Night of the Week of The Lifted Brow, Part 2
Today’s selection from The Lifted Brow #6 is a collaborative short story by Deb Olin Unferth and Clancy Martin. Seriously, what else could you possibly need me to say to you about that? (Except maybe to remind you again that Deb is reading tomorrow night at Broadway East, with me and Tao Lin and several other fine folks, to celebrate the Rumpus 1 Year Anniversary.) Okay, “Nicaragua” begins below.
by CLANCY MARTIN and DEB OLIN UNFERTH
I kept a large bottle of Flor del Cana rum hidden in a large earthenware jug in the front room, the sitting room with a red and yellow tiled floor. The tiles were old, gorgeous, but you had to be careful that the kids didn’t run on them with wet feet because as old as the tiles were—they might have been a hundred years old or older—they were as slick as gems. They had that gem-like luminosity, too.
But the problem with hiding the rum bottle in the jug was the spiders. It was a deep jug, almost up to your chest, I could barely reach the neck of the bottle with my arm all the way down into the jug. There was no way my husband was seeing the bottle way down in there. But it was full of spider webs, and at night with the light from the chandelier on overhead I could see their many eyes like raindrops on a wall glistening up at me. The spiders themselves I couldn’t see, just the eyes, and the webs, of course, which I brushed through as I reached down for the bottle. And I didn’t always find it immediately, either, sometimes I had to fumble around a bit before my fingers discovered the neck, I didn’t like that, I can tell you. It could be there were just three or four big ones with who knew how many eyes or maybe there were dozens with only five or six eyes apiece, but there were lots of eyes down there, and the way the light was and my own shadow changing the fall of the light from above those eyes would sparkle up in every different place, like evil Christmas lights, or candles in a church, with people walking in the darkness, the candles in their hands. There was no other place in the house I could spy where I knew my husband would not stumble upon that bottle of rum. So every night, me and the spider eyes. When the bottle was empty I smuggled it out of the house when I went down the street to buy some take-out. Then I could drink a beer in peace and security with everyone watching, just like a normal person, I could say to the waitress una cerveza, por favor, and she brought me the beer with a smile on her face as though she was telling me here’s the first, you can always have a second if you like, the food is cooking, then we will put it in boxes for you, you have plenty of time, drink up, it’s a warm Nicaraguan night, listen to the music in the square, look at the candles, the light spilling out into the street. My husband would not spring out from behind a column because he was back at the house with the sleeping children.
Back in Managua I had an incredible number of bites. You could barely see them but they itched like mad. My husband kept saying, “Wow, you are a mess. Look at you,” because I couldn’t stop scratching. This was after the hurricane and you couldn’t buy any itch ointments. My husband said he didn’t want to sleep next to me or for the girls to be around me because the bites might spread to him or the girls. “Bites don’t spread,” I said. “They do on you,” he said, and he was right. They’d spread to my fingers and between my fingers and then to my arms, my stomach, my legs, my ankles. I had to keep stopping on the street so I could sit and scratch. The girls would sit on either side of me and say, “Poor Mommy,” but I could tell it made them nervous. They didn’t like the way my arms looked. Then a lady told us, “Those aren’t bites. Those are bugs living under your skin and when you scratch, you spread them.”
We thought this was helpful. This was progress and it made sense. I was worried the girls would think it was gross but they were fascinated. “It’s like you have an ant farm under your skin.” That’s what it felt like, too. We tried to get rid of them. We tried to freeze them to death by holding ice to them. It didn’t work. A Swede we met in a restaurant suggested we might suffocate them by chewing gum and then putting the chewed gum on my body, so the area over them would be sealed off and they would die. We bought gum, an enormous quantity of gum, and we tried it. The girls helped chew the gum. They thought that part was fun.
There are several things wrong with this picture. First, why did we think that would work? Wouldn’t the sugar in the gum feed the bugs? Did the bugs even need air? Wasn’t there air in gum that would seep through it and onto my skin? Second, where did we get all the gum from? After the hurricane it was hard to get food. There were rations and shortages, and we often did not have enough to eat, and of course the girls came first, how did we find gum? Well, we did. I can’t explain it. Somehow the gum was there and we sat around and chewed it and stuck pieces of it to my body. We had to chew it well and I had many spots that needed it. We asked some of the Swedes and the other European tourists sitting in the atrium to help. We were the only Americans we met that whole long trip. Even the Europeans didn’t bring their children to Nicaragua in those days. We all sat around chewing and sticking pieces of gum to me, between my fingers, on my stomach. “How long should I wait?” I said. We didn’t know. First we thought twenty minutes but then we thought maybe thirty. Then my husband said wouldn’t it be a shame if we took it off and they were almost dead but not quite. All in all I think we waited about an hour and then took it off and it hadn’t worked. The girls worried that I shouldn’t sleep with the gum on me. “You’ll stick to the sheets, Mommy,” they said. I would have, too.
I don’t know what worked. It was a problem, a big problem. For weeks it went on and then suddenly I forgot about it or got sick of it and it went away. We all got used to my bites. The girls didn’t get a single one, thank God.
The hurricane hit when we were on the bus to the beach. The beach was a long way from Granada, you had to cross half the country, and it was beautiful on the tiny road with the trees and the long green deep valleys, and you could even hear the dull sad notes of the howler monkeys, warning each other, when the bus driver pulled over for a break and we ate our sandwiches in the grass. There were parrots and multicoloured tiny birds in the trees. My husband worried when the girls went too close to the edge of the canyon, but I could see they were being cautious, and there was no mud, the sun baked everything. Then, the hurricane hit. The bus rocked on the road. The Nicaraguans clutched their bags to their chests. You want to tell yourself this kind of rainstorm with the wind and shovels of rain is a normal part of the tropical experience, we were at the equator after all, but when the Nicaraguans are terrified it is difficult to convince yourself. But the main thing is staying calm for the kids when what you want is to grab your husband by the throat and scream “Get us the fuck out of here and I mean now!” Tree branches fell on the roof of the bus from the rain and I could see there was no way the bus driver could find the twisting mountain road through the windshield, those wipers were a bad joke, he was feeling his way with the tires. But we survived, and when we reached the town there was a waterfall where our bridge was supposed to be. It was a pretty waterfall but the bridge was ten feet beneath it. I cried on the side of the road sitting on our bags in the mud. The girls patted me on the back and said, “Don’t cry, Mommy.” My husband was doing something useful like kicking rocks into the river next to the bus. But the rain had stopped. After an hour a man came on a rickshaw and offered to take us on a path he knew to a hotel. It wasn’t our hotel but it was one so we went. The muscles in his legs looked like steel strings. At the hotel the electricity was off but the water worked and I took the girls into the shower with me. It was over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the dark hotel room. The girls laughed because I thought I had bugs on my legs again but it was only scratches from branches as we made our way through the jungle on the rickshaw. There was mouse poop dotting the floor and the furniture. My husband was doing something helpful like lying on the bed with his eyes closed. “Here we are, at the beach,” I said. I wondered where the fuck I was gonna get a drink in this shitty hotel.
It was the next day, when the men were clearing the wreckage from the beach, that I was finally able to get away. There were giant palm leaves and broken shingles and tangles of seaweed and broken trunks all over the beach. Nicaraguan men were pulling the giant leaves onto wheelbarrows and carting them away. My husband was up the beach a ways with the girls leaning over to look at some mostly dead thing, I should have been shouting for them to stop but instead I rushed to the room for my purse. Inside the door to our room was a piece of cracked glass painted with a man and woman holding up an enormous ball of sun and looking down at a cobblestone road with a grey church at one end. I couldn’t find my purse. Water bottles sat in the corner (empty)—I put them there—and the fan whirling was on low. It had rained in the room during the night, only a few drops at a time but soon the girls had been damp and disconcerted. My purse wasn’t in my suitcase where I was sure I’d left it and my husband had left no bills on the night table, the way he sometimes did. That morning I had squashed several large bugs in the room with my own shoe and hand while the girls looked on, squealing. I had simply taken matters into my own hands, marched into the kitchen and pointed at the broom which the little maid had in her hand. Then I’d marched back and swept those squashed bugs right out of the room. Ah, I found my purse and hurried out, meeting eyes with the maid as I left—I think the little maid is watching me—and I arrived back carrying a large bag of fruit and with a new bottle of rum hidden in my purse just as my husband was coming up the beach with the girls. The other item of note was the dogs. They were in the atrium, yesterday three dogs, last night one dog, and now today there were two dogs. I don’t know why all those dogs were appearing and disappearing.