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Closing Time

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

“What happened to the old guy with one hand?”

Harvey stopped wiping the glasses and looked up at the elderly gaunt stranger who was his only customer, flinching slightly at the coldness of the man’s stare. “You must have been here a long time back, mister.”

The man answered in a tone of affected concern. “Why? Ain’t he here no more?” He swirled the last of his beer around in the bottom of the glass, clearly contemplating the purchase of another.

“That was my dad. He passed away a few years back. Not a lot of people remember him now.”

“Well I remember him. Great guy. Great storyteller. You were lucky to have a dad like that.” He gulped down the last of his beer. “Guess I’ll have another one, son.”

Harvey took his glass and fetched another bottle of Imperial from the battered refrigerator behind the bar. The man with the cold eyes acknowledged with a nod. “You here to see the turtles?” Harvey asked to make conversation. The stranger didn’t reply right away.

“Well...” he said at last, “truth is, I came here to see your dad. Don’t look like that’s going to happen, does it?”

Harvey looked up, surprised. “Nope. But maybe I can help?”

“Doubt it. It was personal stuff. Don’t know why I bothered to make the journey, really.”

Harvey waited, but the stranger seemed loath to continue. “Good to meet a friend of my dad’s,” said Harvey, hoping to open up the conversation again. “Please have the beer on me. How far have you come?”

“Chicago. American Airlines. Got in to San Jose last night.”

“You must have come straight down then.”

“Fastest way I could. Bus as far as Cochuita. Then I had to get a ride with one of the turtle research boats. Hell of a place to get to, this.”

Harvey nodded. “We lost the railroad in the 1991 earthquake. Never got fixed. Before that it was opening up pretty good for tourism. Then they made the National Park down at Cochuita. Started the diving centre there too. We had coral as well before the earthquake, but it got lifted two metres and broken up by the tide. Nothing here now. Just the turtles.”

“And your bar. How do you survive?”

“Turtle research people got to drink. And eat. I do food as well, you know.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

Harvey knew what he really meant. Why is a sane man trying to live on peanuts in a back-end-of-nowhere place like this? It was a question that Harvey had often asked himself – since he had been about eighteen years old in fact. There had never been a good answer.

“How did your father die, son, if it’s okay to ask?”

“I don’t mind. It was a long time ago. He was found, washed up on the beach. Drowned. Folks thought he might have got caught up in some weeds, something like that. He was a strong swimmer. Especially for a guy with one hand.” Harvey paused and waited for a reaction but the stranger just took another sip from his glass.

“How did you know him then?”

“I knew him up in Chicago, before he came down here.”

Harvey looked him straight in the eye. “Really? No kidding? He would never talk about Chicago. You must know... how he lost his hand.”

“Didn’t he tell you?”

“Told a different story about it every time he got asked. Told folks it had been bitten off by a crocodile, or he’d lost it in a machete fight over a girl, or he and some old Tico friend of his had got high on magic mushrooms in the forest and he’d thought it was a tarantula and cut it off himself. He had a hundred stories about it. I doubt if he even knew himself which one of them was true. I guess it was a joke of his... you know, a way to tease people.”

The man took a sip of his beer and considered what he should say. “I guess if Walter had wanted his boy to know about those things he’d have told you himself. Ain’t none of my business.”

“But he’s dead now,” Harvey pleaded, “if you won’t tell me I’m never going to know, am I?”

The stranger considered the question. “We all go to our graves not knowing a lot of things. Things we’re probably happier not knowing.”

Far off in the forest, a howler monkey asserted territorial rights before settling down for the night. Harvey took another bottle of Imperial from the refrigerator and filled a glass for himself. He pulled up the high-back stool he kept behind the bar and sat opposite his only customer. “Look, mister, if I tell you the truth about how my dad died, will you tell me the truth about his hand?”

oo O oo

Harvey lay out flat on a tattered brown beach-rug with an olive-skinned teenage girl in a purple sarong curled-up beside him, her head resting lightly in the crook of his shoulder, her right leg stretched across both of his. In the forest behind them the high-pitched evening trill of the cicadas was building to full volume. From underneath the overhanging shade of the palms they could see a flight of pelicans returning from their day’s fishing in a tight V formation across the scattered black silhouettes of the islands that lay between them and the far Caribbean horizon.

“I think we miss the sea, Harvey, when we go to los Estados Unidos. No?”

“We’re going to miss a lot of things, Magdalena.”

“But it be worth it, right? And we come back, very often. We come back with our children, right Harvey?”

“Costs money to go to the United States, Magdalena. Costs money to come back too.”

“But we have lots money. We learn in college in San Jose and then we get good job in los Estados Unidos. We come back rich Gringos! Buy big hotel, live good life. No?”

Harvey smiled. It was all so easy to Magdalena. All so straightforward. “Look, I’m coming, right? I said I was coming and I am. Okay?”

“Tomorrow. Twelve thirty at railroad station. You come with all things packed up, we go San Jose. Right? For sure, we go!”

“For sure. We go for sure.” He kissed her gently on the top of the forehead.

oo O oo

Walter was lying down when he got back to the bar. Sam hadn’t come in, and the flimsy wooden shutters were still up on the front entrance. Harvey went straight upstairs to see how he was. The old man looked pale.

“I’m fine, Son,” he assured him, “Just a bit tired. Did a little bit of fishing today and I felt like a lie down when I got back, that’s all. You and Magdalena all set to go?”

“Yeah, sure Dad. All set. Twelve thirty tomorrow.”

“That’s good. Ain’t nothing for young folks here. She’s a good kid. You’re a lucky guy. I wish I was your age again. You and Magdalena, see that you get a proper profession in that college up there, and get a good job in the ‘States. Give me lots of grandchildren. She’s good for you, Harvey. You and Magdalena are going to have all the things that I never had. Go to all the places that I’ve never been.”

“Yeah, I know Dad. And I’m going to look after her, like you told me to.”

“That’s right, Son. Got to look after your girl properly, or she’ll up and go. That’s what they do, if you don’t look after them properly. But that won’t happen to you. You’re a lot smarter than me. Going to have a better life. I’m proud of you, Son.”

“Thanks Dad. I know you are. And I’m going to give you reason to be proud, you wait and see.” He paused for a moment. “Dad, why was it you never went to all those places?”

Walter never gave a straight answer to that kind of question. “Liked it here, Son.”

Harvey shrugged. He looked down at the prone figure, swallowed hard. “I think I’ll open up by myself, Dad. You come down later if you feel well enough.”

“Nothing wrong with me, Son. You get the door open and the stools out, I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Sure Dad. See you downstairs in half an hour.”

oo O oo

Harvey opened the bedroom door as quietly as he could and looked in. By the thin pencil of light that fell across the bed from the gap in the heavy drapes he saw his father’s figure stir. “Harvey? That you? What time is it?”

“Hello Dad. It’s about noon. You were more sleepy than you thought. Slept right through. But it’s okay. I opened the bar and we did pretty good. Cooked a couple of meals for people too.”

“Noon! But you’ve got to go in half an hour! Have you done your packing?”

“It’s okay Dad. I don’t have to go today. Magdalena can go on her own and we can meet up in San Jose tomorrow.”

“Are you crazy? Is that the way you’re going to treat your girl on the very first day of your new life? I thought you were smart. You get your suitcase and get right to that train station this goddamn instant!”

He came in and stood over his father’s bed. “Dad, I lied. It’s past noon. Magdalena’s already gone. But I’ll be on the train tomorrow. I’ll find her and everything will be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’ll find her? You mean you didn’t even tell her you weren’t going? Have you flipped? What’s going on, Harvey?”

He sat down by the bed. “Well, the truth is, I don’t know what’s going on either. What’s going on with me, I mean. I sat on the veranda with my suitcase and... well, I wanted to go, but I just couldn’t seem to take the first step. I couldn’t get myself to walk to that station. Isn’t that strange?”

oo O oo

“So you just couldn’t go,” the stranger probed, “some kind of phobia?”

“Guess so. I did go eventually though. Not the next day, but the day after that. My Dad was a lot better that day. I took the train to San Jose and I went to the college Magdalena and me were supposed to be joining. I’d never been anywhere as big as San Jose before and it was scary. I thought I could ask at the college office, where she was, what courses she had signed up for. But they wouldn’t tell me anything. Said it was all confidential, and who did I think I was. I said I was her boyfriend, but they just laughed at me. I never thought it was going to be like that. They said if I didn’t leave they’d call the police. So I left. I hung around the college for a couple of days, thought maybe I would see her, but it was a big place, lots of different buildings...”

“So you never found her again?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think she wanted to be found. Guess she was pretty mad at me. I don’t blame her. I suppose I could have tried a bit harder, but on the third day up there I phoned home. Got through to Sam instead of my Dad. I knew there was something wrong, but Sam wouldn’t tell me what it was. I came home right away... and then I heard about the drowning.”

For a couple of minutes neither of them spoke.

“Hell of a thing, to lose your dad like that.”

“Worst part was, he’d been so mad at me. So upset. He called me a fool for the way I’d treated Magdalena, the way I wouldn’t go to the ‘Estados Unidos’. I guess he was right, I didn’t really understand it myself. I wanted to be with Magdalena, but I wanted to be with her here, where we both belonged.”

The stranger played with the last few drops of his beer. “Your father was a frightened man, Harvey. Seems to me you might have picked up some of that fear, some way. Shame, maybe you could’ve done better for yourself.”

Harvey’s eyes bored into the stranger’s face. “Why? Why was he so scared? Tell me. You know, don’t you?”

The stranger met his eyes and thought for a long time. “It’s too easy, Harvey. You can’t blame other people for your own mistakes. You could have gone with Magdalena. You could have got an education and a job and lived in the USA. Those things were your decisions, your life. Don’t try to blame your dad and his problems for things you did.”

Harvey’s eyes narrowed. “You know what I think you’re saying? I think you’re saying don’t blame you. Is that right? Was it you that made my Dad the way he was?”

The shot in the dark hit home. The old man’s coldness seemed to melt a little and he finally began to talk. “Your father was mixed up with some pretty unsavoury guys in Chicago. He picked the wrong girlfriend – daughter of one of the big Italian-American crime families. They ran off together and by the time the family caught up with them they’d had a baby... they'd had you.”

Harvey stared at him, drinking in all that he said.

“The hand... was the punishment for running away with Corvano’s daughter. They took her home, told your dad he had twenty-four hours to disappear. You were left with him. If you hadn’t have been around they’d just have shot him, no question.”

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Harvey whispered, “It was you who cut off my father’s hand.”

The long pause told Harvey he was right.

“It was a long time ago. We were all crazy bastards back then. Whole different world, kid, whole different world. But it’s always... played on my mind, you know? Walter didn’t deserve what happened to him. He wasn’t a bad guy. He thought we didn’t know where he’d run to, that he’d got clean away, but everybody knew. Old Corvano liked to think of Walter down here, rotting away, scared as hell. But it’s all over now. Corvano’s dead. I wanted to come down and tell Walter. Reckoned I owed him that much.”

Harvey remained rigid and expressionless in his chair.

“I came here to tell Walter that the Corvano family seeks no more retribution. And maybe... to ask him to forgive me. Stupid idea, wasn’t it?”

Still Harvey said nothing.

“Maybe not so stupid, ‘cause it seems to me you’ve let it seep into you as well. All this thing about being afraid of the world. Ain’t nothing to be afraid of, Harvey. All ancient history. You could go up to Chicago now, go and see your mother if you wanted to. I’m sure she’d be happy to see you. She’s still alive, and you’ve got brothers... well, half brothers, and cousins... and God knows what. All respectable US citizens. You don’t need to rot in this place, Harvey.”

Harvey got up and very quietly started to stow the high-back stool behind the bar, turning away to do it.

“Come back to the ‘States with me, Harvey. Let me make some of it up to the old man.”

“I think it’s time you left,” said Harvey quietly without turning around. The stranger hesitated for a few moments, drank down the last of his beer, and was gone. Harvey remained with his back to the door and his hands resting on the bar stool for a long time, until he heard the entry of another customer and turned around to greet him.

“Hi, Harvey. Am I too late for one of your plates of chicken fried rice?”

“Too late?” Harvey repeated the words as he started to wipe the counter absently. After a few seconds his expression changed to one of polite civility.

“Of course not, Mike. Never too late. Happy to serve you at any hour, just like always.”