From Stage One, Chapter One
Michael Renati signed his name to the last of the thirteen letters he had written at a picnic table in a sun-soaked park on the southern reach of San Diego Bay. He addressed the thirteenth envelope and folded the single page into it, but stopped short of sealing away what he had written. He felt a panic in his pulse and a familiar trepidation in his breathing: forty months had come and gone and, still, even the most tenuous reminder could empty him like a blade through a vein. He removed his reading glasses and placed them upside down over a corner of the envelope.
Maybe he would mail it tomorrow, or after he had been riding for a while. It was, after all, the final item on his list and he still had a few more things to do.
Two days earlier he had sold to a young man from El Cajon the twenty-three-year-old Montero that carried him and his bicycling gear from Montana to California by way of Arizona. Tonight he would leave the remainder of his past-life clothing – including the shirt, jeans, and sneakers he now wore – in a disabled-veterans donation box inside the entrance to Denny’s on E Street. It was . . . something . . . he thought, unable to find a better word, to own by choice less than his body weight in personal property.
Thirty-five pounds less, counting the food in his rack-top pantry bag and almost seven quarts of water. His wardrobe, not that he had ever needed a walk-in closet, had been reduced to four outfits: two for on the bicycle, two for off. His workshop now fit into an eight-by-twelve zippered nylon case. His updated kitchen inventory was almost poetic: a cup, a plate, and a bowl; a knife, a fork, and a spoon; a pot, a pan, and a coffee press; a wood-burning stove, a collapsible sink, and a can opener.
It reminded him of the Max Rich song sung by Lorne Green. He imagined some future wanderer spying the wire handles of his sand-drift-buried titanium cup as they reflected the last rays of the setting sun in the Atacama Desert.
His once-extensive library of books, music, and movies – with the exception of a novel in his handlebar bag and a box of ready-to-mail handlebar-bag-size volumes in Arizona – had been rigorously thinned and installed into a diminutive laptop computer and a triplet of MP3 players. He would sooner dine on acorns and dandelion greens than set forth without the inspiration of good stories and music.
He chose a stamp from the few that remained in his booklet of twenty and pressed it onto the envelope. He slid his reading glasses into their case. There’s no point in reading it again, he thought as he removed and unfolded the letter.
From Stage One, Chapter Four
He was aware of his tendency to push too hard too soon after time off the bicycle, but the adjustments he had made to his saddle, handlebars, and shoe cleats felt too good to resist. And the day was glorious! He flew past pecan groves, cotton fields, plowed ground, and over a sandy Rio Grande. Past ochre adobe walls, doves on power lines, and slow-burning piles of tree slash. Where the pavement became coarse he rode the smoother painted line. Where a curve directed him into a headwind he descended to the drops and let his quadriceps burn.
Twenty-two miles south of Las Cruces a primer-gray mid-1980s Cadillac forced him off the road.
He had observed the car in his mirror as it approached from several hundred yards back. There was no oncoming traffic, and no road shoulder. When it seemed certain the driver was not going to give him space, Renati hugged the uneven edge of the asphalt, unclipped his left foot from the pedal, and coasted. When no margin remained he unweighted his saddle and absorbed the six-inch drop from asphalt to sand, riding the last of his momentum into a weedy drainage channel and coming to an unsteady upright stop.
The car sped by – Texas plates on lowered suspension – with two bare arms raised high through open windows on either side, each displaying an extended middle finger. Renati half pushed, half carried his bicycle back to the pavement. He walked it for a while then crossed the road to a firm turnout and laid it on its side. He spun both wheels to check for burrs and true, then dampened a rag from his tool kit and wiped the machined braking surface of his rims. He drank a pint of water and ate a handful of banana chips and remounted.
In Canutillo forty-five minutes later he saw the Cadillac parked at the edge of a vacant gravel lot beside a liquor store.
From Stage Two, Chapter Fourteen
He offered buenas dios to a young couple with a baby on a tiny motorbike, to a skinny dog, to a taxi driver who yielded to him on a side street, to a wrinkled man on a wobbly-wheeled antique tricycle, to a middle-aged man on a shiny new tricycle laden with snacks for sale, to a motley pair of cows in the back of a pickup truck, to a darkening sky that suggested rain within the hour. He swerved to avoid crushing the world’s largest millipede, then U-turned for a closer look. He wished he had seen an armadillo in Texas.
The highway was straight and nearly flat, bisecting luxuriant greenery, finally devoid of the trash-fire smoke that had assaulted his lungs for the past three days. He pedaled hard for twenty-seven kilometers to a preprogrammed soundtrack of fast-tempo music – normally not what he would choose for morning listening – and he had just begun looking for a place to pause when an admonishing raindrop splashed the right lens of his sunglasses. He knew he should have installed his pannier covers before leaving the hotel.
He braked beneath a tree overhanging the road on the northbound side and was drenched before he had the first bag covered.
Not that it makes any difference with this humidity, he thought.
He zipped neoprene covers over his shoes and transferred his music player from his shirt pocket to his handlebar bag and squeezed water from the padded leather palms of his gloves. He crossed the road and, despite the crowned pavement, felt resistance and left a wake. He mounted and found his cadence with his head down and rain streaming in a little waterfall from the visor of his helmet. A tractor-trailer passed straddling the painted broken line; the wave that struck his left side nearly propelled him into the grass.
Judy Collins sang, unperturbed, exquisitely, about a blizzard in Colorado. She was right, he thought, about how one can talk to a stranger. It was how one should talk to any person worth the time of a conversation.
It rained hard for thirty minutes, subsided for twenty, then drizzled steadily for an hour. He had gone another forty kilometers when the sun broke through the clouds and steam began rising from the pavement.
He lunched on sardinas, avocado, flour tortillas, and dried apricots under the roof of a green cage of a bus stop. He longed for cold chocolate milk; he settled for warm agua pura. His bar bag and pantry bag were dry, but his panniers were wet on the bottom where rain had pooled under the covers. Apparently their water-resistant coating resisted water in both directions.
The sky turned dark again and he sat through another downpour. No buses stopped, but a dented Ford Maverick with a badly cracked – was that duct tape? – windshield pulled into the bus lane and idled noisily for the duration. He noticed when it drove away that the rear window was part plywood, part green trash bag, seamed with wrinkled duct tape. He heard his telephone ring faintly, as if from an alternative time, then beep.
He didn’t realize it worked in Mexico. He was only carrying it for the camera and alarm.
He stood beneath the lighthouse facing the setting sun. The wind in his face felt so much better here than it had felt fifty kilometers back. He was certain that if he were to recline on the concrete he would sleep soundly until morning. He photographed the lighthouse and the post-card-perfect coastal vista, and pointed Rocinante in the direction described to him in English by two men ambling home from work.
“Go down the road, not too far, and go left. Left?” “No, right,” said the other man. “Right. Left. Go until you see the hotel. What name?” “Ko’ox Matan Ka’an?” “Right.” “Take a left at that hotel.” “And then a right.” “And then you will see your hotel.”
He rode west a ways and took a left and a left and a right and pedaled slowly for what he was sure was too far. He turned back along a foot-traffic-only road and found a sign with a map of the town and saw that he hadn’t gone far enough. The sun was down and Nat King Cole was crooning “Non Dimenticar” when he dismounted a few minutes later in front of his hotel. It was as becoming in person as it had been in pictures.
He squeezed the last of his water from his last water bottle and pushed his bicycle through sand to the glass-fronted thatch-roof building. A slender woman of about thirty – Hispanic or Lebanese, he thought – approached him. She wore a white cotton blouse with blue jeans and canvas sneakers. Her black hair was swept in a heavy gleaming tumble over her left shoulder.
“Hola, buenos noches,” she said in a low-toned voice. “Are you okay?”
He tugged his headset from his ears. He wondered if she was a guest or an employee. He answered, “Yes. I have a reservation.”
“I know.” Her full lips pursed slightly when she smiled. “I was coming back from Mexico City when I read your email. The owner doesn’t speak very good English. But you found the hotel.”
She held a room key between long light-brown fingers.
He lifted his rig onto a sand-dusted terrace and followed her through a breezeway that opened onto a tropical courtyard. She wore an airy floral perfume. Or perhaps it was shampoo. She stopped in front of a railed-in porch and turned to face him. She said, “I thought you would want to be on the ground floor, but there’s a TV in the upstairs room.”
He shook his head. “No. No television.”
A salmon cloud in the darkening sky gave the courtyard a dreamlike glow. The zephyr that swayed the palms cooled his still-damp skin and stirred her hair. He added, “I apologize for . . . . Well, I’m sure I don’t –”
Her eyes met his and she said quietly, “You smell like rain.”
“I do?” It wasn’t what he meant to say.
“Are you hungry?”
“Do you have spaghetti?” wasn’t what he meant to say either.
She smiled and took a half step toward him and pressed the room key into his palm. She replied, “Carbonara?” and told him her name.
In the morning, seated in the far corner of the hotel dining room at a table of Tzalam wood, he gazed through a salt-air-tarnished screen past wooden beach chairs at blue-green waves breaking white over the barrier reef. He asked of the waves the question he sometimes asked of a landscape when holding open the flaps of his tent at sunrise.
“Could this be home?”
From Stage Three, Chapter Twenty-Five
It was, as the hotel manager had avowed, a big uphill to Guatemala City. Periodic downgrades provided welcome reprieve, but the scalding ninety kilometers felt mostly like the squiggly line ascent Renati’s large-scale map suggested. During a stop west of Sanarate on a knoll overlooking the craggy Central Highlands skyline, he recalled checking his pulse three quarters of the way up Loveland Pass in Colorado. It had been forty-eight at rest in Dillon and one forty-four at Arapahoe Basin.
It had also been fifty-six degrees cooler and ten thousand feet higher. And, he figured while doing the math, he had been thirty-two years younger.
Between Guastatoya and Sanarate the road surface had transitioned from coarse asphalt to broad concrete tiles. The concrete was uncomfortably sun-reflective and the expansion joints were annoying but, he admitted gratefully, there was at least leeway for a truck, a car, and a bicycle to pass simultaneously. He had twice been run aground in weeds and soft gravel where the asphalt was scarcely wide enough for two full-size cars.
Around noon, while he was crossing a four-lane bridge over a swift stream in a hill-embroidered valley, the driver of an empty eighteen-wheel flatbed reached through his open window and offered an enthusiastic thumbs up. Renati waved. A kilometer higher he was passed by a 1960s GMC cabover pulling a sorry-looking reefer: the occupant of the passenger seat extended both arms out the window in an exaggerated gesture of applause. Again Renati waved. A few minutes later a Guatex truck overtook him and played a stanza of air-horn blasts.
Renati saluted and said, “What the hell?”
By the time he reached the top of the winding grade – which seemed to appear and reappear farther ahead with every rounded curve – he had been heralded by a dozen or more truck drivers with waves, thumbs, clapping hands, and horn toots. He couldn’t help bursting into laughter when he was laboriously passed by a smoke-coughing stake-bed truckload of cheering farm workers theatrically mopping their brows.
On a cooling descent after a level expanse crowded with idling parked trucks, he glimpsed the flat-capped spire of a volcano over the tops of roadside trees. He braked, hoping to view the exotic vista through binoculars, but came to a stop a few meters after the peak disappeared behind foliage.
“Did you see that?” he asked his bicycle.
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