This is an excerpt from the fourth chapter of "Cahuita," which is the first of four stories that comprise Secret Lives of Musicians. Pete has just realized that he's been abandoned on beach on the border of Costa Rica and Panama and is going to have to walk back to town in the middle of the night along the remote Caribbean beach.
At three-thirty, I assumed that I had been, for whatever reason, abandoned—and I needed to take some action. I had an uneasy feeling that something might have happened to Tonio and Juan and I was concerned about them. Did I need to notify the authorities that they had disappeared? And what about Natalia? What did she know and what was she thinking? I looked through the car and found a bottle of water and a plastic flashlight that wasn’t very bright but worked. It was time for me to start walking.
And so my beach trek north began, under a warm three-quarter moon that illuminated the deserted beach and pulled a strong tide. The thwick-thwack rhythm of my sandals on the wet sand was like a percussive background for what started out to be a breezy and uneventful jaunt. Every so often I’d see a light way back up on the shore and hear dogs barking, each time opting to not be the lost American tourist who bangs on the door of a remote seaside hut in a Central American country in the middle of the night to request water, a snack, and a lift into town.
A few miles down, I came upon a small fishing boat working the shallows. At first, I could barely make out the amber mast light until it emerged from the thick haze and drifted into view. The old wooden ship creaked and banged its way through the misty night, one lantern swinging over two souls pulling nets. As it passed upwind, the strong odors of fish and diesel fuel wafted in my direction. I watched the humble vessel slide across the grey and black canvas before me and heard voices chattering back and forth in Spanish as it slowly slipped back out of sight, back into the big darkness.
My eyes were starting to adjust. So far this had been an enjoyable and invigorating seaside sojourn. All at once, I sensed that something around me had just changed. I stopped, directed the weak flashlight beam back and forth and looked all around. What was it? What was different? After a few seconds, I looked down and saw that the beach below me had changed from white to black. I kneeled, scooped up a handful, and shined the light on it. Was it oil? No, it was sand. Black sand.
The Teva sandals I purchased for this trip were creating a blister on my right heel and it didn’t take long to realize that this could be a serious problem. Using my car key, I tore a little piece of cloth from the bottom of my t-shirt and inserted it as a pad between my blister and the offending strap. It worked for a while.
Time passed and I trudged. It was going to be sunrise in a few hours and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. Of course, it would be hot. But more important, I was in a foreign country and I had to be careful that I didn’t wander into the wrong set of circumstances. The Tevas were no longer wearable. I continued to walk, barefoot, carrying them.
As I followed the ribbon of sand northward, I thought about the gig earlier this evening. There was something about that experience that I liked very much, something about the way the songs were not only closer to the culture, they were part of it. Tonight, I had only the language of music in common with the people in the band, but we communicated easily and, by the time we finished, I felt like I knew who they were and we had established a collective identity. Off stage, we were from different universes, but when the drummer counted it down, we were a unit.
The hike fell into a more labored pattern. It seemed like I had been out there for hours but I wasn’t sure anymore because I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, becoming a little disoriented, and I didn’t know how much farther I could walk without anything on my feet. What do I do out here if I can’t walk?
Out of the surf’s incessant white noise emerged an unnatural low hum that seemed like it was getting louder. I caught a peripheral glimpse of light on the water and shadows somewhere and, after a few more seconds, I sensed motion behind me. I spun around and saw a pair of muted headlights coming out of the mist—approaching—about a block away.
A white Eighties Caddy coasted to a stop beside me. It looked like the suspension was damaged because it was sitting low to the ground, almost touching the sand. The passenger-side window slowly powered down and a Black dude in dreadlocks and a red knit cap stuck his head out and looked me up and down. “What are you doin’ out here?” he asked in a friendly tone.
“I’m walkin’ to Cahuita,” I said. “And I’d appreciate a ride if you’re going that way.”
He looked me over again, mumbled something to the people inside the car, and said, “Get in.”
“This may or may not be the thing to do,” I said out loud to myself as I walked around the back of the car, but there wasn’t much choice. It was too far to walk—my blistered feet wouldn’t make it. I got into the back seat and closed the door.
The dreadlocked dude in the red cap took one look at me and said, “Oh, man, you’re the guitar player from Ike’s.” Then, to the two in front, he said, “Hey, this here is who I was just talkin’ about.” He turned back to me and said, “What’s your name, brother?”
I told him and extended a hand.
He smiled and we shook hands as he said, “I’m Sam, that’s Daniel drivin’, and this here is my bro Maxie.” His English was good. They seemed a little tense.
“Hey,” I nodded to each of them. “You all from Cahuita?”
“Oh, yeah, Maxie and me, we grew up here,” Sam said. “Daniel is one of those crazies from Limon.” They all chuckled as the 1983 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, not your typical beach buggy, splashed through a few sand dips. As I listened to Sam talk, I got the impression he was a big frog in a small pond.
“So, Brother Pete,” he said, “I got two questions: what are you doing out here tonight and where did you learn to play guitar like that?”
“I’m not sure—and Texas,” I answered.
Maxie lit up a joint and passed it around and everyone seemed to relax a bit. Sam and Maxie spoke to me in American English but the driver only used the Limon dialect I heard at the club and, when he spoke to me, I understood nothing. He wasn’t the friendliest guy I’d met this week anyway, but you never know—sometimes it’s just the language thing.
I mentioned that I was surprised that so many people here spoke such good English. Maxie said it was taught in almost every school in Costa Rica and it was usually mandatory. “This is a big tourist destination and we deal with English-speaking visitors every day. And there are many more jobs available to bilingual speakers,” he said. “Tourism is our main industry here. The government even does public ad campaigns to remind native Costa Ricans to remember to be friendly and make our visitors feel welcome.”
As we drove along the coast, I thought about Natalia. I was sure she saw me leave. But did she know these guys? Cahuita was small. I decided it might be best if I didn’t mention her. And that reminded me, she did say we were going to “do something” later. So much for that.
The overcast was thinning as the lights of Cahuita poked through ahead. When we finally pulled into town, it was very late. Again, the three of them seemed anxious and spoke among themselves in Spanish. Sam asked, “You parked at Ike’s?”
They dropped me off, we all shook hands, and Sam said he hoped I’d come out to Ike’s and play again tonight. I told him I probably would.
It was minutes before dawn when I cruised down the road to my villa. What in the world happened to Juan and Tonio? Were they okay? What was going on? Was there actually a beached ship or was I gullible? Should I call the local police? When I drove by Natalia’s place, I noticed her car was parked out front. The sleep urge won out, but only just.
I coasted to a stop, limped in the door, washed my face, pulled off my salty shirt, and collapsed on the bed.
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Secret Lives of Musicians
Secret Lives is the only novel I've published using a pen name. (My middle name is Emmett and my mother's middle name was Orlaine. Hence, Emmett Orlaine.) But this is not a book about music. It's a collection of stories about musicians from different eras who find themselves in international, desperate, and often life-threatening situations and how they improvise and think on their feet to survive. It's a cultural time capsule, it's funny, and it's available for all eBook formats anywhere in the world—and only $4.99.
For more about Secret Lives, check out the BOOKS section.