You’re Not Listening
In the rising heat outside the Cancun airport, the shuttle bus driver gripped his clipboard and stared at the tall American woman, middle-aged. “Candace Windholes?” he offered, confused and annoyed. His eyes slid from her slender face to her long black hair, which draped an arm stretching down to a freckled boy holding her hand.
“Windholtz,” Candace corrected without emotion.
The driver’s eyebrows knitted as he again consulted the arrival sheet. He looked at the boy, then back at the woman and asked, “And your destinacion is La Playa Del Oro?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Me llamo Daniel!” the boy shared enthusiastically, employing half the Spanish he’d acquired from PBS.
“But–” the driver began. Candace pressed passed him with Daniel, filling the last two seats in the cramped van. Their single suitcase was already loaded in the back. She buckled Daniel in and faced forward, away from the middle-aged California couple glaring their way. They were eager for their anniversary celebration at Playa Del Oro. All the way in the back, newlyweds also destined for the resort were clumsily making out. They paused when the driver slammed his door, as the awkward silence called attention to itself. He glowered at Candace in the rearview mirror. “Everything is fine,” she assured. “Just drive.”
In the lobby, huge chandeliers hung from a 50-foot ceiling on chains one expects to find securing battleship anchors. Dreamy techno music drifted from unseen speakers. Guests lounged on black leather sofas sipping ice water flavored with cucumber slices.
At the counter, Candace presented her reservation information but the clerk’s eyes lingered on Daniel, who had meandered to a reflecting pool. “Is your son?” she asked.
“Yes,” Candace answered.
“Pardoname,” the woman said before disappearing behind a black curtain.
The clerk returned flanked by a thin man wearing glasses and a strained smile. He reviewed the reservation on the screen then turned to Candace. “I am Mr. Ortiz, the front desk manager,” he announced. “There appears to be some confusion. Playa Del Oro is only for couples.”
“Everything’s okay, Mr. Ortiz,” Candace said flatly. “We won’t bother anyone.”
“It’s not a question of bothering. This is our policy. You would be happier at our sister resort. Just five minutes down the highway. They have a swimming pool with three slides.”
There was a silence as the two staff members watched Candace for some response. When the desk manager began clacking on the keyboard, Candace said, “No. We’re booked for 4 nights, 3 days here, and that’s where we’ll stay. You’re not listening to me. My name is on the reservation and so is my son’s, Daniel Windholtz.”
Mr. Ortiz glanced back at his screen and confirmed this. Then he smirked and said, “I see that Daniel paid for your stay, actually, with a credit card. But surely that is the senior, yes, the boy’s father?”
Fifteen feet away, Daniel turned from the reflecting pool. He looked at his mother, waiting. Candace didn’t break eye contact with the desk manager. “Yes that’s right. But as you can see, the boy’s father . . . he is not here.” She held out an open hand. “Give me the keys I paid for or I’m calling my lawyer in Richmond.”
Rumors about the woman and her child spread quickly. Some of the guests believed her to be on the run, the child abducted. Others were convinced her husband had died tragically, cancer, a traffic accident. A bell hop swore that he’d seen bruises on her arm and swelling around one eye. The consensus among the cleaning staff was that the husband had cheated on her with another woman, one even more beautiful and surely younger. What was known for certain was that for that first night and most of the next day, the two did not leave their room. They ordered cheese pizza three times and hung out the decorative knotted rope that sent housekeeping down the hallway. The front desk manager noted a number of movies ordered, all of them cartoons.
But midway through the afternoon, about 24 hours after they arrived, they emerged in bathing suits, their skin glistening and reeking of sunscreen. Candace left the “do not disturb” totem on the door. At the pool, she grabbed two towels from the cabana and strolled passed the gurgling hot tub and the bar dishing out free drinks and blaring dated dance music. They took two lounge chairs facing the hotel, some distance from the speakers. Over the small dune behind them, Daniel heard waves crashing. “I want to go to the ocean!” he yelped.
“Just swim here,” his mother instructed.
While Daniel splashed on the steps, Candace did not read a magazine. She did not wade in the pool or ask for a drink from the waiter. She did not consult her phone for messages or updates. At one point, she pulled a water bottle from her bag, one all the guests recognized from their rooms, and gave it to Daniel. She also unfurled the umbrella between their seats, casting a shadow in which she reclined. Despite the shade, she did not remove the oversized sunglasses obscuring her eyes. Here and there, patrons nearby rose from their chairs and relocated, leaving Candace in a dead zone of sorts. Whether she noticed this or not was impossible to say. The others went on with their free fruity drinks and their inebriated dancing and their PG-13 public groping. Daniel invented a game that involved heaving his empty water bottle into the pool, swimming after it, then returning to the steps.
Eventually a burly man in a suit and tie with a neat moustache crossed the hot concrete between the hotel and the bar. After preparing a tray, he approached Candace. In the shade of her umbrella, he set down a glass of wine and a can of Coke. “Hello,” he said. “I am Renaldo Castillo, the resort manager, and I’m here to assist you.”
Candace said, “Do I seem to need assistance?”
Renaldo maintained his pleasant grin. “You and your son, you are our guests, and we want to help you have the most wonderful vacation.” He went on to explain that the hotel next door had, in addition to the pool with 3 slides, an arcade, a climbing wall, and kids’ menus. “It is designed for people in your situation.”
Candace dipped her head and peered over her sunglasses. “My situation?” she asked.
Renaldo refused to lose his cool. “We are prepared to refund your money, the full amount, and let you and your son be guests at our sister facility free of charge. Of course you can still take part in the excursions you signed up for in advance. I think you’ll agree this is a generous offer, amenable to all.”
“We’re fine here,” she said, facing the pool. “This is what was arranged.”
Renaldo swallowed hard. This woman was as icy as his desk manager had told him. He glanced at the pool area, crowded except for the thirty foot circle around Daniel and the two of them. They were at the epicenter of something catastrophic. “But madam, I have to think about what’s best for all. You can see this your presence is disturbing our other guests.” He bent in half, bringing his face closer to hers and lowered his voice. “We’ve had several complaints.”
Candace turned to him and got up, causing Renaldo to straighten, but he did not retreat. “Complaints?” she repeated. Candace inhaled through her nose and exhaled steadily through her mouth, as if releasing cigarette smoke. “I’d like to complain too,” she said. “Who do I see to do that?”
Renaldo smiled warmly, said nothing, and returned to his office. On his computer, he viewed her itinerary, which had been booked and paid for five months ago. He saw that the next day, the Windholtzes were scheduled for an excursion to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Looking out at the rippled Atlantic, he wondered if perhaps he should simply have her things moved to the hotel next door while she was away, let the tour bus dropped her off there. This bitch would be somebody else’s problem.
At seven-thirty the next morning, a sleepy Daniel and Candace climbed onto the tour bus, which was long and airconditioned with tinted windows and a bathroom. To get to Chichen Itza, they had to cut through an hour of impoverished communities, each of which had set up various huts to sell trinkets to the passing tourists. The guide, a man named Ulysses, delivered a wide-ranging lecture about the Mayan people’s history, their many accomplishments in math and science. Everything he said in English he repeated in Spanish, much to Daniel’s delight. The boy also liked the free tamale given to everyone. Candace let hers cool on her lap as she stared out the window.
Ulysses explained that the Mayan calendar, famed for its accuracy despite being developed in ancient times, was actually based on three calendars, including what’s called “the long count,” a period of almost 8,000 years. The conclusion of each long count brings with it, “un apocalyptico,” Ulysses told them ominously. “The end of life as we know it.” When he uttered this phrase, Candace turned from the jungle. Ulysses went on. “The calendar predicted this would happened on December 21, 2012, but of course, that did not take place my friends. Or did it? Look out your windows. These are the direct descendants of the mightiest civilization of their time, peddling trinkets. Fifty feet off this road, back where they live, you won’t find electricity, modern medicine, any sort of real schooling. Tell them the world didn’t end.”
Candace shifted in her seat, then got up to use the bathroom. When she came back, Daniel asked her if she was okay. “Everything’s fine,” she said. “Would you like my tamale?”
The entrance to Chichen Itza was crowded with locals selling hats, umbrellas, sunscreen. Those climbing off the dozens of tour busses had to weave between them. Once through the main gate, the group hiked down a jungle path lined with tables overflowing with souvenirs. Ulysses told them that only Mayans could operate these stands and urged them to support the local economy after his tour. Candace bought Daniel a tiny obsidian pyramid and a carved jaguar which somehow made a growling sound if you blew in its hollow tail.
Following this, Ulysses led them out into the sun, blocked now and then by gathering clouds. El Castillo, the main pyramid, was in the center of a huge clearing, along with a series of outer buildings. But first, they hiked to an arena, what felt to the Americans like a football field enclosed along the sidelines by massive stone walls. In a low voice, Ulysses pointed out the sideways hoops twenty-five feet up and detailed the game, a mix of soccer and basketball. It was played both for pure sport he told them and, in some cases, to resolve disputes between warring tribes. “The victors gained fame but the losers lost their heads,” he said dramatically.
At center court, he asked Daniel to step forward and said, “I want you to yell your name, as loud as you can, okay?”
Daniel looked at his mother for approval and she nodded. Improvising a bit, he shouted, “Me llamo Daniel!” and his voice, amplified many times over, reverberated off the walls as if through a megaphone. All were shocked. Ulysses told them the Mayans were masters of acoustics. Once, he told them proudly, Luciano Pavarotti stood in this very spot and sang “Ave Maria.” It could be heard, according to the guide, miles away. But this was nothing compared to the power of the pyramid, where he led them next.
Candace lingered behind the group, standing alone in the central spot, looking at the towering walls around her. Above her, the sun vanished behind an enormous cloud, like a grey floating continent.
Candance joined the tour before they reached a crowded area at the base of El Castillo, where two huge snake heads stared their way. Ulysses detailed the many scientific wonders of the structure, for example how each side had 91 steps, which you could add to 365 if you included the temple at the top, reflecting an advanced knowledge of astronomy. He explained why its marvels rival the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge and took pleasure in describing the phenomenon that takes place on the solstice, when the angles create a huge shadow that writhes from the open temple on top, zig-zagging down the steps to connect to the snake heads.
“I wish I could lead you up the stairs,” he said. “But this is no longer permitted. Fools defaced the walls of the temple.” Inside he told them was a jaguar statue with eyes made of jade, which must have been brought somehow from China or Canada. Even more impressive though, he insisted, was what they did with sound. Turning again to Daniel, he asked him to shout his name loud as he could. When Daniel complied, it echoed off the pyramid wall, amplified a hundred times over. Next he coached the group into clapping together, and the reverberations bounced off the stones with a physical shock. Only Candance didn’t join in the demonstration, standing with her arms at her sides.
“That temple is a broadcast tower,” Ulysses told his wide-eyed tourists. “More powerful in its day than satellites or Twitter. From the temple, the king or the high priests could address ten of thousands gathered here, and they spoke with the voice of a god.”
Milling tourists snapped selfies, asked other couples to snap staged pics. Daniel shouted his name a couple more times. Other tourists with other guides did the clapping trick. Then Ulysses said it was time to move on to where some of the sacrifices took place, where hearts of fallen foes were ceremonially cut out to feed the sun. But when the group walked away, Candance remained. She stood alone, directly in front of one of the giant snake heads, and she stared up at the temple.
Daniel said, “Mom?” and walked over to her, reached for her hand. She did not take it. Instead, she stepped over the drooping chain that extended around the entire base. “No madame,” someone shouted. “Is not permitted please.”
“Mom?” Daniel said again.
Candace turned and knelt. She reached across the chain and gently set her hands on her son’s shoulders. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” And then she turned and began to mount the steps.
Those in the plaza started to notice the solitary figure rising up, until everyone gathered was looking at Candace. Many drew closer, expecting something to happen, but they stopped at the edge of the chain, as if lured to the precipice of a cliff. They did not follow. They shouted to her, urgently, but now, she was the one not listening.
Beneath the unforgiving sun, Candace climbed, her steps steady and even, her back straight. Soon, she will reach the temple, and when she cries out in a voice totally her own, she will at last be heard.
Neil Connelly: Before returning to his home state of Pennsylvania, where he now teaches writing at Shippensburg University, Neil Connelly directed the MFA in Creative Writing at McNeese State. He’s been fortunate enough to find homes for a couple dozen short stories (Southeast Review, Yalobusha Review, Southern Indiana Review, Midway Journal) and 8 books (Simon & Schuster, LSU Press, Scholastic). www.neilconnelly.com
Great story and lesson!