An old man, shirtless, hoary, body scarred by the years and inked with faded, indecipherable ideograms, he is the first person you meet when you check into your room. He advises you to take the lower bunk. It will be easier, he says, when you stagger home drunk, you won’t have to climb. You take that advice.
In the days that follow you make a point to talk to this old man wherever you find him. He is often on the sundeck, facing up towards the palm and fern covered hills, ginger beer always in hand, cigarette between his lips, eyes shielded from the tropical light by mirrored sunglasses.
He tells you he’s been coming to Willemstad for twenty years and he’s never stayed anywhere else. This hostel, a remodeled ice-cream factory painted pink and teal and yellow, is like his home. He tells you that back in The Netherlands he was a crane operator for Mammoet. He was part of the crew that recovered the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. He tells you how they had to saw the vessel in half with a special cable. A cable designed not to spark, not to blow the whole thing out of the water. Slow and careful work to recover what was left of what was lost. Alas, too late for the 118 crew.
Then he tells you he is dying. Cancer. He can’t think of the English word for the afflicted organ, but you guess it must be his liver. He points at something within his torso and hangs his head.
“What are you going to do?” you ask. He looks up, pauses. “I am alone,” he says. “I
have a son I’ve not seen. . . more than ten years. So, I make a party for myself and . . .” he gestures like he’s shooing something away. He says he has six months.
You meet him several times on the streets of that chimerical city. He moves back and forth between the hostel and the city center. He waits for his disability money to be wired from Holland. He complains about his lack of guilders as if that is the only thing standing between him and the party he’s making. He’s in bed by eight most every night. He often falls asleep on the sundeck too, while staring up towards the hills behind the hostel.
Anja arrives. She takes the bunk above you. She is a thirty-nine-year-old musician from Zeeland, a free-spirit; she’s sold everything she owned and come here to create a new life for herself. She sings in her sleep.
You and Anja, brought together by chance or hostel fate, travel the island in tandem: snorkeling, hiking, cliff-diving, exploring the night-life of the city. For you it is recreation, a last hurrah before the coming years of psychic and spiritual exhaustion. But Anja is feeling the place out. Making connections with all the waiters and barkeeps, swapping contact info, finding out which cool people in Willemstad are looking for housemates. She’s shoring up her life, intent to stay here.
Anja too gravitates toward the old man. They have long conversations in Dutch. He makes her laugh. When you and Anja go shopping at Van Den Tweel she always buys a few things to share with the old man—snacks, fruit, ginger beer. He hasn’t asked her to do this. She’s a caring person; you’ve known this since the day the two of you spent hunting down Willemstad’s stray dogs and feeding them sausage McMuffins.
The old man likes motorcycles, he’s said so on several occasions and he looks the part. You see him one evening, while you are out with Anja. He’s talking to the men in the Harley Davidson Club. They gather every evening on the Punda side of the Queen Emma Bridge and rev their engines for the tourists before speeding away.
You point him out to Anja, ask if he’s told her he’s dying. He has. You say how sad it is that he has no family.
“I know,” Anja says, “But he has a son, a banker.”
“His son is a banker. Here. In this very city. He doesn’t speak to him but he’s here. In fact, the very bank on the hill behind the hostel. That’s his son’s bank.”
When you get back to the hostel you can’t help noticing that from the sundeck you can see into the bank’s windows. That’s where the son works. From this distance the people are just shadows, but there they are. The son among them. It’s not too late.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/dronepicr