“Hello! Qué? What!” The squat man shouted into the phone as if the volume would increase the chances of him being understood. The red light from the control panel in the pilot house lit his scowling Mayan face against the black night outside. Next to him the pilot leaned back in his comfortable swivel chair watching the panel of instruments glowing carmine in the night and cleaning his fingernails with a knife. Occasionally, the pilot glanced at the furious frustrated man, but he honored the privacy of the conversation.
Xabat’s sister, Ixtab screamed into the phone, “You have to come and get me! They are taking me to the hospital! I will die there!”
“Ah!” Xabat slammed the phone down irritated. “I must go ashore.” He went outside and stood for a moment on the bridge, his solid square shadow framed by the faint moonlight reflected from the endless roll of the sea. Turning he went to the captain’s cabin.
Inside yellowed charts papered the wall and the lamplight swung back and forth so the charts seemed to move. The captain rocked back in his chair as Xabat entered.
“I will go ashore when we dock tonight.” Xabat stood balanced against the roll of the sea.
The captain looked at him knowing there would be no more explanation. He nodded.
“We are in dock for a week,” he said as he turned to his desk. This sailor would return on time. He knew this man would not become lost in visiting brothels. He never spoke to white women.
The whole thing started four years ago in Mississippi when the ESL teacher forced the sailor to stand in front of the class and give that speech in English. “Imagine everyone naked! It will relax you,” the stupid teacher said. Of course, Xabat would not do that, so he imagined them another way, especially the white girls, imagined them as something different but still honorable. Doing this was strange to do too often, even if imagining gringas as chuluk, lizards, did work. In his home lizards lurked everywhere silently sliding their tongues out to taste the air. A lizard in the rafters of the hut meant good fortune, and less insects. Boys tied strings to lizards to keep as pets. He could see the benign lizard eyes shining from the green depth of jungle leaves, calm, soothing. His trick for talking to white women did not work as well over the phone. So he would take his old Honda Rebel from the San Diego storage and ride to Vicksburg because he couldn’t talk on the phone in English.
In the night Xabat kneeled next to the front tire of his motorcycle and touched the side. He noticed the wear on the tire. The tread on the center could hold but he would have to watch his turns to make it across Texas. Fortunately I-20 ran as flat and as straight as freeways come. With the speed limit at 75, the big trucks just blew by him at 85 or 90 buffeting him with their tail winds. For a moment, as he squatted by the roadside, he enjoyed the breeze. His black hair dripped from the encased humidity of the helmet. For a moment his lips formed the alien words he must say, the words to find his sister. The chiseled features glowed as headlights hit the sweat, then went dark.
He stood and his knees popped. Xabat pushed the helmet back on his head and buckled the chinstrap. Swinging his short legs over the bike, he slapped down the face shield with determination. He needed to reach Shreveport tonight and the sign said Abilene. The two days since he left San Diego headed for Vicksburg were longer than workdays. He only rode and ate a bit and nodding at the table in diners before he rode again, repeating alien English words inside his helmet. The world outside changed from heat and sun to water and wind and he was unbalanced unless he was riding.
When he retrieved the bike from the storage locker the first night, he went to the YMCA. Standing in the hall of the YMCA, Xabat called the hospital’s number, had to ask a man passing by to tell him what the hospital woman was saying. The man listened to the phone and said, “Uh huh. OK.” He handed Xabat the phone and said, “She says your sister is in a hospital in Vicksburg.”
“What, what? What is her sickness? What will they do? Who is there?” Xabat shouted both to the man and to the phone. The small voice in the phone started again. Xabat had too many questions and he thrust the phone into the man’s hand. The man wrote down the address and phone number on the back of a phonebook advertisement. He handed this paper to Xabat and hung up the phone. The man put his hand on Xabat’s shoulder as the short man carefully placed the flimsy paper in his pocket. The desk clerk at the YMCA gave Xabat a map the next day and drew a long line on it in red. When Xabat could not contact any of his Mississippi relatives, he had gassed up the bike and ridden off muttering inside his helmet.
Xabat had not seen his sister since he turned eighteen. She stayed in Mississippi to finish school in the minister’s town. The church would find her work just as they had done for him. Once the oil company took him and trained him to walk the towers, they sent him around the world. Now two years later he hoped to enjoy the San Diego beaches with the other fellows from Chiapas, but family came first. His sister must be out in the world. It was time to overcome her night terrors. She was not twelve anymore. She was safe now. He had tried to explain the illogic of her fear to her. In his helmet he repeated his arguments about safety as he rode.
In San Diego he felt close to the Mexico of his boyhood, but it was not the jungle. His leave only lasted two weeks then he would go back to the sea and the towers of oil. That world held only men and metal and the great sea, the great beast that wished to swallow them and sometimes did. She should feel safe in Mississippi.
In the steady numbing roar of the motorcycle helmet, his mind turned to the reason Ixtab was in the hospital. She must have had one of her attacks; that was her sickness. After her disgrace by the Zapatistas guerillas she could not marry. No one would have her in the village. There were others like her, yet they managed. There were no decent Winik atel men to marry anyway. The men had been killed by the guerillas or taken into the EZLN, the Zapata Army of National Liberation. The missionaries took the youngest children to Mississippi. That was good luck, and yet his quiet sister began to have these spells of screaming. The elders would have used the old Mayan ways and asked blessing from the Twins, the real gods. But not in Mississippi. Here they had to have doctors and science and reasons for everything. His boss was the same with papers and rules and a lack of normal manners. Every little thing must be explained and noted with red ink. Xabat sighed and his breath fogged the inside of his helmet as he practiced his questions in English.
After the rumble of the motor let him daydream of his home, happy in memory of emerald shadows in the jungle and flits of bright birds and the knowable dangers, snakes, and big cats. The serene gaze of the lizards watched over this heaven before the guerrillas came. The guerrillas brought noise, bloodshed, and the craziness of the other world. They destroyed without reason. Xabat’s mind rested in the time before the war, the serenity of lizards in the shady green, as his body rode the vibrating motorcycle and passed through the night and another day and into another night.
The lights and the noise of the city of Vicksburg finally brought Xabat out of the rumbling dream of riding. He stopped at a parking lot next to Denny’s and looked at his map. He looked at the road sign on the corner. They matched. To be sure, he must ask. Walking into the Denny’s, he felt his mind separating. He tried not to look at anything but the faces of the people as he walked in. A couple walked out of the door, he backed off and opened the door for them. The woman smiled at him and in respect he lowered his eyes. As she passed, he thought he saw an olive swish of a tail peek from under her long skirt. He averted his eyes but felt a chilly confidence rise inside of him. He knew lizards. He could speak to lizards. Xabat entered the Denny’s.
“One?” asked the girl in bright red costume standing at the desk. On Xabat’s right a machine with lights and colorful stuffed animals in a glass box dinged and whistled. The lights distracted him as the girl picked up a menu and looked back at the tables. She smacked her gum and waited. With pride Xabat pronounced the words he had practiced inside of his helmet.
“Where is the hospital?” He said this as kindly and as elegantly as he could. He smiled at her. He could not see her tail behind the desk, but he had confidence it was there.
“Huh?” The girl stared at him and blinked. They often blinked like this. Xabat must be more forceful. He smiled as to not frighten her with his energy.
“Where is the hospital?” He pronounced the words enunciating each sound and rolled his tongue around the unusual syllables. He held his benign face still and calm.
“What? Oh, you mean the Methodist Hospital?” He nodded at her encouraging her to say more.
“Over there! Can’t you see the lights? Do you need the emergency room?” She looked him over for injury, but he shook his head. She frowned and tilted her head.
“There.” The girl raised her arm and pointed at the big lights across the street. “See? Where the entrance is?” Indeed, as she walked around the desk and toward the glass doors of the restaurant, he focused on her finger indicating a large building with lights shining from the glass entrance onto a round circle of grass surrounded by a driveway. He began to back toward the door trying to keep his eyes away from her face nodding at her in thanks. As he turned to exit the door, the girl turned toward the desk. He heard the rattle of the scaly lime tail under her uniform.
Cautious, Xabat drove several times through the circular entrance to observe before he stopped. Slipping through the night he bumped his motorcycle up onto a dirt patch in the bushes near the edge of the lot away from the streetlights, avoiding the open parking lot. Climbing off the bike, he carefully straightened his clothes. He wiped his dirty face as best he could with the tail of his shirt and tucked his shirt into his pants stretching tall. He smoothed his thick black hair with both hands. Joining the people walking toward the entrance, Xabat followed them into the building. The line was straight and orderly in the English way rather than a comfortable group. Xabat tried not to sway or touch anyone. An older white-haired woman dressed in a blue smock sat at a desk. He listened as each person came in turn and told a name and received a number on a small slip of paper. The white-haired woman then waved toward a bank of elevators. Sometimes they had elevators on the oil derricks. This small familiarity helped him. So much in Texas was too open, not at all like the jungles in which there were many safe dim places.
Xabat’s turn to speak would be after an old man. The Twins were good to him for he could tell that the old man couldn’t hear. Xabat could hear the explanation twice. Good fortune because everyone here seemed to be whispering. He could hear the slithering of the tails as well.
“How can I help you?” The woman repeated her line to Xabat. He spoke his carefully prepared words again. He had repeated them for days and miles. “Where is my sister, Ixtab Montejo Gonzalez?” Again he spoke with clear intent but with kindness. He tried to look only at her eyebrows. They were carefully drawn on and she must have spent much time making them perfect semi circles. He became distracted and asked her to repeat the numbers and the words.
He hoped his sister used her Spanish name. She would not have used their real name because it sounded, as one of the English he worked with said, like someone clearing their throat. Gonzalez was a name these ones could wrap their teeth around. The woman looked again at the computer on her desk and said, “Have you got that now? She’s in a restricted wing. Floor 9 Wing 6. You will need to present identification and sign in at the nurses’ station. Take the third elevator on your right.” Xabat quickly looked down as he repeated the numbers to himself. She smiled and handed him a piece of paper. The woman waved her hand at the elevators.
As he rode up the elevator, he balanced easily, enjoying the rise upward in the small space. Xabat examined the numbers on the paper. Nine was lucky. Six was death. Three was the best number for a door like the elevator. Xabat shivered and looked at the numbers above the door and not at any of the other passengers. He could hear a rustling now and again, but he did not have to speak, and he would not look.
As he walked down the echoing hall, he heard many slithering and swooshing sounds and he kept his eyes down. At the desk he stopped and raised his eyes to the nurse in khaki and focused on her right ear. He twitched with nerves. “Where is my sister, Ixtab Montejo Gonzalez?” He spoke again with respect but insistence.
“And you are?” The nurse raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “This is a restricted ward. Only family and only those on the list. Are you on the list?”
“My name is Xabat Gonzalez. This woman said to come. Her name is…” Here he stopped to look at the paper. “Susan Fuerguson, Social Worker.” This last pronouncement was difficult, but he thought he did well. Xabat stopped pleased with his effort and looked at the nurse’s ear as she flipped through a big book then took out another book for him to sign.
He took out his wallet and his driver’s license. This she examined, copied the number, and returned to him. He signed several papers before she came around the corner of the desk and began down the hall. The room she stopped at had a nine and a four on it. Auspicious numbers! Xabat relaxed. She opened the door.
“Visitor,” the nurse announced.
Xabat entered the cold, white room. On the bed, the body lay so flat as to barely lift the sheets. He could see dark hair spread over the pillow. Ixtab lay with her face to the wall. He came to the side of the bed and took up her hand. He looked at her hand, not her face. Her hand felt cold and dry and leathery. It seemed faintly green. A shadow on the other side of the bed startled him; he feared a tail coming from the sheets. The nurse shuffled toward that side of the bed and moved the sheet to reveal a plastic bag with yellow fluid. She inspected it and dropped the sheet to cover it. She held his sister’s hand as if it were a stick and counted. Xabat touched his sister’s hair.
“Bix a belex?” His sister did not respond. Slowly she turned her head to him. Her eyes were flat and black. Her smooth face showed no joy or sorrow. She showed nothing. Ixtab just stared. Her tongue came out and licked her lips.
Xabat stared at her. He trembled. “You are not a lizard. You are a Real Person, one of the Hach Winik,” he reminded her. He would not be the only Real Person left in this world.
After a long breath, her dark eyes glowed into his. “Maloob. I’m OK.”
A tear ran down the side of Xabat’s nose as he turned to the nurse and looked straight into her anole face.
“Hear me. She is a real person.”
Nancy H. Williard returned to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina after twenty years outside Yosemite. A librarian, educator, and writer with an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, in 2021, her story won an Honorable Mention in the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. See nhwilliard.com