Authors: Norman Ollestad
He nodded and ran his hand through his curly brown hair. He stared out the window and his eyes were lost in the beaten blacktop. He looked regretful, sort of confused.
I hated being put in this position—shit-in-my-pants scared. Now something worse was happening. Dad looked scared.
What’s going to happen? I said.
What if there’s another checkpoint?
I’ll just have to pay a bigger tax, he said with a smile.
It’s not funny, I said.
It was tense for a second there, he said. But we’re lookin’ golden now.
I kept imagining the bullet tearing open the back of his head. I kept thinking about the checkpoint guards tracking us down and torturing us. The more relaxed my dad became the faster bad scenarios flooded my mind.
I’m never going anywhere with you again, I said.
Ah come on, Ollestad.
I shook my head and we both stared out the windshield. That’s how it was for a long time.
I heard thunder crawl over the mountains and soon afterward it started to rain. The road began to descend. I glimpsed the metallic ocean over the tops of the green maze. The view was eclipsed by a canopy of overhanging branches with leaves so thin they looked like paper cutouts veiling the sky beyond.
We hit the coast a few minutes later and pink veins of electricity zapped on and off like neon lights gouging the ocean. I couldn’t see the immediate coastline through the jungle, just intermittent swells of ocean out by the horizon.
Silver-dollar raindrops splattered the windshield, drumming the roof, and the swollen ravines on the sides of the road occupied my attention. Suddenly, the truck was skating across the road. My dad braked and the truck tailed out, then the wheels bit and the truck tipped like it was going to roll over. Dad corrected the steering wheel and we waggled back to our side of the road. He glanced at me and smiled like it was nothing.
Curtains of rain moved like giant spider legs across the oily blacktop, trampling into the jungle. The tarp clung to the washing machine. My dad clung to the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. I mulled over all the bad things I had done in my life. The lies. I wished I hadn’t done anything bad because it
seemed like that would help us now. I promised not to tell any more lies if we managed to get out of this.
The windshield wipers stopped. My dad wiggled the lever but nothing happened.
Motherfucker, he said.
The windshield immediately gauzed over as if the glass had melted into globs. My dad checked the rearview mirror and rolled down the window and stuck his head out. He pulled over and engaged the emergency brake. He studied his watch.
We have to get off the road.
Where’re we going to go?
We’ll find a place.
He took off his shirt and stuck his head out the window and we rolled along the side of the road. Wet hairs draped his forehead and he looked like he was drowning. After a mile he ducked back inside and rolled up the window. With his shirt off I could see his muscles and that made me feel slightly better.
Are we going to drive like this all day?
Too dangerous to drive like this, he said.
He checked the rearview mirror and I imagined the older man and the teenager huddled on the side of the road in the rain and an army truck pulling over to collect them.
My dad rolled down the window and stuck his head out again. He looked tough against the rain whipping his face. I knew we had to get off the road because maybe the army guys would catch up with us, but I did not mention it to my dad.
I used all my energy to push that image out of my head and decided to help my dad. It may have been my first truly mature act, knowing that helping him drive through the rain, instead of being stuck in fear, would make me feel better in the long run.
I wiped my hand over the fogged passenger’s window and right away I saw a dirt road cutting through the jungle and I yelled to him. He stopped the truck. He backed up. He smiled when he saw the road.
Way to go, Eagle-eye Ollestad. See. Never give up.
He swung the truck out wide and we dropped off the pavement and he told me to hold on. He hit the gas and we tore through the tight opening. The truck bucked and metal grinded and the undercarriage thumped the ground. We waggled our way like a water snake through the deep mud. The trail curved suddenly and my dad yanked the wheel and the ass end of the truck slapped some trees. It went on and on and he couldn’t slow down or we’d sink. My eyes were pinned open and I held onto the dashboard and my dad’s triceps flexed with every turn of the wheel. His head was out the window flogging like a cowboy on a bull, ducking under jungle limbs and receding within the window frame whenever his side brushed up close to the jungle wall. I almost asked where we were going but decided that would distract him.
Another close call with some part of the truck tagging a branch. My dad hit the gas and we bounced, then sailed for a moment and landed hard, the undercarriage vibrating up through the seat. Then the engine died. The truck halted and we lurched forward. I felt the truck sink.
My dad spanked the steering wheel with his hand and turned to me.
End of the line, Boy Ollestad.
Is the car broken?
I don’t know.
Will they find us?
No way José. They’ll whip right past that road. We almost did and we were going a quarter of the speed.
I nodded. He seemed right. And he had shared the previously unspeakable-crazy-scary thing with me—that the army guys might come looking for us—and I was comforted by his admission. It’s good to be one of the fighters for a change, I thought.
What do we do now? I said.
Walk down to the beach. See if we can find some shelter.
Are there houses around here?
You don’t bust your ass cutting a trail like this for nothing, Ollestad.
He carried a surfboard under each arm with his duffle over one shoulder. I carried my suitcase. The mud came up to my knees in some places and we hugged the edge of the trail, searching for firmer ground near the trees. A swath of banana plants gave us something to wedge our feet against and seeing the familiar green fruits clustered around the thick vines reminded me of the plants surrounding Grandpa and Grandma’s house.
With each step we had to unplug our feet from the earth. It reminded me of all those hikes I did with my dad in search of virgin powder. I told him so.
Remember your killer snowplow? he said.
Yeah. I could ski anything with it.
You skied the top of St. Anton all the way to the bottom in a blinding snowstorm with ice under the powder in that snowplow.
When did I start skiing parallel?
Let’s see. I think in ’73 when we took the train to Taos for Christmas.
Oh yeah, I said, recalling the plastic Indian he bought me, and how I would sometimes look at it and think about my dad dying, declaring that I wanted to die too if he died.
Do you think I might win a race this winter?
Don’t worry about winning, Ollestad. Just keep trying. The rest will come.
Do you think I’ll be in the Olympics one day?
Sure. Better yet you’ll get a scholarship to Harvard or Yale.
It’s when they invite you to go to their school and play a sport for them.
Dad planning my life so far in advance added pressure, as if the mud and the jungle had grown thicker.
Are we ever going to get there? I whined.
My dad stopped. The spackles of mud on his face and mustache and up his legs made him look like some kind of human chameleon of the jungle.
It’s easier if you…
Just hike straight through without stopping. I know.
Besides there’s nowhere to sit down, he said and laughed again.
Not having a place to sit because we were surrounded by mud and jungle and overhead by thick clouds about to burst did not seem even kinda funny.
I wish I didn’t come, I said.
And I slogged past him.
Well, Ollestad. I’m glad you did.
I don’t want to ski race anymore, I called back without turning. I’d rather do karate.
Your mother’s the one who needs to learn karate.
I paused, startled. My dad had never said so much about my mom and Nick before. This was my big chance to speak out—
tell Dad how Nick called me a liar and insisted I’d grow up to be a failure. This was a good time to ask my dad to do something about Nick’s cruelty. But all I did was grunt and plod on.
The hillside climbed to a ridge that wandered back toward even bigger hills. Up ahead I saw the trail drop abruptly. Where it appeared again down below, the jungle grew in ribbons over grassy marshland. There were some cows and tall coconut trees and then another hill and I hoped that on the other side finally awaited the beach, shelter and rest.
I guzzled some water. I was sweating and the heat was like a thick cloak and my head burned with a fever.
I’m burning up, Dad.
We’ll jump in the ocean and it’ll cool you off.
As much as it made sense, that’s not what I wanted to hear.
I could feel him looking at me. I wanted him to say something about my mom or Nick. Then I could tell him that Nick swore at me and said I was rotten and said he’d track me down if I told on him. After that, when we got home, Dad would take care of things.
My dad moved behind me and I waited. Then he stopped moving. He didn’t say anything.
I threw my suitcase over the drop-off. It appeared a few seconds later floating on the mud in the trail below. My eyes blurred with tears and my voice was raked by anger,
. I sat in the mud and threw globs of it at my dad. Eventually I ran out of steam and just cried. The mud felt good against the scab on my hip. It began to rain again.
Are you done with your mountain fit? he said.
No, I said.
He reached down and I took his hand and he tugged me out of the mud.
Slide down on your ass, he said.
We slid down the hill into the grassy marshland. The mud was waist deep and I grabbed my surfboard from my dad and floated on it.
Great idea, Ollestad.
Where’s your bag? I said.
Left it up there, he said. Guess I’ll have to wear trunks from now on.
We got to the other side of the marsh and I noticed that some of the mud had dried on our skin—it had stopped raining—and we looked like swamp things. We could hear the ocean and my dad patted my back.
Way to grind it out, he said.
He led me out of the jungle. Abruptly our feet crunched down on a mound of white seashells. I looked ahead and the shells mushroomed all the way to the wet sand and then lay scattered about, washing around on the shore.
The water was blueberry, like the sky now. There were slicks of turquoise where the reef ceased, allowing the white sand to reflect back up through the water. Farther out a bigger reef made swells leap up everywhere like a sea of cobras striking ten at a time. We two swamp things looked on in awe.
For the first and only time my dad refrained from pointing out the beauty. He said nothing. Not even about the surf. He tiptoed over the shells and dove into the ocean. The mud left a stain in his wake. He told me to keep my clothes on in order to clean them out. I opened my eyes underwater and yellow fish scatted beneath a cluster of reef.
We stripped nude and hung our clothes on a papaya tree. The fruit’s sweet aroma mingled with the humid air and stuck to the inside of my nose. The yellow-green melons hung like big
breasts and I held the papayas’ bouquet in my lungs. Everything glared vibrant with color and at the same time was as soft as velvet.
We stood in a daze, our long trudge affecting us now. Time passed and the sweetness of the air and the berry palettes in the sky and water resonated over the percussion of waves crashing against the reef.
Breaking the spell my dad asked me about my hip.
It’s getting better, I said.
Sure looks like you got it skateboarding.
I paused. Down here in Mexico, my lie appeared such a small thing.
I did, I said.
Your secret’s safe here in Mexico, he said.
My face contorted into a smile. I felt loony and relieved. I charged the ocean and called out, attacking some imaginary demon. The shells sliced into my feet and I dove headlong into the sea.
I surfaced and my dad gave me a humorous sideways glance, then danced over the shells with his balls swinging. He jumped in and floated on his back and watched the sky. He was at ease like a seal bathing with one flipper up and he watched the pregnant thunderheads and seemed to enjoy their warm mist.
I swam ashore and scoured the beach, finding some thick white shells with holes in them. I showed them to Dad and we decided they were puka shells. I collected at least a hundred, storing them in a large abalone shell.
My dad tore open a papaya with his thumbs. We each dug out the slimy black seeds with a shell and spooned the meat into our mouths.
Just like the Indians, he said.
He told me that they fished with handmade spears, carved boats out of logs, and had no TV or cars or restaurants.
They were tough, Ollestad, he said.
Tougher than tiger shit.
What’s tougher? Tiger shit or tiger piss?
Hmm. Tiger piss maybe.
He washed off the surfboards in the salt water and I washed off my suitcase. Then I followed him north.
What happens when you boil to death? I said.
You dehydrate and finally die.
What happens when you freeze to death?
You’re cold. Then you feel warm and sleepy. And then you fall asleep and never wake up.
I’d rather freeze to death.
We followed the raised sand spit hooking out to sea. My dad looked back toward the big reef. He stopped and studied the waves and I pretended not to notice.
Might get good when the wind settles down, he said.