After the plate of undercooked beans and crumbly tortillas Ryan had half an hour before his bus for Huehuetenango, so he ordered coffee. The waiter, an old man with gray hairs hanging from his nose said he had something special and hurried into the back. By that evening Ryan would see his old friend, Jim. It’d been eight years since they spoken and in that time Jim had become a Maryknoll priest, a missionary, posted here in Guatemala – there really was no accounting for life, Ryan thought. The old man came out of the back with a cup, taking small steps.
“Nescafe,” he said, setting the cup down and putting his hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “Bueno. Muy bueno.”
“Gracias,” Ryan said, touching the handle of the cup, but the old man stood squeezing his shoulder, until he lifted the cup, sloshing a bit over the rim and took a sip. It was bitter and grainy. He smiled up into the tangle of nose-hairs and said, “Deliciosa.”
“Nescafe,” the man said, delighted. As he went back to the kitchen he glanced over his shoulder, miming sips.
Here Ryan was in a country covered with coffee plantations and he was served instant coffee, which probably cost twice as much as local grounds. And this wasn’t a Western tourist hotel where the need to impress Americans might drive the owners to such stupidity; he was in a shitty little café near the Guatemala City bus station. There were only two other patrons, both young, scraggly looking men, who both looked asleep over their yellow plastic tables. But this was one of the pleasures of traveling: you were always allowed to marvel at the incongruities that, when they faced you in your everyday life, say, in the suburbs, you simply rolled right past, thinking, big deal, let’s get moving. That would be him in a few weeks, back in America, at his sister’s house in Florida. Florida! As though they were all retired and worn down and exhausted by life, which, he felt sure, his sister, younger than him by two years, would be soon enough, since she was getting married in a week and would probably have a kid, buy a Volvo, start saving for college and then if she were in a coffee shop and they served her Nescafe, well, she’d probably just be annoyed. What is this shit, she’d think.
Nescafe, he thought again, sloshing the last bit of coffee around in the slick of grounds, with a sinking feeling that he’d overplayed the moment. The irony wasn’t as dense as he’d hoped. Anyway, what good was irony, without anyone to share it?
Hooking his blue duffle bag over his shoulder – though travelers were now all using new, internal-frame backpacks, he stuck with his old Diadora bag with a sense of luddite pride – he went up to the bead curtain that hung between the dining room and the kitchen and called for the check.
In the blue haze of the station men clambered atop buses, shouting at the crowd that tossed up luggage. The drivers, some in gray uniforms, others in white shirts and jeans, chatted together off to the side, smoking, together summoning the strength to plunge these buses out onto the crumbling roads that clung to and wound around the sides of mountains through remote areas purportedly – though who could know how much of the “official news” to believe – full of revolutionaries and bandits.
The highways all over the country, Ryan knew, though he’d not actually traveled much in Guatemala, were spotted, particularly at the sharper turns in the passes, with clusters of white crosses where whole buses had overshot the road, breaking a window through the jungle canopy, crumpling on the mountainside. He’d seen many such crosses in Chile and Peru, up in the Andes, on buses just like these. He wasn’t about to be fazed, or worried. Or maybe he was a little bit worried, a tiny, niggling fear that crept through his stomach. But he was used to this fear, and in a way, he thought, it was a comfort: proof, amidst in the chaos and violence, of his individual, coherent self. The fear was the same each time he boarded a bus or was stopped by the police, and so it was a reminder that, despite all he’d seen and all he’d learned about the terror of the world that at the core he was still Ryan. Himself.
– This story can be read in its entirety in the Fall 2007 issue of The Antioch Review and in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, where it was reprinted.