Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

Place of Waiting

By Ian Sears

About Ian Sears

I am 19 years old and am currently a rising sophomore double majoring in creative writing and international relations at Carnegie Mellon University. I am originally from Connecticut and lived in Australia and on Long Island before moving to Palo Alto right before my freshman year at Gunn High School. The inspiration for this story came from both the drought California is currently facing and an entry in a dream journal I kept in college (the scene where a man eats a cat was taken from it almost word for word).

 

Judge's comments

A wonderful, haunting story, "Place of Waiting" is richly textured and of the highest caliber. As Tocuaro's life-sustaining lake recedes, so too does Miguel, first in body, then in mind and finally in soul, leaving his compadre Fernando to ponder his last grim catch.

Miguel lay in his cot atop ruffled sheets, his upper body propped up by two pillows. His right leg rested in its cast on the windowsill, his foot pointing straight out to coax the soothing air to seep between the skin and plaster. It was a cloudless day in July and the cool lake breeze gently billowed the ancient curtains of his once-green fishing shack as it drifted in through the window he'd struggled to open earlier that day. Miguel had awoken enveloped in a gelatinous layer of sweat that had seeped out through every pore in his dark skin to form a saline mold of his body. The dusty air had been thick enough to chew on and he'd felt it blanket his throat and lungs as he strained to force open the unyielding window.

Across the lake Miguel could see the old docks of Tocuaro still standing several meters above the sand ten years after the lake had receded beyond their reach. On particularly clear days Miguel could pick out the house he'd grown up in, still half-standing between the skeletons of two olive trees. Miguel's side of the lake was deeper so it had survived the drought longer than Tocuaro's, but the wetlands Miguel had built his shack beside hadn't been wet in years and it was only a matter of time before the lake itself relinquished its last drop. As he watched the dejected handful of boats still left float shiftlessly across the lake, trawling for a catch that might have gone extinct the day before, Miguel wondered where he would go once his leg healed. He had just enough money to move to Pátzcuaro, but that town had seen better days. Who could tell how long it would be until Pátzcuaro became just a name on a map, he thought. He doubted he could make it anywhere beyond Pátzcuaro on his own, but if he convinced Fernando to leave the lake, the both of them might stand a chance. However, Miguel knew this was a pipe dream. No matter how dry the lake became, Fernando would never leave. Even when his wife had threatened to take their five children and move to the city, Fernando told her he had faith in the lake and that he planned to die by it. When she pressed him further, he gave her his blessing and had lived alone ever since.

While Miguel had remained longer than almost anyone, he hadn't stayed out of any form of loyalty to the lake, but simply because he hadn't felt the need to leave. He'd never had any family to speak of since his mother died, and his needs were relatively few compared to those who had left. Still, Miguel had been nearing his limit for a while and his fishing accident had been the last straw. Fernando had been the one to untangle Miguel from the net and had driven him to the hospital in Pátzcuaro. He arrived around one to bring Miguel lunch before his siesta. Lunch was canned rice and beans along with one of Fernando's only catches of the day. Miguel initially refused the fish, but Fernando insisted, placed the dish on Miguel's nightstand, and sat in a chair by the end of the bed. Miguel reluctantly took a bite of the fish, savoring its white meat. Fernando had always been a better fisherman than him. Miguel hadn't caught anything in nine days, eleven counting the two days he'd spent in bed. The two men had known each other their entire lives and did not feel the need to speak unless necessary. They watched the lake in silence. Miguel could almost see the opposite shore crawling closer to him and squinted as he tried to decide whether the fishing boats bobbed a little lower with each wave. As Fernando stood up from his chair to leave, Miguel told him he was going to move to Pátzcuaro once his leg healed.

"I know," Fernando said, "I could tell as soon as I saw you in that net that you were done fishing here. In fact I would not be surprised if you never set foot on a boat again. Am I wrong?"

Miguel shook his head. "You're not wrong. I think my accident was God's way of telling me I've overstayed my welcome here."

Fernando sighed. "I don't have any way of knowing what role your accident played in God's plan, but I can see that you are determined to leave." Miguel opened his mouth to speak, but Fernando waved him into silence. "You know I won't be joining you. Perhaps your accident was a sign that you should leave, or perhaps you have just lost faith in the lake. When the other fisherman tie their boats up at sunset every day, I can hear them from the lake and I can hear them from my shack, cursing and grumbling about how the lake has abandoned them. The lake has abandoned no-one. It is those who have abandoned the lake in their hearts who are unable to catch fish. The lake will return Miguel... but I've seen that look before, and I can tell that nothing I say will convince you. I respect your choice, but like you, I have made up my mind."

Miguel saw in Fernando's face the same steely resolve he'd seen even as a child, and even though both men knew Fernando had never taken siestas and had stayed out on the water later when the lake was full of fish, Miguel understood that the lake meant more to Fernando than the number of fish he could catch from it. He thanked Fernando again and Fernando told him that he'd be back again at dusk.

The doctor in Pátzcuaro had told Miguel that his bones would take much longer to heal than it would have in his youth, and if he wasn't careful they may never heal properly at all. After a few days of lying in bed, however, Miguel had grown restless and began using the crutches he'd received at the hospital to take short walks around the docks. At first his armpits bruised and the effort of hobbling just a couple dozen meters left him exhausted, but soon enough Miguel was able to make his way around the docks with relative ease. Fernando no longer brought Miguel his meals, but the two men kept the habit up and dined together every evening after Fernando had finished for the day. He eventually settled into a routine that he stuck to like clockwork until the day he decided he couldn't wait for his leg to heal and left for Pátzcuaro.

Miguel had been out by the shoreline hobbling from pier to pier when he saw a lone fisherman Miguel had never seen before docking a canoe. Miguel had trouble making out the man's features in the dwindling twilight, but as he hobbled closer to the canoe he was surprised to confirm that he had never seen the fisherman before. The man was shorter than Miguel, had long black hair, and even from a distance Miguel could tell he was emaciated. A grey cat moved cautiously along the planks of the pier and in one swift motion, the fisherman grabbed the cat, snapped its neck, and began eating it raw. He tore off one of the cat's back legs and ate it as he would a chicken's. Grey tufts of fur stuck to his chin as blood dribbled down from his mouth and soaked his shirt. Miguel hobbled towards the pier as fast as his crutches would allow him, but the man did not seem aware of the injured man making his way across the sand. Suddenly, the cat writhed out of the man's hands and fell into the water. The man jumped in after it, swimming breaststroke along the widening stream of blood discolouring the water behind the animal. Miguel shouted at the man, but his cries went unheard as the man and cat swam farther and farther out into the lake until the sun set and he could no longer make them out. Deeply unsettled, Miguel returned to his shack and began packing what few possessions he had. Fernando arrived for their evening meal and tried to convince Miguel to wait until his leg healed, but Miguel was insistent on leaving immediately. As he rushed around the room, Miguel raved to Fernando about what he had seen and repeated over and over again that if he stayed any longer, the lake would devour him, but Fernando could hardly comprehend anything Miguel was saying. When Miguel finally slung his bag over his shoulder and hobbled towards the door, Fernando capitulated and told Miguel he'd borrow a car and drive him to Pátzcuaro. Eduard was the only person in the settlement who owned a car. Eduard wasn't at his shack and it took Fernando almost half an hour to find him. Once he did find him, Eduard's car was so old that it took another half hour just to get it started. By the time Fernando drove the car to Miguel's shack, Miguel was gone.

Fernando drove around the settlement and halfway to Pátzcuaro and back, but Miguel was nowhere to be seen. Fernando pulled over to a small bar haphazardly placed by the desert road like the skeleton of an ancient whale whose ocean no longer existed. There were only a few tired people in the bar and none of them had seen Miguel. Mexico was playing Argentina on the old CRT television placed up high on a dusty shelf in the corner of the bar, and as Fernando walked back out through the dust to his car, he could still hear the announcer panicking as Argentina scored another goal. After a couple tries the decrepit vehicle shivered as if it had just come back from the dead and Fernando drove back to the nameless fishing settlement that had succeeded Tocuaro. When he returned to his shack, Fernando opened his windows to let the evening breeze rejuvenate his stuffy house and through them watched the sun ripple in the lingering July heat as it burrowed its way beneath the sand.

A week later Fernando caught one of Miguel's crutches in his net. He hadn't caught anything since Miguel had disappeared and had initially felt excited at the weight of his net. When he saw the crutch, however, his excitement quickly turned to alarm. Fernando dived into the murky lake, shouting Miguel's name over and over again. He looked through the opaque water as far as he could see, but after ten minutes of diving saw nothing. The crutch was the only thing Fernando caught that day and it was the last thing he ever caught in the lake. Fernando spent a sleepless night thinking of the crutch and of what Miguel had told him before he vanished and by morning, Fernando decided to leave. He emptied his small lockbox of the little money he hadn't given to his family when they left him. He spent most of the day packing whatever he could into a large bag he'd once used for his fishing gear and set out on his bicycle for Pátzcuaro that afternoon. It was nearly dark when he rode into town. He booked himself into a cheap motel for a couple nights and asked the desk attendant if he could use the motel's phone. The desk attendant gave him a perplexed look.

"All the rooms have phones. You don't have a cell-phone?"

Fernando shook his head.

"You're a rare one. Well, if you have any problems with the phone in your room, just let me know." The desk attendant handed Fernando his keys. Fernando thanked him and checked into his room. He tried calling the number his wife had mailed him two weeks after she'd left, but it was out of service. She had left a Pátzcuaro return address on the envelope, but when Fernando biked over to it the next day, he found himself parked at the entrance of a bowling alley. Undeterred, Fernando pored through the motel's ancient Yellow Pages until he found his sister in law's number. To Fernando's relief, the number was still in service. When she answered the phone, she was unhappy to hear from Fernando and refused to tell him where his wife was living. However after Fernando repeatedly pleaded with her to let him see his children, she gave in and told him that his wife was now living with her new husband in Erongarícuaro.

Erongarícuaro was a small, dusty artist's town up on a hill that was once next to the lake. Fernando passed by more horses than cars as he entered the town, and when the roads turned to cobblestone, they became so uneven that he was forced to walk his bike the rest of the way to his wife's house. She was waiting for him out on her front step.

"Why are you here Fernando?" He seemed poised to say something, but his wife cut him off. "We lost you to the lake years ago. As far as I'm concerned, you might as well have drowned in it. If you were going to change your mind about leaving, why wait until now?"

"Luisa..."

"Why?"

Fernando sighed and stared at the tessellated cobblestones as he searched for the words to answer her question.

"Something happened that convinced me to leave. If I had stayed even a day longer, I know that lake would have consumed me," Fernando said.

Luisa shook her head and smiled sorrowfully at Fernando before staring off over the dried-up lake. After a long silence, she invited Fernando to stay for dinner and meet her husband, but warned him that he was not welcome to stay overnight. Fernando solemnly agreed and that night was reunited with his two daughters and three sons, the youngest of whom failed to recognize him at first. Fernando's conversation with Luisa's new husband, Simón, began as a cold, uncomfortable exchange between two men who would perhaps rather they hadn't met, but within a few minutes Fernando felt a sense of pride and approval towards Luisa's choice of husband. Simón was a regionally renowned sculptor and potter and was fortunate enough to be able to financially support his adopted family. Fernando found Simón to be an earnest and down-to-earth man, but could tell that Simón, despite his graciousness as a host, would rather not have Fernando in his home. Still, when dinner was over Simón offered to let Fernando stay the night and when Fernando refused, he was only held back from insisting by Luisa.

As he pedaled away from Erongarícuaro, Fernando felt something well up within him like an overburdened reservoir pushing against its fragile dam, and he pulled to the side of the empty dirt road and wept.