by Gerry Mandel
Selected by Guest Editor Joobin Bekhrad
In a situation like this, I think I’d ask myself, What would Omar Khayyam do? Warm evenings in Costa Rica, ‘colourful rum drinks’, and nubile housekeepers named Marcella sound right up his alley. Count me in, Gerry; I’m not a fan of Canadian winters, either.
About a year after I moved to Costa Rica, I get a call from Tim Murdock, an old friend back in the States. Even before I say hello, I’m thinking, God, I hope he isn’t planning to visit me.
“Hey, Tim,” I say in my cheeriest voice. “What’s shakin’?”
For the next few minutes he tells me “what’s shakin’,” all of it enthusiastically upbeat, then abruptly segues into the reason for the call. It’s just as I feared. He wants to visit me.
A quick explanation why I feel this way. It came to pass about two years ago, November of 2016 to be precise. That’s when almost 70% of the voters in the U.S. elected The Donald as president. Tim and I had let politics poison our friendship. As I watched Trump sworn in on a sunny January day, wearing his baseball cap, I decided it was time to get the hell out. Canada was too cold, Mexico too dangerous and soon to become too crowded, so I opted for a pool, a view and a nubile housekeeper named Marcella in Costa Rica.
Tim arrives one week later. I used to think of him as a giant of a man. In a way he still is, but as I watch him slowly descend the steps from the plane and make his way across the tarmac, he seems somehow less substantial. The full head of shaggy blonde hair is the same but the limp is new.
We hug each other with some degree of sincerity, retrieve his canvas bag and drive back to my place. On the way we talk about our time together in high school and the days and years beyond.
“You were always the smarter one,” he says. “You got the grades.”
“And you got the girls,” I say.
“Lot of good it did me.” He laughs. “Good with girls, bad with marriage.” We don’t discuss politics.
Relaxing in chez lounges next to the pool, I have Marcella bring us a pitcher of some kind of colorful rum drink. I have no idea what she puts in there but the effect is pure magic. Maybe even sorcery. Tim and I toast our friendship and a world we no longer understand, then watch the sun slip between the mountain peaks.
“You look tired,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s the wall.”
I don’t know what he means and say so.
“I’ve been workin’ on that Mexican wall. The one President Trump promised.” The words “President Trump” sends a wave of nausea over me. The same feeling as the first time I watched Carly Fiorina on one of the three-ring debates. I ask him what kind of work he’s doing on the wall, and he tells me it’s what he’s good at: welding. “There isn’t one of them drug runners or rapists gonna get past that. Through it, around it, under it, over it. Not a chance in hell.” He sounds proud of his participation, like he’s a hero in the war. “And the money’s not bad either, Chesley,” he adds.
My name’s Chet, but he resorts to Chesley because he thinks it’s funny. Don’t ask me why.
I refill our glasses, close my eyes and take a sip. I’m wondering how long before he gets to the point of this trip. The silence drags on. Finally I ask him about his limp. “Anything serious?”
“Not now. Could turn into it though.” Silence. “I cracked my hip. Playing rugby.” He laughs. “Yeah, I’m still doin’ dumb stuff.”
“So, obvious question, big guy. Why don’t you get it fixed?” There are some questions that don’t need asking, but Tim is one of those guys who needs prodding. Kind of like a cow.
“I hurt it before I got the wall job. So the company won’t pay for the operation. And since President Trump dismantled Obamacare” – another wave of nausea – “I can’t afford it.”
I think we have arrived at the reason for his visit. “And you don’t have insurance,” I say.
He turns the glass in his hands, takes a long swallow. “Yeah. But they won’t pay since Trump put a limit on all the insurance companies. How much they can make.” Tim is picking up steam now, his voice more emphatic. “So most of ’em just cut their coverage. Cancelled a lot of people. So right now it’s like all headed for the Supreme Court. That’ll be a circus.”
He’s referring of course to the replacement for Scalia that Obama snuck by before he was out of office. A transgendered person who went from Carl to Carla and was embraced by the Republicans to show how compassionate they were, and was also a transparent attempt to win that segment of the population – gay, liberated, confused and, most of all, young. It worked. Even though Mitch McConnell said he had no interest in seeing what was under the robe.
I feel sorry for Tim. I never believed politics should break up a friendship. “Get your operation,” I say. “Go back home, get the best surgeon you can find, have ’em send me the bill.”
I expect his face to light up, a hug, an enthusiastic “thanks.” What I get is silence, then: “I have to get the operation in Toronto, Chet.” He’s finished with the funny name routine. “Most of the hospitals in the states are low on drugs. Not since Trump put a limit on their profits. They’re sending everything they make overseas. To England, France, Finland for Chrissake.”
“Finland??” I can’t help myself. How’d Finland get in there?
He goes on. “There’s even a shortage of equipment. Scalpels and x-ray machines and computers and all that crap. Things are breaking down and not being replaced.”
I ask him why.
“Trump wanted to show the Chinese who was boss. So he put a tariff on everything they make. So China said ‘screw you’ and took us off their customer list.”
The more he talks, the more I’m glad I opted for a room with a view. And no TV or twitter. I no longer want to follow world events. A form of ignorance, to be sure, but blissfully so.
“So, you’ll take care of your leg?” I say. “Or is there something else?”
He gets up, goes over to the low brick wall in my yard, and stares out at the darkening sky as millions of stars begin to emerge. “Yeah.” He turns to me. “I’ve been called up and I’m not gonna go.”
“Called up? To what?” I’m afraid where this is going.
“The Patriot Patrol. That’s what he calls it. Kind of a civilian army to clear out all the Muslims. Just like he promised he would do.”
I can’t help pursuing this strange scenario. I ask him why don’t the police or the regular army take care of that. I don’t even delve into the morality of it all.
His voice is thin now, almost a whisper. “Because he’s getting ready to bomb the hell out of North Korea. Before Kim don whoever bombs us.”
A long silence. I can think of nothing to add this conversation. I don’t want to know about the Middle East or African-Americans or the economy or what Hillary is doing these days. Then he says, “I used to be proud of my country. But…not anymore, Chet. Not anymore. I don’t want to go back.”
And he doesn’t. I have him stay with me. I find a good doctor for his leg. I find him a welding job with a construction company here. We spend our evenings by the pool or in the house, talking about our shared past, the books we’re reading, and, yes, even politics.
Gerry Mandel is a freelance writer, having had a career with national advertising agencies as writer/producer/creative director. His short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared in various literary publications, and four of his plays have been produced by area theatrical companies. His novel, “Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin,” was published in 2010. His documentary on the Lewis and Clark sculpture on the St. Louis riverfront won an international award in 2008. He taught writing and production at Webster University in St. Louis. He is currently working on a novel about Chaplin, Hitler, “The Great Dictator” and Hollywood in the 1930’s.
He currently writes two blogs: Time with Charlie Chaplin and Hey You Hoser on blogspot.com, and produces video biographies. He lives in Kirkwood, Missouri, with his wife, Mary Lee, and Lexi, their golden retriever.