Raymond Chandler could do justice to this place — to the slope of the leafy E, the blunt calligraphy of El Marquez. A man sets down his battered suitcase in room 16. He left Vallarta this morning on a domed and dusty bus heading south, groaning around the corners as it wound its way to this empty little town, the crags jutting from dense green relieved by sudden and irregular cascades of white. Now he walks down the main street, balconies over the sidewalk making shade as the late afternoon sun hangs, recalcitrant, above the horizon. He comes to a table outside a low stucco house pressed between buildings where an Indio woman with black eyes like a lark’s, a long thick braid down her back, stands beside a deep aluminum pot pouring green salsa over a stack of tamales. Without looking down at the ladle in her hands she calls out Hay de pollo y de elote! to the camiones full of workers coming home from the coconut plantation. In heavy Spanish he orders the pollo, preparado, and she reaches in with her tongs and smiles at him as if he’s any other man. He finds a chair beside the open door of the house, cool rising from its dirt floors. Later, as he walks back through the dusk, he can hear the sound of a bullhorn in the distance, crying dos por uno and other words, blurred by the static and an onshore breeze. Getting closer, he makes it out — a hypnotist’s show come to town. Near the beach, a tent, polychrome like a circus tent, laundry hanging on a line behind it blown by the salt air. He listens to the sounds the crowd makes. Curious, he looks in over the head of the ticket taker. A girl is walking up onstage, wearing the plaid skirt and white shirt of a school uniform. When she turns her face has the blank look that sometimes comes before tears. A shadow walks behind her, intoning, pulling something from its pocket—the Puritans might have done this to witches, thinks the man, if they’d had a sense of humor. He leaves, goes back to the room where the fan is spinning crazy circles in the overheated air.
Late the next afternoon he’s opening the battered suitcase for a shirt not soaked with sweat when there’s a knock on the door. He walks over and opens it, the kind of man who doesn’t have to look through the fisheye (and it’s just as well, since there isn’t one) because he knows he’ll handle it in a deliberate though possibly imaginative way. It’s the hotel manager, a wizened man with a moustache that twitches like a rat’s whiskers, his pants pulled above his waist and cinched with a thin leather belt. Maybe—in that way that secrets travel, carried by people you wouldn’t know were watching—the little man has found out what the newcomer is good for. It’s nothing he said—it’s just that sometimes, in a strange place, you don’t need to talk to have the world know who you are. And it comes as a relief to the manager to have the man in room 16, because an hour ago, after hearing a strange noise coming from the room above his apartment, the manager went up and found something wrong in room 43. “Esta muerta,” the manager says, holding one hand with the other. And then, “Alguien le mató.”
The man nods, pretty sure he understands, and follows the manager down the open walkway to a door at the far end, away from the street. The manager pulls out his key and lets the door swing open, silent. A blond man lies across his bed, his stomach white as oleo, his face a black cherry. His tie’s tight around his neck. There’s a half-empty bottle of whisky on the floor, stinking in the heat. The man from room 16 goes over to the bed. He’s never gotten used to the sight of death, not even once has it struck him as ordinary, and it seems to him that this is one of the only pure signs he’s ever had that he is not simply a collection of atoms but indeed possesses a soul. He looks in the man’s face for as long as he can stand and then he opens the drawer of the nightstand and then he gets down on his knees. Beneath the bed he sees a bright flash of cheap metal in the light coming through the curtained window. “He ever been here before?” the man asks, getting up off his knees, and the manager shakes his head and says he doesn’t know, the gringos who come here mostly look the same. They go out again, into the sun. The manager opens a closet and gets a bucket and a mop to clean up the whiskey. The man looks down into the courtyard and he thinks he can hear the sound of crying. Descending the polished steps, he follows it. Behind the stairs he finds the girl he’d seen yesterday riding her bike along the cobblestones—the girl who sat under the carnival tent. And he knows things, too, because he is a stranger here.
The next morning, the man in room 16—they know his real name, but when they talk about him they call him Juan—comes down to the manager’s office. The woman who gave him the room key looks up from where she sits, embroidering the head of a turkey on a pillowcase. He walks up to the counter. His face appears beside a bunch of artificial flowers. “Señora,” he says. In his mind he calls her Maria though her name is something else, which sounds Aztec, and when he heard it first it startled him and passed through his brain like vapor. Her loose white blouse billows around her arms and her wide chest, its folds stirred by the oscillating fan. His eyes feel as if yellow sand from the long beach worked its way under them while he was sleeping and he can tell the lukewarm water from the tap will never wash it away. “I don’t blame you for killing him,” he says in English. “If she was my granddaughter”—he had a son once, he will never be a grandfather—“I think I’d have done the same.” And then, bearing the weight of the battered suitcase, he walks out of the office and two blocks to the main street and waits beside the man with the machete who cuts open green coconuts until the next bus comes creaking to a stop. He climbs the three stairs through a door that won’t close and lets it take him wherever it’s going.
About the author
After living for 10 years on a sailboat, Jessica Adams joined the English Department of the College of General Studies, University of Puerto Rico,…Read the full bio