Andrew Jason Valencia
thumbnail photo by Beth
The Sierra Fin hostel was in its tenth year of operation when Shep arrived one morning to apply for the assistant manager job. The town of Fortaleza Española sat on the coast like a flattened squid with at least ten unpaved roads jutting out from the city proper, winding their way through the stony hills and preserved forests that ran along the shore. Shep drove his newly acquired ’89 Dodge pickup down one of the longer and more challenging stretches of road until, less than a hundred yards from the beach, he came upon a cluster of squat tan buildings with the look of a run-down Motel 6 or Travel Lodge. The sign on the marquee—SIERRA FIN HOSTEL VACANCIES YEAR ROUND—didn’t impress him very much. Neither did the hostel’s owner, Roy, a pot-bellied British pensioner who conducted Shep’s interview over the hood of the Dodge with a beer in one hand and a lit cigarillo in the other.
“You bring a copy of your résumé?” Roy asked, scratching at a mosquito bite bulging out from his freckled forearm.
“I attached it to the email I sent before I came down,” Shep said. “Didn’t you get it?”
“Oh, I got it,” Roy said. “But my printer’s been out of ink since last summer. Hard to come by this far from town.”
Shep felt his leg muscles tense up. “Well, I can give you a quick summary if you want.”
“No need.” Roy licked the beer from his mustache and stared off into the low green canopy above the roadside. Some unseen forest bird unleashed a shrill squawk every few seconds. Beyond that, only the soft patter of leaf water disturbed the quiet of their surroundings. “Only have a few questions for you. First and foremost is whether you have any experience working in a place like this.”
Shep leaned away from the truck and wiped the warm sweat from the back of his neck. “The only experience I’ve got is as a journalist,” he said. “Nine years of it. I’m a sports reporter.”
“NCAA. American college football.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” Roy said. He puffed on the cigarillo. “How’s your Spanish?”
“I studied a little in college,” Shep said. “But it’s been a while.”
“Is that your way of saying you don’t know any?”
“Would that be a deal-breaker?”
“Not necessarily. A little Spanish would be good, certainly. A little Chinese would be even better. But in any case, most of our guests manage to make themselves understood in English. So it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
Shep brushed his fingers through the front of his hair, which in the late morning humidity was resting flat against his scalp. Dark stains appeared under the arms of his Fresno State sweatshirt, under which his plain white tank top was soaked completely through. He knew he didn’t look very professional, but after a week on the road it was the cleanest outfit he had left.
“I suppose my second question,” Roy said, “is how a young man like you came to find yourself in a spot such as this. I take it you only just arrived in the country, correct?”
“Flew in from California about ten days ago,” Shep said.
“Right. So what’s the story with that?” Roy took a final puff from the cigarillo and dropped the smoldering stump into a puddle of muddy rainwater. “You in trouble of some sort? With the American authorities?”
“I’ve never broken the law in my life,” Shep said. “An old friend talked me into coming down here on a wild goose chase. Said he had a job lined up for me at an English-language newspaper up in Panama City. So I uprooted my whole life and flew down here on short notice. But when I arrived, the paper had already folded up, and my friend was nowhere to be found.”
Roy groaned sympathetically. “That’s like something out of a bad dream,” he said. “Surprised you didn’t turn right around and fly back home.”
“I would have if I could.”
Shep didn’t know what to make of the look Roy gave him then. In general, he seemed like the type of guy who was hard to read at any given moment. The section of face that stuck out between his graying beard and matted bangs appeared almost Indian it was so stoic and dark. He had heard things about the “stiff upper lip” emotionlessness of the British, but then Roy hardly seemed representative of any particular group of people.
“Listen,” Shep said. “I’m going to be straight with you, mainly because I can’t afford to play it cool right now. The truth is that I’m broke. I spent almost everything I had on my ticket down here, and what little I had left got eaten away trying to figure out my next step. I picked this truck up for next to nothing, and I found a cheap hostel where I could connect to the internet. But yours was the only job listing in the entire country that won me so much as an interview.”
He waited for Roy to offer some sign of condolence, and when it didn’t come he lowered his head and scraped the loose earth with the heel of his shoe.
“What I’m trying to say is, I don’t have anywhere else to turn. If I had any living relatives back home, I’d be hitting them up for help. But I don’t. Fact is, I’m all alone in the world. My credit score’s a mess, and even before I got laid off I was struggling just to get by. Coming down here was supposed to be a way for me to start over. It was my last resort.”
And that’s when Shep saw Roy smile for the first time. His teeth were in good condition despite the smoking and the Britishness. Ten days abroad and already Shep was learning to abandon preconceived notions.
“So what you’re really saying,” Roy said, “is that the Sierra Fin is your last last resort.”
A low sinking feeling began to swell up inside Shep’s stomach as he envisioned himself sleeping in the front cabin of the Dodge for weeks on end, struggling to get by as a transient immigrant in a country whose language he couldn’t speak and whose dangers he could only imagine. But then Roy pulled the lid off the plastic cooler that was resting on the ground. He dug two more cans of beer out of the ice and handed one to Shep.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “This place was my last last resort too.” He popped open the can and drank deeply while Shep continued to look at him with bated breath. “These towns along the coast were made for starting over. The waves wash away everything that doesn’t matter.”
Roy waited for Shep to open his beer, and then raised his own can to eye-level.
“Cheers,” he said. “And welcome aboard.”
Shep followed Roy up a set of small concrete steps that led to the door of the main office. Though he managed the climb without difficulty, there was no hiding the unnatural stiffness of his right leg as he swung it from one step to the next, keeping the ankle locked and knee unbent. Roy stood inside the doorway waiting for Shep to go ahead of him. He noticed Shep’s awkward gait and hummed softly through his nose.
“That’s quite a limp you’ve got there,” he said. “Were you in the service?”
Shep reached the top of the steps and seized both sides of the doorframe. “Not me,” he said. “Used to play quarterback for my high school team. Injury senior year screwed up my knee. Had to have three surgeries just so I could move at regular speed.”
Indeed, as soon as he was through the door, Shep resumed his normal pace and the limp regressed to where it was barely noticeable.
“Was that how you came to be a sports journalist?” Roy asked. “Because you couldn’t play football anymore?”
Shep shrugged. “I love football,” he said. “If I couldn’t play, then writing about it seemed like the next best thing.”
The office was little more than a refurbished camper trailer with an imposed wall separating the reception area from the spare rooms in the back. Several seasons’ worth of scuba and snorkeling posters were thumbtacked across two bulletin boards situated on opposite walls of the lobby. Roy went behind the counter and removed a tin cashbox from one of the bottom drawers. He flipped it open and took out a small tray loaded with twenty and fifty dollar bills.
“During the tourist season, I can usually afford to take on a few locals as temporary hires,” he said. “But it’s just been me on my own since September. Used to have my youngest boy around to help out, but he moved back to England to continue with his studies. The place is a bit much for one person to handle, even in the off season.”
“The job posting said something about public relations,” Shep said. “I did a little advertising work as a college intern.”
“We have a website that’s about all the PR we’ll ever need,” Roy said. “You’re welcome to play with it if you like, but most of the work that needs doing around here is pretty menial, I’m afraid.” He glanced at Shep’s leg again. “I hope that won’t be a problem.”
Shep straightened his stance and drove his fists through the front pouch of his sweatshirt. Four years of college, nine years’ work experience, and all the dues-paying along the way had led him to this. He drew the rough corner of his cheek between his teeth and began to chew on it compulsively.
“I can’t afford to be picky,” he said. “It’s all honest work.”
“That’s a good attitude to have,” Roy said. He pulled the stack of twenties from the tray and dealt three of them onto the counter. “This is to help you get settled,” he said. “Tonight you can head into town and pick up some toothpaste and crisps and anything else you need to tide yourself over.”
“I really appreciate that,” Shep said, folding the bills into his wallet.
“The regular pay is eight hundred a month. If you’d like to lodge in one of the extra rooms, I’ll have to deduct a little something for it. Say five dollars a night.”
Shep did the math in his head. “That’s a lot less than I was hoping for,” he said.
“More than the seasonal hires make.” Roy closed the cashbox and stowed it back under the counter. “And anyway, the prices are much lower down here than in the States. If you’re frugal, I’d expect you should be able to tuck away a little bit each month.”
“Just so we’re clear,” Shep said, “I don’t plan to be around for very long. As soon as I’ve got enough saved up, I’m flying back to California.”
“No one’s going to try to stop you,” Roy said, smiling for the second time since they met. “Even so, you may be surprised. You might just fall in love with the place.”
Roy led him out through the back and behind a series of conjoined square bedroom units whose bronze numbers were the only means of differentiating one door from another. The room he was given had two twin beds separated by a gap of only a couple feet, besides which there wasn’t much space to move around. Calico patterns of mold speckled the bathroom tiles, and though there were two faucets for hot and cold, Roy warned him that the water heater was built for about the same capacity as an average sized tea kettle. There was no shower curtain.
“I know it isn’t much,” Roy said, running a finger over the dusty floral wallpaper. “Thinking we might get some painters in, maybe knock up a new patio for the front.”
Shep swung his backpack onto one of the beds. “That’d be a good start,” he said.
“Anyway, I’ll let you get settled. Lunch in the bar at one o’clock. Hope you like fish.”
“Thanks,” Shep said. “But don’t you mean ‘the pub?’”
Roy laughed. “No, it’s just a bar. No use pretending it’s something it isn’t.”
He lingered by the door a moment longer as Shep started to unpack. He looked around the bedroom, as though seeing it differently somehow now that it was occupied. “Well,” he said. “Glad to have you on board.”
He shuffled out into the yard, closing the door behind him.
Shep waited until he was sure that Roy had left, then dropped the dirty clothes he was holding and fell back onto the bed. He leaned forward and ran his fingers through his greasy hair. Of the pint bottle of rum he had bought in Panama City, only a shot and a half or so remained. He cut it with some warm Coke and finished the entire mixture in two large gulps. As he spread his unwashed body over the bead spread, the knuckles of his clenched fists started to turn white.
“God damn son of a bitch,” he said through his teeth. “You’re a dead man, Tim Moss, if I ever find you again.”
He had stayed with the newspaper as long as he could, after the first round of layoffs gutted the staff, after his hours were slashed to part-time, even after Tim Moss got pulled off the sports desk in his second year as editor. “All of journalism is in a slump right now,” Tim told him, gripping the cardboard box that contained his personal effects. “But it can’t last forever. Keep your head up and I’ll send word once I get reestablished somewhere else. San Diego probably, maybe Phoenix.”
He and Tim had been friends since high school, since the afternoon Tim came up to him after JV practice and asked if he could do a profile on him for journalism class. After Shep’s father died of cancer, Tim’s parents tried to look after him by offering him a place to go in the evenings. Secretly, Shep always felt that Tim idolized him—being too short and asthmatic to play sports, Tim covered football for the school paper and obsessed about it in his free time. Saturday afternoons, Sunday evenings, and some Monday nights, Shep could be found in Tim’s living room, bag of chips between them on the sofa, game on the TV, cheering on the Bulldogs and the 49ers, cursing the shotgun arm of Brett Favre. Later, when Shep was out on injury and the whole world had fallen apart, it was Tim who encouraged him to go to college anyway, to study journalism as a fallback.
“We’re coming up in the world together, Shep,” Tim said after graduation, when they both landed jobs at the same paper. “Let’s make sure to always watch each other’s back and not let competition get in the way.”
Shep had been unemployed four months when the email from Panama came. He knew Tim hadn’t had any luck with the San Diego papers, but he had never expected him to move four thousand miles away just to land a job. Even so, the fresh start that Tim promised him struck a powerful chord, as powerful as the promise Tim had made him when they were both seventeen, that being a sports reporter would be almost as good as playing on the field.
Get your butt down here as soon as you can, Tim wrote. I’ve got it all worked out for you to start work as a senior staff writer. You’ll have to see for yourself to believe it, but this city is so choice you’ll never want to work for an American paper again.
To give Shep an idea of what he was missing, Tim attached a JPEG of a voluptuous Latina in a red g-string striking an alluring pose with crystal waves crashing against the beach behind her. But the photo was overdoing it. Shep didn’t need any more motivation beyond the guarantee of employment. Tim had never steered him wrong before, and the way he described Panama was enough to convince Shep to break his lease and head south to start a new life.
But when he arrived at the hotel in Panama City, all he found was a hand-written note that Tim had left with the concierge.
The publisher was a crook. Lied to us from day one. Left the whole staff hanging with two weeks salary unpaid, nothing left to cover printing costs. You don’t know how sorry I am, friend. Really, I thought this was the real deal. You know I hate to leave you in the lurch like this, but to be honest, I was too ashamed to face you.
A knock at the door jolted Shep from his brooding thoughts. He hid the empty bottle under a pillow and sat up straight on the bed. “Come in,” he said.
Roy pushed the door open a crack and peeked his head inside. “Lunch is served,” he said. “Hope you’re hungry. The sierra I caught this morning grilled up nicely.”
Shep hadn’t expected much from Roy’s cooking, certainly nothing like the bountiful spread that was waiting for him inside the bar. At the center of a round mahogany table, the blackened filet of a slender ocean fish was cooling on an oval platter surrounded by hot tortillas, rice, black beans, grilled peppers, and several types of salsa. After a week of potato chips and drive-through meals, Shep could hardly restrain himself in front of so much real food. Roy seemed pleased when he loaded his plate with a second and then third helping of everything.
“Being on my own this long, I’ve learned to get most of my entertainment from the sea,” Roy said. “When the weather permits, I get up early each morning to go fishing. And every evening I walk down the beach to relax in the surf. The salt water has therapeutic properties.”
Shep nodded with a mouth full of beans. “Sounds cool,” he said.
“The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a good deal to like about this coastline. There are far worse places to be stranded.”
“That’s true,” Shep said, and glanced up from his plate. “All the same, I’m not one to let myself get stuck in a bind for too long. And I’m way too young to be thinking about retirement.”
Roy laughed. “Well,” he said. “It’s still nice to have some company around the place.”
When the meal was finished, Shep returned to his room and slept until after sundown. Then he went outside and paced around the soggy dirt lot, tossing cigarette butts into the mud and listening for the threatening hum of mosquitos in his ears. At a few minutes past eight o’clock, he spotted Roy walking down the road with a towel over his shoulder, muddied flip-flops slapping against his heels. Shep tried to picture him out there in the pitch dark with the waves crashing over his head, his freckled body engulfed by the surf. With all the aspirations he still had for his life, he prayed he would never live to see the day when all his needs could be satisfied by a stretch of wet sand.
The weeks that followed Shep’s arrival saw the Sierra Fin in a constant state of renovation as he and Roy set about making the place clean and comfortable for their guests. Even with his weakened leg, Shep was still in better shape than Roy, who seemed to have spent every day since the end of tourist season growing fatter and slower in solitude. Still, Roy refused to treat Shep like a pack mule. Any job that needed doing, whether laying down gravel in the driveway or replacing tiles on the roof, Roy insisted on doing his part. By the end of the first week, he had stopped drinking beer during the day, and soon after he gave up smoking all together.
“The Sweetwater and the El Dorado try to filch my customers with free Wi-Fi and margarita machines,” he said once during Shep’s smoke break. “But they’ll never be able to offer the location we have here at the Sierra Fin. Thirty meters to the beach, two kilometers to the ruins, and all the beauty of the rain forest right outside our door. I saw the potential of this spot the first time I laid eyes on it ten years ago.”
“Good foresight,” Shep replied, shading his eyes from the sun. More and more, he started to get fearful every time Roy used the word “our” in reference to the Sierra Fin. Once the initial strangeness of his boss wore off, a new set of questions emerged to take its place. What did he really want from him? And why did he seem so hell bent on selling him on the wonderfulness of the place? Roy didn’t strike him as a queer exactly. More like some of the old ladies he had known as a kid, the ones who would drop a five dollar bill in his hand just for sitting a while and listening. When they were finished tearing leaves out of the rain gutters, Shep decided to test his advantage.
“You ever think of getting a satellite dish for the bar?”
Roy stood panting and wiped the sweat from the edge of his hairline. “Never saw much use for it,” he said. “Most of the customers don’t come down here to spend their time lounging about in front of the telly.”
“That may be because there’s never anything on for them to watch,” Shep said. He stuck his hands in his jean pockets and tried to look glum without overdoing it. “This is the first fall I can remember when I haven’t had Sunday football. Might help make the place more welcoming for the American tourists, all I’m saying.”
“Don’t get too many Americans this time of year,” Roy said. “But I suppose you have a good point. With as much as it rains this time of year, it couldn’t hurt to have some proper entertainment for when the lads are stuck in the bar.”
“That sounds swell,” Shep said. He couldn’t believe it was that easy. And though Roy said he would continue to think on the idea, before the end of the week a cholo in a blue jumpsuit drove out from the city to install a dish atop their roof. After that, Shep started to wonder what other steps he could take to make the Sierra Fin more like home. If Roy was as open to persuasion as he suspected, then he might be able to get a Wi-Fi adapter and a Bud Light tap for the bar before the month was out.
Even with all the work he and Roy were putting in to make the Sierra Fin attractive to customers, Shep could never bring himself to imagine what the place would be like when the guests started arriving. So when the first rush of winter patrons appeared, speaking Asian dialects and dragging grungy duffel bags over the freshly mopped floors, he struggled to put on a hospitable face. Some years earlier, a travel guide writer had called the Spanish ruins in the hills a “picturesque cultural wonder,” and now every winter entire droves of vacationing Chinese and Koreans went out of their way to see them. Shep didn’t know how to handle them, with their strange customs and unintelligible English, the high-pitched wailing of their native speech. It wouldn’t have been so bad except that he was subservient to them—he was obligated to tend to their needs.
“The guests are stealing towels from the rooms,” he told Roy one night while counting up receipts from the bar. “They might not know any better, but still, we need to put a stop to it.”
Roy nodded slowly as he transferred the larger bills from the register to the cashbox. “How do you suppose we should do that?” he asked.
“Put up a sign,” Shep answered. “Get somebody to write it in English and Chinese. Please don’t take towels from the rooms. Violators will be fined.”
“That’s not a very welcoming advertisement,” Roy said. “Might offend some people.”
“But think of all the money we’re losing because of theft.”
“It’s not very much,” Roy said. “Better to sacrifice a hundred dollars in towels than lose a thousand dollars in business.”
“Well, yeah, but there’s still the matter of principle.”
Roy looked up from the money and laughed. “Work ten years in this business,” he said. “Then you’ll understand that some principles are more important than others.”
Shep stared at him a moment before storming away. Roy knew damn well he didn’t plan to work there that long.
Over the next several weeks, Shep tried to ignore the annoyances that came with service work, but the invading tourists kept finding new ways to piss him off. The bar was supposed to be a reprieve from the more strenuous parts of the job, but even there they managed to make things difficult for him. On nights when it was raining hard outside, the young Chinese backpackers took it as an opportunity to get hammered indoors. They would sit sometimes ten or eleven to a table, shrieking with laughter and downing one-dollar beers by the pallet, and by the early morning they were so far gone that they would try ordering drinks in Chinese, as if Shep was supposed to understand their language just because he worked there.
The worst moments came when they discovered the juke box. Sometimes they would misunderstand the machine and launch into group sessions of karaoke, singing all the louder for lack of a microphone. A few times Shep came close to taking a swing at the kids. It was always when their attentions finally turned to him, when they would start playing a Garth Brooks or Randy Travis song and try to get him to dance for them. He would smile and wave their money away. But meanwhile his teeth would be chewing his cheek so raw that in the morning he would awake with a blood blister on the inside of his mouth. And then he would wonder why he had let them get on his nerves so bad, and what it was that he hated so much about being treated like a cowboy.
One Sunday morning he woke up in such a lousy mood that he skipped his shower and opened the bar an hour earlier than usual. He put the game up on the flat screen and finished three bottles of Panamanian beer before the kickoff. Near the end of the first quarter, a few of the guests came down to take a hair of the dog. And as they settled down to watch the game, Shep lost interest in the score. Roy appeared with seven minutes left in the first half.
“I can’t figure these guys out,” Shep whispered to him. “They keep cheering, but not at the right times. They didn’t make a sound at the last touchdown pass, but just now they were jumping out of their seats.”
Roy poured a glass of orange juice and studied the Chinese boys. They screamed their heads off at the next snap, but seemed disappointed when the ball found the receiver.
“I don’t think they care much about the game,” Roy said. “Seems like they’re mostly interested in seeing the bloke with the ball get taken down.”
Shep turned and looked at the boys with restrained outrage. “You mean they just want to see the quarterback get sacked?”
“Seems to be the case.”
Sure enough, as soon as the Browns’ quarterback went back for the pass and the offensive line started to fold, the backpackers rose from their chairs and commenced to egg on the Baltimore Ravens’ defenders, waving their arms through the air, signaling for them to grind their opponent into the ground. The muscles in Shep’s leg seemed to grow tighter the longer he watched. In all his years of following professional football, he had never cared one way or another about the AFC North. But now, as the backpackers continued to cheer for the quarterback’s annihilation, he felt a strange connection with the scrambling passer in the orange helmet, as if the enclosing wave of black giants was threatening to pummel him as well.
“This is sick,” he said. “I’m putting a stop to it right now.”
He picked up the remote and aimed it at the screen. But before he could change the channel, Roy stepped between him and the TV.
“I think you should relax,” Roy said. “They’re just having a bit of fun. So what if they aren’t following the game the regular way?”
“There’s no other way to follow it,” Shep said. “How would you feel if I behaved this way during a World Cup game?”
Roy adjusted his footing so that he was facing Shep sidewise. “All those years covering American sports,” he said. “You’re saying you never once made fun of soccer?”
Roy had a point, but Shep wasn’t about to admit it. Instead he raised the remote even higher and changed the channel to CNN right as the Browns’ offense was setting up for a punt. The backpackers groaned in protest. One of them even approached the bar.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Please to change back station?”
Shep showed him a spiteful grin. “So sorry,” he said. “It time for favorite news program.”
The boy stared at him apologetically for a second before returning to the table. Roy shook his head, but didn’t try to intervene. He just turned away and walked out of the bar, leaving Shep and the backpackers to sit in silence as the day’s events were recapped onscreen. A story about troop movements in Afghanistan was coming through in HD, and the boys stayed to finish their round before deciding to take their chances in the rain.
“Good riddance,” Shep said.
But he still didn’t switch back to the game.
The atmosphere at the Sierra Fin turned sour after that. As if resigning his own treasured space, Shep spent less and less time tending bar, busying himself outdoors with grounds keeping work that he invented for himself and stretched out as long as he could. And as if fearing that he might quit at any moment, Roy overlooked Shep’s willfulness, said nothing even when he started sleeping in past ten each morning. At the end of his second month, Shep counted up all the money he had managed to save, but his bitterness only grew worse. Despite pinching nearly every penny he could keep, he was nowhere close to the kind of money he needed to go home. At this rate, it would be a full year before he was ready to take his chances again in California.
It was around that time that Shep stopped blaming Tim Moss for getting him into this fix. Sure, Tim had talked him into coming down, just as he had talked him into becoming a reporter, but it wasn’t like Shep ever required much convincing. Where he was now, in life and in Panama, was his own doing, and if it was his own doing then he was determined to make the most of it, whatever that meant. For two months he had lived like a hermit at the Sierra Fin, leaving his small room only to work and begrudgingly accept Roy’s meals. But as the rains gave way to unseasonable dryness, he started going out one or two nights a week, to spend money in the campy, overpriced bars of Roy’s rivals. On the patios of the Sweetwater and the El Dorado, he would sit for hours chatting with fellow gringos, claiming to be a car salesman and former college star, someone who could rest comfortably on his laurels and afford to travel the world.
Then the night came when he accepted a drink from a young Swedish tourist and wound up following her back to her room. She fucked like one of the bull riders he had seen on ESPN 3, straddling him wildly from on top, applying pressure with her hips like she was afraid of falling off. Afterward they separated to opposite edges of the bed, trying desperately to cool down in the stagnant heat of the room. She looked at him and seemed amused by how hard he was breathing.
“I think you’re probably the oldest guy I’ve been with,” she said.
Shep patted her thigh and tried to remember how to make words. “I’m only thirty-two,” he said. “Not even thirty-two and a half.”
He watched her face out the corner of his eye, saw the disappointment and boredom that in a matter of seconds had replaced her naughty grin.
“I would have figured thirty-nine, at least,” she said. “My dad’s only thirty-eight.”
Shep stopped breathing and sat up against the bedrail. “So you thought I was some dirty old man?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” she said. “But the limp is a little misleading.”
She laughed and moved her head onto his chest. It was too hot to sleep, but Shep closed his eyes anyway and lay there until sunrise. As he was getting dressed, she took a twenty dollar bill from her purse and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans. “For gas,” she said, and even though he only had a short ways to drive, Shep smiled gratefully and told her thanks. But on the way back to the shore, he started feeling ashamed of himself for reasons he couldn’t comprehend and didn’t want to think about longer than he had to. With only a little way to go until he reached the hostel, he cracked the window of the Dodge and tossed the twenty outside. He watched it spin in the side mirror before settling upon the tire tracks carved deeply into the road.
Back in his room at the Sierra Fin, hungover and starved for sleep, Shep heard a light knocking that drove him to cover his head with the blanket. It was only when the knock turned to a rattling pound that he threw off the covers and dragged his feet to the door. He opened it with enough force that, had Roy been standing any closer, it could have caused him some serious harm.
“Morning,” Roy said. “Get dressed and come outside.”
Shep’s mind jumped to the Chinese tourists and the shoddy electrical appliances they brought with them. “Is the hostel on fire?” he asked, displaying no emotion beyond curiosity.
“It’s time you and I took a hike up the hill to see the Spanish ruins,” Roy said. “To be honest, we should have made this trip some time ago.”
Shep leaned against the doorframe and squinted. “I’m in no shape for a walking tour this morning. Maybe some other time.”
Roy stopped the door with his foot. “I’ve got coffee for the both of us,” he said, holding up the thermos at his side. “Put on some comfortable clothes and meet me on the road in five.”
Realizing that he didn’t have a choice, Shep scrounged the floor for sweatpants and an old t-shirt. Three minutes later, he stood by the side of the road watching Roy suck coffee from the plastic lid of the thermos.
“I thought all English people drank tea,” he said.
Roy finished his coffee and screwed the lid back into place. “You should know by now,” he said. “I make my own customs.”
They set off into the hills at a leisurely pace, following an unpaved hiking trail whose outline had been etched by the sandals and sneakers of countless travellers before them. Though the incline was a struggle for Shep, he refused to let Roy outpace him. Neither of them spoke for the first mile or so. Gradually the canopy leaves closed in above them, shading everything in sight with the yellowed hue of old photographs.
“You know it’s none of my business where you wander off to at night,” Roy said. “That is, I’ve got no right to try and stop you.”
Shep kept his head down and focused on his feet. “Good to know,” he said.
“Although,” Roy said, “it’s important to keep in mind that what you do on your own reflects on the Sierra Fin as a whole. It’s a small group of us who cater to tourists around here. You develop a bad reputation in town and it could come back to hurt us later on.”
“Don’t worry,” Shep said. “I won’t be around very long.”
“Yes,” Roy said. “You’ve mentioned that before.”
As the slope of the hill leveled off, the trail opened onto a plateau where several acres of rain-drenched sawgrass grew in overlapping waves, bent over from the weight of the moisture. Shep sensed something buzzing around his neck and ankles, small black insects like gnats or fruit flies. He was about to ask how much farther it was when Roy popped a squat beside a decaying tree stump.
“Most people wouldn’t have taken a chance on an unshaven stranger living out of a run-down lorry,” Roy said. “But I recognized something in you and figured you needed all the help you could get. I decided it was worth the risk.”
Shep looked away in awkward silence, his lips curling inward like a frog’s.
“You ever hear of the Falklands?” Roy asked.
“I don’t know,” Shep said. “Sounds sort of familiar.”
A weary sadness came into Roy’s eyes, something tender that Shep hadn’t seen before. “We work so hard to keep our personal empires intact that we wind up closing ourselves off to new experiences,” he said. “When I got out of the service, I tried everything I could think of to live a normal life. Got a job, bought a home, voted Conservative. But the whole time I was rotting away from the inside. It took my wife dying for me to finally start asking myself the important questions. Like who was I, and what did I really need to be happy.”
“I know what I need to be happy,” Shep said.
“Do you?” Shep noticed as one of the buzzing insects settled on the crown of Roy’s head. It was bigger than he had expected, and even as Roy started to pull himself to his feet, the fly lingered for a moment before moving on. “Come on,” Roy said. “Not far now.”
They were quiet as they descended the other side of the hill, Roy straining less noticeably than on the upward stretch, Shep too preoccupied to care about the widening gap between them. As the sound of the ocean grew clearer, Shep sped up to close the distance.
“How did your wife die?” he asked.
Roy turned his head slightly, but kept moving. “Breast cancer,” he said. “We caught it too late.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Shep said. “My dad died of cancer.”
“Thanks. You too.”
At last they came out of the forest and onto a small clearing on a cliff overlooking the sea. Jagged slabs of masonry stuck out from the ground like ancient stalagmites, their edges fuzzy green and blotted with fungi. Other sections of stone lay half-buried in the earth, indistinguishable from regular boulders but for their perfect geometry. Shep walked out toward the cliff and rested his hand on the massive salt-rusted bowl of a mortar whose projectile balls were still arranged neatly in a pyramid beside it.
“There’s not much left of the place, is there?” he asked.
Roy shook his head and knelt by Shep’s side. Dandelions grew in patches along the edge of the cliff. He grabbed a handful and watched their seeds disperse in the cool ocean breeze.
“The Spaniards who built this fort were skilled men,” he said. “But they were also proud and stubborn. They built their walls as they always had, modeled off of the Old World castles. But they built them here, on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by forest and sand. So when the English pirates came, they spotted the fort from miles out. Their cannons tore the walls to pieces before the first ship touched land.”
Roy wiped the dirt from his hands and stared out at the far breaking waves. Shep turned and studied the mortar a second time, running his fingers along the side of the barrel until his nails were brown with rust. By the time the rain swept in, they were backtracking the way they had come. The splashing of the heavy droplets filled the void of their silence.
Shep had never gotten around to unpacking his bags. For months he had been living out of his carry-ons the same as the tourists who filled the other rooms for two nights at a time and were never seen again. But after his visit to the ruins, he shut himself up inside his room and, with the rain beating hard against the roof and window, started to move his clothes into the closet. It was tedious work, and before he was halfway done he got in his truck and drove up the mud-slick road to the Sweetwater. The bar wasn’t open yet, and so he sat under the patio awning making small talk with a couple of hungover teenage German tourists. When he got tired of that, he snuck into the computer cluster to kill some time online. As soon as his Yahoo account was loaded, Tim Moss’s email jumped out at him.
First of all, I think I owe you an apology, Tim wrote. You know I hated to leave you holding the bag in Panama City, but I was in a bad place then and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, let alone admitting that I had screwed up. But that’s all behind me now, because I’ve got a new opportunity that’s going to have us both sitting pretty before long.
Tim explained how one of his coworkers from Panama City had gotten him an interview with the sports editor at his old paper in Louisville, Kentucky. Between the Bengals, the state college, and the SEC, there was a big demand for sports coverage, and sports reporters.
This is the real deal this time, friend. I know I dropped the ball in Panama, and I want to make it up to you. Right now there’s a position open on staff that you’d be perfect for. My editor won’t keep it open forever, but he promised he’d hold off hiring someone for the time being. So if you can make it out here in the next week or so, I figure the job’s as good as yours.
Shep stared at the computer screen for several minutes before he stood up. He walked back to the patio and found the bartender setting up for the start of his shift, refilling the garnish trays with sliced limes and lemon twists, wiping down the counter in preparation for the rush of young foreigners demanding shots. Shep laid his palms down flat on the bar and called out for a glass of rum on the rocks. As he poured the liquor over the ice, the bartender glanced up and examined Shep’s expressionless face.
“Seen you here before,” he said, turning the bottle upright. “You live in town?”
Shep held the glass in front of his lips. “Not me,” he said. “Just passing through.”
The road’s topsoil was a brown slurry all the way down to the shore, but still he kept the truck at fifty-five and didn’t let up even on the sharper turns. When he reached the Sierra Fin, he parked behind the outside building and took the long way round to his bedroom. He pulled his shirts and jeans off the hangers and stuffed them back inside his bags. Then he lay down on the bed and rested with his eyes open until after sundown. Dreamy thoughts contented him in his waiting, and come evening he felt like a tourist himself, with one adventure drawing to a close and another one right in front of him, about to begin.
At five minutes to eight, he left the room and walked over to the side of the main office. He stood with his back pressed flat against the wall so he couldn’t be spotted from the road. Before long, he heard Roy’s flip-flops squishing in and out of the hardening mud. Roy hummed and talk-sang an old punk rock tune, unaware that anyone was listening.
“Don’t be told what you want…don’t be told what you need…there’s no future, no future…no future for you…”
When the sound of his voice died away, Shep peered from behind the wall and then went around front to mount the infernal steps one last time. The cashbox was in the bottom drawer where Roy always kept it, the tray overloaded with larger bills from the most recent batch of guests. All together, the till was twice what Shep needed for a plane ticket north, but he emptied it anyway and stowed the money in his back pocket behind his passport. Severance pay, he decided. Not to mention overtime, for making him hike in the rain on his day off.
He loaded his bags into the truck cabin and set off up the road with his taillights blazing red behind him. He knew that when he got to the crest of the hill, the glow would be visible from the beach. But it didn’t matter. Once he was past the first peak, there was no way for Roy to find him again, no artillery he could use to tear him down, no words of wisdom that could reach him at that height.
Andrew Valencia worked for a number of years as an EFL teacher in Korea, Panama, and Taiwan. He returned to the United States to pursue an MFA degree in fiction from the University of South Carolina. His short stories have appeared in The Fat City Review, Crack the Spine, Eclectica, Independent Ink, Mixed Fruit, Switchback, and other journals.
(1) Reader Comment
May 12, 2017
May 12, 2017
April 24, 2017
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