- The Digital Writer  




By Elizabeth Schambacher

He had been afraid the hotel would not please her and when he asked her if the room was all right, his uncertainty sounded in his voice.

She stood beside the bed and pulled the cover away from the pillows. "It will do," she said. "Let me rest for a bit, Martin. It's been a long day." He was quick to agree. "Later we can do something," he said, hearing again the sound of the doctor's voice advising him to get her away from Los Angeles. "A change of scenery could make the difference," the doctor had said. The difference. To what? The word frightened him, its unspoken alternative now firmly burrowed in the back of his mind.

She closed her eyes and when she turned her head away he felt a stab of rejection, a reaction he knew was unwarranted, but he could not help it. Annoyed with himself, he went out on the balcony overlooking the ocean. The setting sun cast a bronze blanket across the water and a breeze stirred the fronds of palm trees lining the path to the beach. He leaned over the railing to observe the open-air café below where the tables, shaded by palapas, were empty this late in the day save for a lone customer reading a book while he sipped at a glass of beer. Waiters in orange shirts and white pants were whisking away tablecloths and realigning chairs in preparation for the dinner hour.

The air was heavy with the smell of frying meat, wood smoke and the invasive scent of coconut oil. It was still extremely hot. He wiped the sweat from his neck and after a few minutes went back in the room. She was asleep, or pretending sleep. He never knew.

A small person, Joanna, her masses of black hair, tousled and damp, spread out on the pillow. She had taken off her sandals and her bare feet were dusty, childlike. He struggled against the need to touch her, not wanting to disturb her in case she really was sleeping.

In the bathroom, he dropped his clothes on the floor and stepped in the shower. He stood under the cool spray for a long time before he turned off the tap and knotted a towel around his waist. His wet feet left prints on the tile of the bedroom floor and drops of water from his hair spattered on the open suitcase while he rummaged for clean underthings, walking shorts, a shirt. From time to time he glanced at his wife but she hadn't moved, reassuring him that at least for now, she had fallen asleep.

Reluctant to leave the room in case she awoke while he was gone, he hesitated at the door. But he would not be long. He followed the corridor to the circular lobby, familiar to him, so intently had he studied the brochure he had sent for months earlier. Wicker chairs were arranged in conversational groups next to a few tables holding terra cotta pots of fresh flowers; baskets of cascading greenery hung from the archway leading to the patio. He judged it picturesque, pleasant enough ­ now, if only Joanna would find it so.

The lobby was deserted save for the desk clerk, Luis, who had registered them earlier. "Ah, Senor Maxwell! What may I do for you?"

"Would it be possible to arrange a car and a driver for tomorrow? We'd like to do some sightseeing on our own, rather than join a group. My wife hasn't been well and she tires easily."

"No problem," said Luis. "We have recently hired a guide who specializes in private tours. He is highly qualified."

Martin nodded. "Sounds fine. Say about ten in the morning." From a display on the desk he picked up a folder illustrated with photos of local attractions. A waterfall, a white sandy beach, an ornate church, a native market ­ one of them, he hoped, might hold a spark of interest for Joanna.

The bed was empty when he returned to the room. The sound of running water was coming from the bathroom and he sat down on the balcony to study the folder. Joanna could shop for things in the marketplace, he supposed, embroidery or some sort of native crafts. It was the kind of pastime she had enjoyed not all that long ago.

The memory of how she had been was never far from the surface and it emerged again, bringing a leadeness of spirit, a questioning of the hope that had persuaded him to plan the vacation. His wish was for the return of the Joanna he knew, the Joanna full of joy. This quiet woman, listless, indifferent, wrapped in a cocoon he could not penetrate, was a stranger to him.

Her doctor, authoritative and impatient, had assured him there was nothing seriously wrong with her. "Your wife has had a bad experience and she's over-reacting. You're making too much of this."

He didn't agree. Prone to consider Joanna with a benign tolerance as he would a precocious child, the doctor minimized the emotional toll that had been exacted from her. It was an attitude Martin resented, yet he understood. There were times when he felt more like Joanna's father than her husband, but dammit, she was a grown woman and she was his wife.

From the bathroom the sound of water had stopped and Joanna emerged. She wore a floating sea-green caftan and had pinned her mass of dark hair on top of her head where an occasional strand escaped to curl tightly in the humidity.

"Did you sleep?" he asked.

"Some. Have you seen any more of the hotel?"

He imagined a note of animation in her voice and looked at her intently, eager to see it reflected in her face, but he was disappointed. Her smile was without warmth, and it was as though her eyes, her lovely brown eyes, were seeing not him, but someone or something far in the distance. The brief moment of hope had gone.

Discouraged, he took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He was constantly reminded that his Joanna was haunted by the memory of a night almost a year ago, a memory that also haunted him, God knew. He had come up the stairs ­ late, he had worked late ­ and put his key in the door of their apartment when he heard her scream. As he ran into the bedroom, a man turned and dived through the window, shattering the glass, landing in a clump of bushes two stories below. His leg was broken in the fall and he was picked up by the police within the hour.

It was over. He was no one either of them had seen before; some drunken drifter who had forced a way into their apartment. With intent to rob? To rape? It was not clear and it did not matter. He had not touched her.

Since then there had been counseling; there had been medication; a move to another part of the city. Nothing brought change. Time and again, the moment he came in the door Joanna would throw herself into his arms, weeping wildly, insisting she had just seen the intruder. Some stranger crossing the street, the man driving a delivery van, a new mail carrier, a face in a crowd. His reassurance that the man who had entered their apartment that night was behind bars, was an explanation she would not, or could not, accept. In the weeks following the break-in, her intervals of hysteria had frightened him badly. Later she conceived the notion that she needed a gun for protection while he was gone and when he refused to even discuss it, she locked herself in the bedroom, ignoring his pleas to open the door until he had finally taken it from its hinges.

She had stared at him icily, punishing him with a siege of silence that lasted until against his better judgement, he gave in and bought her a small revolver. Although he instructed her in every safety precaution, his apprehensions remained. She kept it on her nightstand and when he came home late enough to find her in bed, the sight of the weapon within reach of her hand filled him with fear.

Each day he dealt with her indifference, her lack of interest in anything. She greeted his suggestion of a trip to Mexico with a shrug, her response, "Whatever you like, Martin. It's your party," dashing cold water on his expectation. Yet he persisted. Once she would have been ecstatic ­ shopping madly, phoning friends, making lists, poring over guidebooks, talking, talking, until he was ready to lose patience. With all his heart, he wished it could be that way again.

Now, as he left her on the balcony and began to unpack their suitcases, he thought of the gun. She had wanted to bring it along, somehow conceal it from detection at the airport. Furiously she had defended what he had dismissed as an insane notion. "People do it all the time! Read the papers! The stories about how easy it is to get a weapon past security!"

He had finally convinced her of the danger of the idea, or he hoped he had. At the back of his mind while he unpacked, was the fear that somewhere, tucked inside a pocket or buried underneath a stack of clothes, he would discover proof of indeed how simple it was to evade security. But at last, relieved, he had emptied both cases, distributing their contents wherever he thought they should go, knowing she would neither care nor want to be bothered with the task.

At sunset she agreed to a brief stroll along the ocean and when she pleaded weariness after dinner he abandoned thoughts of seeking an evening's entertainment. They retired early. In the darkness after he turned off the light, she spoke. "That waiter tonight," she said.

On the verge of dozing off, he shook himself awake. "The waiter? What about him?"

She was quiet for a moment. "Never mind," she said at last. "Forget it."

The waiter. He knew what was behind her remark and his heart sank. When he tried to remember if the fellow had stared at her, done anything to call her attention to him, but he could think of nothing. He pretended sleep when she threw the covers aside and went out on the balcony. Eventually he slept and when he woke the sun was streaming through the doors. She lay next to him, curled in her usual fetal position, her hands clasped as though in prayer underneath her cheek.

When he came out of the bathroom she wished him a good morning in a voice he tried to believe was cheerful. "Put on something cool," she said. "It's hot."

Later, while she was dressing he went to the lobby to consult with Luis. It was arranged that the guide would pick them up shortly after ten, allowing time for a leisurely breakfast before driving to the village to explore the market.

Looking back, he realized that the venture was destined for failure from the start. During breakfast Joanna's earlier mood was replaced by intervals of silence, replies in monosyllables. She toyed with her food, pushing it around on her plate, barely touching it. He chose to blame the underdone bacon, the over cooked eggs, and was quick to commiserate.

"You can bank on it that the kitchen never won an award from Duncan Hines," he said, determined to keep it light. "How about a sweet roll? Or something at least edible? It could be a long day, Joanna. You really should have something in your stomach."

"I'm not hungry, Martin." She lit a cigarette and looked away. "I hope this won't be an all day affair. Already it's too hot to do anything."

He struggled against irritation. After all, it was still early times. He persuaded himself that the attraction of picturesque places and scenery would work the charm promised by the tourist brochures. He forced a smile, a jovial note in his voice.

"After we see the market, we could have lunch in some little cafe in the village, or maybe in one of those fancy resort places near the marina. Fresh lobster maybe. Sound good?"

"Sounds unlikely," she said.

He gave up, defeated. "Can't we anticipate an enjoyable day, for God's sake? This is supposed to be a holiday, remember?"

She said nothing and they sat in silence while he finished his breakfast. On cue, Luis approached their table. "Senor, Senora Maxwell." He glanced from one to the other with a slight bow. "Your guide is waiting for you at the main entrance. You are ready to leave?"

"Let's get it over with." Joanna pushed back her chair and stood up.

He refrained from comment and managed a smile as though she had made a small joke. They went through the lobby and down a set of steps to the driveway where a jeep was parked, the motor running. The driver, plump, with a bristling moustache, was leaning against a tree, smoking. He reminded Martin of a cartoon he had once seen of Pancho Villa and he shot a glance at Joanna, hoping to share his amusement, but she was staring stonily ahead.

At their appearance, the driver flashed a set of white teeth, ground out his cigarette and moved haltingly over to the jeep. "Polio when I was a child has left me with muscles which do not obey quickly," he explained, then laughed with good humor. "It does not slow me down too much! My name is Manuel. I am well acquainted with the village and will explain whatever you care to know."

At the end of the serpentine driveway he eased the jeep out into the main road. "You will find the market to be very interesting," he said. "It is located along the river in the center of the village. I will park in a convenient spot and wait for you. Take as long as you wish. You will find outstanding artifacts and crafts native to our region and our village."

As he drove, he plunged into a tour guide's recitation, at one time stopping the jeep to pick a purple flower growing beside the road. With a flourish he presented it to Joanna. "An unusual and fragrant flora," he said. "It grows only in this village. Most unique."

Barely waiting until he turned away she dropped the flower on the floorboards and wiped her hand on her slacks. "I don't want the damned thing!" she murmured. Martin shook his head and said nothing.

Traffic had been light on the coast road but this was no longer the case as they neared the center of town. Buses belching smoke, safari wagons, more jeeps, jammed the narrow, cobblestone street. The air was thick with the smell of woodsmoke and rotting vegetation; a cacophony of horns and blaring radios came from all directions.

At the entrance to the market Manual found a parking place. "I will remain here," he said. "Take your time."

In single file Joanna and Martin moved through the market. Vast and open aired, it teemed with shouting vendors, women shoppers carrying plastic string bags, children darting underfoot, an occasional mangy dog slinking between the stalls. The air was fetid, heavy. They walked slowly through the narrow aisles, past bins of fruits and vegetables, mountains of red and yellow peppers; stalls displaying native crafts, crepe paper flowers, embroidered shirts and blouses. He dared to hope the novelty of the place might ignite a spark of the enthusiasm Joanna would have shown in other days.

She paused in front of a stand of souvenirs: a grasshopper made of glass, a keychain attached to a plastic iguana, a selection of letter openers, silver earrings, tiny sombrero pins. He shook his head at the things people buy. So much junk. Still, some of the earrings were attractive and he held up a pair of silver hoops for her inspection but she had walked on.

He hurried to catch up, picking a way along the crumbling cement floor that was pooled with water in spots, littered with bits of discarded and wilted vegetable matter.

"Watch your step," he told her, reaching her side as she paused at another stall of souvenirs. "The footing is treacherous."

She put down the painted fan she had been examining. "I'll be fine," she said, impatient. "There's no need for you to hang on to me. I'd like to look around."

"Did you see something you want?" he said, hoping for a spark of interest.

"Nothing special." She turned away. "Maybe a bracelet or two. Go on ahead, I'll join you over there." She pointed to the outside where a shaded spot and a bench were visible along the bank of the river. "I'll be along."

He watched her vanish down an aisle, then shrugged and did as she had asked. A faint breeze had sprung up and the heat, while still oppressive, was at least bearable. Idly he watched a group of children playing at the water's edge while their mothers sat on a patch of grass, legs outstretched, chatting among themselves. He was sorry he had never learned to speak Spanish. Not that their conversation could hold much interest for him, but his lack of comprehension made him feel lost and alien. He was aware that the turn his marriage had taken was to blame for much of his sense of isolation and he cautioned himself against self-pity. Joanna was the victim, not he.

The shouts of the children and the murmur of the river acted as a soporific and when he opened his eyes, surprised that he had dozed off, the children and their mothers were gone. He looked up as Joanna emerged from the market. She carried a string bag holding packages wrapped in newspaper and he moved over on the bench to make room for her. "What great bargains did you find?" he said, determinedly cheerful.

"None that would interest you. Never mind that now." She put her hand on his knee. "I want to say something and I don't want you to interrupt."

He braced himself, afraid of what he was going to hear. "Whether you want to admit it or not," she said, "that man could have followed us here. Think about it! How do you know he hasn't been released from jail? Or escaped? It happens!" Her eyes glittered and her nails bit into his skin.

He groaned, unable to conceal his frustration. "Joanna, use your head! The guy was caught. He's not going anywhere for years. And even if he should be out of jail and on the loose, how and why in hell would he turn up here? You and your imagination scare the hell out of me!"

She glared at him, his words triggering a burst of fury. "It wasn't my imagination that put him in our bedroom! And it isn't my imagination that brought him here! Right here!" She pounded his knee with her fist until he drew away.

"I know who he is!" she told him, her expression sly, triumphant.

"Ah, Christ." He closed his eyes.

"I saw him last night at dinner!" The words tumbled together in her impatience to convince him. "It's Manuel! It's him!"

He sighed. He might have anticipated this. "We never set eyes on the man until this morning, Joanna."

"Speak for yourself!" she snapped. "I saw him. He was sitting at a table across from us last night! And you know what else? I know I recognized him in the airport, but I said nothing because you never believe anything I tell you! It's the same man! How can you be blind to what's going on right under your nose!"

He leaned back on the bench, discouragement sapping his energy. It was an effort to speak. "Manuel lives here," he said at last. "He works for the hotel. He cannot be the person who broke into our apartment a thousand miles away. You don't know what you're saying."

"And you do!" she jeered. "Are you forgetting what the desk clerk told you? That Manuel is a new guide just hired by the hotel? Do you know where he came from? Didn't you even notice his limp?"

"A limp?" he said helplessly, staring at her. "What are you talking about?"

"His limp! From a leg that's been broken!"

"Ah. Jesus!" He groaned. "The poor bastard had polio! Joanna, for God's sake, make sense!"

"You want sense? Then add it up. You've been planning this trip for months! Blathering about it to everybody who would listen to you! How hard would it have been for him to find out where you were taking me! All he'd have to do is ask one of the neighbors!"

"And get here ahead of us, be hired by our hotel and wait for you to show up! That the scenario?"

Sullenly she looked away. "It could have happened that way. It's him."

"You're driving yourself crazy," he said finally. "Me right along with you." He stood up. "The discussion is over. Subject closed. We'll go back to the hotel and end this enjoyable excursion. I'll do my best to keep Manuel from raping you on the way."

He headed through the market toward the exit and when she caught up to him he took her arm, none too gently. "No more of this crap. I'm fed up. This is supposed to be a vacation, for Christ's sake!" Waiting in front of the market, Manuel jumped out of the jeep when he saw them approach. He flashed a smile and reached for Joanna's arm to help her into the back seat but she shuddered and shrank away. He dropped his hand and slid behind the wheel. As though he assessed the situation, he asked

"We go back?" Martin nodded.

When they reached the hotel Joanna hurried into the lobby, not breaking the silence which had lasted during the drive. While he paid Manuel, adding an overly generous tip, Martin wondered if he should offer an apology for Joanna's behavior but he was not certain if he should mention it. "My wife has been ill," he came up with, leaving it at that.

"I too, am married," Manuel said and spread his hands in a gesture dismissing the female sex as unfathomable. "If you need me again, Luis will let me know. Gracias, senor, and adios." Back in the room Joanna sat on the balcony, an unopened paperback book in her lap. When Martin appeared she refused to look at him. "Manuel is wondering if we'll need him again," he said. "I suppose our plans are indefinite?"

She gave a short laugh. "Are his plans also indefinite? An unscheduled rape or two?"

"You're going to have to calm down," he said flatly. "Manuel is just another poor bastard trying to make a living." He slumped over the railing, staring down at the beach. A scattering of sun worshipers lay supine on the sand, bodies gleaming with oil; a group of children ventured up to their knees in the surf, shrieking as the waves chased them back to shore. Down the beach a combo in an open-air café played rock and roll. It was festive; all in the holiday spirit, except to him and to Joanna. To them it meant nothing at all.

He turned and looked at her. "So should we go home? Pack up and get the hell out of here?"

"I don't suppose you mean that."

"I do mean it! I've about had it!" He was surprised by the intensity of his anger. "We'll discuss it later."

But later there was nothing more to be said. He had given the effort his best shot and it had failed. During the evening he retreated, unwilling to look at her or make an effort at conversation during dinner.

In the morning when Luis approached their breakfast table, Martin anticipated his question. "We won't be needing Manuel," he told him. "I'm sorry."

Luis raised his eyebrows. "I will tell him. He has inquired about you," and summoned by the shrilling of the telephone at the desk, hurried away. When they returned to their room she confronted him as soon as he closed the door. "So that man has inquired about us! Inquired!" She hurled the words as an accusation. "You don't see the significance in that? In this insistence to know about us?

"Why didn't you let me bring the goddamned gun! Are you hoping he'll try again and finish the job you interrupted?" She stared at him with hate.

"You can just go to hell! I don't need you! I can take care of myself!"

"As you please." He left the room, slamming the door behind him. The day stretched ahead of him, endless and lonely. He had a solitary lunch at a flyblown restaurant not far from the hotel, hoping the time spent away from Joanna would give him a breathing spell but she refused to leave his mind. Afterwards he walked for miles and eventually reached the village. At the marketplace he sat beside the river, waiting for nothing, emptiness inside him. It grew late and the vendors shuttered their stalls, the women with their string bags moved away one by one; the temperature dropped and the sun disappeared into a copper-colored ocean.

He hailed a taxi cruising past the market and rode back to the hotel, but still not ready to return to their room, walked down the beach to an outcropping of rock where he sat for hours, smoking and staring out at the darkened sea.

He accepted now that Joanna was losing all touch with reality. The decisions he must make gave him pain he was not sure he could handle. He considered what must be done ­ a flight back to Los Angeles as soon as possible; a call to her doctor, arrangements for her admission to a hospital. He winced. Mental illness. His wife, his Joanna.

It was dark when he returned to the hotel, walking slowly along the deserted beach. Waves lapped noisily against the shore; there was no moon, no stars, and against the blackness, strings of colored lights outlined the terrace of the hotel. He passed the dining room where only a few tables remained occupied at this hour. He had not realized it was so late and abruptly stricken by conscience at his neglect of Joanna, he hurried to the room.

It was in darkness, Joanna a small mound curled up on the bed. In the light that came through the balcony doors he could see her open suitcase, partially packed. Spread out on the night table beside her were the trinkets she had bought at the market. A key chain, an enameled pin, a letter opener, a lace fan. Nothing special.

While he stood looking at her and the assortment of small treasures, he marveled that in many ways she was still a child. Softly he called her name but she did not stir. She had been packing. Had she accepted his decision that they leave? Or did she intend to leave without him? He was sorry, so sorry. He paused, certain she awake, then left the room.

Although he was not much of a drinker, on impulse he went in search of the hotel bar. He found it on the far side of the lobby, a small lounge, blue with smoke, one of the tables occupied by a half dozen members of a tour group. They looked to be having a festive time and acknowledged his appearance with jovial waves. Hoping they would not ask him to join their party, he chose a stool at the far end of the bar. He was surprised to recognize Luis doing double duty as bartender.

"Senor Maxwell! You are enjoying your holiday? What may I offer you?" Luis whisked a damp rag over the bar. "What is your pleasure?"

He started to order beer but changed his mind. He needed something stronger this night. "Tequila," he said. "Straight." A shot glass and a wedge of lime appeared and he downed the tequila, making a face, cutting the taste with a squeeze of lime. "Again."

"The Senora Maxwell is feeling better?" Luis raised the bottle and poured. With the second drink the knot in his stomach had begun to ease; he welcomed the friendly face, the sound of a sympathetic voice. "Not really." he said. "I'm afraid we must leave."

"But you have booked for the full week! It is in the register!"

Martin shrugged. "We do what we must do." He pointed to the tequila bottle, then to show off his meager command of Spanish, "Un vez mas, amigo!"

A whistle from the tourists sent Luis over to the tables; the tequila bottle standing on the bar remained as an invitation. Martin had no notion of time when he slid from the stool and made an unsteady way down the corridor to the room. It had been years since he had indulged to such an extent and he managed to fit the door key into the lock only after several attempts. A sliver of moon was behind a bank of clouds and the room was in near darkness as he stumbled inside, shushing himself foolishly as he tiptoed over to the bed.

In an alcoholic fog, he leaned over the still form of his wife. Her movement was swift. He never saw the small hand flash to the souvenir letter opener on the nightstand. As it plunged deep into his throat it triggered his final incredulous thought: what an insane way this was to end a vacation.

Elizabeth Schambacher is a former Southern California newspaper copy editor and travel writer. Now she writes fiction - with the accent on whodunits. She also devotes sporadic efforts to interest an agent in this swell mystery novel about a frustrated old gal who plots to snuff the primo stud in a Mexican village.
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