Some stories stick with you. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is one that has stuck with me. Critics admire it for its word economy and for Hemingway's dialogue. The critics are right. The story compels, evokes, and inspires realms beyond the page.
I tested my own skill with word economy and dialogue that says more than the words themselves. I recommend the exercise. Honoring a master is sincere flattery and genuinely instructive.
Fear and Loathing
The waiter showed them to a table overlooking the beach and sea beyond. Rain, heavier than ever in recorded history, carved deep ravines into the sand, now gray and heavy. Water still cut paths down the hills, through the city’s old sewage pipes, and across washed out streets, accumulating grit, stink, and grime with every inch of its descent to the sea.
Fraught with the coming night’s rains, the air clung to them. His knit shirt sported a dark oval extending from his shoulders and disappearing into his pants at the waist. Her blouse, white to bounce back any bright rays that might peep between the ominous clouds overhead, was damp at the scoop neckline. Above, her neck and face burned red as if she had been in the sun too long. They shone, wet with sweat that poured through her hair and dripped from the short pieces at her neck. She mopped them with the cloth napkin that the waiter draped across her lap with fanfare and flourish. He returned to place a large, commercial fan just a few feet from their table. Its rush of air blew directly into her face. She smiled, embarrassed and pathetically grateful at the same time.
The waiter nodded a quick acknowledgement and moved away to collect large, plastic bottles of filtered water. These he opened with all the sweep and grandeur of the finest champagne. She gulped the glass dry, then waited as her husband ordered their drinks. He usually ordered for her, a gesture that she often enjoyed, some throwback to a much earlier time when her father ordered for each member of the family, before her consciousness had been raised and women spoke for themselves.
Across the ugly gray mounds of sand lay the sea against a setting sun. It appeared to be the color of pewter, broken only by powerful waves that pulsed into a crescendo and crashed across the water. At water’s edge, a boy threw a large piece of driftwood for a chocolate Lab. She watched the dog swim hard, farther and farther each throw; she watched his chest heave as he tried to calm his breathing before launching again. The boy never gave him enough time, but the dog splashed and swam without delay. He seemed to love the work, the sheer abandon, and she longed to feel as he did.
Further out, a man swam to his skiff, climbed aboard, and began pulling the outboard engine’s cord once, twice, again and again. He would join the other fishermen in criss-crossing the bay, following in the wake of fish flocking to fend off predators below, unaware that predators approached from above as well. The man and his skiff were silhouettes against the sun so bright that everything seemed to be a negative of itself. She had to turn away. Even here, within the shelter of the palapas, she could feel the sun’s heat, blistering her mind and searing her heart.
“Do you want a beer?”
“I do—make it a Michelado. Make sure the waiter knows to be generous with the Worcestershire, lime, and salt.”
“I know what to say.”
“Of course.” She turned to check the man in his boat, wondering if he had managed to pull the engine to life. He must have. He was gone, the skiff growing smaller and smaller as it raced out to sea. Gone too were the boy and his dog, now just ghosts far and away down the beach where a worker washing dirt and sand from within his restaurant caught her eye. She watched his slow, easy movement, back and forth, nudging the filth across the floor and out onto the sand below the deck. The restaurant where she now sat was on higher ground. It had escaped the mountainous erosion that the rains pushed through this little fishing village. It had not escaped the stench. Everywhere, except their casa, perched on high, was the stink of fetid water. She was even more grateful to the waiter and his gift of a fan.
“No, gracias,” he said, this time to the vendor who had first appeared when they took their seats. Men and women, dressed humbly, in clean but tattered clothes, moved from deck to deck, offering beads strung into necklaces and bracelets, hand-carved monkey wood, and tropical-themed fabrics made into shawls. She wondered if all tourists looked the same to them. The vendors never seemed to tire of asking the same people to buy the same merchandise until those people moved on and were replaced by others who heard the same endless appeals. She tried not to turn brittle, but their constant mewling pleas threatened to spoil her moment out of the sun, a cool steady fan drying all the soggy places on her.
The waiter returned with their drinks—for him tequila, for her a perfect Michelado. It slaked her desperate thirst for something salty. Its spice purged her mouth of its sour film.
She began to read the menu, a pathetic imitation of North American fare, described with all the flair of a cook aspiring to trade up from two to four stars. The grilled artichoke caught her eye. That, at least, seemed to have some kinship with this place. Shrimp ceviche promised to satisfy as well. She told him what to order for her and turned again to the sea, now on fire with the sun disappearing at the horizon.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes, especially so far away—where its heat can’t reach me. It’s so hot here. I can hardly breathe unless I’m in the pool, at the shady end, or asleep, the air conditioner laboring to turn humidity into icicles.”
“I know, but it isn’t always like this.”
“Does it matter? Even one rainy month each year is an intolerable notion: to live nine or ten months dreading the insidious rains.”
“This year is the worst since Mexico began making records. The most rainfall. The most water damage,” he said and repeated, more emphatically, “It isn’t always like this.”
“Everyone says the 100-year flood cycle is 99 years away. They count on it until the water rises. Then they remember that they never knew when to start counting 100 years as they passed. This rainy season may not be the worst. It may only be the first in a long cycle of rainier and wetter seasons. It may be the first of many floods that wash away thriving businesses and open-air markets that everyone counted on. More record-setting seasons could very well be on their way.”
He said nothing and knocked back a shot of tequila, then signaled the waiter for more. He knew that his characteristic optimism had no power over her misery. Usually he just managed to piss her off.
The fan carried the aromas of lighter fluid, charcoal, and sizzling meat to their table. She found she was actually hungry in spite of the occasional cramping down below and the sweltering heat.
Of course, he ordered hamburguesa, just as he did in every restaurant. She wondered why. Back home, they never grilled burgers and rarely ordered one when they went out. He preferred taquerías whenever he could talk her into one, Tex-Mex his back-up plan, yet he didn’t choose Mexican cuisine while in Mexico. She planned to lobby for Asian once they were out of this jungle.
“Let’s drive to the next village after dinner and walk along the beach. It’s more accessible than this one. Cleaner, too. Maybe the market will still be open and we’ll pick up some supplies for the house. We’re low on beer and avocado.”
“Sure, sounds good,” she said without any attempt to fake enthusiasm. The thought of sinking into hot sand, getting sand between her toes, of later walking aisles in the Mega, or searching for shops in the market, stumbling over cobble-stone streets, sweating even after sunset made her nausea flash again. She swallowed it back with cold, bottled water with a spiced beer chaser.
Their food arrived, and she willed herself not to wonder if the artichoke had been washed and if so, in what kind of water. She decided to enjoy its tender parts and the sweet, salty butter, Letting it drip down her fingers. This was worth the wait in spite of the way in which her body warmed to exceed the food’s temperature, nudged along by the alcohol and hot sauces. She began to sprout sweat beads under her eyes.
“Soft teacakes, my ass,” she snarled, wiping mascara and sweat from her face with the damp napkin.
“Harper Lee described ladies in the South as being ‘soft teacakes.’ This far south, the cakes are mush—disgusting. I feel as if mold will start crawling from my nether regions, up my spine and sprout in my hair.”
He laughed. What else could he do? She wasn’t being funny. She was just this side of sweeping everything off the table and screaming. Not that she ever had, but he knew her—better than she herself knew what her capacity for rage was.
In the next village, they drove round and round, up and down, through restaurant row, and along the beach, parking spaces rare and usually reserved for long lines of taxi cabs, all waiting a turn to transport the fat American unaccustomed to walking.
“This place will do. It’s close to the market side streets and the beach.”
“But what if it’s illegal to park here?”
“But how do you know?”
“I know,” and she agreed to believe him although he was, without a doubt, manufacturing knowledge and certainty that did not exist. Resigned, she stepped into the damp heat again and allowed him to take her hand, to lead her onward. He wanted so badly to see her smile, but she would not. She simply searched the ground for hidden stones and feces, afraid that she would stumble and fall into something vile and noxious.
“How can they stand it?”
“The dogs. That one is gaunt—beyond starved. He’s accepted his death. Look at his eyes. He has no hope that anyone will toss him a morsel. Look!”
“The smell of meat on the air doesn't even entice that dog, and the people look through him. He understands that he is worthless. How can parents bear teaching their children to accept suffering, that there is nothing anyone should do to prevent it.”
He pulled her away, down a side street, hoping to see something that would delight her, but it was the same stuff they had passed over in all the other places. Endless, cluttered displays for ceramic suns and moons, pure vanilla in plastic bottles, and colorful garments. None of it had seduced her into letting go of a peso or two. She was worried that they had not brought enough currency. He was sure he could make more appear. He was always sure he could make the impossible possible.
When the market closed and the beach emptied of parents with children, leaving only twenty-somethings to inspire fear in her, they drove back to the casa. She led the way up the steep, ceramic tiled steps, her left hand tracing the rough walls surrounding the grounds and fortifying the house against intruders. She feared that her fingers would brush against a lizard or spider, but she could not let go. She had vertigo here—in this dense, ancient jungle. The dark clouds above, filling, ever filling with the night’s rains, blocked even the faintest starlight, and the heavy air made the steps slick. She walked tenderly as if she had been injured. He touched her back now and then, and she wondered if he was urging her on or trying to comfort her.
Upon finding the aged wood gate and rusty lock at the garden entrance, she relaxed, knowing that only twelve more steps rose between this entry and the flat Mexican tiles surrounding the house’s open-air kitchen, pool, and separate bedroom building beyond. She was almost on solid ground. She had almost navigated the treachery of this place without injury once more.
Locked inside the bedroom, she turned the air conditioner on to its highest setting and let the light flood the room. High upon the wall, she found El Diablo, as she called him, just outside the grotesque horned mask that was supposed to ward off evil. Instead it was the obvious home of the most evil-looking spider she had ever seen. Enormous, at least as large as the palm of her hand. She hoped that it enjoyed a steady diet of mosquitoes and would grow fat before she left. Perhaps then, they would leave her blood alone. Perhaps then, she would avoid dengue, the fever flourishing in these parts.
Before falling asleep, they made love again. This place made him randy, and he was such a wonderful lover. He never left her wanting so she never wanted him to want. Still, making love was not something she sought. She just wanted to lie still, cool air translating her sweat into chills, forcing her under the thin coverlet, her rump against him, his heat warming her and making all of Mexico go away as she slept.
That night, the storms were ferocious. Thunder rumbled softly in the distance while water sheeted outside the sliding glass doors. She watched it penetrate the surface of the pool and wondered again why the pool did not run over. So much rain, falling so fast. Surely those drains dumping onto the mountain side could not handle the floods, but they did. Every night, they did.
When the air conditioner stopped droning and emitted three, high-pitched beeps, she knew the electricity was out again. She lay still, listening to him breathe, then reached for the flashlight 23and switched it on to find her shoes, check them for creatures, and shuffle to the windows. After so many nights, she had no trouble working the latches and opening the glass to let screens filter the creatures hovering under the thatched roof. Something up there kicked out dirt and rotted thatch every day, mid-morning. Perhaps one of those huge red-eyed crabs that lived behind the kitchen door or some stealthy lizard, exponentially larger than the geckos that surprised her as she reached for a towel or bent to wash her face.
She opened the glass doors and slammed the screens into place, locking them down with the sliders into the floor. She had no illusions that these sliders were any match for machetes, but she hoped no one was interested enough in Gringos to brave the rain and steep slippery steps, the slick tiles.
He still slept soundly, beginning to snore lightly. She pushed his shoulder so that he would roll over onto his side, then she backed up to him even though his body heat would fuel her own. She needed him close. For all his faults, and they were legion, he loved her, but more important than love right now, he carried the scent of home, of language she did not have to translate or even respond to if she didn’t feel like it. He was at home here, but he was her home there, and there is where she longed to be.
At some point, she drifted into sleep, her fists relaxing into a supplicant’s hands until she heard the mountain give way with an enormous crack like the mightiest bat against a ball.
“Wake up!” She pummeled him. “Mud! Avalanche! We’ll be buried alive!”
He woke, startled and alert. She grabbed the flashlight, her purse, slid into shoes, and began tugging at those sliders.
From behind her, still in the bed, he said, “It’s lightning. Thunder. You heard the storm.”
She whirled to fight for their lives, but he was right, of course. An avalanche wouldn't crack just one time. An avalanche would rumble, roar, and gloat.
So she began to cry. The sob that had ridden in her throat all night, threatening to choke her, crawled forth. She bent with it, yielded to its will and cried until dawn. He couldn't console her, and she hated him because he could not.