Illustrations by Jesse Gelaznik
There’s a fire pit the men sit by at night in the Red Iguana, a restaurant on the edge of town in Copán, Honduras. They roast meat, smoke their cigars, and drink beer and Nicaraguan rum while the stars intensify and their wives put the children to bed.
I was there trying to purchase a kinkajou for a friend. You can buy kinkajous as pets in the United States, but in Honduras the baby golden bears have a different temperament. For example, they do not like liquor. They never bite. They sleep both at night and during the day, and are awake in the mornings and evenings. And their prehensile tails are much stronger and nimbler than those of the American-bred species. If you want to keep a kinkajou as a pet, the place to get one is Honduras, and you must buy a baby fresh from the nipple and hand-feed it for as long as possible. It grieves at separation from its mother, but I have always been careful in my business not to buy a baby unless I see the mother with my own eyes. Otherwise the natives will kill the animal for its babies.
By the fire was a young man, Juan: handsome, slender, full of bravado and enthusiasm, like a Latino Jimmy Page in the famous picture of Page gesturing grandly to the name LED ZEPPELIN painted on the side of their Boeing 727. The old men were teasing him because he planned to marry. He was a novio. Another man there, Javier, a friend of mine from Nicaragua who was born in Copán—they teased him too, because Nicaragua is considered déclassé by the Hondurans, and he was thought to have stepped down in the world by establishing his trade in an inferior, poorer country—stood up for Juan.
“There’s one way to learn,” Javier said, rising to his feet and smoking a long Cuban Romeo and Julieta from a case I had purchased earlier that week. I had one too. They would last us three hours out in the cool night. “Let him find out for himself. There’s no rules in love. He could be one of the lucky ones.” Everyone laughed. We were all married men, divorced men, men who no longer knew where our wives lived, men of many children.
“Let me tell you a story,” a viejo said, quietly. Everyone hushed. I didn’t know this elderly gentleman in his worn yet elegant white suit, but he had ridden a horse down from the mountains three nights before, sitting with us each evening and drinking an inferior Honduran rum neat from a glass. He rarely spoke. I guessed he owned a coffee plantation. He looked like one of the Hondurans you met when you were up in the bush for days and suddenly you see the long rows of glossy, almost plastic-looking green coffee bushes lining the mountainside and then a clearing opens up and you find the low hacienda, spread out in many buildings, and behind it a drying plant and perhaps even a small roaster, and horses wander the property along with the usual farm animals and when you are invited to dinner—as you must be—you cannot tell which of the women are wives and which are sisters and which are mothers and which are daughters, except of course for the very young ones. The women sit at one side of the long dinner table in the tiled dining room, and the father and his sons are at the other. This viejo could have ten wives, for all we knew. It was not unheard of.
“You speak of love, and laugh.” He shook his head and sipped his rum. I felt embarrassed that I had been part of the teasing. “Two times I have married with a priest,” he said. “And these women, who you marry with a priest, you cannot divorce. This is the law of the church. The first time, I was like this one.” He removed his hat, nodded to the suddenly bashful novio, and then put it back on his head again. “Her name was Alfansa. A strange name. She was 15 when we married. I was 27. My father told me, ‘Wait eight years. No man should marry before age 35.’ It was excellent advice.” He gave a look to the novio, who blushed again, shrugged, and took a shot of rum. “This was a great love. So I could not ignore it. But a great love makes for a real husband. And a real husband is always suspicious, though he often suspects in the wrong place.”
There were grunts of agreement. The men nodded around the fire. Waitresses came and went silently, refilling our glasses, replacing our beers, their faces appearing like pale moths in the firelight and then disappearing again into the darkness. The cook roasting the beef cut great slices of red meat, passed around on a platter for our plates, and I thought of what it might have been like to sit on the beach after nightfall with Odysseus and his men, only a few ships left, lost, on an unknown island, passing the serving plate of sacrificial ox or lamb and drinking the thick red wine that they had to mix with water.
“It was a summer day. Summer is a dangerous season.”
“Yes,” said another old man. “Dangerous for love. Spring, too. Especially around the end of May.”
“De conejos [the rabbits],” another man said. We all looked at him curiously. He was sopping up blood from his plate with a tortilla, and nodding his head with the patience and mystery of a tortoise.
“Jules was his name, my friend. Also a strange name. He was my closest friend. He was like a brother to me.”