Authors: John D. MacDonald
John D. MacDonald
THE AIR had a clean, new, morning smell. Manuel Forno paused for a moment on top of the ridge near his adobe home, to inhale more deeply, to enjoy the morning more thoroughly.
It was, indeed, one of the very best mornings. A good morning for Manuel Forno, public servant. Off to the right were the distant cream and white and yellow buildings of San Fernando, village of his birth. And down the long slope to the left he could see the muddy ribbon of the Río Conchos, pleasantly gilded by the early sun.
Manuel began to trudge down the slope, humming snatches of Augustin Lara’s bullfight music, “Silverio.” Ai, it would be good to save much money and one day go to the capital, to the Plaza México, perhaps to see Silverio Peréz himself.
If one were very careful… He shrugged. There would never be enough pesos. Face it, Manuel. They pay you a tiny quantity of pesos for pulling hard on a wire cable. This effort causes a ferry to swim across the Río Conchos. Free ferry, courtesy of the Estados Unidos de México. And once the far shore is reached, why, you turn around and cause the beast of a ferryboat to swim back again, carrying, at the most, two cars or one large truck on each voyage.
Face it, Manuel, he told himself. Should you ever save enough pesos, Rosalita will use them to take a
that will carry her, in three hours, north to the bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas, and there she will arrange to cross the bridge and spend those pesos on
merchandise of fabulous prices.
He sighed heavily, feeling almost sorry for himself. Back and forth across the river all day. A burro, serving the arrogant
And then, as he turned left down the shoulder of the road toward the ferry landing, he cheered up as he remembered the sparkling new ferry that had been provided just recently so that
could ride across the Río Conchos in style.
How splendid to be at last rid of that ancient ferry, that grotesque waddling old lady of a ferry, that hideous gray scabbed old beast! The new ferry had paint that would shine in the sun.
And a larger crew. Four men on the catwalk. Manuel felt the sun on his shoulders and knew that it would be a hot day. On such a hot day one should not work too hard. It was bad for the health. Through long practice he had learned that it is possible to appear to be pulling on the pinch bar that grasps the cable without, in reality, using any force at all. It was merely necessary to keep the arms rigid so that the muscles of the back would not appear to be slack. It would be a useful trick on such a day as this.
The road turned and slanted down a steep place in the river bank and he saw the clean shine of new paint. It could make a man proud, rather than ashamed, to cause such a splendid creature to swim back and forth across the river. It was fitting that the Río Conchos should have a new ferry. Once one considered it carefully, it became obvious that this was a most important crossing of a most important river. There was but this one way to go, by vehicle, from the city of Victoria to Brownsville, Texas. Merely this one road, unless, of course, one wished to return to Victoria, drive an incredible distance north to Laredo, Texas, and then travel through Texas east to Brownsville.
He glanced across the river and stopped suddenly, appalled. Cars were lined up on the far side of the river. What a grotesque start for the day, just when one expected a few pleasant hours of leisure, without too many interruptions for the purpose of hauling the craft across the river!
When he came around the bend, he saw that the ferry was not on the near shore. It was, for some reason, about fifteen feet from the shore. And his fellow workers stood hip-deep in the muddy water in front of the ferry, grubbing with shovels.
He stopped again, and a small interior voice advised him that this might be an excellent day to disappear.
But Vascos turned and saw him. “Come here, Manuel Forno!” he bellowed.
Manuel adjusted his face into an expression of amiable idiocy and marched down to stop in front of his diminutive boss, the
of the ferry, the one who labored only with the tongue.
“What, Vascos, are they doing?”
“Those curious implements are shovels. Perhaps you have heard of them. A shovel is a utensil with which one digs. And there is one for you. Kindly dig.”
Manuel stared blankly at him. “Why?”
Vascos’ face darkened ominously. “Because you are told to dig, señor. I shall explain. I shall use the little words. Kindly note the river. What do you see?”
“It is smaller than yesterday, Vascos.”
“Much smaller, and growing smaller each moment. Perhaps it will disappear entirely. Perhaps you will disappear entirely. Poof! That is too much to hope for.”
Manuel eyed the shovel and backed tentatively away. “I shall be glad…”
“Come back here. The river has dropped so that it is no longer possible to bring the ferry close enough to shore to either load or unload the vehicles. Thus it becomes necessary to dig with the shovels to create a channel to get the ferry close enough so that large timbers can be used as a ramp rather than the steel one on the ferry. Have I confused you?”
“But the old ferry…” Manuel said weakly.
“The old ferry did not need so much river. We have a new ferry. It is, perhaps, too big for the Río Conchos. On each trip it is necessary to dig with the shovels.”
“I do not feel well, Vascos.”
“Either use the shovel or it shall be used against your head.”
“Vascos, listen to me. I do not have your intelligence. That is certain. However, could we not wait until the river ceases to drop? Then it would only be necessary to dig one time at each bank. Most of those who wait are only tourists. They have no place to go, and they travel with great speed. Let them wait.”
Vascos stuck out his chest. “It is my position to keep the ferry in service.”
“Such an attitude can be overdone, Vascos.”
“Perhaps. But it has been said that Atahualpa will cross sometime today.” Vascos took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. The mention of the name made the shovels fly faster in the hands of Manuel’s fellow workers.
“Ah,” said Manuel, “the politico. When that time comes, strength will come to you, Vascos, out of fear. And you shall pick up the ferry on your back and run lightly across the river.”
Vascos stared at Manuel for a moment. Then Vascos went over, picked up the shovel, brought it back, and handed it to Manuel with a bow, saying, “If you would be so kind, señor…”
“I wish it were possible for me to say that this is a pleasure,” Manuel replied. He went slowly over to the small shack that served as Vascos’ office and began, with the slowest motions, to take off his clean white shirt. The men in the river yelled angrily at Manuel, telling him to hurry. Manuel rewarded them with a sad, tired smile. This splendid day had soured itself with startling speed. Three vehicles on this side and many on the other side. He picked up the shovel, examined it inch by inch, and set it down again. He removed his sandals and placed them near the neatly folded shirt.
He picked up the shovel again and walked slowly into the warm muddy water. The mud spread up through his toes. The others made room for him, gladly.
“This,” said Manuel, as he made the first thrust with the shovel, “might become a long and discouraging day.”
He began to dig, doggedly, all chance of escape gone. Perspiration oiled his brown shoulders.
I, he told himself, am a picturesque
with their bright empty faces will be clicking their little black boxes at me as I swing this
of a shovel.
When work is inescapable, one must perform it. From work comes pesos. From pesos comes food. With food you are able to work. It is a trap. But food keeps Rosalita warm and round, and gives one the necessary strength to do what is necessary and proper to that warm, round brownness. The bait in the trap, perhaps.
He labored, but made certain that he kept an ample amount of energy in reserve. When Atahualpa crossed the river, it would be necessary to work like a madman, beating the brown water to a creamy froth. He debated the results that would come from greeting Atahualpa with a shovelful of mud. No doubt, in three days, the body of one Manuel Forno would rise to the top of the river.
Each time he straightened up, Vascos was watching him. Manuel experimented until he found that precise working speed which would keep Vascos annoyed, yet not give him cause to bellow.
THE ICE-BLUE Cadillac with Texas plates boomed across the wasteland. Darby Garon held it at ninety, brown hands lightly on the wheel. Enchiladas and beer in Victoria had been a mistake at midday. The meal was a sodden, unmoving weight in his stomach. Both side vents were turned to slam the superheated air in against him and the girl who sat beside him, her eyes closed. The girl had been the same sort of mistake as the meal; the difference existed only in degree. She too was highly spiced, completely indigestible.
Two hundred miles from Victoria to Matamoros. Then across the bridge into Brownsville, and then a straight hard run up to San Antone, where he could get rid of her. Three weeks that had been a crazy, expensive mistake. He couldn’t wait to see the last of her. Betty Mooney was something he wanted to forget quickly, and knew he never would. He knew that in some less than obscure way he had soiled and shamed himself.
The hard high sun sent chrome needles through the dark lenses of the sunglasses he wore. His cotton short-sleeved shirt, worn outside khaki walking shorts, was completely unbuttoned. The wind dried the sweat on his chest to salt crystals, but each time he leaned back in the seat, the back of the shirt was soaked through.
Ahead the road disappeared into a dark pool of heat waves. Wild horses wheeled through the roadside scrub. Buzzards drew their doom circles against a glaring sky far off to the left. He felt the sweat track down the backs of his naked calves. Hell would be a place where you drove forever under an unmoving sun, riding next to a big girl in a yellow dress, a girl with her eyes shut.
Darby glanced over at her. The skirt of the yellow dress was bunched high, and her heavy thighs were slackly spread. Having eaten, the animal slept.
He scowled ahead once more at the onrushing road. A crazy, pointless thing to do. But done, now. Unforgettably done. At forty-four a man should have more sense. A successful man, with two kids in college, with a trim-bodied charming wife, with a good position with an oil company, with a fine home in Houston. Now the entire structure was rocked. Maybe it had already collapsed. Job and home and wife and kids.
Perhaps this sort of thing had been building for years. That aimless restlessness. The sudden, anticipatory shiver in his guts when he had looked at the young girls in their light dresses.
Having that damnable credit card had made it so much easier. Too easy. He had driven over to San Antonio to straighten out a mix-up on land leases. Routine trip. One of scores that he had made. Fixed it in two days, and then, in the bluing dusk of a long July day, had felt that familiar reluctance to head back toward Houston, toward routine, toward the well-ordered life where a change of breakfast eggs was a major incident.
And he had walked in the dusk streets, and, with the half-apologetic air of a tongue-lolling dog, had followed a tall, ripe-bodied young girl who strolled slowly. Caught up with her at a crossing. Took off his hat to wipe his forehead with his handkerchief, saying, “Warm, isn’t it?”
He would never forget her slow bold stare of appraisal, the faint slant of light across her heavy features, as he stood there pleading dumbly for adventure, half frightened at his own temerity, wondering how and where he had lost that casual confidence of his youth that, in years gone by, had made such an approach ridiculously easy. She gave him a long time to wonder what she thought of his long, hard-boned face, the eyes set deep, the jaw elongated, the mouth hinting grimly of New England.
“Hot, I’d call it.” Her voice had an odd quality, and it made Darby think of the way his youngest son had sounded during those months just before his voice changed.
“An evening for tall cold drinks in air-conditioned surroundings,” he said, feeling the shame of anyone who begs.
“I was going to a movie.”
“Look, I’m no pickup, mister.”
“Anyone can see that. I’m a stranger in town. I just thought…”
“You mean you were dreaming.”
“I’m sorry, miss.”
“Well, you’ve apologized. If you had a car, a ride would be O.K. Just to cool off.”
“My car is in a lot three blocks back.”
And she walked back with him. She said she was Betty Mooney and she worked in a telephone office. He said he was Darby Garon and worked for an oil company. She walked tall beside him. Her hair was long, heavy, blonde-red. Her features had a funny harshness, a hawkishness. As she walked beside him, he gave sidelong glances at her high, heavy, wide-spaced breasts, at the rolling pelvic tilt of her walk. Her scent was thick in the unstirring air, and she made him feel weak, almost sick, with desire for her.
Her manner changed subtly, became less casual, more holiday-like when he unlocked the door of the long blue car for her. She saw his suitcase on the back seat.
“Going someplace, Darby?”
“Well, I’d checked out and half planned to start back to Houston.” His unmeaning laugh was nervous, almost a giggle.
He drove southeast down 181, the Corpus Christi highway. She sat close to him.
“How old are you, Betty?”
“Twenty-three. You’re about thirty-five, aren’t you?”
Old goat, he thought, rolling in the scent of girl flesh. His hands were wet. Moira was the woman who should be riding beside him. Moira never sat that close. Moira’s perfume always made him think of the crisp astringency of peppermint. The scent Betty Mooney wore so liberally made him think, crazily, of a rumpled bed.
She hummed a tune, sang the final words. “Let’s get away from it all.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you’d know that one.”
“Is it old or something? Coop plays it a lot. He’s my favorite disc jock. You listen to him, don’t you?”
“No. But I like the sentiment behind that song. Let’s get away from it all. What do you think, Betty? Should we get away from it all?”
“Oh, Mexico City. We’ll take a vacation. Like the sound of that?”
“It sounds swell. But I couldn’t. You know that.”
“And I couldn’t take you there. It was just a game.”
“You might have got yourself in a sling if I’d said yes, then.”
“If you’d said yes, I might have gone through with it.” And he knew, surprisingly, that he meant it. Job and family had shrunk. They were sets in a miniature theatre, seen from far away. Reality was Betty Mooney. The rest of it was a clever illusion.
“Down the road on the left there’s a place. See it? Sandy’s. The liquor isn’t legal, but it won’t poison you and it’s air-conditioned.”
They went in. Glass and chrome and soft lights. They knew Betty. The drinks came in coffee cups. He saw her clearly across the booth table, saw her for the first time. He knew from her face and her body that she would not last. At twenty-three she was precariously overripe. In another year or two the firm body would spread and soften, the heavy features begin to sag. At the moment the physical impact of her was as real as a fist blow against his mouth. His hands trembled.
He saw the drinks working on her, and felt them working on him.
“How about that fling?” she said.
“You mean it?”
“If it isn’t a budget trip. If it lasts a little while. I don’t like my job. And there are lots of jobs nowadays. I’ve been thinking of a job in a plant. Aircraft. They make real money.”
He remembered the credit card. “It won’t be a budget trip.”
“How about your job?”
“I come and go as I please,” he lied.
“Not really. Just almost. And my wife has long since given up wondering or caring where I am.” Forgive me, Moira.
“I know some kids who went down. It’s no job getting the permit. I get a card and walk across the bridge. You get one for yourself and the car and drive across and pick me up.”
He saw the hard flicker of excitement under her casual air. Tomorrow you can be dead. Hillary popped off last year. Heart. And only forty-six.
There was a moment in San Antonio when he sat in the car on a back street and waited for her to come down with her suitcase. He started the motor, ready to drive away, ready to drive headlong back to sanity. He bit hard on his lip. He saw her coming down the walk toward the car, tall and bountiful, full of all her slow promises.
They stayed what was left of the night at an air-conditioned court near Alice, signed in as Mr. and Mrs. Roger Robinson.
The blindness started there, in her heavy arms. She laughed softly at his eagerness. With the driving, unthinking blindness, with his insatiable need for her, the days went by and the miles went by, and the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City was merely the annex to a tourist court near Alice, Texas. He used her with deadly persistency, and the times in between were merely a nothingness, a waiting. While he napped, she bought clothes in the Mexico City shops.
And then, one morning, he awoke and it was as though he had walked out of a movie, stood blinking on the sidewalk, trying to remember which way to go.
He looked at himself and he looked at her. He had tried to call it a deathless romance, a great love. And the rationalization had shattered suddenly, leaving him naked. He saw a gaunt foolish man of middle years spending his savings on a raw, big-bodied young girl with a limited IQ. The pores of her cheeks and nose were unpleasantly enlarged. In conversation she repeated herself interminably, expressing childish infatuations with movie actors, TV stars, disc jockeys. Her love-making was an unimaginative compound of all the movies she had seen, all the confession stories she had read. He stared in wonder at the meaty mass of her hips, at the lactic, bovine breasts, startled that he should have thought this worth the risk of destroying his world. He realized sourly that he could anticipate her every word, every sigh, every movement. And there was no longer excitement in the sight of her padding, heavy and naked, through the hotel suite. Merely an irritation that she did not cover herself up. The notes to Moira and to the company, notes that had seemed so clever at the moment, with their hints about some secret deal on a Mexican oil concession, now appeared, in retrospect, to be absurd, transparent.
He wanted, near him, the clean astringency that reminded him of peppermint.
And it had ended, that morning. In Mexico City. He had tried to put her on a plane. But even though she had immediately sensed his withdrawal, his distaste, she refused to fly back.
Once, during a long-gone New Hampshire summer, he had been on his uncle’s farm. Ginger, a raw-boned setter pup, had killed a chicken. Darby’s uncle had tied the limp chicken around Ginger’s neck. Darby Garon remembered his pity for the dog, the evident misery and self-disgust in Ginger’s eyes.
The cheap little romance had died on a cool sunny morning, but she was still tied to him. They had driven down out of the Sierra Madres into the baked plains. In an incredibly short time they had arrived at that smoldering bitterness which usually takes years of loveless marriage to produce.
During their long silences he thought about himself and what he had done to his life. For twenty years of marriage he had been physically faithful. Twenty years to balance against three weeks of debauchery. Moira would know. It was not fear that shook him. It was the sense of loss, of having discarded something precious.
He glanced at Betty Mooney again. Her yellow dress was dark-stained at waist and armpits. Ahead a ridge of rock slanted close to the shoulder of the road. His shoulder muscles tightened. One hard wrench at the wheel. The day would explode into nothingness and the eye in his mind saw it from the high lens of the cruel buzzard. Blue car crushed and smoking, and the yellow dress a vivid blotch against rock. The rock ridge rushed by and his shoulder muscles slackened again. It was something he could not do. It was too cheap a way to pay for it. The hard puritan streak within him demanded a more difficult expiation of this sin.
The road dipped suddenly and he saw the long line of cars and trucks, frighteningly close, unmoving. The girl slammed hard against the dash as he thrust his foot against the brakes. The car swerved, tires screaming, and he fought the skid. He brought the car at last to a halt about a foot from the rear bumper of the car ahead. He received angry looks, heard laughter. “You all right?” he asked Betty. His hands were shaking with reaction, knees trembling.
“Hurt my fingers,” she said dully. “You didn’t have to be going so damn fast, did you?”
He didn’t answer. He got out and looked down the long line. At the foot of the shallow slope he could see a muddy river not more than eighty feet wide. The road was cut down through a high river bank. He could see where it curved up the opposite shore, see the cream and white buildings of a town beyond the opposite bank. It had that cemetery look of all small Mexican towns that drowse through midday heat.
He reached in and took his road map out, unfolded it. “That’s San Fernando over there. And this is the ferry across the Río Conchos. We’re still eighty-five miles or so from Matamoros. It looks like something might be wrong with the ferry.”
“You don’t say,” she said acidly.
“I’ll walk down and see if I can find out what’s the trouble.”
“You do that.”
He counted the cars and trucks as he went down the slant of the road. They were empty for the most part. There were two small stores set back from the road on the right side, some dusty trees that gave meager shade. He was number twenty-two in line. And traffic was extremely light on the highway. He had seen two cars in the last hundred miles. American tourists, Mexican travelers.
The lead car was a little green MG with Louisiana plates. A young man with a bronze tan, golden hair, and a red silk shirt sat cross-legged on a leather pillow in the shade cast by the little green car.
“How long have you been here?” Darby Garon asked bluntly.
The boy looked him over. He lifted a cigarette to his lips with a dainty grace that was as illuminating as an entire case record in Kraft-Ebbing.
“Since ten-thirty this morning,” he said in a girlish voice.
Darby stared at him. “That’s… better than four hours.”
“Really, it seems more like four years. The boy I’m with is just terribly discouraged, believe me. You see, Aleman visited here recently and these dolts bought a new ferry to impress the
The thing is too huge for the river and right now the level is dropping and every time they make a trip a lot of little men pounce into the water and scoop out the goo with shovels so they can get close enough to set planks from the shore to the ferry so people can drive up.”