by Matt Ellis
Mark emptied his pockets onto the bed before arranging his belongings into an orderly stack on the pillow: cell phone, passport, wallet, and keys. He smoothed his palms over the front and back of his chinos for stray items before pocketing a fold of bills from the nightstand. Satisfied, he tucked the glass jar of his wife’s ashes into his leather messenger bag and slid into the hall.
It was late, but he could still hear familiar voices from the patio on the far side of the house, their volume rising with the brass fanfare intro of Jerry Rivera’s “Amores Como el Nuestro.” Mark had only two options: make a break for the front gate and risk getting trapped in the Panamanian social gravity his sister-in-law Rocio wielded against anyone passing within ten meters of her front patio throne or vault over the back wall into the alley. The latter would put him within the choke-chain slack of the semi-feral beast they’d aptly named Danger, a warning yelled at least a dozen times a day in butchered English to silence the backyard alarm. As numb as Mark felt inside, he’d feel those jaws, and creeping across town with a bleeding backside was problematic. Too many eyes. He’d have to risk a delay.
He passed through the kitchen to peek around the corner into the front room. The voices had ceased, and the TV was turned to the news, a looping traffic-camera feed from Chorrera that showed a chicken-bus cashier hanging out the door until the driver accidentally sideswiped a pole. No trigger warning or censor blot to ready the viewer for the shock. Also, no sight of Rocio. Maybe she slipped off to bed? The front door and five steps to the gate stood between him and freedom. He crossed his fingers, turned the knob, and took a chance.
“Marco! Pa’ donde vas?” Rocio called out from the other side of the patio.
Mark wanted to bolt out the gate, but that’d only make her more suspicious. He executed an about-face and saw her slouched in a chair in the corner, her leg kicked over the upholstered arm, beer in hand.
It was here on the patio, during nearly nightly get-togethers, that he’d fallen in love with Mariela. She’d perch on his lap and sing to him, a delicate hand on his neck, everything else melting away. “Como los unicorns, van desapareciendo. Amar y ser amado, es darse por completo. Un amor como el nuestro—no debe morir jamas.” He’d felt embarrassed and elated, frozen and timid, unsure how to receive this new love. He’d never wanted it to end.
“Gonna run to the corner,” Mark replied in Spanish. “We’re low on beer.” Mark scanned the corners of the garden and patio for signs of unwanted escorts. Despite the things he’d seen and survived, in places they’d only heard of on the news, things he could never share with them, Rocio would insist on sending someone along. She’d fallen into the role of matriarch since her mother had moved to Massachusetts a few years ago. Rocio still saw Mark as the awkward nineteen-year-old American soldier their baby sister brought home nearly thirty years ago. That wasn’t part of his plan. What was in the jar was for the Pacific. Though his body trembled at the thought of releasing this last remnant of Mariela, he’d made a promise. But he’d never promised to share that moment.
“Did the kids get back okay?” Rocio asked.
Mark nodded. The “kids” were in their twenties with lives of their own. One married and on the East Coast, and the other in school out west. But time worked a little differently here. You were frozen in the form they first met you until you’d grown far past it. Nicknames stuck even harder. “They both got home a few hours ago. They send their love.”
Rocio nodded before tipping back the bottle and draining it. She clinked the empty down among the others. She stared at him, eyes blinking slowly, a tear forming at the edge. She wasn’t much of a drinker. “The service was beautiful…” The dam broke into a steady stream down her cheeks. Judging by the mascara tracks and the bottles, she’d been out here for hours.
Mark left his escape behind, knelt beside her, and kissed her forehead before wiping at the trails of gray. At nearly twenty years her senior, Rocio had been a second mother to Mariela. Mark felt the urge to sit with her and tell stories, but he’d already endured seven nights of this. Watching Mariela’s family watching him, as if they heard the music cranking down in his jack-in-the-box mind, bracing themselves for the boom. He needed to find peace. He needed to move on.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Mark whispered, helping her to her feet.
She patted his hand and floated to the front door but paused. “Grab Javi and Quique to go with you.” She craned her neck down the road and pushed out her lips for extra measure. “They’re playing dominoes at the basketball court.”
Mark nodded. He waited for her to retreat indoors before leaving. He took the long way around the basketball courts, moving from shadow to shadow, not to avoid lurking threats but afraid he might be offered a ride or unwanted company. Aside from his in-laws, he was avoiding people who knew him from before. It was the easiest thing. They were them, but he wasn’t him anymore. The only remnant of the young man they knew was his eyes, a blue so deep the porteño women would threaten to steal them away. Mariela had taken his heart instead. Now that was shattered, and his blue eyes were bloodshot. But occasionally, someone would still recognize him. Only because of her—Mariela’s gringo.
Gringo wasn’t a label to disparage, but to differentiate, always uttered with a smile and an occasional wink. This town had once made him feel special, a foreign concept to a new private on a base where nearly everyone outranked him, requiring snaps to parade rest or sharp, precise salutes. But he wasn’t the only one who’d changed. This town, Puerto Armuelles, had followed him down a different branch of the same hard road. It was a stranger now, too, once familiar spaces replaced by imposters and empty shells—a banana boomtown abandoned by the international conglomerates, overcooked by the balmy Central American heat, and pounded by torrential rains. He’d promised to come back often. But, one year rolled into another, excuse layered upon excuse, until the competing reasons and priorities, like him and this town, faded into something unrecognizable. This place had moved on without them. Without her. Why couldn’t he?
Mark skirted the main square. It was lit for a Christmas parade the coming week, the palm trees strangled by colorful lights, drawing the local kids and parents like moths. Mark saw a clear path to his final destination, but he needed supplies. He stopped at a corner kiosk to grab a six-pack of Balboa before cutting back over to the Cinta Costera, or, rather, the dirt path where the government had promised a tourist promenade that never materialized. He followed the route to the crumbling Chiriqui Land Company plantain shipping docks, Puerto’s most prominent landmark. Beyond this monstrosity was their spot, a slice of beach where, even before they’d bought the land, they’d sneak off and hide below the rocks to explore their new love and young bodies until the rising tides lapped at their feet, sending them scrambling for their clothes and higher ground.
He shotgunned two beers and was halfway through a third when he noticed the mist blowing against him from the crashing tide. He’d always remembered the water being a placid canvas of tiny ripples, drawing and redrawing the moon’s stages as their time slipped away. Not tonight. The water roiled as if shocked to life by the lightning storm growing on the horizon.
It was time.
Mark chugged the rest of the six-pack before stripping nude and laying his clothing out on the rocks in tidy Army squares beneath his flip-flops. He didn’t question the compulsion. There were no military send-offs without ceremony. Why would this one be any different?
He didn’t remember moving from the rocks, but there he stood, naked in the moonlight, the white seafoam lapping at his toes, inviting him to join Mariela again. He walked and then waded. He dove when the waves broke harder, surrendering to the ocean’s whim. He wasn’t sure what would come next; this was as far as he’d planned. He tried to float, imagining the awaiting moon, stars, and satellites beyond the low ceiling of black clouds. It wasn’t long until he was no longer rolling over swells but tossed by crashing waves, smashing him against the sandy bottom until he didn’t know his up from down. He tried to succumb, let nature take its course, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. Mark’s arms and legs flailed for purchase; his lungs, his lips, his tongue struggling for the surface, hungry for air.
A mouthful of foam followed by a long drag against the sand, and he was slammed against a dock beam. He swung his arms out, wrapping them around the old, rotting wood. Another wave tossed him up and away, the barnacles and splintered edges ripping at his forearms and chest, crashing him back down. He bounced from one concrete base to another. He couldn’t do this alone. He’d somehow forgotten Mariela in the glass jar on the shore. In a surge of panic, he thrust his feet against the bottom only to find himself waist-deep again and hyperventilating. Another wave toppled him, dragging him across the sand and pebbles before spitting him onto the shore. He’d had a plan, and the water was doing its part. Maybe more. But he needed more courage to finish the journey.
Mark stumbled to his stack of clothes. He felt the sting as he pulled on his pants, the fabric chafing against the abrasions and friction burns from his last bout with the waves. Even in the dark, he saw the shallow rivulets of blood-tinted seawater running down his torso and arms. He laughed at the thought of treating these wounds so near the end, but if someone saw the blood, they’d stop him. They’d ask questions. Try to help. He scooped up a handful of sand and mashed it into the wound on his side, holding it tightly. When he let go, most of the sand fell away, but no more blood trickled out. He did the same with his forearms before slipping his shirt over his head.
Mark could still see the lights in the central square, but everyone had cleared out except for a few vendors still packing their wares. He stumbled to the open window of a food truck.
“We’re closed,” the woman said in Spanish without turning.
Mark slammed a hundred-dollar bill on the counter, more to keep from falling forward than to grab her attention. She turned.
“Beer,” Mark said in Spanish. A hiccup blindsided the rest of his words.
She slid her hand closer to the prize. “I don’t sell beer.”
“Rum, whiskey, wine, moonshine, gasoline—”
The woman stopped him with her palm before rummaging under the counter. She straightened up and shook a bottle of clear liquid at him, viscous drops hanging tight to the sides before joining the rest. Mark squinted to read the label, both sun-bleached and oil-stained—indecipherable. She sniffed it and grimaced before handing it out to him. “That’s all I got.”
Mark pulled at the bottle, but the woman’s grip held. She tugged it back, tipping him off-balance. “I don’t have change.”
“Keep it,” Mark said, and she let go. He took a heavy pull and nearly spit it out. Maybe she was calling his bluff about the gasoline. No. It was alcohol, alright, but was it the drinking kind? The burn plummeted to his stomach, and a volcano of fumes rushed back up, forcing out a puff of surrender. He could already feel his head swimming in choppier waters. He pulled out the rest of his cash, now just a damp clump of bills, and tossed it on the counter. He wouldn’t need it. Before he could turn, the woman whistled and thrust a Styrofoam container at him. Mark swayed and shook his head.
“Please,” she said. “I insist.” Mark snatched the container and swung back toward his beach. He could hear the woman battening down her kitchen and speeding off, probably worried he’d come to his senses and ask for change. He hadn’t thought this clearly in years.
By the time Mark reached his beach, the distant storm had blown farther north up the Pacific, and the light from the full moon had broken through the clouds and onto the sand. He’d taken several more swigs from the mystery bottle and was fatigued from his first attempt at good-bye. He sat down on an outcropping of rocks and opened the container. It was stuffed with fried pork. He grabbed a piece and sniffed at it; the sweet smell turned his stomach. He laughed at the thought of Mariela yelling after the children to wait thirty minutes after eating before swimming—they’d get cramps. And then he cried again, his sobs turning into deep moans and then to whimpers. But the whimpers weren’t his. He looked to his left and saw a stray dog, nothing but bones and mangy fur.
He shook the container at the dog and set it on the ground. Mark stared at the mongrel, who sniffed and then devoured his gift. “If you’ll excuse me,” Mark said, tipping the bottle to his new friend of convenience and taking his final pull. If he waited any longer, he wouldn’t complete his journey. Not tonight. So he stripped off his shirt and opened the jar, stuffing his wife’s ashes in his pants pockets until the jar was empty. He took baby steps into the ocean this time, the surface as calm as he’d always remembered—to his ankles, calves, and then his waist. The light from the moon glimmered across the now shallow waves, illuminating the surface as Mariela’s ashes expanded out from Mark’s pockets in a halo, carrying her off to a peaceful rest to wait for his turn. When the cloudy water cleared, he continued to sink to his stomach and chest. Then Mark heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Aren’t you scared of sharks?”
Mark turned and squinted into the dark. The silhouette of a man had joined the feasting dog.
“There are no sharks,” Mark replied in Spanish.
“Do you doubt their existence or just out here?” the voice yelled. Mark glanced from side to side, his certainty waning. He squinted at the moonlit water, but there were too many pockets of darkness where the waves crested, shadows playing near the surface. Was it flotsam or fins? Driftwood? He felt something brush his ankle. Seaweed? He braced himself, imagined clamping jaws, the invisible threat dragging his thrashing body out to sea. Before he realized it, he was running back to shore, his knees pumping high. He slowed as he reached the interloper—a wild, gaping smile greeted him from a mouth that had seen its fair share of mutiny. The man was slight—sun-kilned leather skin pulled taut over sinewy muscle and a face of hard lines. His age was a mystery.
“You run pretty fast for a man who doesn’t believe in sharks,” the old man said.
“I just forgot to take off my pants,” Mark said. “Too hard to swim.”
The old man scoffed. “Your pants are the only reason I came over this time.”
“Pardon me if I made you uncomfortable.”
“On the contrary, I wanted to give you privacy.” The old man gestured to Mark’s waist. “The water can get pretty cold.” The old man waited for the joke to land. When it didn’t, he accentuated it with a slap to Mark’s shoulder. “Less for the sharks to clamp onto, you know what I mean?”
Mark cast an angry arm out at the ocean. “There are no sharks out there.”
“My friend, there are sharks everywhere. I’m a shark”— the old man pointed at himself, then at the dog—“He’s a shark, for sure. Are you telling me you’re not a shark?”
Mark unbuttoned his pants. He hadn’t wanted an audience for this last performance but wouldn’t stop the show.
“Wait,” the old man said, holding up an aging flip phone. “Could you take a picture of my wife and me?”
Mark looked past him and noticed a ramshackle beach cottage adjacent to his plot of land. Somehow, he’d never noticed it before, but it was impossible to miss now, lit with fat Christmas lightbulbs. A gaudy yellow star the size of a compact car was on the roof. A woman waved timidly from her hiding spot behind the half-opened front door. Blood rushed to Mark’s face, and he scrambled for his shirt. “Apologies.”
The old man cackled until he coughed. “You think you’re the first gringo to skinny-dip here? Last week, we had some German lady strip down right in front of our house.” With his hands, the old man drew curvy lines in the air, a whistle crescendo accentuating the invisible hips. “Now that was a show.”
Mark wanted to laugh, but more so, he wanted his privacy.
“Honestly,” the old man said, “you’re lucky you got me and not my gringo neighbor.” The old man leaned in close, his hand cupped to mask his words from imagined eavesdroppers. “I’ve never met the guy, but I’ve heard he’s quite an asshole.”
Mark grabbed the flip phone and gestured toward the house. Maybe compliance was the best option for shooing this pest away. The old man stood by the house and beckoned his wife forward. Mark nodded and waved for them to move closer together, trying to fit them and their house into the tiny flip phone viewfinder. He tapped the button. It should never have worked—the darkness between Mark and the couple, the bright colored lights behind. But it was beautiful. Mark felt a rush of emotions not crashing down on his shoulders but coursing through his veins. He thought of mornings with his granddaughter and her first Christmas tree. He’d play acoustic guitar while she beat out her sounds on the spruce top, goo-gooing her vocals. The images of other Christmases flashed before him, hoisting his kids high up on his shoulders to place the star on the tree top until they were too big to lift anymore. He hadn’t repeated that tradition with his granddaughter yet. He never would.
“Hey!” The old man walked forward. “Care to share?”
Mark smiled and handed the phone to the old man, a strange pang of pride swelling inside. Was it from the picture? This strange moment? When was the last time he’d felt this?
“Not bad,” the old man said. He beamed with joy and showed it to his wife. “Not bad at all.”
Mark was frozen, unsure of what to do next. The old man gestured to the open door. “How about a drink?”
Mark looked down at his feet, sand-caked, seawater still dripping from his pants. “I think I’d better—”
“Tomorrow, then,” the old man said. “You watch fùt?”
“Not really. But I won’t be able to—”
“Good! World Cup finals are tomorrow. We’re making lechon and tamales. Bring a dessert and some beer. And not any of that flavored gringo shit. Regular beer. National beer.” With that, the old man disappeared into the house.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “He’s a handful when he’s drinking.”
“It’s okay, señora,” Mark said. “None of this is what I wanted, but it was exactly what I needed.”
The woman bent forward, held Mark’s bicep, and gently kissed him on the cheek. “Then we’ll see you tomorrow?” Her eyes moved along his arm to the tattoo on his forearm—a military dagger crossed with a fountain pen. “You seem like the punctual type. Let’s make it two.” With a wink, she left Mark to consider the appropriate pastry for the people who had saved his life.
Matt Ellis is a slow-traveling freelance writer and photographer whose work has been featured in The Insider, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Canvas Rebel, and Pseudopod.