The engines cut, and two hundred tons of metal and plastic and human flesh began the long glide back to earth. Most passengers that afternoon, busy balancing their dinner trash on overcrowded trays, fidgeting with headsets or snapping their lolling heads away from strangers as they drowsed, never noticed the start of the descent. Catherine Barnes, sandwiched in a middle seat, did. She hated to leave the sky. Up here, untethered, free from the gravity of husbands and sons, she stared out the window and saw pure patterns of light, shifting and changing.
"Have you been to Guatemala before?" The clean-cut young man in the window seat broke into Catherine's thoughts. She'd been imagining how she would mix the colors packed in her paint box in the overhead bincerulean blue, flake white, ivory black, a touch of siennacolors for the clouds and sky. Annoyed that he had, after all these hours, intruded through the comfortable privacy that divided them, she answered that she had been to Guatemala several times, but always before on vacation. And then, because she couldn't help herself, because the compulsion to be polite drove her to it, she asked the fresh-faced youth where he was headed.
"We have a mission on the coast. I'm taking the bus there tomorrow."
A missionary. She might have guessed from his white shirt and tie. "Oh, the coast," she said. "It's nasty in the lowlands. Hot. Unbelievably humid."
"So I've been told. A difficult place, full of disease and poverty. I figure we can really make a difference there, amongst indigenous people struggling for their daily bread."
Make that tortilla, Catherine wanted to snap. The missionary leaned toward her to speak.
"They have so little. They need God's love."
She managed a thin smile. "I'll keep that in mind when I get to Todos Santos." The name of the town meant All Saints, but she doubted that its citizens prayed to Mary, Peter, John, and Paul, the pale-faced holy ones of their Spanish conquerors. Surely they would favor older, darker gods. Just the missionary's presence irked her, his simple certitudes, the arrogance of those professing to know right from wrong. Better by far to listen to the silence emanating from her son, Isaac, fourteen, recently flunked out of eighth grade, asleep in the aisle seat.
Isaac shifted. Catherine glanced at her son's loose gold hairs straying over his collar, the blond eyelashes against flushed cheeks, so vulnerable in sleep, so precious. Too bad the messy ponytail made him look like the kind of kid gringos are famous for, spoiled and poorly groomed.
Outside the plane window the light show continued. Billowing thunderheads framed the setting sun. The missionary talked on with unstoppable enthusiasm. "I can't wait to see Guatemala City in the sunset."
"You won't," Catherine said, with secret satisfaction. "In Guatemala it's dark by six-thirty, year round. Welcome to the tropics."
A half hour later, when the landing gear finally bumped the tarmac, she was happy to leave the righteous young man behind. She roused Isaac and stretched from the multi-legged flight, ready to be back on earth.
Guatemala City no longer greeted arrivals with mariachi bands and machine guns, the way it had on Catherine's first visit years ago, but it still had the capacity to unnerve. They entered the terminal, shuffled through Migracion, two of a handful of foreigners surrounded by dozens of natives returning to their homeland. Past Customs, she looked up at the visitors' gallery, searching for her sister-in-law. A teeming mass of short, black-haired peopledecked out in everything from designer jeans and platform shoes to colorful indigenous costumespeered down, waving, whistling, signaling to arriving passengers. Whole families, entire villages, about to be reunited it seemed, and overjoyed at the prospect. Catherine felt a pang of envy. Where was Zelda? She checked over her shoulder for Isaac, as though he might have disappeared in the turmoil at the baggage carousel. His silence made him difficult to track. "Are you okay with those bags?" she asked.
He carried a large duffle in each hand, so that she could handle her cumbersome French easel, the wooden paint box with legs that folded up for portability. Isaac grunted assent. They passed gleaming counters proclaiming hotel and tourist services, currency exchange and tours, all oddly unmanned in the empty room, as though Guatemala had planned on a thriving portal welcoming thousands at a time and the guests had never showed. Instead, the planes dribbled in, one flight at a time. Glass doors disgorged the arriving passengers into the mob, kept outside. People shoved through the human wall, porters shouted, horns honked. Finally she spotted Zelda, tall among the Guatemaltecos, her red hair, wild and kinky, streaming to her waist, a welcome sight. Catherine waved, and then used her French easel to carve a way through the crowd. Isaac followed with the duffles. Zelda, her large body swathed in native cloth, hugged Catherine and got banged in the knee by the paint box.
"Shit, Catherine! What have you got in there?" Without waiting for an answer, she put her arm around Isaac's shoulder and pulled him toward her in a forced embrace. "How are you, kid?"
When he remained silent, Zelda coached. "Say hi, Isaac."
"Hi, Aunt Zelda."
Zelda led the way around puddles in the street, turned iridescent by streetlights in the early night. The air was fresh from the recent rain, sharp from the altitude of five thousand feet, smoky from cooking fires and exhaust from cars and trucks and buses that had never seen emission controls, and tingling with mythology, with a past more exotic than covered wagons and Plymouth Rock. Catherine breathed it in, freed from the atmosphere she'd left behind in Iowa.
She was glad it wasn't raining when they reached Zelda's pickup truck.
"You have to ride in the back with the luggage, Isaac," Zelda said. Without a word, Isaac sprang into the back of the pickup. He arranged the duffle bags and settled himself among them, as if they made a cozy banquette.
"See?" Zelda said, "Kids love riding in the back."
Catherine climbed in front and searched, sticking a hand into the crack between the seat and the back.
"Don't bother looking," Zelda said. "There aren't any seat belts."
Catherine could see Isaac through the back window of the cab. "What if it rains?"
"He'll get wet." This was the woman to whom she planned to entrust her fourteen-year-old nihilist son, counting on her to set limits, read him the riot act, and guard him from danger while she went on her research trip. "He'll be fine," Zelda said.
Zelda negotiated the pickup through the freshly washed but still dirty streets of the capital, neon lights screaming from businesses along the strip: Car Wash La Cabaña, Campero Pollo to Go, Pizza HutLlámanos! The mangling of cultures exhilarated Catherine. That she could speak another language felt miraculous to her, like walking through a wall, taking her behind the looking glass. They swerved and screeched through lanes of traffic. Stopped at a light, Zelda shouted "Jesus fucking Christ!," threw open her door, and leapt from the cab.
Through the back window Catherine saw Isaac pulling on one handle of a duffle. Grasping the other with two hands was a wiry man in rags. Horrified, Catherine stared at the strange man, his face contorted in struggle, his mouth gaping in a snarl, like a wild snaggletoothed dog, threatening her son. She heard Zelda's voice shrieking "Policía! Socorro! Vaya-cabrón-chíngate-hijo-de-puta!," saw Zelda appear over the back of the pickup, and realized finally that the tug-of-war was a robbery attempt.
Catherine yanked open her door. Her feet hit the pavement. She saw the ragged man dive from the truckbed, dart through the line of stopped cars, and disappear into an alley. Shaking, she climbed into the back, pulled Isaac into her arms, and started to sob. He hugged her back with unusual warmth. "Relax, Mom. He wasn't even armed. He never stood a chance against Aunt Z's charging rhino act."
Catherine felt the beginning of a laugh even as she cried.