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Authors: T. C. Boyle

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The Harder They Come

BOOK: The Harder They Come
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D
EDICATION

For Scott and Nicky, Chuck and Donna,
from Quintara Street to Lion Loop

E
PIGRAPH

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.
It has never yet melted.

 

D. H. LAWRENCE

Studies in Classic American Literature

C
ONTENTS
1.

T
HERE WAS NO SLANT
to the sun—it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat, making his underwear bind and the shirt stick to his back as if it had been glued on, and why he’d ever let Carolee talk him into this he’d never know. The bus lurched. There was a stink of diesel. Gears ratcheted beneath the floorboards, metal on metal, as if they were going to fuse or maybe explode into a thousand pieces at any moment. He looked beyond Carolee, out the window, feeling ever so slightly queasy, though everyone assured him the water was good here—
potable,
that was the word on everybody’s lips, as if they were trying to convince themselves. Plus, the food was held to the highest standards and the glasses out of which they’d sipped their rum punch and rum cokes and rum tonics scrupulously washed in hot sudsing pristine well water, because this wasn’t like Mexico or Guatemala or Belize, this was special, orderly, clean, a kind of tourist paradise. And cheap. Cheap too.

On top of it all, he had a headache. Or the beginnings of one. But that was understandable, because he’d gulped down three rum punches with lunch, so thirsty he could have drained the whole pitcher the waiter had set in the middle of the table, and no, he wasn’t going to drink the water, no matter what anybody said—not unless it came from a bottle with an unbroken seal. He rubbed his eyes. He had aspirin in his kit back on the ship. Cipro too. But that didn’t do him a whole lot of good now, did it? Anonymous streets rolled by, shops, people, dogs, ratty-looking birds infesting the trees and an armed guard out front of every store—or
tienda,
as his guidebook had it—and what did that tell you about the level of orderliness here?
Bienvenidos
. Welcome.
Mi casa es su casa
.

The bus slammed through one of the million and a half potholes cratering the street and Carolee grabbed for his arm. The man in the seat across from him—Bill, or was it Phil?—let out a curse. “I wish he’d slow down,” Carolee said, and he shot a look at the driver, at the back of his head that had been shaved to stubble, the white annealed scar in the shape of a fishhook at the hairline, ears too big, neck too thin, and then he was gazing out the smeared window to where the ship lay fixed in the harbor behind them like a great shining edifice built by a vanished civilization—or a vanishing one, anyway. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice crackling through its filter of phlegm as if he’d been transformed into Louis Armstrong in his old age—everything, even his laugh, coming out in an airless rasp—“I kind of wish he’d speed up so we can get this over with.
Nature walk,
” he said. “In this heat? Give me a break.”

“Oh, come on, Sten, lighten up.” Carolee was giving him a look he knew from long experience, her eyes wide and her head tilted just a fraction to the right, as if what you’d just said had thrown her off balance. She was enjoying this. If it wasn’t the birds and monkeys, it was the trinket shops and the little out-of-the-way restaurants everyone assured her the tourists hadn’t discovered yet in spite of the fact that they were listed in the back of all the guidebooks and the waiters practically erupted from their shoes when the tour bus pulled up out front. She didn’t speak the language, beyond “
¿Cuánto?
” and “
Demasiado,
” but it didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experience, a change in the routine.
What good’s retirement if you’re just going to sit there and rot?
That was her line. He’d heard it all day, every day, until finally he’d given in, though privately he figured that since you were going to rot anyway you might as well do it at home, where at least you could drink the water.

“Didn’t you just tell me this morning how you need some real exercise instead of what, shuffleboard and bending your elbow at the bar?” She canted her head a degree more so that her hair,
which she still wore long, swept across the right side of her face, and in that moment he felt the thing he’d always felt for her, the thing that had tugged at him now for forty years and more. “Or am I wrong? Did I mishear you? Huh, mister? Was that it?” She poked him for emphasis, but playfully, copacetically, one stiff finger right in the ribs, and he couldn’t help smiling despite himself.

Soon they were winding their way along the seashore, the road getting progressively worse, the houses sparser, everything so green it ached. It was one in the afternoon. The sun baked the roof of the bus. People dozed, their heads thrown back or cradled in their arms. Though the windows were open, the air hardly seemed to move, as if it were another medium altogether, solid, heavy, like sludge. Lunch had been at an authentic café,
Ticos
(that was what the locals were called) all around them, going through the motions of fork to mouth like anybody you’d see anywhere. That these people, this place, existed independently of him and everything he knew had astonished him all over again, as if he’d gone outside himself, a ghost drifting through another reality. He tried to capture it with his camera, snapping dutifully away, but the photos themselves were ephemeral, images flashing by on a computer screen, attached to nothing, and no one would ever see them, he knew that. The waiter had brought plates of rice and beans. Some sort of fried fish. And rum punch, thank god for that, though if he stopped to think about it he’d have to wonder about the ice cubes clacking away in the depths of the pitcher and where exactly they’d come from, as if he didn’t already know.

The driver jerked at the wheel, shifted down, then up, then down again. He felt his stomach clench. They passed a scatter of houses, a grocery, a school, and suddenly both shoulders of the road were thronged with boys in white shirts and dark trousers and girls in matching blouses and skirts marching through the ochre mud either to or from school, he couldn’t say which, half
of them going one way and half the other. Maybe it was double sessions, maybe that was it. Or siesta. Did they have siesta here?

Someone had told him education was compulsory for everybody in the country, grades one through eight, after which it fell off to practically nothing. But that was all right. At least they were literate, at least they could do sums, and what more did you need for a tourist economy? Language skills, maybe. Their waiter at lunch spoke a hopped-up Jamaican dialect, a kind of reggae English, but you could hardly understand what he was saying. Still, just about everybody had at least some English, thanks to Imperial America and the consumer fever that kept spiraling outward till the buy-now/pay-later message was practically a tribal chant from every outpost of the earth. What a gulf there was between needs and wants, he was thinking, all these
things,
these appliances, these handheld devices . . . but what he wanted now—needed, urgently—was a rest stop. And something to wet his throat, bottled water, a soda, gum, did anybody have any gum?

Carolee was dozing, her head pinned beneath his left arm, sweating there, his sweat and hers, conjoined. He tried not to jostle her as he reached for her bag, for the water in the plastic bottle with the screw cap she’d remembered to bring along and he hadn’t. The bag—one of those black over-the-shoulder things she insisted on wearing looped across her chest so the street punks couldn’t make off with it—was on the floor at her feet. He leaned into her, bracing her, and felt the muscles in his lower right side grab as he reached down for it, just a pinch there, a reminder of the intermittent back pain he’d been having and the exercises the therapist had given him to keep limber, exercises he’d been neglecting because he was on vacation, on a cruise ship, and all that seemed to matter on a cruise ship was eating and drinking—you weren’t getting your money’s worth unless you put on twenty pounds and calcified your liver.

He managed to extract the bottle without waking his wife, using her slack form as a counterweight as he leaned forward, and
now he was unscrewing the cap and rinsing his mouth before taking a single long swallow. It seemed as if he was always thirsty lately, thirsty back at home, thirsty on the ship, thirsty under this sun, and he wondered vaguely if it was age-related, the first sign of some as yet undiagnosed syndrome—the dreaded acronym—that would bring him down in a dark bloom of imploding cells. The tires screeched. There was a bump. Another bump. Carolee jolted awake on a ragged intake of breath. “What?” she gasped, her eyes straining to focus.

“You were dozing.”

He gave her a minute to come back to the world, the bus, the rank invasive odor of the overheated sea and the sodden jungle. She’d been into the rum at lunch too, rum black as oil, in a smudged glass two-thirds filled with Diet Coke, no ice. Neither of them was used to drinking this early in the day, but then why not, they were on vacation, weren’t they? And he was retired—or
pre-dead,
as he preferred to call it. Party on. Everybody else was.

“I was dreaming,” she said.

“Me too, but I was awake. You got any gum?”

She shook her head. “Water?” she said, making a question of it, and she bent to reach for her bag before she saw the bottle clamped there in his sweating hand. “Which I see you already found.”

He handed her the bottle and she unscrewed the cap and took a sip herself. “Ugh,” she said, making a face, “it tastes awful.”

“Hot enough to put a tea bag in. And I’ll give you even money they fill it from a tap someplace, like in that movie, what was the name of it, in India?”

“No,” she said, “no. This came from the ship.”

He glanced out the window. More children, more school uniforms, a
tienda
with a wide-open door and maybe drinks inside, Coca-Cola,
Naranja Croosh
. He saw tethered goats, palms, bananas, clothes on a line, a squadron of white-haired men playing cards at a table set up in the courtyard between whitewashed
houses, the whole business flitting by so fast it was like a movie in the wrong speed. And then, without warning, the bus veered left at a fork in the road and they shot down a narrow tunnel of vegetation, branches snatching at the roof, dogs and chickens scattering before them. Carolee slammed into his shoulder, loose as a puppet, and there went the water, the bottle hitting the floor with a soft liquid thump before vanishing under the seat and then reappearing an instant later as if it were some magic trick. “Jesus,” he said, “what’s this guy trying to do, kill us?”

In the next moment he was on his feet, making his way up the aisle toward the front of the bus, bracing himself against the seatbacks. He was a big man, six-three and two hundred twenty pounds, most of it still in the right places, and he filled the aisle. People turned to look at him—the ones who weren’t lost in a rum haze, that is—but he focused on the back of the driver’s head and tried to keep his balance. There were eighteen or twenty passengers, couples mostly and mostly around his age, and he knew the majority of them by sight, if not by name. The cruise had originated in San Diego and they’d already made stops at Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Puerto Quetzal, Puntarenas, the Panama Canal and Colón, and while there were nearly two thousand passengers aboard, you got to know—or at least recognize—the ones who tended to go on expeditions like this one.

“Excuse me,” he said, leaning over the driver, “but I wonder if you couldn’t slow down a bit?” The windshield held an image and then snatched it away, dodging like a Brahma bull. The engine labored. The driver shifted down, shot an impatient glance over one shoulder and then turned his back on him. “Excuse me?” he repeated. “People are getting upset back there—
I’m
getting upset.”

The driver didn’t seem to hear him. And why? Sten noticed now that the man was wearing one of those iPod hookups, the buds fixed inside his ears like decorations, like the black wooden plugs his son’s friend Cody wore in his stretched-out earlobes. The bus kept moving, but time slowed. Sten studied the man
from above, the shining mahogany crown of his head, the ears like knobs you could take hold of and twist, the sparse bloom of stringy hairs snaking out of his chin. The music was so loud you could hear it even over the noise of the engine. Reggae. The eternal reggae they played everywhere on this side of the country as if it were vital to body function. He hated reggae. Hated this jerk who wouldn’t slow down or think to stop someplace so people could relieve themselves. And he hated to be ignored. So what he did, as tenderly as he could, was jerk the cord so the buds popped out of the man’s ears, and now the bus slowed, and now the driver—what was he, thirty, thirty-five?—was paying attention to him, all right.

“Go sit,” the man said, glaring over his shoulder. He made a motion with one hand, as if shooing a fly, then dug a pair of opaque black sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and clamped them over his eyes.

“I said, could you slow down, is all. You got old people on this bus. What’s the hurry?”

The driver ignored him, fixing his gaze back on the road. The buds dangled at his throat, the music released now to a metallic thump and roll and the thin nasal complaint of a voice lost in the mix. The bus accelerated. “You sit,” he said without turning his head. “No person is permitted up front.” And he pointed to a sign, faded and sun-blasted, that read
Stay Behind Line
.

Sten didn’t move. He just stood there, looming over the driver like a statue, one hand gripping the overhead rack, the other braced against the seatback. “And how about a pit stop? Any restrooms out here?” Even as he posed the question he realized how foolish he sounded. He could only imagine what the driver must have thought of him, of all of them, privileged white people demanding this and that, here today, gone tomorrow. What did this guy care? There’d be another boat tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

Finally, the tension tightening like a cord between them, the
driver whipped his head round, his eyes visible as two indistinct drifting spheres behind the black plastic lenses. “Five minutes,” he said, the reggae pulsing at his throat, radiating up from the neck of his bright print shirt. Reggae.
Thump-thump, boom. Thump-thump, boom.
“Five minutes and we are there. You sit.
Now
.”

BOOK: The Harder They Come
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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