The first pest to make itself known in the orchard was the stinkbug, malevolent and focused. It worked at the sap in the fruit, sucking the water from the flesh, leaving behind gnarls and distortions—catfacing, Mona heard it called, though the injured peaches she plucked from her trees’ branches looked nothing like a cat’s face, but more a woman’s, withered by sun.
One dry, aimless day in an infinitely long summer, a brushfire broke out beside the railway that carved through the landscape. A landscape already scorched by the sun, my landscape, open and gently sloping down toward the lake.
It burned in the field of barley and along the railway embankment, smelled of singed weeds and tar, white-hot rails, blackened barbed wire. Insects and field mice burned. The earth burned. The blackthorn bushes crackled, the turkey sheds smoldered and screeched. Something was changing, a feeling of security melted away; a different mood would take its place.
We worry about the gifts. Unable to sleep, we think to ourselves how best to please her, what gift will be most memorable, anxiously turning over the pages of catalogues or searching the Internet—each of us in our own room, dark except for a ghostly light shed by the computer screen. Next morning we hurry to her house with some token or other purchased earlier, hoping to be among the first to knock at the door and, having been let inside the house by her son, to press into the old woman’s hands a porcelain thimble, a tortoise-shell comb, a bottle of the chocolate liqueur she favors—asking only that we be remembered by her. Not everyone visits her in the morning; some believe that to be among the last of the day’s visitors will leave a more durable impression. Few have nerve enough to forgo a visit even for a single day, especially now that she is failing, the consequences of which have been widely and fervently discussed. I side with those convinced of the worst-case scenario, but I am a habitual pessimist: one of the “doom and gloom camp,” says David, who has known me since childhood. His outlook may be sunnier than mine, but he never misses a visit to the old woman, and his gifts are generous.
Søren sat on his stoop rasping his hands together, listening to his sister Elsa shouting inside the house. She had been coming home late, and Søren’s father was finally speaking up. Lukas Clemens’s Mustang—a rebuilt black muscle car whose engine Lukas had somehow replaced with a stock-car Hemi—stood idling in the driveway, its headlights casting long shadows behind the tilted stakes of their mother’s abandoned garden. Søren thought he could hear Lukas and Elsa laughing. Just as he’d decided he should go in and help, the door swung open, and the two of them barged out. Lukas patted Søren on the head and said, “Later, buddy.” Elsa pinched his ear and twisted it, then ran through the snow saying, “Don’t wait up!” The Mustang roared and carried her away.
There’s smoke and there’s children burning their fingers on the cashews they pluck from the fire.
The boatman wants us to hire him, says the Swahili-speaker among us, but first this boatman is searching for wood for a new tiller. The Swahili-speaker also says not to try for the cashews in the fire ourselves. Papayas will fall, we’ll whack them down with sticks, he says. Let the children have the nuts.
Joseluís is earlier than he needs to be. The Tur Boliviano office is empty and dark, hot and dry, like the streets outside. The hard plastic chairs smell of sweat, dust, spit, the accumulated filth of thousands of backpacks dragged through hundreds of cities and towns, through airports and rail stations and other places he has never seen. Leaning back and closing his eyes, he imagines the dirt of Paris, the scum of Buenos Aires, and smiles to himself. Gracias a Dios, he mutters, repeating the last line of the speech he has memorized, the speech he will deliver later, when he has roared across the finish line. Gracias al GMC. Gracias a ustedes.
The ratchet strap unlocked its front door, and Jack the Uncle and I made our way into the air-conditioned barroom, took our stools. We mopped our faces with napkins from the rail and left them crumpled there in front of us. Skip was in the kitchen taking his time checking keg levels. “I need one now,” Jack the Uncle said. He twisted his fingers together and held back the shakes. “All this waiting around,” he said, “it ain’t right.”