Escape Routes: The Sergeant’s Sister; What Now?
Lizaveta was the last one he let go. She was in the kitchen, at the sink, washing her hands again. Soap, she was going through the last of the liquid soap. Stay clean, he wanted to say, stay safe. Use up the fucking soap. Expecting this bad news, she nodded, head down. Turned off the water. Turned to face him from a prudent distance.
They spoke in English because her Spanish was weak. English was the language of her aspiration.
Cyrus had kept Lizaveta on after the others went out the door of the inn, one by one. When people began canceling their bookings, when they quit walking into the bar from the street looking to pass a convivial evening, he had used a hardship standard rather than seniority to make his decisions. Everybody loved Polly from Canberra. She was perky, pretty, great with the guests. But she came from money. She had possibilities, and protections. He tapped her first, and she left with tears in her eyes. Lizaveta was last because she had come the farthest. From Minsk to a tourist town on the coast of the Sea of Cortés, an improbable escape.
There was something old-fashioned about Lizaveta. It had do with her Belarusian background, Cyrus assumed; geostrategic isolation. She spent an hour every morning constructing a palace of golden plaits on her head. The structures she built were elaborate, imaginative, and frequently varied. Once, with her permission, he had watched her work. He observed that as its walls went up the palace changed the character of her face. Its White Russian features became regal. The eyes of a queen, capable of sending an insolent courtier to his death, enjoying it.
“I won’t go home,” she said.
“Do you know the blind guy, Armando? He smiles a lot.”
“The one who sells wood carvings to the tourists.”
“They say he is sick.”
She nodded. “There will be others.”
“You can stay in your room,” Cyrus offered. “It’s just that I can’t go on paying you.”
A more thoughtful nod. She had been saving her wages, living frugally, until she met an English guy who was bad for her. She understood from the beginning just how bad, but the son of a bitch gave her something—Cyrus was not in a position to say what—that satisfied a deep need of some importance to her. Well, a person would not want to fly back to Belarus, not now, even if she had the wherewithal.
“What about you, Cyrus?”
“What about me?”
“Will you close the inn?”
“The inn has pretty much closed itself, don’t you think?”
He called Juan Pablo, who was eleven and named after a charismatic Pope and needed the money Cyrus paid him to wheel him around. Cyrus could have had a motorized wheelchair but liked the human arrangement with the boy, who was prompt and diligent. Once or twice, in the morning, in the cobbled street out in front of the inn—the tourists loved taking pictures of those cobbles; they represented the Mexico of their imagination—Cyrus had seen a halo around Juan Pablo’s head. Trompe-l’oeil, one of the techniques God had been known, sparingly, to employ.
“We’re going down to the beach,” Cyrus told Juan Pablo when he appeared in the kitchen.
The boy had the face of a courteous owl. “¿Sí señor. Don Ciro?”
“What is it?”
“This morning my mother said the tourists might never come back. They will forget we are here.”
“And that worries you.”
He nodded. He had a freakish understanding of how the adult world worked. Not a good thing, probably, but he knew what he knew. Cyrus had learned to lighten him up with stupid jokes, silly stories.
“Let’s go feed the sharks,” he said. “They haven’t had their breakfast.”
The boy grinned. Small victories.
It was essential, in that moment, not to be in the same room with the woman from Minsk. Ivan, Cyrus remembered. The name of her father. She had shown him a picture, once, on her phone. Cyrus remembered the grimace. It gave point to her stories about his drinking, and the consequences of his drinking.
The town was empty and still. Even off season, it was never empty, and seldom still. In the uncommon quiet from the street in front of the inn they could hear the waves hitting the beach.
Hard going on the cobbles of Calle Juan Rulfo, where the inn was located, then down the packed dirt of Octavio Paz. A long couple of blocks, and Juan Pablo earned his pay. He deposited Cyrus in his chair on the short strip of boardwalk above the beach, near the overturned hull of a fishing boat that rested, rotting, twenty yards up from the shore, where long-legged birds scurried to the next spot of sand into which they drove their thin beaks. If Cyrus squinted, he could just make out the words disappearing on the hull. La Sagrada Familia, the fisherman of long ago had named his boat. The Holy Family.
There ought to be women in skimpy bikinis, swaggering bronzed men, obnoxious whiny Jet Skis on the water, men with coolers hawking chilled beer, kids building sand castles. There ought to be pleasure and peace and human hubbub, the temporary abandonment of memory.
“My mother says you must soon fire me,” the boy told him.
It was May. It was starting to be hot. The breeze off the bay had a salt tang, something in it you remembered but could not put a name to. The gulls were dissonant, doing the things they knew how to do, fish and fly, eat and scream. If things went on as they were going, Cyrus would lose the inn.
“If I fired you,” he told Juan Pablo, “who would push my chair?”
A spinal injury; tetraplegia. Jenny had been driving when the accident happened. All that had been lacking to put a merciful end to a failed marriage. Happily, she escaped without injury. They hadn’t known what to make of each other, before or after the crash. The insurance settlement bought the inn, but the business needed cash to stay afloat. Jose Cuervo, Cyrus named the place, not because of any association with tequila, but because it sounded carefree. He became the proprietor of the Joe Crow Inn.
Mexico? Jenny had said when he told her what he planned to do with the insurance money. It was the first sympathetic question from her in years.
If they had had kids.
Cyrus’ medications came from Mexico City. His dreams had begun to speak Spanish. His friends back home in St. Paul talked in text snippets about their political rage, their disgust. They sent him memes. For some time now he had been finding it difficult to sympathize with their eruptions. He was making a list of Spanish words that were peculiar to the region where he lived. Chubasco was a fierce storm. Gabacho was a stranger. And he, in his seventieth year, his wheelchair, his languishing despair, he was don Ciro.
“What shall we feed the sharks, don Ciro?” Juan Pablo wanted to know. He was sitting in the sand nearby, picking up handfuls and letting it sift through his fingers to make a little hill. This was his way of playing Cyrus’ game.
“Oh, you know, the usual. The leg bone of a dead dog, the heart of an angry crow, the hairy ears of a donkey.”
“And the tongue of a lying politician?”
“To be sure. How could I have forgotten? Throw them in, Juan Pablo, throw in a hundred of their lying tongues.”
They stayed at the beach long enough for Lizaveta to make up her mind what she would do, now that she no longer had the job. As Juan Pablo struggled, pushing the chair uphill back to Joe Crow, Cyrus considered whether he could stake her to a ticket out of Mexico. Decided he could; would.
Turning the corner from Paz onto Juan Rulfo, they saw a man in a black cape. Who in hell wore a cape? In May? He was young, and Cyrus knew from his gait as he came toward them that he was American. Things you learned, living elsewhere.
“Hola,” he said, stopping outside contamination range.
The kind of person, all he had to do was say one word, and you knew he was an asshole. His name was Anton. He was down from California, transmissible disease notwithstanding. He was the caricature of handsome. Jet black hair, worn long the way Jesus would wear it, if Jesus were a poser. A face whose angles suggested character he could not possibly possess. A flawless body aware, in its poise, of its own perfection. He was hungry.
“I run the inn,” Cyrus told him, pointing to the oval sign on a pole, on which a local painter had depicted a jovial crow. “We can give you something to eat, but you have to play by the rules.”
“Keep your distance.”
“I’m healthy,” Anton said.
“Doesn’t matter. You come in, you keep your distance.”
He nodded, humoring an old guy in a wheelchair. Cyrus preceded him through the front door. Inside, the man from California took off his poncho, folded it, placed it on the stool next to the one at the bar where he sat down.
“We don’t have our normal full menu,” Cyrus warned him. “Let me see what I can rustle up.”
“Cool. How ’bout a beer while I wait?”
“You can go behind the bar and get one.”
In the kitchen, Cyrus figured he could put something together, relying on Juan Pablo to fetch things he was unable to reach. But Lizaveta was there. In the midst of this, all this, serene. Her hair was a castle.
“I will stay,” she told him. “I will keep the kitchen. No pay, just food, and my room.”
She had picked up enough, watching the cook who was no longer around, that she made a decent bowl of chili for Anton.
“Don’t get close to him,” Cyrus told her when the food was ready to serve their only customer. “Put it on the bar. Let him come get it after you leave.”
He understood as he said it that he was not talking only about the virus. So did she. She told him she’d be careful.
But wasn’t. Anton wanted a room. Cyrus debated. The risk seemed small. Joe Crow was big enough, empty enough, they could inhabit the space without problematic contact.
“I know you don’t like me,” Anton said to him.
He had finished his chili, knocked off a second beer.
“An innkeeper doesn’t get to pick his clientele.”
“You think something’s wrong with me.”
“Is there something wrong with you, Anton?”
“My mother’s a surgeon. Very successful. Neuro this, neuro that. My father’s an art critic. He’s famous for the brilliant things he writes about Goya. They expect great things of me.”
“And will they get them?”
“Sure, just not the way they thought. I’m an artist. But I don’t just make my art, I live it. Every minute, every day is a play, man. I write it, I act it, I direct the cast.”
Despite Cyrus’ misgivings, he let Anton move into a room on the second floor.
He and Lizaveta could not stay away from each other. She spent the morning in the kitchen. Anton sat watching her work, staying, for the moment, six good feet away. When Cyrus wheeled in, he saw the spark leap between them. Nigel, that was the name of the English prick who had messed with Lizaveta’s head and heart, then left on a bus with her savings.
After six games of checkers—the kid loved to play, loved making kings and beating don Ciro—Cyrus sent Juan Pablo home and sat alone for a couple of hours in the bar. In St. Paul, he had never had any interest in how a place was decorated. But coming to Mexico, opening the inn, had sharpened his eye. Something that was asleep, woke up. He rejected a proposal from an interior designer and put the place together himself. The pastel shades of the walls appeared to merge in the corners, where visual negotiations were discreetly conducted. The wooden bar, the high chairs in their studied row facing it, were simple to the point of austerity. Around the big room, framed photographs of seascapes and highlands, deserts and pueblos, all of them taken in Sonora by a Bulgarian émigré poet whose lifework in words was not monetizable.
It worked, people always said about the place, an assertion that rubbed Cyrus the wrong way. Not work; play. The interior of the Posada Jose Cuervo was a reflection of what might have been.
His first year, he had drunk too much. He was too affable and expressed an unconvincing interest in people’s stories. None of that matched what he felt inside, and he let it go. Now, he nursed a shot of bourbon so slowly, he might be absorbing the alcohol by osmosis.
In the background, jazz from an internet station. Cyrus didn’t recognize the artists but had a pretty good sense of what they saw when they closed their eyes, lying down to sleep after a late-night gig.
In the evening, Lizaveta cooked. Anton ate gratefully at the bar, tossing back Modelo dark beers. Before he went up to his room, Cyrus asked him to settle his bar tab.
“Here’s my goal,” said Anton, reaching for his wallet, which he carried in a beaded pouch on a string around his neck.
“For you to quit thinking I’m an asshole.”
“It’s a pretty good goal,” said Cyrus, running the debit card he gave him.
How it happened didn’t matter. It happened. When Cyrus wheeled himself into the kitchen the next morning, Anton and Lizaveta were standing next to one another at the stove. Anton was scrambling eggs for her. She must have gotten up early to arrange her hair. She was happier than seemed appropriate. She soaked up the man’s attention.
“You broke the rules,” Cyrus told his boarder.
“I’m clean, man. I told you, my mom’s a doctor. She got me tested before I came down. Swear to God, I’m clean.”
“Please,” begged Lizaveta, “please let him stay, Cyrus.”
Cyrus thought about throwing him out. Because he was incapable of following the rules, and because Lizaveta was such an appallingly vulnerable target. What stopped him was a sense of how churlish he might be. And a sense that the things that wanted to happen would go down around him no matter what he said, did, thought.
“You have to wear a mask,” he said.
Anton was incredulous. “Say what?”
“Both of you. Masks.”
Lizaveta made them. Anton’s was like a highway robber’s, in blue checks. Hers was what a princess wore to an elegant ball, in white silk. They were delighted with their new look, and Lizaveta sewed one for Cyrus.
Next day Anton and Lizaveta were sharing the same room. Anton had a mesmerizing power over the Belarusian woman, it was obvious. If she’d had any savings left, they would be at risk. But she did possess other things that could be lost to a man like Anton. Not illusions. She had arrived in Mexico free of them. But there was earnest intention in the woman, not a tender thing, but still a thing that could be destroyed.
Cyrus got into the habit of locating his wheelchair in the doorway of the inn, facing the street. It was self-inflicted torture, watching for vehicles that did not come down the cobbles, for shambling tourists with a buzz on, for rental bicycles piloted by sunburnt smiling riders, and young women riding motorbikes sidesaddle, hugging their driver. None of them came by. Except for the locals, the town was empty.
Things will get better, he told himself.
They did not. He was running perilously low on cash. A bridge loan, that was what he needed, a financial flyover he could cross to an improved future. He made an appointment with a banker in Hermosillo, a woman who had spent a couple of long weekends with her husband at the Joe Crow. He took Juan Pablo with him. The boy was excited to see the city, which was somewhat mythical in his imagination.
The taxi driver who took them to the Banco de Prosperidad had snaggled teeth and several extended family members in California. One of them, he had learned via a cousin’s incautious tweet, was down with the virus, although nobody in the family was going to admit it. They lacked papers and were hunkered down hoping not to draw anybody’s attention.
“¡Qué puta más chingada!” he said as they came into the city, and Cyrus had to agree.
A spell had been cast on Hermosillo. The spell froze movement, stopped tongues and the clappers of bells, made people and things invisible. The few cars moving on the streets looked as though they had been dropped down from a healthy planet for purposes of observation.
The bank was closed to the public. There were no tellers at their stations. But a security guard in a black mask met them at the door and escorted them to the office of Jazmín. Juan Pablo rolled Cyrus into the position of supplicant before the banker’s big desk, whose depth was meant to establish distance even in uninfected times.
Jazmín was forty, with artful reddish tints in her hair. She had a put-together look that combined professional panache and sex appeal. Pearls and a suit. What the trade demanded. Her English was better than functional.
“You have come a long way to get bad news, Cyrus.”
“It can’t last forever. I can mortgage the inn. If I go belly up, it’s yours. The bank’s, I should say.”
Her smile was armored. Maybe she didn’t know any better.
“Our analysts don’t see tourism coming back for quite some time. Years, possibly, before it is what it ought to be again. If I took something like this to our director, he would tell me we cannot be saddled with property that does not produce income. Besides . . . Well, I shouldn’t tell you this.”
She told him they were worried that the bank itself would go under. It was not true. Cyrus took the lie for what it may possibly have been, the only gesture of solidarity she could come up with.
When they left the bank, the taxista drove them around Hermosillo for a while so Juan Pablo could see the city. But the bustle was gone, the streets were subdued. The driver got out and bought burritos for all of them from a street vendor wearing a mask. Above the mask, Cyrus saw the dark eyes of augury. Not getting better anytime soon.
“I want to see the other one,” said Juan Pablo.
He meant the other Hermosillo, not currently in existence.
“Next time,” Cyrus consoled him. “We’ll see the other Hermosillo next time. I promise.”
On the drive home, the boy was quiet, looking out the window as though thinking he might catch a glimpse of the city that had been denied him.
In Cyrus’ absence, Anton had set up a miniature golf course in the bar. Seven holes, ingeniously constructed taking advantages of corners and chairs, a pot on its side, a vase of flowers. Where he came up with a putter, Cyrus could not guess. Lizaveta’s eyes were shining, swinging the club, whacking the little green ball. Her face was flushed. Drinking tequila shots by the half dozen was something her father would do. Regression. Cyrus hoped, with great intensity, that her backward progress could be arrested. There was no reason to forbid them from playing mini-golf, but he refused to be their audience. He played checkers in the kitchen with Juan Pablo, who talked about their next trip, when they would visit the other Hermosillo. Cyrus promised him, again, that they would go.
That night he was dozing in his wheelchair when Jenny called. She never called. She had remarried eighteen months after they split, and the few times they had been in touch, she seemed exultant, like a person who had raced to safety from a burning building. It was a source of chagrin, not being able to hide it from him.
“Are you okay, Cyrus?”
“All of a sudden I had this picture of you, stranded in Mexico.”
“Everybody is stranded.”
“Well, and there’s one thing I never managed to tell you. Somehow. Now, with everything going on, I thought I ought to say it.”
“What’s that, Jenny?”
“How guilty I felt. Feel.”
“The accident wasn’t your fault.”
“I was driving, and I walked away from it.”
She wanted to talk. Because of the novelty of hearing her voice, he let her go on. Only when she asked him if he needed money did he kill the call.
Listening, not wanting to listen, over the next couple of days Cyrus picked up on the plan Anton was developing for Lizaveta. One afternoon—Anton had slept late, he always slept late—he came downstairs saying he needed a dog. He had always owned a dog, back home in Sacramento. A dog would be a comfort in difficult times. He went out to scour the town thinking he would find one, buy one, maybe borrow one.
“So,” said Cyrus when he was left alone with Lizaveta. “You’re leaving.”
They were sitting in the back patio, where the empty tables reminded both of them of the trade that wasn’t. A stray cat slept half in and half out of a patch of shade, legs splayed at luxurious length. Geraniums blossomed in a massive clay demijohn. There was no wind. The leaves of a small palm hung in tranquil stillness as heat prickled Cyrus’ neck, his thighs, his hands.
“We’re going to Tierra del Fuego. All the way down the continent of South America, can you imagine? It must be the trip of a lifetime.”
“Does Anton have enough money for that kind of trip? For both of you?”
“He says not to worry about the money; he will take care of the situation.”
“What about crossing borders? A lot of countries are closing down.”
“There are ways to manage such a thing, Anton says.”
“And you believe him?”
She saw the question as a trap and would not step into it.
Cyrus recognized that his fear was irrational: Anton was going to infect Lizaveta. He had been tested, he claimed. He was clean, he claimed. There was nothing to worry about, he claimed. But he was not a person who could be believed. Cyrus was in an agony. The days passed slowly, with no guests, nothing to distract him. He dreaded the day Anton took Lizaveta away. He dreaded, even more, learning that the man in a cape from California had transmitted the virus to Lizaveta. Absent customers and work to do, he thought about nothing else.
It went on for three days. On the morning of the day Lizaveta left the Joe Crow forever, she took Cyrus aside while Anton packed his things up in their room.
“Thank you, Cyrus. I want to thank you for everything.”
She would have leant down to kiss him, but he held up a hand. She nodded.
“I see things,” she told him. “I know things. How I know such things, I cannot say, but I know them.”
Cyrus wasn’t sure he wanted to know what those things were.
“I know that a man of your years still has love in him, and desire. A man in a wheelchair does not lose sex. Sex stays with him, the way it stays with all of us.”
Her turn to hold up a hand.
“How much better, is it not, to save these good things in secret.”
“He will break your heart.”
She shrugged, and Cyrus was bitterly aware that this was the last of her palatial blonde creations he would behold. He wanted to tell her she could not believe Anton, when it came to the virus. No good, no use. In her kiss goodbye there was nothing filial.
After she was gone, he passed the day in a foul mood. When Juan Pablo came by to ask if he was needed, Cyrus sent him away with a hard word. He had never spoken harshly to the boy, and the hurt look in Juan Pablo’s eyes came back to him the next morning when his mother showed up at the inn.
Standing on the threshold, not wanting to enter the bar, Placida was angular, with a broad face. Her husband was in Arizona and may have forgotten he had a family back in Mexico; she was cagey about their status when anybody asked. She wore a dark blue skirt, a pale yellow blouse, flipflops. She was doing her best not to panic.
“What about him?”
“He can’t work today.”
Cyrus assumed he had offended the boy, sending him away the day of Lizaveta’s leaving. His regret cut quick and deep.
“He’s sick,” said his mother.
“What do you mean, he’s sick?”
“Has Maria Elena seen him?”
There was no doctor in town; Maria Elena was a nurse.
“He was playing.”
She nodded. “With Wilfrido.”
“Who is Wilfrido?”
“The son of the blind one, Armando. I told him not to, but he snuck out, last week. They played on the beach.”
“I see,” said Cyrus.
There was lots for both of them to say. They said none of it. She turned to go, turned back. “¿Y ahora qué?”
Cyrus shook his head.
Alone, he sat in the bar until he lost track of time. Then he rolled his wheelchair to the door. No need to lock up. Into the street. Slowly, down the cobbles of Juan Rulfo to Octavio Paz. On Paz, the chair wanted to sink into the dirt, packed hard as it was. He took his time. Stopped. Rested. Went on again. The sun lacked pity.
At the beach, on the boardwalk, he parked. There was something like a rushing in his head, something like forced air with no destination. The surf pounded. A brown dog worried something dead or dying in the sand. No children out playing. That was good. Let their mothers be careful, their fathers provident, their angels on guard. Out in the bay, in the distance, a boat with a triangular purple sail. Probably it was going away.
¿Y ahora que?, Placida had asked him. What next? He felt a fleeting burst of enthusiasm. The only question that mattered had been asked, and it was simple. He watched a dirty gray gull light on the hull of the Sagrada Familia. A tactical rest, before moving on to fish the bay. In the instant it took the bird to open its beak, before its raucous cry rang on the beach, he became aware of an emptiness. It was not a stillness, as of resting, it was absolute lack. A swallowing. Inside it, he understood that the question would have no answer.