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Authors: Alexander Yates

Moondogs (3 page)

BOOK: Moondogs
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Reading the history, like talking one-on-one with his father for the first time in almost five years, had been kind of a chore at first. The book started off with dry descriptions of trade and migrations, broken up only occasionally by colorless maps and arrows. But things picked up after the Spanish arrived, and more so when the Japanese did. Now Benicio could hardly put it down. He glanced at his watch, hoping to get to Corregidor’s surrender before his girlfriend locked up her classroom and came out to meet him. Alice taught ninth- and tenth-grade English at Montebello High and spent afternoons tutoring captive audiences in detention. The next time he peeked over his book he saw Alice emerging from the front door of the school. She waved to him and he stood and waved back. She glanced around, and when she saw that no one was looking, flipped him the bird. He sent one right back and gave her an ugly face.

“My love,” she said as she pecked him on the cheek—as much affection as either of them ever showed on school grounds—and snatched his book from him. “How’s the war going?” she asked.

“Not well.” He kept his hand on her hip as they walked to her truck. “Not at all. Those poor guys are fucked.”

“That’s unfortunate.” She pulled her keys from her purse and threw them in the air. Benicio caught them.

“We need to make a stop on the way home,” he said. “The shop called—my gear’s good to go.”

“If we must,” Alice said, a slight grin marring her put-on pout. She had one of those rare faces that looked much prettier up close than it did from far away, and when she got playful like this he found it downright irresistible. Closing the truck doors behind them, Benicio leaned into her for a real kiss, longer and deeper than usual.

“I’m going to miss you, too,” he said.

“Too? I’m not going to miss anybody.”

And there was that grin again. Benicio returned it, gamely. He put the key in the ignition. “Yes, you are. You’re going to be lonely, and sad. But don’t worry. It’ll be a short trip.”

“Oh yeah?” Alice shifted in her seat and threw her leg over the hand brake. “How short, would you say? Because I’ve got affairs and trysts and whatnot to plan.”

He put his hand on her knee, caressing it for a moment before moving it aside and lifting the brake. He started the engine, shifted into first and brought them out of the lot. “Stay this shitty, and I might not come back.”

“You’ll come back,” she said. “I’m the best thing you’ve got going for you.”

And no question about it, she was right.

was in his third year as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, the same school where Alice was finishing up a master’s in secondary education. They were little more than casual acquaintances—just familiar enough to exchange smiles and hellos—and only began dating as the result of a drunken hookup, embarrassing only for how utterly typical it was. Benicio had just graduated, and for a while they both seemed happy enough to treat their relationship with the lightness its beginning seemed to warrant. But that changed when he got a job at the same school where Alice worked. It later became a point of contention as to whether he’d found the vacancy announcement on his own, or if she’d pointed it out. He’d asked her permission
before applying, they both agreed on that, and she’d given it in an offhand, careless way.

And so, for the last year Benicio had worked as a systems administrator for Montebello High. It wasn’t even a partial lie when he told friends and family that he enjoyed the job. He was in charge of managing the local network and user accounts, maintaining each of the workstations and doing technical assistance as needed for the faculty and staff. He may not have felt especially passionate about it, but the pay was good and it usually kept him interested. Moreover, it was comprised of tasks that were straightforward and none too challenging, but that seemed impenetrable to everyone else he worked with. He loved the way older teachers and administrators would gawk at the simplest of his daily tasks, the way they’d try to escape a conversation at the mere mention of firewalls, IP switches or routers. He got a kind of pleasure from this, similar to the pleasure he felt when speaking a language that the people around him couldn’t. Like on his childhood visits to his mother’s old home in Costa Rica, teaching his beaming cousins absurd English phrases that in retrospect weren’t nearly as naughty as he’d thought. Or the exclusivity he’d felt as a teenager in their Chicago townhouse, walking through the living room where his father was watching the news, speaking to a friend on the phone in side-slung Spanish that—as far as his father could tell—flowed out effortlessly and without the slightest trace of an accent.

But that had been awhile ago. Benicio hadn’t spoken Spanish, nor heard it in the mouth of a real live person, since his mother’s funeral in January. He’d been the de-facto translator and guide for the members of her family who’d managed to get visas in time to attend the service. That included communicating with their hotel for them, shepherding the ill-prepared aunts to Macy’s so they could buy winter coats and ferrying them from the funeral home to the church. When they all boarded a flight back to San José they took Benicio’s Spanish with them. They even took it from his dreams, which were now like silent movies that lacked even a piano soundtrack. Since then Benicio had only uttered a word of Spanish if Alice asked him to. The two of them
would be on the couch, Alice flipping channels while Benicio stroked her pale, round knees. She’d linger on Telemundo sometimes and ask him to repeat what the announcer was saying. There were words that she liked the sound of, especially in Benicio’s Spanish voice, which she insisted was different from his English voice. Like a whole different person speaking. “Moribundo,” he’d say. She’d have him repeat it a few times before trying to sound it out with him. Festividades. Sueño. Pico de gallo. Nieve. Sabado Gigante.

The dive shop on Barracks Road was small and packed with more gear than should have reasonably been able to fit through the door. Each of the walls was lined with multicolored wetsuits hanging from racks above deep bins of gloves, booties, mask and snorkel sets, dive lights and fins. Regulators and buoyancy control vests dangled from big plastic hangers suspended from the ceiling and Benicio had to navigate between pyramids of empty dive tanks and rusty magazine racks just to get to the service desk. Alice began to follow him but became distracted by a big fish identification chart stapled to the only scrap of bare wall space. Benicio watched her as she ran her fingers over the laminated names and fins of moorish idols and triggerfish.

“Pickup or drop off?” the silver-haired man behind the service desk asked.

“Pickup.” Benicio handed over a crumpled receipt. “For Bridgewater.”

The man scrutinized the paper and disappeared through a door behind the service desk. He emerged a moment later, his arms laden with the tubes, hoses and chrome of Benicio’s gear. “The old Oceanic,” he said as he laid the gear out on the desk. He wrapped his fingers around one of the regulator’s hoses and traced it down to combination depth gauge and dive computer at the end. “Haven’t seen this model in years. An oldie but a goodie. Got it used, I’m guessing?”

Benicio shook his head. “I’ve just owned it for a while.”

The man seemed pleased by this. “Good for you. Well, she takes a round six-volt. I had to mail away to a third-party in Singapore just to get it. Came in this morning.” The man patted the back of the device with affection and handed it to Benicio for his approval. Benicio felt
the almost forgotten heft of it in his hand. He pressed the round black button below the screen and numbers sprang to life. His depth was zero and his pressure was zero. His nitrogen level was safe. “Go often?” the man asked.

“Not really, no.” He became aware of the fact that Alice was standing very close behind him and glanced back to see her staring at the jumbled mess that was his gear. “It hasn’t been too long, though.”

“Well, the battery should last your next trip, probably a few more after that. But if I’m in your shoes, I consider an upgrade. Especially if you’re serious about returning to our sport.” The man stepped sideways to an ancient-looking cash register. He continued speaking as his two bent index fingers worked ponderously over the numbers. Apparently the direct feed—which ferried air from the tank to the buoyancy control vest—was corroded and needed replacing, as well as his regulator’s dust cap and all of its O-rings. The final price came out much higher than the quote he’d gotten over the phone, but Benicio didn’t doubt it was fair given the admittedly shabby state of his gear. He paid the man—including a few extra bucks for a bottle of Sea Drops for his mask and a tube of silicone jelly for his rusted dive knife—and collected his gear to leave.

Back outside Alice helped him hoist everything onto the bed of her pickup. “So,” she said, her voice a little thin, “it’s been how long since you did this?”

“Just about five years,” he said. “I took my last trip the summer before I moved down here.”

“And, you still know how? You’re not getting in over your head?” Alice laughed a bit as she said it.

“Getting in over your head is kind of the point.” He took a light hold of her arm, just above her elbow. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Who’s worried? I’m just trying to keep my options open. What with the affairs and trysts.”

He released her arm and closed the back of the truck. “I’m done playing for today,” he said. “It’s safe. And we’ll take it slow. Dad hates current and he gets seasick on overnight boats, so nothing but easy, shallow dives for us all summer.”

“Your father dives also?”

“I didn’t mention it?” Benicio knew of course that he hadn’t. In the year that they’d been dating he’d mentioned very little to Alice about his father. “Yes, he does. I mean, he used to.” He opened the door and got back into the passenger seat. “We used to do it together.”

, on the day of his mother’s funeral in Chicago. She accompanied Benicio to O’Hare, and while they waited in the torn leather chairs of the arrivals lounge he gave her the bare bones. His father’s name was Howard and he was in the hotel business, work that kept him on the road most of the time. It used to be he worked mostly in Costa Rica, but as Benicio grew older his father’s interests began to expand to higher-end resorts in Southeast Asia. His firm provided boutique-style management services for locally owned hotel franchises. Howard even owned a few establishments himself—some sushi bar in Bangkok, as well as a little wine lounge in Manila. “Quiet little places,” his father called them, on the rare occasions that he brought them up at all.

Howard started spending a lot less time in the States after Benicio graduated high school. He didn’t tell Alice that was also the summer they’d stopped talking. Benicio was always cordial—he acted like nothing was wrong when the family was together at home—but he stopped making calls to his father or taking them from him. He stopped sending letters and e-mails, and he returned the ones he received without reading them. Given the amount of time that Howard spent abroad, there was about a seventy-thirty chance that he’d be gone if something tragic ever happened. The higher odds won out, and when Benicio dialed his father’s number for the first time in almost five years it was to sob and say that his mother had been crushed between a Dodge and a brick wall on her way back from the hairdresser—a humiliatingly flamboyant, stupid way to die. Howard was so shocked to hear his son’s voice that it took him a while to understand the words. But when he did understand he began to sob as well. And that’s how it ended. Five years of silence, and then the two of them, on the phone, weeping.

It was a change that persisted after the funeral. Their grievances—or
rather Benicio’s grievance, as the silence was largely one-way—were not forgotten, but they began talking again. Before Howard returned to the Philippines they even made a vague promise to see one another in the coming months, though neither suggested when or where. It was a slow correspondence, at first. Howard began sending postcards, and in late February Benicio received a slim package that contained an odd-looking eggshell shirt that went down to his thighs when he tried it on.
, the note inside said,
I sent one of these a year ago, but I guess you didn’t get it
. Guess? Benicio had sent it back.
This is called a barong. It’s formalwear here in the Philippines, made from banana fiber. A good one can cost hundreds of dollars. Don’t worry though, this isn’t a very good one. I’ve got a few that I have to wear to events sometimes, and in case you’re wondering, yes, I do look pretty stupid in them. Thought you might find it interesting
. Benicio hung the barong up with his work shirts and left the closet door open so that he could sit on the end of his bed and look at it. He did find it interesting.

A few days later Benicio got a cell phone call at work. The reception was so bad at first that he almost hung up, but then through the static he recognized his father’s voice.

“Ben, can you hear me?”

“Yes,” he said. For a while there was nothing but popping and tearing sounds. “Yes,” he said again much louder, leaving the hum of servers in his little office and stepping out into the hallway. “Hi Dad. Can you hear me?”

“Yeah.” Even through the static Benicio could tell that his father was excited about something. “I’m sorry to call while you’re at work. Is this a bad time, Ben?”

“Not really.” Benicio wasn’t being polite—if it had been a bad time he would have said so.

“Great.” The static flared up and his father’s next words came through garbled. They sounded like:
guess who I am

“What?” Benicio turned down the hallway, pushed open the front doors and walked out into the parking lot where the reception was better.

“Guess where I am,” his father repeated.

“I don’t know … business trip? Home?”

“No.” The static died down. “No, I’m on the beach! I’m still in the Philippines and I’m on the beach. Ben, the most amazing thing is happening. There’s all this … I don’t know how to describe it. The moon is out, but it’s cloudy and dark, and there’s all this stuff out. This plankton. The waves are just washing it up. It’s glowing Ben. Bright greenish, in a thick band all along the sand. It’s just amazing.”

BOOK: Moondogs
11.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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