The Coral in Belize Is Dying
by Walter Giersbach
The specialist at Sloan-Kettering had given Andy three weeks, and his announcement was still a fresh echo. The doctor had identified the headaches as anaplastic astrocytoma, his fancy diagnosis of brain cancer. Then the guy — he seemed like a nice fellow who said he played golf in the low nineties — went into his set piece about the Kübler-Ross grief cycle: shock, denial, anger, blah, blah, blah. At this point Andy tuned out.
Andy stumbled while he was leaving the doctor's office, and a nurse sat him in a wheelchair to recover. He couldn't believe he was nearing the end of his life after only forty-four years. The nurse called it shock, and he saw pity in her eyes that made him want to strangle her. No one had ever pitied him before. Andy made up his mind right there, that afternoon, to leave his work, his apartment, his car, his collection of baseball mementos, and move to paradise.
In three weeks there would be no Andrew Herrmann and no one to mourn his passing. He heard his wife was doing very well with her new husband, an orthodontist. His daughter in San Francisco was working as a peace activist and commentator on wars in the Mideast. And, if he really concentrated, he could think of only three or four friends who accepted him without qualification. He remembered his mother telling him what a good-looking child he had been; and when he was a teenager she bragged to everyone that he was a natural-born leader. She had died of cancer, too, he thought. Now, with both his parents long buried, it would be as if he had never existed.
Two days later, he sat on his hotel bed in Belize City and wondered whether there could have been a mistake somewhere. Perhaps a radiologist who was too young or inexperienced for this kind of diagnosis, a mixup in the X-rays or paperwork? Wasn't there at least an outside chance that the doctor was wrong, or that a flood of faxes from the lab had overwhelmed the doctor's ability to sort them? Andy didn't feel sick, didn't faint anymore or have the blinding headaches. No one ever really died on those TV medical dramas, so why did real life have to be such a bummer?
He felt good today — good enough to get up off his bed, check for his wallet and room key, and then leave. He thought he might walk back down to the dock. The fisherman he'd met could take him out to see the coral he talked about. Andy had no intention of jumping in the water with a family of sharks and sting rays; he was just curious about the reefs. But then, there might be nothing on the dock but a bunch of fish rotting in the sun. He didn't need to be reminded that soon he would be no better off than them.
What he really needed was a drink to forget the doctor and nurses who dared pity him. He would act like a tourist and forget there ever was a doctor. It was like the black kids said, “If you don't look at the cars when you jaywalk, they won't hit you.”
He had worked at the water authority in New Jersey for seventeen years, rising to commissioner. It was an achievement he attributed to serving the governor — whoever it might be and whatever his or her will. With his fiefdom came people like Big Man Fu. Exactly what Fu's other business dealings were, Andy didn't ask and didn't care. Fu — no one called him Leonardo Fusilli — saw that when Andy's wife Dolores wanted a new sunroom on their house, the construction people showed up. When Andy's child applied to the Peddie School she was accepted in spite of her mediocre grades. Don't ask, don't tell was the operating principle.
The bar was far enough off the main drag that there were no white faces among the four or five patrons. It was just after lunchtime and it wasn't smart to drink Scotch on an empty stomach, but he didn't give a damn. He had been a deacon in the Episcopal church of Livingston, rarely missed a day of work, stopped after a second glass of chardonnay at parties, and voted a straight ticket in every election. Who was to say he didn't deserve a tumbler of Scotch now if he felt like it?
“Buy me drink, mister?”
The woman was short and had a flat face. Sure, he could buy her a damn drink. Two or three even, and they could get drunk together and he could curse out the doctor who had probably prepped on reruns of ER. The poor bitch probably earned less than the national average of — what? — five hundred or a thousand a year here. And what was their life expectancy in a land lacking a proper medical infrastructure, a place where the TV stations never showed those commercials that said, “Ask your doctor if you need blah-blah-blah.”
He only needed to buy her two drinks and offer forty BZD — about twenty bucks American — to get her back to his hotel room. He didn't care what she looked like lying under him. Her breasts were hard as tennis balls and her hands were calloused. There was no justice that she should live and he should die. That was no reason to confuse lust with anything more spiritual or poetic.
Now she was asking for another sawbuck. Where did she get off thinking she was worth thirty bucks? But he gave it to her. Hell, maybe if he had slipped the doctor a hundred or two they could have touched up his X-rays and given him a clean bill. Money makes the world go around. Basically, money was invented to grease the skids and see that things went your way. He knew it was a bargaining chip.
Now the whore was whimpering about her sick mother and her genius son who had no clothes for school. Okay, he thought, I'll give you the extra tenner, now what do I get out of it? Was he supposed to feel absolved of some guilt, like she was a 501(c)3 charity? In order to get something out of the bargain he sat her down and asked touristy questions. Where's the best swimming, where could he get a good New York steak, and was it worth spending a day to see all those Mayan ruins in the jungle?
Life's a poker game. That's what Big Man Fu had said back in Newark. Seventy-six thousand dollars of Fu's money was now locked in the hotel's safe. It was his bargaining chip if Fu's goons ever caught up with him. It was a way of stacking the deck in his own favor.
Fu was right in that respect. Fortune was a sexy dancer walking a tight rope, one who could either tumble into great wealth or utter disaster.
It was too bad he hadn't written a book. What a story his career would have been. Love, political intrigue, betrayal, sex as currency, and scams in the water business that would make readers laugh till they peed their pants. Andy could even describe his beloved German shepherd, the one creature who had loved him without reservation while he was growing up. How long could it take to write a book? Three weeks? There must be someone in Belize who was a fast typist, could take down his story and sell it to a hotshot editor in New York.
The sun was sinking over the mountains, darkening the ocean into a blue pool flecked with white breakers. Beyond the cays he could see the shadowy coral reef. The guy on the dock had said the reef was dying, and the rosy encrustations that rose almost to the surface of the sea were turning white. The world was going through a heat wave, he explained, but it would pass in a thousand years or so. Meantime, the coral was dying. He was dying.
He laughed dryly, thinking of the paper bag with seventy-six thou of Fu's money. Leave it to that crook to figure out where the money had gone, or where Andy had gone. He'd be dead by the time anyone sorted out the pieces. At one bottle of Scotch per day he could leave a trail of twenty-one empties for Fu's henchmen to figure out. But before he croaked, the paper bag would go into the ocean to feed the fishes and coral.
His departure would leave a vacuum. His ex-wife Dolores would neither know nor care. His daughter Cynthia would shrug off any awkward question of what happened to her father. No obituary in the Jersey papers, and nothing but vacuous stares if his name came up at the church coffee hour. Andy would be like one of those explorers to the South Pole who wandered off and disappeared into the land of ice. His epitaph would be as blank as a snowdrift.
Was there no way out, he wondered the next morning? Had he exhausted every option?
He had moved from the bed to the lounge chair on the terrace after the whore left, and the sun in his eyes woke him up. Perhaps there was another doctor with a second opinion. This made him question whether he'd been too hasty taking Fu's money and flying to Belize. Belize must have real doctors. It had telephones, two TV channels, a few radio stations. That meant civilization, which meant there were doctors. They could double-check his condition. If the news was optimistic he could return and give Fu back the money, or say to hell with it and stay in Belize until something happened.
While Dolores would never speak to him again, his daughter might. If Andy were to show up in San Francisco and give Cynthia twenty or thirty thousand for her peace marches and pamphlets, she might agree to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. They could talk politics, perhaps even try to reconnect and see why their separation had taken place.
He went inside to fetch the almost-empty bottle of whiskey and muttered half under his breath, “That's the deal. First things first. Go find a doctor and see if he finds a tumor. Hide and seek.”
The sun shining through the lobby windows was blindingly bright, and he reached for his sunglasses. A newspaper lying open on the concierge's desk said it was something called 32 degrees Celsius. Yeah, it was 32 Fahrenheit in north Jersey, with snow probably. Count himself lucky, he thought. How many people ever tasted the good life? How many ever shaped — hey, created — their future? Andy was strong-minded and authoritative, else why would every governor have reappointed him? Thing is, he told himself as he stood in the lobby, you have to analyze the situation and then act decisively. Maybe the coral reef wasn't so bad either. Some scientist could probably fix it.
The doctor was no help. He had seen Andy right away, immediately X-raying, weighing, probing and testing him. According to the license on the wall the doctor was a Mexican. The man smiled with a duck of his head and shrugged a lot and asked for ten dollars after sizing Andy up as a yanqui. “You are okay,” was all the doc said. Did that mean Andy was not going to die or that the doctor was grateful for the tenner? Maybe he was just saying Andy seemed like a nice guy.
That did it. He would live each day until — well, until he didn't live. Maybe a few bucks in the right pocket would keep the coral reef from dying too. Trouble is most foreigners accepted things instead of grabbing the situation by the balls and twisting it into the shape that worked best. Americans didn't buy that predestination crap anymore.
He returned to the bar and was surprised to find the hooker spoke English passably well. Neither was she as bad looking as he had thought earlier. She seemed surprised when he asked her name, and said it was Marita. Andy surmised her son really was smart; he had written about a hundred poems — one of which got some attention in Mexico City. He asked Marita about her mother, too, and discovered she had some crappy jungle parasite that came from drinking bad water. She could be fixed up in no time with a dose of penicillin.
“Did you know the coral is dying?” he asked Marita. “The barrier reef here is the second largest one in the world, and nobody knows why it's dying.” She was an engaging person if you discounted her homely looks and ignorance. And her poverty.
She smiled and put her brown hand on his white arm. “Everything dies. Can we go to your room now?”
“Sure, we can go,” he said. “Time to start living it up. Life is really amazing if you stop and think about it. And when it's over — if it's over — I have a present I'll give you. From a man named Fu. For you and your kid who's going to be a famous poet someday.”
Copyright © 2012 by Walter Giersbach