Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Grace and I had agreed to pick up Paul at the airport in Guatemala City. Suzie, Paul’s girlfriend and our fellow Peace Corps volunteer, had to build chicken coops in a village near Santiago and couldn’t leave in time to meet him, so she’d asked us to go in her place. Paul didn’t speak Spanish and needed someone to look out for him. Besides, he was bringing a bagful of novels, Suzie had told us, and we could have first pick.
Grace and I caught the last public bus and arrived at the airport almost two hours early. To kill time, we milled around the shops, where postcards, T-shirts, and native weavings were sold for twice what they cost elsewhere. From the balcony above the baggage claim, we watched people trickle in from Los Angeles and Miami and Costa Rica. They lifted their bags off the conveyor belt, stood in line to have them searched, then exited through the large glass doors. Outside, beggars and cabdrivers awaited them.
With an hour to go before Paul was due to arrive, we walked outside and sat on the grass in the park across from the airport. It was going to be a cool evening. The taxis came and went, gunning toward the big hotels. The sky turned orange, then gray. Grace sat on my lap, and we kissed.
We talked about how we pitied Paul, coming to a country where he didn’t speak the language. Without us, he wouldn’t know how much a cab ride to the hotel cost and would end up paying three times the going rate. We’d have to teach him how to bargain in the market — just stand there and look indignant until they lower the price — and not to accept any food or drink from strangers, because it might be drugged. Anyone who didn’t know Guatemala was ripe to get ripped off.
Grace and I were at ease in Guatemala, to the point where we considered ourselves locals. We laughed and kissed, and I ran my hand through her long brown hair. I put my other hand up her skirt and felt her smooth thigh.
“Uh-oh,” Grace said.
She was off my lap in a flash.
“Get up,” a voice said in Spanish.
I turned around and saw three policemen, one of them wagging a billy club at me. Grace was on her feet and patting down her skirt.
“Yes, señores?” I said, standing.
The one who held the billy club smiled. He was the tallest and broadest of the three, and the only one with a mustache. “I think you have been doing something very bad in public,” he said. The other policemen nodded.
“Excuse me?” Grace said.
“Oh, yes,” said the leader. “Very bad.” He grinned and turned to his companions.
“What do you mean?” I asked, preparing to play the dumb American.
“You and the girl have been having relations in a public place. This is against the law.”
“We weren’t doing anything,” Grace said.
“We will have to arrest you.”
I wondered if he was joking. I tried to smile, but it felt halfhearted. Grace narrowed her eyes.
“We weren’t doing anything,” she repeated.
The policeman looked at his two companions, and they grinned on cue. “We saw you,” he said. “There’s no question. You are North Americans?”
We nodded. The policeman nodded with us.
“In your country, perhaps, such sexual acts are permitted in public places. But in our country, things are different.”
“Right,” Grace said, seizing on an excuse. “We’re used to different standards. We’re sorry. Seriously. We’re meeting a friend here, and his plane is due to arrive soon. If you’ll let us go, we promise never to do anything like this again.” Grace took me by the elbow and began to walk away, but the policeman put out his billy club to stop us.
“This is not a satisfactory solution,” he said. “What if the murderer said he would never kill again? Should he be let free?”
“But we didn’t murder anyone,” I said.
“The principle is the same, no?”
“We weren’t doing anything,” Grace said for the third time.
“But you just admitted you were.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Now you are lying. On top of what you have done, you are lying.”
Even in the dim evening light, I could see Grace’s face turn red. She shook her head.
“Come,” the policeman said, “we must take you to jail.”
I spoke up: “Isn’t there some other way we could handle this?” I suspected a bribe was what he wanted, but I wasn’t positive. If I wasn’t careful, he might use the suggestion against us. I pictured Paul stepping out of the airport into the gauntlet of cabdrivers and beggars, looking around for us. How long would he wait? He didn’t even know at which hotel he was supposed to meet Suzie.
“What other way could we handle this?” the policeman asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, not wanting to be the first one to mention money.
“Well,” he said, “why don’t you suggest some possibilities.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “why don’t you suggest some possibilities.”
He gave his companions a sly look. “You are gringos, no? So you must know the great actor Sylvester Stallone. I would very much like to appear in one of his movies — even as a villain, if I must.”
Was he joking? Grace and I had met more than a few Guatemalans who assumed that everyone from the United States knew Madonna and Michael Jordan.
Grace said, “I have a cousin who works for a film company in New York. He worked on Woody Allen’s last film.”
“Woody Allen?” the policeman said. He whistled softly and shook his head. “What you were doing warrants more than an appearance in a Woody Allen movie. I would consider Harrison Ford. But Sylvester Stallone is my first choice.”
He turned to his companions, who laughed loudly.
“I know I cannot be in any of your movies,” the policeman said, suddenly serious. “What else?”
Grace said she lived near an agency that was doing a major reforestation project. “They’ve got a lot of nice pine saplings,” she told the policeman. “I could get you some to plant in your yard.”
The policeman looked hard at Grace. “So you think I have land? I’m a policeman. I make less than fifty dollars a month. How can I afford to own land? I live in an apartment with my family and my two brothers and their wives. Perhaps I could plant a tree in my bedroom.”
Again, the two other policemen laughed.
“No,” the policeman with the mustache said, “you will have to think of something else.”
I sighed. I figured it was time to bring up money. “Well,” I said, “we’re not tourists, so we don’t have any dollars. But if money is an issue, I think we can take care of it.”
“Ah,” the policeman said, nodding. “You are offering me a bribe?”
I shook my head furiously. If I’d miscalculated, I could double our offense: sex in a public place and attempting to bribe a policeman. How many days, weeks, months could we spend in jail? I imagined a stinking cell in some obscure part of the capital. Would we be allowed a phone call? Would the phones even work?
“So you’re not offering me a bribe?”
“We’re meeting a friend,” Grace said, “and he’ll be here very soon.” Her teeth were clenched, and her blue eyes had begun to water. In desperation, she mentioned the names of two army captains she knew. She claimed to have their telephone numbers in her pocket. “I’ll call them,” she said. “I’ll tell them what’s going on here.”
The policeman shook his head and curled his finger at me, motioning for me to come with him. He walked to a pine tree about twenty yards away. I followed. We faced each other. He was tall for a Guatemalan, but still two or three inches shorter than I.
“Your woman,” he said in an even tone, “is threatening me.”
“I know she is saying this because she is nervous,” he said, “but it is unpleasant.” His shoulders slumped a little, and his dark eyes were round and large, like a curious child’s. “As you know,” he said, “it is illegal to offer a policeman a bribe.”
“And illegal to accept one,” I said.
“Yes, this is a problem, isn’t it? But for most people, it isn’t a problem. The bribe is offered and accepted, and the law doesn’t matter. If we were to enforce the law, I would have to take you and your girlfriend to jail. And it would be very unpleasant there. You would be separated, and who knows what would happen to you. Someone from your embassy would come tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, and there would be publicity. There is always a reporter from La Extra at the jail, and this would be news. The story would help to sell newspapers. But who would profit? Not me. Not you.” He shook his head. “It’s unfair. The government does not pay us enough to live on and then expects us to refuse bribes. This is like asking a starving man to refuse a piece of bread.”
I glanced over at Grace. She was talking with the other two policemen, speaking loudly and quickly, mentioning someone else she knew, the owner of a plantation on the south coast who was a retired colonel with many friends in the army.
“I do not like to think of my country as corrupt,” the policeman said to me. “And this is what you will think if I accept your bribe. You will tell all your friends, ‘Yes, Guatemala is very corrupt.’ I shouldn’t care. I am only one man, with two young daughters and a wife who cleans our neighbors’ houses for money. And still we are hungry. Perhaps I should accept your bribe. Sometimes, in order to survive, people must become corrupt.”
“It’s hard,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic. Really, I didn’t care about his dilemma. I was ready to pay the bribe.
“Before I was a policeman, I was a student,” he said. “An art student. Painting.” He made a drawing motion with his right hand. “But I could go for only one year because my uncle died. He was the one paying for my school.”
“Sad,” I said with as much feeling as I could muster. Where was this leading? Was he softening me up so that I would offer him a larger bribe?
“I paint very little now,” he said. “Only playing cards.”
“Yes, I paint playing cards. I have a deck in my pocket, cards I have painted by hand. I think this is how we will solve our little problem today: you will buy a deck of my playing cards, and I will let you go meet your friend.”
I wondered how much he was going to charge. I had about a hundred quetzales in my pocket — around twenty dollars. If he asked more for his hand-painted cards, we could be right back where we started.
“How much?” I asked.
“The price is usually one hundred quetzales. But because this is an unusual situation, I will sell them to you for seventy.”
“OK,” I said, relieved to be resolving matters. I pulled out my wallet and turned around so he wouldn’t see how much money I had. Then I drew out three blue twenties and a pink ten and handed them to him.
“Thank you,” he said.
When I began to walk away, he said, “Wait.”
“Right,” I said. “The cards.”
He removed a deck of cards wrapped in tissue paper from his pocket. “Here,” he said.
They weighed hardly anything; I doubted it was even a full set. I shoved the cards into my pocket.
“You aren’t going to look at them?” he asked.
“Later,” I said, and I walked over to Grace, threw my arm around her shoulder, and practically carried her toward the terminal.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” I said, stealing a quick look back. The policeman was standing with his head bowed, as if he’d dropped something in the grass.
In the safety of the airport, I told Grace what had happened. I didn’t mention the cards, just how much I’d had to bribe him.
She whistled. “Ouch. That’s half a month’s rent.”
“Yeah, a goddamn rip-off.”
We met Paul outside the baggage claim and hailed a cab to the Hotel Suizo. On the way, we told him about our adventure.
“Be forewarned,” Grace said. “No sex in public places.”
Suzie met us at the hotel, and after dinner the four of us went back to Suzie and Paul’s room and talked until late. Around midnight, the conversation began to fade, and Paul and Suzie looked as if they wanted to be alone. But Paul still hadn’t offered Grace and me any of the novels he’d brought, and we weren’t about to leave without our bounty.
“Well,” Suzie said, “what should we do now?”
“Anybody up for cards?” I said, and I pulled out the policeman’s deck, opened the tissue, and placed it on the center of the bed. They were smaller than regular cards, maybe three-quarter sized, and their backs were all painted dark blue. I flipped the deck over. The top card, the king of hearts, had a drawing of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl in the center.
“Cool,” Paul said, picking it up.
“Where’d you buy these?” Suzie asked.
“Why have I never seen them?” Grace said.
We flipped through the deck. The queen of hearts was La Llorona, the weeping woman. The jack was the Mayan corn god. There was even a pair of jokers: El Sombrerón, the guitar-playing midget. The colors were bright, the images simple and powerful. I could see why the policeman had been so eager for me to look at them.
“They’re beautiful. Where’d you get them?” Suzie asked again.
“From a local artist,” I said.
“I’d like a set,” she said.
“I’ll buy one for you,” Paul said gallantly.
The next morning, Paul took me aside and asked where he could buy a deck of cards like mine. I told him I didn’t think he’d be able to find an identical deck, but that I would sell him the one I had.
“How much?” he asked.
“Thirty dollars,” I said, calculating my profit.
“It’s a deal.”