The ceiling fan purred. It was hot and humid in the room. Albert had come to Puerto Vallarta from San Francisco where it was cool and brisk. He had ten days to himself alone without a phone or computer. He came to think, not to work.
He walked out to the deck from his room at the Hotel Roger. He gazed at the street below. His room was at the top on the third level. He was showered and shaved and dressed for dinner but it was still early. He sat and waited for the sun to sink. He knew there would be no relief from the heat. Even late at night the encroaching darkness only tricked one into thinking it was a bit cooler. Real coolness at this time of year was not possible.
A parade meandered down the street—marchers with colorfully decorated crosses, some dressed respectably but others with wild costumes. He heard brassy music and forceful drumbeats and the blaring horns from impatient drivers trying to pass. Pedestrians were transfixed in confused amusement. Across the street there was a solemn group forming around the front door of a small house crammed side by side between the shops and restaurants. People arrived in groups of threes and fours, all generations, dressed in the somber fineries of those who had come to help guide some poor dead spirit along its way. It was a wake.
Albert hoped to join Gomez for drinks. Gomez was an older man he met a couple of years back. They hardly knew each other but Gomez shared some interesting stories over drinks full of ideas that impressed Albert and left him anxious to hear more. It appealed to Albert to have some company while he was on this trip, someone he could speak to discretely. Something important troubled him. He wanted to speak about it with someone. Gomez was the only person he knew in Puerto Vallarta. Three months ago, after a long search, Albert made contact with Gomez and they agreed on a place and a time for drinks. Since then Albert had not been able to reach him. Knowing Mexico, this did not seem unusual to Albert. He assumed Gomez would meet him at the appointed time.
Children played outside the door of the dead person’s house. Inside the parents and grandparents offered condolences. The women had their rosaries and the men drank beer. It was dark inside but Albert thought he could see the coffin in the center of the room through the open door. There was a woman with a black veil who greeted the arrivals. He assumed the body was that of her husband.
Albert found thinking about death unpleasant. He thought it was far away for him, but it could be just around the corner. He went back inside his room. The room had windows looking out to the street. During the day the natural light made the room bright and cheerful. There was a large bed with brass plated metal posts, an armoire and a small desk. A lamp sat a bit crooked beside the desk, its large green glass fixture atop an antique metal base held together by a thick brass post. Albert unpacked and put away his things.
A truck arrived and created a commotion on the street. The driver parked outside the door of the dead man’s house. The children scattered when some men carried the coffin to the truck. A few of the bolder ones looked on but there was nothing to see. The coffin had been closed up. Albert saw this as clearly from his window as he would have had he stayed on the rooftop deck.
The time of his meeting approached. He locked the door to his room and climbed down the spiral staircase. It was made of cast iron. It was painted black and the metal stair treads wobbled and creaked as he went down. Out on the street it was noisier and more hectic than it appeared from upstairs. He was quickly swept up in the crowd and shoved about as he tried to make his way in the opposite direction of the parade. He turned at the corner and walked to the next street. It was empty by comparison. This made the rest of the walk to the bar quick and easy.
A man sat by the window where Gomez usually sat. Albert walked up and stood by the table.
“Gomez?” The man looked like Gomez but it was hard to tell. He had aged and had grown a bushy white beard.
“Ah?” The old man looked at him with penetrating brown eyes. It was Gomez. It was impossible to mistake those eyes. Gomez sipped a Pacifico while Albert gazed down at him.
“Hello my friend. I think I’ll get a beer myself. Would you like another? The drinks are on me tonight.”
The old man smiled. Albert walked to the bar to order a Negro Modelo and a Pacifico. He took them back to the table and sat across from Gomez For awhile neither broke the silence. This was Gomez’s way thought Albert, quiet, patient, subtle. It was this calm deliberate style that drew Albert to Gomez when they first met.
“What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”
Gomez cocked his head to the left to look at Albert. He sucked in his lower lip and his sprawling white mustache tightened and protruded. Outside on the street Albert could hear the sounds of the parade. It came closer. They must have turned and come back, he thought. Gomez seemed more reserved than usual. It didn’t bother Albert. He knew Gomez took his time to process things. The language difference made communicating awkward for both of them.
The parade was directly outside now and the loud music made it difficult to talk. A young couple came into the bar in their costumes. The girl had a black cat’s mask with pointed ears and long white whiskers sticking out on either side, a tight black and white tee shirt and black shorts while the young man looked like a professor dressed as a devil. They scanned the bar and quickly left. Not their kind of place, thought Albert. The bartender watched them leave then went back to wiping the bar.
Gomez finished his beer and raised his bottle. The bartender brought over another Pacifico. The bartender pointed to Albert’s Modelo. Albert shook his head. He wasn’t finished with the first and he didn’t want to get too drunk. He had some things to say. He looked at the bartender. He saw reflections of himself in the bartender’s glasses.
The bartender laughed when he saw Albert staring. Albert chuckled awkwardly. The bartender walked back to the bar. The parade moved along. It was quiet again.
“What was the bar man laughing at, Gomez?”
Gomez just shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, I suppose you want to know why I asked to meet with you again?”
Gomez raised his head and pushed out his chin. This seemed to indicate to Albert that yes, Gomez did wonder why.
“You see, I have a decision to make, a very important decision. I’ve come here for a few days to think it over. I thought you could help me.”
Gomez looked perplexed. He took a long sip of beer then he cocked his head to the right and shook it up and down as if he agreed to help.
“Good. Okay. Here’s the situation.”
Albert finished his beer but the bartender ignored them. There was a soccer match on the television. Albert walked to the bar to get two more beers, one for himself and one for Gomez.
Gomez smiled when Albert brought another beer. He nodded his head in an expression of thanks.
“You’re welcome, Gomez. Now, here’s the situation.”
Just as he was about to spill the beans, Albert thought about the dead man in the casket at the wake.
“You know, there’s something else.”
Gomez burped. He quickly excused himself but Albert thought it was uncharacteristic behavior. He wondered if Gomez had become drunk, but he let it pass.
“As I walked down to meet with you there was a wake going on at a house across the street from my hotel. It made me uncomfortable.”
The bartender lost interest in the soccer game and listened to Albert.
“You know, I don’t believe in signs or anything like that, but it struck me as quite odd that my first experience in Puerto Vallarta would be to witness a wake. It seemed doubly odd that a parade went by on the same street at the same time. What was that parade about anyway?”
The bartender walked to the table.
“Holy Cross Day. We call it Dia de la Santa Cruz. Everyone dresses up and marches in the street carrying crosses embellished with flowers. The wake across from your hotel, Señor—that was for Gomez, your friend. He died last week. I am very sorry, Señor. Gomez was my friend as well.”
Albert was stunned. He looked at the man across from him.
“Then … who is this?” he asked pointing to the man across the table.
“I am Hector,” said the man Albert mistook for Gomez. “I see so many Americans I sometimes forget the ones I meet. I’ve been trying to place you but I don’t think we’ve met.”
The bartender handed an envelope to Albert.
“Shortly before he died, Gomez asked me to give you this envelope if you came to look for him.”
Albert took the envelope. He didn’t know what to say.
“I think I should leave now. Thank you for the envelope. You could have said something Hector. Maybe I didn’t give you a chance.”
Hector smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Albert left some pesos on the table and went back to his hotel. Before going up to his room, he spoke to the young man at the desk.
“Would you happen to have a cigarette? I don’t smoke, of course, but I need something to calm my nerves.”
The young man disappeared into a back room. By the time he returned, Albert had already walked out the door.
“Thank you, but I’ve changed my mind.”
Gomez smoked. It occurred to Albert that might have been what killed him. Gomez had a bad cough when they first met. Maybe it was a sign of lung cancer? Better not smoke. Albert stood by the window in his dark room looking across at Gomez’s house. There was no one in sight. The house looked like it would be empty all night. He assumed the wife had gone off with relatives to be comforted.
Several minutes went by while Albert stood in the dark and considered his situation. He thought about death, how it can happen at any place, at any time. He would die someday. He didn’t actively deny it, but he didn’t worry about it much either. He realized how alone he felt. Gomez’s death had put him in a mood. He switched on the green lamp by the desk and sat down to read Gomez’s letter.
I apologize for missing our meeting, but as you by now must know, I had a more pressing engagement. I have asked a friend to write this letter for me in proper English to make it easier for you to read. I think you had something important to say to me. I am sorry that things turned out such that I cannot listen to you. But, I also have some things I want to say to you, things I cannot say to anyone else. I will say them in this letter. I ask you not to show my friends or family. It’s too late for me, but I hope in some way that what I have to say may be useful to you.
I have deceived myself all my life, Albert, right up until the last moment and now I am hungry to devour the sights, sounds, and smells of life. Alas, it is too late. I look back on my life with disgust because of my cowardice and laziness. One pays lip service to self-knowledge but is terrified by it and resists it. Self-doubt throughout my life has followed me around like a dark shadow. It has caused me to be meek and modest when I should have been bold and ambitious. Modesty is so much easier than honesty, Albert, because it is compatible with sloth. I am guilty, so guilty, of choosing the easy way out every time.
I think you understand my meaning. I wanted to succeed in achieving—in the face of death, in a race with death—a project that was truly mine, and not something anybody else might have done as well, or better. Then I would have won the race and in a sense triumphed over death. Being an ordinary man, I was afraid, but there is room even for an ordinary man to do something of this in his life. I know that now. Instead, I lived my small safe life and succumbed to the illusion that it was my fate.
I have failed, Albert, and it makes me miserable. Since we last met I have thought of this over and over again. I cannot get it out of my mind. How I frittered away my time when I should have lived intensely! How I wish I could go to a noble death, that I could sleep now in bliss rather than go to my grave hounded by regrets.
We all lie to ourselves. In Mexico it’s easier to lie to yourself than anywhere else in the world. Even if people with illusions get along better, what kind of life is that? Eventually we must all face the truth. I should have faced it sooner.
This is what I have to say my friend. I hope it does you some good. To say it once, even only to one man, is a great relief. Make of it what you will. If it somehow changes your life, I hope it is for the best. Writing this to you has given me immense pleasure and peace. I am too ashamed to tell anyone close to me, but now I’ve got it off my chest.
Albert was moved. Gomez was from an older generation, rather quaint but very sincere. It humbled Albert to think Gomez had singled him out to make this confession. We all fritter away our time, it’s true. There are ever so many more options today—texting, Facebook, emails, Googling around the web—these are the modern destroyers of our leisure time. Albert liked Mexico because it still afforded a little of that ancient luxury where one could sit around and think and observe the world. Yet, even here Gomez had managed to fritter away his life.
Albert was a bit tipsy from drinking the beers on an empty stomach. He went back down to the street to find a restaurant. The parade was long gone but large numbers of people still wandered about. He watched the people walk on the street, drive in their cars and sit in their shops. They were like characters in a book. All he could know about them was what he observed—what they were doing, the people they were with, how they looked, little fragments of their conversations. That was all he could know about anyone. What about himself? The words of Gomez’s letter rolled around in his head.
A lack of self-awareness had fooled him just like it fooled Gomez into thinking that he looked objectively at the world. Does life unfold automatically according to some plan that we can only observe, dispassionately, impotently? Deep inside he knew that wasn’t true, but it was, as Gomez said, the easy way out. Real life was much scarier. There is no path. We can’t blame everything on fate.
Albert found the little fish house he remembered from his earlier trip. He took a table at a front window where he had a view and ordered a glass of wine. The waiter left the menu on his table.
He ordered the sea bass taking the waiter’s suggestion and asked for another glass of wine. A local family walked along outside the restaurant. The daughter, a young girl, came inside with flowers to sell. He bought a red rose and put it on the table. The girl wrapped it in wet newspaper for him. She was very pretty. She went back to her family and sat with them on a bench where they shared something to eat. There was a giant mango tree behind them. Albert framed the picture in his head. He thought about how he would paint it if he were an artist. Once he thought he’d like to be an artist but he was afraid he lacked the talent.
It was exhilarating to be alone and to think. He wondered what it would be like to travel the world as a gadabout. He could write articles for magazines or make documentaries for television. He blushed at the thought. People just use magazines and television to fritter away their time. He shouldn’t contribute to that.
He was feeling giddy from the beer and wine and still waiting for his food. His fiancé would be in London by now. She went to visit her sister. They had agreed to take this time alone to assure themselves that marriage was the right thing for them. They had been together for over a year, but one never knows.
He once thought about being a photographer. He put together a web page where people could see his work. He interviewed people and took pictures of them that he posted to his webpage. Even his fiancé said that he had a knack for it. But who could make a living at that?
He was a salesman for a computer software company. It was a small start-up. He had acquired quite a bit of stock. He made a decent income. His plan was to get married, to have children, to make a fortune, and then pursue his hobbies. It was inscribed inside his head in indelible ink.
There was rice in the saltshaker to keep the crystals from sticking together from the humidity. A small black ant crawled out of the rose on his table. It wandered around aimlessly. Even an ant has decisions to make. There was a young couple sitting next to him. The girl complained about the fish.
“It has too many bones, Jarod. And, it isn’t even cooked all the way through.”
That’s my life, he thought.
Outside he saw the family with the flowers walk on down the street. More customers entered the restaurant. It was nearly full. The waiter brought the fish and, though hungry, he ate slowly savoring every bite. When he finished he ordered another glass of wine. When the waiter brought it to the table, Albert noticed Hector walking along outside.
“Hector! Hector! Come join me.”
Hector looked at Albert with his bushy white beard and bright brown eyes and smiled.
“I cannot, Señor. I am on my way home where I take care of my mother. I must fix her dinner and help her get ready for the night.”
“Maybe some other time, Hector. I enjoyed our talk in spite of the mix-up.”
“So did I, Señor, and thank you for the beers. Next time, I pay.”
Hector continued on his way. Suddenly Albert stood and put his head out the window.
“Hector! Just one question. Please!”
Hector stopped and looked back.
“Should I get married Hector?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then … wait until you do know.”
Albert wanted to ask how he would know, but Hector was too far away.
Albert paid the bill and walked back to his room. He took off his clothes and sat on the bed with the brass posts. He thought about the couple that came into the bar when he was talking to Hector. She wasn’t really a cat. He wasn’t really a professor disguised as a devil. They were in costume. Life is all about choosing the right costume. After awhile he went to sleep.
He didn’t sleep well. He tossed and turned. He thought about Gomez. He saw the men open the casket after putting it into the truck. They looked around to see that no one watched and then one by one they took things out of the casket until nothing was left but the man’s naked body.
“As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labor, which he may carry away in his hand. Amen.”
Before they closed it back up, Albert strained to see the face. His heart jumped when he saw it. It was not Gomez. He saw his own face. They closed it back up and everything went dark.
Albert awoke early and went downstairs. He asked where he could make a long distance call. He walked down the street to a money exchange where they rented phones. He dialed London.
“Hello, it’s Albert. Is Elizabeth there?”
He heard some moving around in the background.
“Albert, hello, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. You see, I’ve been thinking all night, Liz. I don’t need this time away. Let’s get married right now.”
There was a long silence at the other end. He thought he heard a cry or a scream and then he lost the connection. Something had gone wrong with the phone lines. The girl at the bank said something in Spanish that he couldn’t understand and threw her hands up in the air.
Albert walked out onto the street. The sun was in his eyes. People drank coffee in the café next door. A little boy pestered a dog on the street.
He was unhappy and happy at the same time. He felt very strange. He started to laugh. He laughed louder. Everyone looked at him. He ran out in the street like Nietzsche’s Madman.
“I’m not him,” he yelled. “I’m not the dead man!”
People pointed at him. He walked on. He didn’t want to waste the time to explain that he was a software salesman, that he was getting married, that he would have a family some day and that everything was going exactly according to plan.