|Published in THE NEW
YORKER - September 21, 2009 - A short story from his
book, "Day out of Days"
“It’s just amazing how friendly you become when you’re
on Xanax,” she says. This is after we’ve been standing
in the long, snaking customs line for over an hour in
the torrid Cancún heat. We’re being herded, shoulder to
shoulder with all the other Minnesota “snowbirds”
frantically fanning themselves with their customs forms.
“I know,” I say to her. “I’m amazed myself.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Why should you be amazed?”
“Well, I feel this friendly person coming out in me, and
I wonder if maybe that’s my real nature. You know—the
“What is it that has changed, exactly?”
“I’m on Xanax.”
“I understand that,” she says. “But what is it that
makes you more friendly than before you took the Xanax?”
“Well, I’m not a particularly unfriendly person, am I?”
“Not now, you’re not.”
“No—I mean, I don’t ordinarily think of myself as a
sullen, bad-tempered kind of a guy.”
“I didn’t say sullen.”
“You don’t usually go out of your way to be chatty.
Let’s put it that way.”
“You’re chatting about the weather with total strangers.
You never do that. Not as long as I’ve known you.”
“I thought it was kind of remarkable. Don’t you?”
“What?” she says.
“The weather. The change. The extreme difference between
here and St. Paul in a matter of just three and a half
“That’s why people come here from St. Paul. The change
in the weather. That’s why we’re here.”
“Yes, I know that, but it’s still remarkable, isn’t it?
A hundred and five here and minus thirty back there?”
“Never mind,” she says, and turns toward the slow-motion
There’s a group of elementary-school teachers from
Duluth right in front of us who suddenly burst into
singing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” in perfect
unison, with no attempt at harmony. I guess the
pulverizing heat and the waiting have tipped them right
over the edge. The Mexican officials in SWAT-team
uniforms look on in stony silence, arms clasped behind
their backs, black Mayan eyes unmoved by this Nordic
display of bravado. Our teen-age kids have surrendered
to the heat, slumping to the concrete floor, heads
propped on their backpacks. They’ve stopped volunteering
“Actually, I’m just glad to be alive,” I blurt out after
standing there awhile in a kind of stupor, hypnotized by
the schoolteachers’ ditty.
“You’re glad to be alive?” she repeats in astonishment.
“Is that what you just said?”
“Yes, I am. Just like Arnold Palmer.”
“Isn’t that what he says these days? Now that he’s
ancient, hobbling down the fairway? ‘I’m just glad to be
here. Just glad to be alive.’ That’s what he says when
they run up to him with microphones and TV cameras. You
know, for those golf-show interviews. Even when he’s
having trouble with his putting, his swing. Isn’t that
what he always says now?”
“I have no idea. I thought he was dead.”
“Arnold Palmer? No. He’s very much alive. He’s an icon.”
“Whatever,” she says, turning away again.
“Well, it’s true,” I continue. “I’m thrilled to still be
here—back in the ‘land of the living.’ ”
“I didn’t realize you’d left us,” she says.
“That’s the way I always feel when I’ve survived an
“I always feel like I’m actually going to die when I get
on an airplane. Like this is it, the end of the
line—inevitable. Then, after we land and get back on dry
land it feels as though I’ve lived through a kind of
certain death and come out the other end. That’s why I
take Xanax, and that’s why I say I’m glad to be alive.”
She stares at me for a second in absolute bewilderment,
as though she were looking into the face of a stranger,
then turns back to the long, stale line of humans in
“My God,” she says. “What is going on with this customs
thing? We’ve never had to wait this long before.” Just
beyond the singing schoolteachers (who’ve now taken to
doing the song in rounds, like Campfire Girls) is a
sombre couple I recognize from the Lindbergh airport
back in St. Paul. The man, in a wheelchair, somewhat
older than the woman—late fifties, maybe—has a blanket
across his lap, a plaid scarf around his neck in spite
of the stifling heat, and an odd alpine-style hat with a
little brush sticking out of the band. The woman (his
wife?) stands behind him, very erect, hands propped at
the ready on the gray grips of the wheelchair, as though
assigned to a permanent grim vigil. She is plainly
pretty in a Midwestern open-faced, innocent way; wearing
a light linen suit and white pumps—not exactly the
expected attire for Yucatán beach life. The two of them
seem completely detached from the goings on: the silly
singing; the constant fanning of everyone around them,
which has now become some kind of communal gesture of
contempt for the Mexican bureaucracy. Nothing seems to
ruffle the couple’s deep stoicism. Now and then, the
woman slips a white handkerchief from her pocket and
gently dabs the man’s forehead and the corners of his
mouth, although I can’t make out any moisture. He
doesn’t seem to be suffering the consequences of a
stroke or a neurological disorder but, rather, a much
longer and slower debilitation. Whatever it is, it has
clearly taken its toll on the two of them.
Finally, the line begins to trickle forward. We prod our
kids up off the floor and shove the luggage down through
a roped-off alley-maze toward the customs inspectors.
The abrupt, unexpected flow of the line seems to catch
the schoolteachers up short. They’re scrambling for
their baggage. The austere couple rolls silently on. The
man’s pale head slowly tilts upward, drawn by the
tropical sunlight blasting through the tall arched
windows of the main terminal. Each window frames an
absolutely motionless palm tree. Heat waves brand
themselves across the glass in vapored sheets. A single
green parrot desperately wings his way from one palm to
the next as though he might not make it, as though the
savage heat might drop him flat in midflight.
We find ourselves crammed into a red Jeep Wrangler with
a flapping canvas top, the much larger Chevy Suburban
I’d reserved having been let go due to our delay in the
customs line. (Mexico waits for no man.) My son
immediately drops off to sleep, his six-foot-plus
rail-thin frame scrunched up in back with the luggage.
Our daughter leans her head against the pipe-roll bar, a
T-shirt wedged between the steel and her soft temple.
Thick jungle air pours across her face. My wife has gone
completely silent now, staring up at a gigantic
billboard of nearly naked brown twins coyly concealing
their perfect breasts behind icy bottles of Corona.
“Have you got a girlfriend?” she asks me out of the
“A girlfriend?” I say, checking to see if our daughter
has overheard this, but she, too, has been lulled to
sleep by the heat.
“Yes, that’s right. A girlfriend,” my wife repeats.
“Where did this come from?”
“Don’t act so surprised. You could very easily have a
girlfriend and I’d never know it, would I? How would I
“I’m sixty. Those days are over.”
“Lots of young women are attracted to that these days.
It’s become chic or something.”
“Attracted to what?”
“Older men. Men of influence.”
“Men of influence?”
“Don’t laugh. You know what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“How did I know you were going to say exactly that?” She
stifles a little giggle, biting her lower lip.
“Could we talk about this later?” I suggest quietly.
“When?” she says.
“When we’re not on vacation. When we’re not riding down
the Yucatán Peninsula with our children directly behind
“You do, don’t you?” She smiles slowly at me with a look
of supreme recognition, then turns away toward the
flying jungle. We pass a broken-down rock corral with
ribby horses nosing through dust and their own manure.
Blue patches of bottle flies blanket their eyes.
“Does this mean we’re going to be silent and sour the
whole rest of the trip?” I ask the back of her neck.
“We can be any way you want,” she says.
“Where in the world did this idea come from, anyway?”
“The idea that I have a girlfriend.”
“It came from your cell phone, actually.”
“My cell phone?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“My cell phone?”
“Are you going to just keep repeating yourself?”
“I’m repeating you.”
“Yes, God damn it, it came from your cell phone!” she
bursts out. Both kids shift and grumble without opening
“Could we talk about this later?” I say.
“That’s something you said before, too.”
“I don’t want to talk about it at all, actually. It’s
ridiculous. There’s nothing to talk about anyway,” she
says with finality.
“So you’re just going to go ahead and believe in some
crazy fantasy, some half-baked notion that popped into
your head? Is that it?”
“It didn’t ‘pop’ into my head. It came over your cell
“A woman’s voice.”
“Oh—well, did you ask who it was? It could’ve been
someone at the office.”
“It wasn’t someone at the office. I’m familiar with
everyone at the office, and this wasn’t one of them.”
“It could’ve been anyone.”
“Well, it could’ve.”
“All right, sure—yeah—right—it could’ve been anyone in
the whole wide world, but it wasn’t.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Oh, shut up!” she suddenly shrieks. Our son wakes with
a jolt and grabs hold of the roll bar, waking his
“What’s wrong?” he pants, with his eyes popped out
toward the road.
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing. Just go back to sleep.”
“What were you yelling about, Mom?” our daughter asks.
“I was yelling at your father.”
“Because he’s trying to deny he has a girlfriend, and
I’ve found out he has a girlfriend. Now go back to
“Great. That’s really great,” I say to my wife.
“You’re welcome,” she says, and turns her entire back to
Silence, except for the droning of the Jeep’s oversized
tires and the relentless jungle wind bashing the canvas
top. The kids have burrowed down into the luggage and
returned to sleep. Her back is perfectly expressing
expulsion. Exiled in the Yucatán.
“I might just as well have come down here all by
myself,” I say to her spine. No answer. We roar past
Playa. Miles of fiesta-colored hammocks hanging in the
heat; giant ochre pottery in the shapes of Mayan demons
and once sacred jungle creatures—jaguars, serpents,
eagles, frogs. Everything’s for sale on the carretera:
rugs, serapes, Day-Glo wall hangings with luridly macho
Aztec scenes—feathered warriors valiantly protecting
young maidens from jade-eyed panthers. Huge billboards
welcome us in English to the “Mayan Riviera,” as though
Mexico were embarrassed to be Mexican. “I realize what
it is now,” I say out loud to myself but hoping she’ll
somehow respond. She doesn’t. Her back remains a rigid
The verdant jungle keeps rushing past. Now and then, a
gap in the dense foliage. Daylight cracks through the
tangle of vines and chechem. Fleeting glimpse of an old
man with his burro laden with plastic milk containers
filled from some secret cenote. Old sense of parallel
lives. Separate. Haunted. I stumble on, just going on
desperation now more than anything: “I think I realize
now what it is about the Xanax—how come I get so
friendly on it.” I’m talking entirely to myself. The
kids are snoring loudly. “It’s like with jazz
musicians,” I continue. “I remember all those guys down
at the Five Spot in the sixties. They were all using
smack back then. That was the drug of choice. I asked a
drummer once why he was using it, and you know what he
said?” I don’t know why I’m making a question out of
this. Nobody’s home. I soldier on. “He told me he used
it because it stopped all the inner chatter in his head.
Isn’t that amazing? It created a silence, and then he
For miles, nothing happens. The mind goes on doing
cartwheels, shuffling through its files, rewriting the
past, then tripping on some little tidbit of what it
calls reason: “What were you doing answering my cell
phone, anyway? I don’t answer your cell phone, do I?”
“Because it was ringing,” she says out of nowhere.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I thought you were pretending to be asleep.”
“I’m not pretending anything,” she says, still offering
only her flat back.
“So my cell phone was ringing and you picked it up—”
“It was ringing its fool head off, doing that dumb riff
from ‘Purple Rain,’ or whatever it is, jumping around on
the bed. I only picked it up to stop the stupid ringing
“And who answered?”
“You’re asking me?” she says. Like an apparition, an old
barefoot Indian woman with a stack of firewood stands
hunched over by the side of the road, waiting to cross
six lanes of menacing traffic. Trucks shriek past her in
both directions. It looks as if she’s been waiting there
for hours. Dusk is descending through the bands of heat,
and all the great-tailed grackles are gathering in the
By the time we reach the tiny resort in the pitch-black
night, I’m convinced that my life has capsized
completely. I am worse than alone. I am a man travelling
with bitter enemies who happen to be his most intimate
family. It’s become Greek, or something worse. A
roly-poly concierge emerges from an archway of
bougainvillea, pushing a wheelbarrow and clenching a
flashlight between his teeth. He’s very glad to see us,
he says, once he has spit the flashlight out, his warm
smile landing on our sorry faces. He informs us that the
owners have gone to bed. They had stayed up waiting for
us, but it got too late. He has the key, though, and
will show us to our rooms. He stacks our luggage on the
wheelbarrow, bites down on the flashlight again, and we
all follow him down the twisting stone path. Wind
generators on tall metal poles are humming and flapping
like exotic birds. The constant wind off the Caribbean
is tearing at the palms, forcing them into a savage
dance. I have this strange wish, as we follow the
bobbing beam of the flashlight, that we were all
different people—strangers just happening to come
together in the night. How much happier we might be if
we didn’t know each other at all. No history. No
remorse. Daybreak. The wind has calmed and the sea is
flat and smooth clear to the horizon. The giant red sun
presses up against the distant arc of the earth. How far
away is the rest of the world? I’m the first one awake
and happy to be alone on the beach. Tiny white crabs
skitter into their holes at my approach. A string of
sandpipers hurries ahead of me, darting in and out of
the quiet surf. Above, the frigate bird soars. Turning
back in the direction of the ancient Mayan ruins, I see
the couple from St. Paul staring silently at the rising
sun, the woman holding her vigil behind the wheelchair
exactly as she did at the airport. The man, in dark
glasses, sits erect with his hat in his lap, both hands
holding the brim. As the monster sun mounts, the couple
turns rosy red, then slowly bright orange, as though
they might suddenly burst into flame, then crumble in
ash to the sand. Neither of them moves an inch; they are
frozen in the burning light. They have finally arrived.
My daughter slips up beside me, still half asleep, in
sweatpants and a T-shirt with Bob Marley’s face
screaming across her chest.
“Hi, Dad. I’ve never seen the sun as red as that, have
“Only down here. I guess we must be closer to it or
something. The equator. Is that it?”
“Yeah, I guess. Did you have breakfast yet?”
“Nope. I don’t even know if the kitchen’s open.”
“I thought I heard plates clanking up there.”
“That’s always a good sign,” I say, giving her a kiss on
A slight talcum-powder smell that I remember from when
she was a baby goes dashing through me. Pure sweetness
in the midst of this heartbreak. She takes my arm, and
we head off through the white sand toward the dining
room. I take a short look back over my shoulder, but the
couple from St. Paul have vanished. I stop and turn
around to scan the beach for them.
“What’s the matter, Dad?”
“I don’t know. I just saw those people down on the beach
and now they’re gone.”
“That couple that was standing in line with us back at
the airport. You probably didn’t notice them.”
“I was sleeping.”
“Yeah. They just disappeared. How could that be?”
“I don’t know. I’m hungry, aren’t you?”
The tables in the dining room are set with pink napkins
and bright sprigs of bougainvillea propped in skinny
glass vases. A Mayan waiter is pouring ice water from a
metal pitcher. We sit by the window across from a pair
of women with boyish haircuts, dressed exactly alike, in
white starched shirts and red ties. They hold hands
across the table and stare out at the crashing surf. New
Age music is playing in hypnotic repetition, like
massage-parlor background atmosphere. It gives the room
a gloomy, apocalyptic air. Nobody’s smiling. The
spectacular view of the white beach stretches clear down
the narrow peninsula, evaporating into billowy sea foam.
Two dark soldiers emerge, strolling casually along the
surf line, their hawklike Indian faces set hard against
camouflage uniforms, black machine guns strapped to
their backs. A fleet of white pelicans sail past them,
then dip low to the water. One of them plunges headlong
into the green tide and comes up spewing mullet. “I just
want you to know something, Emma,” I tell my daughter as
I smooth the pink napkin on my knee. “Your mother has no
idea what she’s talking about.”
“What do you mean?” she says.
“Yesterday, in the car.”
“What’d she say?”
“About— Didn’t you hear what she was telling you?”
“Oh, about the girlfriend, you mean?”
“What about it?”
“Well—it’s not true. It’s a complete fabrication. I
mean—my cell phone happened to be ringing, and she
picked it up and—”
“I really don’t want to hear about it, Dad,” she says,
squeezing a wedge of lime onto her melon. “That’s
between you and her.”
“Who? Me and who?”
“Mom. Who else?”
“Well, there’s just no truth to it at all, is what I’m
trying to say.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s got nothing to do with me.”
“Well, it does, Emma. You’re part of this family. I just
don’t want there to be some weird misunderstanding going
“There’s no misunderstanding,” she says and smiles
across our table at the pair of women, still holding
“I just don’t know where she comes up with this stuff,
to tell you the truth. I mean, out of nowhere she makes
this wild accusation. It’s just—”
“Can we talk about something else, Dad? We’re on
“Sure,” I say, and stare down into the swirling cloud of
cream in my coffee.
A man with a goatee and Leicas strapped around his neck
enters the dining room with two statuesque models. They
stand aloof, meeting nobody’s eyes, scanning the tables
for a strategic location. The man raises his index
finger to the waiter and points to a corner table, away
from the direct sun. The waiter nods and offers a little
half bow. The models glide with a studied cadence, as
though every gesture were being played out for a
“Are you getting excited about college?” I ask my
daughter after a long pause.
“Yes,” she says. “I am.”
“Have you thought about what you’re going to take?”
“Environmental studies, I think. There’s also a class on
women in the Civil War.”
“That ought to be interesting. Which women? Do you mean
famous women or—”
“Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Todd Lincoln. Women like
“Right,” I say. “Mary Todd went nuts, didn’t she?”
“I think she did. After the assassination. Went into
seclusion. Talked to herself—”
“Really?” my daughter says.
“I think so.”
“Is that a sign of insanity?”
“Talking to yourself?”
“Because I talk to myself all the time.”
“You do?” I say.
“Well, not all the time.”
“Sure. I mean, no—we all talk to ourselves some of the
“Do you talk to yourself?” she asks.
“Sure. I mean, now and then.”
“What do you talk about? With yourself.”
“No, just little questions. Little—”
“Like what?” she says.
“Like, where did you leave your glasses, now? Or—”
“Oh, yeah, but that’s just asking yourself something out
loud. Everybody does that. But I mean do you carry on
long dialogues and have arguments with yourself? Stuff
“Arguments?” I say.
“No, do you?”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. You had me worried there
for a second.” My daughter smiles and plops a chunk of
pineapple into her mouth. “Well, that all sounds really
interesting, Emma. Mary Todd Lincoln and Harriet Beecher
“Right. She’s the one Lincoln called ‘the little lady
who started this great war.’ ”
The taller model at the corner table starts giggling
maniacally and slapping her long ebony thighs as though
she had just heard the funniest punch line on earth. The
photographer and the other model look on, poker-faced,
as their cohort convulses into a choking fit. Then the
shorter model stands and starts pounding her between the
shoulder blades while the photographer just sits there
doing nothing. The taller one leaps out of her chair,
spitting and gagging, while the other woman keeps
bashing her in the back. Then the two of them go running
hysterically across the foyer and into the bathroom. The
man in the goatee is left alone at the table. He pulls
out a French newspaper, flaps it open, takes a sip of
ice water, and starts reading about the bad state of the
“What was that?” my daughter says.
“Something got caught in her pipes, I guess.” My wife
and son appear in the yellow archway of the dining room
and spot the two of us at the table.
“Morning,” she says as they approach the table.
“Morning,” I say. “Did the wind keep you up last night?
You were tossing and turning.”
“It wasn’t the wind,” she says, pulling her chair out
from the table.
I spent the rest of our days down there strolling the
white beach, reading Graham Greene novels, and
bodysurfing with my son. Some nights we’d all run into
the little broken-down town for dinner, walking the dirt
back streets, my wife taking photographs of hairless
dogs staring down from barbed-wire-trimmed rooftops. Now
and then, we’d run into some friend or acquaintance from
a previous trip and sit in a café, sharing a beer. One
blazing afternoon, we visited the ruins and climbed the
temple stairs, where the dark blood of sacrificial
hearts still stained the ancient stone. The issue about
the “girlfriend” was dropped completely, although some
undeniable lurking enmity would pop up in weird moments:
an argument over the use of the word buscando, a little
flareup about whether to leave the overhead fan running
all night, squandering precious solar power. But, for
the most part, we behaved decently toward each other and
even held hands once or twice on our sunset walks,
remembering the days we were seldom out of each other’s
sight and had no reason to doubt we’d be forever in
love. On the return flight, we sat four abreast, with
the aisle cut between us. Our daughter and I sat as a
pair. Directly behind us was the couple from St. Paul.
The man had the window seat. Somewhere high above the
Mississippi, he made a cluster of soft guttural moans,
then went silent against the glass. The woman let out a
short anguished cry and leaped up to assist her husband.
I unbuckled my seat belt and went back to see if I could
help. The woman lay across the man’s lap clutching her
white handkerchief and trying to contain the horrible
rush of brown fluid that was pouring down his chest. She
was weeping and kissing his forehead, which had turned
as white as the handkerchief. His whole body seemed
completely deflated and lay crushed against the glass as
the sky raced by. She turned to me, and her face was
broken with grief. All the sorrow she’d been so
heroically containing came flooding out. She moved
aside, and I took the man by the shoulders to pull him
out into the aisle. As soon as I took hold of him I knew
he was dead. I laid him down flat in the aisle, on his
back. Another passenger, who said he was a doctor, knelt
beside the man and unbuttoned his shirt, then began
pressing and releasing his chest with his hands laid one
on top of the other. I noticed a dark ruby ring on the
doctor’s finger with the emblem of a snake coiled around
a cross. The woman kept hovering over the dead man’s
wide-open eyes, speaking to him softly through her sobs.
Flight attendants drew the curtains across the
first-class section and spread blankets with the
airline’s logo across the dead man’s legs and torso. The
doctor switched to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, using a
small plastic device inserted into the dead man’s mouth.
When he paused to take a break, the woman implored him
not to stop. The pilot announced over the sound system
that we would be making an emergency landing in St.
Louis and instructed us to bring our seats to an upright
position and fasten our seat belts. The plane descended
and circled the city. The doctor’s face now had a grim
set to it, although the woman kept pleading with him to
continue his efforts. As we landed, I could make out
emergency life-support vehicles lining the runway with
their yellow and red lights blinking.
Young paramedics in blue jumpsuits entered the plane and
strapped the dead man to a gurney. The wife and the
doctor followed them out. From the window of the plane,
I could see the dead man’s body jerking spasmodically as
they plugged it into the electric defibrillator. The
dangling arms flapped helplessly on the black tarmac.
They covered the dead man’s face with the blankets. The
doctor put his arm around the widow’s shoulders. They
took a step back from the body.
We drove in silence from the St. Paul airport. When we
finally made it back to the house, the kids took off
immediately to visit their friends in the neighborhood.
The dogs were glad to see us. The canary flitted from
one side of its cage to the other, causing its little
brass bell to tinkle. The house felt cold, and we turned
the thermostat up to seventy-five. We hauled our luggage
up the stairs to the bedroom and dumped it on the floor.
My cell phone started ringing and blinking in the middle
of the bed. Right where I’d left it.