"An invigorating challenge. The reader indeed finds in it entertainment, emotions and intrigue, but also reflection and thought on grave issues."—Lluís Satorras, Babelia
Riddled with problems, Joanes has to travel to the Mayan Ribera to attend his father-in-law's new wedding. There, forced to leave the hotel due to a hurricane alert, on his trip toward safer ground he has a chance encounter with an old college professor, whom he blames for the failure of his career. It will be Joanes' opportunity to settle accounts with him.
Jon Bilbao is a Spanish literary writer and translator who lives in Bilbao, Spain.
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Read an Excerpt
The animals were hiding, or perhaps they sensed what was coming and had fled inland looking for refuge. Since arriving in Mexico, Joanes had only seen birdsraucous and all pervasiveand large-footed geckos that loitered around the hotel swimming pool. Not one sign of the anacondas, jaguars or monkeys that he’d hoped to find showing off for him from the tops of knotty branches.
Nor was the vegetation how he’d imagined it; by no means did the picture correspond to his idea of the jungle. There were no trees blocking the light of the sun, no vines or orchids flowering from the crevices in the tree trunks. Instead, what he found was a thick, unvarying vegetation covered in dust from the highway traffic and no more than five or six meters in height; a tangle of stunted trees and creepers that looked more like overgrown weeds than tropical jungle.
He was driving south on the highway that stretches across the east coast of Yucatán and connects the towns along the Mayan Riviera. With the window down and his elbow resting against it, he divided his attention between the highway and the sky. He studied the bank of clouds over to the east above the island of Cozumel looking for some change in them; clouds identical to those he’d seen over the last few days: innocuous, greenish at their farthest point, and in no way suggestive of an advancing hurricane.
Two hours earlier his father-in-law had pounded on the door to the room where Joanes, his wife and daughter were packing their cases.
Let’s grab a sauna,” he said when Joanes opened the door, We’ll loosen up a bit and forget all about this damn hurricane.”
It was more an order than an invitation. This was how his father-in-law asked for things.
Do we have time?”
On the edge of the conversation, Joanes’ wife went on folding and putting away their clothes, and his father-in-law directed his comments exclusively to Joanes. He knew he was trapped.
Sure you want to!” his father-in-law burst out. His rotund figure, two meters in height and 120 kilos, filled the doorframe. Let’s take a sauna. Then we’ll file onto these damn coaches and get out of here.”
The coaches were going to transfer the hotel guests to new lodgings in Valladolid, further inland on the peninsula, where they’d stay until the hurricane had passed.
I still have to get my things together,” said Joanes.
But his father-in-law wasn’t going to let him get away. He answered as if he hadn’t heard him.
Move your ass! I’ve already greased the sauna guy’s palms. He’s scramming too, and I had a hard time convincing him to heat up the sauna so late.”
The sauna was, in fact, a typical Mexican temazcal bath. Right next to the pool there was a small, dome-shaped adobe construction that looked like an igloo or a bread oven. You entered by a door so tiny you had to crawl in on all fours; so tiny the father-in-law’s great carcass almost got stuck in it. From outside, Joanes spent a moment considering how that fat, tan, hairless ass, only partially covered by his yellow Speedos, would fight its way through the door. He averted his gaze. With considerable effort, huffing and puffing, pleas for help, and reproaches directed at the temazcalero who was inside prepared the fire, his father-in-law finally squeezed through the door.
Inside, the roof was little more than a meter high. Joanes and his father-in-law settled themselves as best they could on the bench skirting the circular wall. On the ground, the temazcalero stoked the wood fire before placing a few porous stones over the burning logs. Once they were well and truly piping he poured an infusion of aromatic herbs over them, releasing an eruption of steam.
You done?” asked Joanes’ father-in-law.
Then leave us to it.”
I’m supposed to control the steam, sir.”
Forget about it. Leave us in private.”
But it’s part of the custom,” insisted the temazcalero.
So I have to pay you to take a hike, too, do I? Get out of here. I’ll tell you when we’re done.”
The temazcalero sulked and slipped out through the tiny door. Once they were alone, Joanes father-in-law smiled and placed a moist hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder.
How’s all that going?”
Joanes, sweating and with his head bent and his elbows resting on his knees, looked up.
How’s what going?”
Your thing. The deal you’ve got going on.”
Joanes looked at him through the cloud of steam. He had absolutely no desire to answer.
My daughter told me everything,” explained his father-in-law.
Joanes could guess what had happened. His father-in-law would have used his usual interrogation tactics: a well-shaken cocktail of paternal concern, inquisitive interest, petulance and overbearingness. And she’d have been left no option but to sling the beast a hunk of meat to appease him. What with her father having financially supported them over the last years, she had no choice. And what’s more, he had covered the cost of this trip; a trip that neither Joanes, his wife or their daughter had wanted to make.
Joanes’ father-in-law was a painter. His work was sufficiently well recognized for two of his paintings to form part of the Saatchi collection. Oil paintings in earthen tones were his forte; he plastered the canvas with ochre tones, reds and browns, uniformly colored areas, then played with the texture mixing gravel and bits of bark and small twigs in with the paint. On top of all of this he would fix a few small squares of felt in black, grays and white. The result, when you looked at it from far enough away, evoked aerial photographs of devastated or deserted landscapes where the rectangles looked like the outlines of edifices lost in the earthy immensity. The color of the felt cuttings, the number of them, and the way in which they were distributed on the canvas defined the different phases of his work.
Six months earlier, the celebrated painter and widower of ten years had surprised the family with the announcement of his shotgun engagement to be married. He’d met a girl in the tan salon where he went twice a week. She worked there. At the end of each session, she would go into the individual cabins with a disinfectant aerosol and a kitchen roll and clean the sun bed for the next client. She was twenty years his junior, didn’t have a clue about painting, had a subscription to an online personalized horoscope and held a lifelong dream of getting married in Cancun with the turquoise blue of the Caribbean as a backdrop.
What can you do,” his father-in-law had said, shrugging his shoulders. The girl has a whim.”
A few days later he’d called to let them know the date for the wedding and that he’d reserved the flights and hotel for everyone. It was going to be an intimate affair. Immediate family only. All the costs would be taken care of by him. The wedding was set for end of August when it would be summer vacation for both his granddaughter and his daughter, who taught philosophy of science at a university. Last but not least, he took it as a given that his son-in-law put any obligations to his flailing air-con business on hold for a few days.
The ceremony and subsequent banquet had been a succession of kitsch scenes, one after the other, all teeth-grindingly tasteless for anyone with the slightest aesthetic sensibility. The pièce de résistance had been the arrival of the cake, which came down from the ceiling on a platform, accompanied by a carefully choreographed laser show.
They announced the impending hurricane that very night. The newlyweds had arranged for themselves and their guests to stay on in Cancun for a few days, but under the new circumstances had been forced to change their plans. They hadn’t, however, counted on the influx tourists, all of them desperate to fly out, sending the airport into total meltdown. There’d been no way to bring forward the return flight.
Joanes wiped the sweat from his brow, putting off answering. His father-in-law seemed to have expanded in the heat, his butt cheeks spilling over the brick bench.
We still haven’t signed the contract,” he said.
His father-in-law said nothing and waited for details.
There are still a few points to clear up.”
My daughter says that everything that needed to be clear up has been.”
What’s the problem?”
Joanes held in a sigh.
It’s a complicated deal.”
Lucrative, too, according to my daughter.”
Joanes nodded; a brief, understated gesture, barely visible in the pungent steam.
I’d like you to be a little more specific,” asked his father-in-law.
I’d prefer not to talk about it for now.”
You think I don’t know that? And yet, I’m concerned about the wellbeing of my daughter and granddaughter, so tell me something I want to hear.”
You don’t need to be concerned about your daughter or granddaughter.
Don’t tell me what should or should not concern me, my boy.”
So let it concern you all you want, just let me take care of them.”
The father-in-law leaned in toward Joanes.
My boy, you don’t ask me not to take care of them. When are you going to sign the contract?”
It’s in their hands.”
That’s more like it. Now clarify soon’.”
Weeks. Or days. It might have already been wrapped up if I hadn’t had to come to your wedding.”
The father-in-law took this blow without so much as batting an eyelid.
Weeks or days,” he said, chewing over the words. Do you need me to throw you a bone till then? I can paint you a couple of works. It won’t take me long. At this stage in the game I can do them with my eyes closed.”
That was how his father-in-law helped them: with paintings which they then sold. He would show up at their house unannounced, rest the canvas ceremoniously against the back of the sofa and wait for the family’s response, in particular that of his son-in-law. Expressing an opinion on modern art was, for Joanes, like having to speak in an unknown foreign language. His incomprehension couldn’t be blamed solely on his limited artistic knowledge, but rather was rooted in the very depths of his being. It didn’t help that all his father-in-laws works looked the same to him, nor did his incredulity and irritation at the price fetched for a few depressing, monotonous paintings that crumbled away like the façade of an old building and that left his sofa covered in gravel and spongy paint-soaked woodchips. Under the delighted gaze of his father-in-law, Joanes did his best to say something that didn’t come across as altogether dumb and which could also pass for a thank you.
No problem,” his father-in-law would respond, patting him on the back. Then he would kiss his daughter and granddaughter and leave again, triumphant.
A few days later he would call to find out how much they’d sold the painting for, and without fail, no matter what the amount, he would find it insultingly low. Then he’d rant and rave insisting he didn’t know why he bothered to try to help when they were determined to undersell his work, whose value they either failed to acknowledge or were incapable of appreciating. Finally, he would vow never to give them another painting.
And more often than not he stuck to his guns, until a few months later when he’d turn up at their house, a new canvas in hand.
Thanks,” said Joanes, but there’s no need.”
Joanes nodded and looked away from his father-in-law, who now had torrents sweat pouring from his shoulders and belly.
The sound of hurried steps and voices outside could be heard through the adobe wall. The hotel staff and guests were making their final preparations for the evacuation. The hurricane, nicknamed Gerald by the Miami Meteorology Service, was approaching Mexico and picking up energy from the mild Caribbean waters. If their predictions were right, the hurricane would hit the Yucatán peninsula around the island of Cozumel. By this point it would be a Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The hope was that having hit land it would then shift northeast, sweeping the coastline before heading off into the Golf of Mexico. The Civil Guard declared an orange alert; the hurricane would reach land within the next 24 hours, by tomorrow afternoon.
How are your girls?” his father-in-law asked. Nervous?”
More like mad because they can’t go home. And your wife?”
She’s spent the afternoon glued to her computer, chatting with her astrologer. She thinks the hurricane is a bad omen for our marriage.”
Joanes refrained from commenting.
I’ve spoken to the receptionist,” said the father-in-law. From what it looks like, this hotel they’re sending us to doesn’t exactly have rooms to spare. We’re going to have to share.”
Us five. Two double beds and a camp bed for the girl,” he added.
Joanes wiped more sweat from his face.
It’ll only be for a few days,” he said, speaking more to himself than to his father-in-law, who guffawed, then cleared his throat and spat on the stones on top of the fire. His spittle evaporated into steam.
I doubt it very much, my boy. The receptionist told me that the hotels along the coast are basically uninhabitable after a hurricane. And the last two times, Cancun airport was out of service for quite a while. A whole host of tourists were trapped in the refuge hotels for weeks. And they were the lucky guys. Others were forced to stay in schools, garages, warehouses ”
Joanes couldn’t listen to anymore. He crept outside without so much as a goodbye. His father-in-law asked him where in the hell he thought he was going and demanded he come back inside, but Joanes didn’t pay him any attention.
He stood leaning against the adobe dome. After the steam bath, even the suffocating air outside seemed cool. Inside the oven, his father-in-law, who couldn’t get through the tiny door by himself, shouted for help. Two maintenance men looked at Joanes. One of them asked if everything was alright and he nodded. They were working next to the pool. The water had been drained to a third of its usual depth and flung in sun loungers and other waterproof furniture. They’d be better protected from the wind and the rain there than in any other place.
His wife and daughter were quarrelling and didn’t even notice when he entered the room. His wife was waving a piece of paper in front the girl’s face. It was a document from the hotel outlining the measures they were supposed to take.
It says here that in the event of a hurricane you have to dress in white.”
Mom, I one hundred percent refuse to wear anything white. It’s a matter of principles. You know this,” said the girl unequivocally. I don’t even own anything white. Not even panties.”
I can lend you something of mine.”
The girl’s bangs fell over her eyes. She parted them in a theatrical gesture of boredom. Her hair was black and shone like a beetle’s armor. She was wearing a t-shirt (also black), jeans ripped at the knee (her only concession to the tropical climate) and some fuchsia Converse sneakers decorated with hand-drawn black flies. She closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. The request was completely non-negotiable.
Realizing this, her mother huffed and turned, and that’s when she noticed her husband.
Back already? Did the sauna help you unwind a little?”
Dad, you’re soaked,” said the girl with a look of repulsion. Don’t you wanna, like, take a shower or something?”
Sure do,” he said, and entered the bathroom. He emerged a few minutes later patting himself dry with a towel which he then flung in a corner. He put on the first polo shirt he came across in a heap of his clothes and grabbed his wallet, his satellite cellular phone and the car keys.
Where are you going?” asked his wife. The coaches are coming to collect us in a couple of hours.”
I need to get some air. Throw the rest of my things together, will you?”
And before leaving, he added:
I’ll be back in time.”
A minute later, he was on the highway.