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Short Story by Richard Speights



Slivers of a Shattered Life




Thick dark clouds had been looming behind the mountains all afternoon.  They now boiled over the peaks and across the valley.  A breeze ahead of the storm cooled the American’s forehead as he stood on the smooth veranda tiles and looked over a neatly clipped lawn at the distant mountains and the clouds.  His drink sweated in his hand.  His mood was as turbulent as the storm. 

   The telephone rang. 

   “It is her,” Maria said, hurrying into the house.  She lingered over the phone and let it ring once more before answering.  The man watched her through the open window.  She spoke in Spanish, the words rapid and complicated, and then she held out the phone.  “It is Andrea.” 

   “Is everything well?” he asked into the phone in Spanish. 

   Mas o Minos,” Andrea said.  Her voice was soft, hesitant. 

   “What is happening with you?” 

   She began to explain, but the language became complicated. 

   “Uno momento,” he said and handed the phone to Maria.  She sat on the bed and spoke with the girl. 

   I wish I knew the language better, he thought.  It’s no good getting my information second hand.  Maria looked up as she set down the phone, forcing a smile.  She could say as much with her eyes as she could say in English, and she could say a lot in English.  It didn’t look promising. 

   They went back to the veranda and sat on the almond colored plastic chairs she had brought out the kitchen before the clouds had first appeared over the mountains.  Maria looked out across the valley before cutting her eyes at the man. 

   “What did she say?” 

   “She say she is sick today.  She is…how do you say?” she asked, gesturing. 

   “Vomiting.” 

   “She is vomiting.  That is why she not come here.  But I do not know.  I think she is nervous.  The boy, Ricardo, he cry all night, and he eat nothing for two days.  She feel very badly for him.” 

   Oh, he’s breaking my heart, the man thought, leaning back in the chair.  Then he said, “She couldn’t take the crying.” 

   Maria’s husband came through the gate.  Ramón built sugarcane trailers for his father in a fabrication shop across the dirt road.  The shop had been built without walls for the climate and topped by bright red roof.  A cabin sat behind the shop on the other side of an orange and lemon grove fronted by several large banana trees.  Fruit hung from every tree.  The man had rented the little cabin from Ramón’s uncle. 

   “Look,” Ramón said, smiling, “it’s beginning to rain.  We need it.” 

   The man looked up into the sky then down at the walkway.  Raindrops were making little moist points on the concrete.  Maria told Ramón about the phone call, again the language rushed and complicated so the man could not fully understand. 

   “Ah,” Ramón said.  “Andrea, she is confused.  She is having second thoughts about leaving Ricardo.  Maybe there is a little love left.  Maybe this is all happening too fast for her.” 

   A bolt of lightning flashed over the house, thunder rattling the tin roof and lingering for a long moment.  They looked, startled, into the sky. 

   “Yes, it’s going to rain good.  The coffee needs the rain but not the sugarcane.” 

   “What did she say she will do?” the man asked. 

   “She say she come tomorrow and give you back the money,” Maria said in English then spoke to Ramón in Spanish.  Ramón listened, jutting his face at her. 

   “Oh, the girl Andrea, her mother feels guilty now,” Ramón translated.  “She tells Andrea, her daughter is not for sale.  And now she feels guilty.” 

   “I wasn’t buying her,” the man said.  “She said she needed to leave this boy, and I gave her the money so she could.  Even her mother said the boy was too young and had no job.” 

   “She knows.”  Ramón had a way of smiling through a conversation no matter how dreary the subject.  “Now her mother feels guilty.” 

   The rain came suddenly heavy, and Ramón moved a catch basin under a gutter spout.  “Look at it rain.  The coffee needs the rain.”  A chain, hanging from the spout to guide the flow into the basin carried only part of the water.  The rest splattered on the grass.  Ramón shifted the heavy basin again and then stood and watched.  The wind blew the mist into the veranda. 

   “Let’s go into the chicken,” Ramón said, smiling at Maria.  It was a good joke.  When Maria had first learned English, she had confused the words chicken and kitchen.  She smiled, shaking her head and carrying two chairs, arms akimbo.  The American didn’t feel like smiling.  He had heard the joke before. 

   The kitchen was out back of the house, surrounded by an exterior wall only three feet tall.  A cyclone fence filled the space up to a shed like roof.  The man had wondered about the fence.  It was no good against mosquitoes, and the birds would land on it, lean inside, and look around the kitchen.  There was a good breeze, and the rain stayed out. 

   Maria made coffee.  The man and Ramón watched the rain out the side door.  An exotic looking, spinally tree shed water off the tips of its spear-like leaves.  Banana leaves nodded under the downpour. 

   “The rain makes me happy.” 

   The man nodded, but a knot had been building in his stomach.  Maria set bread on the table she had toasted in butter in the skillet.  The coffee made the man feel a little better, but he held the bread without eating. 

   “I can’t work like this,” the man said.  “I haven’t written a thing in two days.  I’ve got to do something.” 

   “You can see her when she goes to college tonight,” Ramón said.  “She has to go through the gate at six,”

   “That’s right.”  The man sat up with an abrupt image of himself standing in the rain holding a rose.  “Yes,” he said.  “What’s the name of that florist?” 

   “La Gardenia.  But maybe you no buy her roses,” Maria said, looking very serious.  “A girl like to feel special, and you buy roses for the other girl.  Maybe a bit of chocolate is better,” she said, earnestly. 

   “Perhaps,” the man said, but he couldn’t imagine a bit of chocolate having the same impact, even if he had bought roses for the other girl. 

   “What time is it?” 

   “I think it is late,” Maria said.  No one could find a watch.  “You want me call the florist?” Maria asked.  Her eyes mocked the question. 

   “Por favor.  One rose, no more,” he said. 

   He stood on the veranda as she made the call.  The rain was letting up.  A few sprinkles rippled the puddles.  Maria handed the man a card with the name of the florist hand written on one side.  The man turned the card over.  It was one of his own calling cards. 

   “It is five fifteen,” she said. 

   “That gives me forty-five, no, forty minutes.  Her bus is at the school about five before six.”  He pocketed the card and hurried through the gate. 

   “Take a taxi,” she said.  “It is faster.” 

   “Watch my cabin; I left the door open,” the man called back. 

   He walked quickly up the road, a little mud clinging to his hiking boots.  At the Pan American highway he looked for a cab.  There were none.  He crossed the narrow potted asphalt highway and stood at the bus stop and watched for one of the red cars topped with yellow taxi signs.  An old bus lumbered around the distant corner and rolled slowly to the stop.  He still didn’t see a taxi, so he dropped a few colones into the driver’s hand and took a seat. 

   “Que hora es?” 

   “It’s five twenty-five,” the driver said, glancing up at the man through the rearview mirror.  The mirror was shattered as if someone had smashed it with a rock.  It had a center point with shards growing web-like to the mirror’s frame.  Each shard reflected part of the driver’s face.  Together they reflected the whole. 

   The wiper on the passenger side didn’t work, and the man stared out the rain-splattered windshield.  The bus moved very slowly.  He’s ahead of schedule and bleeding time, the man thought.  It was a country of slow motion, and the man enjoyed the pace; but he was now in a hurry. 

   Vehicles trailing the bus passed in a rush at each stop.  Another bus rumbled around as his bus stopped to pick up a man holding a child.  The American fumed, but he could do nothing.  He watched for a taxi.  If he saw one, it would be nothing to jump off at this speed.  The bus stopped, and an old woman struggled with her large shopping bags.  She held two in each hand by twine twisted handles and crept up the steps, stopping to catch her breath before fumbling for the change in a small black leather purse.  The man turned away and stared into the darkening twilight. 

   Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the driver accelerated.  He sped between stops, braking hard, jerking the passengers around in their seats.  Wind rushed through the windows and open door; and the old bus vibrated so the pieces of the broken rearview mirror shivered in their frame. 

   There you go my friend, the man thought.  Put the spurs to her. 

   In a couple of minutes, the bus made the turn into town and onto the smooth freshly paved street beside the square.  The man stood in the open door. 

   “Alto aquí,” he said.  “Stop here.”   

   The driver ignored him.  But when the traffic slowed, the man stepped off into the stream of cars and worked his way through to the first cab in a long line of taxis along the side of the square. 

   “Usted libre?”  “Are you free.” 

   “Si.” 

   “Do you know La Gardenia?” 

   The driver looked confused. 

   “The place of the flowers.” 

   “Yes, yes, I know the place.” 

   “Bien,” the man said, dropping into the front seat.  “Go fast; I’m in a hurry.” 

   The driver rushed his cab into the traffic. 

   “Que hora es?” 

   “Five forty-five, no, Five fifty.”  The driver showed the man his watch. 

   “Please hurry,” the man said.  The driver slipped some traffic and pushed in front of a car, using the other drivers' fear against them.  Another block and they turned sharply and stopped hard in front of the shop. 

   “Wait for me.”  Inside a woman was stepping out a large glass enclosed cold room with his rose.  The cold room filled the small shop, forcing the customers to enter through a narrow slit of hallway.  She looked up and smiled at the man. 

   “Uno momento she said in a singsong voice, moving toward the back where they wrapped bouquets in green tissue paper.   

   “No, no,” he said.  “I want it as it is.” 

   The woman looked at him as if he had said he would eat the rose there. 

   “This is good the way it is,” he said.  Esta es bien.”  “This is good.” 

  She slowly laid the rose on the counter.  He handed her a thousand colones note and picked up the rose, collected his change, and moved quickly out to the cab. 

   “To the college,” he said. 

   “Which one?” 

   “The one up the hill on the left.  What is the hour?” 

   The driver showed him and he grimaced.  “The bus arrives any minute.” 

   The taxi turned around and raced back toward the square.  The man sat and held the rose stupidly in one hand and gripped the handle over his window with the other.  They made a hard right, cutting off a pickup truck, and headed for the Pan American.  I hope we don’t kill anyone, the man thought. 

   They passed a large truck and blindly rushing through the highway intersection, the taxi’s small engine roaring.  The man glanced down the road for Andrea’s bus.  He didn’t see it.  It may be too late, he thought.  This may all be for nothing.  They turned on a road and up a small dramatic hill to the school. 

   Andrea’s bus was there, pouring dark gray fumes out its rusted exhaust pipe and white starched shirted students out its door.  Starched white shirts from many buses crowed the sidewalk, shouldering book packs and migrating toward the gate. 

   “I’ll be right back,” the man said and yanked the door open. 

   “Wait until I stop.”

   The man slipped though the white shirts beside the bus and looked into the windows.  He didn’t see her.  There were too many shirts, too many faces.  He held the flower carefully and pushed through the crowd, standing tall to see over their heads.  He saw hair, long and curly, bouncing as she walked.  She was near the gate. 

   “Andrea,” he called.  She kept walking.  “ANDY.”  She looked up, left and right.  Turning she saw the man.  He couldn’t find a way though the shirts, so he stepped into the road and walked around, now secreting the rose behind his back. 

   She smiled her happy, young smile, and he produced the rose.  She looked down at it, her eyes telling her surprise.  He moved closer and handed it to her.  Pausing to get the Spanish right, he said, Mi corazón, si, mi Alma llamados por Te.”  “My heart, yes, my soul calls for you.” 

   Her face softened, and they stood together in the crowd until he felt awkward. 

   “We will talk tomorrow,” he said and kissed her cheek, and she yielded softly with a gentle turn of her head.  He touched her arm and then walked around the bus and back to the taxi.  Inside he sighed and relaxed in his seat. 

   “Perfect.  Let’s go back to El Central.” 

   The cab glided down the hill and across the Pan American, rolling to a stop where they had begun. 

   “Cuánto?” 

   “Five hundred colones.” 

   The man wasn’t sure what the driver had said and handed him a thousand.  The driver handed the man a wad of faded bills.  He looked at the money and then added a thousand and slapped it into the driver’s hand. 

   “Much thanks,” the man said.  The driver smiled. 

   He stood a moment, feeling satisfied, and then headed for an open-faced restaurant across the square.  It was a hangout for Americans.  He had met a few of the expatriates but stayed mostly to himself.  He didn’t want anyone spoiling it.  He hadn’t come to this country for them anyway.  He had come for something else. 

   He ordered a Ron Centenario rum and smoked one of the cigarettes he had brought though customs.  He liked the rum; but the local cigarettes were no good.  He had made sure to bring enough.  He watched people walk past along the front of the restaurant and wrote notes in a book from his pocket.  A young woman passed, her breasts swaying heavily in a thin terrycloth top, tight, revealing.  She walked as if self-conscious, and the man watched her closely.  She was about the same age as Andrea. 

   He was thirty-seven.  There had been a divorce years before; and although there had been many women since, he had never remarried.  They had entered his life then left or he had left them; and when they ended, they mostly ended badly. 

   The girl walked past again, now holding a videocassette.  She glanced at him, and he wrote down a thought then put the notebook away and paid for his drink. 

   Only two other people boarded the bus back to Palmaras.  Along the way, a commotion stopped traffic.  “Accidenté,” the driver said half over his shoulder.  The man couldn’t see much, a few people standing around stopped cars, red brake lights reflecting off the rain wet road.  The bus eased forward, working its way around the scene.  Someone was lying on the road.  He wasn’t moving and blood streamed from his head.  The driver slowed, craning to see.  “This is bad, very bad,” he said and then drove away. 

   The American felt the emptiness like before on the veranda.  He thought about the girl’s dark, long, curly hair and young smile.  He tried to stay with her, but his mind drifted to the other girl before and the roses, when he had proposed to her in the square, traditional, on one knee, and how she had declined before he could finish.  Then the woman he had known in Florida.  She could set the night on fire, but he soon discovered the insanity she hid behind a smile.  As good as it was, it didn’t soften the madness.  He recalled other faces back to his wife, back to the night she had packed her clothes quietly as he had slept and had left the front door open on her way out.  He had reached for her and, waking, had found an empty place.  He sat in that open door and watched the sun rise and then watched it sink into a very dark place. 

   He leaned against the wall of the bus and washed his face in the warm breeze. 

   Maria had shut up his cabin.  He fished his key from his pocket and left the door open for the night air.  He pulled the laces apart in a wisp of dust and tossed the boots aside and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply and trying to let the day settle into his thoughts. 

   This should have been simple, he thought.  It’s never been simple.  It always gets complicated.  Just like the language.  If I write it, I could make it simple, and then I could put it away.  He thought about that for a long time.  “Maybe not,” he said aloud. 

   He snuffed the smoke and shut the door.  Adjusting the mosquito net around the bed, he remembered the injured man.  The man was probably on his way home and into his bed when a stranger crashed into his life.  He would lie on the wet asphalt bleeding until they carried him to the hospital and then wait for someone to claim him, if anyone would claim him. 

   The American lay on his rented bed in his rented cabin and listened to the quietness deep into the night until falling into a fitful sleep.  The next morning Andrea called and said goodbye.  The week after, he set up house with a woman he met through a friend. 

 

-End-


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