The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací
By Benjamin Parzybok
2 February 2015
As Eduardo sold the tickets, he liked to imagine the duendes’ approval, the ones Angelita had told him about in a hushed voice. He had laughed and hurt her feelings. Now he imagined their little goblin faces nodding thoughtfully in praise of his work ethic. The cenote’s gatekeeper, they would say in their cricket voices, the ticket taker. He pleases us with his diligence.
The cenote, a perfect circular pool, lay inside a cave. The water was so blue and clear that you could see deep into it, its rocky sides like a tunnel, as if a great worm had long ago dug to the center of the Earth. To stand at the edge of the cenote gave one vertigo. Acrophobes gripped the cave’s walls, their lunch in their throats. A slim spear of sunlight from an opening in the cave’s roof stabbed into the center, making the pool glow.
In this town he’d adopted he was to finally live up to his promise. His small self-exile, a hermitage, to finish his book. Except after work he succumbed to trivial pleasures. There were the peanut dulces Doña Merced sold at the market. Or how with every traffic light in Valledolid lined up just so, he passed through town as if on the back of a great wild hare instead of his old motorbike.That was pleasure. Ding. Or like when—but sure, this dinged everyone, did it not?—a pretty boy let his eyes linger for an extra instant, locked with his, as if they were sockets to plug into, oh.
But there was a thing about the tickets.
He had a good memory for faces, and a good mind for numbers, Eduardo did. He lined up the torn stubs from the day’s sales. When a tourist exited he threw the stub away. Inside he had carefully placed six torn ticket stubs against the back edge of the desk. These tourists had not returned.
The first time a stub remained, he’d hollered into the cenote to make sure no one lingered. He brushed it off as a counter’s error. Perhaps a quick-footed tourist snuck by without his noticing. On a whim he pushed that first extra ticket to the back edge of the desk. Three days later, there was another counter’s error, and this stub he set next to the first. But in the night he woke in his bed and stared toward the dark ceiling and had an uneasiness that sat in his lungs like a cockroach had taken up residence there.
After that he annotated the torn stubs with a code so that he could remember to whom they belonged. The blond Canadian with the pink backpack whose voice sounded of helium. The round Mexican from Guadalajara with a smile like a slice of grapefruit. The towering, stooped German who had plugged into his eyes. They did not speak each other’s language but they spoke each other’s language, too. The viejo with dentures from town who brought his lunch with him, hobbling slowly down the stairs, asking if he’d seen any duendes, wink wink.
No, he had not seen any. He did not believe in them. He hazarded a glance toward Angelita’s ice cream cart. And you? Have you seen the duendes? He asked the viejo.
Yes, the viejo said, his eyes glimmered with mischief and cataracts, the pupil of one milky blue like the cenote itself. Yea big, he gestured, the distance between his hands indicating the size of a two year old. Skinny things, with great beards, and for hair? Green moss and twigs. Teeth like broken sea shells.
Eduardo leaned forward into the ticket window, suddenly enraged. I mean really.
Joven, I can barely see as it is. If they wanted you to see them, you would see them.
Angelita operated the helados cart that roved the park, sometimes parking next to Eduardo’s ticket taker booth. He felt like they, the two park workers, were like husband and wife, siloed each in their little houses, one peddling sweet ice, the other sweet hereafter, or the portal to it, at least.
The tall German? Eduardo said. The one who bought the lemon cone? With the blond hair.
You like him?
No, I just—have you seen him exit?
Ooh. Going to ask him on a date? There was a playful hostility to her speech whenever they spoke of boys.
Angelita. I mean did he come out yet?
Why should I keep track? You keep track of your own boyfriends.
Two days later Eduardo showed Angelita his collection of ticket stubs. She entered his booth and they stood close together. In her hair he could smell sugar and cream mingled with sweat. The stubs were lined up like little tombstones on his desk.
None of these tourists have come back.
What do you mean?
I mean, they went down to the cenote, and they never came back up.
She eyed him for a long moment. No, she said, you weren’t paying attention. You’re too busy selling tickets.
She turned and frowned, and he could see that she considered him for a moment. OK, she said. So maybe they’re still down there. Did you go and check?
Of course I did! Eduardo felt the hair raise on the back of his neck. This one—he held up a stub—went down eleven days ago.
She shrugged. Mexican or foreigner?
What do I know about foreigners? Are they all foreigners?
No! See? Young, old— he separated the tombstones into the two groups. Extranjero, Mexicano, he reshuffled them again. Men, women.
If someone was missing we’d hear it. The police would get called. People don’t go poof.
Poof, Eduardo said. She was right. A small stack of leftover ticket stubs did not make a mystery. He gathered up his ticket stub graveyard and made a short stack of them at the corner of his desk. He’d been careless, he was loathe to admit. He’d mis-counted. He’d start fresh tomorrow.
They are long gone, Angelita said. They’ve traveled far from here already. Don’t worry about them.
Later at night, he sat in bed and stared up at the ceiling and felt lonely and horny. He imagined Ronaldo’s kiss on his lips and chest. He couldn’t sleep so he opened a beer and read a literary magazine for an hour, carefully avoiding the stack of poems he’d come here to complete. One of the magazine pages had a caricature of the President of Mexico and he drew a Mariachi mustache on him in pencil and then cut it out of the magazine.
Deep in the night he dreamed the cenote hung above him, pooling there darkly in the ceiling, pulling him in like a black hole. He clutched the edges of his bed and held on. In his dream, he remembered feeling sure that some day he would be sucked in. The whole town too, and then all of México.
Saturdays were busy. He sold ticket after ticket all morning. The sounds of swimming echoed up the stairs and through the gate. The torn and coded ticket stubs he set aside on his desk like sheep in a field. He watched Angelita sell ice cream, her face shiny with sweat as she dug in the buckets. When she left for the bathroom, he jogged to her cart, opened the heavy lid and took a finger-full of limón for himself, then unfolded the mustached caricature of Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto over the top of the vanilla.
Back at the booth he looked over his tickets, organizing them in his mind by the various subgroups. With sudden horror he realized children under six got in free. They had no tickets. They were uncountable.
Just then a scream issued from across the park and he jerked his head up, seeing only an approaching horde of schoolchildren. But beyond, Angelita held up the president’s head, dripping with vanilla. She shook her fist at him. He giggled; she was an easy scare.
At the end of the day two stubs remained. There had never been more than one. As the sunset dimmed he hovered anxiously, hoping they would show.
Come down with me, he asked Angelita as she served her last cone.
It’s too dark.
We’ll still be able to see if we hurry.
I don’t want to, Eduardo.
You’re scared. It’s just a dumb little tourist site. A silly little underground pool.
The Mayans sacrificed people in it.
No, you’re just saying that. You’re trying to spook me.
She shrugged. Anyway, I’m not going.
Eduardo sighed. Wait for me.
She looped her arm through the cenote’s gate. Hurry, she said.
His footsteps rang out as he reached the stone path in the dim light. The stubs had belonged to a couple, Americans or perhaps Canadians, a man and woman near his age.
As the cenote yawned blackly into view the echoes diminished.
Hello? he called in English. Closing time!
For a moment he struggled with an urge to turn back. If only Ronaldo could see what strange place he’d sent himself. He’d fashioned the perfect exile. And now he was trapped within its concerns, as far away from his work as he could possibly imagine. He walked carefully around the pool. A drip sounded and then it went eerily quiet.
Angelita? he called back up the path, but there was no answer.
Where the path turned toward the stone swimming platform, his shins bumped into flesh and he strangled a scream. It was too dark to see what was at his feet, and for a moment he breathed hard and did nothing.
He reached his hand out slowly and found a face in the dark. It was warm and alive and he said, hello? He moved to the shoulder and shook hard. Hello?
Oh, it said, a woman’s voice in English.
Brad, she said. Wake up.
You are two? Eduardo said. In the dim light he watched her silhouette rise from the ground.
Come on Brad. She was shaking the other. He won’t wake up, she said.
How? he said. How did you fall asleep! We have to hurry. Here I will help you pull him up. Are you borracho? Drunk?
Here is his arm.
Eduardo got hold and began to pull. Fuck, he said in English, working against the muscular weight of the Canadian. We can’t be down here right now.
When Brad woke they hurried along the path. Then they were at the gate with Angelita. Eduardo put his hands on his knees and breathed. The park was completely dark.
Goblins? The Canadian girl said, did you say something about goblins?
What? No. If I did I was joking, Eduardo said.
Brad chuckled and put his arm around his girlfriend and said: That was spooky, and weird. We must be tired, eh cookie?
Eduardo helped Angelita close down her cart and then he looped arms with her and steered her toward his motorcycle.
Please, he said, let me buy you dinner. I can’t go home yet.
Ooh la la, she said.
Wherever you want. I am haunted by sleeping Canadians.
And afterwards, dancing?
And then after that?
After that I will give you a ride to your house.
Good choice, my bed is softer.
They talked about everything but the cenote and the duendes. He didn’t want to think about them. He wanted the idea of them alone in his mind. See, she said—two missing ticket stubs, two sleeping tourists. There’s nothing to worry about.
Nothing to worry about, he repeated.
Right, she said.
You believe that?
Yes, she said.
No you don’t, I can see you don’t believe that.
She shrugged and held her tequila. Cheers.
Later at home he sat at his table and for the first time in a long time he tried to compose. Just like that three poems materialized, one after the other, in a sweaty fever of productivity. He laid them across the table and studied each one with exuberant surprise, feeling enormously pleased with himself. He wondered where they had come from, all of a sudden, after so many weeks of stalling. This, this was what he had come for!
He regarded his day with superstition then. Something had led to this, an atmosphere in his mind ripe for output. The dinner with Angelita? The sleeping Canadians? What sequence of events had made it happen? What secret, coded recipe of the day could he re-enact for the same outcome?
But the next day was a rout. He sold tickets and counted stubs. No one went missing and for that he felt relieved. Angelita already had dinner plans with a real suitor. At home, he dispiritedly ate undercooked black beans from the pot and drank a six-pack of Tecate. The blank sheet of white paper he’d carefully laid out for himself on the table garnered nothing but drink rings and pornographic doodles.
In the morning he felt awful. He had slept in his clothes and his mouth tasted of rot.
At work he had trouble keeping up with the ticket stubs, remembering who was who. Angelita felt sorry for him and gave him a free lime ice cream. In a moment of distraction he tilted the cone so that the scoop landed plumply on his desk like a dollop of green shit and he had to close his eyes to keep a tantrum at bay. The ticket booth felt like a hot closet and he wondered why he did this to himself, when he could be back in Mexico City sitting in a cafe and pretending to work on his oeuvre like all his other comrades.
At the end of the day, one stub was left. When he read his code he remembered this one clearly, a vieja, a bent old woman. She had come alone.
He eyed the gate and wondered if she were down there still, asleep on the stone path.
No, he decided. He’d simply not noticed her. He’d been distracted. He locked the gate and drove fast for home, giving Angelita a defeated wave.
In bed he stared at the ceiling and thought guiltily of the vieja and it made him angry. Why did she go alone?
He fetched a piece of paper to write a letter and instead another poem effortlessly filled up the page. But the poem’s existence only made him more upset and he crumpled it and threw it at the trash.
A few minutes later he went looking for it and carefully smoothed it on the table. It was good, he admitted, startlingly good.
He needed a vacation, he decided. He proposed to Angelita that she take him around the area on his motorbike and show him the sites. He could be a tourist for once. He hid his collection of tombstone stubs and prepared the booth for the high school student who occasionally filled in. At home, his four completed poems shone in his mind like pearls, a secret wealth that gave him comfort. But instead of a thing he looked forward to fashioning more of, they felt like a pile of ill-gotten cash, which he hoarded with greed.
They drove north, Angelita on the back of his motorcycle. In a couple of hours they were staring into the Gulf of Mexico off a wooden pier. Querido Ronaldo: I have gone on vacation with a girl. They sat and dangled their legs in the water and talked about boys and smiled and lay back on the pier and stared at the sky. Great pelicans flew by overhead, fish in their beaks.
When they arrived back at the park the substitute ticket taker was closing up the booth.
I’m just waiting for my parents, the kid said.
He was fifteen or sixteen, Eduardo thought, and cute as a stuffed bear, so cute that Eduardo lost track of what he said. I’m sorry?
The kid gestured toward the cenote. Just waiting for my parents.
Eduardo stared toward the entrance and tasted vomit suddenly at the back of his throat. The sun was going down. Give me the flashlight, he said.
Don’t go, Angelita said.
What’s happening? the kid said.
Eduardo staggered and nearly fell on the way to the stairs, overcome with nausea. He spit out the sour taste and then went into the cave opening.
In the dim light he saw the deeper black of the round cenote. The amorphous walls of the cave. With the flashlight on it was spookier: he could see only what was directly before him then, obscuring everything else. He called out but there was no response, only the plink, plink, plink of a drip. As he came to the swimmer's platform where he’d found the Canadian couple, he paused and called out and his voice echoed against stone.
God damn you, he yelled at the cenote. He leaned to look in, shining the beam deep into its throat, and then lost his grip on the flashlight. With terror, he watched it sink. The firefly glow receded deeper and deeper, continuing to diminish past all reasonable expectations of time, eerily illuminating a streak of blue in the water, until it was only a pin-prick of light and then gone altogether. Eduardo backed slowly away from the cenote, gripping the wall and held still. He heard rustling in the undergrowth that lined the inside of the tall cave, but when he turned his attention to each sound it went quiet.
Walking along the path his foot kicked an object that skittered on the stone. He went to his knees and felt along the ground in the dark and found a bowl filled with some hard organic matter, seeds or wood chips. He gathered up what he could of the spilled substance and carried the bowl back to the entrance.
Angelita talked to the substitute ticket taker gaily about his school. He shook hands with her and handed Eduardo the keys and then said he was off.
What about your parents? Eduardo said.
Yeah, the kid rolled his eyes. I know.
Eduardo watched him go, gripping the bowl he’d found.
But his parents? Eduardo asked Angelita.
What about them, Angelita said.
He was waiting for them!
Angelita put her hands up, a sarcastic ward against his angry exasperation. Eduardo stumbled into the ticket taker’s booth and turned on the overhead light. The bowl was rough-cut stone. He puzzled over its contents, which appeared to be desiccated white corn or broken seashells. He didn’t want Angelita to see.
Hey amor, lock the gate for me? he said and handed out the keys.
He sifted through the pieces and then he knew what they were—whole, human fingernails. They had lost their translucence. Some were chipped and broken, others perfect and complete. There were hundreds. He was overcome with dizziness. He lurched from the booth and threw up in the bushes.
OK, he said, hunched over. He wiped his mouth.
Are you all right? Angelita called.
Too much sun I think, I’m fine. No, ugh— he leaned in and threw up again. OK. Let’s get out of here.
At home he sat and drank a beer and felt numb.
He picked up his phone and pondered calling Ronaldo but wasn’t sure what to say. Come get me? Take me home? I’m scared shitless?
There was a white sheet of paper laid out for him and ready and he could feel the itching of a poem there in him somewhere. It repelled and horrified him that he could even think about work.
On the third beer he gave in and composed two poems without ceasing and didn’t bother to re-read them afterwards. He stood at the refrigerator and ate bites off a block of cotija cheese, then brushed his teeth and went to bed.
But in the morning he loved them. He held one in each hand and stared at them. Stacked up with the others the pile was short but hearty, poems that could form the core of a book. With them outstretched like wings, he leapt about his small room, unable to tamp down the loft they gave him.
The following night he dreamed. He walked around the cenote along the path, and it was crowded with people who did not speak or move. They did not look at him as he passed. They stood facing the cenote, their eyes transfixed on its center, the tips of their fingers soft and pulpy.
Before work he drove to the police station and browsed through the missing persons files. There were many, dozens of them, but not a single one that he recognized. Each had hints of a terrible story, with the official record of their life reduced to startlingly few details. Age, height, weight, moment last seen; the similarities to his ticket stub records were unsettling. The photos seemed dug up from some family album, in each the subject smiling, with no precognition of what would befall them.
You find somebody, or lose somebody? A policeman asked him.
Eduardo wasn’t sure what to answer and he felt a moment of panic rise into his throat. No, just having a look.
The policeman was, Eduardo thought, the spitting image of a small town Mexican policeman, as if he’d set out to fill his own stereotype. A giant mustache, a large belly, police cap slightly askew. He leaned on the night stick holstered at his belt.
Look all you want, hijo.
A question for you sir, the cenote?
Any crimes ever happen there?
The town’s treasure, the policeman said. El tesoro del pueblo. Doorway to the underworld, the Mayans thought. Xibalba. Oh sure, there’ve been crimes. He sat down on a chair across from Eduardo as if about to tell a long story, but instead said: Hot out, right? and wiped his forehead.
The policeman worked at his loaded front shirt pocket until a chili-lime lollipop manifested from it.
Eduardo accepted the sucker and the policeman produced another for himself.
Let’s see, he spoke around his lollipop. Last year about this time a girl went missing. We had ten maybe twelve policeman looking for her. She never turned up. Even sent divers down to the bottom. Later her brother confessed to pushing her in. Little bastard.
But the divers . . . ?
Oh, the bottom is far down and not exactly straightforward, so I’m told. Never been in myself. The policeman chuckled suddenly and then began to cough and Eduardo wondered if the proper thing to do was to clap him on the back.
Funny thing with those divers, he said, one of them found a human skull. It’d gone greenish brown with I-don’t-know, algae. Not the girl, obviously. Guy who found it pretty well propelled out of the water. Wouldn’t go back in.
A policewoman paused next to them with arms the circumference of drainpipe and impatiently motioned for a lollipop to be provided.
No diver’s been in since, the policewoman said. Extranjeros keep asking the city to do an archaeological survey but it’s never gone through. Why do you get the ones with chili, Carlos? They’re disgusting.
You’ve been there? the policewoman said.
I’m the ticket taker, Eduardo said.
There was a pause which later Eduardo couldn’t figure out if it had only been in his mind, his own heart slowing in expectation of their reaction, stilling time, so that they both seemed to stare at him with a vacant sort of alarm, for a moment which seemed to have no end. Then their faces softened thoughtfully around their lollipops.
And you’re not from here? Carlos said.
Well that’s nice, the policewoman said. El tesoro del pueblo. Get to meet a lot of people I expect.
He didn’t go back to work. He rode the streets, circling closer to Cenote Zací, and then at each approach chose another detour for himself, circling away again, until he found himself home.
In the mailbox was a letter from Ronaldo.
I hope you will not be too disgusted with me. The piece you sent was oh-my-god lovely, it still makes my hair stand on end. I know we’re here for each other, et cetera, as in love as in artistry. We’re each other’s life support, and so of course you’re not going to believe my praise.
But . . . : After reading it, and before my jaw had adequately recovered itself from the floor, I impulsively re-posted it to La Revista Nacional. Three days later I received the enclosed check and one of the most insanely over-the-top letters of praise I’ve ever seen an editor write, you bastard bastard bastard.
I didn’t think editors even knew how to use such words! I’m overflowing with envy and, of course, such pride. Your piece, Blue, will appear in the review this month (. . . do you suppose they pushed someone out to fit you in on such short notice?)
When can I come visit? Don’t give me that nonsense about exile and the work and such. I want to see you and this pond! I’ll behave myself.
Eduardo read the editor’s letter and wept. After, he pulled a beer from the fridge and sat with a pen and paper to compose a letter to Ronaldo. He had another beer and sent the editor of La Revista Nacional three more poems, which she’d requested and for which she’d promised a sum of money he felt entirely in awe of.
Then he pulled out his bottle of tequila from above the stove. He thought: Only I remember, and that can be fixed. He thought: I am celebrating! but there was no celebration in it.
Sometime in the night he woke up on the floor, his clothes soaked through with sweat. He was still drunk and had had another dream he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He wished more than anything that Ronaldo were there and thought about rewriting his return letter. Please come. He would say. I miss you more than life. But he did not. Instead he showered and changed clothes and drove to the cenote, where a few angry notes were taped to the booth about the unexpected closure, some in mangled Spanish.
I saved your lives, shitheads, he said in English and tore the notes down.
He unlocked the gate and walked down the stone path to the cenote. As the sun rose it sent a sparkling ray into the center of the blue pool. He leaned against the cavern’s wall and watched and waited. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and for a moment he saw it as he’d once seen it, when he’d first arrived, and was filled with awe.
As it neared 9am he laid out his own notebook next to the window and wrote LIBRO DE VISITAS / GUEST BOOK across the top of it, with columns for NAME/NOMBRE and HOTEL.
He obsessively catalogued them. Fat ones, thin ones, tall ones, short ones. Brown and pink. Angelita came and stood by the booth and seeing his mood left quietly.
As the day came toward a close he looked at his stack of torn ticket stubs with dread. It seemed far too large for the hour.
¡La Revista Nacional! he thought.
As a group left with one member short he lurched from his booth and made up some pretense for speaking to them.
The fourth gentleman who came with you? He’s where? I have a special deal on tickets to Chichen Itza I can provide you, but only if there are four, Eduardo said breathlessly.
I don’t think we’re interested sir, thank you.
OK no problem—the fourth gentleman, he’s right behind you?
Yes, he’s taking one more photo. Is it a problem?
Eduardo waited at the gate and then the man exited, his camera strapped to his wrist, his expression vague and uncertain.
At the end of the day a single stub remained. He stabbed his pencil down next to the man’s name. Francisco Velasquez, Hotel San Clemente. In a group of three, Eduardo recalled. Mother, father and daughter.
He raced his motorcycle to the hotel and asked for the room of Velasquez’s.
A young woman in her late teens answered the door.
Is your father, Francisco, here? Eduardo said, not realizing until he spoke that he was out of breath. He leaned over to ease the pressure of his side ache.
No, the girl said.
Please, he stuck his foot in the door.
The older woman appeared behind the girl.
I’m looking for Francisco, he said.
The mother frowned. There are no Franciscos here.
OK, Eduardo said, then where is he?
No I mean to say there are no Franciscos staying here, with us.
Where is your father then? he asked the girl.
The girl turned and looked back at her mother.
Her father is no longer with us, the mother said. Who are you? What do you want?
Jesus Christ, Eduardo said. What happened?
Nothing happened, the daughter said. He had a heart attack eleven years ago.
Eduardo sunk to the ground. He felt suddenly as if he were having a heart attack himself. And today? he said, his breathing more difficult. At the cenote? Did you not come with someone?
Young man are you alright? The mother asked. Help me pull him in.
He needs help, Rosa! Put him on the bed. Go get the clerk, hurry!
Please, Eduardo said, I’m fine. Just a moment. He rolled off the bed and found himself on the floor, and then came to his knees. Just answer please! He stared at the rug. His head seemed packed full of gunshot or sea pebbles or fingernails.
At home he put his remaining supply of blank paper in the sink and ran water over it until it became a pulpy mass. Then he unwrapped a new bottle of tequila and lay on the bed. After a while he realized that every thought was organizing itself into verse. The leaden chaos of his mind kept crystalizing out lines. Shut up! he yelled. The verse came about the girl’s father, who had lived these last eleven years for Eduardo only, it seemed. Shut up! Shut up! He took a deep pull of tequila and stared at the ceiling. The poem hung in his mind as if on fire, written in the air. He let himself tinker with it, change lines about, edit and hone. And then he gave in. For lack of paper, he sat on the edge of the bed and removed his pants and wrote out the poem in ballpoint pen along his leg. When he was finished he took another long pull of tequila and admired it. It sprawled in blue from his knee to the top of his thigh.
There was a knock at the door and then Ronaldo’s face appeared from behind it. Oh, love, Ronaldo said.
How? Eduardo said, but he could hear the words slur on his tongue and felt embarrassed and stopped speaking. He watched Ronaldo pick his way across the room, over strewn clothes intermingled with beer cans and thrown manuscript papers. In the sink, a pulpy mass like some deep sea creature.
I hope it wasn’t written on? Ronaldo pointed. He smiled down at him sitting on the bed with his pants down and his hands wrapped around a bottle of tequila and said: Looks like I’m just in time. Then he took a draught off the bottle and leaned in and kissed Eduardo. What’s this? He went to his knees and read the poem upside down, his hands gripping the outside of Eduardo’s thighs. Wow, amor.
Ronaldo pulled his laptop from his shoulder bag and set it next to Eduardo. Don’t move, he said. We will soon smear it, you and I, so I better do this now. You know paper doesn’t have to be washed, right caballero? He typed in the poem. Poor love, out here on the frontier alone, making do and going native. When he was finished, he kissed his way up the other thigh. Eduardo allowed himself to fall backwards onto the bed.
Ronaldo sat on a stool in the doorway of the ticket taker’s booth and chatted while Eduardo tore the stubs and recorded the visitors. He was having a hard time following what Ronaldo was saying amid the anxious rush of traffic and his gatekeeper’s obligations. He committed each face to memory. Ronaldo was giving an account of their friends: José had gotten a teaching job for way too little pay. Magrite was shooting up her inheritance. Mincho said he was working on a novel and no one ever saw him. Fé had married rich. To Eduardo the names all sounded insubstantial, like people he’d only known in a dream.
Tell me why again I can’t go down there amor? Ronaldo said. I don’t see why all these tourists get to go and not me.
Eduardo could not bring himself to tell him. He had taped Francisco’s torn stub along with every detail he could remember to the back of the desk where he could see and remember it. He had not, he told himself, simply made up the man.
At least let me see what you’re so frantically doing there. Ronaldo leaned in and watched Eduardo annotate four torn ticket stubs. You’re describing them? This trip has been hard on you.
Angelita dropped by and ate an ice cream cone with Ronaldo. How come he’s so serious now? Ronaldo said.
I’m not, Eduardo said, but his voice didn’t modulate well.
Angelita shrugged and smiled at Ronaldo again. I’ve heard so much about you.
What? He talks about me? I’ve got to hear this.
But Angelita got embarrassed and turned pink and licked her strawberry ice cream.
OK, then just tell me about the cenote, Ronaldo said. Why won’t he let me go down there?
Angelita glanced at Eduardo and then looked away. He said you can do an amazing trick with your tongue. . .
Oh, he did did he.
She blushed bright. And that you’re very romantic.
And that you snore.
I do not! Ronaldo reached over and punched Eduardo in the arm and Eduardo laughed and then felt sick.
Watch the booth for me, would you both? He said. Don’t sell any tickets. Tell them it’s full, whatever.
He walked to the park’s bathroom, locked himself in a stall and stood swaying above the toilet. He was hungover and nauseous and his stomach would not settle. He put his finger into his throat to make himself throw up and when that was done he leaned his forehead against the concrete wall and breathed until he could settle his mind.
When he returned to the booth there was a line to serve. The last ticket he’d written was positioned in the middle of the desk, isolated from the others. He’d noted: A handsome Mexican man in his late twenties, with wavy dark hair, and green eyes. Ronaldo Charmed. What kind of a last name is that? he thought. The hotel location, he read with horror, was his own address. He could not remember writing it.
But a moment later: Ronaldo. He felt startled by his momentary loss of memory, as if it’d been snatched from him, like a pelican plucks a fish from the water. Ronaldo had descended into the cenote! He slammed his fist into the desktop, the ticket stubs jumped. But what right did he have to forbid him. Everyone who came to the city visited. He underlined Ronaldo on the stub and put it with the others.
As the day wore on, he found himself in a better rhythm. He set the torn tickets to the side organized chronologically. He looked up and waved at Angelita across the park and she waved back and smiled, each too busy now to talk to the other.
When the sunlight streamed golden through the trees and began to dim on the edge of the sky he sorted through his remaining stubs. There were ten of them. The last few visitors were exiting quickly now, making the pile diminish rapidly. It would be a no-tickets-left day, he could feel it, and for this he was relieved.
But there was one ticket left when the park closed. He reread the code and did not remember the face it belonged to.
It was a cruel prank played by Angelita, he thought, or someone who had written the street number wrong; his own. He looked for her across the park but could not see her. He swore and walked to the gate of the cenote with his new flashlight. A vein in his throat pulsed with heartbeat. Hello? he called into it. In the cave’s entrance before the path he thought about how much he abhorred the job. But he was fashioning his ticket out: La Revista Nacional! Just the thought of the journal caused an upwelling within him, memory and thought roiling beneath the surface of his mind’s lake. There would be work tonight!
Come on! he yelled from the top of the path. The cenote shimmered darkly, the turquoise pool dimming to black. He pulled the torn stub from his pocket and inspected it with his flashlight.
It was a name he liked, Ronaldo was. He proceeded slowly down the path, turning the flashlight on for short intervals, and then turning it off so his eyes could adjust to the whole cavern. Had the Mayans sacrificed here to pay tribute? Or because they were afraid of it. Señor! he called. Ronaldo!
Near the lower part of the path next to the platform he whispered the name into the dark. It didn’t sound right. It was a made up name. In his head he began composing a letter but he couldn’t think to whom. Querido
Ronaldo! he yelled. With the water softly lapping at the edge, inches from his shoes, he scanned the pool with his flashlight. What had made the water move?
Deep in its depths he saw something. It was a body, highlighted fluorescent blue by the light, in the heart of the pool. Its arms stretched wide, suspended. He knew this body.
Eduardo dove in, swimming hard with one hand, the other clasping the flashlight as its sword beam cut through the water, making the body glow. He swam deeper and deeper but the body stayed out of reach, so far and deep and dreamlike at the bottom. His lungs ached and he realized he would not reach him.
He let his air go and turned to resurface but every direction was the same. Querido Ronaldo: I have followed you in. His lungs seared, as if coal burned in them. He swam hard for the top but the body was there, too, still far away. Waving now, perhaps, or only swaying dully back and forth by his thrashing. He gulped in water, wishing to yell out in anger, to give one last fuck you to the cenote before it silenced him. And then his lungs could hold no longer and he dropped the flashlight and let the water in.
When, querido, the sickening panic subsides into a pleasant, deathly drowsiness, I will float down to you, and we will embrace at the bottom. He drifted this way, unsure which direction the pool pulled him.
Around him he felt the water churn, claws or strong fingers gripped the back of his shirt. They clenched his hair, the sharp nails bit into his ankles and wrists. Pinchers at his stomach and back. He was being pulled down to the strange twisted bottom. To float amongst the skulls, ancient and new. Deep and not exactly straightforward.
The claws struggled with him and he felt tired and closed his eyes and slept and when he woke he was on the platform. The cavern was lit by moon glow, beaming down on him through the hole at the top. He felt arms around him.
“Ronaldo?” he said, and the cavern obediently repeated the word with sharp reverberations, until the sound became meaningless. The arms tightened in empathetic response. Kiss me, he thought. But as he turned the arms pulled back into the darkness, unseen, outside of the moon’s spotlight. The cenote quieted, the moon moved on, and within him rose a sense of loss so strong it felt audible. The beating of his heart like a hammer on tin, in an enormous room.