Nicaraguan roosters never need the excuse of a sun to start screaming. A prowler startles one, or maybe it's a pair of headlights or another chicken, but with one loud cluck, that lone rooster sets off a chain reaction of shrieking across Managua. Nicaraguans never seemed to notice; to a local, a crying rooster was like a taxi horn to a New Yorker. You tuned it out or you never slept. Tonight, they started at 3 a.m. This was only his second night in Managua, and Rosemont hadn't learned to ignore them yet. He unwrapped himself from the sleeping priest and slid from bed.
After stepping into sweatpants, he walked around to the main gate leading into the Casa Evangelista courtyard. Enfolded in amniotic darkness, a broad-leafed tree nodding overhead in the night's sultry breeze, he sat by the bookcases in the open-roofed atrium where he could see through the front security gate into the street. Rosemont liked this hostel. He'd been backpacking south from Mexico and this was the fanciest place he'd stayed in since Costa Rica. Meals of gallo pinto (beans and rice), a hard-boiled egg, and a little cheese. Fans in the rooms. Showers with no warm water, but no one wanted it. Travelers from all over the world intersected here, some coming with church groups to offer aid, some to see the volcano south of Managua.
From the atrium, Rosemont could hear the Australian couple having noisy sex in the bathroom. Just that afternoon they'd been arguing bitterly, and just as loudly. He could also hear the group of European students drinking, flirting, and lamely trying to be quiet in one of their rooms. After translating for the hostel's cook, who had a crush on one of the French women, Rosemont had left that party a couple of hours ago.
Mentioned in most of the backpack travel guides, Casa Evangelista was an oasis after the trip that Rosemont had taken down from the Segovia region in northwest Nicaragua on Saturday. In exchange for food and board, he'd been picking coffee in that frontier for weeks. The harvest was over now, it was May, so he followed one of the shipments of beans south to market. Hopping aboard a wide wooden flatbed used for transporting one-hundred-pound bags of green coffee, he left the cloud-rinsed farms of the high Isabel mountains. Unfortunately for him, just before reaching the arid, middle regions of the country, Rosemont lost his hat when standing to hand a bottle of rum to a fellow hitchhiker. The man laughed, watching it spin along the dirt road behind the truck, and saluted it. "Go with God, hat!" Rosemont had laughed too. But when the sun vaulted to midheaven less than an hour later, he was baking like the wet coffee beans drying on wide, concrete patios that they passed along the road—nothing between him and the pounding Nicaraguan sun.
Around noon, as the mountain road stepped down into the deserts outside Matagalpa, his breakfast rum-buzz had worn off and Rosemont realized he was in trouble. He drank all the water in his one water bottle. He traded places to take advantage of what little shade he could get from the flatbed's crossbeam. He draped a T-shirt from his pack over his head, but he was already near heatstroke, dehydrated from rum and sun, and his whole body rumbled in a fevery hallucination of bouncing farm trucks, leafy boughs of coffee growing out of the stuffed burlap bags around him, and his landed-gentry grandparents back in the States scolding him that he'd never secure tenure for himself this way. When the truck stopped in Matagalpa at Cecocafen Coffee cooperative's offices, his fellow traveler had taken pity on him and bought him a couple of bottles of water, offering them with a wry smile, saying, "Vaya con dios, Se–or Sin Sombrero." Go with God, Mr. Hatless.
While Rosemont sat in the back of the truck, drinking water and waiting for the driver, a little boy had approached him with his palm out. From his sickbed of coffee bags, Rosemont looked down into that hand, and in his delirium, it had seemed the boy was holding a broken shellfish, offering it to Rosemont. He looked into the boy's face for an explanation.
"ÀPor favor?" said the boy. Rosemont looked back and realized that the hand had only three fingers.
What we do to kids in this world.
Rosemont nodded at the boy's fingers. "How'd that happen?"
The kid shrugged one shy shoulder. Then he managed, "Angels."
Rosemont hadn't understood, nor was he certain what he'd put into that hand, but it was the last two bills he had in his pocket. "Steer clear of angels, okay?"
The kid took the money, and as Rosemont's truck pulled away from the curb, he baffled Rosemont by saying, "You're the one who should watch out for angels."
The smooth highway to Managua had soon droned the strange warning from Rosemont's mind, and the bottles of water helped drown his thundering headache. By the time he'd reached Managua, well after sundown, the shirt-soaking humidity of the Pacific was almost a relief. With the help of a Finnish cab driver, Rosemont had made his way from the bustling terminal coffee market to the only hostel whose name he knew: Casa Evangelista. He was wary of the religious name—evangelista basically meant Protestant—but the Casa's reputation among travelers was sterling. He was greeted in the maroon-tiled atrium by the hostel's proprietor, who introduced himself as Aurelio, though he was obviously American.
"Budget-trail traveler, caught in the desert without a hat," guessed Aurelio. His blue linen shirt was open at the collar, revealing coarse, white chest hair. He took Rosemont's pack and slid it next to the front desk. "German?"
He got that a lot. Rosemont smiled, feeling dilapidated. "Not too many of us down here, but I'm American."
Aurelio laughed and looked him over again. "To quote the Bard," he said, "you do look all horse-piss." Aurelio took Rosemont's hand in both of his and then led him through the Casa's courtyard, where dark palm fronds bobbed, and to the guest rooms. The room that Aurelio assigned to Rosemont had an engraved door, painted with a rough portrait of bespectacled and goateed Carlos Fonseca. He said, "For you, Fonseca, my favorite room." He smiled affectionately. "We have a Sunday service tomorrow morning with Communion. You're invited but not expected to come."
Hector, the bellman and guard, had arrived a moment later with Rosemont's bags, slid them into the room, turned on the electric fan, and set a big dispenser of water on the dresser, flashing a winning smile as he departed.
"I won't attend," said Rosemont over the loudly oscillating fan, again wondering if he'd made a mistake selecting this hostel. "I'm not feeling very well, and—"
"So sleep in," said Aurelio, smiling and stepping back from Rosemont.
An Australian couple came to stand behind Aurelio, just outside Rosemont's room. They were quarreling over money.
Their dissonance wore on him. The welcome firmness of Aurelio's hand had reminded Rosemont how long it had been—weeks—since he'd even touched another human being. He wished that the couple would find a gentler way to speak, that the man wouldn't go.
"Perhaps I'll check back on you later tonight?" Aurelio said. "See how you're feeling?"
It begins, thought Rosemont. He should have said that wasn't necessary, but he was not himself. "Yes, do that."
As it happened, Aurelio did not come back to check on him, and Managua's roosters had woken Rosemont early that first night. The headache he suffered in the Matagalpa desert was gone, though he'd drifted in and out of a sunburnt sleep, drinking from his water bottle, dreaming of plump red coffee berries and relieved to have the fan aimed at him.
Hours later, hand bells woke him, announcing the church service. Rosemont figured what the hell, and put on his last clean shirt, a blue and brown plaid shirt with yellow stripes.
The Casa was set up like a big oval, with the atrium and gate at the front and the "church" at the back. Really, the church was just twenty chairs set before a makeshift altar. Guests walking from the rooms on the right side of the oval to the dining tables and kitchen on the left kept passing behind the congregation of Nicaraguans and international guests who'd risen early to hear the old Anglican priest.
Much of Aurelio's sermon was lost on Rosemont, who slouched into a folding chair and leaned back against the wall. He didn't understand the passages from Ezekiel, the obscure quotations from modern church fathers. But when Aurelio began talking about Rome, Rosemont leaned forward. "Saints Peter and Paul were executed," Aurelio said, preaching in English for the international crowd, "each according to their class. Paul was a citizen of Rome, and accordingly he was beheaded—a quick and merciful execution. But Simon Peter, a Jewish nobody, met a nobody's end, tortured to death by crucifixion—just like his nobody Jewish rabbi, Jesus, for sedition, conspiracy, and terrorism on the fringes of the empire."
After the service, Rosemont and Aurelio ate lunch together and walked through the dismal neighborhood. Aurelio told him that the Anglican Church was preparing to kick him out for his politics and "other practices."
Rosemont wished the man would take his hand. Do it. Go on. Do it.
They stood facing each other, but Aurelio would not look Rosemont in the eye. Then, as if Rosemont were being taken from him, Aurelio admitted, "I would like to hold your hand." He raised dark eyes to Rosemont. "But in this culture, that's a dangerous line to cross."
They bought a couple of Cokes, drank them standing outside the bodega. Strolling back to the Casa, Rosemont put an arm around Aurelio's shoulders. A block later, he took the older man's hand.
Aurelio went rigid under Rosemont's embrace, though he looked with want and fear at the younger, taller man.
"Don't worry. You're safe." Rosemont justified doing this by telling himself that he needed helpers now. He had little money, the coffee season was over, and he was still sick from the heat and sun. He had already erased a line between the French girl and the cook, pressed them together to create a cozy bed of good, compliant feeling in the Casa. The bickering Australian couple had spent the rest of Saturday evening apparently making up, because they were all whispers and coy laughter now, and the sound was soothing to Rosemont, actually relieved his headache. He hadn't interfered like this, not once, since leaving the United States when he'd promised himself never to do so again. But I need something good. A nest. Something that feels like home, Rosemont told himself. Just till I get better. Before anyone noticed that something was happening, he would move on.
"Trust me," Rosemont had said, smiling down into the priest's eyes. "I'll handle everything."
That night, sitting near the Casa's wrought-iron gate, Rosemont turned the priest over in his mind. The oceanic night air cradled him as he sat, exulting in his body's sated, satiated, and saturated warmth. The peak of gray hair on the old man's chest. The strapping shoulders that seemed to crack at the crucial moment. The salty tang of Aurelio lingered in Rosemont's mouth, and the sermon came like a breeze looking for him through the Casa's barred gate.
On the fringes of empire.
For the first time since leaving America six months ago, Rosemont looked backward at the height from which he'd fallen. Poverty here was not like poverty in the States. No one had money except the impossibly rich, while three-fingered boys begged in the streets. Untethered from a tenure track as an art historian, a respectable neighborhood, and his family, Rosemont had willfully abandoned prosperity and a promising future and had fallen down, down, as if draining from America into Mexico's high plains, Chiapas, Guatemala, Honduras, falling in line behind a trail of migrant coffee workers and hidden jungle farms. Now he had finally landed here, in a destitute neighborhood and a radical priest's bed. Rosemont wondered what was beyond this fringe, if anything could possibly be beyond it. Looking back at the height from which he'd fallen he could see, far above him in the north, America, an immense and ridiculous bird, spreading vast wings pinioned with personal computers, telephones, modems, rear-window defrost, CD players, cable TV, talking cars, and jumbo decaf cappuccinos. Ivy-covered brownstones. University scuffles. Reputation and status; betrayal and sabotage. It all seemed so arbitrary from here; Rosemont wanted nothing to do with that bird. He wanted this road. He wanted it to take him farther into the fringes of the empire, and beyond, if he could find a place where someone like him might belong.
A burst of laughter came from the partyers in the French room. Rosemont closed his eyes. Listening to the mood of the hostel was deeply soothing.
"That's it! Forget it! I'm canceling my trip. I want to stay here forever," someone shouted in English.
"Me too," the French girl shouted. "I'm here for good."
"Good!" the Nicaraguan cook was yelling back. "We'll start a new city, here, inside the Casa. Our city won't join wars like Bush's. We'll populate our new city with Nicas and Euros. Where's Rosemont? If I could—"
A crash of metal on metal and another hysterical burst of group laughter.
Rosemont turned in his chair as he heard several pairs of footsteps rapping down the unlit road outside the Casa. A man appeared, pressing himself against the bars of the gate, eyes scanning the atrium and focusing down the hall to the light of the kitchen. "ÁAyudame!" he shouted. "ÁAyudame!" Help me.
House rules said that he couldn't open the gate for a nonguest after midnight—Aurelio's hostel was located in a very rough neighborhood. The man looked frantic as the young guard, Hector, appeared from his office where he had been listening to his shortwave radio. Glancing back the way he had come, the man fell quiet and looked suddenly dead-eyed with fear. Just then, two running men appeared, and each shoved him hard against the gate as they passed again out of sight, down the street. It was almost as if they were playing a game of late-night tag, and the man was safe, touching these iron bars.
Hector watched them go and stared at the man, waiting for an explanation or a departure, perhaps.
Still clinging to the gate, the man wore a nice dress shirt beneath a suit jacket, a fashion one didn't usually see in Managua's tropical bake. Both jacket and shirt were filthy. "I'm in trouble," he whispered in Spanish to Hector.
"I'm sorry. I am not allowed to open this gate," said Hector. "Gangs in this neighborhood make it unsafe here."
"It's not your gangs I'm worried about. Say, can you give me some food?"
"No, sir. You have to come back in the morning."
"I'm just going to stay here for a moment," the man said, leaning against the wrought-iron bars.
"You can stay there as long as you like," said Hector. He turned and noticed Rosemont sitting in the shadows. He beamed and tipped his baseball cap. "I didn't see you there, Se–or Rosemont. Good evening!"
Rosemont smiled sleepily at Hector, unsure if he was breaking house rules by sitting in the atrium this late. He made to get up, saying, "I'm sorry. I just needed to get out of bed for a bit. This heat—"
Hector shook his head frantically side to side. "Stay out here as long as you like." He smiled again, then gave the man at the gate one last scrutinizing look before walking back to the office and his blaring shortwave radio.
At the gate, the man watched Hector disappear, and from down the hall and the bathrooms came sounds of the Australians orgasming operatically. He sat listening for a moment, as if to music, then his eyes drifted over to Rosemont in the shadows. "I have a message for you."
Rosemont pressed back slightly in his chair, surprised by both the man's words and his use of English. "What did you say?"
"He called you 'Rosemont'?" said the man. "You're Jeremiah Rosemont?"
Sitting perfectly still, his body nonetheless broke a sweat. Rosemont laughed a small syllable of disbelief. "Yes, that's me."
Excerpted from The Magician and the Fool by Barth Anderson. Copyright © 2008 by Barth Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.