by Lucius Shepard
Pederson, an idler, a self-deceiver, an American fool of no consequence, on vacation from a life of petty crime and monumental indecision, fell in with Ildiko on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, and together they traveled by barge up the Rio Dulce toward the oil fields at Lake Izabal. Ildiko was Swiss, a mousy woman in her early thirties, a few years older than Pederson, pale and slight, with boyishly cut brown hair and a thin face that generally displayed a withdrawn look, but on occasion embodied a surprising sweetness. She had spent the previous fourteen months hiking through the jungles of Central America, accompanied only by Indian guides. Prior to that, she told Pederson, she had worked for relief organizations in Central Africa.
That was all he knew about her after a month of intimacy. It was not even clear to him why they had hooked up. There had been some talk, a hint of flirtation, but nothing conclusive, at least not to his mind, and she had slipped into his hotel room one night, offering herself with a casual, rather maternal tenderness, as if sex were no more significant an act than helping him on with his coat. Her air of vulnerability, at such apparent odds with her history of self-reliance, intrigued him; yet he found her only marginally attractive. Perhaps because he had been the pursued in this instance, he tended to think of her with proprietary disdain, viewing her as an interim solution to the problem of female companionship. She was damaged goods, he thought. Some old trouble lurked beneath her diffident exterior. Yet despite all of this, their relationship had deepened in ways that left him uneasy and confused by unaccustomed bursts of affection and tenderness.
The captain of the barge, Joseph Rawley, was a gruff, stocky, sun-darkened man of sixty or thereabouts, with thinning iron-gray hair and a seamed face that might once have been handsome and a tattoo celebrating his naval service in the Gulf of Tonkin. Under different circumstances Pederson might have enjoyed his company. With his colorful stories of expatriate life, he was just the sort of character whom Pederson relied upon to lend his experiences a Heart-of-Darkness credential when telling his own stories back in New York City; but from the outset it was apparent that Rawley was taken with Ildiko and had no use whatsoever for him. Pederson understood that by contrast to the flashier tourist women to be found along the coast, Ildiko would seem accessible to an older man and, in context of this, Rawley’s distaste for him was predictable. Yet his contempt was so pointed, it caused Pederson to revert to a city paranoia, to think that his history of middleman drug scams and yuppie duplicity was an open book to Rawley, and that this horny old swabbie was gazing down at him from some moral Himalaya, taking note of his every perversity and failure.
In late afternoon the barge came to a place where the river widened, the banks lifting into sheer cliffs that shadowed the green water, forming a cup-shaped gorge, and the humid stink of the jungle was overwhelmed by a profound freshness like the smell of an ancient cistern. Birds, their shapes simple as crosses, wheeled in a platinum sky. Propped against an oil drum, enfeebled and slick with a foul sweat, Pederson felt the beginnings of peace. His nerves jumped and his eyes were still afflicted--each leaf, each tree trunk, and vine, was doubled by an orangish aura, and the movements of his fingers trailed ribbony afterimages in the air. But when Ildiko emerged from the wheelhouse, wearing only a bikini bottom, her apple breasts quivering, he had the urge to establish human contact and would have called out if Rawley had not appeared a second later, dressed in sweat-drenched khakis, and pulled her back inside. It was, Pederson soon realized, a game they were playing--Rawley making mock lecherous grabs, Ildiko allowing herself to be caught, then slipping away. The scene grated on him, but he had neither the energy nor the will to express displeasure. He let his thoughts drift up away with the circling birds, their flights level with summits of the vine-enlaced cliffs, and with the palm trees atop the cliffs, their spiky crowns swaying like savages in a dance.
Darkness closed down over the barge, seeming to amplify the engine, and the jungle, too, grew louder, resonating with the loopy electric cries of frogs. Buttery light chuted through the wheelhouse windows, illuminating a stretch of rivet-studded, orange-painted iron deck. Pederson's joints ached from chemical punishment, and he was tired, grungy. The hot oily smell of metal unpleasantly thick in his nostrils. Moths whirled whitely overhead. Eusebio, Rawley's Indian mate, a squat man with pitted skin, came into view, visible in the upper window of the wheelhouse, and for an instant Pederson assumed him to be a visitation of the drug. Then he spotted Ildiko walking toward him, wearing a green T-shirt over the bikini and carrying a can of Coke. She kneeled beside him, gave him the frosty can, and asked if he was all right. He had forgotten about her fooling around with Rawley until she handed him the can--it was as if the act of kindness had settled the last roiled-up fragments of his personality, restoring his normal reflexes, and he lashed out at her.
"Did you have fun?" he asked, in a harsh, ragged voice. "Did you fuck him?"
She looked at him without expression. "I think it would not be so terrible if I had. He's a nice man...he's lonely."
"Yeah, he's a prince."
The effervescence of the Coke stung his throat. A white flash zippered his field of vision. Then another, the world coming apart like the print of an old movie, cracks showing the projector beam behind the scenes.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"I'm still ripped, but I can pass for human."
The second swig of Coke didn't sting as much; the coolness trickling down his esophagus mellowed him. "You shouldn't lead him on. You know he's going to take it seriously."
"It makes him feel young," she said. "That's all it is. He knows I'm with you."
A breeze came steadily off the bow, drying Pederson's sweat, and he felt suddenly strong, back in the flesh. He ran a hand along Ildiko's pale thigh and up under the T-shirt. "Are you with me?"
She appeared to be studying him sadly, just as she must have looked at starving refugees from Eritrea, considering their pitiful condition and inevitable fate. He eased a hand beneath the elastic of the bikini, brushed the fringe of her pubic hair with the backs of his fingers; she opened her legs, permitting him to probe more deeply.
"Jesus," he said. "You're ready to go, aren't you?"
"I'm always ready," she said flatly.
He took her by the waist and lifted her astride him; then he wrangled down his shorts and rubbed against her.
"He might see us," she said, alarm in her voice.
He fingered the crotch of her bikini to one side and let her sink down onto him. Whatever constraints she felt had been abandoned, and he imagined her in a tent erected on some forlorn, dusty acreage, straddling a doctor or a Red Cross administrator, cultivating an expertise at pleasure to shield herself from the dying all around, moving with inventive delicacy, employing her body as she employed her compassion, fully rendering the service, bestowing a passionate kindness, investing it with an odd detachment and passivity of mind that made her somehow sexier. His hands roved beneath the T-shirt, sampling her breasts. He thrust vigorously into her, his desire fueled by a flashback from the mushrooms, a spoonful of delirium that caused him to see her briefly as a creature shaped like white thighbone with a knobbed head and painted features. Light flared behind his eyes, tiny photic incidents, and when he came the muscles in his chest seized and it seemed everything--heart, guts, juice--was spilling out, leaving him gasping, staring up at stars that bloomed and faded too quickly to be real, while she kneeled at his side, adjusting the bikini, gazing at him mildly.
"Are you happy now?" she asked, her tone so neutral, he could not tell how she intended the question.
"Yeah, it was great." He caressed her leg, wanting to assure her of his affection. She did not return the gesture, but instead got to her feet.
"Hey, don't go." He reached out to her.
"I have to wash myself," she said.
He waved, go ahead, and closed his eyes. His breathing grew steady. Thoughts circled in his head like a birds above an island, idle and unconsidered. Time flowed sluggishly, adapting itself to the rhythms of the engine, the river, and he was not certain how long he remained in that state, almost empty, registering yet not interpreting the sounds and smells that seemed to establish his position, his existence. When he opened his eyes, he caught sight of Ildiko, now wearing only the bikini bottom. She stepped from an area of shadow beside the wheelhouse and, as Pederson looked on, thinking he might ask her to fix him some food, she leaped outward from the barge and vanished. It happened so quickly and was so improbable an event, it took him a moment to process what he'd seen, and even after he had done so, he refused to accept the judgment of reason, preferring to believe the whole thing had been another white rip in his vision. He scrambled up and went stumbling across the deck and looked down. The churning darkness beneath made him dizzy. He called out her name, overcome by a confusion of emotion and doubt. Holding onto the wooden rail mounted on the outer wall of wheelhouse, he edged along the side of the barge, calling to her again and again.
"What in the hell are you squawking about?"
Rawley was standing at the wheelhouse door. Khaki shorts and a oil-stained white T-shirt. His unshaven face shaded by the brim of a captain's hat. Holding a glass of rum. A grizzled old salt roused from his solitary joy.
"She jumped!" Pederson said in a bewildered, stricken voice. "She went over the side!"
Rawley made a face of sour disbelief. "Bullshit!"
"I saw her, man! I was sitting back there"--Pederson gestured toward the bow--"and I looked up...I saw her!"
"Those goddamn mushrooms, you don't know what you saw." But Rawley looked worried. "Where you'd see her jump."
"Over there." Pederson pointed to the spot.
Rawley knocked back his rum, his Adam's apple working in his leathery neck. "I don't want you going over after her. Wait in the wheelhouse. I'll check below."
The light in the wheelhouse was too bright for Pederson. He sat on the deck, knees drawn up, head down, trying to separate out what he felt from he wanted to feel, but was unable to determine which was which. A few minutes later he heard Rawley ascending the stairs that led below decks.
"Her clothes are gone." Rawley put his hands on his hips and stood watching the water pass beneath them.
Pederson stared at him without comprehension. "Aren't you going to stop? We have to look for her."
"She took her clothes, pal. She didn't get sucked under--and that's a long shot--then she doesn't want us to look for her. She's a smart girl. She'll find a place to wait out the night and catch a river taxi come morning."
"We should do something!" Pederson pushed himself up from the deck.
"What? Report it to the police? She turns up missing, I'll be paying bribes out my ass the next ten years."
Pederson felt like a man in a hurricane trying to hold his hat on, everything flying off around him. "We have to look for her," he said. "We have to fucking look!"
Rawley spat onto the deck. He appeared to have aged, changing in a matter of minutes from a hale man of late middle age to a full-fledged senior citizen. His skin looked to have loosened, sagged, and he blinked rapidly.
"C'mon, man!" Pederson said. "You got to do something."
Rawley went chest-to-chest with him, his bitter breath fouling Pederson's air. "Don't put it on me, sonny. I'm not the one she was trying to get away from."
Tears came to Pederson's eyes, produced by an emotion that seemed a marriage of loss and self-pity. "What did she tell you?"
"She told me what a cup of weak tea you are. She told me she wanted to leave you, but she was afraid you'd fall apart."
"That's crap! We didn't have anything...We were just traveling together."
Rawley turned away,
"The only reason we ended up together," Pederson went on, "she begged a ride to Flores with this Guatemalan rancher. This right- wing guy who carried a pistol. I think she got paranoid and asked me to come along. She wanted protection."
"And you were going to protect her?" Rawley snorted. He stuck his head into the wheelhouse and told Eusebio to go below and bring up the gringo's pack.
"What are you doing?" Pederson asked.
"I'm letting you off at Reunion. ‘Til then you can just sit on the deck and keep the hell away from me."
"We should look for her," Pederson said feebly as Rawley stepped into the wheelhouse and slammed the door shut. "We should do something."
Propped against his pack, having reclaimed his spot among the oil drums, Pederson sat dejected, drinking tepid bottled water. That Ildiko had thrown herself off the barge, risking death in order to escape him--it was unacceptable, and he tried once again to persuade himself that he had not seen it. He was still stoned, his eyes playing tricks. But her clothes, the fact that she had taken her clothes...What could he have done to make her so desperate? If it was desperation that had motivated her. Maybe she had acted independently of any consideration involving him. The damage he had sensed in her. The despondency yielded by years of watching death in Africa, It might have sparked her to want to be alone again, to go back into the jungle where she could avoid the thought of the place, and to want it so immediately that she had taken drastic measures. Whatever her reasons, the suddenness and finality of her absence hurt him in an unexpected way--it was as if some special organ, heretofore unnecessary, vestigial, like an appendix, had been activated and was producing chemicals that were breaking him down, hollowing his chest and causing his thoughts to grow so dark and heavy, they tipped his head downward and shuttered his eyes and he saw a white leap into blackness repeated over and over, until he could no longer tell whether it was Ildiko or merely a flash of female light.
He glanced up to the wheelhouse. Rawley stood in the upper window at the wheel, gazing down on him. He looked like a funky toy in his captain's hat, an action figure that represented a character in a period adventure flick. Disrespecting Rawley enabled him to stop thinking about Ildiko, and he indulged in it, painting him as a vet who couldn't cut it in the States, so he had scurried on down to Guatemala where he could be the king of Mangoland, boss around the Indians, overcharge the oil workers for the cheap goods he brought from the coast, screw fourteen year old hookers, playing a tough-guy riff on Lord Jim to disguise his various inadequacies. But this tactic failed Pederson in the end, and he was cast back upon the moment he wanted to deny. He felt in need of repentance, of absolution, but was not certain which of his sins required expiation.
He had been sitting there for an hour or so, too wired and distressed for sleep, when Rawley came toward him from the wheelhouse, walking unsteadily. He had gone to drinking straight from the bottle--a label-less bottle containing a few fingers of pale rum--and he glared at Pederson with poisonous distaste.
"Cocksucker!" he said. "I oughta beat you up."
A flicker of rage tightened Pederson's neck, but he suppressed an impulse toward confrontation. "Just leave me alone, man."
"I should beat you up and throw you over the fucking side!" Rawley appeared to be summoning the will to do that very thing, but instead he slumped to deck and sat a few feet away, braced on one hand and cradling the bottle to his belly. "You knew that girl's head was all screwed up. You had no right treating her like that."
He seemed truly despairing, his turtle mouth drooping, but Pederson, on the defensive, said, "I didn't do a damn thing to her!"
"You fucked her out in the open. Right here." Rawley plunked the bottom of the bottle on the deck for emphasis. "In plain view. How you think she felt about that?"
"I didn't hear any complaints."
With drunken caution, Rawley got to his knees. "You dumb shit! You don't have a clue about other people, you're so wrapped up in yourself." He made a gagging noise, wobbled, and had to brace himself again. "She deserved better than you."
"How do you know I fucked her out here?" Pederson asked. "You were watching, right?"
Rawley's expression was slack, febrile, undenying.
"You watched us," Pederson said.
"I couldn't help myself," Rawley said blearily, on the edge--it seemed--of tears.
"If you hadn't been hitting on her, man, it never would have happened." Every word Pederson spoke charged his growing sense of outrage. "But you couldn't get it through your head she was being nice to you. Playing with you. She was just being polite."
It looked as though Rawley were having trouble absorbing this. "You knew I was watching? You were making a statement? That's what you were doing?"
"You weren't getting it," Pederson said. "I thought that way it might sink in."
Rawley tilted forward as if he was going to pass out, but threw a sneaky right hand that caught Pederson flush, twisting his neck and snapping back his head. Light shattered behind his eyes. He heard Rawley talking to him and realized he was lying on his back. He could feel the skin tightening around his left eye as the swelling began; but he was less than clear about what was going on.
"....did it to her," Rawley was saying. "Maybe it was the both of us. But it wasn't me using her like a goddamn whore."
Something exploded into Pederson's ribs; as the pain ebbed, he understood that he had been kicked.
"That was a sweet girl." Rawley said. "A girl with a soul. She did a lotta good in her life. And now she's probably dead...'cause you thought I needed a lesson?"
Another kick, this one not so painful, landing on his hip, and Pederson rolled away, cowering behind an oil drum. He peered up at Rawley, trying to bring a smear of khaki and white into sharp focus.
"That's right," said Rawley. "You hide...you stay hidden. I don't want to even see your shadow before we get to Reunion."
There were, Pederson saw, several Rawleys, all opaque and rippling. All enraged, fists clenched and mouth stretched thin.
"You think you're such a fucking hotshot,” Rawley said. "Mister World Traveler! Well, this is the real world, hotshot, and a sixty-two year old man just kicked your ass. Where's that leave you?"
The river wind came up strong from the north, carrying the scents of smoke, oil, dead fish , the smell of Reunion, and the jungle began to melt up from the blackness, and the sky burned a radiant dark blue. The barge labored against the current, engine grinding like the grating of a portcullis, and the light from the wheelhouse was less sharply defined. Miserable, his eye throbbing, Pederson lay pillowed on his pack, trying to think his way out the karmic load Rawley had forced him to assume. He had almost convinced himself that Ildiko was alive. Alive and waiting for a river taxi back along the Rio Dulce. He recalled her saying that she felt protected in the jungle, that going there alone with a guide never bothered her. He had not explored this with her; he hadn't been interested in much she said. But he thought now she would have explained it in a way that explained much about her, and he wanted an explanation--he wanted to know what security she found there, to fathom all her strangeness. That old bastard had been right about one thing. Ildiko had a soul and he, Pederson, had failed to appreciate it. He was determined to find her and settle things between them. He knew she would head back to Flores and then into the deep jungle. If they had no future, well, that was fine. But he had an obligation to fulfill.
The idea that he accepted this obligation satisfied Pederson's moral concerns and he turned his mind to other matters. It was, he figured, about another hour to Reunion. Wincing, he sat up and inspected his pack, making certain that nothing had been left in the cabin. In short order he discovered that his watch was missing...and a gold cross he'd bought for his sister. Rawley's mate must have taken them, he thought. Eusebio. Probably when he brought the pack up from below decks. Both Eusebio and Rawley were visible in the window of the wheelhouse and, judging by the flamboyance of Rawley's gestures, Pederson inferred that he was telling the mate about the sucker punch he'd landed and they were laughing at him. Flimsy notions of vengeance occurred to him. He'd sabotage the barge and then report Rawley...to the police, the American consulate. He envisioned how it would be. Rawley's drunken consternation. But the important thing now was to reclaim his goods, and he recognized that he would have to take them back. They were most likely under Eusebio's pillow or on the stand beside his bunk. If he was caught, he'd say that he needed to use the head.
Keeping to the left side of the barge, where the shadows lay deepest, he sneaked in a crouch toward the wheelhouse door. The stair angled downward just inside the door, and Pederson was about to make his move when Eusebio came down the stair from the top of the wheelhouse, swinging on the handrails, and nearly ran into him. He stared at Pederson in surprise and then said sternly, "No pase!" Seeing him caused Pederson to recognize how stoned he still was. Instead of being alarmed, he was fascinated by Eusebio's round, dark face, cheeks dented with dozens of pits that resembled the punch marks of a silversmith's hammer, and the jaundiced condition of his left eye, a little yellow cloud occluding the lower quadrant of the humor.
"No Pase!" Eusebio repeated, and gave Pederson a gentle push in the chest.
"The head." Pederson grabbed his crotch. "El bano. Necessito usarlo."
"No pase!" Another, harder push.
"Goddamnit!" said Pederson. "Where's my fucking watch? Mi reloj...Donde?"
Eusebio's stare became disinterested, impassive.
"Okay, man." Pederson held up a hand and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to signify cash money. "Puedo pagar. Dame el reloj y le pagare."
Eusebio's expression grew stern. He shouted up the stairs and then shoved Pederson out onto the deck.
"This is bullshit!" Pederson made to re-enter the wheelhouse, but Eusebio blocked the door.
When Rawley came down the staira he took one look at Pederson and said to Eusebio, "Llevame la pistola!"
The mate headed off downstairs.
Pederson's Spanish was not so good, but he knew the meaning of la pistola. "Hey!" he said, backing way. "Fuck are you doing?"
Rawley followed him out onto the deck. He appeared to have sobered some. His eyes were steady, his manner contained and dead serious. "You don't know where you are," he said. "Mister Goddamn World Traveler doesn't have a clue."
Panicking a little, Pederson said, "Your fucking Indian! He stole my watch, man! What do you want me to do? Just eat it?"
"You better figure it out fast," Rawley said as Eusebio clattered up the stairs.
"Listen," Pederson said, injecting his voice with sincerity, with reason. "All I want's my watch back. That's all."
Eusebio handed Rawley an automatic with a bronze finish and smiled at Pederson.
"You come on board my vessel acting like King Shit," said Rawley, checking the clip. "You treat a good woman like she's a filthy bitch and drive her to desperation. And now you accuse my friend of stealing. Know what that is?" He cocked an eye toward Pederson and jammed in the clip. "It's what I call justification."
Pederson ran for the cover of the oil drums. A gunshot cracked the air behind him, amplified by the silence of the jungle. He dived in among the drums, rolling up against his pack. Pain shot through his injured ribs and his heart felt flabby and hot. He wrapped his arms around his pack, as if it could protect him. Then a second shot. The round spanged off one of the drums.
"Want to know where you are?" Rawley shouted. "You're in the middle of the fucking jungle!"
He fired again, and the bullet struck sparks that showered Pederson's head.
There was a note of exultancy in Rawley's voice. "You're in Guatemala, motherfucker!"
The implausibility of the situation caused Pederson to flounder in his search for a solution, but when another round notched a rivet close by his hand, he managed to achieve complete acceptance of the fact that Rawley intended to kill him. He hooked the straps of his pack over his elbow and told the One in Whom he only believed at times such as these that he was heartily sorry for having offended Him, and ran full tilt for the side of the barge, speeded along by yet another shot. He heard himself shout as he pushed off, leaping high and wide, tucking his legs into a cannonball. The shock of entry forced air from his lungs; the water gloved him in its slimy fist. Surfacing, he felt the suction of the barge and bright with fear, he fought for the bank, swimming one-armed, dragging his sodden pack, kicking furiously. In less than a minute he touched mucky bottom; moments later, he scrambled to his feet and sloshed his way up onto a thicketed point of land that extended about ten yards out from the bank. He collapsed against the muddy incline, breathing hard, and heard a shout. Rawley. His words unintelligible. The barge was passing to the north, a huge shadow, the wheelhouse limned in light. Pederson watched it go, too wasted to feel relief.
Once the barge had vanished around the bend, he tried to establish a comfortable position; but there was no comfort to be had. Mosquitoes started to swarm. Mud oozed into his shorts. He battled the mosquitoes for a while, but they settled in his hair, sheathed his arms, and finally he gave into them, hanging his head and trying to focus on being alive. Sooner or later a river taxi would happen past, and he would hail it, and it would take him to Reunion. He pictured Ildiko waiting downstream, stoic on her own safe perch. There might be, he told himself, a magical symmetry involved, an illumination to be had for them both, and perhaps a second chance. Sitting alone on the bank, they might come to a strange electric sense of one another, like fireflies trapped in bottles set side by side. He suddenly recalled all her desirable qualities and wondered what had caused him to be so unmindful of them. It might be, he supposed, that her life of sacrifice had made him feel guilty about his pointless existence. If they got back together, it would be one hell of a story. A redemptive story. He saw himself telling it back in the Chelsea Bar, Ildiko beside him, a living proof; but then his thoughts sputtered and he sank into a fugue, gazing dully out at the mist forming above the water, rising into the lower boughs, reducing the light of the paling sky and transforming the world into a vague blue-green luminosity hung about with vegetable shadows, a limbo created for a single lost soul. Before long, he began to shiver.
Pederson was wakened by the trebly shredding grind of a outboard motor. The sun was just up, orange streamers of cloud in the east, and a river taxi with a dark figure at the helm and a slighter, paler figure in the bow was slitting the jade water, passing right in front of him. He tried to stand, slipped and fell; he called out, but his voice was weak, scratchy, and neither the helmsman nor his passenger gave any sign of notice. He peered after the boat. He could not be sure, but he thought it had been Ildiko in the bow. The longer he considered this, the more certain he became. It gnawed at him that he had missed out on catching the same ride. They would have talked all the way to Reunion and, by the time they arrived, they might have reached a mutual understanding. He got gingerly to his feet and stood like a sentry, his eyes trained downriver. He could not afford to miss the next ride or he might lose her. Gnats flocked to his swollen eye, almost closed now, and the skin above his injured ribs was feverish. The sun climbed high, and the foetid smell of the bank surrounded him. Parrots screeched, a monkey screamed. Heat lifted from the river; the only sound was the easy slapping of the water. Pederson's knees trembled; his vision blurred. Sweat trickled down his arms and legs, inflaming the mosquito bites. But he remained at his post, staring into the reflected light glazing the river, listening for salvation.
The boat that came for Pederson was owned by an elderly man with white hair and beard, clad in a ragged shirt and shorts. His features had an East Indian cast and, when asked, he told Pederson that his ancestors had been slaves brought over from Peshawar by the British to work on the sugar plantations in Belize. He spoke some English and seemed eager to reveal more about himself; but Pederson was less interested in stories now that he was living one. He washed in the river before boarding, changed into clean clothes, and sat looking down into the foaming wake all the way to Reunion--a scoured acreage of red dirt set about with shanties and a few buildings of concrete block. He paid the boatman and headed for the bus station, walking along streets rendered nearly impassable by lake-like potholes full of stagnant rain. Naked toddlers splashed and built mud structures beside them as if they were at the beach, while their mothers fanned themselves in the doorways and stared listlessly at passers-by. It was an impoverished, desolate place, and would ordinarily have stimulated Pederson, who viewed himself as a connoisseur of such places, of all things desolate, and perhaps, he thought, this was at the core of his attraction to Ildiko, an attraction he now embraced; perhaps her desolation was the charm that had gradually possessed him...But at that moment, the rawness of the town was lost on him, and he plodded on with his head down, as if infected by its stuporous vitality.
The bus station was a one-story building of white stucco with a painted Pepsi ad covering one side, like the flag of a proud nation, and the wooden benches inside were packed with farmers and old beshawled women; a few teenage boys were goofing in a corner, pushing each other and laughing. Pederson bought a ticket to Flores. On impulse he pulled out a photograph of Ildiko, a Polaroid taken on the first morning of their voyage. It depicted her topless, wearing her bikini bottom. He was too embarrassed to show it to the women; the men, however, looked at it with polite interest and then shook their heads--they had not seen her. But one, a bleary-eyed mestizo with a crust of dried blood at the corner of his mouth, his breath reeking of liquor, mumbled something in response to the picture, and when Pederson asked him to repeat it, he said, "Que puta! Se fue!" and gestured loosely toward the door. "Por el camion... a Flores." That was proof enough for Pederson. She was on the previous bus to Flores, bound ultimately for the heart of the rain forest, where she would find some counterfeit of peace. He sat at the end of a bench, fingering the photograph as if it were a rosary, an article of faith. He could still catch up with her, he thought. It would take her at least a day to secure a guide. He could ask around, follow her trail.
"Very pretty." One of the teenage boys was leaning over his shoulder--he had shoulder-length hair and a rosy brown Mayan complexion; he wore jeans and a T-shirt adorned with a photograph of the youthful Madonna. He grinned at Pederson and said, "She's your girlfrien'?"
Pederson did not know how to answer this, but he nodded.
The boy let out a shrill whistle, and in a moment his friends had gathered round, all peering at the Polaroid; one of them pointed at it and said something excitedly in Spanish, speaking too rapidly for Pederson to understand.
"What's he saying?" he asked the first boy.
"Momentito....wait, wait!" The boy questioned his friend, who replied at some length, accompanying his words with florid gestures.The boy turned a reproving look on Pederson. "He say she's the captain's girlfrien'."
"The captain?" At first this struck Pederson as a non-sequitur.
"Yes, the old man, the..." The boy's brow furrowed. "How you say...? Like a boat, but..mas larga. Longer."
"Si... barge." The boy repeated the word, perhaps to imprint it on his memory. "My frien' saw this woman with the captain of the barge. This morning in the market."
When Pederson failed to respond, the boys went back to their foolery. The horn of the Flores bus sounded outside; the people on the benches surged to meet it, and Pederson, stunned, obeying a dull communal urge, moved with them. He saw how it could have happened. He might have hallucinated Ildiko's leap, contrived the scene from the visual aftershocks of the mushrooms, and this had presented her with the opportunity to exchange his protection for that of Rawley; but the extent of the duplicity required to substantiate what the boy had told him, the consummate acting ability he would then have to attribute to Rawley, the freakish level of coincidence...For the next minute or so, Pederson became involved with forcing his way along the crowded aisle of the bus, pushing past an old woman carrying a brace of live chickens who was haranguing an even older man with a cane, trying to get him to sit. He found a seat at the rear of the bus, next to a farmer wearing a straw cowboy hat, jeans and a checkered shirt. The farmer tipped his hat and said, "Buenas dias." Half his upper teeth were gold, the other half were missing, and Pederson briefly considered the question of whether the man was replacing his teeth with golden substitutes, or if they had all been gold and were falling out one by one.
Its gears shrieking, the bus lurched forward, and Pederson's knees were compressed painfully against the seat in front of him. This brought him back to the question of real moment. It was not possible, he decided. The boy's witness had been no more reliable than the drunk's. Rawley was incapable of the necessary pretense, and Ildiko incapable of such deceit. He had seen what he had seen. Yet as the bus pulled away from the town, dipping into potholes, setting its passengers bouncing and swaying against one another, following a winding red dirt road between walls of foliage, the violent, dark green and poison jungle where he and Ildiko had found each other, and would find each other again, Pederson's purity of purpose was assaulted, marred, by feelings of anger and betrayal, by the possibility, however slim, that he had misunderstood everything about Ildiko, and about the world. The second lie he told himself was that he only wanted to fuck her again.