The brown man smiled. “Me too, Yankee. Me American, too.” He gestured around with a shaky hand. The one holding the rifle was steady. “El Mundo Nuevo, eh?”
He faded into the shadows of the jungle cabin chuckling. Ted’s grin collapsed into a scowl more suited to his face. The woman remained before him. She stared at him with hard midnight eyes while Ted swore bitterly. She understood, he knew it, but she dismissed him with silence. After some long moments the woman followed her husband into the shelter, slamming what time had spared of the door. Alone on the porch, hungover as hell, he looked down at the spot where he’d slept the previous night.
The clack of the latch was punctuation on his sentence, exile. “Indian bitch!” A delayed reflex of anger drew his 9mm before remembering that he had no bullets for it. Glassy-eyed, staggering, he waved the pistol pathetically. His shoulders sank and he holstered the gun. He was done here.
The late-morning sun was beginning to penetrate the canopy, heating the ground and raising a tactile funk in the air. Ted shifted his bag to calm the itching of sweat on his shoulders as he walked. His hair was wet and flat and his glasses were sliding down his nose. “Rains my ass.” He halted for a slug of water from his canteen and glanced at the old man’s cabin thirty yards back through the trees.
He’d met Rudi the previous day on a trail not far off of the main road through this part of the jungle. The aged Peruvian was walking alongside his donkey, both of them heavily burdened with canvas sacks full of leaves. Ted had a hunch.
The sun-cured man wore coarse linen and a wide-brimmed hat. He grinned.
“Coca, si. Yankee?”
“Well den Yankee.” The man fetched a fistful of leaves from his sack and popped two into his mouth. The rest were presented to Ted. The lean, tattooed American accepted. The donkey approached him unsteadily and nuzzled his shoulder with affection. The old man was delighted. “He hates gringos!” He seemed genuinely amazed. Thus began a simple conversation along the trail, filled with laughter at each other’s broken English and shattered Spanish.
Rudi invited the adventurer back to his home where they spent the evening and most of the night chewing coca leaves and drinking a spirit distilled by the locals. By sundown Ted was finishing his second jarful of drink when there was a commotion at the door.
“My wife, Margareta,” said Rudi as a dark woman burst through the door carrying a large basket of produce. Noticing the stranger, her face rapidly flashed through surprise, fear, puzzlement, annoyance.
“Quien es?” she demanded. “Who’s this?”
“Our guest, who is very thirsty, eh?” Rudi motioned to their jars with expectantly arched eyebrows.
“Teddy Brando,” offered the tipsy Yank, hand outstretched in mock formality. She stared.
Margareta threw down her harvest and advanced on her man. Ted feared for the old man’s last few teeth. She merely gave Rudi a playful whack on the back of the head and winked at Ted, then retrieved the jug of lubricant from the counter along with a third jar. Ted studied her as she poured three oversized portions. She was short and dirty and had muscles like a man. The narrow face and broad shoulders, tight waist and thick legs; his Cali-Coast taste told Ted that she didn’t fit together properly, but there was an indifference and honesty in her movements that he found pleasing, if not quite attractive. She smiled young, though, seeming much younger than her husband. Ted would have been forced to give-or-take fifteen years to guess either of their ages anyway.
The earthy jungle moonshine was slowly coating Ted’s vision in a sticky primordial syrup, making the contents of the single room snicker with each flicker of the lantern’s flame. All of the wood furniture was worn smooth by generations of use and seemed to grow right out of the plank floor. An old stove of blackened iron held court over the room from one corner, sided by a lasciviously leaning cabinet, doors whorishly ajar, like a prostitute’s plunging neckline drawing guilty glances at shadowy wares. As the jars emptied, Ted was less and less offended by the odor of the donkey housed in an adjacent lean-to. The mingling man and beast smells seemed appropriate to this world. This was how real people lived.
Rudi’s stories were well rehearsed. He unwound narratives of oppression, revolution, and betrayal forever cycling in a restless portion of the world. He spoke mechanically and without strong emotion, just shades of weariness and regret for having survived so many tales and therefore having to endlessly repeat them. Often in his stories he paused and gestured to an ancient rifle hanging near the door with a reverence that was lost on Ted, who understood only fragments of the bilingual tales. Margareta seemed bored.
Ted was floating on moonbeams and bravado. He told them of his travels around the world on adventurous vacations, visiting foreign lands and learning many things of the world. He even told a couple spiced-up versions of some of his Special Forces exploits, the ones he wasn’t supposed to ever repeat. His boasting wandered the Gobi, conquered Mediterranean volcanoes, island-hopped Samoan empires, overthrew penny despots and tyrants and finally arrived at his more recent travails. Rudi was sympathetic as Ted explained how the guide referred to him by the Tourism Board led him for hours into the wilderness and then demanded extra money, only to disappear into the thick forest when Ted drew a hidden gun as a reply. More than a novice survivalist, Ted had no worries about finding the road again, but he had run out of daylight. He was forced to make camp alone in the jungle. There was little kindling dry enough to fuel a fire and he spent the night huddled over a hissing pile of coals the size of his fist.
Rudi tittered and shook when the American tough confessed the panic that had risen in him as he was ambushed by the din of the howling Peruvian night. His mind could not reconcile the darkness with the teeming metropolis he was hearing around him. The old man fell laughing at Ted’s admission that he had fired his pistol blindly into the bush hoping to kill every scurrying phantom, until he ran out of ammunition many hours before dawn. Margareta, who’d appeared asleep for an hour, sat up and laughed openly. Ted applied his most menacing barfight visage to her corner of the room. The woman was unaffected. Ted began to stew silently and Rudi was forced to retake the reigns of the conversation. Rudi stared through his front door and began to recall yet another chapter of his harsh history, but Ted was no longer listening to his host. He was instead blearily staring Margareta down, trying to show her who she was laughing at. He’d killed, she shouldn’t doubt. He’d killed for a living and been given medals for it. Even an ignorant jungle squaw like her should be able to see he was a killer…
In his anger and humiliation his eyes were fixed on Rudi’s rifle. Its coquettish gleaming entranced him. It was quite a piece. Some geek collector in LA would fall all over himself for it, he was sure. Rudi noticed his fascination. “We fill your pistola tomorrow, Ready Teddy, if rains let us. No worry.” Ted was skeptical of this conditional promise.
“Rains?” He hadn’t seen a single cloud since he’d stepped off the plane. “You get the Weather Channel up here?” He laughed sarcastically.
Rudi was unphased. “Soleese told me.”
“SOLEEEESE!” Rudi jumped to his feet, his face crazy. He grabbed an iron pot from the counter and flung it against the back wall. The crash of the pot was answered by a panicked hun-haww from outside. “Soleese,” said Rudi calmly. He sat back down. “Soleese limped today. The rains will come.” They sat in silence for several minutes.
Ted was startled by a grinning Margareta as she plopped down on a stool beside them, another full jar in her hand. Powerful woman, he thought, from all that work on the mountain I guess. He could admire that hard kind of life. Now, suddenly, there was something about the low lantern flame glistening off the moist brown of her cheeks, the glow of her wet, laughing lips. In her eyes the howling of the jungle sang him different promises. Ted’s brow softened as he stumbled into something akin to love. Another gulp and he careened into an intoxicated desire to own her, to be owned and dissolved into her primitive soul through her primitive body. In his imagination he embraced the feral churnings of her work-strong hips against him in animalistic throes, her awkward teeth gnashing incantations of passionate monsoons, until they were driven raving through the alien hinterland. Teach me to survive the wild jungles of night, O Mestiza!
Margareta saw this change in him and began giggling. Again, her mirth at his vulnerability made him feel ashamed of his desires, of his fundamental un-jungleness. Head swimming in the weakness of his need, he inwardly raged at her with a dizzy hate enhanced by his own self-loathing. She’d tricked him! Gulping sloppily, he wanted to humiliate her, as she had humiliated him. He needed to show her how weak and stupid she was for not pleading for his protection. That old man… That old lecher! He couldn’t take care of a woman like her! Couldn’t please her! He’d probably sell her to the first sleazy guerrilla to make an offer-
Ted’s posture relaxed and he leaned back against the wall, smiling like a snake.
It had only been a passing thought. You never know the customs of others. Like that time in Cape Town. There’s crazy folks with crazy ways. You never know. Some places, with enough money… A simple inquiry. But it wasn’t a question of how much, was it pal? Besides, it was a joke really. A drunken joke between men. To take it so seriously… It wasn’t necessary for the old fool to translate it to her. Boy, she was right on him like a feral cat. By the time he’d gained advantage and had her pinned Rudi had the rifle down and aimed right at his heart. “No decoracion, senor. Not for show.” The old codger held that gun mighty steady for so many jars of ‘shine. Dizzy-drunk as he was, Ted had known to not fuck around. He’d staggered out the door, feeling the unmistakable prick of polished steel training on his spine up until he heard them bolt the door shut behind him. He took a few long breaths to try to clear his head, but nocturnal Peru was eager to greet him with the full thunder of its life. It pounded his temples with its screeching fists. He had made it only a few steps before his head spun and his knees broke and he folded, heaving violently in front of the shack.
A sting roused Ted from his reverie. A swollen mosquito was feasting on his stenciled bicep. It was nearly the size of Ted’s thumb. It had gotten an early start on the day. Just before he killed it, he felt a kinship with this hunter, this survivor. We feast on flesh, he thought, and he smiled. He raised his hand slowly. The creature, lethargic and blood-drunk, did not react. Ted brought his hand down on his arm with a smack and felt a cool spray on his neck and shoulder. He wiped his arm, smearing the blood across the mouth of a koi fish, watched it trickle over the lips of a tiki and pool at the feet of a row of hot-rods. How much of that blood was mine, you little bastard? He flexed his arm to make the bloody tiki smile. He touched his face gingerly. It felt like she’d managed to give him a black eye, but he had no mirror to check. There were certainly some scratches. He satisfied his crawling back with the bag again and glanced backward at Rudi’s shabby home. The damp scorn of the previous night rose bitter in his mouth and he spat back at the cabin to be rid of the taste.
That self-righteous old ass is nothing but a third-world pimp, and a drug trader to boot. The kindness of strangers, ha! Shoving guns in the backs of civilized folk. Damn savages. I wonder how much he gets for one of those giant sacks of leaves. Hey, maybe I’ll find out, hmmm? Something to do, anyways. Give him something to think about after he sleeps it off and wants to go make a buck for more beans and booze. Just out of sight here, now creep back around. What’s a joke between men? Just swing up that hill around back, and wait. Steeper than I thought, treacherous. Watch it. Damn jungle, crazy overgrown everything. Here, this’ll do. Pack’ll be safe here. Bet it’ll be easy to off the stuff out on the main road. Maybe even for some ammo. A little hair of the dog wouldn’t hurt either. Hey! Fucking bugs everywhere man. Had enough of this place. What’s that? Okay, there she goes, out for water or something it looks like. Probably to peddle her ass to the monkeys. Goddamn animals. Just a piece though… nah, forget it. There’s the bags, just below. Nice of him to leave ‘em out back for me. Would that donkey make any ruckus? Nah, just smack it in the head with a board, that bench there if you have to. Hun haw– Whack! Christ, I can hear the old fuck snoring from up here. Alright, she’ll be out of earshot by now, got to move quick. Swing down like Tarzan, shimmy. Pirouette. Damn, steep man. Slowly now. Watch the loose rocks. Footing’s tricky. Almost there. Got to clear that ditch. Slow down! Shit, wait-