No Lasting Trace
“Vince,” my boss had called me into his office, “congratulations, you made Senior Vice President.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Take a week off and celebrate. That’s an order.”
With whom? Ambition had fitted me with emotional blinders. I was forty-five, dark, with looks that, occasionally, females found attractive. I left my only steady mistress, Horizon Hedge Funds in Manhattan and flew to Cusco, Peru.
I day-traded the canyons of Wall Street for the treacherous Incan trail with seventy pounds of tent, food, and gear on my back. My first day of trekking in the Andes taught me that three seasons could pass in an hour. Raingear on top, I dressed in multiple layers, like a hobo wearing all his clothes. Climbing at altitude, I gasped like an asthmatic in a sandstorm. Days scampering up craggy ridges and nights of solitude gave me time to reflect on life. Mr. Senior Vice President. While I’d lusted after achievement, the quest trumped the fact, and reality tasted like flat champagne. Whom had I loved? Who loved me? My existence had been a finger thrust into the river. No lasting trace.
Like a gold seam in a mountain of granite, Machu Picchu glinted in the sunlight, enveloped by towering peaks dotted with cumulus clouds that rolled through the sky like an ice floe. Emerald green and stone gray, the Incan Emperor, Pachacuti’s terraced retreat lorded over the churning Urubamba River, a snaking glacial flow. The Alexander of his people, the site represented Pachacuti’s legacy, a testament to the glorious Peruvian empire that rose and fell within a lightning flash of human history.
I arrived at the settlement. Stumbling like a drunk from exhaustion, I shed my clothing layers like a cocoon and washed off grimy sweat in the same spring that once bathed Pachacuti.
Leaving Machu Picchu, I boarded a 1960-vintage bus that careened down the mountain’s hairpin turns at forty kilometers per hour. In two-way traffic, brown and green buses played chicken on cliff-edge, rock-slide, rutted dirt roads in a driving rain. My fingernails dug into sweaty palms as I imagined dying alone in a Hollywood, disaster movie style crash.
Arriving at the railroad station without having regurgitated my beef jerky breakfast, I boarded the tortoise-speed train back to Cusco. Along the jungle-like route, we stopped at a crossing. From a corrugated, rusted steel shack, limped a wizened, toothless, stooped, old woman, a look of dignified pain on her face. She wore a white fedora signaling a drop of Spanish blood distinguishing an Incan lineage. She clutched a bunch of wildflowers, offering to sell them to the train’s passengers. As I rummaged inside my backpack for a few Peruvian soles, a bright, dark-haired girl of about ten appeared with a second bouquet in her tiny brown fist.
A movie played in my brain where the girl of ten morphed into the time-ravaged older woman. The child’s destiny struck my heart. Could I change her fate? Using my primitive Spanish, I’d appeal to the grandmother. Offer to adopt the girl. Put her in school. Provide her advantages.
The prospect quickened my pulse. Meaning to my life, and an heir. Take the child from her family? Reality deadened my enthusiasm. The grandmother would view my approach as strange at best, perverted at worse. I shook my head.
While Pygmalion thoughts rattled inside my skull, the train pulled away. Too late for me to even buy their flowers.
At the next stop, I sprang toward the doors as they opened, then hung, suspended, until they slid closed. The image of the child was engraved into my psyche and preoccupied me for the remaining journey back to Cusco, on the plane to Lima, and on the overnight, restless-sleep return flight to New York. A deep sense of loss from something I never had. Where was my vaunted logic? Ridiculous, I told myself. Yet, I spun in an emotional whirlpool.
I showered at my Manhattan West Side apartment, then grabbed a taxi to my Wall Street office.
My boss welcomed me with arms wide. “My gladiator.” He announced to the traders. “Vince is back. Let the games begin.”
In my absence, client voice messages, texts, and emails had amassed sufficient to constipate an elephant. While I scythed through the backlog, the other half of my brain carried out the necessary straddles, hedges, puts, and calls of my profession with perfunctory ease. As if I’d never tromped to Machu Picchu, or seen the child, my butt reacquired the saddle. Work crowded out other thoughts.
By 3.15 p.m., my airplane night’s sleep grabbed me by the eyes and had me jonesing for a java fix, so when the coffee-cart appeared on the other side of my glass wall, I sprang from my padded office chair.
The coffee-cart girl was new, Elena, her name tag said, brown-skin, flat features, not pretty, young with a hopeful smile.
“Coffee, black. Por favor.”
“Where are you from?”
“Rosario. Mexico. I’m here more than one year.”
“Your English is excellent.”
Shyly, her eyes broke contact with mine.
I asked, “Do you have any flowers?”
Elena’s eyes widened.
“Never mind,” I said.
“Your coffee. Señor.”
I opened my wallet, grabbing all the cash, and stuffed the wad into her tip-jar.
Elena gasped out, “Gracias,” to my back.
“Por nada.” I returned to my barren mistress.
About the Author
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, now live in Texas. Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage: An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions in 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL: An Anthony Provati Thriller was published by HSE in 2017. Joe was among one hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan, Columbus Day Parade. Read the first chapters of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/