Castillo Point for the last time. Planes took to the air, circled the great bay for a last look and never returned. The flood of free-spending sailors disappeared from the streets, stores and cantinas. The war was over; and so was the short reawakening of Trujillo.
Business died without a whimper. Stores were boarded up, or merely abandoned to the elements. Termites and carpenter ants moved in to dispose of the commercial corpses. Some of the residents went away. Others just wrapped the mantle of the now moribund town around themselves, and everybody went back to sleep. This is the way Connie, Ceex and I found it: Comatose. Resigned to a state of placid dormancy until the next miracle occurs to raise it from its latest period of suspended animation.
There is a hotel in Trujillo but, having acknowledged this, let us speak of pleasant things. Through the good offices of our friendly and garrulous taxicab driver, our little party was accommodated in the household of a pleasant, middle-aged widow.
She showed us to three bedrooms that comprised the 1ion's share of the upper floor in her aged but comfortable abode. The arrangements we settled on placed Ceex in one corner room, myself in another, and Connie in a third - that had obviously served as an upstairs parlor in grander times.
A makeshift bathroom had been improvised in a space that I surmise had earlier been an outsized clothes-press. The arrangements could not be accused of opulence; but they were clean, roomy, well ventilated and far more comfortable than we had any license to expect in this relic of a Spanish Colonial outpost on the Spanish Main.
Our bag were brought up by an ancient arthritic retainer, and we settled in with sighs of profound relief.
My prime target was the blackguard who had diddled me out of
just recompense for rescuing him and his company of cutthroats from
jail. He travels fastest who travels alone, so I excused myself from my
companions and took to the streets to flush the bounder out.
Within two hours I had my net well-placed. Having determined that the "Dolly-S" was not presently in port, I commissioned a bright -eyed lad to serve me as lookout, and to bring me word the instant she showed up in the harbor. Then I ferreted out the local judge -- who was taking a siesta, of course -- and for the sum of two-hundred lempiras, obtained his certification of my claim against Turner, et al. With the addition of a figure for inconvenience, plus travel expenses and lodging for myself and my retainers. Ceex was shown as my body-guard, and Connie in the role of amanuensis. What had begun as $506.50 now stood at an even one-thousand U. S. dollars.
The sleepy-eyed jurist affixed a rubber-stamp imprint to his order for the seizure of Turners boat, and signed it with a great flourish.
My next stop was the local constabulary office to introduce myself to the Commandante. He also had to be roused from a deep and noisy sleep to speak with me. Great God, it's little wonder that this country is a century behind the rest of the world , what with all of its officialdom sleeping twenty-four hours a day!
After introductory niceties I apprised the official of my mission. He spent several minutes mutely studying, the seizure order without, I'm bound, comprehending a word of it. Then he offered his services to me.
I indicated that on the arrival of the "Dolly-S" in harbor, he could oblige me - and simultaneously serve the sweet cause of Justice - by dispatching a pair of his uniformed subordinates along to add official substance to my collection efforts against Turner. He agreed to do so for fifty lempiras; half to be paid immediately and the balance when the sorry business was concluded. I paid over the first installment into his outstretched hand and bade him buenas tardes, as he yawned hugely and end returned to his table-top bed.
While I had thus been engaged in affairs, Ceex and Connie were probing into the antiquities of the old town. Such arcane engagements undoubtedly have much to offer by way of intellectual stimulation and esoteric knowledge. However, I find the requisite exertions in such walking-tours a prodigal dissipation of strength. Consequently, after satisfactorily arranging my affairs, I located a cantina where my thirst was slaked.
The barmaid in the place proved to be a beguiling and complaisant lass. After some modest bridge-building with her, she accepted an invitation to my digs, where we dallied pleasantly for an hour or so. I sent her on her way as sundown approached, with twenty lempiras in her hand and a smile of cherubic contentment on her dish-shaped face. All in all, a most satisfactory afternoon.
Connie and Ceex returned sometime thereafter to find me with a glass at elbow and Proust in hand. I invited them to join me for the cocktail hour.
"How was your excursion through the bleached bones of bloody history?" I asked as they settled themselves.
"Just fabulous!" Connie declared. "The old fort is like a museum exhibit. You can almost imagine those huge guns firing as the pirates storm up the the hill from the beach.... I'm so glad you brought me with you, Mister.... "
"Guillermo," I interjected. "Or Don Guillermo, as you prefer. The latter is a form of address given me by the locals and, frankly, I have come to like it."
"Don Guillermo, then." she responded. "It has a note of grandeur that seems to fit both you and the country!"
Ceex rolled his eyes heavenward in an exaggerated gesture of great suffering. I ignored his bald attempt at deprecation. Connie resumed her excited synopsis of the afternoon's adventures, with an occasional footnote from Ceex. But try as he might to become a full partner in the proceedings, Connie's dissertation -- and eyes, as the saying goes - were all for me. So poor Ceex was left to stew somewhere out on the fringe of things.
Other considerations being equal, the desirability of a lady escalates in something like a direct ratio to the degree of her presumed state of unavailability in the eyes of an admirer. Male perversity suffers for the things it cannot touch, while spurning comparable treasures ready to the hand.
Poor Ceex burned for a word of encouragement or a tender glance from the girl. But the most Connie offered him was easy conversation and a happy informality that might as well have been extended to a second cousin. Her afternoon had been an unqualified success. It was plain that the same could not be said for Ceex, whose interests, palpably, lay far outside the scope of Spanish colonial forts and rusty cannons. I decided in the name of human compassion, to arrange his deliverance from social purgatory.
"The public facilities for entertainment in this municipal museum are limited, to say the least," I began, "however, I have had some modest exposure previously to the offerings of a local dead-fall that goes under the name of "El Fuego". It fails to fully measure up to the warmth of its name, but it is far and away the best to be found in this backward enclave. On a given night it can offer some engaging distractions. I have taken the liberty of anticipating our needs for some lighter engagements after the demands of the day. The landlord is expecting us about nine for dinner, to be poisoned by whatever suits our fancies. Are you agreeable to sampling Trujillo's preeminent den of iniquity and chicken paella?"
They were. We monitored the arrival of the first stars in the night sky, as the canopy over us turned blue-black and dusted itself with diamonds. Then we took our turns in the shower facility. Connieís voice was audible in the hall over the noise of the shower, as she gave vent to part of an aria from Pucciniís "Turandot." Truly, a most remarkable young lady!
The evening was a failure. Through no fault of our host, to be sure. The culprit was Ceex. Following a pleasant and tasty dinner that featured the house specialty, our table was cleared and beverages followed. A five-piece mariachi band arrived and held forth with surprising versatility and musicianship.
We both danced with Connie, who proved to be a sylph on the floor. In due course I excused myself to take a turn with one of the local ladies. Thanks to my command of the Spanish language, and conversancy with local customs in such matters, I quickly arranged things with my partner. When the music ended I brought her to our table, introduced her all around and invited her to join us. After several forcible visual signals, Ceex danced with her; but he returned to the table alone.
The disconnection had certainly been his decision, rather than on the part of the girl I had recruited for his pleasure. I charged it up against my failure to meet some newly-raised standards, and tried again. Once more the living-sacrifice was steered to the dance-floor, exercised briefly and returned to the stream like an undersized trout. A third time we played the same game without striking a spark.
The owner motioned me into an anteroom to seek clarification.
"What is the problem, Don Guillermo? Your friend, he does not like muchachas? He is perhaps queer?" He asked the questions in obvious bewilderment. I assured him that such was not the case.
"Dios mio!" he wailed, "he refuses girls who could pass for angels! He is sick -- or blind!" He wagged his head in disbelief. "I can do no more, Don Guillermo. You have seen the best there is. Your friend must be a monk, or a statue!"
"No doubt he is incapacitated by something we do not understand," I told him. "Do not take offense, Don Mario, and please give the ladies my warmest saludas. Were I not otherwise engaged, I would give up a thumb for a smile from any one of then!" He nodded sadly and walked away.
We returned to our quarters about midnight. There is something about a tropical night that refurbishes the soul and restores the wellsprings of elemental vigor. I carefully arranged the bedclothes to present the illusion of a sleeping occupant. Then I left my room for a turn along the beach, sensually caressed by a light breeze, a whispering surf, and an ink-black sky that wrapped up the world in a celestial gift-box.
My reasons for disdaining explorations in the archaeological ruins of this town do not emanate from any general antipathy to either history or exercise. Quite the contrary. It is just that, to me, some forms of exercise offer infinitely more attraction than others. I have never been able to fathom the psychopathy that impels men of mature years to spend their flagging strength on the pursuit of a small white ball, after trying to see how far they can hit it. Or the lifting of weights, or the stretching of steel springs - until the exertions reduce them to utter exhaustion.
To what profit, I ask? Particularly when such other, alternative delights beckon, begging attention! Or when one can have an entire beach to himself, and an exquisite night in which to enjoy it!
After breakfast and leisurely coffee on the verandah the following morning, Connie and Ceex once more sallied forth to disturb the ancient shades in an ill-kempt colonial cemetery; along with some other presumed showcases of decaying splendor, as their time might allow. I again begged off, in favor of more pressing matters relating to my business, and that still needed attention.
After they had departed, I strolled down to the pier, gave two lads a lecture and demonstration of the proper way to go about catching sprats. I then sampled the wares in two public houses and -- after an unremarkable lunch in a dingy cafe - returned to my room for a protracted siesta. The practice does have something to commend it, solely as a means of husbanding one's strength for more favored kinds of exertion.
I was roused by the 1andlady's announcement that a young man waited below with a message for me. Rather than present myself publicly in dishabille, I leaned out the window and asked his business.
The "Dolly-S" is coming into the harbor, Sir," he called up to me.
"Wait for me, "I directed, ''I'll be right down."
"With knowledge that my game approached the trap, it was the work of minutes to complete my dress. I gathered up the seizure order, put a small derringer in my pocket and hurried down the stair. After dispatching my vigilante back to his post on the dock, I hailed a cab and picked up two soldiers at the constabulary office. Thus prepared for any reasonable contingencies, I told the driver to take us to the dock. The two soldiers occupied the rear seat of the dilapidated vehicle in bored silence.
The "Dolly-S" was riding at anchor by the time I reached the pier, and I could see a small boat approaching from her direction. I laid out my program to the two soldiers, who nodded morosely and leaned on their rusty rifles.
I recognized Turner before his dory ever reached the dock. He had still not placed me when he and his men clambered up onto the structure to find their way barred by my two minions of the law.
"Good afternoon, Captain," I addressed him civilly. "I trust you had a pleasant voyage."
"What's goiní on here?" he wanted to know. "I ainít done nothin'." He eyed the soldiers through narrowed lids, as his three crewmen shuffled their feet nervously.
"I'm here to conclude the tag-end of our earlier agreement," I told him. "Or have you entirely purged your memory of that unhappy night in San Pedro Sula?" A glimmer of recognition showed in his face. One of his companions nurtured something in his ear that I couldnít catch.
"Don Guillerrmo," he exclaimed expansively, of course I remember you! What brings you here?"
"A passionate interest in honest treatment," I responded. "To-wit: Satisfaction of this claim - on the spot." I handed him the paper of attachment for his vessel.
"It's in Spanish," he said passing it back to me. ''What does it say?"
"Briefly, that unless you pay me one-thousand U. S. dollars here and now, I am authorized to take possession of the "Dolly-S" and send you and your entire crew up the hill to jail."
"Habla Espanol, Senor," one of the soldiers ordered me. I elaborately explained that, since the criminales understood only English, it was necessary that I address them in their mother-tongue. I promised him a translation later. He nodded assent and kept his rifle pointed at Turner's belt buckle.
"You said a thousand dollars!," the Captain exploded, "I never promised to pay you that. It was only five-hundred."
"Plus six dollars and a half to meet the full amount of your multa," I reminded him. "Plus certain other amounts for running you to ground - time-wasting, and the like. In any case, Turner, " the figure is not negotiable. Your only choice is in the settlement procedure. Do you wish to pay me in cash, or with your shrimp boat? Secondly, do you prefer freedom, or incarceration? These are the only issues you need consider." One of the seamen began to edge toward the far side of the dock. A soldier raised his rifle to the approximate height of the truant's top shirt button, and he moved back with his shipmates.
"I don't have that kind of money in my pocket," Turner said.
"Come out to the boat with me. I'll get it for you."
"A boat ride is not to my taste so late in the day," I told him. "You can instruct one of your rapscallions for the mission. This soldier will accompany him to be sure that he makes the round-trip safely. When he brings the money, we can conclude this business and get on to more pleasant things."
Turner first insisted that only he could find the money, but
was unable to sustain this canard under pressure. Finally one of his
sailors and the smaller of my soldiers were sent for the strong-box.
While the messengers completed their errand, the Captain and his crew
were forced to sit flat on the deck, facing the remaining soldier and
myself. The soldierís rifle and my small handgun covered them
the entire time. Such a situation discourages conversation.
I thanked him and wrote out his receipt on the back of the seizure document. Then I delivered the two soldiers back to their base of operations, and awakened the Commandante, who greeted me warmly. I paid him the twenty-five lempiras owing on our agreement, and extracted another fifty lempira bill from my wallet.
"There is one further thing you can do for the peace of your city," I told him.
"What is that, Senor?"
"I am not ordinarily a violent man," I told him firmly, "but in this case I seethe in outrage for the way I was gulled. It is possible that my friends and I may frequent some of your cantinas this evening. In my present state of mind, and fired by some of your local beverages, I can not be held responsible for what may happen if Turner and his crew cross my path." I peered at him meaningfully. "We could all regret the consequences in the bright light of tomorrow.''
"Senor, I understand." he replied thoughtfully.
"For their own protection, Senor Commandante, they should not be anywhere I might get my hands on them in a drunken rage. At such tines, I regret saying, I can be an animal!" I dangled the fifty- lempira bill in front of his eyes.
"I understand, Senor," he said with a conspiratorial smile, "and they will be in the carcel tonight - for their own protection, of course." He slipped the bill from between my fingers and dispatched my erstwhile bodyguards out to find the Turner crowd. We shook hands enthusiastically and I departed with the warm fee1ing of having tied up the last of the loose ends on what had begun as a matter of some considerable complexity.
The accident was the product of pure elation.
Walking down the sidewalk with one eye cocked for a taxicab and my head buzzing with the grand manner in which everything had transpired to my benefit, I took my attention off the uneven footing I trod. To do so anywhere in Central America is imprudent. In Honduras it is nothing short of suicidal.
What passes for sidewalks in this deprived corner of the world are only attractive nuisances. Full of man-traps, yawning excavations and cement slabs dislocated and re-positioned at angles which constantly hazard limbs, if' not life itself. Dreaming like a schoolboy, I stepped into an abyss that could have served as a ready-made grave for a large dog. My tumble came to a crashing end against the unyielding adobe front of an apothecary shop. Blood fairly spurted from my lacerated forehead. It was a dizzy trip for a moment or two.
By the time my private world ceased its spinning, the Pharmacist, who had seen me fall, was attending me with his inventory of gauze and lotions. The bleeding was soon stanched and a large bandage arrayed across the wound.
When my legs agreed to resume functioning once more, I thanked the Good Samaritan most kindly and asked him to arrange transportation for my trip to the rooming-house. This he did.
Ceex and Connie had not arrived back from their peregrinations, but our landlady, Mrs. Allen (this is not her name for reasons that will soon eventuate) more than adequately fulfilled my requirements for both sympathy and more direct ministrations. Her first thought was to send me straightaway to bed and summon some local healer to tend me. When I refused this handling, she settled for ensconsing me in a large wicker rocking-chair in her living room.
Then, at my suggestion, she went upstairs to fetch the remnants of the quart of Chivas Regal that I was carrying against precisely such misadventure. While I sipped and thoroughly enjoyed a slow recovery, Mrs. Allen and I chatted our way across the hills of stranger-hood, to the lushly verdant valley of warm friendship. By the time my companions did return, formal appellations had been totally abandoned in favor of just "Regina" and "Guillermo."
Connie and Ceex staged their own ritual dance of thanksgiving for my deliverance from the jaws of traumatic destruction, and the four of us shared cocktails. It was most pleasant. All the more-so, I must confess, in that I revel to some degree in any sort of celebrity -- even at the price of a cracked pate, it seems.
Regina graciously sought to prepare dinner for all of us, but I would not hear of it. Instead, at my insistence, Ceex was commissioned to squire Connie to dinner independently; while I continued my convalescence under the attentive patronage of Mrs. Allen.
Ceex departed aloft to make his toilet and Regina disappeared into the kitchen to prepare a repast for the two of us. Connie sat with me and held my hand like a doting child, as she gave an engaging account of their day among the relics of history.
"What about Ceex?" I asked when a lull in her discourse permitted a change in topics.
"Oh, he is so nice!" she said warmly.
"You know he is much attracted by you," I ventured. She eyed me closely, looking for meaning behind the are statement.
"You think I should be nicer to him?"
"It would please me.," I said frankly. "He is a good friend and a lonely man. There is much you can offer him, Connie. And he, you. "
"Thank you, Don Guillermo," she said, kissing my cheek lightly. "Now I have to get dressed. I'm starving! Will you be all right?"
I assured her that my personal resources were still adequate to sustain me for some period of time yet, and waved her up the stairs. Not without a twinge of real regret, it must be added.
Regina served us supper from translucent china that carried a hallmark of Seville. She disclaimed accurate knowledge of its age, but made a guess at 17th century. It had come her way through the hands of her deceased husband's mother and grandmother; an heirloom that had been in the family for unknown generations. From this entry our talk drifted into genealogy and reminiscences, finally returning full circle to ourselves.
There is no gainsaying the fresh attractions of youth. Few
mortal experiences compare with the privilege of introducing an eager
novice to all of the shades and gradations of sensuality yet unplumbed.
In clasping a strong, young and demanding body in the ultimate
intimacy. Immortality is only the distance to her lips removed.
The lady of maturity and grace offers different, but no less precious treasures to her paramour: Consideration, gentleness, deep understanding of the human condition and its full range of spoken and latent needs. Love is there, but mellowed by experience and made warm by a more comfortable flame.
The wild, unfettered demandings of youth have given way to a more soft-spoken search for the loftiest peaks of sensual ecstasy. It is as if you are returning with her, along a once-familiar path through a forest glen that she has not traveled since some distant childhood. Memories are reawakened of a thousand delights that have almost been forgotten.
Then, as the familiar glory once more enfolds her she rushes to embrace it; to gather it in and bring it to you. For precious moments she is that wondering child again, bemused by the splendors of the secret place. And later she is strangely grateful and reassured to know that the secret place still exists to be rediscovered; waiting, unfaded -- and more precious than ever before. We heard Connie and Ceex return and snuggled together like the smug conspirators we were.
I awoke at daybreak and went out to walk the empty streets of the still-sleeping village. My steps led me up the hill to the old fort; there to sit on the weather-glazed barrel of an ancient cannon and watch brightly-colored lizards climb the crumbling walls of what had once been a proud symbol of Spanish invincibility in the western world. Now it lay in shards and rubble. Climbing vines struggled to cover the ruins, the way a modest woman might seek to hide her nakedness with anything that's handy.
As the first golden-white shafts of sunrise knifed upward out of the eastern sea, then reached down to touch us, I consigned the relics to their relentless destroyers: rust, erosion, time itself - and the continuum of new life that always arrives just in time to replace the expiring old.
I patted the weathered barrel of the old gun, rust-covered, half-buried in earth and overgrown with dull green ivy. It was oddly like taking leave of an old friend. One whose problems you understand and, at least existentially, know that you share.
Regina was up when I returned to her home. She invited me into the kitchen, where we had juice and coffee - and some small sweet cakes she had just taken from the oven. Connie joined us first, then Ceex. Soon we were all involved in the bright ritual conversation forms with which civilized people urge each other to give a new day the benefit of the doubt. Before long our spirits did, indeed, match the enthusiasm in our voices.
Nothing further to detain us, I suggested our catching the mid-morning plane that would - if the hypothesis set forth in their timetable held up -- deposit us back in San Pedro Sula around noon. We took leave of Mrs. Allen with sincere promises of our returning soon and remaining longer.
An asthmatic taxicab negotiated the two miles to the airport in a few minutes less than half an hour, over roads that challenged every structural connection in my body. Honduras is, to the best of my knowledge, the only country in the western hemisphere that seemingly grades its thoroughfares with field artillery.
The plane arrived, took us aboard and soared out over the big
Our passage through the San Pedro Sula airport and into a taxicab was managed with minimal difficulty. In blatant contravention of established practice, all of our bags had been placed aboard the same plane that carried us - which gives support to the notion of "fortunate" accidents.
"Where can we drop you off, Connie?" Ceex asked from his position in the front seat.
"The Gran Sula Hotel will be fine." She told him. "I have a couple of errands to take care of before I go home. I'll leave my bag at the hotel and pick it up later." (Intelligence is really the only important distinction between people, I ruminated. Without good sense, you can be born a prince and still be a fool and a boor!)
"I have sworn to never travel alone again," I told Connie. The sparkle you added to this venture turned a chore into a holiday.'' Ceex added his heartiest endorsement to my sentiments. We exchanged telephone numbers for future reference and wished her a good-day. I'm sure both Ceex and I felt a pang of loss as she disappeared through the hotel entrance - with her travel bag in her hand.
"A most remarkable young woman," I told Ceex as we headed for his stop. "Enough to reestablish one's faith in the survival of our puny race for another millennium or two."
"Prime!" he agreed. "Absolutely prime! I'm almost glad I lost the bet."
"By the bye, Ceex, Iím sorry I didn't feel up to joining you at dinner last night." He looked at me blankly, then turned to stare out the window.
"Hopefully you were not inconvenienced by my being absent." I added.
"Oh, that was okay, " he answered over his shoulder. "Everything went fine. We understood!'
One of the remarkable abilities of the human mind is its facility for ëunderstandingí almost anything that fits its then-current frame of reference. It takes a discordant note to raise the hackles of suspicion. Consistency is the key to everything. Again I thought of Connie. What an incredible specimen! My musings were interrupted by our arrival in front of Ceexs building.
"Come up for a drink?" he invited.
"Thank you, my friend, but I want to wash the stains of travel out of my system with a hot tub and an early bed," I demurred. "But I do thank you for your good company and moral support. Hopefully you enjoyed yourself."
"Guillermo, old buddy," he said, reaching through the open window to squeeze my arm firmly, "you will never know how much! Call me." His smile was that of a man who, for one reason or another, felt thoroughly pleased with himself.
REALITY REARS ITS FRIGHTENING FACE
Since it has often been my lot in life to steer a course that happens to lay uncomfortably close to the edge of things, I long ago learned the value of reliable support when the chosen route turns slippery. There are friends; and there are friends! It pays to know the difference.
It was out of such feelings of amity that, following ablutions and the last dollop remaining in the second bottle of Chivas Regal's divine product, I haled a hack and repaired to the establishment of Dona Ramona.
Dona Ramona! Friend of humanity, loyalty personified, executive without peer, and -- only incidentally -- proprietor of San Pedro Sulas most luxurious, most confidential, most exclusive, and most elegant brothel.
While membership credentials are not formally issued, they might as well be. Conduct unbecoming gentlemen in the presence of ladies is firmly eschewed in both the public rooms and the public eye.
Infractions result in firm excommunication from the full panoply of lascivious celebration over which Dona Ramona presides with the same regality that Victoria brought to her court. A major commercial figure in the city, for just one example, is barred for life (his or Dona Ramonaís, whichever ends first) for the relatively harmless gaffe of pouring a gin and tonic down the "scoop-top" gown of one of said Madam's ladies of the night. This act was precipitated by the victim's objection to the intimate placement of the gentleman's hand between her bare thighs. She happened to be wearing a floor-length gown at the time; and they were seated at the head-table of the Annual Lions Club Banquet.
For all of her other presumed laxities, Dona Ramona is a stickler for public decorum. This alone distinguishes her in a singularly undistinguished line of business. It also goes far toward marking her a credit to the city, and a glowing example to her less-sensitive sisters. This single idiosyncracy leaves her bordering on becoming a designated national treasure. But Honduras mores, lax as they are, would never permit this.
"Don Guillermo, how good to see you," she effused, as she passed me through the front door and into an attractively outfitted receiving parlor. I reciprocated her greeting with equal warmth.
"I'm so sorry about the other morning, Don Guillerrmo, but there was simply nothing I could do!"
"What do you mean, you're sorry?" I asked in utter confusion, as a lovely creature handed me my usual libation. (I am not unknown on the premises.)
"The girl you wanted to travel with you," Dona Ramona replied, " was gone on a trip to Lake Yojoa with a client. So she was not available. I tried to get someone else to go, but it was just too early. My girls had been up all night. They were tired! Even for you, they wouldnít do it. I am so sorry, Don Guillermo!" She squeezed my hand for added emphasis. "What is wrong?" she asked. "Don Guillermo, you look positively unwell!"
"I am unwell," I said, draining my glass and lowering myself onto a large velour-covered sofa. "Tell someone to get me another drink -- no, just a glass of straight whiskey -- then come sit down. I must speak with you on a most curious matter." She summoned a girl, relayed my order, and then sat down angled toward me on the sofa.
"Let me understand this, Madam," I began shakily, "did you or did you not dispatch a young woman into my service on last Friday morning - to meet me at the airport for certain ill-defined reasons?"
"I could not, Guillermo!" she almost wailed. "That is what I am telling you. It was too early. My babies were all too tired. They did not want to take an airplane ride. They just wanted to sleep. I really tried, Guillermo! They would not go."
"Great God!" I gasped, "This is beyond belief."
"What is wrong? What has happened?"
"Several things," I told her, as the glass of amber fluid was placed in my trembling hand. "In the first place, I have been the unwilling and unknowing despoiler of a presumably honest young woman. I'm sure you will challenge this hypothesis on general terms, at least. Second, I set out to run a crooked game and a quirk of fate forced me into playing honest cards!" I put half the liquor in the glass forever out of reach. "Finally, I ventured an amount of money on a bet, thinking the outcome to be secured, that -- if I had lost it -- would have cost me my best friend, and put me in the poorhouse forever!" The balance of the liquor followed the path of its precursor.
"That is what happened, Dona Ramona. You are looking at a man who has been narrowly missed by Dame Fortune's Flying Express!" Dona Ramona sought to comfort me with words and several more libations. All to no effect. I was an inch from extremis My life passed in front of my eyes.
As soon as it was possible for me to do so, I retreated to my rooms and fell into bed. There to toss and turn under the goad of the most hellish nightmares to ever torture the mind of man. Sleep overtook me several times, only to bring with it another reprise of my terrors.
At last I must have despaired of resting. The evidence led to a firm conclusion that I had arisen, dressed, drank an economy-sized bottle of Lucky Tiger hair tonic, and passed out under the shower while brushing my teeth with a tube of K-Y Jelly.
The next several days were devoted to Proust, Goethe, and quiet meditation, as I attempted to lose myself in the classics and eradicate the horrors that recurrently gripped me in fits of nausea, the sweats, and fierce bouts of physical trembling.
Gambling, it may already be apparent, is just not my game. Not that I consider myself unusually reticent in the face of such hazards; but that financial recklessness, to my orderly turn of mind, is lacking in fundamental prudence. At my stage of life, one does not lightly dare fate on the turn of an honest card -- or the roll of a square die.
A messenger arrived at my door Tuesday morning, bearing a small packet from Ceex. I opened it to discover that the contents, in newly- minted one-hundred-dollar bills, covered the balance of the wager he had lost to me. The emotions prompted by counting the money and realizing the circumstances under which it had come into my hands were sufficient to send me back to bed for another day and a half.
On Thursday I decided that resolution of my emotional impasse could no longer be delayed. Properly attired for a morning call on a young lady, I first rang up the number Connie had provided and was surprised to find that it was valid. At the time I had thought the number to be nothing more than a decoy to lure the hounds off the proper track. Next I purchased a box of confections and a volume treating the topic of Central American buccaneers, and engaged a taxicab to deliver me to the address Connie had given me over the telephone.
She responded to the summons of her landlady with alacrity and great good cheer. Her obvious delight in seeing me once more only intensified the tempest in my soul. I was at great pains to keep a rein on my emotions until the ordinaries were dispensed with, and the course of the conversation was firmly under my control. Only then did I broach the purpose that had impelled me to seek her out.
"Connie, my dear, you must forgive me my feelings for you. While in the eyes of many, such tender regard on the part of a man of my years would be deemed foolishness or worse, I assure you it is most sincere." She moved to my side of the couch and kissed my cheek with warmth and discernible affection.
"Don't say that." she countered. "I think you're just terrific!" The banality, on most occasions, would have put me off. However, applied in this fashion it engendered a warm response on my part.
"Beyond your commendable -- nay, eye-filling -- physical and behavioral attributes, " I continued, "it is plain to see that you are also possessed of a keen intellect, and a sense of orderly purpose in putting it to useful engagements. The combination of intellectual virtues you display is not seen in epidemic proportions among people generally. You are, sweet Connie, a rare, bird of paradise, if I may say so!" She snuggled against me and did not try to interrupt me with redundant protestations.
"In view of these considerations I come to seek a great boon of you."
"You know I will do anything for you that I can," she replied.
"Then grant m the opportunity of having some small part in your scholarly adventures," I pleaded. "While hopefully having made some paltry journalistic contributions to the times in which I have lived, my engagements have not taken me into the labyrinths of history, sociology, anthropology and the like -- and in which you delve. No, dear Connie, it has been my lot to stand aside and merely report on the adventures and accomplishments of others. You can change this for me, if you will."
"Tell me how, Don Guillermo."
"There is in this envelope a sum of money that I want you to have. Consider it an endowment, earned by your demonstrated devotion and potentials for excellence in your chosen field." I handed the packet to her. "Use it as you will in the pursuit of your professional objectives. There are absolutely no restrictions on it and no strings attached. Will you do this for me, dear girl?"
As I looked into her eyes, two small tears emerged and clung for a moment before dropping onto her cheeks. "I don't know what to say, Don Guillermo." She was quite clearly undone by my gesture.
"Then say nothing, Connie. The most profound sentiments ever to emanate from the human soul were communicated between people like us with no need for the spoken word. She took my face between her hands, turned it toward her and kissed me.
These events all transpired some time ago.
Ceex has found some pleasant activity with a series of local ladies that range from shop-girls to society notables. He casts about, seeking momentary amusement or a more lasting liaison; I do not know. We meet regularly in the easy informality of confreres who share experiences privately remembered, and better left where they lie.
Connie pursues her mixed calendar of commerce punctuated by forays into the feral corners of this untamed land. Each time she returns with eye-popping tales of her adventures in some unheard-of nook or cranny in the trackless back-country; among heathen populations still untouched by the smallest ray of enlightenment or civilized customs. I tremble for her. Still, she seems indomitable!
We have reached that exquisite refinement of relationship that accepts without preachments, and supports without questions. Our meetings are only occasional, and the more precious for that fact.
Tonight, for example, I am calling for her at seven. We shall
have cocktails and dinner at a tiny and intimate restaurant with the
delightfully appropriate name, "Touche".
When I told Connie about it, she seemed every bit as excited as I am!
We shall see.