David Morgan O'Connor
Where are all the women
When we stopped at the border, somewhere west of San Ignacio, I knew there would be trouble. Not because we were carrying drugs or guns or doing anything wrong, we are not stupid, but because of how they looked at my wife. The car was old and falling apart, a cheap rental from near the airport in Cancun, faded beige, four gears, no acceleration. We had crossed Belize into Guatemala and were headed for Tikal, once the capital of the Mayan civilization, now a remote ruin.
The road was mud. A wood arm blocked the entrance to a bridge. Tiny shacks lined the road, offering food and services. Two boys in uniform guarded the border. I watched them inspect the truck in front and turned down the radio. My wife put her hand on my knee.
“Relax,” she said, ”my seasoned traveler.”
“Let me speak,” I said, rolling down the window, and handed the kid our documents.
The other one walked slowly around the car. When he saw my wife he said something I couldn’t understand. The one with our documents motioned with his gun barrel to park and go into the metal-roofed-barn.
The entrance was crowded with men. Dirty and desperate, they looked hungry like they would kill for a chicken. Men marooned at a frontier. They crowded the car.
“Do you want to stay here?” I asked.
“No way, I’m coming with you,” she said and opened the car door.
The men gave her space.
“Lock the doors,” she said.
A few tried to shake our hands offering services in broken English. I followed my wife into the building. There were three tables with three officials and three long lines. There were chairs along the walls and pigeons in the rafters. The place fell silent when they saw us. A supervisor tapped a back office window waving us over. We sat down. We handed him our documents. He smiled when my wife spoke her Galician Spanish.
“We have a problem,” she translated. “There is no serial number on the rental car contract.”
“No worries, I can go get it, you okay here?”
I could see the official listening, understanding English. I went out to the car and opened the trunk. The men crowded again, whispering words of advice, asking rhetorical questions like is your journey important? Do you love your family? How far will you go? I could hear their mental calculations like the wheels of metal gates opening for business. I opened the side door and looked for the number. I looked under the steering wheel. I popped the hood and looked all round, even checked the glove box manual. No number. One guy called out. Aqui aqui aqui lo tienes. He was pointing to the back axle and announcing the number had been scratched off. Robado!
I leaned down and saw a 12-digit number that had been keyed. A boy darted from the crowd into the building. I pretended to write down the numbers. I felt the eyes, the breath of border dwellers. I scribbled quickly and shut my book and returned to the office. My wife was drinking coffee with the official. He was laughing, sharp teeth, greased back hair, younger, stronger, better looking than me. Not a man I would beat in fight. I sat in the chair and handed my wife the notebook. She read the number to the official who wrote it on a tiny piece of paper. The dictation finished, he called one of the guards over. They went out the door.
“I couldn’t really read the number. Somebody tried to scratch it off.”
“Is that the right number?”
“I don’t know.”
“Relax.” My wife told me.
“And if the car is stolen?”
“Let me talk. He likes me. Did you lock the door?”
“Yes. I did.”
I went to the window and watched the official lean over and check the number on the car wheel.
“What did you talk about?”
“Barcelona. Tikal. Tapas. Our plans.”
“Was he flirting?”
“What do you think?”
He entered the room with two armed guards. I could hear a crowd at the window.
“Eres un mentiroso!”
“He said you were a liar....” My wife said.
“I know. I understand Spanish. What should I say?”
“Keep it light. Keep it together, honey. Laugh.”
I forced a laugh while my wife stood and spoke to the man. His face went stone then he spoke.
“He says we are not going anywhere until we get that number.”
“Ask him if we can pay a fine”.
“He said no. Said he wasn’t that type of man.”
“Ask him if we can use the phone.”
“There is one down the street over the border.”
We walked over the bridge into Guatemala. No one asked for documents. The crowd did not follow. We talked on the bridge.
“What do you think is going on?”
“He said there are many stolen cars coming out of Mexico and if he catches one he can keep it. Plus I think he likes me”.
“Did you tell him we would be returning in a few days?”
“It’ll be alright. You worry too much. Think positive.” My wife told me.
We entered a shack. Fone. Fax. Fish. The sign was written in pen on plywood. We exchanged money, bought two beers, ordered some fried fish and my wife called the Mexican car rental company.
“I had to call three times. They don’t have the number, but they have a code we can use, they’re going to fax us a document. They said we should be careful in Guatemala.”
“Perhaps in general.” I said.
“What did you just say?”
“Just that we should be careful in general, that’s all.”
The fish arrived, rice, beans, more beer and eventually the fax. The men behind the counter were warm but timid. Afraid to offer information. We crossed the bridge back into Belize.
“Where are the women in this town?” My wife asked.
“No children either.”
“I just want to get out of here.”
The car was gone. We entered the barn and went to the office. The official was also gone. My wife took the fax up to one of the desks. I looked out the back window for the car. She returned and sat beside me. I saw her older. We were a couple on a bench in a groomed park feeding pigeons still holding hands. Tired and beautiful, she put her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes, and spoke.
“He went out to lunch, took the car. They say he will return.”
“What? Lunch? Where? When?”
“Whenever he wants.”
“Can he do that?”
“He can do whatever he wants. He’s the guy with the gun.”
My wife dozed on my lap. I read Henry Miller, watching the sun creep over her leather sandals. The ones she bought in Greece. The guards changed. I drank water. Truck inspections were the only entertainment. The border grew quiet. Sometime close to midnight, a car engine revved to the max. I stirred my wife; and in an instant her long black hair was thrown back and tied up. We stood and stretched. One guard smiled. The official staggered into the barn singing. My wife went over and showed him the fax. He kissed her on both cheeks, gave her a tight hug that lasted decades, and whispered in her ear. He pointed to the desk. Then tossed the keys across the barn at me hard. I was lucky to catch them. Laughter defused the room. My wife had our papers and passports stamped.
We said our thank yous and went to the car.
“Check our stuff. Check the bags.” She said.
I opened the trunk, the bags, the glove box, nothing missing. I looked at the odometer, 200 additional kilometers. The car smelt like perfume and sperm, but started fine.
As we drove over the bridge into Guatemala I asked, “What did he say to you?”
“He went to see his mistress in town. He thanked me for use of the car and told me to return and see him when you weren’t around.”
“Why did he point to the desk?”
“He pointed to the desk after whispering in your ear.”
“It was nothing. Just macho bullshit.”
“You really wanna know?”
“No. The guy was slick. I will never be that slick.”
“Slick is disgusting. You worry too much.” My wife told me.
The Next day at Tikal, standing atop a steep temple pyramid that turned the rain forest into a blanket, the humid wind drying our sweat, I tried to worship like a Mayan. I understood that our greatest fears always come true, so chose carefully. I thought of taking my wife’s hand and jumping, but wasn’t convinced of death. We were high and the ground was far, but a swift and instantaneous death is never guaranteed. We kissed once. We shared water. While she took photographs, I realized despite my best efforts I still had no inkling how to pray.
David Morgan O'Connor is from a small village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he is based in Albuquerque, where a short story collection and an MFA progresses. He contributors monthly to; The Review Review, New Pages and The MFA Years. His writing has appeared in; Collective Exiles, Cecile's Writers, Bohemia Journal, Fiction Magazine, After the Pause, Headland, The New Quarterly and The Guardian.