“Bones” (Excerpt)

KYLE WALLER WAS RETIRED FROM HIS JOB at InvoTech for exactly twenty business days when he found himself crouched at the helm of an old fishing boat, sputtering across the jade skin of the Mopan River in Belize. The boy Oscar was at the stern, manning the rudder while the woman from Florida and her teenaged son sat athwart, withering in the heat, heads shrouded in sunglasses and safari hats, noses white with zinc. The farther they traveled up the river, the more the jungle canopy thickened with poisonwood and breadnut, blossoming bribri, florets of tamarind spreading like parasols over the river’s breach. Along the bank, iguanas sunned themselves on the mudstone flats.

“Oscar,” Kyle called, turning to show the boy his profile. “How long before we hit Bullet Tree Falls?”

“I think so fifty minutes,” Oscar shouted over the throaty rattle of the motor. “About fifty, but maybe more, actually.”

Kyle glanced back to get a good look at Oscar’s arm and bare wrist, brown from the sun and his Mayan lineage. As expected: no wristwatch. Kyle felt a wave of agitation tickle the nape of his neck, but the boy gave him a double thumbs-up and smiled so broadly and so earnestly that Kyle suppressed the impulse to bark out an order. Old habits died hard.

“Well,” he said, checking his own watch. They’d left the lodge at Benque Viejo at nine in the morning. It was already ten twenty, and the day felt as if it were running away from them. Still, he held up an appreciative hand and dipped his chin in deference to the young captain. “Looks like we’re making good time. Good job, Oscar.”

The late-morning heat arranged itself around them, invisible, viscous, aboriginal—a solid thing you could touch. Kyle gave his arthritic fingers a callisthenic stretch before hiding his aching fists in the pockets of his shorts. He grumbled into his shirt collar and looked back up, squinting at the murky green river ahead.

“Mr. Waller, you’re on vacation,” the woman from Florida said. “Why the rush?”

Her name was Cheryl, and her son was called Diggs, after a great-great-grandmother of Norman descent, a nineteenth-century émigré of alleged prominence. Kyle had gotten an earful last night at the lodge, over happy-hour cashews and plantains washed down with 100-proof Jaguar Juice. Cheryl’s sun sign was cancer; she was ten-years divorced and ran a specialty cake shop out of a crawfish joint in Kissimmee; Grandmother Diggs was on her side of the family, and so on. Kyle recalled business-school classmates with inherited Christian names—Baines, Palmer, Reese—a ritual of the wealthy. He imagined her kid at Harvard. It was an absolute absurdity. Diggs had black-dyed hair that hung in knotted strands below the limp brim of his hat, and his sunglasses—large Audrey-Hepburn shades trimmed in tortoiseshell and worn ironically—obscured his eyes and his angst-ridden secrets. Kyle felt a passing shot of relief at never having had children of his own.

“Why the rush?” Cheryl asked again.

The outboard motor stammered and spat, slowing the boat. Oscar muttered something in Spanish—not a curse—and hit the powerhead with the bony base of his palm. It resumed its low rumble, and the boat lurched back on its course, sending Cheryl stumbling in her seat, making a frenzied grab for the gunwale. The ride stabilized and she caught herself, shimmying up straight and pushing at the bridge of her sunglasses, pretending to adjust the tip of her hat. Diggs looked portside where two Caribbean women, one old and one young, were pulling ropes of laundry out of the water at the river’s edge, while a toddler in soiled Fruit of the Looms waded in the shallows, waving.

Kyle lifted his palm to the child as they passed.

“I need to get to the bones before dark,” he said.

—from Plougshares Solos