Panama City

CHAPTER 1: Cleveland



Maybe I’ve been living in the jungle too long, or maybe it’s because I spend my life catering to anybody that comes through this dreary place we call The American Hotel. Or maybe it’s something I just can’t talk about right now. But anymore I’d just as soon walk away from here forever as not. I came here five years ago, and I still tell people I haven’t unpacked my bags, so that might tell you what I think of all this. Sure, I’m the boss here, you might say, but it’s nothing I’m proud of–this place was born a dump and always will be.

The money’s nothing, the few people I’ve met and liked don’t stay long, the climate’s murder, and the Savages are going to take the whole place back eventually anyway, no matter how tough the Americans or the Latinos think they are. That’s what I think.

But there are plenty of gringos already who think the place is theirs, and forever after will be–like this general sitting at the bar. He comes in every day, hangs around, I still can’t figure why. It’s not to drink, which he hardly does. It can’t be military business, since any official foreign military presence here is disallowed. And it can’t be gold, because he isn’t coming or going, which, since the gold rush started a year or so ago, is all I see anymore, people in a big hurry, impatient to be at the mines, or impatient to get their precious gold back home.

Or impatient to run away from a lot of bad memories in California. There’re lots of those last ones. So I don’t get much conversation these days, which has always been the only fun of it for me. But the general here is full of conversation, so I should be grateful, and would be moreso if he weren’t so predictable. But I can still have my fun. He’s been sitting here half an hour, and I can tell he’s become preoccupied with the drums that are banging in the distance. From experience I’d say the drummers are probably a mile or so from the hotel, out into the jungle that is everywhere beyond the great wall in ruins that faces west. The wall used to protect this little community, which is surrounded on its other three unassailable sides by the Pacific Ocean.

The natives have been at it for two days now, loud and wild, and the general’s still not used to it, I can tell. He’s beginning to get nervous, like everybody else. I got bored with his stock of opinions his first day here, which is why I’ve been entertaining myself today instead with reading the Panama Star, a little newspaper run by americanos that’s become the major cultural event of this godforsaken end of the universe.

Before I start my fun with the general, I might as well introduce the gnome over there sweeping. His name is Valentin. I’ve always assumed he incubated in a swamp and then got discovered when they excavated to make the foundation of this hotel, God only knows how long ago. He comes with the hotel. He was here when I got here, and if the devil has his way, he’ll be here long after. But I’ll just leave it at that about Valentin. It’s better if I don’t say much more about him right now.