Read Guayaquil of Michelangelo's Shoulder, free online book, by John Moncure Wetterau, on ReadCentral.com.

At the sound of wooden blocks struck together, Arthur adjusted his sitting position and emptied his mind.  The echo diminished to a memory and changed to a tree.  A palm tree.  Not this again.  An expanse of empty beach curved to a familiar headland.  Sometimes his grandmother would appear, coming toward him on her fitness walk, legs moving quickly, scarcely bending at the knees, like the birds that chased and retreated at the water’s edge.  She never noticed him.

This morning Penn stepped from the water and approached, his long thin body tanned ivory brown, his eyes blue-green, clear as a cat’s.  Things came easy to Penn.  Arthur exhaled the past and inhaled it again.  Not that way, he told himself.  No struggle.  Let it float away.  He straightened and followed his breathing.  Penn disappeared as casually as he had twenty years ago.

Arthur put his cheek against the palm tree.  The bark was like cloth, raspy and flexible, wrapped around and around the heart of the tree.  Someday, years of balmy weather would be violently interrupted.  This tree, which grew in sand, would have to bend horizontal or be uprooted.

Arthur exhaled the satisfaction that attended this insight.  No attachment.

When the blocks sounded again, he stood and walked with the others around the zendo, careful not to look at Martin for approval.  He wasn’t sure why Martin was hard on him.  Martin was enlightened, but wisdom hadn’t erased narrow lines in his face, resentful lines.  Arthur was respected in the scientific community, well paid.  Martin had been an insurance adjuster or something before he found his vocation.  He had shaved his head, but the cheap haircut remained.

The blocks signalled and sitting resumed, the group settling into a shared breathing.  A quiet euphoria rose and faded, replaced by an edgy pre-verbal clarity.  Kwok!  Over.  Arthur rejoined the world of choice and demand.  He felt that he was making progress.

“Excuse me.”  The elderly woman who had been directly in front of him as they walked around the room was blocking his way.  “Are you Arthur Wells?  Dr. Arthur Wells?”

“Why, yes.”  He raised his eyebrows modestly.

“Forgive me for intruding,” she said.  “My niece insisted that I ask.  She saw you last week when she picked me up.  She thinks she had a seminar with you once.”

“Oh dear.  I hope I wasn’t difficult.  What is your niece’s name?”

“Pookie.”

Arthur’s mouth filled with the taste of anchovies.

“Pookie,” he said.  “Really?  Your niece.  Some time ago, I think.”  The woman waited.  “Pookie, umm-her last name?”

“Willet, now.  It was Kennecutt.”

“Yes, of course!  I remember now,” Arthur said, falsely triumphant.  “I thought she had great promise.”  He tossed his hands.  “But-life-who knows?” He smiled acceptance.

“She married an idiot.”

“Ah,” Arthur said.  She hadn’t married Penn, at any rate.

“On the positive side, they have two wonderful children.”

Only children don’t get to be uncles.  “Lucky Auntie,” Arthur said.  “Do give her my best.  There’s biology and then there’s biology.”

“Yes,” she said.  “Well, I must be going.”  Arthur watched her leave, wishing for a drink of water.  He was fifteen years older than Penn, and Penn was a lot older than Pookie; it was absurd to be jealous.  They did make a handsome couple.  At least they had the one time they’d driven by in an old Porsche with the top down-Penn talking, his head turned to Pookie.  He was still youthful.  If anyone could manage a relationship with a big age difference it would be Penn.  No doubt he worked in a hospital or a clinic surrounded by women.  I forgive myself for giving her a B, Arthur thought.  It should have been a C, but he had been unnecessarily cold with her in class.  Let it go.

He emerged from his thoughts too late.  “Chop wood, carry water,” Martin said and launched into an explanation of the latest fund drive.

“Of course,” Arthur said.  “After the I.R.S., my gambling debts, the Sierra Club, and Psi Upsilon, you shall have everything.”

“Thank you, Arthur.  We know we can count on you.  You have been a great help to the zendo.”

“Chop wood, carry water,” Arthur said, trying to remember where he’d parked the Land Rover.  He walked away trustingly and turned at the corner.  There it was, by the bodega near the end of the block.  He lowered the car windows and sat listening to mariachi music pouring from the store.

The beat was attractive, maddening.  It made him want to be a part of things, to dance in the town square.  He worked hard.  But.  He never had any-fun.  The word caught in his throat, emerged, and hung before him like the coast of Antarctica.  He gripped the steering wheel.  Mother had been on him about that earlier. You ought to go out and have a good time, Arthur.  Never mind those science trips. Mother specialized in good times.  Her round of social events would drive him crazy.  He was content to see her alone at their weekly breakfast.  Quite content.  In fact, meditation was helpful after breakfast with Mother.  He remembered to exhale, and he loosened his grip on the wheel.

Trumpets blared above guitars.  It was a sunny day, a good day to be outside.  He started the car and drove away.  When he reached the intersection where he normally turned toward home, he steered right and then impulsively left, veering back into the traffic going straight ahead.  Someone leaned on his horn and passed him, too close.  The driver turned his head.  Arthur could see his mouth moving but couldn’t hear the words.  Fucking something something something.  It hadn’t been that dangerous.  Amazing how people need to get angry, be righteous.

“Get a life,” Arthur said.  The man cut in front of him.  A bumper sticker declared:  “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student.”  I could knock him right off the road, Arthur thought.  His mood brightened, and he floored the gas pedal.  “Don’t mess with honor students,” he said, roaring past.  He reached for the radio and found a Spanish music station.

Gambling debts-what a laugh.  He had been to two conventions in Vegas and never gambled once.  Give your money to a casino?  Stupid.  The flow of traffic carried him to the edge of the city.  He kept going and then turned toward the mountains.  The higher he drove, the better he felt.  He had lived entirely in California except for business trips and visits to his father in Hawaii.  His life spread out behind him, below him, as he climbed toward Nevada.  He stopped for gas, looked at the stands of Douglas fir, and decided to spend the night in Tahoe.

He was pleased when he coasted into town.  The lake was clear blue.  The streets were impersonal and commercial; he had credit cards; he knew the rules.  He signed for a room and strolled down the main street, his small notebook and pen secure in his jacket pocket.  The air was sharper.  Winter was coming, very different up here.  He looked around for a place to eat.

“Got any spare change?” The meaning of the words and the sound of the voice were like light blows to opposite sides of his head.  He turned, disoriented.  “Hey, Art,” Penn said.

“Is that you, Penn?” Arthur struggled to reconcile the young man in his mind with the man in front of him.  Penn’s hair was thinning.  He needed a shave.

“Indeed so.  You are looking a bit crazed, Arthur.  You need a drink to acclimatize.”

“I just got here.”  Penn seemed to know that.  “I-maybe you’re right.  Will you join me?”

“I could force down a single-malt.”

“Lead the way.  It’s good to see you, Penn.”  They sat at the end of a polished bar in one of the smaller casinos.

“Feels strange to sit on a bar stool,” Arthur said.

“You get used to it.  As an ex-doc, let me toast your health.”

“Thank you.  And yours.”  There was a moment of silence-appreciation for the Glenlivet and a chance to think back.

“I’ve seen notice of you in the papers now and then,” Penn said.  “Distinguished career and all that.”

“Same old stuff.  I untangled a couple of mysteries about smells and flavors.”

“Chip off the old block.  Your father was a biologist.”

“Still is,” Arthur said.  “Marine.  He got fish; I got plants.”

“Could make for conversation at a seafood place,” Penn said.

“If we ate out.  If we talked.”

“I remember that trip we took to Hawaii.  He didn’t say much.  Nice guy, though, over on the windward side in-what was the name?”

“Lanikai.”

“Right, Lanikai.”

“So, what about you?  I guess you gave up medicine.”

“Yeah.  It was a cruise, learning, but when I got to doing it-I don’t know-all that misery.  I ducked into management.  That was worse.  Boring.  I chucked it for the business game, the market.”  He paused.  “You know how they used to say:  sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you.”  He flashed the old Penn smile.

“Where are you living these days?”

“One of my buddies has a boat on the lake.  He’s not using it right now.”

“Getting cool, isn’t it?”

“Just right,” Penn said, “for another couple of months.”  Arthur didn’t want to ask:  then what?”

“Then what?” Penn said.  He finished his drink.  “It’s O.K. to ask.  I don’t know.”  He leaned toward Arthur.  “Do me a favor, Arthur-try saying, out loud:  I don’t know.”  Arthur hesitated.  “Come on now.”

“I don’t know,” Arthur said and found himself smiling.

“You see,” Penn said.  “It’s not a bad state.”  They had another round.

“I saw you once-driving by with one of my students.”

“Pookie,” Penn said.  “I should have gotten in touch, but I thought you’d disapprove.”

“She wasn’t the brightest,” Arthur said.  “Attractive, though.”

“Pookie could drink!  Loved to swim, good dancer.  How’s your love life?  Any little Arthurs around?”

“No.”

“Me neither.  I did have some step-kids for a while.”  Penn’s expression lifted.  “That was a good thing.”

“When was that?”

“Let’s see-about four years ago, now.”

“Where are they?”

“Oakland.  Sergio, Consuela, and Esperanza.  What a crew.”

“And their mother?”

“Gorgeous.  Constanza.  I met her on a bus in Guayaquil.”

“Guayaquil?”

“I was just back from the Galapagos.  Remember, we talked about going there sometime.”

“Blue-footed boobys,” Arthur said.

“Exactly,” Penn said.  “And the tortoises.  Amazing!  I was in the money.  I took a couple of months to go down and check out some of the places we lived when I was a kid.  My Spanish came back.  Had a good time.  Anyway, I was on a city bus when Constanza got on with the kids.  The bus was full, so I gave her my seat.  The kids were crawling all over her.  She had that long black hair, you know, red cheeks, bright eyes, one of those solid bodies for the ages-we started joking around, made a date to meet at a park the next day.  Have you been there?”

“Never have.”

“You can imagine-hot, steamy, crowded, flowers everywhere.  We had fun, the five of us.  She turned out to be smart, full of life.  She’d just come from Quito and was trying to find work and a place to live.  She was staying with a cousin and running out of money.”

“The father was in Quito?”

“Yes.  A hell of a thing.  He was from a family that had been there for centuries.  I guess he and Constanza got into it when they were very young.  The family allowed her to stay on one of their properties, paid all the bills.  She kept having babies.  The situation changed, and she was let go.  I don’t know whether the guy was tired of her or whether he married or took a position in the family empire that wouldn’t allow the arrangement or what.”

“Terrible,” Arthur said.

“Constanza was sad, but she wasn’t bitter.  She loved him.  She was from a poor family, and she had a good life for a while-that’s how she looked at it.  When she told me the story I thought, for once in your life, be useful.  I married her.  In a couple of months we were all set up in California, kids in school learning English, the whole trip.”

“Incredible,” Arthur said.

“It was fine for a few years.  Then I got restless.  The kids kept us going, but the relationship was out of gas.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had cash flow problems.  But I got lucky and made a good call in the market.  I figured I’d better change things while I could, so I told Constanza that we were going to take a vacation in Quito.  Took her and the kids, and, as soon as we got there, I explained that I had to leave the marriage.  I gave her all the money I had, enough to buy her a house and get her started.  You know what she said?  ’No way!  We’re going back to California.’  She took the money, and two weeks later she and the kids were back in the city.  She rented a place in Oakland.  Still there, I’m pretty sure.”

“Are you in touch?”

“Not really.  She’s got a new life.  It would confuse the kids.  I worry about them sometimes.  Not Constanza, she’s strong, good looking-she’ll do fine.  But the kids-I used to take Esperanza to school on a bike, pulled her behind me on a little cart.”  He looked at Arthur and shook his head.  “Maybe later on, when I get ahead a little bit.”

“They’re better off for what you did.”

“I hope so.  I guess so.”  He held up his glass.  “Another?”

“Let’s get something to eat,” Arthur said.  Penn pulled out his wallet.  “On me,” Arthur said.

“Good man.  You got something to write on?” He took a worn business card from his wallet and copied into Arthur’s notebook an address written on the back of the card.  And the names:  Constanza, Sergio, Consuela, and Esperanza.  “It’s a hell of a favor to ask,” he said, but could you check up on them sometime, for me.”  His voice dropped.  “See if they need anything?” He looked up helplessly.

“I will.”

It was as close as they had come to acknowledging the bond between them.  Arthur took a deep breath.  “How will I reach you?”

“I’ll look you up at the university-you’ll be there, adding to the body of scientific knowledge.”

“I suppose so,” Arthur said.  “Trying anyway.”

“Good old Art, slow and steady wins the race.”

They had a couple of steaks, split a Cæsar salad, and drank wine while they talked about old times and the state of the world.  Penn explained craps and convinced Arthur to try his luck.  People who play with me get the rolls, he told Arthur.  They bought two hundred dollars worth of chips.  Penn insisted that Arthur place the bet, but they waited until the dice were passed to a middle-aged blonde.  “She’s lucky,” Penn said.

The dice skittered and rolled to a seven.  Loud cheers.  Arthur was forty dollars richer.  They played for nearly an hour.  Arthur was instructed to bet lightly unless Lucky was throwing.  He was six hundred dollars ahead when the food and drink and the long day began to get to him.  “Time to turn in,” he told Penn.

“Where you staying?”

“Harrah’s.”

“How about coffee in the morning?” They arranged to meet in the café at ten.

“Here,” Arthur handed Penn his chips.  “A stake.”

“Right on.  What do you say, Lucky, want to look around a little?” Lucky shrugged agreeably and Penn put his arm around her shoulders.  “You get half the winnings in the morning,” he said to Arthur.

“No need,” Arthur said.  “It’s on the house.”

“No, no.  See you at ten.”  He and Lucky walked away.  Penn looked back once and smiled.  Same old Penn.

The night air was clear and crisp.  People on the sidewalks seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Arthur went to his room and fell asleep immediately, but he did not sleep well.  He kept waking and seeing Penn’s smile-amused, helpless, oddly gallant.  He had a premonition that he might not see him again.

In the morning, Arthur waited an hour, but Penn didn’t show up.  He walked back to Harrah’s and checked out.  The desk clerk gave him five casino silver dollars-“Our way of saying thank you, Sir.”

Arthur stopped at a slot machine near the exit and dropped the dollars in, pulling the long handle and waiting after each one.  He looked down the rows of machines at other gamblers with their arms in the same position.  Sometimes you win; mostly you lose.  In the end you lose.  That’s what Penn got from the place-that truth, underscored.

Sure, you can quit when you’re ahead.  But then you’re out of the game; you’re not playing.  That’s what I’ve done with my life, he thought.  But he would lose too, in the end.  Maybe the best strategy was to pass along the winnings, if you had any, the way he had last night.  Penn had done that in Guayaquil-a good thing, as he’d put it-although he hadn’t finished the job.  Probably wouldn’t, either, the way his life was going.  Arthur felt for his notebook and Constanza’s address.  That was at least something he could do, for himself and for Penn-he could help those kids.  That was something, anyway.

Bells and sirens exploded in the next aisle.  Jackpot.  An elderly woman stared at flashing lights, bemused, a bit bewildered.  Arthur realized that tears were running down his face, that he was both sad and grateful, and that it was time to leave.