It was Sunday and early still. When I spotted a beach town from afar I realized I might be able to catch the Eagles game. I hadn’t planned on watching the game, I hadn’t noticed the beach town on the map, but if the opportunity arose, I’d seize it.
The week before was a bye and this week The Eagles were playing the Lions, a game in which they should eat, so my want was doubled. I crossed my fingers that there was a hotel with wifi.
From the distance of a few miles the town appeared well groomed – the white houses marked the mountainous backdrop as a promise of development. Once I was in the town however all the town’s promises fell apart like dried out paint on a concrete wall.
The modern white houses perched over the ocean wore marks of inhabitation; water marks, dead bushes, uncut rebar jutting out from the roof. There were no cars. A dusty soccer field sat unused. The dirt side streets were imprinted with tire treads nearly smoothed out from the breeze.
The town had the same tenuous silence that small streets have after a heavy snowstorm.
Up ahead a single truck was parked off the road. The PanAmerican rose and curved out of view, there wasn’t another town for at least a day’s walk. My hope for a hotel was waning among the desertion, but I held out hope for a restaurant where I could pack in some calories before breaking off into no man’s land.
As I approached the truck a sign came into view from behind it. Vertical, white with red letters – Hospedaje.
So the town wasn’t entirely empty.
I parked the cart and Savannah in the shade of the truck. The hotel looked like someone’s home with an expanded second floor. I went to the entrance.
An older couple was seated at a round table drinking coffee from white mugs. Rusted fisherman trinkets hung on the wall behind them. The man wore tortoise shell glasses beneath an electrified frock of white hair. The woman wore a flowery dress which dampened the fact that she’d lost her most womanly form decades prior. Her face was bright and her observant eyes were those of woman looked over most of her life who in turn developed an acute ability to assess intentions.
Wary of intruding on someone’s home I placed my hand on the doorway. “Hotel?”
The man waved to me. “Come in! Sit down.”
“Thank you.” I clicked my backpack loose and sat it beside the chair. A warmth radiated off the couple, their presence emitted hospitality. I wondered how long they’d owned the hotel for.
The man with the tortoise shell glasses turned down the volume of the television.
“I’m Gabriel. This is my wife, Marcia.”
“You’re coming from Yauca?”
“Just outside it. I slept in an abandoned house last night.”
“I know exactly the house you’re talking about. Just before the town, at the intersection by the toll, right?”
I chuckled at his accuracy. “Exactly.”
“Would you like some coffee?” Marcia asked.
“Sure. Thank you.”
She got up to get a cup of hot water.
Maria and Gabriel’s comfortable aura reminded me of a conversation I had with a stranger some years back, the conversation was so balanced and flowed so effortlessly that I wondered how the man had gotten so good at small talk. “I’m a barber,” he said. “I’ve been a professional small-talker for forty years.”
Marcia returned with a mug of hot water. I stirred in instant coffee and a spoonful of sugar – instant coffee always needed a tilt of sugar or a dab of milk to take the edge off. The mug had the bold letters of NASCAR stamped across it. The out of place branding momentarily made me feel as though I were being helplessly lifted by a wave. I had an unease in my stomach.
Marcia moved a plastic container with bread inside.
“Bread, if you’d like some.”
What was it about the American branding that disoriented me? I was salivating at the prospect of watching two hours of commercials and an hour of football, but advertising on a mug hit me like seasickness.
I turned my mug so the writing was facing away from me. Then I took a roll and tore it in two. The couple’s calm once again consumed me.
“Do you have rooms?” I asked.
“On my phone, yes. The tower is behind the house.” Gabriel pointed behind him. Maybe the cell tower was emitting a great static which caused his hair to stand on end.
“Do you have wifi?”
“For his computer,” explained Marcia.
“My team is playing today, American football,” I admitted with some diffidence.
“No, no internet. Is the game on tv?”
Gabriel passed me the remote.
On television was the Expendables. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jason Statham were gunning down generic warehouse baddies while Jet Lee hid from enemy fire. I paused with my thumb on the change channel button.
What a terrible idea for a movie. It assumed the more action stars the better, but highlighted none of them. The best action movies are great because of the inventive characters they bring to life – Schwarzenegger with the automatic squeezed behind his steroidal bicep in Predator, Statham flipping license plates to evade the cops in The Transporter, and Jet Lee taking down copies of himself in The One like a human ninja star. With only two hours to tell story there has to be focus, and The Expendables had none.
I changed the channel once the baddies were sufficiently torn apart. Then I flicked through the guide until finding football. Naturally it was the Cowboys that was on internationally. America’s Team of geriatric Jerry Jones and flavorless mass appeal. Philadelphia and Detroit were relegated behind the paywall of the NFL Network.
“No good,” I said. “The enemy is on, but not my team.”
“You’re free to use my phone to watch the game.” Gabriel pulled his phone from his pocket and sat it on the table.
“You have strong internet?”
He did have strong internet. I didn’t have any internet at all on my phone.
“Use the hotspot,” he said.
I went to my cart and got Savannah and my laptop. Savannah pulled on me to get inside. She went straight to Marcia who warily patted her on the head.
“She’s very friendly, doesn’t bite.”
Marcia seemed reassured. She stroked Savannah’s head with a steadier hand. Savannah lifted her nose higher, tapping Marcia’s palm.
“Two days ago I saw a man walking with his dog on the side of the highway. Another foreigner,” said Gabriel.
“Which way was he walking?”
My thoughts turned back to a Facebook group of exceptional walkers that I was a part of. I tried to recall anyone mentioning another walker ahead of me. There was a Japanese walker in Perú, but we’d been in contact and he was in the Andes headed north.
“He must have passed already. He was pushing a baby carriage.”
“You know, I’m walking.”
“You’re walking? I thought you came on bike.”
“No. My baby carriage is outside.”
“And this is the dog I saw!” Savannah was now poking her head up by Gabriel’s leg. He tapped her head so softly it was as though he were attempting to touch a bubble without it popping.
Some time passed. Marcia cleaned the table and went to the back of the house. Two bikers rode by that I’d met the day before. I ran out and whistled to them, but with their helmets on they didn’t hear. When I came back inside Gabriel complained about the state of the road. “The largest road in Perú and look at it! There’s no maintenance. It hasn’t been touched in decades.”
Off the main section of road gravel was scattered like cookie crumbs. The shoulders were better in the north, but the towns were more dangerous. I didn’t know which I preferred.
At noon Gabriel insisted I take his phone and watch the game. “Go upstairs! Enjoy the game!” Maybe it was just his hair, but Gabriel seemed enthusiastic about everything.
My room had windows in the corner which looked over the one-story houses to the ocean. There was a private bathroom without hot water. The walls and floor were white. Since there was no desk I put my laptop on the bed and sat on the floor.
The internet was strong enough to stream the game, but as the game went on I felt the guilt of not walking create a hollowness in my enjoyment. At the start of the day I planned on ticking off twenty-one miles. Instead, I’d gotten laid up by hot coffee and was now abusing a generous man’s internet to feed my need to watch the Eagles live.
I knew too that once the game was over and I returned Gabriel’s phone that I’d be left wandering around a ghost town. Generally the only reason I paid for hotels was for the wifi and here I didn’t even have that.
The game played on. The Eagles lost. I didn’t mind though, anything was better than Chip Kelly’s arrogant last year.
I returned the phone to Gabriel.
“How’d you do?” he asked.
He laughed heartily. “That’s the way.”
I milled about awkwardly for a moment, my brain temporarily used to staring at a screen, not interacting with people.
“I’m going to find something to eat,” I said, finally.
Across the street was a restaurant – dim, concrete floors, plastic chairs, scratchy television. I ordered fried chicken, realizing I was starving as I did. Savannah sat between my legs. Three wrinkled men were at a long table beside me, I nodded to them and they nodded back. I hoped they didn’t want to talk because I wasn’t in the mood.
I missed my family. I wanted to be on the sofa with them talking about how terrible the refs were or how Wentz played great despite the lost. Afterwards I wanted to be at Sunday dinner with them. I saw my grandmother and her fragile white hair. I heard her cackle of a laugh then my sister’s laugh following. Everything was in its proper place. Life was very nice on Sundays. My attempt to replicate them on the road fell short.
A voice came from the corner of the room. A young man with a stubble and flat, sweaty head of hair had sat down without me noticing. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“The States? My mother lives in Connecticut.”
“I love The States.” The man smiled and in his smile there was an uncommon understanding for somewhere far away. I felt bonded to him immediately, as though abruptly I needed him as much as a raft in the open Pacific. He knew America and just that was enough.
“Yes, love The States,” he continued.
“Which cities do you know?”
“Oh, New York, Dallas, Miami…”
He shook his head. “Never been.”
The three other men in the restaurant moved their heads between us as though we were playing ping-pong. The man I was talking to sipped a soda. I picked away at my plate between conversation. We talked for a long time. He told me the three others were fisherman.
“What do you fish?” I asked.
“Gold,” said the man nearest me.
The man’s face was hardened from years in the ocean wind, but beneath the exterior it was evident he was still only a boy.
“Gold,” he repeated.
“You have a boat?”
“So you stand on the shore?”
“In the morning?”
“At night, with the ghosts.”
“Do they help you fish?”
The edges of boy’s lips curled almost into a smile. “Never.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I never catch any gold.”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
The man smiled fully, stared at me for an extended moment, then bent over the meal he’d been shifting with his fork since I entered.
The younger man and I continued talking. I felt as though the conversation were sedating me. As though each sentence were a drop of morphine. It dripped – home, home, home.
Eventually I left. Since there was no wifi Savannah and I went for a walk.
By the ocean there was a bench on top of a hill. I climbed the hill and Savannah followed with trepidation. The ocean was loud and near and she didn’t like that. I sat on the bench. The sun was behind a thick of clouds but still warm to the skin.
Savannah nervously circled the bench, smelling the ground then freezing with her ears up when a large wave crashed into the rocks. I didn’t mind being alone, not in the slightest, but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss my family.