The Fifty-Centavo Gringo
A short story by Kathryn Christman
Cover painting by Nate Herth
32 pages, 2004


Lorenzo rarely left his room. He smoked cigarettes and drank beer and read books he picked up at Beer John's book exchange. He did observe sunset on the malacon, smoking his cigs, eyes out to sea, until the red orb distorted like a hot air balloon and blotted itself out in the line of ocean. If he ever saw a green flash, he never let on. He strolled to Lencho's taco stand and sat and ate three pork tacos and a quesadilla, before buying his nightly beer and heading into his room.
Every night he passed the Canadians who roomed in the hotel where they sat in the lobby.
“He drinks more than I do,” Ron said. “And I'm a Canadian.”
“He doesn't talk much,” Colin said. “Maybe he's into cake.”
“Naw, he doesn't do cake,” Brian said. “He's just weird. Likes his own company more than anyone else's.”
“I saw him with a girl once,” Ron said, tapping out a Delicado cigarette.
“Once,” Colin put in. He shook his head. “Sad. Even the tienda has his number. I was in there yesterday when he was buying beer and they overcharged him fifty centavos . Same beer I got, Corona . I saw him overpay.”
“Where's he from?”
“ Chicago , some place like that.”
In his room, Lorenzo switched on the rickety lamp by his bed and opened a beer. He thumbed through his latest acquisition, a spy thriller on the bestseller list. He could lose himself in these things for long periods of time. Sipping his cervazas , he'd read until two in the morning. About five, the roosters would pierce his dreamstate, but he'd manage to get back to sleep. He was always slow in the morning and crawled out to coffee at the restaurant across the street from the hotel. He'd nod to the others, but he would sit away from them. The two guys from Alberta usually sat with the BC guy, away from the French Canadians who stayed to themselves. So they all had their tables.
Today there was also a gringa in the restaurant, eating at a corner table in the sun. She wore sunglasses and a snakeskin bathing suit under a tank top. Lorenzo watched her as he buttered his toast. She was eating a large bowl of fruit and sipping coffee. Occasionally, she'd scribble something in a notebook.
He ate his scrambled eggs and ham slowly. The frijoles were cold but he didn't care. He picked up a tortilla chip and skimmed off the goat cheese and ate it. He'd have to prove the lobby rats wrong, he decided. He did have a life, or he'd get one. Just like in those books he read where the plot twisted every second page. He could do that. Whole romances played out in two days in this town.
Lorenzo was tired of drinking beer. He angled into the church and sat in front of the miracle Christ, its beefy arms dangling at its side where they'd broken down from the cross during a hurricane, at which point the hurricane had stopped. Thus the miracle.
Sunlight reflected off the street through the open door, and the walls were lit a hard white, with no shadows. The room held a tomb-like quiet.
As he sat there, a figure entered the church and cast a huge shadow down the aisle as it walked by. He glanced over. The young woman from breakfast. She'd removed her sunglasses and her eyes were dark and serious. She sat in one of the front rows.
He got up and sat beside her. “I suppose you'd like to be alone here,” he said. His voice sounded strange in this cavernous place.
To his surprise, she turned toward him and smiled. “All I gotta say is thank God for Sunday in this town. The malletting stops for one entire day.”
He nodded and crossed his legs, shifting to one buttock because the pew was hard. “But then the church bell goes off at seven a.m. and clangs about eighty times.”
“I can't hear it in my room,” she said.
“Oh boy, I can,” he said.
She joined him for a sandwich at Lupita's. They sat under the trees at the tin table and drank liquados . Her name was Melody. She was from Washington state, a town north of Seattle in Snohomish County . She read a lot, too.
“I like the ones with the real sorta characters,” she said. “No spacemen or robots for me. Good, old-fashioned people.” She sipped the liquado foam through her straw.
“You like music, too?” he asked. “With a name like yours?”
“Like a house on fire,” she said.
The lobby rats were gathered when Lorenzo and Melody came in. As they walked by, he listened intently as she told him about cranium manipulation, which she'd had done and he'd only read about. Her fingers moved over an imaginary skull. “Like this,” she said. He nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the crew. Shut you the fuck up, he thought, as they went into his room.
She sat on his spare bed and picked through his sack of books from Beer John's. “I want these two when you're done,” she said, holding up two novels. “Good beach stuff.”
“Wanna go to the beach?” he said. He almost never went and the suggestion sounded exotic.
“That'll work,” she said.
The beach was skanky and airless except for the exhalations from incoming waves, tossing up mist and spray. Clammy came to mind. He hoped this didn't turn off the girl, this fishy, dead-seaweed smell, but she spread out her towel and laid out her sunscreen and pinned up her hair with a pleasant expression. He spread his towel beside hers and when he lay down on it, the hairs on his arm brushed hers. Their first touch. It thrilled him.
He hung his wet towel over the balcony in his room. Nothing ever completely dried here—bathing suits, clothes, hair. Everything hung heavy. Below on the street, a Bimbo bread truck jammed up traffic all over town. He watched the girl weave between cars and buses on her way to meet him. Happy hour. He was happy. He decided to live utterly and completely within the moment, whatever happened.
Hola ,” he said when she came to the door. The smell of cigarette smoke wafted in from the lobby where the group was assembled. “ Listo ?”
,” she said, and sauntered into his room with a casualness he liked. Day One still.
They drank margaritas at a haunt on the beach, a large palapa-covered bar. Many of the old-timers were there. He and the girl sat off in a corner table. Briefly, just after the sun sank into a clean line of sea and fueled up the sky pink, the wind rose and she got cold. Her nipples stuck out in the tank top. He gave her his shirt and sat in his T-shirt, trying not to be cold. Plied with margaritas, they strolled to Papayas for dinner.
She buttered her bread and salted it, then settled in front of her pollo poblano . “I'm having a wonderful time,” she said. “Too bad I have to leave.”
This before he'd taken a bite of his shrimp.
“What?” he said.
She held up two fingers like rabbit ears. “Two days màs .”
He forked a shrimp and observed it, remembering what it would taste like. “Two days is a long time,” he said. “A lot of living can occur in two days.”
“Two seconds changed my life,” she observed. She wiggled the rabbit-ears again. “Two simpleseconds.”
“How's that?” he asked.
She chewed the chicken and swallowed it with wine. “My parachute didn't open.” Her eyes looked out at the dark sea. “Thank God my auxiliary did. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.”