The gate attendants had called three times for Patsy Wikowski when Irene spotted a woman staggering on heels, porters running alongside who seemed to be keeping her upright. “She’s here!” Irene pointed to the woman with shoulder-length blond hair and long legs in pegged jeans.
“Really, you won’t take my bags on board! Look.” The woman pulled the blond hair off her head to show a pink scalp with dark tufts. “Chemo. I’m absolutely beat.”
The attendants huddled to confer, then tagged and gave handlers the four large suitcases to roll through the passage onto the small prop plane. Twenty-five years later, Irene thought, and Patsy Wikowski was still breaking the rules.
Outside the dimly lit airport, the four suitcases and two women didn’t fit into one cab, so another was called to come from town. “It’s totally safe.” Patsy patted Irene’s arm. Her assurances at this point seemed less than reliable to Irene. Why, she wondered, had her friend written that all they’d need for the fishing village on the coast of Baja California would be shorts, flip flops, and bathing suits, but Patsy had four oversized bags?
When the second taxi finally arrived, the drivers divided the luggage and suggested the two women go in separate cars, but Irene insisted she wouldn’t be separated from Patsy. “I don’t speak a word of Spanish,” Irene said.
“There, there,” Patsy patted her arm. “All will be well.”
The blackness of the night surrounded them for what felt like hours. At last, Irene saw lights, and soon their two cars rolled up in front of Hotel Casa Bella. An extremely pregnant woman checked them in at the desk while a small girl with a long braid stood waiting beside them.
“You are still serving food?” Patsy asked.
The woman answered, “Arriba, el piso superior.”
“Let’s go upstairs,” Patsy said. The little girl went ahead and led them to a table overlooking the bay. She waited quietly, dark hands folded over her white ruffled dress.
“Dos Margaritas on rocks,” Patsy ordered.
“Do they boil the water for the ice?” Irene asked.
“Tequila sterilizes. If I can risk it, so can you, Irene. No worries.”
The girl brought thick glass goblets so cold the tequila appeared to steam on the ice. “No more fucking worries. Here we are, two old friends reunited under a magic moon.” Patsy lifted her glass. “Look out there on the bay. Tranquility, I embrace thee.”
Within a few minutes, the girl carried in a tray with grilled shrimp, tortillas steaming under a cloth, sliced avocados with fragrant limes on the side. Patsy requested another round of drinks. Maybe the ice carried gut-destroying amoeba, or they’d both be kidnapped for ransom by a drug cartel, but Irene was too tried and hungry to care about hygiene or safety. And it was peaceful to look out on the expanse of black water dotted with tiny lighted boats that seemed to move like stars around the reflected moon.
After their meal, Irene and Patsy followed the child waitress up one more flight of stairs to their bedrooms. Irene was pleased to see the turned-down bedding looked ironed and the bathroom smelled of pine spray and disinfectant.
Patsy came to Irene’s side of the verandah between their rooms. “Good night, Irene, good night,” she sang in her husky voice. In her white nightgown, Irene thought her friend looked even more insubstantial than she had in the daylight.
“The breast cancer wasn’t supposed to come back,” Patsy had told Irene during one of their late night phone calls. “It’s a fucking bitch this time around.”
“I’m very sorry,” Irene answered. Her closest friend, Margie, had died only a month before from the same cancer. “Elder, Margie’s husband, is my boss at Citizens Mortgage. You might remember them, Patsy. She was in our class and he was a year older.” Irene paused. “We became really close. I was there a lot with Margie. I took her to appointments. Elder and I had always been professional but then this happened.”
“Something in your voice about professional?” Patsy had asked “What changed?”
“I let his hand linger on my shoulder when he put on my coat. I knew he needed sympathy but I wondered if he wanted more.”
“Did you, Irene?”
“I shouldn’t want more. It would be a huge scandal and a blot on our names.”
“In my experience,” Patsy had said in her husky voice, “tomorrow doesn’t promise anything and if my yesterday is any example, I wouldn’t bet on it. What I mean is, carpe diem, let yourself go with your feelings and you won’t have regrets. I’ll tell you what was worse than cancer.”
“What could be worse?” Irene had asked.
“I was getting my chemo infusion at the Westwood Medical Center when Cooper, my husband, was brought into emergency in the same hospital. He’d been riding his motorcycle to see me when a truck pushed him into another lane on the freeway. I mean how fucking fucked is that? And they thought he was OK, lacerations but no bones broken. I was the sick one. He died of an embolism that night. He wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t been coming to me.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Irene had said. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“I have to get away, Irene. Come with me to a perfect spot in Mexico.”
The sun had been streaming into Irene’s room for an hour when Patsy, without her wig, stepped in through the glass door to the verandah. “How did you sleep?”
“It took a while but finally I slept,” Irene answered.
Patsy rubbed patches of dark fuzz on her head. “I still get sweats from the chemo and have to change my nightgown, but then I get back to sleep. I’ll put Blondie on in a minute. She’s hot as a cat on my head.”
“When I got up and looked out, I didn’t know where I was. Last night when we were having dinner, I thought we were right on the water.”
They both turned to the waterless bay where little skiffs that had bobbed like magic lanterns in the moonlight now lay lopsided on a vast bed of steaming mud.
“I should have told you about the major tide that comes in and out of here twice every 24 hours. That’s why it’s called Puerto Illusiones. It should be beginning to fill. And let me tell you something more. Today is Day of the Dead, El Dio de los Muertos. Mexicans love their dead like nobody else. Tonight families will wait on graves for loved ones who have passed.”
“What about the dead drug lords, the assassins, the cartel killers?” Irene asked.
“Even bad actors had mothers who loved them,” said Patsy. “Everything will be fine or it won’t. Que sera sera.”
“I know that much Spanish.”
“So, sit tight for a few minutes while I do my façade. I’ll show you around town.”
Cars slowed, men swiveled their heads to gawk at the two women walking on the esplanade. Eyes lingered on Patsy’s golden curls, her long legs in skinny jeans and heels.
“Let’s cross over to my favorite bar.” Patsy pointed to a neon-lit outline of a woman wearing a plumed hat. The sign Las Katrinas flashed on and off in the sunlight.
“Wait a minute.” Irene grabbed Patsy who was oblivious to the motor bikes that buzzed by like a swarm of angry insects.
As Irene peered through the bar’s magenta light, she saw a man wearing a very white shirt. His teeth were ghostly white as he came to the door to greet them.
“Bienvenidas, Senoritas. Paraservivles. I am Eduardo, to serve the pretty ladies An auspicious day, no?”
“Eduardo! Querido amigo.” Patsy tilted forward to hug the bartender. Irene stood to the side as they chatted in Spanish. When they sat down on bar stools, Irene faced a gallery of images above a mirror opposite them. Slowly, as if she were watching pictures emerge from a developing solution, Irene realized that the women in the photographs were all carefully dressed in old-fashioned long gowns and plumed hats but had no faces.
“They’re dressed-up skeletons,” she blurted out to Patsy.
“You know Katrinas? Las Katrinas are ladies who lose their beloveds.”
“Como yo, Eduardo,” Patsy said.
“Lo siento,” said Eduardo. “Recientemente?”
“I’ll tell him about Coop,” Patsy said to Irene. “Eduardo knew Coop.”
“I offer you tequilas especiales,” Eduardo said when Patsy finished.
“Well damn, we better get started. Two on the rocks and cha cha cha.” Patsy snapped her thumbs and middle fingers as if she were going to do a Spanish dance.
“Coop wanted to retire here as a civilian. We were planning our getaway.”
“Was your husband military?” Irene bit into a salty chip, the only nourishment she’d had all morning.
“Coop was a stunt man. Civilian meant when he wasn’t working. That day of his accident, while I was being infused, he leaned over and gave me a big sexy kiss in front of everyone.” Patsy licked salt off the goblet rim. “He sacrificed himself for me.”
“Patsy, you have to believe it wasn’t your fault.”
“Beautiful women threw themselves into his arms but Coop never cheated, He caught them and set them down and came home to me which made him one in a million in our town. Too bad he left me underwater.”
“Last time I looked out there, it was dry.” Irene turned toward the door.
“Underwater, over my head.” Patsy tried raising her arms to show high water but could only go half-way. “They took out nodes and muscle this time. What I meant was that the bank foreclosed in my darkest hour.”
“I’m sorry. What’s your mortgage, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Unreachable, astronomical, a serpent at my breast, what was my breast.” Patsy brought her hand down and adjusted the prosthetic bra. “That man spoiled me, but he couldn’t save us. We used up all our equity.”
“That’s not smart,” Irene said.
“Did you come here sit in judgment, Irene?” Patsy swiveled her bar stool and stared at Irene with eyes so deep set they looked like the fleshless images on the wall. “Back in high school, you were the one nice girl willing to be my friend. Other girls hung out because boys followed me around. They weren’t friends but you were.”
“Boys who liked you weren’t interested in me. I was scenery. And it’s been 25 years since we’ve seen each other. If I hadn’t found you online when I was making up lists for our class reunion, would you ever have gotten in touch?”
“Meant to, Irene, que sera sera.”
At the moment, Eduardo placed a fresh round of icy goblets before them.
“Tonight,” he said, “Katrinas look beautiful and sexy for gallants.”
“Dressed up skulls and crazy hats?” Irene asked.
“They look like that to welcome the dead. Everyone dresses up and goes to the cemetery with candles and soul cakes to attract the spirits back for the night,” Patsy said.
“Mi amor Alejandro was buried in Texas.” Eduardo leaned his elbows on the bar. “When he comes tonight he has no breath of the grave, no ugly spots on his beautiful body. He is young and perfect and smells like sweet narciso.” Irene thought of the last time she’d seen Margie lying in the open casket, her face had made up almost orange with spots of rouge on her cheeks. Now she’d be looking like the women above the bar, the Katrinas.
Eduardo wiped away a tear. “I loved him too much.”
“To have loved too much!” Patsy turned to Irene. “What will we wear tonight?”
“I don’t have any intention of going further than our hotel for something to eat. I do not live on air. You should eat.”
Light flooded in from the open door as a line of women, shawls covering their heads and shoulders, entered and blocked Irene’s exit.
“Before we visit our gallants,” said Eduardo, “we’ll go to Teatro Municipal to make a parade for most beautiful Katrina. These ladies will dress you for tonight.”
Two small women took Irene by the arm, their touch so soft there was nothing to resist. At the end of the bar, another door opened onto a large dimly lit room smelling of dust. Dresses hung on racks, wigs on pegs and high-heeled shoes stood shelved in rows.
Patsy pulled up her own wig and scratched her dark tufts. “I’ll keep Blondie but we’re going to make you a dark-haired beauty. Black velvet, something for your petite figure, sexy and dignified.”
The hands of several women dressed Irene, painted her face white, circled her eyes with black sockets. On her head, they secured a plumed black hat.
Eduardo nodded approval to each woman as the line walked past. Outside, blue water lapped against the sea wall and masts of skiffs leaned in a fresh breeze like musical notes. More women joined the line wearing long dresses and feathery, festooned hats. “Let me snap a picture or you and the Katrinas, or you won’t believe this.” Patsy aimed her phone. “Flock of happy flamingos.”
Irene awoke on something cold and hard. She tried to get up but a shock wave sent her back down to the ground. After a moment, she recognized the shot of pain had come from her own ankle but when she looked down, she saw her legs so far away it was as if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. She squinted and looked again. A big blue bulge had bloomed on her ankle.
“Easy does it, Irene. Rest a bit. Not everyone can kick up their heels after 40.”
She saw Patsy beside her on a gravestone, her wig askew and her red dress pulled up behind her as a pillow. Crosses silhouetted against the morning sun rose and fell in a dizzying sea all around. Neither of them had shoes; their feet were black with dirt. Many other people were lying on the grass around them or draped across headstones.
“Was there a cartel shoot-out? Are we dead, too?” Irene sat up to rub her ankle.
“No, these folks, far from being dead, are sleeping off last night dreaming of love. You, Miss, are one surprising woman.”
“I feel like Dorothy dropped down after the tornado.”
“We are from the Midwest, after all,” Patsy patted Irene’s arm. “The mescal takes time to wear off. We’ll shower and fix up, get some coffee and pan dulce.”
Together they staggered toward a road and found a taxi.
“I saw a shrouded figure coming toward me.”
“Tell me all you saw,” Patsy said. “Let it come back without censoring.”
They were sitting in bathrobes on the verandah between their rooms. A heaping plate of skull-shaped sugar cakes kept going in and out of Irene’s focus as she watched Patsy pour a dark stream of coffee from a pot. Coffee, she thought. I am alive. She closed her eyes against the glaring light.
“White and shimmery bodies coming toward me spun off and away but one stayed, her arm upraised. It was Margie. ‘How did you find me?’ I asked her. When she didn’t answer, I began crying and asking her to forgive me for Elder.”
“Was she angry at you?” Patsy asked.
“No, not angry. She handed me a peace gift. It was her breast.”
“Her breast? Wow, that’s weird, Irene. Didn’t she die of breast cancer?”
“Margie had stopped treatments because they weren’t working and only made her feel sicker. The last time I drove her into Columbus to her doctor’s office, he was examining her when one of her breasts fell off in his hands. No blood, just a dark thing burned like toast from radiation. Margie said it didn’t hurt but I was grossed out.”
“God,” said Patsy. “I hope mine didn’t look like toast.”
“It happened just like that. But the breast last night was young.”
“You know that’s a life sign, a sign to go on.”
“Go on with what? I don’t know where I am, why I’m here, where I came from.” Irene felt waves of nausea. In the bay below, the rippled mud seemed to vibrate under a glistening skin from the morning tide, making Irene think of the beginnings of life, things squirming and squishy and formless.
“You tried everything last night. You had mushrooms on top of Mescal.”
“That explains seeing Margie, because she couldn’t have been real.”
“Mescal and shrooms are vision assisters. That breast was given for a reason.”
Irene rubbed the swollen lump on my ankle. “Remind me, how did I do this?”
“You joined the chorus line with the Katrinas. You slipped off the platform.”
“I’m a fan of Dancing with the Stars but I’d never perform. Really, did I?”
“I do not lie. Let me tell you what happened to me. Once we’d all processed from the theater and were in the graveyard, the gallants started coming over the hill to the women waiting for them, but Coop didn’t appear. I cried, ‘Coop come to me.’ Then I heard his drawl, ‘Darlin, no tears.’ His breath, like Eduardo said, was flowers, no decay. We made orgasmic love until dawn when he began to fade. Before he was gone, he said, ‘No fears. I’m waitin’ for you Darlin.’”
“Do you really believe it was Cooper crossed over to Mexico to the graveyard?”
“There’s a thinner veil between both worlds here, Irene. I’m not afraid of crossing over. But here and now, I want a drink. How about we get back to Eduardo’s.”
Eduardo was wearing a fresh white shirt but hadn’t removed mascara that streaked sad clown tears under his eyes. The magenta light, the salt and tequila on Irene’s lips, brought back the night of flickering images, the skeletons and the red skirts of dancing women, the pounding music they’d danced to as if possessed by fire.
Patsy raised her glass. ”Irene, to you, God bless!”
“You planned from the beginning to ask something of me, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know if we’d bond enough for me to ask.”
“Four suitcases. I should have known. Do you need money?”
“It’s my money.” Patsy pounded the counter. “Mine. I want only a day of your time, a stop over in Los Angeles on your way home. You go to my bank, access my safety deposit box, take out the contents and put them in your purse.”
“What are the contents?”
“$100 dollar bills.” Patsy’s hands trembled. “Nothing stolen. It’s all ours.”
“Why didn’t you take the money before you left?”
“Because no one knows it’s there and I’m on several watch lists for walking away from my house. Nothing criminal, unless you count the IRS.”
“The IRS is the law. My livelihood depends on my probity.” Irene had a vision of Elman seeing her through jail bars. How could you! He vanished as she reached for him.
“Your probity, exactly what is needed. You know your way around banks. You’ll have my keys and the power-of-attorney we’ll get here. You’ll walk in, do your business on my behalf, and you’ll walk out with my legit money.”
“I’m not used to taking risks. You understand that about me,” Irene said.
“You’ve taken this risk. You’ve had a breakthrough. You’re a new woman.”
Irene felt Eduardo and Patsy and all the skeletons staring at her. She couldn’t take on all of them. “Where will you be when I’m in Los Angeles?”
“I’ll be right here with Eduardo. You can send me remittances through Western Union, not all at once, large amounts draw attention. I’m getting an apartment.”
“What about chemotherapy? Your remission? Can you get treatment here?”
“I didn’t say remission. More like an intermission. I’ll find a curandera, a woman who uses traditional herbs and sometimes works miracles, but I’m not betting on that. I don’t want pain and here they’ll take care of it.” Blondie wobbled on Patsy’s head. “Coop told me he knew you’d hook up with an old flame. On the other side, they see things we don’t know will happen, and Coop is a man who wouldn’t lie.”