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A Cage Match 

2013 Short Fiction Contest

Middle-aged snowbirds, vacationing in Mexico during the frigid Minnesota winter, pass through the surreal fantasy world surrounding all-inclusive resort life. It’s a story of privilege and absurdity, gazing across the distance between expectations and reality. — Jacob Jones

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Bobby opened the red door and swept his arm forward as if we were royalty. He was damp. His polo shirt swelled with his beach-ball stomach. Snacks appeared — pu-pus, he said — and drinks were put in our hands.

A dozen people were standing and talking. “No one told me it was gold jewelry night,” I said quietly. Karen’s smile said, “you’re not funny.” Bobby led us to a horseshoe-shaped couch. He lifted a velvet cushion to show the white concrete underneath.

“We’re a modern stone-age family.”

“You can hose it off,” I said. “Good for wild parties.”

Karen smiled again. The same smile.

“Pu-pu?” Bobby pushed the tray toward us and left to check something in the kitchen. Either the alcohol or the extra weight made him walk like he was pushing a wheelbarrow, like a quick turn could send him keeling.

The kitchen was outside on a terrace that thrust like a tongue over the bay. Potted palms blocked the far end, apparently to keep curious visitors from peeking over, getting vertigo, and flailing down past 32 floors of startled vacationers before they splattered on the shiny white tiles next to the twin rectangular pools.

I saw her feet first. Gold ankle bracelet, gold toe rings, gold toenail polish.

“Excuse me, do either of you play cribbage?”

We looked up from our small island of beach towel.

Her face was a fingerprint whorl of fine wrinkles, and she wore a shiny gold swimsuit of notable elasticity. Her visor said Paradise in red sequins.

“She plays,’’ I said.

Karen gave me her “you’ll pay for this later” smile, but wrapped a big purple scarfy thing around her waist and left. When the incoming tide got too close, I sat down under their palapa.

“People should be so lucky,” a woman with orange hair was saying. “We should have it so good.” After a while I understood she was comparing mink and fox. A fox coat, you see, is warmer, but both animals live on special ranches — more like spas, really — where they are fed and groomed and treated better than humans. “It’s a great life,” Carol said.

Then she started on the free-range chicken scam. “Chicken are shy and they like to stay where it’s safe,” she said. “Just plain cruel to force them into the open.”

The waiter brought six more Coronas sloshing in a bucket of ice. I took a another beer. I began to feel sorry for the chickens.

Bobby and Toni were from Chicago. They wintered in Acapulco, waking at 10 with vodka and grapefruit, lounging in this same beach palapa all afternoon. Other snowbirds would stop by, duck their heads under the brown fronds, stay for a drink or two.

There was a retired judge from Florida, whom everyone called Martha. There was Marty, who smoked cigars and invented the slogan, “You deserve a break today,” and his wife, Mary Beth, who carried a dog named Taco in her purse. There was Luis, who bought wholesale jewelry in Los Angeles and sold it to tourists in Mexico.

I’ve forgotten most of it, but I remember that Martha was named after Martha Stewart because of his aesthetic sensibilities and sexual preference. And that a bunch of ad writers were agonizing over a slogan when Marty said, as history will long remember, “You know what? We deserve a break.”

Karen’s drink came in a green coconut shell decorated with pineapple and maraschino cherries. She had to bend the straw down to mouth level.

“It’s not free-range at all,” Carol said. “The cages are in a warehouse. Even if a chicken wants to risk going out, it would find a concrete floor and fluorescent lights.”

At best, a patch of hard dirt. No grassy meadows. No ladybugs to peck. No breeze ruffling their feathers. No wonder they like to stay home. Might as well kick back in your cage and have them bring you food.

Karen made a little gasp of empathy. She was on her third coconut and had a dewy look. She’d need ibuprofen later. The waiter brought another bucket of beer and a plate of nachos.

Karen and I were at La Tranquila, just across from Disco Beach. With Jake finally in college, we’d put Baxter in a kennel, and booked two weeks, all-inclusive. We had ideas about a second honeymoon. At least I did.

Our first had been 20 years earlier. Nassau. TV taught us. For the first week, we were in a sit-com: More coffee, Honey? Just a touch, Dearest. Here you go, Darling. My pleasure.

We were scared and improvising. But everyone, from the waiters to the taxi drivers to the hotel clerk, was on our side. And we succeeded. Maybe it wasn’t thrilling anymore, but it worked. I made coffee, she cut up fruit for breakfast. She put the dishes in the dishwasher, I took them out.

But I’d been thinking that in Mexico we could break loose a little. I’d also imagined long days of Karen lounging by the pool in her new bathing suit. The humidity would thicken her hair and her skin would smell of coconut oil. She’d be slick with oil and sweat. She’d take my hand and lead me to our room with its slow turning ceiling fan, brisk air-conditioning and shower built for two.

But instead of going back in time, we’d jumped ahead: Karen playing cribbage in a palapa, then easing herself into the tepid surf, her expansive backside crisscrossed by the pattern of the chaise lounge.

When she kept groaning into her pillow, I knew she’d had too many coconut drinks. She usually sleeps quietly, another nice thing about her. I’d already got over the fun of watching Homer Simpson speak Spanish, so went for a walk. The air was a warm washcloth. At Café de Luz, a man strummed a guitar while people played chess at a sidewalk table. At Baskin-Robbins, white-haired Americans lined up for frozen yogurt.

Down the block, a burro stood outside a bar. Inside, waiters weaved through the crowd. Two industrial-sized women stood on their barstools and swung their hips dangerously to the music. The walls were river rock, and lined with license plates, posters and cardboard egg containers.

I sat just inside the front door, watched the dancers, listened to the music: Queen, Billy Ray Cyrus, Rolling Stones, Madonna. The TV showed two women fighting in a ring. Kickboxing, perhaps, but without rules. The black woman was wiry and had dreadlocks. I rooted for her. The big blonde looked indestructible, but the dreadlocked one kept circling, taking her shots even though it seemed to be futile.

A whistle blew in my ear. Long black hair, black eyes. Her bandolier was filled with shot glasses. Her gun belt held a bottle and a bota bag. The neck of her T-shirt was ripped out to show her lacy pink bra.

She circled, blowing the whistle in three bursts, stopped in front of a beefy man, poured a glass of pink liquid into his mouth, and patted him on the cheek. He beamed.

A handler led the burro through the dancers. A woman in her 60s clutched the saddle horn with one hand, her purse with the other. The man next to me patted the burro’s head. About Jake’s age, overweight with fair skin and a bad sunburn. He wore a Raiders cap with mirrored sunglasses perched atop the black bill.

The woman blew her whistle at him. He opened his mouth like a baby. She held the bota bag a foot from his lips and streamed the pink drink into his mouth. Then she held his face and gave it a little shake. He pulled her forward, burying his face in her cleavage, burrowing in deep.

She blew the whistle, one long shrill cutting blast, and tried to get away, her butt pushing back against me.

I was getting ready to stand up and pry his hands off her shoulders when three waiters pulled the man out the door and set him down at one of the outside tables. He sat there, looking at the ground. His sunglasses were gone.

Someone took the man’s barstool. The crowd sang along with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The blonde feinted with her right, slammed the dreadlocked woman with a left hook, sent her hard into the ropes. Dreadlocks sagged, looked beat, then kicked out hard: Both legs caught the blonde in the chest and sent her sprawling.

She raised her red gloves over her head and did a little dance. It was leverage, you see. Leverage is the key when facing a bigger opponent, leverage and surprise. I went back to our room and took a shower.

The next day was someone’s last day. Or someone’s first day, always one or the other. So Bobby had invited us to the party at Brisas del Mar.

Bobby kept bringing more beer. Plates of appetizers changed places. Karen’s margarita was refilled. “Just a slosh more?” Bobby said. “There’s scurvy going around. Or rickets.”

Tom and Donna, retired from Omaha, had braced Karen in a corner. Carol sat next to Tom.

Fur haters wanted to ban silk next because it upset silkworms. “Silkworms would die without us to take care of them,” she said. “And why worry about them? They don’t give a good goddamn about us.”

People nodded. Why disagree with an elderly orange-haired woman? Why not smile and drink and enjoy the view? Lights twinkled in the humid air. Way off to the left, a disco swept green and red lasers against the sky and Christmas bulbs glowed in the rigging of a passing boat. People on deck took photos of the shoreline. Flashes sparked against the black water.

Back in St. Paul, Donna was saying, a snowstorm had dumped nine inches overnight. Schools were closed. Roads impassable.

Weather back home is a huge topic here. Each city is worse than the rest, all reduced to Arctic tundra, all wandered by wolves in search of a frozen house cat.

Maybe that heightens the joy of being a snowbird. Or maybe it comes with age. You’re still figuring out how to live and why, then, one day, you wake up, and you have an ache, you have a twinge — and it’s in part of your body you’d rather not acknowledge. So you consider the morning light filtering through the curtains, and you say, “I wonder what the weather’s like someplace else?”

Bobby fluttered about with trays of food, and the conversation turned to grandchildren. I flipped through a white photo book on the concrete table. It was about half full of party pictures, each showing eight or ten tiny faces. The humidity had washed the color out of the older ones, leaving silver figures against a pale background.

An hour later I was drunk, watching the tourist boat float in a pool of its own colored lights.

“You OK?” Karen asked.

“I’m pissed about those silkworms. Little moochers.”

“She’s nice. Her husband died last year.”

I took her hand. She smelled of limes.

“These people have known each other forever,” she said.

I put my arm around her waist. Bobby came outside.

“No kissing. Makes the rest of us horny,” he said. “Some of us have blood-pressure issues.”

“Picture time,” he said.

We sat on the crescent-shaped concrete couch, leaned our heads in, and smiled into the flash. I’m sure the photo is still there. Should be toward the middle, in a plastic sleeve on the top right, colors easing away. Maybe someone we know will see it. Jake, it could be, on his own honeymoon. He’ll leap up, book in hand, mouth open in excitement. ♦


About the Author

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Richard Harlan Miller lives in Pullman, Wash., where he works in communications at Washington State University. Miller previously spent 20 years as an editor with The Spokesman-Review. His second novel, The Gas Hat, is scheduled to be published in January.

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