The Coin Divers
I saw a dark sheet of rain as it fell on the Caribbean. It was like a thin black veil lowered across the horizon, separating the sea beyond from the sun drenched glistening turquoise water along the coast of Cancun and surrounding the tiny island of Isla Mujeres. Crossing from the Yucatan mainland to the north end of the island, the ferry churned the water, leaving small white capped waves in its wake. I frequently licked my lips, tasting the salt water that rose up in mist form from the disturbed water.
Jorge and I sat on the wood seats at the rear, protected from the harsh sunlight by a slightly arched roof. He wore a lemon yellow nylon windbreaker. Mine was on the bench between us, lying across our clasped hands. The ferry was packed with tourists, none of whom we had previously seen in Cancun before we arrived at the dock to catch the ferry.
Seagulls circled and swooped above, their raucous cries competing with the noise of the ferry's engine and the lapping of the waves against the hull. The noise prevented conversation, so Jorge and I did little talking, nor did anyone else from what I could tell. Other than that Jorge's fingers were entwined in mine, he could have been just another stranger. I watched the rain while his eyes were fixed on the island's coastline.
As the ferry neared the dock its engine gradually became quieter. As if on cue, the tourists began to talk, their voices rising above the sound of the side of the ferry scraping against the dock as it pulled into place. Those seated on the left side suddenly became loud and animated. On that side of the ferry nearly a dozen young boys of varying ages were in the water, some holding their hands out, palms up, while others splashed the water. Their brown, thin bodies stood out against the sun lit luminescence of the clear, bright green water.
“Tira tus monedas,” the boys yelled.
When the first tourist threw a coin, it landed in the water out of reach of the boys and began to sink. Several boys dove beneath the surface in pursuit of it. Moments later, one of the younger boys sprung up with the coin held between his teeth.
The tourists clapped and threw more coins. The boys jockeyed for position to catch the coins or dove down to catch the sinking ones before they hit the ocean floor.
Jorge grasped my hand so tight, it hurt. We put our backpacks on and I followed Jorge who pushed his way through the tourists to get off the ferry. It wasn't until we had left the dock that I was able to ask, “Are you okay?”
“No,” he said. “The boys are being turned into beggars.”
Behind us, the tourists were still getting off the ferry as we started for El Centro, the shopping district on the island. It was where Jorge's family lived, where his father was dying. It had been several years since our last visit. This time the streets lined with tourist shops and restaurants seemed narrower. Jorge walked at a fast pace, while I followed behind looking at the open shop fronts and wondering how so many shops existed that seemed to sell the same blankets, hats, t-shirts, crafts and trinkets. The aroma of cooked meat hung in the air.
At a two story building painted a bright pink with a shop on the first floor, Jorge opened a black iron gate beside the open shop and held it open. I walked through first into a walkway that led to a flight of metal stairs. I pressed myself against a wall and let him pass, then followed him up the stairs. He didn't knock, but opened the door and yelled into the living room, “Mamá y papá estoy en casa.”
Jorge's mother came into the room from the direction of the kitchen. She looked pale and haggard and her dress hung loosely on her thin frame. She paused in the middle of the room, brushed back strands of her long gray-streaked black hair from her face, then rushed to Jorge and threw her arms around his neck and lavished his face with kisses.
While they embraced, I looked around the room. Nothing had changed since the last I had seen it. The same sofa draped with colorful, striped blankets was pushed against one wall. An overstuffed chair in need of upholstery and a wicker chair faced the sofa. In between the chair and sofa was a walnut stained board sitting on concrete blocks that served as the coffee table. The walls were mostly bare except for two prints in black wood frames, one of Jesus and one of the Virgin Mary. A wood cross hung above the doorway leading to the hall which led to the kitchen and two bedrooms.
Jorge peeled his mother's arms from around him and turned her toward me. “Say hello to Brian,” he said.
She spoke English, but rarely used it in front of me, and never to me. As much as Jorge tried to teach me, I knew very little Spanish.
“Hola,” she said, barely spreading her lips to let the word out.
Although I knew I wouldn't get a reply, I said, “It's nice to see you again. How is Jorge's father doing?”
She turned back to Jorge and said, “Por que lo trajiste aqui?”
I understood those words. “Why did you bring him here?” More importantly I understood the tone and inflection and her inability to look at me. She didn't want me there.
“Take me to Papa,” Jorge said to her as he slid off his backpack and sat it on the floor.
She took him by the hand and led him into the hallway. As they disappeared from view I removed my backpack and sat on the wicker chair and held it in my lap. From his parents' bedroom I could hear Jorge speaking to his father in Spanish. Little of it I understood. His father coughed spasmodically throughout the conversation. His father's tone was angry and argumentative.
When Jorge entered the living room his brown cheeks were flush. He stood there for a moment, as if lost. “I'll meet you later at the house,” he said. “I'm sorry.”
I stood up and went to kiss him, but he held up his hands, holding me back. “Not here,” he said.
I put on the backpack and left.
Waiting on one of the ubiquitous taxis, I stood across the street from where the ferries docked and watched as a ferry began to depart. Passengers lined along one side and tossed coins into the water and cheered and clapped as the boys dove down to retrieve them. So many coins were being thrown that the boys seemed to have barely enough time to catch their breath in the moments between diving down in pursuit of the money. When the youngest of them, a boy about seven years of age, was hoisted up by a couple of the other boys onto the wall beside the dock and lay on his side appearing to gasp for air, I ran across to him and knelt down.
“Estás bein?” I said, grateful that I recalled the words.
His face was ashen and his lips almost white. “Si, si,” he stammered. “I'm okay,” he said in perfect English.
“Do you want me to take you home?” I said.
He sat up and watched as the ferry began to leave the dock. Passengers were still tossing coins into the water. “I can get more,” he said. He stood up, shakily balanced himself, then dove into the water. I stood and watched him swim out and join the other boys as money fell into the water. I turned, and to my relief, immediately a taxi pulled up to the curb.
Isla Mujeres is about five miles long from one end to the next, and between El Centro on the north end and El Garrafon National Park and the southernmost tip of the island, Punta Sur, at the other end, there are the small neighborhoods where most of the locals live and further out and along the beaches, mostly homes of expats and seasonal rentals. I was let out of the taxi at a modest white and brown hacienda style house. As the taxi sped away I opened the white gate and walked up the marble tiled walkway to the house, opened the door and walked in.
The inside was awash in pastels; the upholstery on the furniture, the walls and the artwork were all variations of pastel pink, yellow and blue. Most of the furniture was white wicker. All the table tops were glass. It had the aroma of cleaning fluids.
I removed my backpack and went into the bedroom and tossed it on the bed, then opened a glass sliding door leading out to a balcony. I walked out and stood at the railing not sure if I was actually seeing the coast of Cancun, or if it was my imagination or a mirage. Below the balcony waves lapped against giant boulders. The air was a combination of sweet and salty.
Jorge was on my mind.
I left the house, and caressed by the gentle ocean breeze I walked past the park to the paths at Punta Sur. Only a few tourists were walking along the paths that wound their way all the way to the narrow rocky tip of the island. I took one of the paths, stopping only to look at the recently carved statues placed along the way, including one of Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Childbirth and Medicine. I stared into her black marble eyes and placed my hand on her protruding stomach, and then quickly pulled it away. Feeling it had been burned, I stared at the palm of my hand, surprised to see it was fine.
Every window, and the doors to the bedroom balcony and deck outside the kitchen, were open. The constant breeze made the curtains float above the floors and carried the scent of rain, although no rain had fallen. From the bed, the coast of Cancun resembled a pencil thin line of yellow light. Between Isla Mujeres and the Yucatan coast, the water was blanketed with the black of night. Beside me, Jorge laid on his back, staring up at the canopy of mosquito netting above the bed.
“You know how my parents feel,” he said. “They believe you turned me into a homosexual.”
“I know,” I said. I dreaded asking the next question. “What are you going to do when your father dies?”
He hesitated before answering, then said, “I'll have no choice. I'll have to stay here. My mother will need me.” He put his arm around me. “This will be our last night together.”
We fell asleep entwined in each others arms and legs.
In the middle of the night, as Jorge slept, I got out of bed and went into the living room and turned on a lamp. The statue of Ixchel was sitting in one of the chairs.
“I'm sorry for your sadness,” Ixchel said.
“You’re here and you speak,” I stammered, shocked.
The statue leaned back in the chair. “I felt you needed me. How did you meet him?”
A dolphin's squeak coming from not far beyond the boulders momentarily grabbed my attention. “I met him ten years ago on a small secluded beach on the southern side of this island,” I said. “It was a chance meeting.”
“Everything happens by chance,” Ixchel said.
“That's an odd thing for a goddess to say,” I said. “I thought you gods and goddesses made everything happen.”
“The power of gods and goddesses is more limited than you might think,” Ixchel said.
I sat down on the sofa and put a cushion behind my head and sat back. “How much pain can my heart endure?” I said.
Ixchel rose from the chair and walked over to me and laid her heavy, stone hand on my chest. “It will endure from one pain until the next, up to the time you die.”
I closed my eyes.
When I awoke, sunlight was streaming through the windows and there was only a slight breeze. I got up and went into the bedroom. Jorge was gone.
On the ferry I sat by the railing and watched the boys dive beneath the water after coins tossed by the ferry passengers. The boy I had briefly talked with two days before submerged beneath the surface several times than rose up each time with a coin held in his teeth. After another dive it was several minutes before he came to the surface, carried there by several other boys. His body was limp and held in the other boys' arms like a child piata. They carried him to the wall and lifted him up onto it and then climbed up after him. Taking turns they gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation and turned him on his side and pounded his back with their small fists as the ferry pulled away from the dock.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 300 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977.