The dangerous ingredients are all there. Baja California and everything that conjures. Sun, ocean, tequila, rip tides. A handsome, young couple in the throes of a rough patch. Eight months of failing to get pregnant, and sex has become a chore. The guy on a business trip. His wife along to spice things up. Whatever that means. The decision to travel together is sudden.
The previous dawn, sleepless again, she had been staring out the bedroom window at her vacant birdfeeders in Indianapolis. He was packing toiletries in his carry-on. And the small framed wedding photo. Standard procedure. He travels frequently for work, enough that her plane ticket can be easily purchased with miles. The husband rarely talks to her about the nitty-gritty of his job. A consultant for the hotel industry. That’s all she knows.
“Do you want some breakfast?” she asks.
“No, thanks. Coffee is enough. What are you looking at, honey?”
“Nothing,” she says.
“You can’t be looking at nothing.”
“The nothing at our birdfeeders.”
“They’re probably next door.”
“No birds there either. Maybe the world has ended, and we don’t know it yet,” she sighs.
“Okay, okay. You can come on the trip. I’ll bring you along for moral support.”
“The fun in the sun kind. Haven’t you ever been to Mexico?”
“No,” she says, “Do I need my passport?”
Flying over the mountains. The Sierra Madre Occidental splayed below. Clear and bright. Dry, lunar swirls of rock and rubble. Blacks and whites and grays and ochres. No hint of any vegetation. Beautiful and eerie. Her first visit to Mexico and somehow he hadn’t known that. He rings for a stewardess and orders drinks. It’s noon. What the hell. She hasn’t consumed alcohol in eight months. Bottoms up. She tries dozing on his shoulder. He tries reciting a movie plot. A drama about lost treasure. His cute movie plot recitations, emphasizing extraneous details such as the makes and models of all vehicles, often put her to sleep. Not this time.
“If we were in a movie, you and me, what would it be?” she giggles.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“The movie that is us. What is the plot?” she whispers.
“We’re not in a movie. We’re just regular people.”
“Would it start with us meeting at the ice skating rink? Or the time your frat raided the slumber party? Or do you think the movie should begin before we first met? Revealing some information from childhood.”
“When I called in a bomb threat in high school to avoid taking a chemistry test,” he says.
“A joke, babe.”
“Oh, look over there! The Pacific. So amazing.”
“You can start your movie with that.”
The Gulf, actually. The Sea of Cortez. Shades of blue that she didn’t know existed. Hope restored by booze and sunlight dancing on the water. Vivid swells of sensation. Wings tilt and the plane swoops down across shimmering beaches to the runway. “Welcome to paradise,” the stewardess announces. Exit directly onto the tarmac and a fierce embrace of warm, salt air. A bald chauffeur waiting for them with a sign. The client has provided a car. How cool is that!
“You feeling okay?” he asks, as they climb into the backseat.
“Like I’ve landed on another planet.”
“Don’t worry. They all speak some English.”
“Why did the firm send you here?”
“It’s a hotel economy.”
“Yes, but specifically…”
“I met the client at a conference last month. A traditional gentleman, fighting the good fight against the demise of western civilization. We had dinner and a few drinks. Apparently, I remind him of a son who died in a boating accident. When he called our office, he asked to work with me personally.”
“Fighting the good fight against what?”
“I’m guessing he wants to discuss the rumor that the Vegas casinos intend to move on Cabo.”
The bald chauffeur whistles and swears. He drives with one hand on the wheel. The populous Cabo corridor gives way to expanses of cactus and brush. The busy highway narrows to one lane carved into a bluff above the water. Shorebirds floating on updrafts. Surges of foam below. Tight switchbacks descend into a quaint fishing village. The client’s hotel, which the husband refers to as a “boutique”, is a renovated palacio near the main square. Built during the sugar boom. Inner tiled courtyard with a fountain.
A bright-eyed boy in a uniform leads them to a room with a view of the church and the square. A huge four-poster bed and complimentary this and that. Bathrobes, slippers, tequila, chocolate. The guy studies the lay-out with a professional eye, while he changes his shirt. Struggles a bit with his cufflinks. The wife peels off her traveling clothes and unpins her hair.
“Sweetie, do you sense it?” she asks.
“The life force! Earth, sky, ocean. This is a place where we could pregnant. Let’s make love.”
“Yes, let’s do our duty and try to enjoy it.”
“I’ve been up since dawn.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“My client is expecting me,” he says.
“We can make it fast. Nobody is ever on time in Mexico, right?”
“Except for bull fights and burials.”
“What’s the matter? Why are you stalling?”
“Sorry, got a job to do. I landed this contract for the firm. My boss wants an update. It’s important for my career,” he says.
“When will you come back?”
“A couple hours. Just wait here. Relax.”
She doesn’t want to wait. She’s sick of waiting. For him. For the doctors. For test results. For life to begin. One semester of nursing school and she knows just enough about infertility to be despairing. She puts on her swimsuit under a wrap and leaves her hair down. Blonde waves flowing over her shoulders. She pockets the little bottle of tequila.
The young woman ventures forth alone from the hotel. Aiming for the beach. Armed with a Spanish phrasebook and a small red umbrella that she uses as a parasol. Twirling her private column of shade. And, yes, ‘parasol’ means ‘for the sun’. She also looks up the word for ‘attractive’. It’s been a long time since she felt attractive.
A few blocks later, beyond the smattering of jewelry shops and the dusty Cultural Center featuring a collection of typewriters and sewing machines, and a Day of the Dead altar, she remembers her retired father’s advice on foreign travel: “stay close to the hotel.”
A barrio of thatched roofs and dirt floors and chickens and stray dogs. Creased faces in the hot shadows gazing at her impassively. One grinning, rotund figure on a rusted automotive backseat, extracted to serve as patio furniture – oh, hello – the chauffeur. He waves and whistles.
Vertiginous fish smells.
The young woman steps around a boat trailer, parked halfway in the street. Halfway in deep shade. The trailer holding a dory full of gill nets. She collides with a fisherman. A glistening, muscular, shirtless fellow. Splicing line with a fillet knife. The native apparition glares down at her and the fresh cut in his thumb. Caused by her stumble against the blade. A row of blood droplets across his palm.
He grimaces and tries to stifle the pain with a chortle. The woman, apologetic, jumps into action. She is also a former Girl Scout. Her purse contains bandages and disinfectant. She grabs his hand and administers aid and offers him the little bottle of tequila.
The fisherman winces and says, “The senora thinks she is, what, an angel of mercy?”
“No, just a lost tourist trying to find her way to the beach. Can you tell me how to get there?”
He eyes her warily. “If you promise not to stab me again, I can direct you. I am going there now. To help with the turtle babies.”
“Excuse me, the what?”
“Baby tortoises. Hatched this morning from eggs that the school teacher protects from the snakes and the gulls. It is necessary to release them at the high tide.”
“Is this place nearby?”
“A few miles up the shore.”
“Oh, too far to walk,” she sighs.
“I can give you a lift on my scooter, if you don’t mind riding without a helmet.”
Another of her father’s missives ignored. Always wear a motorcycle helmet. She clutches her purse and the fisherman’s waist. Warm wind caressing her face. Rippling through her hair. The ride is five minutes on the paved road, then another five on a dirt path winding among cactus to the ocean. To several netted birthing boxes in the sand and grass on the upper shore behind a row of beached fishing vessels. She will savor this ride forever. Likewise the easy rapport with the fisherman’s children and the grandmothers and the students, under the guidance of a high-school biology teacher, all shepherding the green, squirming mass of wee turtles down a steep embankment of wet sand to the water. Assisting when they flip over. Nudging when they veer off course. Wavelets lapping up to receive those that will survive. The young woman receives an invitation to return tomorrow for the protesta.
The sunburnt consultant and his mustachioed, gray-haired client, both drinking Bohemia beers, observe the turtle release from the veranda of the hotel swim club. A half mile down the shore. Far enough that the consultant does not recognize his wife among the distant crowd.
“Many of the turtle hatchlings die, of course, but the species will endure, if we’re lucky. And we can continue to serve turtle soup at our restaurants,” the hotel owner says.
“Is this a state run project?” the young man asks, reaching for his sunscreen.
“No, it’s purely local. We asked for money from La Paz, to no avail. Although it may sound strange coming from me, a conservative businessman – sometimes the people have to take matters into their own hands.”
“As you would also like to do with the casino threat,” the young man says, returning to the matter at hand.
“If I could only figure out how. But then, smart fellow, that’s why I’ve hired you.”
“Right, yes, I’m getting the picture.”
The elegant, older man points his riding crop toward a seawall of black boulders implanted on the top edge of the beach beyond the fishing boats. Backhoes and other earth-moving equipment parked slightly inland.
“That’s where the Vegas people want to build. A thousand rooms at pennies a night. They lure customers in with cheap lodging prices, as you know. It will destroy my business. They brought in a civil engineer from Phoenix who had never done a project by the ocean and he puts in that seawall. It turns out to be actually causing severe erosion. The engineer did not understand subterranean tidal flow. The fishermen are furious. That beachfront has been theirs forever, where they keep their boats and sell their catch. They think they own it, although no one has a deed. Tomorrow they are mounting a demonstration. And, frankly, I sympathize with the poor chaps.”
“We have a saying – ‘politics makes for strange bedfellows.’”
“Economics too. Would you like another Bohemia?”
“Sure. It’s good stuff.”
“Have I told you the story about Richard Burton and Bohemia beer during the filming of ‘Night of the Iguana’?”
In fact, yes, twice already. The young consultant, needing time to gather his thoughts, asks to hear it again. He wants a few minutes just to settle his sore brain. What a whirlwind this day has been. He tunes out the lengthy anecdote, and instead imagines a conversation with his wife later in bed. Suddenly wanting to tell her all the details.
“So, this dude picks me up in a white Escalade and, apologizing for needing to do an errand, drives to an unfinished modern house high in a canyon to ‘collect a small debt’, he says. The client leaves the engine running and reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a pistol and informs me that there’s another one in there, if I should need it.”
“Oh, Christ, honey. You should be getting hazard pay.”
“On the way back into town, we’re stopped at a checkpoint by federal police, or rather, navy troops in trucks with machine guns, who are looking for drugs ferried in from offshore trawlers. And my client suddenly gets very nervous. I mean, usually he’s a picture of calm. He makes a crack, ‘Vive la armada!’ Which the trooper takes the wrong way and pointedly summons his commanding officer. Meanwhile, the client leans over to me and whispers, not to worry, we can use the cash he just collected up in the canyon to bribe the commanding officer, if necessary.”
“Yikes, what happened?”
“The commanding officer turns out to be a friend of his from their colegio days. And within a minute, they’re yucking it up. Embrazos, the whole bit. I’m thinking, maybe I should look for another line of work. Because, honestly, this is out of my league and I have no clue what to do about his casino problem, other than try to create a negative publicity incident.”
“A negative publicity incident?”
“I tell him, hey, up in the States, even large corporations do not like to be associated with sites that are, you know, tainted.”
“If something happened to the development acreage. Something ugly, you know, and the place got renamed something ugly. Like ‘Bloody Beach’. Obviously, I can’t say that directly. I make it sound offhand, like one of my bad jokes. After a few more beers.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay, the client did.”
But, alas, when the young man returns to the hotel room after midnight, his wife is deep asleep. And he can’t even rouse her with a sensual come-on. In the morning, too early again, hung-over, he groans and stretches and rolls towards her on the enormous bed. She has already vanished. Undulations in the sheets mark her absence. He finds a note on the bedside table: ‘gone swimmin’.’
Gone out alone without him. Hmmm.
The guy dresses quickly and stumbles downstairs for coffee amid the palm fronds in the colorful tiled courtyard. The client awaits him in jodhpurs. Sipping tea. Hearty handshakes. Oops, forgot about the client’s morning constitutional on horseback. The young man downs an espresso.
“Has anyone seen my wife?”
“Yes, she left quite early on a motorcycle. Said she was going to the beach.”
“She did what?”
“I told her we’d meet later at the club.”
The client ushers the young man into the backseat of the white Escalade. The bald chauffeur drives them to the stables near the beach club.
Loud surf pounds in the young man’s head. Who wrote this frigging movie? And what to do about his churning stomach. His boss would probably advise him to humor the client by pretending to know how to ride. How hard can it be? One, two, three and up into the saddle. Fortunately, the horse, a palomino, seems to know the drill. Clop, clop, clop. Pause for a quick upchuck behind a tall cactus. High-tide mark on the beach littered with plastic bottles and a few tiny, green turtle bodies.
“I enjoy the morning light on the water. Quite charming,” the hotel owner says.
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
“I brought you binoculars, in case we spot some interesting birds, or a whale.”
“Thank you,” the young man sputters.
“Or we could spy on the fishermen’s demonstration up ahead. They’re starting early.”
A large, boisterous crowd on the shore operates like a bucket brigade. Removing boulders from the seawall and dragging them down into the ocean. Higher up, a bald figure running amid the backhoes with a gas can. Flames shoot up from the excavation equipment. An explosion scares the animals. The consultant’s horse rears and he barely stays in the saddle. Black smoke spirals into the sky.
“Who set the fire? Not one of the fishermen.”
“It began with an idea from our conversation.”
“Looks like your chauffeur.”
“As with the turtles, sometimes a small percentage of a population must be sacrificed for the rest to survive.”
“Dust clouds over there. Vehicles coming.”
“Vive la armada!”
Twisting the binoculars into focus, the gringo consultant sees it all too clearly. Military trucks racing across the chaparral toward the demonstrators. Growing clouds of black smoke from the burning construction equipment. Gunners at the ready in the truck beds. Waves curl and sweep the sand. An osprey circles and dives in the shallows. Sunbeams crest the mountain and spotlight the roiling crowd. Among them, a young woman with blonde hair and a red parasol. All the ingredients for a tragedy.