Don Luis lowers himself to the wet curb and pulls at his shoe. He groans – with every tug, pain shoots through his knee, but at last the shoe comes off. He massages his foot through the moist sock.
He rotates the shoe in the air, and there it is: a hole. He pushes a finger through the rubber sole and wiggles it on the other side. The hole isn’t big, maybe the size of a five-colón coin, but he didn’t notice it until now. Fallen rain has seeped through the opening. His foot feels wrinkled and cold.
“Puta,” swears Don Luis, followed by a hasty sign of the cross over his reflective yellow vest. These shoes are only a few months old. When he bought them, the fake leather looked shiny and tough. Now the double-knotted laces are frayed and the stitches are unraveling. They look and feel like junk.
Don Luis digs into his cargo pants and pulls out a postcard. The card is an advertisement for some nightclub on Paseo Colón; silhouettes of shapely women dance in front of a violet background, and the text reads, “¡Guapuras!” Don Luis sniffs at this, then stuffs the card into his shoe. It lies flat against the soggy innersole. He tries to jiggle the card, but it sticks fast.
An SUV pulls up. Its heavy tires hiss over the slick pavement. The vehicle slows and its automatic window slides down, an electronic whine.
Don Luis yanks his shoe back on and hobbles toward the SUV. “Good evening!” he calls.
A woman sits in the passenger seat. Long black hair pours around her face, and her eyeliner is as green as a pine tree. The moment she spots Don Luis, she recoils from the window, disappearing from view. Behind her, the driver emerges – a muscular man with a shaved head. His violet silk shirt shimmers.
“Hey,” barks the driver. “How late is this place open?”
“The restaurant?” Don Luis calls back. “One a.m.”
The driver gazes tensely through the windshield. He stews over this answer, tapping his thumbs against the steering wheel. Finally he raises the window. Just before the reflective glass seals him inside, the driver calls out, “Pura vida.”
The SUV roars off. Don Luis winces, because he knows what will happen next. He knows that the speed bump in the middle of the parking lot isn’t painted. No driver ever spots it. The SUV accelerates too fast. When the front wheels ram that crease of asphalt, the entire vehicle jumps upward – a violent hiccup. The SUV stops. Exhaust pours into the humid air. Nothing happens for a moment. Then the engine roars again, and the SUV screeches around the corner.
“Qué caballo,” murmurs Don Luis.
But then he leans on his foot, and he smiles, because the damp sensation is gone. The postcard feels strange against his heel, but it’ll do. He forgets about the SUV. Just another pipi driver. Instead, Don Luis senses the glut in his bladder. He trudges down the parking lot, toward the alleyway.
He passes the restaurant. The long patio is lifeless, and strings of lights dangle dimly over the empty tables. Deep within, speakers play salsa music, but Don Luis can barely hear it out here. Some couples sit in the dining room, picking through tacos and rice.
There’s a long bar on one side. Three waiters lean against stools, watching music videos. The images are fast and bright, blasting out of the plasma TV and painting their faces with colored light. If the waiters weren’t wearing the same black polo shirts, they might pass for customers. Don Luis knows all these young men by name. They pass him every morning when they arrive and every evening when they go home. They always call, “¡Hola, don Luis!” They’re respectful enough. But never once have they invited him inside.
This is Restaurante Oaxaca, where Don Luis spends every night but Sunday. This is the parking lot he paces, the paint faded from its spots, the pavement broken and potholed. This strip mall overlooks a highway and its exit ramp, and traffic flashes by all night, but most hours are quiet. Don Luis usually walks away with a few thousand colones in crumpled bills. Just enough.
Don Luis turns into the alleyway. Here, three buildings converge. Their walls form a dead-end of blank cinderblock. A dumpster stands to one side, trash bags dribbling from its mouth. Wet cigarette butts are the only sign that anyone visits here. His eyes adjust to the glum orange lamplight.
He is about to unzip his cargo pants, but then he stops.
There is a car. Parked to the side. Facing one wall. The car is old and rusty. Before he can see the faded letters on its hatch, Don Luis recognizes it as a Geo Metro. The tires aren’t flat, but the air pressure is low, he can tell. One of the hubcaps is missing, as well as the side view mirror. The silver paint is now gray. The rusty mass seems to sag into the shadows.
But none of that matters. What catches his eye is the open door. Don Luis totters toward the car. His hand slips into his leg-pocket and pulls out a small flashlight. He clicks the button and the tiny bulb comes to life. The beam of light is small and weak, but he can see the streaks of rain slashing through the air. He feels the sprinkle on his naked hands.
Don Luis senses the body before he sees it. First he sees the naked legs, then the denim skirt, then the polka dot blouse. He sees the ruffles along her neckline, the garbled gold necklace and tiny crucifix. He sees the face – pale, plain, a mess of chestnut hair. Her head is thrown back and her mouth is open, as if in mid-laugh. Saliva creeps down her jaw. One arm lies along her body, the other is curled upward, the wrist limp. She slumps into the passenger seat, her seatbelt stretched as far as it will go.
“Dios mío,” Don Luis exhales.
He digs his cell phone out of his back pocket. He flips open its little clamshell body, but his shaking fingers fumble, and the phone clatters on the ground. He bends over, scowling through his pain. He watches his breath escape into the suffocating air. At last Don Luis grasps his phone and dials. “Nueve…” he mumbles. “Uno… uno…”
Don Luis watches the paramédicos unfold their gurney and wheel it into the alley. Colored lights flash over them as the medics lift the woman onto its padded surface, then strap her into place. They string an oxygen mask over her mouth. Don Luis can barely hear their voices over the air conditioners and falling rain; he crouches beneath an awning, watching and listening, but their words are garbled.
Just as the medics push the gurney into the ambulance, a squad car pulls up. Two officers step out; their doors click open just as the ambulance doors slam shut. A medic approaches the policemen, and they exchange some words. Finally the medic points to Don Luis. He stiffens.
Their black boots clop across the pavement, and they clutch their tactical vests as they walk. They are both young; one is tall and bulky, the other is short and skinny. Don Luis squints through the drizzle, and then he gasps.
“Pedrito?” he calls out.
The officer looks up, but the streetlamp only lights up half his face; the brim of his cap casts a shadow over his eyes. The face has aged, but Don Luis recognizes that angular jaw, the jot of a nose.
“Pedrito?” Don Luis says again, rising to his feet. He is so excited that he barely notices the searing pain in his knees. “Is that you?”
The young man doesn’t look at him. He gropes his utility belt and puffs out his chest, but he also looks away, down the street. Fog builds around them. A motorcycle whizzes down the nearby highway. Somewhere a helicopter thrums across the milky sky. Everything, even these two police officers, seem far away.
The bigger man clears his throat. “What did you see?” he demands.
“The door was open,” Don Luis says. His voice is husky and timid. “I was curious, so I came closer. Then I saw the woman.”
“Have you ever seen her before?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Four years. But I know all the regulars. I know she’s never been here before. Not once. I’m…” He pauses. He doesn’t know if he should say anything, but he can’t help himself. He turns to the skinny man and says, “I’m good with faces.”
The skinny man is still turned away. His body is aimed at the highway, as if facing someone else, a person Don Luis can’t see. His arms are so bony that his navy blue sleeves billow over his biceps. But the officer doesn’t flinch. The words don’t mean anything to him. Now Don Luis wonders if he was wrong. Maybe it isn’t Pedro. Maybe two men own the same face.
But it looks just like him – little Pedro Rodríguez Segura. Grew up in the yellow house at the end of the street. Six brothers and sisters. His father a mechanic, when he worked. His mother a seamstress, when people needed sewing. Pedrito, the fastest kid on the neighborhood soccer team. This is what Don Luis remembers: all the children on the soccer field, playing in the twilight hours, beneath the white steeple of their church. Pedrito dribbling the ball through the crowd of other boys, kicking the ball into the net as if the goalie wasn’t even there.
Don Luis would watch those games from his helado cart. The games were so intense that no one ordered ice cream for two straight hours. Don Luis would watch and cheer. He would incite chants, which rippled through the mob of parents. They were such beautiful evenings, back in the old neighborhood. When the game was over, the children flocked around Don Luis. They squealed and shouted their orders. Pedrito was always the best player, so someone’s father always bought him an ice cream. He always took it in his scrawny hands and ate it slowly, as if memorizing every bite.
So much time has passed, Don Luis thinks. So many years since he gave up the helado cart. Then the arthritis. The sale of his house. His tiny apartment. Learning to cook for himself. The endless nights on an empty mattress. Now this, standing all day in a strip mall parking lot. The muted sound of salsa music. The silent cars.
Don Luis watches the idling ambulance. Nothing moves but the rain.
“Will she be all right?” he murmurs.
The skinny policeman snickers. His gaunt cheeks curl around his lips. In all his life, all his years as a guachimán, Don Luis has never seen such meanness in a smile. The skinny man shakes his head, turns away, and saunters toward the ambulance. His shoulders sway; his hips roll beneath his bulletproof vest. He stops in the middle of the rain and calls out, “Hey, mae!”
The ambulance driver rolls down his window. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“It was drugs, right?” the policeman bellows. “Overdose?”
The driver stares at him. His expression is a mix of shock and disgust. He glances both ways down the parking lot, and then he looks squarely at the policeman.
“Seizure,” he calls back. “Epilepsy.”
Then he rolls up the window and puts the vehicle into gear. The ambulance turns; its headlights slice across shop windows. As the lights flash over the policeman, Don Luis can see his face – his surprise, his embarrassment. The driver glares at him through the shifting glass. The skinny policeman stands there, stock-still, as the engine roars and the ambulance bounces into the street, disappearing into pale mist.
The bigger policeman chuckles. He punches his partner in the shoulder and ambles toward their squad car.
“Nice work,” he spits. “I don’t know why they don’t make you detective.”
The skinny policeman stands there. He stares into distant lights. Don Luis wonders whether he can leave now. He wonders whether he should close the Geo Metro’s door. He wonders how long he’ll keep this job, since nobody ever parks here anyway. He wonders where he put his umbrella, then remembers they kept it behind the bar, and he should ask for it before they close.
Suddenly the policeman speaks. “We see a lot of overdoses.” His voice is like gravel. He clears his throat, takes a long breath. “I get tired of seeing them. The way they give up their lives. I just assumed…”
Don Luis feels himself soften. He can’t help but commiserate. He’s seen a lot of ugliness himself. He’s seen things in this very parking lot. He nods his head. “Así es la la vida,” he says.
The policeman licks his teeth. “I didn’t mean to ignore you,” he says. “I just don’t have good memories of that place. I like to pretend I’m not from there.” He sighs. “I’m sorry about your wife. The bad luck. You were always good to me. I pretend, but I don’t forget.”
When Don Luis says nothing, Pedro adjusts his belt and gestures toward the car. “You want a ride home?”
The guachimán wishes he could turn back time. But he can’t.
“No,” he says. “Thank you, officer.”
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer and multimedia producer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He spent two years as a staff writer for The Tico Times. His latest book is “The Green Season: A Writer’s First Year in Costa Rica,” from The Tico Times Publications Group (available at The Tico Times Store). He currently produces a pulp fiction serial podcast called The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne.