No Problema

NO PROBLEMA
by
Dwight Hilson

As if a reflex he’d trained for years, Andy started to run. He offered no good-byes and bolted in full stride, south on the gravel road, the same direction they’d been traveling. He splashed through a small arroyo but maintained pace, following the road along a gentle, rising grade. Andy ran to the crest and stopped, bent over, panting. It wasn’t totally dark, yet when he looked back, no light or reflection betrayed where Keith lay. He sucked in air and looked ahead. The road melted into waves of treeless Patagonian mesas, rolling off between rising bluffs and valley streams toward a fading, orange horizon: a seamless expanse defined only by brightening stars and the numberless haystack shapes of the neneo bushes lining the road, their thorns hidden in the dusk.

How far to the estancia? Ten kilometers? Twenty?

Don’t think—just run.

Andy picked up speed on the downslope. A steady, throbbing ache grew on his shoulder, the shirt torn. Adrenaline must’ve masked the injury. He had hit the gravel hard, one twisted spin away from breaking his neck, but somehow stood up focused, knowing what to do. Wade had landed nearby, covered in crates and boxes from the back of the pickup. Amazing he wasn’t hurt; maybe being a hockey player helped him absorb the impact. Andy started to get his second wind and remembered he hadn’t asked Wade if he was all right—there hadn’t been time.

His sliding footsteps settled into rhythm, their scuffing projected only a few strides ahead. Andy maintained pace, running in a cocoon of his own sound, ignoring the vast surrounding silence. He was frightened, not least because of the instinctive clarity he had never felt before. That they needed help was obvious, less so was that Andy would need to find it: no one else could go.

Certainly not Orlando, the lodge foreman, who should have been driving; he wandered through the debris, dazed, mumbling, and lost, his indigestion a minor annoyance now. Wade needed to stay and take charge, keep his wits, and calm Andy’s mom, who trembled at Keith’s side, holding his hand. She wheezed in gasping breaths. Keith’s lanky writhing had eased, but the moaning deepened and his long, straight hair—normally tucked easily behind his ears—matted around his face in twisted, bloody clumps. A steady red stream seeped across his cheek. Andy’s mom tried to wipe his face, but the flow overwhelmed her bandanna. Droplets pooled and soon a rivulet of gas, leaking from the upturned pickup, merged with the blood and continued its darkened progress down the gravel roadbed. Even the dust smelled of gas.

Andy’s little sister staggered and vomited into a coiron bush.

He knew he had to run—toward the cattle ranch they would’ve passed on the way back to the fishing lodge. They’d noticed the entrance earlier that morning on the way to San Martin. He couldn’t be certain of the distance, a long way for sure: it had passed in a blur. Still, it had to be a shorter distance to find help than the empty miles they had driven before the accident.

Twilight dimmed. Soon stars would be the only light glowing over the empty mesas spilling off the Andean foothills.

Andy had gathered a few Spanish words and shouted at Orlando, “Donde esta la Estancia Quemquemtreo? Donde?”

The foreman looked back, answering with a low wail filled with failure, “Tranquera blanca. Tranquera blanca.”

Something white, something white. God, Andy wished he’d paid more attention in Spanish. His mom coughed words as if hearing his confusion. “White gate. It’s the white gate.”

Keith lay motionless in her arms.

Andy rushed further into the cooling twilight. His lungs no longer short-winded and for a few strides, his fear fell behind in the dust. He strained to see the road and wondered if he was running for help, or simply running away.

Don’t think, you idiot; just run.

***

Keith wasn’t even supposed to be on this trip. He invited himself after Andy made the offer down by the river after check-in: any friend could come to Argentina if they paid their own way (which wasn’t cheap; not that Andy had a clue). Thing was, Andy meant close friends and Keith didn’t qualify.

Keith was rich, however, and that was part of his problem. Midwest rich. Chicago rich to be exact, always trying to overcompensate for that “Second City” insecurity. His dad ran some huge advertising agency, and Keith acted like his town invented cool, an obvious façade to stay on par with the NYC kids who dominated school—one of those exaggerated boarding schools sending flocks of graduates to Harvard or Yale or Princeton, if they don’t get thrown out along the way.

Keith amused Andy with his rangy frame, ever-present Coke can, and Marlboro dangling as he talked; plus, his voice projected a deep resonance which grew in intensity as BS spewed forth faster than he could exhale. But Andy was one of those NYC kids and couldn’t understand why Keith felt so compelled to impress—he would’ve been accepted simply by having good weed.

Keith did have one special talent that no one else matched: he could fly single-engine planes—he got his pilot’s license at 15 (and no one could imagine sitting in the copilot’s seat with Keith at the controls). His special move was to rent a plane and buzz campus during big home games. He sure captured everyone’s attention with that maneuver.

Still, Keith wasn’t a consideration when Andy made his offer about Argentina. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t such a great idea to extend a blanket invitation to a bunch of guys passing around a bong.

***

Over another rise and Andy felt the first blisters on his heels and outside toes—Wallabees were just too soft for running.

But don’t slow down, forget the pain.

All that blood gushing from Keith’s mouth couldn’t have been a good sign; he showed no obvious cuts or gashes—it was all from inside.

The three of them had been riding in the back of the pickup, sitting on the spare tires, surrounded by boxes of supplies. And when Andy scraped himself off the gravel, all of it was spread across the road, Keith’s head wedged under the side of the upturned truck. He and Wade—somehow—pulled Keith out; relieved they saw no wounds. But as Keith groaned and curled, a trickle widened across his cheek and leaked onto the ground.

Andy’s dad had probably returned to the lodge after a hard day’s fishing, expecting to find everyone lounging fireside. He’d scoffed at the notion of giving up a day on the river to waste time haggling over unneeded wool rugs, guanaco ponchos, or maté cups; his annual obsession with trout clearly a higher priority. And anyway, Andy remembered his dad’s confession, how he felt cornered, only able to stare blankly ahead whenever riding in the same vehicle with his mom. He was sure she had her own side to the story and had come on this trip for appearance sake, not yet prepared to explain failure to a daughter too young to understand. Still, Andy accepted that his parents were more pleasant when apart and saw his mom brighten at the suggestion Orlando drive everyone into San Martin.

Wade had become familiar with the tension on numerous visits to Andy’s apartment, and together, they’d become practiced at avoiding either source. Riding in the back of the lodge pickup, alone and open to the breeze, felt like an antidote for any friction they’d ever known. Wade sat in the middle, almost as a buffer.

And when Andy started to run toward the dim horizon, he just said, “Hurry, man, hurry.”

***

They’d first met when Andy heard guys jamming from the rafters of the main school building, their freeform rendition of “Whipping Post” echoing across the quad. Wade was the drummer and switched tempo from the Allman Brothers to The Who effortlessly, his shoulder-length hair flying in rhythm (during weekend dances Wade was always one of the first to sneak out of the gym with nubile accompaniment). But they became friends over a favorite Todd Rundgren album (few others owned, let alone cranked up, A Wizard a True Star), and on his next visit home Andy discovered his dad actually managed Wade’s father’s money: strange how friendships transferred like contracts between generations.

They met in NYC on vacations and practiced bar hopping, not so much to get drunk or pick up girls—they were, after all, only 16—but rather to stay up all night and feel the exhilaration of watching dawn lighten city streets. Andy’s parents couldn’t have cared less; he avoided them as effectively as they avoided each other. His dad liked to complain about his mom’s allergies and mood swings and psychotic redecorating and how she blamed him for asthma attacks that started whenever he looked at her even slightly askew. Andy was pretty sure his mom wasn’t crazy, but sometimes wondered just what his father believed. They carried a lot of baggage: the only thing worse than their strained conversation was when they pretended nothing was wrong.

Of course, their medicine cabinets were always fully and conveniently stocked with Valiums and Libriums—in family-size bottles—and once in a while a vial of little, orange Seconals (even a gallon of coffee was no match for those bad boys).

Two weeks before their trip to Argentina, Andy and Wade shared a handful of pilfered extra-strength Valiums with Keith and together snuck out to the woods for a moonlit hike. Only Keith remembered how the evening ended, on hands and knees, crawling, out of sight, back to the dorms. But considering all the foliage brushed out of hair and dirt caked on blue jeans, Andy and Wade figured his recollection to be accurate.

***

The road made a sharp switchback on the hillside below, a shortcut to save time. Anything to save time.

Andy darted downhill, trying to maintain speed around the neneo bushes, massed like giant pincushions. The hillside was steep, and he lurched past the hazy mounds, each step a guess in the darkness. His legs raced with momentum and brushed against thorns, sending needle jolts through his jeans. He jerked his body from side to side, feet barely missing ancient roots waiting to tumble intruders headfirst into the tortuous plants. Andy leaned forward and tripped, his feet churning the air. He tensed for an onslaught of spines and raised hands toward his eyes before rolling, once again, onto the open road.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but the sky focused overhead and the Milky Way’s cloud of stars never looked clearer. Andy staggered upright. Dizzy and shaking, he resumed a jogging pace. So hard to see, but for some reason he felt reassured that the neneo bushes would keep him on the road; no more cutting corners, just find the white gate.

***

Andy started to hate coming home from school when his dad needed to vent. Those were vacation days, and he wanted to vegetate in front of the tube or hit the town, not listen to rationalizations for why 15 happy years turned into 7 of mistrust. Unfortunately, Andy was usually home when his dad trudged in from another day of shuffling people’s money at his desk in the Pan Am Building, and he’d start in right away with why it was his mom’s hormones that changed (not his, of course), or why Andy better to be careful when he wanted to get married. Hell, Andy had a few steps on the adolescent ladder to climb before writing that check: talking with girls was hard enough—sure, they wanted to get high, but afterward he could never come up with the right thing to say.

His dad seemed to need playing the trusted advisor, as if Andy couldn’t see through the manipulation. Andy imagined him sitting outside the lodge with a goblet of red wine, smoking a cigar (Cuban, no doubt), and annoyed that dinner would be late. His dad was alone too, and Andy pictured his inconvenience soon changing to concern. But even if he suspected trouble, there wasn’t a phone to alert the cavalry.

At the summit of every rise, Andy’s heart rate rose in anticipation of finding the white gate, tranquera blanca. He imagined the pale, ghostly structure would absorb the starlight and project its location, much as a beacon. But he saw nothing but hazy undulations and an infinite sweep of stars, all of little use.

He lost track of how long he’d been running. Longer than he ever ran before, certainly, and the moonless night played tricks, or was he going into shock? His feet throbbed, but Andy thought his wounds petty compared to Keith’s.

Concentrate. Keep the pace.

***

Three days into the trip, Andy had suggested a rafting trip. Simple concept: take an inflatable raft five miles upstream to the lodge’s property boundary; bring fruit, bread, dulce de leche, and a thermos of rum, then float all day, bouncing off river rocks, lazing in the sun until Orlando reeled them in downstream.

Keith joked that some of those colorful little pills might enhance the excursion, but when only a handful—too few to swipe undetected—were found in Andy’s parents’ toiletry bags, Keith offered an audacious solution: he would feign epilepsy, his medication misplaced before departure. Keith knew everything about the ailment and embellished his pitch with an impassioned story about flying over the late semester field games, knowing he would be grounded after reporting his illness.

Phenobarbitals would do the trick, 3% his regular prescription.

Andy’s mom bought the whole deal and dispatched Orlando in a panic to hunt down the drugs.

Keith said that two pills gave a buzz, but six might do the trick, so they guzzled them out of sight before jumping in the truck bed to ride upriver.

Andy unfolded the raft and began rhythmic steps on the foot pump. The effects began in waves—like sheer curtains unfolding in slow motion. Each step sent new pulses, melting along shoulders, rolling down arms; his skin tingled, and he swayed with every movement. They watched, mesmerized, the raft growing and firming, the sunshine raising unfelt sweat beads, the river’s cascade rushing through their ears, pulling senses into the surging foam—no way to stop.

A jolting report ripped through their trance, the raft collapsing in a hissing rush.

They stood paralyzed, speechless, unable to disguise slurred words and creased eyelids, and Andy wished—more than anything in his life—to reverse time. He looked down and saw his foot, a foot he couldn’t feel, continuing to pump air into the limp, useless raft.

***

The road descended into a narrow, hollow valley, twisted around three curves, and crossed a small stream. Andy stopped. A slender gap appeared on his right in the darkness; he felt wheel ruts indented in the gravel. Neneo bushes towered on either side, appearing as a rounded, shadowy gateway, and past them, almost hidden from the road, Andy realized a geometric consistency. He tried to focus through the dimness and wandered toward the object: a gate, perhaps white but weathered and near camouflaged from sight.

He reached out, feeling the peeled wood, and hesitated. Was this the white gate? The night hid any color. Andy fought for memories of other gates that might have sped by in a blur earlier in the morning.

He had run for so long. His sweat started to cool. Keith could be—he had to decide.

A fist-sized padlock secured the rusted chain linking through the gate. Andy climbed the wrinkled slats, his blisters exploding with every step. His legs cramped as he swung them over the topmost board and crumbled on the other side. The path ahead was half as wide as the main road and wrinkled from wheels sinking into the mud left over from afternoon showers. Andy stumbled over the furrows, concentrating to remain upright.

How long could someone live with internal wounds anyway? It must’ve been the tires. They sat on the tires. All the supplies were at their feet. Only the spares tires could’ve crushed Keith’s skinny chest.

Stop thinking, please. Just move.

***

They had argued two days earlier. More precisely, Andy and Keith had argued—about girls, no less—on their return from another failed adventure. With shouldered backpacks they hiked up a narrow canyon to a confluence of small streams, intent to camp overnight, and then continue up to the snow-capped summit anchoring the property’s western reach, where views of the high Andes would stretch north and south, as far as they could see. Descent would follow the southern flank, camping one more night in a broad-leaf forest, visible as a lonesome green patch from the lodge’s front porch.

Wade and Keith erected a tent streamside, near a haggard sheep-herding corral, bantering nonstop over their quixotic romances. Andy sat apart, boiling water over an open fire for a dinner of noodles and canned cheese. If half of their stories were true, they’d qualify for the nooky hall of fame. Still, they were amusing, and Andy wished he had real stories to contribute. He chuckled, distracted from straining the pot over the stream, and too late adjusted his grip: Andy watched, helpless, as the limp noodles followed the pot into the rushing water.

Wade was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

And Keith erupted, “Christ, man. You weren’t even wasted this time.”

There was nothing to say. Leading adventures on the opposite side of the Earth was supposed to be his domain, and certainly more tangible than his compatriots’ bluster, but the criticism stung. Andy would’ve run back to the lodge for more supplies, if viable, and for the first time considered that this vacation was all a mistake. Worse still, the stories of his incompetence would be repeated to howls back at school. Maybe the trip would’ve gone smoother with just Wade.

Andy cooked the freeze-dried stew originally carried for the following night and ate in silence, separated from Wade and Keith’s easy joking.

Even in March, the end of the Andean summer, weather was hard to predict. The lodge awoke to cool, royal-blue skies, but up canyon near six inches of snow blanketed Andy’s tent. As they withdrew down the trail, their waterlogged packs soaked shirts and dripped on their legs—it seemed to Andy his friends blamed him for the weather too.

Keith couldn’t resist chipping away at Andy’s sensitivity. “Man, I hope you’re better with chicks than leading expeditions.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Hey, you’ll never get laid when these stories reach Miss Porter’s.”

“Who says I’ve never gotten laid?”

“Shit, I heard how Daphne stood you up for Casino Night. Christ, I would’ve asked her myself if I knew you’d chicken out.”

Andy was incensed, and Wade offered no assistance; he drifted back, perhaps recognizing that taking sides was a no-win proposition. “That’s bullshit. I did call, and her roommate said she was coming.”

“Yeah, that’s why you were left standing holding your dick when she wasn’t on the bus.”

“Since when are you such an expert on girls?”

“Well, I know you gotta talk to them if you want a date.”

***

Andy’s legs weakened on another long incline, no longer able to maintain a steady jog. With each step his feet rebelled; where was the damn estancia? He never felt more alone and wondered if the vast stillness harbored a drug-induced nightmare, one entwined with sensations of pain and truth. But Andy remembered waking before dawn, remembered climbing into the truck bed, and remembered Wade sitting in the middle.

The ride into San Martin passed bumpy and uneventful. They explored the imitation Bavarian town, often mocking the heavy German accents spoken by what had to be one-time Nazi sympathizers. After he loaded the truck bed with cartons and crates of supplies for the return trip, Orlando looked gray, sweat ringing his armpits.

Andy’s mom offered to drive.

At least this day had unfolded as planned, and as they bounced on their spare-tire seats, Andy pulled a bottle of vodka from the lodge supplies. Maybe a good buzz would reinforce his position after all. They took turns downing shots, careful to shield their motions from the front cab window. The sky slid toward evening magenta as the alcohol softened bumps and memories of insults evaporated.

Keith volunteered to lead an expedition to Miss Porter’s when they returned to school and they toasted the prospect. Wade vowed he’d get everyone laid—whether virgins or not—and Andy let his initial pang of resentment drift away in the swirling backwash behind the truck cab.

They hit a sudden, sharp bump, the truck skidded sideways, and the hurtling landscape distorted skyward. Andy’s back slammed into the back of the cab and his arms flailed out of control. His body twirled, weightless in a blurred cyclone. Pain slammed through his shoulder and when Andy could breathe again, he only tasted dust.

***

At the top of the ridge, Andy was too tired to notice a broad valley floor with clusters of poplar trees just darker than the surrounding bushy range. He picked up his pace on the downgrade and saw sparkles within the valley, like stars overlapping the horizon. Andy stumbled sideways and scraped against naneo thorns. The pain cleared double vision. They were lights, unmistakable clusters of lights, flickering through the leaves of tall poplar trees.

Adrenaline rushed Andy forward, shouting as he ran. The lights were distant, but he kept yelling, unconcerned that the light breeze absorbed any sound. His ears pounded with each step, and he imagined he was crying but felt no tears. On the valley bottom, his voice echoed around him, and he ran faster still.

The estancia was large, but there was no movement. The workers had to be asleep; what time was it anyway? And he needed to remember more Spanish. Andy rehearsed an explanation, “Nuestro coche esta en un accidente. Por favor, vamanos a—” Damn, he needed to slow down, clear his thoughts; there was no time.

Andy reached the corrals first, empty and blocking his route toward a string of low-slung buildings, each with lights casting shadows onto their green metal roofs. The odor of large animals and manure seemed oddly comforting. He scrambled through fence rails and stumbled over clumps of dried mud and dung before reaching the first row of towering poplar trees protecting the main buildings; their red brick walls glowed orange in the floodlights.
Andy banged on doors and windows, yelling his rehearsed line, “Soccoro! Soccoro! Es una emergencia!”

No response. He screamed at three buildings, fearing the workers all out with their herds, then saw a lone window, illuminated from within. Andy pounded on the door and yelled again, “Soccoro!”

The door creaked open and a gray, crevassed face peered out from the crack. Andy struggled with his prepared plea when the man interrupted, “Whoa, pardner. Calm down, calm down.”

He spoke English (later telling Andy he was a Texan, retired way south to help breed ponies), and within minutes bodies and vehicles erupted throughout the estancia. Andy slumped in the front seat of another truck, hurtling back down the road where his footprints would be filled behind this caravan of tires and headlights projecting through the bushes.

Rise after rise passed by in the coal-black night, until Andy saw a distant orange fire and shadows waving near the pickup, still balanced on its side. The debris was stacked neatly by the roadside and nearby lay a tarp-wrapped form, flat beside the truck.

Wade ran up, bursting with relief. “I knew you’d do it.” But Andy stared at the motionless form, too tired to feel anything.

Wade touched his arm and said, “He didn’t make it, man.” And from the corner of his eye, Andy saw Wade hurry to the side of the road and throw up in the bushes.

Andy’s mom embraced him, so tight he never forgot the touch of her curves, nor her trembling, even worse than hours before. She stammered, trying to explain, “The brakes just locked. We hit a small bump, and when I touched the brakes, I don’t know what happened—they just locked.”

She let go of Andy and looked toward Keith’s body, her voice breaking. “We held him over an hour. He stopped bleeding and didn’t move, but he felt warm and we couldn’t let him go. We just couldn’t let him go.”

***

Andy’s father met them in San Martin the next day. The medical examiner ruled an accident, but a judge declared fees must be paid before a foreigner could leave after a fatal accident; no telling all the pockets awaiting that bounty.

A mechanic crawled under the pickup, towed into San Martin the morning after the accident. He tested all the operating functions and told Orlando the brakes worked perfectly, “No problema.” Other than a few scratches on the driver’s side, the truck appeared as before, and sat, gassed and ready to ferry everyone to the small airport outside town. Vacation over.

They waited in a hotel lounge as arrangements were finalized. A phone rang at the front desk, and the manager waved and pointed to an extension on a nearby table. Andy’s dad glanced toward the phone, his expression hardened. “Can you all leave me alone? That’s Keith’s parents.” Andy’s mom grasped his sister’s hand and retreated to the front lobby.

Andy and Wade poured drinks in the empty bar. The next week would bring a meeting with Keith’s family and their lawyers, then a memorial in Chicago, and another back in school, and they lost count how many times the story would be repeated. But as they nursed drinks, trying cognac for the first time, Andy remembered something that he would never tell his mom, even after she remarried and moved to a different time zone, or his dad, even when he worked on his third marriage and would tell the story how his first wife “killed that boy in Argentina.”

The two boys stared at their reflection in the bar mirror behind a row of colored bottles. “Wade, do you remember when we got in the truck yesterday to head back to the ranch? I don’t know why I blocked it out, but I changed seats with Keith. No real reason. I just said, ‘Let’s change places.’ He didn’t argue at all.”

THE END