Just three or four feet away, the stream spilled over the cliff and the water cascaded down another 300 feet below. Jerry stood at the edge and leaned over to take a picture. He held the small digital camera out at his skinny arm’s length and aimed it over the precipice. “This is spectacular!” he shouted over the roar of the water. A strong breeze that tugged at Madge’s curly red hair, added to the strong hum in her ears. The river spilled into a long deep valley that seemed to stretch for miles as it widened between two steep green mountain ranges. “Come on.” He motioned to his wife to step closer to the rocky edge so she could see the water fall below. “Come on, baby. There’s a rainbow in the spray. You gotta see this.”
Madge could not do it. She could not put herself in that position. No matter how much her husband coaxed her to a better view, she was frozen in a spot several paces away from the edge. “I’m afraid of heights,” she said to explain her reluctance, which was true to a certain extent. However, it was more than a case of acrophobia. No matter, how well the last day and a half had gone—and it had seemed to go well; she could not take another step.
Jerry sung along to an Elton John CD as he steered up the curving road to Santa Fe. At points, they faced rocky walls rising from each side of the road; at other points one side or the other fell off just a few feet from the asphalt down to yet another dizzy deep valley below. Every shade of green from almost yellow to deep verdant soaked up the sunlight. Across the valleys, ridge after ridge of blue-green mountain ranges faded into the clouds in the distance. Madge had to agree when Jerry said that it was “one of the most beautiful drives” they had ever taken.
The little town of Santa Fe, which had been founded by Conquistadors looking for gold way back in 1571, nestled in a forest that crowned a mountain at 6,000 feet. Taller peaks stood off in the distance. They got a room in a hostel that had bamboo walls, a broad second floor porch with two or three cats lounging on the barrister. Even a haze of drizzle as evening approached did not spoil an ambience of casual, bucolic warmth. The innkeeper, a French woman with a cigarette hanging from her lip, fixed them a dinner of pork chops and Spanish rice. Jerry and Madge polished off a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and went to bed under mosquito netting. With a light breeze blowing through the spaces between the bamboo slats, that also allowed a buzz of bugs, Jerry was snoring within minutes.
The next morning came early. Before sunrise, maybe around five a.m., the peaceful starry darkness was interrupted by an explosion of shrill screams. Both Madge and Jerry sat up in bed and in shock as what sounded like 4,000 roosters shouted to each other. When it dawned on them what was happening, both laughed out loud. “Well, we don’t have to worry if our little alarm clock goes off or not,” Jerry said. Their travel alarm had never been reliable. Madge smiled back, even though she was surprised that her husband wasn’t furious. Jerry had never been a good sport since she married him. This was unusual and did nothing to make her feel any more at ease. Maybe if he had said fuck or something, but laughing off being rudely awakened a good two hours early was not normal. Even after a breakfast of bacon and eggs—Jerry joked about not being surprised that “the eggs were fresh in the chicken capitol of the world”—Madge felt uneasy, off balance, not dizzy exactly, but out of kilter, in another dimension. It was as if a very capable imposter had taken over Jerry’s thin, tense body. Of course that wasn’t possible, so she remained on guard, wondering when the real Jerry would come out from behind his jovial mask.
After breakfast, they put on their hiking shoes, applied a slick coat of sun block on their exposed arms, ears and necks and sprayed all over with Off bug repellent. After about an hour of a steady, steep-at-times climb, they had come to the waterfall, and that was where Madge stood paralyzed not by fear exactly but by uncertainty, doubt. Jerry was smiling, a plastered-on salesman smile that Madge did not trust. Madge did not trust her husband and pulled her wrist away when he tried to grab hold.
“I’m afraid,” she said. Like a cloud passing in front of a mountain peak, a stern look of recognition crossed Jerry’s pinched smile, which looked for a moment like a grimace. If he had persisted for another moment or two, Madge may have turned to run away, but he didn’t. “Okay, okay,” Jerry said sounding cross but calm. “You’ll have to be satisfied with the pictures, but you’re missing a chance of a lifetime.”
Everything Jerry said lately came across as double entendres to Madge, who backed off slowly as if not to incite an attack that she wasn’t at all sure was actually coming. A chance of a lifetime. Had she just saved her own life, denied her husband a chance to stage what would have appeared to be an accident without anyone to witness or know for sure what had happened? She had spent a lifetime, with a man she now realized she could not trust. At that moment, as Madge pushed her glasses back up her nose and turned to scuttle back down the path, she realized that as far as she was concerned their marriage was over. It didn’t matter that she had no proof of intent on Jerry’s part to do her harm. It didn’t matter that he had not actually pushed her over the edge. It was at once much more complicated than that and actually rather simple. She didn’t trust him. It was okay that she would never know for sure if she had come close or not. It was better that she didn’t have to pull her arm out of his grasp and fight for survival. The moment had passed and she was safe. A lifetime of slights; of outbursts of temper; of sneered jokes; of angry body language; of self doubt and guilt that she was somehow unworthy or lacking; had finally pushed Madge to another edge, almost as scary, but much less uncertain. Before they arrived back at the lodge, Madge knew that she would still have to be careful, but that she was going to leave Jerry.
Mitch didn’t know what to do. For a while he tried to play solitaire on the computer but had trouble paying attention. Throughout his career, he had always been a busy guy, teaching, coaching being an administrator. Retirement was supposed be a time when a person took it easy—didn’t have to be at school by 7 a.m. ahead of the teachers and students, who would dedicate their days to screwing up the schedule with disputes, sometimes petty and occasionally major. No more pressure to win games; help silly boys stay academically eligible and out of trouble; or keep up with coaching trends from run-and-gun to zone defense. The accepted retirement picture was a wise old guy sitting peacefully on a rocking chair, reflecting back on a life well lived. The past life seemed okay to Mitch, lucky even. Never drafted for the Vietnam War, Mitch was free to pursue his chosen career as a history teacher and basketball coach. If the truth be known, he went into teaching so he could coach. He wasn’t bad either, won a couple of county championships. Even though he never made it past the semi-finals in the states, he had a winning record.
He had become an administrator because it seemed like the logical progression in a career in education. However he never really enjoyed being thrust in the middle of one problem after the other; whether it was a discipline problem, when the teachers seemed out of line about a third of the time; or a problem with the air conditioning that never seemed to be properly maintained and consistently failed to be ready for the first heat wave or would break down half way through summer school. Mitch thought that being a vice principal would have a certain degree of prestige. Wrong. There was never a time when somebody; a weak whiney teacher; the cheerleading sponsor; a student caught cheating; the head of the janitorial staff; parents furious with the grades their precious little brats were earning; the drama teacher (often) or glee club adviser; some functionary from the school board with a hidden agenda; but always somebody hated him. So what about the principal? In his last ten years, he had worked with (for) three— a good ol’boy who was simply waiting out his tenure until he retired; a distracted woman, who had no idea what Mitch was doing; and a manipulative younger (by about ten years) go-getter, who routinely dumped all the unpleasant situations into Mitch’s lap and then neglected to give credit where credit was due. If things turned out well, this guy would take his bows; if not, Mitch would take his lumps, enough that he was never seriously considered for a principalship. At the time Mitch was eligible to retire, it seemed like a good idea.
Barb and he had always been considered a happy couple. Often friends would congratulate them for being married for longer than the average, in some cases way longer; and why not. Barb and he always got along well, made allowances for real or perceived short comings. They suffered through the small stuff together. Mitch never left his socks lying around, but if he had that would not have been enough to send Barb packing. Barb wasn’t much of a house keeper. There were always dust balls in the corners and spots on the glasses, but she was a good cook and a lovely companion. Barb never missed a basketball game and Mitch never forgot her birthday or their anniversary or even the anniversary of their first date. In fact both of them made sure that a big deal was made—dinner out at a fancy restaurant or a weekend at a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains.
Neither had been at all worried about not having children. If that was self-centered, then both had made the decision. Their biological clocks never sounded an alarm. Neither blamed the other. Instead each took care of hundreds, maybe thousands of other people’s kids, from all stars to criminals. The point was that after 40 years of marriage, it had been firmly established that they were together, fully aware of the for-better-or-worse clause. That was why Mitch was stunned by even the suspicion of an affair; and after all these years. Why now? Did retirement have something to do with it? Was she unfulfilled in a way that had not been the case when they both had jobs with responsibilities and obligations? Now each was only responsible to the other. No kids; no grandkids; just a dog for a pet and a cozy little apartment in a historic neighborhood next to the Pacific Ocean.
Sure Barb was going through much of the same stuff that he was. After they had spent so much of their energy pulling up stakes and moving to a foreign country, she probably felt at loose ends too. With time on her hands, she decided to play sleuth in a misguided attempt to right a wrong (assuming that Beth didn’t somehow deserve it). That was understandable to a certain degree. After all, there was the question as to what Mitch would do all day, now that the little basketball season had finally come to a fruitless end. Maybe he would take Yoga classes, but then again he and his wife needed some time apart. Mitch recalled when his Uncle Ted retired; his Aunt Alice would complain that “I married him forever, but not all the time.” Maybe the investigation was Barb’s excuse to get away on her own some. However, she could do that without Jack.
Lately, one of the things Mitch did with his extensive spare time was surf the web travel sites. When he mentioned that they should travel more, Barb seemed interested if not excited. That was something he definitely thought they should do, except where? Maybe a cruise; they had never been on one; but to where? They had not been to very many different places—Florida a couple of times; the Bahamas once; California twice, LA and San Fran one each and Honolulu once. That was it—never to Europe and rarely outside of the good ol’US. That was why, most if not all their friends and family were surprised when they moved to Panama of all places. Where in the hell is Panama? Why Panama? Why not Pago Pago? Besides the usual reasons of cost of living; AARP recommendations and the weather; one of the reasons Mitch always said was because “they had never ever been any place exotic.” So why not look into traveling to Croatia or Ecuador or Sweden or New Zealand. He had no desire to go to any place in Africa or Asia, particularly India, (too crowded), but that wasn’t the point. There were two main objectives, in Mitch’s mind, achieved by travel. First was something interesting to do; and secondly going on a trip would get Barb away from Jack.
The other thing that worried Mitch was that he was fairly sure that Barb was worried, or bothered, or concerned about him. At first when he was “kinda forgetful,” Barb acted impatient, perturbed and told him more than once “to get a grip.” More recently however, she would get a sad look on her face and call him “honey” and ask him leading questions like “Are you still planning to go to the wine store?” or “When is your next practice?” Barb knew full well the team practiced every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Mitch was worried too. He was well aware that people lost their short term memory to a certain degree when they got older, but for the last few months he felt “lucky to come down stairs with his pants on.” Once or twice, when he was on a walk with Carmen, Mitch got lost or at least didn’t recognize the street they were on. He couldn’t find his way around his own neighborhood, but his brilliant solution was to wander around the streets of Paris or the canals of Venice. He could just tell that Barb was trying to be calm and understanding and of course supportive, but he didn’t want to invoke the in-sickness-and-in-health provision quite yet. No wonder Barb was covering all her bases, with a sharp guy like Jack as a backup.
Then there was the carjacking. How confident could Barb feel when her protector, her man, had been ripped off and attacked by a bunch of street punks? Ever since then, they always drove around with their car doors locked and only opened the windows in certain neighborhoods. That made sense to be safe and not invite problems; but the fact remained that they were closing the gate way after the horse had run off—that the guy who was in charge of the gate had already left it and him wide open to attack. Neither one of them ever mentioned the attack and Barb never questioned him about it, but Mitch had to wonder if the fact that it happened undermined his wife’s confidence in him. Not that that twerp Jack could have done any better under the circumstances; but maybe that was the deal. Even though Jack was not as physically capable as Mitch, maybe Barb saw him as more clever, to stay out of danger while figuring out the murder mystery.
Any way, he looked at it, it was irritating and hurtful and stupid. Mitch didn’t want to fly off half cocked, so he was biding his time before he confronted Jack. Punching the guy in the nose without proof would probably backfire. At one point, he looked down at the computer screen and was surprised to see that it was on the NBA Now web site. He must have been checking the scores or standings or something but he didn’t remember. That wasn’t good.
Just then, Barb unlocked the door and came into the apartment. She looked very businesslike in a white blouse and gray slacks with flat black shoes. She gave Carmen a quick pet as the dog stretched out from a nap, and then walked over to her husband and kissed him on the forehead. Immediately, while still standing with her small leather purse strapped over her shoulder, Barb said, “I meant to tell you that Jack was coming along for my meeting with Billy Boar, but I didn’t. I don’t know why, but I didn’t. So that’s also why I didn’t want you to drive me. I know you don’t like Jack, for some reason, or you don’t like him being involved, but I should have told you that he was coming along.”
“I know,” Mitch said. Even though he was seated, he was able to look his petite wife directly in her face, which seemed to have a surprised expression on it. “I took Carmen for a walk right after you left and spotted Jack getting into our car, right away.”
“Oh, dear,” Barb said. “I knew I should have told you.”
“So, is he your boyfriend?”
“Oh honey, don’t be silly.” At that Mitch stood up and towered over his wife. “And I don’t mean that in a mean way.” Her birdlike hand touched his chest but not defensively. Barb wasn’t afraid that the big lug in front of her would hurt her. That could never happen. She was worried that his feelings had been hurt. “Honey, I love you,” with an emphasis on you.
“Well, it really looked suspicious, I’ll tell you that.”
“I can imagine,” Barb said as she walked into her husband’s arms. “I knew I should have mentioned it, but I didn’t want to get another disapproving look. I know you don’t like Jack, but I wasn’t sure why.
“I guess I was jealous,” Mitch said. “Why should you want to spend time with some other guy instead of me?”
“Because you didn’t think I should be trying to find out who really killed Beth—and Jack was willing to help. I still don’t think I can go it alone.”
“I still think it’s a bad idea,” Mitch said.
“Oh, please honey, I don’t want to stop now. Not that I have any better idea than I had before.”
“I just worry that you might be putting yourself in some sort of dangerous position, and that pip squeak Jack is not going to be able to protect you.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” Barb said. “I don’t know enough to get into trouble, but if I did, I’m smart enough to back off and inform Beni to get the cops involved. And I know that you’ll always protect me.”
“I hope that’s the way you really feel,” Mitch said with a shrug. “You know I really didn’t know what to make of the whole situation. I mean I do trust you, but I wasn’t so sure I could trust Jack. After all, you’re a very attractive woman.”
“I’ll just make sure you know what I’m up to, so you can keep trusting me,” Barb said. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Mitch, who was sincerely relieved, said.
“One thing,” Barb looked somewhat hesitant to bring up another point. “I was just wondering?”
“What?” Mitch was puzzled.
“Did it ever occur to you that Jack might be gay?”
“No!” The word popped from Mitch’s surprised lips. “Is he?”
“Oh, I don’t know for sure,” Barb said, “but I’m afraid I always assumed he was. I mean that’s why I was surprised you were jealous. I really don’t have any proof, I mean he never said anything and he’s not real feminine or anything, but I always got that impression, or feeling or whatever. You know, like a vibe.”
“So he never once flirted?”
“No, not that I noticed,” Barb said. By that time, the two of them were chuckling, on the verge of laughing.
“Well, he never flirted with me either,” Mitch said. “So how was I to know?”
* * *
Joe Berger was not happy. He hadn’t seen Bebe for over a week. When he called her on his cell phone and asked her in his broken Spanish where she was, she responded in her broken English that she would see him right after work. Then she did not show up. Donde usted? He didn’t want to go to the club either. He was tired of nursing his beer and watching his supposed girlfriend humping some other guy’s leg. It was over and he knew it. Bebe, in her tight dresses and no panties had moved on to greener pastures and to be honest, that wasn’t difficult to do. Eventually, she would realize that her particular gringo wasn’t half as rich as he was supposed to be. Joe didn’t even own a car; his watch was a Timex and he wore Nike sneakers. Joe was surprised that he had access to Bebe’s charms for as long as he did, since even he realized that her main motivation was to make Allen jealous or at least piss him off by being around and in his face. After the first couple of times, which Joe found gratifying as well, because showing up in Casco Viejo seemed to make Allen uncomfortable, he hadn’t seen him around. Mitch went by almost every day walking that damn dog. Jack could often be seen sitting out on a bench in front of their building some days and most evenings; but no Allen Myers. Maybe Allen blew town before they stuck him with Beth’s murder. That certainly wouldn’t surprise Joe. He knew Myers was an arrogant shithead, who had more luck with women than he deserved. Without buxom Bebe at his side, Joe really had no need to see Allen and couldn’t be sure that he would not be the one more embarrassed—No Bebe; no Beth; no prospects.
Berger was beginning to admit to himself, since it seemed obvious to everybody else, that his move to Panama was not a triumph. After the party in the building where he lived, he received no further invites, none, nada. He went to a couple of expat socials that had been advertised in The Visitor, a local tourist newspaper, but he only ended up having awkward conversations with people, retired couples mostly, who were very willing to tell their stories, but who seldom said anything even approaching “so what’s up with you.” Fuck me. After Beth, he had lost what confidence he had with women, so the few gals he encountered at the week-night socials, never seemed impressed by his lack of anything amusing to say. It was a nightmare. He felt like a junior high nerd. Unfortunately, he could vaguely remember how that felt. It was no fun remembering and even less fun feeling ill at ease again.
Joe Berger was more lonely, much more, than he had ever been in Miami. Which is saying something. He had a life in Florida—pathetic, mediocre, unfulfilled, depressing even—but a life and a job before he was laid off. In Panama, he was not allowed by law to simply go out and find a job and since his social life was a big zero, he had nothing to do all day and worried that he would soon go crazy. That’s not an overstatement either. Crazy. Looney Tunes. Nuts. He had failed before, but never so profoundly. He was not only a stranger in a strange land, but completely alone, an alien from another world. He knew people back in the States. Not all of them were good guys, or loving family members or hot dates, but he wasn’t totally, absolutely on his own, with nobody to even really chat with. That guy Jack, for example, could give a shit. He didn’t seem to go out much, except with Barb once or twice. What was with that? Otherwise, he didn’t seem to have any more friends that popped around to the apartment than Joe had. The only difference is that he seemed okay with his lot in life. Berger came to Panama because he wasn’t satisfied and thought a change of scenery and a new start would provide him with a new opportunity to impress people. Au contraire. It gave him many more chances to appear nervous and lost for words, and therefore to feel inadequate, feeble, goofy.
Berger had gotten in the habit of sitting at the same table in front of the Casa Blanca restaurant, watching the same world go by the same corner every afternoon. From his vantage point under a large maroon umbrella with Balboa Beer advertising written in gold, he had a chance to study a strange little chapel across the street. Iglesia San Felipe de Neri was purported to be one of the oldest churches in Panama but it never seemed open, not on Sunday or ever. Berger liked the mystery of the place with its oyster shell steeple and rumors of Opus Dei. It was a good location for people watching even though lately it bummed Joe out because he was forced to watch people going places, young women in flower-print sun dresses and sandals; government workers in white shirts and ties, their suit jackets hooked on a finger over their shoulders; tourists, couples mostly, looking a bit lost. There was a time that Joe would ask them if they needed help and then direct them to the Presidential Palace a block away. Not any more—a constant parade of strangers, who never seemed interested in Joe, wasn’t what he was looking for anymore. That was how he felt when customers trooped by back at the store in Miami. Lots of people, but nobody interested in seeing him, unless they had a complaint. He felt lonely back in Florida and he felt even lonelier in Panama. Changing places didn’t seem to change the problem. Face facts, bud. You’re a loser.
So there Joe sat, literally crying in his beer, when he noticed a woman walk by with a small yappy dog on a leash. The dog looked like a big Chihuahua. That’s an oxymoron. Maybe it was a mix of some sort, but it didn’t matter; Joe automatically didn’t like the stupid mutt. After the woman walked by, she stopped and lowered her pet over the fence onto a grassy area in front of the statue of Simon Bolivar. Sort of chubby, the lady looked to be in her fifties, with black hair cut in a bob. Like lots of Panamanian gals, she was short, no taller than 5’2”, an ordinary woman in a simple yellow A-line dress and flat white shoes. Not Joe’s type at all, even though it had become more difficult lately to determine if he had a type. As Joe contemplated the question of what exactly his type was, the brown-and-black-striped dog slipped through the wrought iron railing that surrounded the small lawn in the square. Surprised, the dog’s owner called out her pet’s name “Pepe! Pepe.” Inexplicably, amazingly the dog made a beeline toward Joe and then leaped into his lap. Berger was frozen. He had no idea what to do so he did nothing. Having learned his lesson, he resisted the impulse to backhand the mutt off his lap. Holding his hands up with his palms out in a not-me gesture, Joe experienced the indignity of having his face licked. By then the woman arrived and scooped Pepe into her arms. When Joe looked up he saw the brightest smile he had seen in months; certainly the brightest, most friendly, lovely smile that had been aimed in his direction.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said still smiling maybe laughing, “Pepe doesn’t usually do that. Please forgive me and my dog.”
“No problema,” Joe said and then immediately realized that the woman had spoken English. “Ah, you speak English?”
“Si, senor,” she said with a glint in her eye. “Like I said, Pepe, your new friend has never done anything like that before. I don’t know what got into him.”
“I gotta be honest,” Joe said, “I’ve never had any dog jump in my lap before ever. I don’t always even get along with dogs.” Joe couldn’t help of thinking of Carmen and how badly that had gone with Beth.
“Well, dogs are usually pretty good judges of character,” the woman said, “and Pepe obviously likes you, so you must be a nice man.” That smile again.
“First impressions can be deceiving,” Joe said and then realized he might talk himself out of this encounter, as he had done so many others, and changed course. “But I’m flattered. Tell Pepe he can jump in my lap any time, as long as he’s careful.” At that the woman laughed. “Hey listen,” Joe said, “now that I’ve made friends with your dog, can I buy you a drink, a glass of wine, ice tea, whatever you want.”
“Sure,” she said, “why not?”
For the next twenty minutes Berger found out that the woman’s name was Anita Jimenez; that she was a widow; and that she married an American soldier serving in the Canal Zone; and lived in the States for thirty years. Anita sipped a white wine, while Joe listened attentively and forgot his Balboa beer that warmed up in its can. When her husband died, she retired from a position as an executive secretary in an Allstate Insurance office in Trenton, New Jersey and returned to her native country. She had family, a couple of sisters and an elderly mother in Panama City and owned a small apartment in a renovated building just a couple of blocks away.
Then it was Joe’s turn. Oh, oh and then what the fuck? Joe explained that he had been laid off as the manager of a Thrift Center when the store closed.
“We had a couple of them in Jersey,” Anita interjected, “and I’m pretty sure they closed too.”
“Well, that left me high and dry, with no prospects, so I decided to see if anything was happening here in Panama.”
“And is there?” Anita seemed interested.
“Not so far, to be honest,” Joe said, doing something he had not done since he arrived in Panama. Berger went on to explain that he was divorced; had two grown daughters, who he was not close to and a shrinking circle of friends, which caused him to consider moving to a different place, an adventure, that hadn’t really turned out as he had hoped—that he had difficulty meeting people. He didn’t know how to break the ice—“not that there’s much ice around here.” Again she laughed at one of his lame jokes. He wasn’t sure what he would do. Maybe Mexico, maybe back to Florida…
“I don’t think you’ve given Panama much of a chance,” Anita said, still with the smile. Joe was giddy. This was a nice girl, woman, whatever, and she hadn’t run off yet; hadn’t pretended to be late for an appointment; didn’t look around the plaza with a bored stare. She was making conversation, while Joe held his hand down and allowed the dog to lick it. She wasn’t the best looking woman he had seen around, with a kind of pudgy figure on a small frame and her hairdo was short and plain, but she had a flat-out great smile that lit up her small round face and her dog liked him. After all, Berger knew that he was no prize either, an average Joe (Ha, ha!), with thinning gray hair and an unemployed store manager wardrobe. He had nothing to lose.
“Hey how about I take you out to dinner, tomorrow night,” Joe said trying to sound matter-of-fact, when his heart was racing. Then, when Anita paused, though she looked like she might be considering it, “There’s a new tapas restaurant on Calle Primero called Callejon del Gato, which I think means alley cat; or we could go to Buzio’s which is an outdoor café and you can bring Pepe.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Anita was shaking her head no, which caused Joe’s heart to sag, when she then went on to say, “Pepe can stay home. I’ve been curious about the Alley Cat, let’s go there.
“Okay, okay.” Joe was elated and figured it probably showed, but he didn’t care. This is good. “How about seven?”
“Make it eight,” Anita said.