Toucan Whisper, Toucan Sing

a novel
By Robert Wintner

The Permanent Press

Copyright © 2002 Robert Wintner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57962-076-0


Chapter One

Modern Times

Crystal teardrops clink and flash in the chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the eighteenth floor to the Grand Foyer. They shimmer and shape the light and set a tone for the prices in the Gift Shop just ahead. You can't help looking up and knowing in advance that they're only fair, the prices, considering this kind of elegance and good taste.

Pinched snug from the rear so the high-quality cotton conforms to the muscular plastic torso, T-shirts of superb design and imagery offer the exotic flair of the place and can continue to do so long after Hotel Oaxtapec guests go home. These Ts cost more than a normal T, but while you might save a few pesos elsewhere you would hardly accrue the exotic identity these Ts can provide for years to come.

They capture the essence in the air with their colorful illustrations, so you can feel the tropical tingle in winter in your chilblain loft in northern Minnesota, even under a sweater. You may even recall the hot breeze whispering love and anarchy in nature, just as you feel it here.

You want to buy one of these mementos to have and to hold, to wear and feel again from far away. You want others to see it too by simply looking your way, so they'll know where you've been and will see the full range of your experience.

So, surrounded by such comfort and potential for exotic character, what are a few extra pesos?

On the front of each T is a wild animal silk-screened in garish pastels, lifelike as the species recently roaming, screeching, and preying here. They don't anymore, those wild others, nor can their screech and scratch be heard beyond the hill or down the road.

The only habitat over the hill is employee housing. Hardly marbled and mostly lit by naked bulbs, these modest bungalows are a blessed billet for the likes of Antonio Garza, who rises yet again from flat on his back to sitting up. As if taking a tally of his power to make more money in tips on a single morning than his father made in a week on the road crew, he counts, "Eighty-two."

Down and up again, he represses the grunt, "Eighty-three ..."

Antonio knows the value of sit-ups. They're very close to money in the bank. Beyond intrinsic value he knows that doing them first thing in the morning is worth plenty. Just look at today, waiting until after eating, before siesta, with the day half-done and the day's energy half spent. He will reach a hundred twenty before deciding if a hundred twenty-five will do, or if today feels good for a hundred fifty. He knows the hundred fifty standard must stick once established, so he mustn't press prematurely. But he also knows that today is the day the bar will rise. A washboard stomach doesn't last forever, nor can the ripples deepen without strenuous effort. Then again he is late, a condition common to a man on the rise but never acceptable to a punctual man. For the sin of tardiness he will give penance. "Eighty-eight. Eighty-nine."

He remembers, like it was only this morning, the day long ago when Milo the Beach Manager told him with no warning to take off his starched white jacket and go. It was a moment of startling chagrin. Who could not foresee the ax, given Milo's apparent envy? Yet close on the heel of this apparent ax was certain joy on the tip of Milo's finger shooting seaward with Milo's pronouncement, "Go to the Jet Skis."

¡Ay!

The Jet Skis could not be called a promotion by anyone but Antonio, who proved his prowess by drawing more guests to the Jet Skis than his predecessors and delivering a happier ride than ever before, thereby generating more revenue and additional goodwill. It was a simple progression from the Jet Skis to the towboat that pulls the big banana, and from there to pulling the parasail. Antonio made them laugh no matter what their fantasy, as he does to this day. Fast or slow, no problema; he eases them into spending as if that's why they came, as if spending is to fun and sun what tequila is to margaritas.

From the Jet Skis and the parasail he sent them back to their chaise lounges by the pool talking about "the wonderfully entertaining fellow working the beach. You really must experience him." Thus came the rewards. "Ninety-four. Ninety-five."

It was only a matter of time, never mind Milo who can't see the value of rippling muscles and a glittering smile-and a nonstop monologue to make that smile contagious.

Now he, Antonio Garza, is maestro of pool activities. Soon he will have more money than a coffee can will hold. He won't get another can but will next fill an entire plastic bucket, one of those five-gallon buckets that begins full of jalapeños but then is promoted to holding the Garza fortune.

Five gallons of money?

¡Chihuahua!

It seems too much to imagine.

Then again, it depends on the currency. You could have a million-peso bill and need only a little envelope. Or a check. It could be made out for ... anything!

Hey, what else can you think about in a strain like this, upping the bar in one jump by twenty percent? You think twenty percent is a gain to sneeze at? No. It is a gain to measure and feel, each huff to the next.

Antonio's best T-shirt hangs neatly in his closet, facing front so the sleek panther is ready to spring, even between washings. Shiny dark and graceful as any beast, he and panther are ready for one more wearing before washing, because washing every day will wear him out. Besides, Antonio detects playful curiosity in the women by the pool when he and panther ripen a bit. Mrs. Mayfair likes it. Then again, he must use caution in all things, given the risk of misperception on a rise so rapid. Far from predatory, Antonio Garza is only playful and willing.

Mrs. Mayfair would buy him another expensive T at the mere hint of desire, so he might drop a tacit word or two. She'd surely take his hint to heart quick as a white-eyed tit on an early worm. She would buy three Ts and get so lovey, clingy and tonguey that frankly he'd rather ripen.

"A hundred eleven. A hundred twelve," each syllable of each number receiving clear enunciation. "A hundred thirteen. A hundred fourteen."

This keeps the pace slow and even, allowing for proper form on each sit-up, so that each can make its rightful contribution.

She's smart like that, Mrs. Mayfair, so rarely does she miss a beat between herself and Antonio. He smiles in pleasant recollection of Mrs. Mayfair's warble. He hears her whispering her hot, coarse need. What else should a young man recall while doing sit-ups? Does she not contribute to his overall campaign? Besides, he hears her because her need is endless, with no regard for a man's limits or private moments.

Still, she's more alive than most, and who could tire of her body with the matching red hair? His smile is sustained on her refrain that he please "Make me feel wanted. Please, Antonio. Make me feel ..."

Wanted? Okay.

So instead of one hand behind her head he put two, accelerating the roughness she seemed to long for. Well, he hopes she longed for it. She seemed eager at the time for the two-handed head grab and the vigorous pumping action.

"One hundred twenty-two. One hundred twenty-three."

No, he should do the right thing. He will buy a second T-shirt on his own. "One hundred twenty-four."

His father condones this decision based on manhood and independence. His photo hangs on the wall by the table beneath the tiny Jesus.

Gustavo Garza died a man of no means, except of course for the immortality made available to a man through his sons.

Antonio and Baldo often stare at what remains of their father with the same glazed gaze they shared over the simple grave and wooden box holding he who kept them fed and for the most part clothed. Nobody cried, so most surmised that their dazed wonder was not for their father but rather for the uncertainty of tonight and tomorrow. Antonio was too old for crying anyway, a man already in the technical sense. Besides that, he was overwhelmed and stupefied at his father's passing.

Baldo was young enough but neither cried nor whimpered. Some doubt his grasp on the meaning of loss. Some doubt his grasp on any meaning. Some doubt that he's ever uttered a sound, but Antonio knows better. Baldo knows right from wrong and wants to fit in, as long as it fits with what he knows. He speaks with a nod or a gaze, a skewed glance or a sudden turn. He looked up to Antonio at their father's funeral, and emitted a tiny, fearful croak like that of a fledgling bird teetering on the edge of the nest. Looking down at life's reward, Antonio put an arm around his little orphan brother for assurance; they would make do. So they have, thanks to Antonio, who sees things for both of them and translates as necessary for his younger brother, who often needs help in seeing the fit.

Baldo makes another sound as well. It was first heard years ago on the night their father brought home a gift of a tiny bird on the cusp of fledging. Floppy and downy as any nestling, it suffered further disadvantage from too much beak. How could such a bird ever fly if it could hardly lift its head?

Gustavo Garza picked it up from the ground, where it had lolled and squawked beside the fallen tree where its nest had been. The tree and thousands more had to go so development could proceed with a roadway. With a roadway, the world can arrive.

The roadway should have been built sooner, with so much beauty for tourists here at hand, including the weather, the water, and the languorous sandy beaches. Progress is not free but requires a few minor casualties, like a dead bird here and there. But you can't stop progress for those who would perish anyway, given their limited ability to move out of the way.

Gustavo knew these things as he knew the indiscretion of a D-9 Cat with a front-end loader, so he stepped in front of the grumbling earth mover to reach the fledgling bird. At times a man of sentiment, Gustavo Garza that time reached for a token to bring home, for his sons to see and play with it before it died.

Gustavo picked it up again a few hours later to set it out back for a quiet death under the stars. That's when Baldo barked, which is the second sound we know he can make. From deep within came the startled complaint, until the little bird was brought back in. Back inside Baldo held it. He stared at it, cooed in its face, and finally jammed a bean down its throat.

It was cooked and mushy, the bean, and required some follow-through to work it down the tiny gullet, but it filled the bill and was followed by another. Then they sat and stared at each other, Baldo straight ahead while Toucan, as the little bird was called, looked at his mentor sideways, one eye at a time. They helped each other along, one stuffing, the other gobbling, then cocking his head with curiosity, and longing.

Antonio remembers those days of strange noises from under the table where Toucan lived. He laughed along with his father; neither knowing which fledgling made this noise or that. Baldo was a child then and Antonio was hardly more, yet their father spoke to the elder as the repository of a father's teaching and a father's responsibility. Hardly loquacious as his elder son, Gustavo crooked a weary finger at Antonio and nodded sanguinely. "Your brother is different," he said, which of course any boy of twelve could plainly see.

Of course, a father is partial, so the mute boy was spared the quirky profile but was rather viewed as both more and less. As a workingman on intimate terms with the daily vicissitudes of food and shelter, Gustavo surrendered now and then to sentiment but not to gloss. He leaned in and said, "He knows things. I cannot tell you what he knows. I see things myself and don't know what they are. I ... sense things but don't know what to make of them. Baldo, your brother, knows things that you and I cannot know. He knows."

Knows what?

Well, Gustavo said he didn't know what, and maybe Antonio isn't too sure either. In the next few weeks Toucan dropped his baby down and sprouted feathers and was moved to the old cage outside the little casa, because a chicken belongs outside, no matter what its shape or size or color. Baldo moved the cage from the ground to a rickety stack of bricks, because Toucan was no chicken and should not have suffered ground hazards after surviving so much already.

Gustavo died a few months later. He gazed up glassy-eyed and feeble, saying he made many mistakes but always did his best. On a sigh he was gone.

Things changed when Gustavo died.

For starters, in the week following the burial, Baldo smashed the cage with an old board, then beat it to a mangled mess. There it sits, once a birdcage, its perches and swings now broken and mangled in a heap.

Toucan watched the thrashing from a nearby limb, presumably enjoying the demolition of his confinement.

Baldo didn't exactly speak that day, but he mimicked Toucan's guttural surge. Their harsh duet entertained and relieved both of them.

"A hundred forty-eight. A hundred forty-nine. A hundred fifty."

There, it is done. A hundred fifty per day will be the new standard and will be done in the morning. Antonio does not stop but goes directly to a hundred stomach crunches and a hundred twenty-five push-ups. Make that a hundred fifty each, for balance and symmetry and penance in advance. A little credit on hand can't hurt.

Antonio remembers his poor dead father, gone now these past five years but seeming absent for much longer. Well, maybe it's six or seven years. Time changes its pace for a boy with no father in the formative years, at once an orphan yet a father to his younger brother.

Dead already at an age younger than Mrs. Mayfair is now, Gustavo Garza showed twice the wear and tear and asked for nada, except maybe some warm tortillas for los niños. Maybe it's best that he died.

Antonio ponders death, because such thoughts also occur during blind, dumb effort. He huffs and knows that his father's early demise was not best. How could death be best? It cannot be. Antonio wonders if his father could have taught him what he's learned on his own. We can never know how Gustavo Garza might have influenced his exceptional son, the elder one.

Perched stoically below the tiny Jesus, Gustavo peers at his sons with just the right thing to say for all occasions. Mute as his younger son, Gustavo seems wiser now, knowing those things that eluded him in life. Yet his surviving image still shines with a patina of dried sweat, as if toil bespeaks his afterlife as well. A photograph can't sweat, unless it's a miracle, like the famous Madonna that cries, and not from a leak in the roof. So, perhaps such a miracle is here before us.

Continues...



Excerpted from Toucan Whisper, Toucan Sing by Robert Wintner Copyright © 2002 by Robert Wintner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.