By: Charlie Vázquez
A spontaneous trip to Mayagüez to see family he hadn’t seen in almost thirty years had just begun, and Papo reached for his seatbelt. He was pelted with his cousin Rafael’s hoarse laughter when he did—his very first error—and took note of the scent of fast food wrappers spoiling under his seat.
“Are you scared?” his cousin asked, laughing.
“Just being careful.”
Rafael, a practical stranger to Papo, turned the radio dial to a station playing very old music: the agonies and sorrows of souls long gone. Phantom guitars wept in trembling, falling Spanish vamps, only to soar high again into dizzying heights of chilling arpeggios that trilled like manic hummingbird wings—fading cries from the 1900s shipwrecked in a new millennium, as they sped past crumbling and condemned buildings of elegant and stately design.
“So where are we going?” Papo asked his cousin.
“It’s a surprise.”
Dusk and the earthy green scent of humid jungle fell over the land as three voices and their guitars continued to serenade a woman seen only once, with the kind of sadness written language can only attempt to paint for the mind.
Papo could see tall hills that became mountains in the distance to the east, ahead of them, and it was too much to take in so soon—almost.
“The best music in the world,” Rafael said, in accented English, his skin so perfect and bronzed, as compared to Papo’s stateside graveyard pallor.
Gold and silver glimmered in Rafael’s teeth like a tomb robber’s future loot, as they made a wide turn that took them away from the center of the deserted city and up a very steep road.
Papo tried to take in as much of the landscape as he could—but the speed in which Rafael was reveling in smudged everything to a blur. The smell of burning metal filled the car. Sun rays fanned down on the land, breaking through piling clouds
Rafael cleared his throat and checked his gauges. “I need to show you something before we go home.” He didn’t give Papo the slightest indication of what he meant and added, “If you’re not tired.”
“I’m exhausted. Can we wait until—?”
“It won’t take long. Relax.”
Papo remembered to be a grateful guest and hushed his aggressive metropolitan manners, not knowing he would later regret it. Nothing could’ve prepared him for his first glimpse of the island’s wilder western coast, the shocking phantom world of the mountains his family knew so well.
The road rose up before them and up into the sky: a ramp to the heavens where you could touch the clouds by sticking your arm out of the window. Papo had never been on such a perilous mountain road before, but had read and heard many frightening stories about their legendary tragedies.
The jungle that was hacked away on the flanks of the road never stopped crawling back (between houses it grew all the way out), only to be slashed back again by the blinding machete blows of speeding vehicles—an eternal and violent dance between nature and man.
Papo thought about his visit with his aunt Yola just two weeks prior, and how she pressed on with her melodic persuasions, while tending to her smoking cauldron of sancocho in her South Bronx kitchen. She adjusted the bobby pins that kept her bleached blond hair piled high, and mused on about how he worried too much.
“He lives in the mountains where it’s beautiful,” she had said.
Papo tried to keep positive thoughts in his mind, but the disturbing altitude they were climbing to on that bumpy and uneven road stayed foremost in his thoughts. “At least there are road guards to keep cars from falling over,” he said to Rafael.
Rafael didn’t answer but kept singing along with the dead men and their guitars…
La última vez que te vi
La única vez
La última vez…
The dimming scenery was breathtaking despite Papo’s crisis of nerves: rolling emerald hills dotted with colorful homes, humid seductions of large, prehistoric-looking leaves, darting birds flaunting jewel-hued plumes, and atmospheric vistas of misty valleys and sleeping peaks right out of a treasured storybook—fragrant flowers aflame in candy colors.
Rafael concentrated on the narrowing road while Papo kept asking himself how such mountain passes—which seemed to cling for dear life to the shrugging slopes—had even been built.
It was certain that many had perished in their making, yet instead of pleading with Rafael to turn back, he challenged his paralyzing dread and rolled the window down to take in the perfumed air, hoping it would tame his nagging nausea.
“I think we’re almost there,” Rafael said.
“You’re not scared are you?”
“Not at all.”
Rafael smirked, doubting him, and kept his eyes on the road that began to ascend steeply yet again. “Papi told me you’re a teacher.”
“A science teacher,” Papo told him. “At an elementary school in Queens.” He did everything he could to avoid fixating his eyes on the rising trail of road before them, but talking to Rafael seemed like an even deadlier distraction. “You?”
“I’m a janitor at La Yupi,” Rafael said, referring to the local University of Puerto Rico campus. His exhaust pipe backfired, sounding a shotgun blast that made Papo jump in his seat.
Rafael didn’t stir. As if nothing had happened. “Nothing to worry about,” he said, gripping the steering wheel tighter, as the road turned even higher. “She makes that noise all the time. You hungry?”
“Starving,” Papo said, hoping it would make Rafael decide to go home instead. “I could really use something to eat. Maybe we should—”
“Mami’s cooking especially for you,” Rafael said, as it started to drizzle. “You eat Puerto Rican food?”
“Of course I—”
“Hold on,” Rafael said, and pushed Papo back, protecting him from something.
They swerved sharply to the left—into the oncoming lane—and dodged a web of bright caution tape to their right. Papo blinked several times to focus his eyes, which had already been inundated by so many overwhelming sights.
“What was that?” Papo asked.
“Just a piece of the road that fell off,” his cousin said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “It happens all the time.”
“But where did it go?”
“Just down the mountain.” Rafael laughed as though Papo had asked the most ridiculous question in the world and said, “Into someone’s yard, through someone’s roof—who cares?” He lit a cigarette and asked Papo if he minded.
“I smoke sometimes,” Papo said. “But I need to eat something first.”
“Have one,” Rafael said, waving his pack of Marlboro reds in his face.
Papo refused him for a second time, not mentioning his nausea, and Rafael gave up.
The road curved upward yet again—how far up were they?—and Papo pressed his feet hard against the floor and squeezed his thighs, just to do something. He pushed back against the seatback, trying not to make a sound. His mouth went dry, but there was nothing to drink.
The two-lane road narrowed to one and the road guards Papo had noticed earlier were no longer there. They skimmed along the edge of the mountain unprotected at fifty miles an hour or more and the light mountain drizzle turned into a heavy, steady rainstorm. The sky exploded into a deafening and blinding lightshow that struck with no warning.
Reaching his limit Papo asked, “Where are we going?”
“If I tell you it won’t be a surprise.”
Night settled in as they continued to ascend that eternal and torturing pinnacle. Rafael turned around to look for something, but the downpour and crawling darkness of the overhead thunderclouds made it difficult to see. Something wasn’t right.
“Mierda,” Rafael said.
“What’s wrong now?”
“I missed the fucking turn.”
Rafael slowed down to turn around and hit the horn by accident.
“So what do we do now?” Papo asked, trying to figure out where there was enough clearance to make a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn in such compromised visibility. In a heavy rainfall that wasn’t letting up. On a crumbling mountain road one-thousand or so feet above the valley. With no road guards.
“We’ll go another way,” Rafael said, as rain crashed down all around them.
Although he didn’t admit it, Rafael wasn’t confident enough to turn around in such terrifying conditions, and Papo saw a spark of fear in his eyes that reminded him of his own.
Rafael cruised forward slowly, as if haunted by something, and it was then that Papo saw it. A white cross adorned with plastic flowers and other knocked-over objects. Across the road. At the base of a tree. Where someone had lost their life in a car accident.
Rafael slowed down some more. As if surveying the altar’s condition. Crossed himself. “Que en paz descanses,” he said.
“Who died there?” Papo asked, haunted by something he sensed he already knew.
“I’ll explain everything to you later,” Rafael told him.
There was a family waiting in a parked car up ahead, taking shelter from the weather and the night. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see in these hills after dark, Rafael explained, and rolled his window down to ask the driver a question.
The father presumably, behind the wheel. The man said he didn’t know and rolled his window back up. Locked the doors. Rafael called him all kinds of terrible things under his breath and they continued up the hill.
They pulled into an abandoned gas station being taken over by vines and jungle vegetation. The canopy over the gas pumps had weeds growing on top. An overhead highway light flickered on and off. Empty soda and beer cans and plastic bags on the ground.
Papo rolled his window down under the canopy. He was jolted by the strong scent of coffee. He shivered when he saw a bone thin old man. Sitting between the two pumps, on his side of the car. Reading a newspaper that kept his face out of view.
The old man wore a banded straw hat that fell down over his forehead and eyes. He snapped his newspaper straight with one firm push and tug of his trembling and spotted fingers. One of his bony fingers had a loose-fitting, large gold ring dangling from it.
“The old…highway will…get you there,” he said in trembling and hoarse Spanish.
“The old highway will get…you there…”
Extreme concentration was necessary to hear him. The foul aroma of cigar smoke drifted past. Rafael wasn’t smoking anything. Neither was the old man, as far as Papo could see.
“So how do we get there?” Papo asked the old-timer, trying to get a better view of him around the newspaper that wasn’t moving with the passing storm.
He never answered.
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Rafael asked.
Papo turned to his cousin and said, “Where’s la carretera vieja?”
“La carretera vieja doesn’t even exist anymore. Who told you about that?”
“This guy,” Papo said, turning to point him out. No man, no newspaper, was even there. Just weeds and cigarette butts. Even the sting of coffee and cigar smoke in the air had vanished. “Oh—”
TO BE CONTINUED…
Charlie Vázquez is a Bronx native and director of the Bronx Writers Center. He is the author of the novels Buzz and Israel and Contraband, as well as co-author of the erotic poetry collection Hustler Rave XXX: Poetry of the Eternal Survivor, with San Juan-based writer and translator David Caleb Acevedo.