by Mitchell Toews
On our first morning I got up with the dawn. I sat on a stone bench, still cool from the night air, and peeled the store labels off my new boardshorts. The local avifauna kept me company. They chittered and squawked, upset at my intrusion.
An emissary male blackbird – curious, or angry, or mocking; maybe all three – landed close by. Fixing me with an unblinking white sequin of an eye, the bird gave me the full range of its vocal repertoire. Piercing passerine whistles, abrupt diphthongal clicks, feather-puffing, squeaky-door creaks and various complicated combo arrangements; it really “gave me the heck” – or that’s what our daughter would have said. I’d heard of the breed’s bravado, and here was persuasive evidence that all I’d heard was true.
We had similar birds back home. Red Wing Blackbirds – so common in Manitoba that when I pictured our house, the lake, the sign marking out the Fiftieth Parallel down by the road, I pictured these birds too. A male blackbird flitted from cattail to cattail. It sang, then flew, then sang again.
They were itinerant birds, chased south by the ice and frost each year. This winter we had followed them; flown with them to South Mexico. My wife and me – we were snowbirds too, at least for one week.
The brash lout atop the palapa before me that morning was a cousin to them: a Great-Tailed Grackle, or Zanate, the loquacious king of the beach. He was a big male, aggressive and territorial. Like a drunken bully at closing time, he assumed a prominent location and proclaimed himself, vaunting the splendid length of his tail, the magnificence of his harem, and the iridescence of his henna-black plumage.
I whistled and clicked back at him, much to the laughter and lengua española amusement of nearby pool attendants and landscapers on the resort grounds. One of the fellows wandered over shyly and pointed at the brash bird.
‘Be careful what you teach him,’ he said in lightly accented English, far better than my limited Spanish. ‘They can learn.’
I thought, with guilt, that I probably spoke more Zanate than Spanish, oblivious tourist that I was.
The man continued, watering the lawn as he spoke. ‘I taught one many words when I was a child,’ he said. I imagined him, a small boy living in a jungle casita, running barefoot like a Latino Mowgli.
‘We lived in a high rise next to a large park in Mexico City,’ he said, and the Mowgli of my imaginings was destroyed no sooner than he was born. ‘I’m a retired university librarian.’
I was surprised. My idea of his childhood seemed foolish and stereotypical.
He saw my almost-hidden double take and it was like he expected it; had seen this reaction before. ‘My grandchildren get a special pass to use the swimming pool,’ he said. ‘And I’m able to swim in the ocean near the resort.’ He squinted across the sea at the rising sun and I squinted with him. ‘It’s better than workin’ at Wal-Mart,’ he concluded with a friendly half-smile.
I held out my hand. ‘Matt.’
‘Señor Matteo,’ he said, taking my hand with a broadening smile. ‘I am Juan.’
Juan, the Zanates, and I continued our pre-breakfast conversations daily and I learned a lot about my new friends, feathered and not. Juan had many interesting theories and he was eager to share them. For one, he thought the Zanates in each region developed a distinct vocabulary.
‘A lot of the songbirds,’ he said, pausing to stand erect as if he was at a lectern, ‘make growling, rattling sounds. I suspect these were learned from humans as our populations and range expanded.’
‘How so?’ I said.
‘Listen,’ he replied after pinching the hose to quiet the stream of water. ‘Doesn’t that sound like that Zanate is doing his best to mimic a chainsaw or a generator?’
Silently marvelling, I agreed.
Juan’s rich descriptions of the local flora and fauna were a tonic for me as the week wore on. ‘I have had a really rough time at work the last few months,’ I said quietly one morning. ‘I don’t want to think about home this week. Tell me more about the jungle – your jungle.’
What I told him was true, but there was more. In fact, I had been fired. It’s just downsizing; don’t take it personally,’ Carol from HR had said. ‘Besides, you are getting a great settlement!’ That was two months ago. I had worked at that place for 12 years. I was still fragile and uncertain about what to do next, lost after so long with my path laid out for me.
‘Maybe it’s best you talk about your troubles at work,’ he replied. ‘I’m a safe person to tell.’
I wagged my head, maybe yes – maybe no.
‘You can share your difficulties. Like what, lots of big decisions? Maybe a merger, or an expansion? I am interested in your business experiences, if you would care to share them, Señor Matteo.’
‘Yeah sure. Big changes, I’ll say that much. I can’t go into details,’ I said, laying off.
‘Well, hey amigo, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, it’s no problem. I understand,’ he said, and I sensed a slight distance.
‘Sure,’ I said, as he moved along the hedge, raking. As he carried on, I followed, then said, ‘We hired a new advertising agency, down in Michigan.’ A half-truth. He stopped, setting the rake aside. ‘Si, go on, por favor.’
Early on the last day of my vacation, Juan did not approach me immediately as he had the other mornings. I was eager to continue the previous day’s discussion. He had been telling me about Frigates and Seahawks – two more fascinating birds that we saw every day as we stood on the lawn near the beach.
I found him snipping branches on a hedge at the perimeter of the resort property. ‘Señor Matteo!’ he said as I came near.
‘¿Cómo estás, Juan?’ I replied, enunciating carefully the way they had taught us at the orientation brunch a week ago.
Juan answered in the customary fashion and asked me how I was. Normally, after our greetings, he would begin his observations. I was always struck by the care with which he talked about the forest and the sea.
Today, he was quiet and appeared distracted. I pressed him several times, but he said nothing, fussing with the water hose.
‘It’s my last day and I was hoping to get your address and write you. I enjoy our conversations and thought maybe we could continue them by mail or email…’ I tailed off. ‘Is everything alright today?’
He stopped his trimming and dropped the shears. Picking up the hose and putting his thumb over the nozzle, he sprayed the branches where he had been clipping. Still silent, he looked at the hedge intently until a Zanate landed on a branch near us. The bird plumped the feathers around its head and shoulders with such effort that all we could see was its beak. It launched into a furious vocal assault on Juan’s hissing water hose.
‘I think he says for us to go to hell,’ I said to Juan.
‘And the horse we rode in on, too,’ Juan replied.
We chuckled together as the bird rattled on like a wind-up toy, slowly exhausting its fury. Juan dropped the hose near the trunk of a Royal Palm.
‘My friend,’ Juan said, awkwardly and in a voice burdened with emotion. ‘I have a confession for you. I am only a gardener. I was never a librarian, but it was what I always wished that I could be.’
He glanced down, wiping his hands dry on the front of his shirt and compressing his lips. I could hear him breathing through his nose, a rasping noise. At first, I was taken aback by his words, but I said nothing. For the second time, I listened as the biography I had built for Juan collapsed.
‘I have learned to read in English and I have studied all about the birds. It interests me, and my wife says I have a gift for language. I read the internet out loud in English, every night, for hours,’ he said, explaining part of his charade.
I nodded agreement so he would keep talking as I gathered my feelings. I thought of all the things I was not that I had wanted to be. I was not without my share of pretentions. My mornings here began with yoga instead of scanning LinkedIn for job listings as I would at home. No drive-through coffee and sugary bear-claw here; instead I stood chatting with spandex clad trophy wives at the juice bar. That was who I was at this spendy all-inclusive resort; who I had led Juan to believe I was.
Hell, at this point, I didn’t even have a job. But like Juan, I had a sense for what was believable – for what was expected, in a way. I had helped him to construct the “Señor Matteo” of his choosing – not the Matt Zehen I was back in Manitoba.
While it was true that this was not my first trip to Mexico, my only other time here was less impressive than I had let on. My previous visit was when I was young, the summer before I got married. The church paid my way and I helped with construction work in a village near Puerto Vallarta. Since then, the furthest south my wife and I had travelled was Wisconsin Dells, until we won this week-long trip in a draw from our local Chamber of Commerce – the only way Matt Zehen could ever afford a resort like this.
‘What about your home in Mexico City?’ I asked, putting aside my own guilt. ‘Just curious – not accusing,’ I quickly added.
‘Si, si, it’s true,’ he said, his face showing tension. ‘But I slept in that park, not next to it. There was no high-rise for me. I spent many days in the library. I used the drinking fountain, the lavatories…’
‘And the books,’ I interrupted.
‘Si, yes, the books! English recordings of To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane. Many others. The books were my tutors – they started me on my journey to learn English. I stayed in the library on days when I had no work; the park at night. The Zanates got used to me. I copied them and they copied me,’ he said. Then he whistled and clucked in a precise imitation of the local flock. Several territorial males replied right away, sounding enraged.
We both laughed at their raucous response. ‘Muy macho,’ Juan said. He continued after a pause. ‘I was the Zanate and the library was the Tortuga,’ he said. ‘Do you know the story? Si?’
I shook my head no, glad to sense the easing of tensions between us. Juan told me the Native Mexican legend of the Zanate who sat on the back of the wise sea turtle and learned its seven songs and then took them as its own – stole them, really.
‘Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness, and Anger, –’ Juan said. ‘The seven passions of life.’
We were quiet for a time, as were the birds.
‘Por favor, señor,’ I said to him and held out a business card. I had brought the card to give to him today. ‘Here is my email. Let’s continue our talks. I don’t care who you were or who you weren’t. You have been my friend, and I want to remain yours.’
‘You are sure?’ he said, politely.
I wanted to reply with the truth that stuck in my throat, chalky and tasting of bile. If I was not so proud, I’d admit things to you, Juan. Like maybe I am less important than you imagined; less of a wise Tortuga and more of a preening Zanate. But I didn’t say any of these things. I only smiled and handed him the business card. I may not be the person he thinks I am, I thought, but at least I can act the part. Just a little longer. One more day.
Juan studied the card I had given him, a leftover from my former employer. My home email was handwritten over the printed corporate address.
Again, it was still and we watched the small, brown female Zanates, gathered on the fresh cut grass, pecking at insects.
‘Señor Matteo,’ Juan said, breaking our silence, ‘are there any jobs available for a man like me who works hard and speaks good English? Jobs at the place you work in Canada?’
I was a bit surprised and held up a finger for him to wait as I thought of my answer.
‘Juan,’ I began slowly, ‘mi amigo, maybe we should each accept what we have and who we are. You want me to help you get you a new life, a new job in Canada. I want what you have: a simple job living in nature beside the ocean. But even if we could make this exchange, we would likely each be disappointed with the result.’
I liked the way my little speech sounded.
Juan gazed at me impassively. I fidgeted with my sunglasses. He looked away to gauge the height of the sun as it rose above the headland.
‘Señor,’ Juan said, his voice dropping several degrees, no longer humble but suddenly taciturn. ‘I am only asking for your consideration. We have spoken together – you know my secrets.’ He fingered my business card then studied it for several seconds. ‘It’s a simple question. Tell me, can you give me a job? Do you have, ah, autoridad? Are you even a Director?’
As he spoke, two Zanates flew to a branch on the hedge. They landed soundlessly, their long tails swatting the air behind them for balance.
The surf roared just then and a rogue wave tumbled the first row of lounge chairs. The gardening boss ran by towards the beach, shouting at Juan to leave what he was doing and come to help move the chairs back from the water.
Juan gave me a moment longer to respond but I was tongue-tied. He held my pen-marked business card at arm’s length, then flicked it over the hedge like a playing card.
‘Listen,’ he said, stepping closer to me and lowering his voice. ‘There was no Mexico City for me. That’s the truth. I grew up 12 kilometres from here. I never been anywhere else in the world. I want a job in Canada or the U.S. and the only way to get it is to lie to you because my real story is not good enough. Too plain.’
His boss called again from the shore and Juan took a step in that direction, waving and yelling that he was coming.
‘¡Vuelve a Canadá, hombre!’ he said to me, bitterly.
With that, he jogged towards the beach, scattering a group of Zanates as he went. They circled once, then landed near a paper plate of nachos, left beside an unattended chaise. From the cold and sea-damp leftovers, they began to feast.
Mitch’s writing has appeared in Storgy, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Red Fez, SickLit, Voices Journal, The Machinery, LingoBites, Work magazine, MOON Magazine, Occulum, CommuterLit, Rhubarb Magazine, and riverbabble.
Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com