Better Must Come
by Matthew Lyon
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
To drink all day, you have to start in the morning. Just imagine it’s really late, and not really early. That’s my neighbor Oscar. He would drink all day, but he’s on a daily budget of four dollars. San Juan is spotted with Americans like Oscar, at the end of their wick. They have succumbed to tropical habits, and are more than pleased to share their stories. Many stink of rum and loneliness. Some are ill and bitter, others boast they have no regrets.
Oscar just wants to talk, then talk some more. A constant ribbon of madness, as if the moment he stops talking he will lose control—releasing mountains of fears and a diary of doubts. His monologues are exhausting, but admirably candid. Within ten minutes of talking, he told me he has been here one year and has twelve dollars to his name. I’ve seen a lot of weird times lately, he says, But I still claw at hope.
For twenty years he ran drugs from Mexico to California. He tried the opium game in India but found it too good to be true. The cops over yonder are no deterrent to crimes big or small. They don’t exist, then one day they emerge big and bad. The police chief here in San Juan was replaced after his brother was caught organizing roadside robberies. But they were only robberies, no death, and they only took what drivers could afford. These are irregular tolls paid to men with machetes and homemade shotguns, assembled from dismantled plumbing. They don’t want your drugs, or your troubles, unless there’s money underneath them. But for safety’s sake, you better carry some money, because nothing upsets criminals like empty billfolds.
Oscar played bongos for the big wigs in Jalisco in the ’80’s. He did a lot of “bad energy drugs” because that’s what the scene required. Networking gets hairy in Jalisco, but he was rewarded with enough cash to last 15 years swimming and laughing at the taxman. He never had reason to believe anybody was looking for him. Never on the run, but always moving. When he quit the hookers for good in Jaco, he married a Nicaraguan girl. Love was good and strong, but Jesus, that was a heavy mistake, he says.
Oscar is usually the most positive 60-year old man you will meet with only 12 dollars in his piggy bank. He doesn’t know how Social Security works if you never contributed, and he doesn’t expect much. For survival, he funnels incoming tourists into a guesthouse. He receives 70 cents a head. As long as he finds two customers a day, he can buy a liter of Victoria beer and sit on the beach and watch the most consistent, dazzling sunset in the world. He says he still wants to go other places, but if fate pegs him here, and if his brother continues to fuck him on his inheritance, he will play it out here. If I focus on today, he tells me, I’m golden, I’m working, I’m fed and I live on the beach. If I think about tomorrow, it’s scary.
All Oscars friends in the logistics business went to jail. They made one too many trips back to Mexico. The last time he saw his friend Barry, he stashed his silver flute and two leather jackets in his barn. As far as he recalls, those are his last remaining ties to American soil. But Barry went to jail and never heard from him again. Maybe I should do the Internet thing, he wonders. Then I could find people. But what the hell would I do with a leather jacket? I cut the sleeves off all my shirts a long time ago. Hey man, he wonders, Would a silver flute rust?
Two years ago he sold everything, at least what was left. His beautiful Nicaraguan wife, his only love and friend, cleaned him out, a swift financial colonic. At the time he considered walking into the surf without fighting the force or foam. He still struggles to trust most locals, and carries a number of feuds around town. Last week the owner of a liquor store hit him in the leg with an entire mackerel after Oscar told him he had “bad energy.”
Oscar also supplements his income with an old trick. He sells dime bags to tourists. That’s only if he can beat Dennis to the punch. Dennis is a weed dealer from the Corn Islands. He is tall, fit man with seven gold teeth and no shirt. Dennis is a transplant in town and has to carefully tread upon local competition. He is likable though, and doesn’t invite trouble. He shares Oscar’s optimism and probably has double the savings. Twenty-five bucks might get him back to his home island, he says, but it’s a long ride on school buses, ferries, and cyclos. The mosquitoes get fierce anywhere east of San Carlos, and dengue is not good for business. Dennis has two sisters he would love to see, but the work is here. Tourists are afraid of the Bluefields mosquitoes, and prefer weed to malaria meds. Not many travelers go to Bluefields, and he’s not sure why they would anyway. Aren’t there enough singing birds in San Juan?
Oscar is an honest salesman, but Dennis is more convincing. He believes in his product. It’s green, and green is what we all need, he says. He’s a cool, strong, walking testimonial. I met him last week at the market fingering the fruits, looking less confident about picking a good papaya than I would have imagined. He saw me looking at him and nodded. It’s not unusual for the only black man in town to be noticed. He picked up a dirty potato and asked me in choppy creole English, Which tasty fruit is this? Jajaja!
He’s a funny guy. Nicas can be worn by heat and worse, but still have good humor. This is, after all, one of the richest towns in the country. That means there are concrete structures and a cash machine. Running water and power are no daily guarantees, even in San Juan. But it’s the comfortable, lazy kind of place you can walk down the middle of the street at any hour of the day. You may have to yield to the fruit lady or the horse-drawn trailer, carrying ten-gallon vats of unpasteurized milk.
Yesterday, I sat reading in a stilted beach bar, sweating through Melville. Dennis walked up and sat on the floor behind me, ignoring open chairs beside me and smiling at nothing in particular. A couple unclaimed, skinny dogs lied beside him and he put a hand on each one. His gold teeth shined like Isis in the sun, his blackness a colorful contrast. He drank a 7-Up in a green bottle that looked like it has survived the revolution. He sucked on the straw and began rolling a spliff. He worked slowly so I would notice. No tobacco, pues, he said, Only this green green.
I’ve never seen Dennis without his dark black sunglasses, and not sure he’s ever looked at me. He was facing the sea and probably considering President Ortega’s enormous white mansion out on the bluffs in the crescent bay. He jumped from the floor boards to the sand and lit up. The hungrier dog followed. Dennis is happy to smoke an entire joint, but would prefer to share.
You cannot pass up these opportunities, he said in deliberate Caribbean style. Sunshine, it is here, pues. It was true, another beautiful day in San Juan. Heavy rains left the canopy lush with green parrots and passion fruit. Squawking birds were keeping the bugs at bay. The bay was shining blue and teenagers were skipping class to play baseball at the end of the beach. They made do with cracked wooden bats and gloves repaired with fishing line.
Dennis pinched his joint, the smoke fragrant and spinning around his hand. This is a gift for you and me, he said. It make you see everything better. He glanced up toward the President’s white, unjust palace, quietly mocking. He took a few more puffs and carried on with more enthusiasm. It make you see things funny, you know? I think it make you see the book better. See the music. Make you know good things.
Dennis stretched his arms, planting his hands on his hips, a tall black shadow on the light sand. He looked at the boats bobbing on the horizon, then back at me. I am happy! You know? Jaja! We should get happy, pues. Stay happy, today.