Lifeline

by J.P.J. Fox

          A breeze off the harbor and a cold beer quenched my soul more than the nearby pristine beaches and clear turquoise sea could. I sat at the far table for four on the narrow, railed deck of Café Detour and stared out into the street.
          When she brought my third refill, the waitress asked, “You here alone, sir?”
          “Today I am alone,” I said, and took a sip. “All alone.”
          “You come here to be alone,” she said and began to turn away.
          “No. I came here to find an answer.” She turned back, so I asked, “Do you have an answer?”
          She looked at me, puzzled. “Answer for what?”
          “Any answer,” I said. “It seems all you have is questions. ‘Something to drink?’ ‘Do you want to see a menu?’ ‘Another beer, sir?’ ‘Are you alone?’ . . . I’m looking for an answer.”
          “I don’t have your answer, sir.”
          I looked up into her face and felt her reading mine. Her wide-looped earrings dangled.
          “But I know who can help you,” she said. “Lucia. . . . People like you need her.”
          “I didn’t know that.”
          “Of course you don’t,” she replied, her earrings swinging as she rocked her head. “None of them do.”
          A stronger breeze glided in off the harbor, flapping the awning that shaded the deck. I turned to face the refreshing air, gazing at the cheery outdoor restaurant across the corner.
          “You don’t find your answer over there,” she said, collecting glasses from another table before heading back inside the café.
          Browsing the menu that had been sitting on the table, I thought: Paula would say, “Let’s share a few of the appetizers, then head to the beach.” But she wasn’t here. Gary would tease me if I wanted a cheeseburger in the Caribbean. But he wasn’t here. So I finished my beer alone and went over to the touristy outdoor restaurant.
          After I finished my burger, the late afternoon sun was directly in my eyes. My check was paid and my water glass was empty. The breezy café across the corner beckoned my return for another cold beer. Gary would agree: it’s a bit late for the beach. His girlfriend would browse the shops with Paula, while my brother and I sat in the shade, sipping the local brew and making jests about passers-by.
          I took the same seat I had earlier, and the same waitress stood by, attentively waiting for my order, but reluctant to ask. “Another beer, please,” I said.
          When she set a full glass down before me, I smiled with gratitude and asked, “Where would I find Lucia?”
          “She is hard to find—she’s on the windward side of the island. But a taxi driver can take you there.”
          “So, I just ask that driver there,” I said, pointing to a parked taxicab, “and he’ll know?”
          “It’s late to see Lucia. And you been drinking. She don’t like that. Go tomorrow.”

* * *

          In the morning, a cab driver wearing an untucked pale blue, short-sleeved shirt and an off-white cotton driver’s cap explained, “I can take you to Lucia in about a half hour. She’s busy now.”
          “Do I need an appointment?” I asked.
          He chuckled. “No appointment. She don’t like people waiting there. Another driver already take someone to her.”
          “So, I should come back in half an hour?”
          “No. If you want to go to Lucia, you tell me now, and I send a text to the other drivers so they know. That’s how it works. Your fare starts when we leave and ends when we get back.”
          I bought him a coffee at the corner café while we waited. He sat with me but spoke mostly with other locals passing by. Once we were on our way, he asked me, “How you hear of Lucia?”
          “A waitress at Café Detour told me to see her, and I thought it would be something different to do this morning.”
          “Cornelia sent you. . . . It will be almost noon when we get there. A few hours before we’re back.”
          I wasn’t expecting such a long excursion and began to wonder what scam I’d stumbled into, but we were already heading out of town.
          “What exactly does Lucia do?” I asked. “Fortune telling? Tarot?”
          “She reads your palms. No fortune, but something to think. You will see.”
          The narrow road wove around coves then dodged inland, passing fields scorched black from recent fires and shanty structures I couldn’t discern as sheds or houses. We skimmed the edge of a cramped ghetto built around a small harbor. Window boxes with bright flowers graced weathered buildings with mismatched shutters. The calm perimeter of these tenements shrouded the activity within the tight side streets, unveiled as the road climbed up and away. We circled a mountain, passing more fields recently cut down but not scorched. I didn’t notice the side road ahead until the driver made a sudden left turn, taking the taxi down an even narrower passage, flanked by greenbrier and tall ferns which brushed the sides of the cab.
          Coming out of the gloomy thicket, we arrived at a clearing with two small cinder block structures. Chickens scurried as we pulled onto a grassless patch just before the buildings.
          We both got out of the taxi. “There she is,” the driver said, pointing to a wide-brimmed straw hat obscuring the figure of a woman hunched over in the garden beyond. “I get her for you,” he said. “Wait here.”
          She seemed to make a fuss as he spoke to her, handing him her basket and pointing to the far side of the garden. He walked with her halfway back, then she split off to a doorway as he approached the taxi.
          “Give her a few minutes,” he said, setting down the basket of vegetables and lighting a cigarette. When he finished his smoke, he said, “Okay, go inside—the door that’s open.” He gripped the basket. “I go and pick her some peppers.”
          Inside it was dark and comfortably cool. My eyes adjusted, and I found a woman sitting at a small table by a curtained window. Her thin arms extended from a white, short-sleeved top, motioning to join her.
          “Hello, Lucia,” I said.
          She gestured to me not to speak as I sat. Then she reached across the table and clutched both my wrists, bringing my hands closer to her and setting them to rest, palms down. She pulled back the curtain to bring light to the dark corner. Lucia poised her head and closed her eyes, as if she was looking straight into mine, but with hers still shut. Below her eyes, shiny brown cheeks framed pursed lips. She took my left hand and turned it over, as she bowed her head and reopened her eyes. Lucia studied my palm for a moment then spoke without looking up.
          “You are guided by a soul mate,” she began, “but there is something separating you. This is probably a mistake.”
          “What do you mean?” I asked.
          She continued as if she didn’t hear me. “The people you love the most will not hurt you, but they cannot help you if you retreat.”
          I saw a scowl cross her brow as she examined quietly then added, “Your suffering feels like it belongs to you alone, but it will bring you closer.”
          “Closer to whom?”
          She turned my other hand and studied the palm. “The paths you have taken, the places you’ve been—some are distractions and some are destinies. Right now you cannot tell which is which, but you will find out.”
          She paused, but I refrained from speaking.
          “Coincidences will confuse you,” she resumed. “Don’t dwell on them, but don’t ignore them if they bring pain or joy. Those are the moments you need to listen inside you to find your way.”
          “Is this a coincidence? That I came here? Is this part of destiny?”
          She looked back at my left palm. “You haven’t lost as much as you think,” she said. “When your glass is empty, you may thirst for more. When your belly is full, you may still be hungry.” Looking into my eyes, she added, “Your distraction brings a loneliness that yearns to be alone. Then only a stranger can help you.”
          Lucia closed her eyes. “That’s all,” she said as she turned toward the window and looked outside.
          “But I have questions,” I said.
          “I gave you the answers,” she said, watching the cab driver scavenging in her yard. “Were you listening?”
          “Yes, I was listening to you.”
          “Good. Now listen to yourself,” she said.
          She continued to watch out the window and didn’t stir when I stood.
          “How much for the reading?” I asked.
          Lucia stared outside like a statue. Eventually she replied, “Rafael is waiting for you.”
          Outside Rafael saw me coming and walked from the yard toward the parked taxi. Five chickens scattered from his approach; three headed directly at me, then darted away.
          “Does Lucia charge for readings?” I asked him. “I offered to pay her, and she didn’t respond.”
          Rafael smiled. “You don’t pay her,” he explained. “I take care of it. All us taxi drivers take care of her from our tips.”
          “My name is Glenn. Lucia told me you are Rafael.”
          He was holding some peculiar, red, waxy nuts in his left hand. “This is nutmeg,” he said. “Fall from that tree over in the yard. Outside is mace; inside is nutmeg.”
          “What’s the difference?”
          “The nut inside is stronger flavor.”
          He offered one to me, and I took it without thanking him; a sudden daze stifled me.
          “Ready to go, Glenn?” Rafael asked as he walked around to the driver’s side of the taxi.
          I sat in the back seat, speechless, gazing out the window as we drove past the cut fields.
          “This is mace. You need nutmeg for eggnog,” Gary told me.
          “Paula said to use this.” I shrugged. “It’s all we have.”
          “It’s wrong,” he insisted. “I’ll fix it.”
         
When we arrived at the ghetto, I snapped out of my daydream. The road back took us through a bustling neighborhood closer to the harbor. Rafael’s patience wore after we were stopped for two minutes, and he honked the horn to clear passage for us to proceed through. Beyond the ghetto, it was peaceful again.
          I looked down at the red, waxy nut I still held in my hand.
          “Where’s Gary?” Paula asked me.
          “He had some last-minute shopping to do. He’ll be back soon.”
          “You forgot to add the mace,” she said, inspecting the punch bowl on the buffet.
         
The car stopped where a small herd of goats was crossing the road. Rafael returned a friendly wave to the farmer who followed them.
          Back in town, I paid Rafael for the ride, with a generous tip to share with Lucia. Then I presented the nutmeg and asked, “Why did you give this to me?”
          “I think maybe you need it, to bring home with you. Take off the red mace and let it dry. And when the nut inside the shell rattles, you can use it. Or you can just keep it as souvenir.”
          In my room I sat on the bed, peeled off the mace, and set the nut down on the nightstand.
          “Where’s Gary?” Paula asked me.
          “He had some last-minute shopping to do. He’ll be back soon.”
         
I laid down for a nap.
          “Your distraction brings a loneliness that yearns to be alone.”

* * *

          “Would you like to see a menu?” Cornelia dared to ask after serving me a beer.
          “What are your specials tonight? Better yet, what is your favorite special tonight?”
          “Special today is Curried Goat,” she said. “But Spring Roll is my favorite.”
          “Give me a minute to decide,” I said, drifting.
          “Do you like the Spring Roll?” Paula asked me between bites on hers.
          “It’s very good . . . I think . . .”
          “You think it’s good?”
          “I think . . . maybe we should put off the wedding. I’m not ready yet. It’s only three months since—”
          “Is this about your brother? . . . I mean . . . I understand.”
          “Gary was my best man.”
         
Cornelia came back with a menu. “So, you want Spring Rolls?” she asked.
          “I’ll look at the menu,” I replied.
          “You need to get away,” Paula said. “You need to find yourself again.”
          “Where should we go?”
          “Not us—you. I don’t know how else to help you, Glenn. I don’t mean to hurt you, but you’ve got to deal with it: he’s gone. Gary’s dead, not you.”
         
When Cornelia returned, I ordered the Spring Rolls.

* * *

          Something bothered me that night, so first thing in the morning I went looking for Rafael. Another cabbie said she’d not seen him, but she could take me to Lucia. Her name was Renée. She wore tight jeans, a sleeveless top, and her lush ponytail extended out the back of her generic baseball cap. Renée texted the other drivers. Ten minutes later she confirmed we could go. “First, I want to get Lucia some bread,” she said. “The bread lady is just down that way,” she added without pointing in any direction as she opened the cab door for me.
          Soon we were heading out of town with the smell of warm baguettes wafting from the front seat. When we reached the narrow rural road, Renée tore a piece from an extra loaf and urged me to do the same, and I did. Aside from breaking bread, the ride was much the same as the day before.
          Lucia was standing at the doorway when the taxi pulled in. Though she was barefoot, she looked taller in Capri pants and an untucked chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up her arms. Renée brought her a baguette and then waved to me to come over.
          “I must ask you something, Lucia,” I said.
          She looked at me with disappointment.
          “You said I lost a soul mate. My twin brother was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve. How was that my mistake?”
          “I read your palms, not your brother’s.” She set the loaf down and reached for my hands. Lucia examined them briefly, then confidently stated, “Distraction, destiny—you mistake the difference. You haven’t lost your soul mate yet, but you have wandered.”
          “I have wandered?”
          “You haven’t discovered which is which,” she said. She turned her eyes to mine. “Are you heeding your heart?”
          “Yes, I think so.”
          “Then stop asking me,” she said.
          Lucia pointed to Renée, who was waiting in the shade under the nutmeg tree, scattering breadcrumbs to the chickens. I watched them follow Renée to the grassless patch where the taxi was parked. I hadn’t noticed that Lucia followed me there.
          “Don’t bring anyone tomorrow,” Lucia told Renée, then she herded the chickens back toward the yard.
          “Did I upset her?” I asked Renée, as she started the taxi.
          “I doubt it,” she said. “Probably she expects rain. She don’t like us to come in rain.”
          Renée pulled away and added, “Lucia’s husband was a taxi driver. He was killed in a washout on the north shore road, on his way home after he took some stranded tourists to higher ground in a tropical storm.”
          “When did that happen?”
          “Oh, about ten years. I was a teenager. Lucia was my English teacher then.”
          “She wasn’t a palm reader?”
          “She did that too. Her grandmother gave her the gift.”
          As we drove, I thought about Lucia, and what she had told me.
          “You haven’t lost your soul mate, but you have wandered. . . . The people you love the most . . . they cannot help you if you retreat.”
         
Now I wanted Paula.
          “You need to find yourself,” Paula said. “He’s gone. Gary’s dead, not you.”
         
Renée had taken a different route back. “Sorry,” she said when we joined a line of stalled traffic. “I thought this way would be easy. No luck today.”
          “A stranger can help you.”
          We were stopped by the airport. It was hot, stuck in the midday sun, as I stared out to the runway. A plane took off, and I realized I could be on one tomorrow.
          “Coincidences will confuse you. Don’t dwell on them, but don’t ignore them.”
          “I’ll get out here,” I said.

* * *

          The next morning was cloudy. After breakfast, I saw Rafael leaning against his taxi, reading a newspaper.
          “Good morning, Rafael,” I said. “I’ll need a ride to the airport around noon. Can you bring me there?”
          “Leaving before rain comes?” he asked. “It should be sunny again tomorrow. . . . But I can give you a ride if you’re ready to move on.”
          “Yes. I rebooked my flight yesterday.”
          “Hotel Frangipani, right? I’ll be there before noon,” he confirmed with a smile.
          At 11:30 Rafael was chatting with the desk clerk when I came to the lobby to check out. “I’ll take your bags to the cab,” he said to me. “When is your plane?”
          “Two forty-five.”
          “No rush. We have plenty of time.”
         During the drive to the airport, it started to rain. While I was waiting for my flight, darker clouds delivered a downpour, which briefly subsided when it was time to walk out to the tarmac and board the jet bound for Philadelphia.
          Halfway through the trip home, I hunted in my backpack, looking for my keys that I’d need after landing. They were in there—somewhere. The third pocket I looked in held the nutmeg Rafael had given me.
          You didn’t need to run out to get that at the last minute, Gary. Paula’s new eggnog recipe called for mace.
         
The moist eyes I felt were different this time, and I knew Gary would be with me when I stood at the altar with Paula.
          I clutched the nutmeg in my hand. I didn’t need my keys just yet.

END


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One thought on “Lifeline

  1. Loved the story! Glen was interesting and you definitely brought the island and characters to life. Great job! Looking forward to your next story!

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