UNITED STATES—In the jungle pervaded a smell of coconut oil. There were plenty of Morenos, many black as a starless night. The train was followed by a plume of black smoke. Sometimes there’d be like raindrops from the sky, or a hot cinder thrown off from the train’s forward advance. Antonio had seen a man blinded that way. He still had one eye. Open against the moon.

Seen from afar, the pylon, the convoy train seemed part of a grandiose parade, a carnival, from which rose an opaque sound of a wild party. We awoke to the harsh tooting of the train whistle. There were piled together all kinds of boxes and handbags and suitcases of all sizes and conditions, brand new American luggage to cardboard boxes wrapped with coarse brown paper. And the big black men hung by the railing, muscles sweating in the sun, seated on the edges with their feet hanging over the edge. And standing leaning against the others, waving their arms and hands spoke loudly. They had to speak loudly planted where they were in vast jungle spaces and sugarcane fields.

“Sometimes you have to rob to keep your riches.”

Drunken people milled drunkenly around the commissary, as they did in all the commissaries in the plantations throughout the isthmus. In the camp, lying in the hammocks, Antonio said with heat; “Don’t mess with the tutile.” There was no way to grab candles for the peje. Pejel lagarto.

You believe it? I’ll take care of this. (It seemed so late already, but time had stretches and elongated.) You know what I am thinking.

I’m not a mind reader, Carlos said.

What are we going to cook for the rest of the month, to eat the best and cheapest. (It was funny, before the gringos came, we had no money and we didn’t think much about it; now that we had it, plenty, it kept us awake at night.) El cabo won’t make you sick, because now we’re working with him. What do you think, Eráclito?

Man you know what. I hadn’t paid attention.

And Eduardo straightened instantly up in his hammock, “You will get used to the heat.” And gestured with his eyes wide open.

I know where you’re taking this, jeese. Now you want me to double in the kitchen every day.

Another cursed opportunity, and the system took away all thought; you simply went where the money was. You followed as a terrier follows a scent. Or you were stupid or a wimp. The system made it so easy, it radicalized to one choice. “Look at me, fools, no way, friends. If we’re cooking it has to be each of us take a turn one day. Then it’s taken care of.

If they’re going to hit me up to cook, just talk to me –he chuckled—but I came here to leave all that at the prison to come in search of green gold.

Next moment we were on our way to Fortuna, with the sackcloth bags that hung off our shoulders and the tarrillo of the savings in our pocket. It was a problem out here, where to hide your stash. Three hours to go to the commissary, sure to be surrounded by drunken people milling in the wet heat.

In the afternoon we reached the Commissary in La Fortuna, and there were two hours of bad sun left. Then it would cool and there would be relief, a quantum of solace. There was a land bridge from the commissary to the train. We climbed the steep steps drenched in sweat from the hike. Ceballos set for a moment on a bench in the airy corridor, we entered with a list in hand of what we came to buy.

The clerk saw a white customer, I rose from my seat behind the counter, reading a cowboy magazine. I hid the magazine. I moved my lips with some annoyance, there’d been no customers from the jungle in hours and I was taken away by the Zane Gray serial.  On the corner, also seated, was a police officer reading a newspaper.

Carlos Caleb, seeing us waiting there like babiecas, left the machete on the counter, saying:

“Well, who the hell mans the counter around here?”

I grumbled some words in English and blinked several times, full of animosity for being taken out of my cowboy adventure. O Lord, we’re but a heartbeat from civil war.

“What do you want?” came out unintentionally harsh. The white guys stammered a moment, blubbered, looking over their supply list, I put my fist on the counter and said, “Make it pronto.”

“What did this Congo say to you?” asked Cabrera in a whisper.

The guy half made out what I had said, clarified:

“We need to take some time with these purchases.”

Then began the most jinxed effort to understand ourselves in a language that wasn’t English or Spanish, aided by grimaces and hand signals.  To ask for soap Cabrera said, after a strenuous effort to construct the sentence:

“Gimmie fifty sense of soap.”

Me, the black man shrugged his shoulders and made a mocking face. Cabrera had to touch his clothes and scrub them on the counter in pantomime to make himself understood. Here in the isthmus the words were retreating, mingling and eroding. Pretty soon there would be no language left.

To be continued…

Grady is the Wizard of Fiction.

Previous articleCelebrity Christmas Trees 2023!
Next articleLASD Searching For Thieves Who Stole From Sephora
Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)