Quick update. Michael reluctantly agreed to abandon his gardening and come along while I drove our inebriated neighbor to the ferry.
But by the time I got back to the gate, Humberto/Tito/Chago was gone. Soon, however, I heard singing from inside his house.
“Hola!” I called.
No answer, although his dog, stationed as usual on top of his house, managed to whip himself up into a frenzy of barking in response.
I waited as patiently as I could. Soon Michael came around the side of the house jangling the car keys. “Where is he?”
Unfortunately the sound of Michael’s voice threw the dog into further paroxysms of excitement. It was like a scene from White Fang, minus the snow.
“I’m not sure,” I shouted. “I think he went back inside his house.”
“Hmm. Does he want a ride or not?”
Michael could be so linear in his thinking sometimes. Surely he’d been around Vieques long enough to know that linear simply didn’t apply here.
“He said he did.”
A mutinous look stole over Michael’s face. “Obviously he changed his mind.” He glanced back toward the garden. The wacker beckoned. I was losing him fast.
As if on cue, the neighbor’s door popped open and out he shot, bearing not one but three beers this time. A brewski for each of us, including whoever was planning to drive. This was nothing new—we’d seen young boys swigging beers as they clopped along bareback on wild ponies downtown, cops chugging Coronas in their patrol cars. It was definitely a beery island.
Michael accepted the proffered bottle graciously enough but parked it firmly in the cup holder once he got behind the wheel. I climbed into the back and took a big chug of mine.
Our neighbor wouldn’t put his seat belt on. Always fanatical about car safety, I did everything I could but wrap it around his neck but he just pushed it away laughingly, as if I were trying to tickle him. Off we went.
“Como se llama?” I asked, trying desperately to fill the silence. But he didn’t answer. Was my accent that bad? Did he not speak Spanish?
Michael was no help. Clearly he just wanted to be done with this chore as quickly as possible. In fact, he drove with such uncharacteristic speed that our neighbor was thrown against the passenger door as we rounded the corner at the bottom of our hill. This occasioned another outburst of giggling.
“Llama,” I persisted. “What’s your llama?”
Michael gave me a Look in the rearview mirror.
“Oh my god!” our neighbor shouted suddenly. “Oh my god!”
Michael, anticipating an adorable toddler dawdling in the road or a tarantula salivating its way up his leg…
…slammed on the brakes, hurtling our passenger into the dashboard. His head hit the windshield with a resounding thump. He laughed again, then rubbed his skull with the back of his hand and downed another slug of beer.
We craned our necks to survey the road in front of us, to the side, behind us. Nothing.
“What,” Michael said, a note of exasperation creeping into his voice for the first time, “was that about?”
The man reached over and began running his fingers through Michael’s admittedly lustrous locks. “Oh my god!” he yelled again, smiling idiotically.
“Don’t do that,” I said feebly. “He doesn’t like having his hair touched.”
As far as I knew this wasn’t strictly true—Michael certainly possessed his share of hang-ups but having his hair touched wasn’t one of them—and yet I felt reasonably confident that he’d rather not be fondled by our portly neighbor. I tried to think of the word for “hair” in Spanish but drew a blank. Anyway, unless I could construct a phrase expressly warning against hair touching, he’d probably think I was encouraging him.
“Are you meeting someone at the ferry, or are you going to Fajardo?” I asked.
But no use. Even if I’d spoken fluent Spanish it would have tough getting a conversation going with this man in his present state. He turned and stared at me, then belched, threw his empty beer bottle out the window and reached for Michael’s untouched bottle. No use wasting a good beer, his expression said.
He laughed and screamed “oh my god!” all the way to the ferry dock, which, not incidentally, we reached in record time.
Once we were there, Michael all but pushed our drunken passenger out of the car, then slammed the door and hit the gas.
Still in the back seat, I drew my seat belt tighter and chug-a-lugged the remainder of my beer.
So glad to have been of service.