The Third Good Thing
The rest of the month was more like summer should be. I was relaxed, unhurried for the most part, and had fun with my friends and with Lisa. Tom and I spent a half hour every morning while it was still cool doing exercises to prepare for our upcoming trip. Dana sent us the program his school ski team used to stay in condition during the off-season. We were supposed to maintain strength in our legs and flexibility in all our major joints.
We did the usual PE class things like push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. We bought body bands to help us with the twisting exercises for our upper bodies, and we ran up and down hill to build strength in our legs, and to exercise the ankles, knees and hips. We ended up each session swaying with hula hoops on our waists to maintain the torsional conditioning that downhill skiing requires. We did the exercises first thing in the morning, whenever that was on a given day, and then cleaned up and had breakfast.
There were a few grumpy mornings at first, but we learned to enjoy the exercise. It made us feel better during the day and we slept soundly at night. After a few days of watching us run up to his house and not come in, Shea Luellen figured out what we were doing and joined us most mornings. Tom and I had already decided that we’d keep up the exercises after the trip, at least as time would allow once school started.
As August approached, our anticipation became almost frantic. We finally heard from Dad that he’d hired a plane to fly us there. It wasn’t a lot more expensive than first-class, and was far more convenient. All the commercial flights to Santiago were overnights. That would blow our first day of skiing. There wasn’t a time change to deal with, so it made more sense to leave in the morning a day early and have time to find ski equipment, get to our hotel, and have a good night’s sleep so we could ski first thing in the morning.
If anyone was a bit frantic it was Hector, and he was comical to me. Instead of disappearing, he seemed to be everywhere waving papers under my mother’s and Tom’s parent’s noses. He needed legal authorizations just to be with us, to fly with us, to leave the US with us, to enter Chile with us, to leave Chile and come back with us. He needed others to obtain medical help, to sign liability waivers, and Lord knows what else. He had to drive up to Stockton to get the same authorizations for Dana from Elenora, and to New York to obtain them from Rhod, and to get all the notarizations needed at the consulate there. He held on to all of our passports, and kept everything in a folder that was bulging by then. The only things we didn’t need were plane tickets and visas.
We were going to leave on the last Friday in July. Darius was driving Dana down on Thursday morning, so on Wednesday evening Mom and Ally had a dinner for me and Lisa, Tom and Bridgette, and Hector and Zoner. We were all dressed for a picnic, but they served us a formal meal in the dining room, complete with the good china and silverware, candles on the table, and classical piano for mood music. They didn’t eat with us, and when I protested Mom said they were doing it for us. Ally told me to sit down, shut up, and enjoy it.
First out were some special Ally buns. She said they were a pain and didn’t make them often, but they’re little puffs that are so unbelievably light that when you pop one in your mouth you’d swear you weren’t eating much more than flavored air. They were served with a simple salad that consisted of Romaine hearts, bits of onions, a few croutons, and olive oil.
The main course was veal chops with a sweet Swiss-style glaze, Chateau potatoes that were perfectly golden, and asparagus in a mustard-tinged cream sauce. Our conversation had been light and unimportant: some oohs and ahs about the food, talk about our trip to Chile and what was planned, as well as what wasn’t planned. I kind of wanted to see the Atacama Desert, mostly because it was the driest place on Earth and hadn’t seen rain in at least a hundred years. That didn’t seem to interest Tom or Hector much, so I hoped Dana would like the idea of a day trip.
When I thought about what I just thought, I laughed to myself. The idea that Dana might even consider taking a day out of a ski trip to fly to a high desert was laughable. I was going to ask him anyhow just to see his expression. He wanted to go heli-skiing after a few days at ski areas, and I was pretty sure he’d want to go every day after he went once. I’d looked at the prices on the Internet and thought Dad might allow it once, but would balk at more days when it amounted to thousands of dollars a day for the four of us for just a few runs.
Dessert was homemade raspberry ice cream with bittersweet chocolate syrup, and we had coffee with it. When we were done I offered to help with the cleanup, but Mom shooed us out of the room. We could have gone into the living room and watched television, but moved out to the patio instead. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was that state where the moon was already clear up above, and it wasn’t exactly light either. The sky was still deep blue, but the ground was in a big shadow, enough of one that the outside lights that were on sensors started to come on.
I closed the umbrellas on the tables to open up our view. We pulled a few chairs from the big tables and turned them to face the random setup. Tom and Bridgette sat side-by-side on a lounge, while Hector and Arizona took two chairs, and Lisa and I sat in chairs so we ended up in a kind-of semi-circle, that was really more like a partial rectangle.
Lisa was fidgety as soon as we sat down. “What’s the matter,” I asked.
“We’re looking at the house.”
I said, “We’re looking at Hector and Arizona. The house is behind them.”
“I know that. The problem is that we can’t see the sky, the woods, the hills, maybe even the river.”
I looked at Lisa and asked, “You want to move?”
I lowered my voice trying to sound seductive. “Of course. We can do anything we want. My bedroom, for instance, has a view to the North and a view to the West.”
Tom thought that was funny and I saw Bridgette put her hand over his mouth, but she was smirking, too. I don’t think Lisa was amused. She picked her chair up and moved off to the side so Zoner and Hector were off to her left, Tom and Bridgette more-or-less straight ahead, and I was alone by myself. “Oh, that’s what you meant. Why didn’t you say so?” I moved my chair beside hers and sat down. “See?” I said. “I was sure it would be better over here.”
Lisa looked up while emitting an exaggerated sigh. I leaned over and kissed her. She mumbled, “I’ll give you an hour to cut that out.”
We talked quietly for awhile, mostly as couples. I asked Lisa if she wanted to take a walk and she nodded, and I said to the others, “We’re going to take a walk around, if you don’t mind.”
Hector looked up and asked, “Just around the yard?”
I said, “There’s no plan. Maybe we’ll go down to the river, maybe up the hill behind Shea’s place. We could walk around down here, too. It probably doesn’t matter; there won’t be much to see in this light.”
Hector mumbled to Arizona and Tom talked with Bridgette. Hector said, “I think we’ll take a walk, too.”
Tom smiled and said, “Someone has to …ah … hold down the fort, so we’ll just stay here.”
Hector went to the Jeep for a flashlight and I went inside to get one, and used the bathroom quickly on the way out. Lisa had to use it, too, and both Hector and Arizona followed as I led her inside. They could take turns.
I started to go back outside, but just one step out of the doorway sent me back in to figure out which light switch would sink Tom and Bridgette into darkness, and I couldn’t remember where it was. Then I wondered, and walked into the darkened dining room. I turned on the switch that lit a few little lights so I could see, and yes – there by the big window there were two switches, one up and one down. There are some bright lights out there to light up the yard when we use the room at night. That switch was down, and the one beside it was up. I watched the side window that would be close to Tom and Bridgette and pushed the switch down. The light went off, so I went back outside, and everyone was there by then.
Tom immediately asked, “Did you do that?”
“Never mind. Thanks.”
I took Lisa’s hand, took my flashlight, and we started walking out to where Hector and Arizona were waiting. Hector said, “I think we’ll go up the hill. We both like altitude.”
I looked at Lisa and she shook her head, “Can we just walk on level ground, please?”
I gave Hector and Arizona a little wave and said, “Have fun.”
They said, “We will,” together and turned toward the driveway that the Luellens and the Timeks shared.
I turned to Lisa and asked, “Do you feel okay, or do you just want to be alone?”
“Dumb question, Paul.”
“That’s what I thought.”
We wandered off behind the house holding hands, and walked to the tree line at the far end of Tommy’s yard. There was nothing there, so we turned back toward my house where my Fiat came into view. I said, “I know where we can go,” and led Lisa to the passenger door and held it open while she sat inside. I went to the driver’s side and reached in to undo the top, and pulled it back before I sat inside. “Let’s give this thing a test drive.” I said as I leaned over to Lisa. “I want to see how it works.”
Lisa understood, and it wasn’t bad except the bolstering of the replacement seats made things a little uncomfortable. Lateral progress was difficult, and horizontal progress would be no more fruitful than forward progress in the little car. I made a mental note to find a blanket or quilt to keep in the car, and maybe a pop-up tent.
One thing I did find out, quite by accident, was that I could run the AM radio without the key. That would be fine and dandy in civilization, but on the outskirts of Brattleboro I only found static, and one station that disappeared when I took my hand away from the knob, and played music older than the car when I made believe I was the antenna.
It didn’t matter. I turned it off and said, “Let’s make our own music. I pointed at my mouth and said, “Put your lips here. We’ll hum and see where it goes.”
It didn’t go very far. Before long a bear looked in through the top of the car and Lisa jumped when I did. The bear said, “Sorry amigo.” He showed his teeth, “We saw the smoke and thought the car was on fire. Carry on.” The bear and his lady bear walked away snickering while I tried to push my heart back into my chest.
Lisa was shaken, too, and we decided to give it up for the night. I got out and pulled the roof closed, got back in to attach it, and we went back around the house. Hector and Arizona were standing with Tom and Bridgette, and I heard Tom say, “Here they are.”
When we reached them I asked, “What’s up?”
Hector said, “It’s time to go. I can take Lisa home, and you can go, and then I’ll take Bridgette home, and Tom can go with her. Then I’ll bring Arizona to her house, bring Tom back here, and call it a night.”
“Is there a hurry?” I asked. “It’s not late.”
Hector looked at Zoner and said, “Did I tell you?” She laughed, and Hector said, “It’s quarter of one, Paul. We’re tired even if you’re not.”
It didn’t seem possible. We finished dinner before eight, sat out on the patio for just a short while, and then went for our walk. Now it was five hours later, and I would swear that we didn’t sit in that car longer than thirty or forty minutes. This wasn’t the first time, though. I think that when I’m alone with Lisa time only gives the illusion of standing still, while it’s really marching forward at triple-time. I’d have to ask Dad about that.
We used the bathroom again, and left Tom and Bridgette on the patio to carry on. Hector drove us to Lisa’s house, and when we got out of the Jeep Zoner called out, “Hurry back, handsome. Bye, Lisa.”
We waved, and for the first time ever Lisa’s mother was at the door waiting. It wasn’t about me, so I got a quick kiss and made my exit, surprising Hector to no end.
Hector dropped me off and left immediately with Tom and Bridgette. I put the patio furniture back where it belonged and looked in the kitchen for something to nibble on. There were some bananas in the blender bowl, of all places, so I took one and ate it while I tried to calculate what percentage of my life I’d actually remember if I ever got married to Lisa. I already had gaps of hours at a time, and we weren’t doing anything. If we were getting it on, would I even remember?
When Hector dropped Tom off we sat outside and I asked him about it. When he said the same thing happens to him, I asked, “What is it, Tom? Does that time just disappear?”
He didn’t answer right away, but sat there in his thinker pose, his head in his left hand, the little finger pulling the bottom of his eye wider open. He finally said, “I don’t think so. You know how when you just get a quick kiss, you wish it could go on and on? Then when a kiss does go on and on, you still think it’s a quick kiss, and you wish it could go on and on all over again?”
I said, “I think so.”
“You know so! It’s some kind of phenomenon, and if you’re only missing two or three hours at a time I think you’re in the normal range. How much of their adult lives do you think people like … I don’t know … congressmen … Oh! Bruce Willis … all those movie guys … you think they have any recollection? Do you think they care?” He grinned, “Hell no, they don’t care. They’re not real people, at least not normal people. Their lives are public business, and they have to live up to it.”
I looked at Tom kind of uneasily and asked, “What about me? I mean you and Bridgette, me and Lisa. She’s the only girl I ever kissed besides relatives, and when we kiss, time goes out the window.”
Tom said, “I know,” and smiled, “So what? Maybe love takes a long time to do not much. Do you care? I don’t care.”
I looked at Tom, and my stare worked its way into a smile. His wording sounded odd, but I’d been worrying about something I shouldn’t. Being with Lisa was a good thing no matter how much time we wasted, or even lost. I had a thought and said out loud, “It’s not lost time; it’s private time.”
Tom said, “You’re right; that’s it.”
I stood up and said, “Time for bed. Want me to walk you home?”
Tom snorted out a laugh. “I think I can make it.”
+ + + + + + + +
My alarm went off at three on Saturday morning, and when I was still struggling to get out of bed Ally pounded on the door with a wakeup call of her own.
“I hear you,” I yelled, and looked over at Dana who was on his knees on the floor, halfway to being up and ahead of me. I grumbled, “You’re up. Pull my covers off; I don’t have the strength.”
Dana turned his bleary eyes to me. “You wait. I gotta piss first. I’ll come for you in a minute.”
If I waited a minute I’d go back to sleep, so I kicked and pushed bedding out of the way until I could get my feet over the side of the bed to sit up. It had to be the principle of getting up at three that made me so tired, because I’d been in bed before nine. I thought going to bed that early would give me trouble, but it didn’t. We’d had a really light dinner, which Mom said wouldn’t help us get to sleep but nothing in it would keep us awake either.
After that we’d taken turns showering, re-checked our bags, phoned our girlfriends, and gone to bed. All I had to do now was get ready. When Dana came back from the bathroom he said, “Oh good! You’re up.”
I growled, “You call this up? I’m sitting, and that’s because the only thing working is my ass. I think I’m paralyzed.”
Dana raised his voice, “Don’t you dare get paralyzed. Not today. There’s a note on the mirror. Thanks, I would have totally forgotten.”
“What does it say?”
Dana was getting agitated, and I didn’t get to see that often. “You wrote the damn thing. Go read it yourself.”
I didn’t have a comeback, and my curiosity overcame my need for more sleep. The struggle to my feet was an honest one, and I nearly tipped over when my first step landed my foot on a sneaker, but I got to the bathroom and took care of things. When I turned to shave I saw the note ‘Don’t forget shave kit’ and I vowed not to. Then I did my best with my hair, wondering bleakly if a shaved head would be an improvement. I shaved and I brushed my teeth, dutifully putting each item in my shave kit after I used it.
When I got back to the room and went to the clothes I’d put out the night before, Dana asked, “Where’s your shaving kit?”
“It’s in the vanity where it always …. Oh shit.”
I went and retrieved it, and we both finished getting ready. We carried our bags downstairs, and put them out on the patio. There was a bronze-colored SUV out there and no Jeep. I hadn’t been told specifically, but I expected that because Hector had been grumbling for two days that there was no way we’d put four of us and our luggage in a Jeep unless they made a double-decker. Hector was in the kitchen with my mother and Ally, so the only thing we were missing was Tom, and he came in through the back door almost immediately lugging what seemed to be a heavy suitcase.
We’d all gone shopping for winter clothes. My parka and ski pants fit, but my sweaters and other things were tight. I also bought all new underwear, not because I didn’t have any that fit. It was a packing trick I learned from my father. You can get underpants, t-shirts and socks in packs of seven that will never again be as compact as they are in the plastic wrap. I had two packs of each that would have taken up a whole drawer and a half of my dresser unpacked, but in the factory packages they took up a corner of my suitcase that was about eight inches square, and left room for more on top.
I got big hugs from Mom and Ally, and Dana and Tom got hugs too.
I had appointed iPhone Tommy as our official photographer, and he was being conscientious. He took pictures of our luggage on the patio, our luggage in the car, us on the patio, beside the car and in the car, and he was clicking away as we crossed the bridge into New Hampshire and drove through Keene to the airport.
We were all surprised at the airport because Arizona was there with Lisa and Bridgette, and for good measure she’d brought Shea and Cheri to see us off. I latched onto Lisa as we watched what I assumed was our plane roll toward us. When the stairs dropped down, Hector went over with a handful of papers and handed them to the uniformed man, presumably the pilot, and waved us over shortly.
“They’re doing an identity check and then we’re off. Say goodbye to your girls.”
I kissed Lisa and said, “I’ll call you every day if I can. I don’t know what the connections are there.” I backed away and noticed Tommy and Bridgette still kissing, and when I looked for Hector he was doing the same with Arizona a bit more dramatically. Their lips were locked for sure, but one set of arms were up in the air, the other down low. It was like they were doing a motionless tango or something, so I tried it with Lisa.
She giggled while we kissed, but that was still better than watching someone else do it. I whispered, “Hector is in charge, so we kiss while he kisses.”
I heard Dana ask, “Are we supposed to load our bags somewhere?”
The appearance of Arizona had apparently taken all of Hector’s attention. He said, “You guys get on the plane … right now. I’ll take care of the bags.”
I gave Lisa a little smooch and said, “You heard the man.” I kissed her again and said, “I gotta go.”
I climbed on the plane, which looked a lot like the one we came home from Florida on, only smaller. It wasn’t smaller in all directions, just shorter. Even Tom could stand up straight in the middle. We were all snickering about Hector, and I, for one, was thinking of ways to bring this back to him someday.
I looked around and the plane was really nice. The hostess was nice, too, and she was there before we decided where to sit, smiling, “My name is Dawn. Can I bring you something? Coffee or orange juice? I’ll serve breakfast as soon as we reach altitude.”
I sat in a seat that faced backwards and said, “Coffee please, just a drop of milk and no sugar.”
Tom asked for coffee, too, and Dana wanted orange juice, two of them if that was possible.
Hector came in then and sat in the row opposite us. I unbuckled and moved over there, still facing the back of the plane. I didn’t know exactly what to say, and was saved by the pilot when the plane started moving.
“Good morning. guys. We’ll be in the air in just a few minutes. If you have any questions about this aircraft, your hostess, Dawn, will be happy to answer them. Once we’re airborne, we’ll head southeast to Medellin, Colombia. We’ll change crews there, and refuel. You’ll continue south over the Andes to Santiago. Right now the weather looks favorable, but keep your seat belts fastened when you’re in your seats. With the layover the total trip will take about ten-and-a-half hours, so we should land in Santiago right around five-thirty this afternoon. Enjoy the flight.”
Dawn brought our drinks while he was talking, and I had taken only a few sips of coffee before we were bouncing down the runway to take off, and I held the coffee down well below me. I can say that this plane had some juice of its own, and we were at cruise in no more than fifteen minutes: fifteen ear popping, bowel loosening minutes.
Dawn came around after awhile asking what we wanted for breakfast, given the choice of pancakes or scrambled eggs, both of which came with sausages. She smiled, “You can have both if you like. The caterer got the headcount wrong.”
I looked at Hector, who said, “I’ll have the eggs, please. I’d like orange juice and another coffee, too.”
I asked for both meals, plus an orange juice, a glass of milk, and more coffee.
Dawn showed us the entertainment system, which was entertaining in and of itself. There was a remote that I could pull from the armrest on my seat, and when I pushed the ‘on’ button a little flap opened in the flat surface beside Hector. A small flat-screen popped up and turned toward me. Dawn left us a list of the eight videos and many music channels that were available.
I grinned at Hector, “Make your screen pop up like that.”
Hector asked, “You haven’t seen this before?” while he picked up his remote. I watched the mechanism with delight when he turned the unit on. The little door opened quickly, but it didn’t just snap open. The monitor rose up at about the speed of an ejecting DVD, and turned ever so gently toward Hector. I laughed out loud and said, “I like that!”
Hector was grinning, too, and we both set to flipping through the videos. There was no sound, and I looked around for earphones. I didn’t see any, and Tom was also looking. Then I noticed a little audio symbol next to the monitor and pressed that. Nothing happened, so I took a closer look at the remote. There was a button with a matching symbol there, and when I pressed it another door in the panel beside us opened, revealing two sets of earphones. I pulled a unit out, and these weren’t dinky little iPod things. They weighed just a little more than nothing, but they had the big, fat ear pads that cover your entire ear, and a usb cable, one of the tiny little usb connectors on the end of it.
That set me off on a search for a tiny little usb receptacle, and I couldn’t find it. Tom said, “Look at the top of the remote.”
I looked, and there it was. I plugged the cable in and put the earphones on after making sure the volume level was low. Two things happened then. First, the drone of the plane disappeared almost completely, like ninety-five percent. There was music coming through faintly, too, so I turned the volume up and I was treated to a country song that I didn’t particularly want to hear, but it came through better than if I was sitting at home in my bedroom, and my sound system didn’t exactly come from a Cracker Jack box.
I picked up the movie list and decided on one, but I thought I’d wait until after I ate to start it. I took the earphones off, leaving them around my neck, and what had seemed like just white noise before now sounded like a loud roar. Hector, Tom and Dana all had their earphones on and were oblivious when Dawn rolled the breakfast cart down the aisle. Because I was the only one to notice her, I was served first. One of those trays would honestly have been enough. This wasn’t a commercial airline and it clearly wasn’t airline food. I took the eggs first, and Dawn served them on a china plate. She said she’d keep the pancakes warm. There was a separate bowl of fresh fruit and a small plate with toast, then a little bowl with butter and jellies, a glass of OJ, a glass of milk, and a fresh coffee. I closed the door where the earphones had come from and put the milk and coffee there. For a final touch, Dawn put salt and pepper shakers in perfectly sized indentations at the window end of the table.
I wondered just what Dad meant when he said this plane didn’t cost much more than commercial. I was at forty-one thousand feet, a regal breakfast spread in front of me, and eating with heavy silverware off of expensive looking china dishes, with my milk and orange juice in crystal glasses. The food was great, too. The melon, pineapple and berries were sweet and juicy, the eggs about perfect, and the sausages yummy. The orange juice even tasted fresh-squeezed.
I enjoyed the food, and I could see that Hector did too.
When Dawn came back for the dishes, she asked if I was ready for my pancakes. I smiled and admitted, “I don’t think I have room right now.”
She patted my shoulder and said, “I’ll keep them in case you want a snack later. Lunch won’t be until after you leave Medellin”
When she moved over to Tom and Dana, Hector said, “Medellin used to be a bad place, amigo. Do you know the name?”
I shook my head, and he started to tell me about the Medellin drug cartel, the cleverest, richest and most vicious in the world in their time. “When I was a kid, they were pushing their stuff in Miami. Not the Colombians, but gangs they hired, mostly Salvadorans. They had airplanes, fast boats, even submarines to move the junk they sold, and anybody who got in their way was killed. They killed their families sometimes too, to send a message.”
I said, “Nice guys. Why don’t they just legalize that stuff? What did those guys send from Colombia that was so bad? Pot, cocaine, what?”
Hector shrugged, “Both, and I don’t know what else. Pot’s harmless enough, and if kids could get coke instead of crack they wouldn’t be dying from it. I don’t like the idea of drug use, but it’s there, legal or not, and keeping it illegal costs governments enormous sums of money while way too many people die. They don’t die from pot or cocaine, but through the delivery system. The street gangs compete and shoot each other up, and their suppliers compete and shoot each other, and it goes all the way up the line. It would be bad if it was just them, because they’re mostly kids, but they don’t take any care to avoid bystanders. It’s almost like they want the body count.”
I sat back and said, “I know from the news.” I sat back feeling tired, “If the government was enforcing quality and potency limits and letting stores sell it like they do alcohol, wouldn’t the crime go away? Didn’t they learn anything from … what was it called when they banned booze? It’s like the laws are getting all these people killed, just like back then.” I looked at Hector and asked, “Is that any kind of law to have?”
Hector gave me a sad look and shook his head, and pulled his earphones on.
I put mine on, too, and the silence seemed complete. I slid the table out of the way, pulled the window shade down, dropped my seatback, and by chance noticed that Dana had a footrest. I didn’t know where that came from, but the button for the seatback was on the right armrest, and there was another button on the other armrest. I pressed it and boing, I had a footrest and thought, “This is nice.”
That was my last thought for some time, and I woke up when two coffees, a glass of milk and an orange juice told me it was time. I was a little confused, but I needed to go. I had to get up with the footrest in place because Hector had a foot sharing it with me. When I started to move, the wire reminded me I had earphones on, and when I took them off there was this roar that sat me back down in a hurry. It was just plane noise, though, but Dawn had closed all the shades and the cabin was dim. I was still confused, and had no sense of direction, so when I got to the aisle I walked the wrong way. I guess it was from habit, but I didn’t remember I’d been facing the rear of the plane, so I naturally went to take a leak in the cockpit, which would be pretty aptly named for the purpose.
I realized my mistake in time, and went back to find the real toilet, which wasn’t very difficult. When I got back to my seat, Hector had both feet on my footrest, and was stretched out to where his big shoes were practically on the seat. I thought, ‘Never mind, there’s another,’ and moved up a row. I sat facing the rear again so I could put my seatback down as far as it went, and put both footrests up. Then I really stretched out, only wishing I had a blanket. The plane wasn’t cold at all, but I sleep better with something over me, even just a sheet.
I had the earphones on, and when I laid back I plugged them into the remote and the silence was complete again. I liked that, and continued liking it until the cabin lights came on, the pilot said something, and Dawn came through lifting window shades, telling us to put our seats up and our belts on and get ready for landing. When she reached me she said, “Oh, there you are! I thought we’d lost you.”
I was going to say something, but yawned instead. I sat back and closed my eyes again, and then thought better of it. We were landing in Colombia, and I’d never been. We were still high enough that I could only see snatches of the terrain through the clouds. What I saw was very green and very hilly, but when we broke through the clouds a few minutes later we were over a shining, modern city. The terrain was still hilly and green on the outskirts, and there were mountains in the distance, but surely not the Andes. I knew better. Still, I was in Colombia where I’d never been, and there was always a thrill in that for me, even though we probably wouldn’t be allowed off the plane.
We landed smoothly in a few minutes, and we were led to the transit terminal while they serviced the plane. The pilots and Dawn came to say goodbye and thank us, and then we sat for about twenty minutes. It wasn’t a real terminal, and for us to even sit some guy had to go find chairs. I think we were in a hangar building. The ceiling was way up, the floor was concrete, and the unadorned walls looked like the uncoated side of whatever metal they make Butler buildings out of.
I felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie, waiting for the super villain to come in and hang me by my toenails until I spilled the secrets of the Empire.
Instead, we were bored until a new flight crew came for us. There were two guys in pilot hats and a girl who looked so much like an older version of Lisa that I did a double-take … and a gulp … and another gulp because something tried to go up my nose from the first one.
The first pilot had shaken hands with Hector and was in front of me asking my name. “I’m Paul,” I said, and he went on to Dana, and then Tom.
The next pilot kind of bowed when he introduced himself as Amadeo. His accent wasn’t Spanish, and I said, “I’m Paul. Are you Italian?”
He smiled and said, “Very good, Paul. Yes, I’m from Catania. Do you know of it?”
I nodded, “You’re at the base of Mt. Etna. A lot of the buildings are actually made from Mt. Etna lava. I was only there for a day, but I loved it.”
He gave me a curious smile, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I bet you learn to love every place you go.”
I said, “Usually, but some places are easier to like than others.”
He laughed, “Isn’t that true? Well, let’s go now. We have a long flight.”
I didn’t get a good look at the hostess until we were on the plane. We sat in the four front seats this time so we could all talk without being crowded at the big table. When the hostess came by to see that we were buckled in and ask if we wanted anything, she introduced herself as Jacinda. Up close she was more Lisa-like than like Lisa. She was still very pretty, and she had the sing-song quality in her voice that makes it so pleasant to listen to Hispanic girls talk.
She brought us drinks, and after takeoff we had a better look at the city of Medellin than we did on the way in. I decided that I’d like to go back for a visit some day. Maybe I’d take Ally’s advice and bum around the world for a year or two after I finish school.
For lunch, we had a choice between steak and langostino scampi. I was the only one to ask for scampi. I thought the plane would have been catered for the entire flight in the US, but the steaks were clearly the South American ideal of what a steak should be: huge, boneless, fatless, and out of this world.
I was happy with my scampi. It was made with picked tails, and a lot of them. They were on top of thin linguini with bits of blackened peppers and onions mixed in, and covered with a sauce that was probably made with butter and cream, flavored with garlic and a tiny bit of something very spicy. I had a whole lemon cut into wedges. I took a bite without lemon and it was wonderful. I squeezed a little lemon onto the next forkful and it went from wonderful to fantastic … cosmic! A crispy roll came with the meal, and I used it to sop up the juices left on the dish.
I was the last one to finish, and everyone’s plate was as clean as mine. I grinned, “Beats airline food, huh?”
Hector said, “That it does.”
Tom asked, “Is this going to be a repeat of Boston? I don’t know if I’m ready for that, especially if I’m skiing.” Dana nodded his agreement.
I said, “I don’t know,” and looked at Hector. “Do you know where our hotel is? I know we’re stuck eating in restaurants, but maybe there are some little un-fancy places around? I don’t want to spend a couple of hours every night eating fancy food.” I realized then that I didn’t know much about what to expect. “What is the plan, anyhow?”
Hector smirked and said, “I can only give out that information on a need-to-know basis.”
God, I didn’t even have a crumb to throw at him. “Well, we need to know! All I heard is that we’re staying at a Hyatt because it’s close to skiing. How are we getting there? Are you renting a car? Is your company sending one?”
Hector looked at us in turn and said, “Okay. Let me get my notes.”
He reached under his seat and pulled out his valise, opened it, and took out a piece of paper that had handwriting on it. Hector ran his finger down the page and said, “Okay, listen up. We’ll have two local men assigned to us: a guide, and a guard who will also be our driver. We’ll have a large all-wheel-drive vehicle. We rent our equipment tonight at a place called Xscape, that’s x-s-c-a-p-e. They rent high-end and performance gear and they can give Dana some racing equipment to try out. We’ll go by the place every night, so if any of you want to try something different, feel free.”
Dana sounded excited, “Racing skis? Like, will they have downhillers and slaloms?”
Hector smiled over at Dana. “These are my own notes I’m looking at. All I know is that they rent racers. I was also told that they don’t rent fatties. Let me get through this and we can talk about specifics.”
We shut up, and Hector led us through his less and less interesting notes. The good stuff was up front, like where we were staying and why, the rental shop and the reason for choosing it, the vehicle, the driver, the guard.
The guard! “Hector, why do we have to have another guard? I thought you were here for that.”
“Good question,” Hector said. “I’m going skiing with you, and even though I’m sure you can all out-ski me, I’m there to protect you on the slopes. I can’t do much about skiing accidents; all I can do if you get hurt is find you the help you need. A cell phone probably won’t cut it in the mountains. I’ll have a radio to stay in touch with our guys and the ski patrol wherever we are. If there are people presenting a threat to you, I’ll take care of them. We have a guard to keep track of people in the lodge, and to watch the hotel at night, and he knows what to do if he senses danger.”
I saw Tommy’s mouth hanging open and giggled. “Don’t worry, Tom. Me and Dana lived through a week of this in Florida.”
“And in Boston?” Tom asked.
I said, “That was kind of different. It was my home turf and I know how things should be. If something doesn’t seem normal I go over to the next block. They guarded Mom’s house, but we were safe walking around.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed, “You seem pretty sure of yourself.”
“I am. You’re not dead, are you?”
Tom shook his head, and I said, “Now I’m absolutely positive. I … me … me alone … I myself kept Mr. Tom Timek alive and well in the dreaded Boston.” I glanced at Hector, “Are you hiring?”
Hector had himself a good old belly laugh that might have endangered a lesser plane. He bounced and wheezed, and finally let it out. I’m sure the pilots heard him, if not the people in the commercial flights below us. He sure got us going, and I laughed along even though the joke was at my expense.
We joked and laughed for awhile longer, but when we wired down I said, “I want my own row,” and went back to the seats behind Hector, facing forward this time. When I was getting the seats ready, Jacinda came by and asked, “Can I get anything for you?”
“Do you have any blankets?”
“Of course. How many would you like?”
“Just one,” I said. “I’m not cold, but I sleep better with something over me.”
“Would you like a pillow?”
“Sure,” I said, envisioning one of the little airline things.
Jacinda was back in a minute with a blanket that looked like it would fit a double bed, and a regular bed pillow complete with a pillowcase. I stretched out and she helped me get the blanket over my legs. The pillow was a little struggle because my seat was already back, but I managed it and was asleep in no time, without the silencing benefit of earphones.
I don’t know how much later it was, but I woke to the cabin lights blinking and the pilot’s voice.
“Gentlemen, please. I’m sorry to wake you, but flights ahead of us are reporting severe turbulence over the equator. This is not unusual and you shouldn’t be alarmed, but it may become very uncomfortable. Please put your seats upright and fasten your belts securely. If you have any loose belongings around you, put them away.” His voice lightened, “The equator is where north meets south and the air patterns right there don’t always agree with each other. We expect to encounter clear air turbulence of a serious nature. Don’t worry. We may experience sudden drops of several thousand feet in altitude, but this Falcon won’t break. It might be best if you think of it as a carnival ride.”
We hit the first bumps a few minutes later, and they felt like normal bumps. Dana was beside me at the four-person arrangement. I asked, “Ever been on a roller coaster? The first drop is always the biggest, and it’s scary the first time, kind of interesting the second time, and you’re laughing your head off after that. You ski the steeps; it can’t feel too much different than that.”
Dana asked, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because if you’re not in the first car on the roller coaster, you can’t see that first drop coming, and suddenly it feels like you’re just falling, and you don’t know where it will end.”
Dana’s mouth formed a little ‘oh’ and he tensed up.
I said, “You know what people do on roller coasters? They put their hands up, way up. There’s nothing to hold onto; it like doubles the thrill.”
We hit a really big bump, and when Dana got his voice back out of his stomach he said, “Show me.”
I put my hands straight up, wiggled my fingers, and said, “Like this.”
Right then my world fell out from under me. Drop: I was used to roller coasters, where average first-drops were probably seventy five feet, and the big guys went up to one-fifty or sixty. The airplane didn’t bottom out, though. It dropped and dropped and dropped until I was certain it was my tongue that seemed to be blocking my nostrils. It was different when we stopped falling. We didn’t hit anything but air and it was a soft landing. I supposed we’d go back up so as not to bump into an Ande, and I realized that my hands were still up. Yes! Must do this again.
We did, several times, all of us with our hands up like take me if you will. It was foolish and funny, but no longer scary, and very soon we were over the equator. The Andes shut us up as we saw the mountains to the north fade into the distance, and the same to the south; the longest mountain chain in the world by far. I was awed by the vistas, and for once we all took pictures with our phones. My cheapo said it was full after maybe fifteen shots, and Hector’s and Dana’s gave up shortly, but Tommy had the i-phone and just kept clicking until we were out over the Pacific and descending into Santiago. It was clear there, and we had a great view to the city. We didn’t see the mountains again until the plane turned to land, and Dana practically screamed, “Look! The ski areas … they’re right there.”
They were, and they were close together which we knew. Like everything else, they looked tiny from a plane window. I could still see that they were high up on the mountains. I knew that too, but it was gratifying to see that their base lodges were higher than any summit I’d ever skied.
It was twilight when the plane landed gently, and we had to taxi what seemed like a long way before we reached where we were going, which was the tarmac between a few buildings. Jacinda said someone would bring our luggage inside, so we left the plane and encountered a uniformed man at the bottom of the steps.
When we were together he said, in English, “Your passports, please.”
Hector had them ready and held them out. “Aqui.”
The agent looked at them, and at me, Dana and Tom in turn and spoke to Hector in Spanish. The gist of it was that we needed more documents because we were minors, and Hector said he had them, but there were too many to go over outdoors.”
The man nodded, “Bueno, sígame por favor, por aquí.”
I whispered to the guys, “Follow him. He just wants to see the other paperwork.”
The rest was pretty easy, if not quick. He led us to double glass doors and used a badge reader to open them. We went into a brightly lit room that might have been a kindergarten. The walls were yellow and orange and painted with huge, very colorful, butterflies and balloons … not party balloons, but the kind you take rides in. We sat at a table and were handed two forms each, one for customs and declaration of all our contraband, and the other for immigration. Hector said, “Fill in what you know. I’ll add your passport numbers and flight information. Be careful with the dates; they want year, month, day, not what you’re used to.
The man who led us in took off with a fist full of paperwork, and Hector got busy on his own forms. The immigration form was easy, but I asked Hector what I should put down for where we were staying.
“Hyatt, Santiago is good enough.”
The declarations form was even easier because I didn’t have anything to declare. When I was done, I slid the two forms over for Hector to complete. I stood up to stretch my legs. We had been sitting pretty much all day. I wandered back to the glass doors we’d come into the building through. The plane we came on had moved, and another was just pulling in. Our bags were lined up at just inside the door, and I wondered what was taking that guy so long with our paperwork. When I turned around he was there, smiling and shaking hands with Hector.
Hector turned around to us and said, “Come on, guys. We have one more step before we can get out of here.” He pointed toward a door with a traffic light over it. “Pick up your own bags and go over there. If the light’s green just go on through. If it’s orange, put your bags on the conveyor. If you get a red, stop and they’ll hand-search your bags. Ready?”
We were. I was the only one to get anything but a green light, and the only consequence of my orange was that I didn’t have to carry my stuff the next ten feet. Dana was the last one out, and Hector led us to the exit. That opened into the regular arrivals terminal, which surprised me, and there was a young guy waiting for us there. He looked too young to be part of the security team, but he held a company badge out. He sounded really eager when he said, in perfect English, “Hi, guys. I’m Ovidio Medina. He shook hands with us in turn, bowing to Hector and calling the rest of us by name. Then he raised his hand in a gesture, and two guys came running over with a trolley. Ovidio said, “Put your bags down; they’ll bring them out,” and he gestured and bowed again saying, “This way.”
He yakked as we walked, “Our driver is Lucero. Heh, he can be touchy, but he is a great driver, and he’s one of the best shooters in the country. For a word to the wise, all he wants is to be treated with dignity. You probably won’t become friends with him.”
Waiting at the curb was what looked like a Suburban, and it wasn’t black. It looked gold, but that might have owed something to the lighting. It could have been tan, or even yellow, but it wasn’t black, and that company usually provided black vehicles before.
The back end opened, and while our bags were being loaded we got in. I sat in the far back with Dana, while Hector and Tom took the middle seat. Lucero and Ovidio were up front. As soon as the back hatch closed we were on our way.
Ovidio was clearly proud of Chile and Santiago, and he was an eager travel guide, speaking loudly enough so Dana and I could hear from the third row. We weren’t far from where we would be staying, which is a neighborhood named Las Condes, an upscale area on the east of the city and close to the ski areas. It had some of the best restaurants, which I didn’t want to hear. I didn’t want to yell from the back seat, but I’d talk to Ovidio about simple eateries when I got a chance.
Ovidio said, “Oh. If your cell phones are off, turn them on so they can acquire a signal. If they’re already on, turn them off for a minute and then back on. If you see a Telefonica logo you’ll be fine. If you don’t, let me know. To dial the States dial 001, and the area code and number.”
I asked, “How do we call each other?”
There was a pause before Ovidio said, “You may have to dial like a call to the US, but there may be a better way. I’ll call Telefonica and ask.”
We were at a light, and Ovidio said, “We’ll get your skis first.” He pointed down the road to the left and said, “That’s Xscape over there. They’re expecting you. Where’s Dana, the racer?”
Dana said, “I’m here.”
Ovidio said, “When you go in, look for Rob … Roberto. He’s the high performance specialist. Never mind, I’ll introduce you.”
I had to ask, “Ovidio, where did you learn English? Yours is perfect.”
He chuckled, “It should be. I was born in America and grew up there until I was sixteen. It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you if you want, but right now let’s get you some equipment.”
Lucero pulled the car to a stop and we got out. The place wasn’t huge, but it was to snow what Ron-Jons in Cocoa Beach was to water. About eighty percent of the place was devoted to sales, and the rest to rentals and repairs. The rentals were separated by category, like beginner, novice, intermediate, expert. That was nice because we knew what to skip, and gravitated to the expert racks. Whoever said they wouldn’t have fatties missed the mark, because that seemed to be all they had. Maybe it’s all they make anymore, but I got a pair of Rossis while Tom chose K2s. We were fitted for boots and poles, and Dana was still talking to Rob.
Tom and I brought our things out, and Lucero opened the back for our boots and poles, and wordlessly took our skis and locked them in the ski rack. I looked at Tom and shrugged, and we decided to walk around since we were in a commercial area. We were instantly joined by Ovidio, who asked, “Where are you going?”
I said, “We just want to look at the stores, see what’s here.”
Ovidio said, “Oh, yes. That’s fine. I can take you around if you want.”
I replied in Spanish that he didn’t have to come with us. We weren’t going to leave the block.
“Oh yes. I remember now that you speak some Spanish. As you wish. This is a safe part of town and I won’t worry. Just please, in the future, tell me what you want to do.” He looked at me kind of contritely and said, “Sorry, it’s my job.”
I smiled at him and said, “Come on. Show us around. We’re not that hard to put up with.”
Ovidio smiled back at us and said, “Wait here just a second. I’ll tell Lucero.”
He was back in a moment, and led us around as if the city of Santiago was his own creation. He seemed to know every place we passed, and even when there was a broken piece of sidwalk coming up.
I brought up the subject of restaurants. “Ovidio, you said that this area is full of high-end restaurants. Is that true?”
He nodded eagerly, “Oh, yes. Some of the finest in Santiago.”
I grimaced. “You grew up in the States, so I want to know if there are any … um … mom and pops? Any joints where we can get something good, have some fun, and just go home?”
Ovidio seemed confused, “You’re concerned about the price?”
I said, “No,” emphatically. “We’re here to ski, and we don’t want to spend hours in fancy joints being coddled with big meals. Just simple, not elegant.”
Before Ovidio could reply, Tom reminded us that, “Elegant would be good tonight, and on our last night. Just not in between.”
Ovidio laughed, “I hear you. White linen tonight and your last night, and plastic tablecloths are fine otherwise. That is no problem at all. There must be a thousand or more such places, and most are very good.”
I smiled, “If you know them all, bring us to your favorites.”
“What do you like?”
“Most everything, I think. I don’t like spicy hot, but that’s me. Otherwise, fish, meat, birds, I don’t know, pasta, pizza, just about anything. We’re not fussy.”
Ovidio extended the first finger of his right hand and touched my shoulder. He grinned and asid, “Then I’ll introduce you to the real Santiago. Just listening to you, I think you’ll love it. Do you hear that horn?” I did, and Ovidio said, “That’s Lucero. It’s time to go.”
When we were rushing back I asked, “Doesn’t Lucero mean something like light?”
Ovidio replied, “Yes it does; very good.”
“Does he know that?”
Ovidio burst out laughing, and sputtered, “He has no clue. That’s so funny! His name means light, but light isn’t in that man. I think his soul is dark.” He turned a little grin to me and said, “He’s still a good driver, and I learn a lot about guns from him.”
Dana was just handing his skis to Hector when we got there, and Hector put them into the ski rack. I asked Dana, “What’d you get?”
“Two pairs!” he said excitedly. “Giant slaloms and a pair of real downhill racing skis! Listen to this! There’s a racing camp starting at El Colorado tomorrow. That’s one of the places we’re going to. When they’re training we can use their runs, and for ten bucks a shot we can make timed runs.”
I said in my best Tonto imitation, “What you mean we, white man?”
Dana snickered, “Okay. I can make timed runs. I don’t believe this! I’ll probably be up all night.”
We were at the hotel in a few minutes, and it was a big, modern place. For some reason we each had our own rooms, all side-by-side on the tenth floor, and all identical. Hector should have a private room, but Tom, Dana and I could have easily fit into any of the king-size beds with room to spare.
So much for the war on poverty … the rooms were pre-paid. The rooms were nice and they were large, and we discovered that we had connecting doors between all of them, which made it feel better. I took the first room we came to, Tom the next, then Dana, and Hector had the last one. We were on the side of the hotel that faced the mountains, but it was dark and there wasn’t much to see beyond the neighborhood.
I unpacked and put my clothes away, keeping my ski things separate from everything else. Then I took a shower so I wouldn’t have to in the morning. I shaved, too, and marveled at my hair. Santiago water or soap, or the combination, had it behaving almost like real hair. I combed it, and it stayed looking in the direction I’d pulled the comb. Then I brushed it a little to fluff it out and it still stayed in place. This may sound like something trite for me to dwell on, but it was a personal historic event. I looked at the little bottle of shampoo, and all it said was shampoo, not what brand or who made it. Gaaa! Maybe I could coax a housekeeper into giving me about thirty-thousand bottles. Maybe I didn’t need that much. If Arizona’s theory was correct, and I used that same stuff every day for two weeks, my hair would remember how to behave.
I got dressed and wandered into Tom’s room. He was bent down at his dresser and I startled him. He jumped up and smiled when he saw me, and then he came closer and looked at my hair. He smirked, “I get it. You got a wig. No offense, but it makes you look kind of … dippy.”
“How can you say that? This is the first time in my life that my hair ever sat down on my head the way it should.”
“It’s not a wig?” Tom asked innocently.
I growled, “It’s not a wig.”
Tom took a step back and said, “Okay. Down, boy. I was just saying …”
I flopped back on his bed and said, “Go ahead and finish saying. I might listen.” I closed my eyes.
Tom said, “I’m sorry. You just look like somebody else without that mess on your head. Right now you could be a store clerk or something.” He paused, “I guess I’ll get used to it.”
I said, testily, “Just watch television or something. I’m just passing through.”
I burst through the door into Dana’s room, startling him.
He spun around and asked right away, “Are you wearing a wig?” He frowned, “It’s not really an improvement.”
I closed my eyes and said, “Easy for you to say, Dana. You ski all day with a wool hat on, pull it off when you’re done, and your hair goes back to normal in two minutes without help. Mine stands straight up for two days no matter what I do. You shake your head and your hair goes right into place. I shake my head and it looks like I got sucked up in a tornado.”
Dana giggled, and it wasn’t just a little one. He ended up wheezing out high pitched laughter until I couldn’t listen to it anymore and went to the door to Hector’s room, which was closed, so I tapped on it.
“One second,” I heard, and he opened the door on his side. Hector stared at me, seeming confused. “Is that a hairpiece, amigo?”
I sat down on the floor between the two doors and hugged myself. I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “It’s not a hairpiece, not a wig, not a toupée. God dammit, I get one minute in my life where my hair looks normal and everyone thinks I’m a freak.”
Hector said, “Take it easy, Paul. I didn’t say you’re a freak, I only asked you why the hairpiece.”
“I just said it’s not a hairpiece. Oh Jesus, I think I’ll go to bed. What time should I be up?”
Hector helped me up and said, “We should meet for breakfast around seven, but you haven’t had your dinner yet.”
I said, “I think you’re right. Where are we going?”
Hector shrugged. You’ll have to learn that from Ovidio. He asked if you all like seafood and I told him yes. They’re in ten-twenty-seven across the hall from you.”
I said, “Okay. I’m going to try to call home first, just to let them know we’re here.”
“Go ahead. You should all call before we go out. Look in the mirror, too. Your hair is going back to normal.”
“You’re serious?” I craned my neck to see myself in his dresser mirror and it was true. Alone and unassisted, cows were licking up all over my head, and Hector seemed to be enjoying it immensely.
I turned and walked out, past Tom and past Dana and into my own room where I sat in an armchair to call home. Before I pushed the send key I walked to the door and told Dana, “Call home, and tell Tom to.” I pressed send and sat back down. I was pleased to hear the phone ringing at home, but I got the answering machine. I left a quick message and tried Ally’s cell phone. They might have gone back to Boston. They could be anywhere for that matter. They had a few weeks free of me and probably did run off somewhere to have fun.
I was about to hang up when Ally answered the phone. “Hi, Paul. I trust you’re calling from Chile.”
“I am,” I said. “What’s all that noise I hear?”
“That’s traffic, Paul. We’re on the New York Thruway on our way to Seneca Falls for some antiquing. I had the car serviced this morning, and they must have disconnected the battery, because the Bluetooth seems to have forgotten our phones. I didn’t realize that until the back seat started ringing.”
I laughed and said, “That’s funny. Seneca Falls … I went there with you once didn’t I? Are you staying in that castle place?”
“We’re staying at the Vinifera, part of the same property. What time is it there, while I think to ask?”
“Same as there,” I said. “They fall back when we spring ahead.”
“How convenient. Is it nice?”
“So far. We stopped to rent skis and Dana’s about hanging from the sky after seeing the mountains. I’m excited too. I don’t know what to think about starting a run at two miles up. One place has twenty three thousand acres.”
Ally chuckled, “That ought to keep you busy for a few hours. Here, talk to your Mom. I don’t want to sit on the side of the road for too long.”
Mom said, “Hi Paul, how was your journey?”
“I don’t know. I slept through most of it. The food was good. Oh, we had a wild ride over the Equator. One place we just about dropped out of the sky.”
“Oh, dear. That happened to your father and me the first time we went to Australia. We were sound asleep in the middle of the night when there was all this noise and the lights came on. The cabin attendants came through and made us all sit up straight and tighten our belts, and they just grabbed anything that wasn’t tied down and shoved it all into the overhead bins. While the attendants were scaring everyone right to death, the pilot or one of his henchmen was trying to soothe everyone’s nerves. What a bunch of prattle that was.”
I looked up and saw Tom reflected in my mirror. I waved him in and said, “I should go, Mom. I’m holding up dinner.”
We said our quick goodbyes and I turned to Tom, who asked, “Are we going to eat anything, or do you plan to just put me in a casket and tie it to a lift for two weeks?”
“Why do I have to do everything? Ask Ovidio what’s good and we’ll go there.”
“I don’t know where Ovidio is. What should I ask?”
“He’s across the hall in ten-twenty-seven. Knock on the door and ask when we’re going to eat.”
Tom huffed, “I’ll do that. Ten-twenty-seven. I’ll be back.”
Tom had no sooner closed the door when Dana walked in, and wow! He was wearing a full racing suit, kind of a deep lumenescant blue with white, red and light purple graphics. He had a matching helmet under his arm and a shy smile on his face.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think, like holy cow! Let me see with the helmet on.” I stood up while he pulled the helmet onto his head and lowered the visor, which was an amber color. I had my phone in my hand, and for once I thought to take a couple of pictures, but there was no more room for them on the phone. “Are you wearing that when we go out to eat?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Just then Tom knocked at the door, and I said quickly, “Don’t go. It’s Tommy. Let me turn the lights off, and you go yank that door open as fast as you can.”
Dana snickered and said, “You can be a prick sometimes.”
“I know, but it’s your turn. Hurry up.”
Dana reached toward the door knob and I hit the light switch. The light was still on in the bathroom so it wasn’t totally dark, and when Dana yanked the door open it blocked my view of Tom, but Dana looked the perfect spaceman with the light from the hall on his face, and the flourescent glow from the bathroom on his side. Best of all, I heard Tom’s gasp and the absolute silence that followed it until Dana asked, trying to disguise his voice, “What you want here, Earthman? Come on, spit it out or taste lead.”
I had to laugh then. The Italian in Dana was shining through right then, and it was funny. Tommy heard me of course, and said, “You asshole.” He pushed his way in past Dana and wiggled a finger at my face. “One of these days.” He turned to Dana, “How long will it take you to get out of that costume? We’re leaving for dinner like right now.”
Dana grinned and saluted. “Yes, sir! No more than two minutes.”
I could hear Dana unzipping as he left for his room. I looked at Tom and said, “I heard you, but couldn’t see you. Tell me what you thought when you saw Dana in that race suit.”
Tom said, “Talk to me when this is old enough to be funny. I need a jacket. You need a jacket, too.”
I said, “Tell Dana he needs a jacket, and Hector too. You should probably tell Hector we’re going out to eat and he’s invited. In fact, I think he’s paying. Do you know where we’re going?”
“Not the name, but Ovidio said they have the best pie-ay-yah in town. Lucero said his first word, which was agreed.”
“I love paella. Good choice, man.”
“Why am I not surprised that you know what it is? What is it?”
“It can be a lot of things, Tom. I think paella is the name of the pan they cook it in. The one real constant is rice cooked with saffron. My favorite is with shrimp, clams and pork, but people throw all kinds of things in it. I’ve had it with chicken, hot sausage, lobster, you name it. Don’t worry, it won’t taste foreign to you.”
Tom said hesitantly, “It sounds good, but what about the restaurants?”
“What about them?”
“Will they be like … clean? I mean sanitary.”
“Don’t worry about the wrong things, Tom. Of course they’re clean, and you’ll probably get better food than you’ve ever had, and healthier too. You’ll see. You might even want to finish your veggies because they taste good and not like cardboard. Actually, if we take a day off from skiing we should visit the central market. That’s where people who grow things bring them to sell, and they have competition. You won’t see pictures of red-ripe tomatoes over bins of barely pink ones, you’ll see tomatoes they want to sell that day, and that’s when you want to buy them. Get one tonight instead of a salad. Just ask for a sliced tomato. You’ll get the idea.”
Dana came in then, followed by Hector. I took my jacket from the closet and we met Ovidio in the lobby where he’d told Tom to meet us. He led us to the parking garage, talking about the place we were going to. “Silvio’s has been there for a long time. Their food was always good, but the place was dark and that made it dingy looking. The toilets weren’t kept up to any standard, and it was hard to recommend even for people who were regulars themselves. Rumor has it that a female patron took the owner to task in the middle of the dining room one night, and she gathered a cheering section.”
We reached the car and got in. Ovidio said something quickly to Lucero and turned back to us. “Silvio took the message to heart and hired, I don’t know, a designer or an architect to change things. Now he’s getting three and four star reviews in the newspapers, and his toilets are always mentioned as being among the most elegant and best kept in all of Chile. I find it humorous to see that in a restaurant review, but it’s very true.” He snickered, “Be sure to drop in before we leave.”
We all chuckled at that. I noticed that we were heading into a more densely populated area. “Where are we?” I asked.
“We’re almost downtown,” Ovidio responded. “We turn at the next light, and Silvios is just a kilometer down the street.”
“How many blocks is that?” I asked.
“Hm, down this way I’d guess twelve or thirteen. It’s not far.”
I just wanted to know our proximity, so I shut up, and we were at the restaurant soon enough. Lucero went to park the car, and Ovidio brought us to the host and told him that we had a reservation. I backed up and asked, “Aren’t you eating with us?”
He said, “We’re eating here by the door. There’s no reason to broadcast that we’re with you.”
I understood and said, “Too bad; you’re fun to talk to. I get it, though, so enjoy your meal.”
Ovidio smiled and said, “You too. I’m sure you will, especially if you have it with the chorizo.”
The others were disappearing into the restaurant so I said, “Thanks,” and hurried off after them.
When I caught up I looked around, and the place was handsome in a rustic way. The walls were stucco with wide swaths of brick in odd places. All of the doorways were arched and larger than normal, and the ceiling beams were huge and ancient looking. It occurred to me that the place might have been a stable at one time. It was attractive, though. The brick sections had paintings while the white stucco bore pieces of history … an armor helmet in one place, a musket in another, and things like crossed swords and shields. The brick areas were lit indirectily from above, while the antiques on the stucco had spot lighting. Old Silvio got his money’s worth when he hired whoever it was, because the effect was very classy.
We had huge menus in the sense that they were huge, because the listings were pretty sparse, and in Spanish only. The first thing, in big letters, read Our specialty is paella your way, and it listed twenty things that you could have any or all of. It also said portions were for two to share. There was one word that I didn’t know, and I asked Hector.
“Mushrooms,” he said.
“I thought mushrooms were called setas.”
“They are. They’re called hongos, too. I think champiñón is the Americas version. I know I’ve seen it in Mexico.”
I smiled, “Well, I want some.”
I was looking at the possibilities and putting the perfect platter of paella together in my mind when I remembered that Tom and Dana couldn’t read any of this. I looked at their blank faces and asked, “Want me to order for you? The paella is for two, but we can share.”
They both nodded, and I read off the available ingredients. The only flinch came from Tommy when I mentioned mussels, so they’d get a nineteen-item paella. I looked at Hector and asked, “What do you think?”
He said, “I like mussels, amigo.”
I said, “So do I, but everything? This sucker will weigh ten pounds.”
Hector leaned closer and said, “So let’s subtract some things. Do we really need whitefish?”
“No, scratch that, and bacon if it already has chorizo. Oh, and I had langostinos for lunch.”
“Fine, I don’t like langostinos much anyhow, and I can see onions or shallots, but not both.”
I said, “Okay, so just shallots?”
I read down and said, “Oh, look at these peppers. How about we just get the sweet red ones?”
I looked up when I sensed hilarity across the table, and Tom and Dana were shoulder-to-shoulder in hysterics, pretty silent till I saw them. “What?”
They burst out in laughter, the kind where they got tears in their eyes and could only point at me because they couldn’t breathe, so I had to wait it out.
I knew what was coming, and didn’t wait. “You guys are indiscriminate eaters, you know that? Ovidio told me there’s a group home back by the hotel where you can get help with that, and they guarantee a cure in two weeks time. We can drop you off tonight if you’re still alive, or you can get a cab in the morning. You’ll be all better by the time the plane comes to take us home.”
Hector laid his heavy hand on my shoulder and said softly, “Shut up, Paul.” He looked over at Dana and Tom and said, “You, too. Just stash it. You’re not at home, you’re in Chile.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and leveled his eyes at me first, then Tom and Dana. “Just be polite, and save your joking for your own private time. Have fun, but you can do that without bringing the roof down.”
I looked guiltily at Tom and Dana, and nodded to Hector. “Understood.”
Hector eyed the three of us in turn and said, “Good. Let’s order.”
I asked, “Do you know if we can get some wine? What’s the drinking age?”
Hector said, “I’ll have to ask. This isn’t going to be an every night thing is it?”
I shook my head. “No, but we mostly slept all day on the plane and we need to sleep well tonight. Skiing should take care of that the rest of the time.”
Hector looked at us a moment longer and said, “I’ll ask,” and he signaled for the waiter. “If I can get some, what should I ask for?”
I said, “See what he recommends with paella and we’ll go with that.”
“Here he comes. You stay out of this.”
I turned to Tom and Dana while Hector questioned the waiter, and heard Hector assure the man he was our legal guardian during our time in Chile. To tune out, I looked at Tom and asked, “Where are we skiing tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but it looks like Valley Nevada. It’s not the highest place and the lift system doesn’t look that great, but they have twenty-three thousand skiable acres. They have helicopter skiing. I’m not sure where they go from looking at their website, but we can ask them. It’s expensive. You need four people, and for three runs it’s eleven-hundred-fifty bucks …each, and that was last year’s price. That’s for the helicopter, pilot and guide. I think they’ll try to talk us into special rentals too, for virgin runs.”
Dana was rapt listening to Tom. I know he’d read the same things, but nobody I ever met retains information better than Tom does.
Hector interrupted. “Listen up. You can’t order wine for yourselves, but when our food is on the table I can get a bottle and as many glasses as I want. He said most people order a premium red with paella, so we’re getting a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve”. He glanced up and said, “Here he comes. Just order your food.”
I gave the appetizers a quick scan because I hadn’t looked at them before. I don’t always get one, but I saw the magic word there and ordered the house ceviche just because the menu said it was garlicky.
Dana asked, “What’s ceviche?”
I said, “Never mind,” and described the paella I’d share with Hector to the waiter, while Hector explained to Dana that ceviche was raw, marinated fish served on stale bread.”
When the waiter turned to Tom I said, “It’s not stale bread, it’s cold toast. That gives it a reason for being crunchy.”
When Tom finished ordering, the waiter looked over at Hector and Dana, “And you gentlemen, will you be having appetizers as well?”
Hector said, “I’ll have the ceviche too.”
Dana glared at me, and said, “Oh, what the Hell.” He turned a smile to the waiter and said, “The ceviche, please.”
After the waiter left, Dana looked at me and said, “If I get spots and die, I’ll come back to haunt you, I swear it.”
I looked at Tom and asked, “What did you get?”
He smiled, “The same. You’ve been around more than me, and if there’s one thing I trust you with, and this is really the only thing I trust you with, if you say something’s good to eat it always is.”
I grinned, “No matter how disgusting it sounds at first?”
Tom nodded, “No matter what.”
We turned our talk to skiing and how best to spend our time in the different areas. We had narrowed down the regular ski areas we’d visit to three, and wanted to go cat skiing in the wilderness for two days. So we were flexible with how much time to allot to anything. Dana’s discovery of racing practice at El Colorado probably tipped the scales in that direction, but the three areas were on different faces and elevations of the same mountain, so we could head off in different directions if it came to that.
While we were talking a waiter brought a basket of bread and rolls to the table, and the aroma from that basket shut us up. I don’t think Tom or Dana ever had breads like that before, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been brought up traveling all over. Bread is life in a lot of the world, and the bread in many countries is good enough to base a meal on. You see it all over Europe and even in Canada … people in parks with their lunch, which is a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a bottle of wine, and some fresh fruits.
I grew up in Boston, where any old-timer will regale you with stories of how they used to get such great bread in the olden days, but the days of great bread petered out in the mid-1970s as the immigrants who knew how to bake in such a way died off. They made good money, and sent their kids off to college to become bankers or engineers or whatever without ever teaching them their craft. There are only a handful of great bakers left in the US, and most of them have their own restaurants.
It’s not like that in the rest of the world. In Italy, France, wherever, baking is a proud tradition and one you’re happy to pass on to your son or daughter. It was clearly the situation in Chile. That bread was from someone’s oven, not a factory. Tom and Dana could tell it was good because they were devouring it without a thought to the meal yet to come.
The waiter brought the ceviche, and try as they might, no restaurant on Earth ever made ceviche actually look good without burying it under something else. This stuff came unadorned other than some specks of seasoning, and it was served on a very shallow bed of oil, toast on the side. The fish was a brownish gray from sitting in marinade, and the oil made it look kind of slimy. If Tom and Dana got past this, they’d know that the last secret to great seafood is to just not cook it.
I picked up a hunk of fish with my fork, held it over the serving dish to let the oil drip off, and dropped it onto a point of toast which I popped into my mouth. Oh, that was good! I crunched it down and reached for another piece.
Tom said, “Well? Am I gonna die or love it?
Hector was literally moaning with pleasure beside me, and I tried to keep my eyes off Tom and Dana when they tried their first bites. I thought Tom might heave when he put the first piece of ceviche on toast and it jiggled. His expression was priceless, and there was a momentary hesitation when the food approached his mouth, like he was thinking, “Maybe not,” but he shoved it in there, and a curious expression crossed his face momentarily before he started chewing. After his second piece he sighed, “I don’t believe it. This looks so gross, and it’s soooo good.” He looked at Dana and said, “Told you.”
Dana seemed more hesitant, but he was eating the ceviche with a thoughtful look on his face, and he ate it all. When he didn’t comment I asked, “Well? Did you like it?”
Like he was coming out of a daze, he looked at me and asked, “Like what?”
“Your appetizer,” I said.
Dana looked at his plate and said, “Oh yeah. I must have … I ate it all.”
I looked at Tommy and back at Dana, feeling a laugh coming on. “Are you in there, Dana? Hello.”
I asked, “Are you with us?”
Dana snickered, “No. I’m beating the clock at El Colorado. I want to see how good I can do against real Olympians.”
I said, “Hold on. What are you talking about?”
Dana looked at me like I was from Mars. “I told you there’s a training camp at El Colorado. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember. I’m missing something here.”
“It’s the American Olympics squad doing training,” Dana said, exasperation in his voice. “Don’t you get it? I can find out where I stand and they won’t even know I’m here.”
I said, “Wow, it’s a big thing then. When you said ski camp I pictured little campers, like scouts or something. It’s the American team?”
Big platters of paella landed between us just then, and huge dinner plates were put in front of us. The waiter looked at Hector and asked, “Wine, sir?”
Hector said, “Please, and with four glasses if you don’t mind.”
Never mind the wine, I scooped a huge load of the paella onto my plate and its beauty made up for the ugliness of the ceviche. The rice was imbued with saffron yellow, and flecked with translucent onion and sweet red pepper. The clams were pink on their white shells, as the mussels were on their black shells. The shrimps had been peeled, and seemed huge with their orangey-pink color.
I took a big bite and mumbled, “Se le creyentes pronto, Amigos,” and realized that I was actually thinking in Spanish. That was a first, and something I never expected to acheive. That time it kind of embarrassed me, so I said, “Sorry. I said you’ll soon be believers.”
Ovidio had chosen the restaurant well, and we were stuffed and a bit sleepy when we left.
We were joined by Ovidio and Lucero when we went outside, and we followed them to the car. As we were getting in, Ovidio handed each of us a hefty envelope, and when we were seated he explained, “This is a little information package I put together. There is a street map and a list of things to do, and there’s information on the Metro and Bus systems, and yes, you’re free to go off on your own as long as we know where you’re headed. There is information on the types of restaurants you’ll see, recommendations on tipping, and a few dozen other things. You’ll also find fifty thousand Chilean Pesos. Don’t get all sweaty now, that’s about one hundred US dollars, and you’ll receive that much every couple of days. You’ll pay for your own lunches and snacks with it, and any incidental expenses like taxi and metro fares.”
Hector said, “If you do go out on your own, take care to guard against pickpockets. I recommend that you only keep a small amount of money in your pants; keep the bulk of it in a shirt pocket with a metro map or a tourist brochure in front of it. If you feel yourself being crowded, stop in your tracks. That’s a favorite ploy of pickpockets … three or four will appear to be walking by unaware of your presence, but you notice that you’re being forced toward a wall or a dark area. If you stop they usually keep going. If they don’t just kick the nearest one in the ass or the nuts, scream ‘Bandidos’ at the top of your lungs, and run the way you came from.”
Ovidio added, “Hector will have money if you need to make a large expenditure. I think that covers it. Oh, sorry. Chile is in an earthquake zone, and there is a ‘what to do’ card in your parcel. Please memorize it, as it’s more than likely that you’ll experience at least a tremor or two during your stay.”
Hector spoke again, “Guys, Mr. Dunn thinks you’re old enough and sensible enough to have your freedom on this trip. We have no reason to disagree, so for the rest of the trip you can look at Ovidio as kind of an arranger, me as a ski partner, and Lucero as a driver. We’re not going to baby sit, so have yourselves a great time. Just use your heads.”
I quickly leaned forward and whispered in Tom’s ear, then in Dana’s, and together we said. “We’ll behave Mr. Hector.”
Ovidio laughed while Hector let out an exaggerated sigh, and the car stopped. We climbed out, thanked the silent Lucero, and made our way upstairs and to bed.