The bulbous toes spilling over the flip-flops looked like over-cooked sausages frying in the sun. Beads of sweat glistened from each as they burrowed into the sand, straining not only to support the weight atop them, but also to guide it toward the beach chair which was in imminent danger of total destruction.
There were beautiful, bronzed bodies scattered along the wave-caressed beach, but Ernesto Abrigon's was not one of them. At three hundred sixty-two pounds, covered only in a Speedo and straw sombrero, the heads he turned were more in disbelief than envy. People were not used to seeing that much leathery flesh trudging seaward on only two legs.
Ernesto however, was oblivious to the smirking glances of the sun seekers and the creaking moans of the wood and canvas chair he lowered himself into near the water's edge. He had other things on his mind. Not the least of which was the gluttonous pleasure he had enjoyed the night before. Specifically, the dark bronze breasts he had licked guacamole from. The round, bare buttocks he had balanced his Margaritas on. The soft, supple hands that had cupped his manhood while lilting voices spoke in awe of his prowess. And why shouldn't they? They were paid handsomely to do so. But hang the cost. What difference did that make? What was money to a man like Ernesto Abrigon. Especially now.
The doctor had been clinically dispassionate. He used no euphemisms. Gave no sympathy. He simply laid out the sobering, unvarnished truth. Ernesto had pancreatic cancer. It was inoperable. He would suffer a particularly ignoble and excruciating death unless he was willing to spend his last days in the hospital, virtually comatose, adrift in a sea of drugs that would blunt his pain but blacken his consciousness.
Without a word to anyone, Ernesto left for the coast the next day. There were no relatives to inform. They had long since stopped trying to keep in touch with one who made it plain he had no interest in familial obligations. There was no one he wanted to leave anything to. Ernesto looked at it this way. If the penance for his sins was to rot from the inside, he was more than happy to let everything he had rot along with him. Such as the hacienda he had acquired by ruthlessly foreclosing on the hapless rancher who couldn't pay his debts. The livestock he drove relentlessly, underfed, then fattened with water and grain just prior to selling. The poverty-stricken peasants who barely scratched out a living, toiling day and night in Ernesto's fields with little appreciation and even less compensation. Let the ungrateful rabble fend for themselves, he thought. Let the people and the cattle and the land itself go back to the dust and desolation from whence it came.
Ernesto, while never an ardent reader, had read somewhere that drowning was actually a kinder end than most people imagined. And there seemed a romanticism to it that had been sorely lacking in his days as rancher, land owner or jeffe, as his frightened underlings called him. Drowning seemed noble, Ernesto thought. Drowning was worthy of his character and station in life. It would be obvious to all that the great man had decided to leave this life as he lived it. Under his own terms.
Ernesto had spent the last three days drinking and whoring. Now his libido was gone and he knew it was time for him to go too. As he sat in the chair, now perilously close to collapsing, he heard two young boys laughing as they rolled a huge inner tube along the shore line. Planting his massive fists in the sand, he pushed his prodigious bulk out of the chair and stood square in their path. The boys froze as their inner tube rolled ahead of them, bumped into Ernesto and spiraled to a stop at his feet. He kept his eyes fixed on theirs as he reached down with his left hand and picked up the inner tube. Then, still staring at them, his right hand reached inside his tiny swimsuit and retrieved a fistful of bills. The boys were more than happy to sell their inner tube for so many pesos. They giggled and ran away laughing, holding the soggy bills with the fingertips of one hand and their noses with the other.
Ernesto realized the tide was going out. And he knew it was time to go with it. Leaving his flip-flops in the sand, he waddled into the surf until he was knee deep. Then he began to wedge his enormous derrière into the center of the tube, letting his meaty arms and legs dangle outside. Paddling slowly, rising and falling, he traversed the incoming waves again and again. Others, frolicking in the foamy waters, paid no attention to the formerly beached whale as he drifted farther and farther from shore.
The warmth of the setting sun and the gently rocking motion of the sea soon lulled Ernesto into a deep sleep. Swift currents did the rest. And as he snored, the sea continued to separate him from the last vestiges of human contact.
The sun had set before Ernesto's eyelids rose and revealed a world of darkness. No horizon. Only the lift and fall of the waves. The end has begun he thought. I need a nip to take away the chill. Lifting his gigantic belly with his left hand, his right pulled out a half-pint of Cuervo Gold he had wedged into his lap before embarking on this final voyage. The tequila took the edge off. So he had another, and another as he floated and listened to the gentle rolling of the waves.
An hour and most of the bottle later, Ernesto was ready. He knew that all he had to do was leave the inner tube. Eventually his arms and legs would tire and he could slip into the deepest sleep he had ever known. It would be the sleep he himself had chosen.
As he was about to squeeze out of his bobbing rubber float, something made him stop. A sound. A kind of beeping. He looked around. Nothing. No boat. No ship. No buoy. Nothing. But still the beeping continued. Almost in his ear. Then he remembered.
Reaching up, he pulled his tiny cell phone from the headband of his sombrero, put there before walking to the beach.
"Hello," Ernesto said.
"Thank heaven we've found you. We've been trying to reach you for days. This is nurse Ramirez. From Doctor Esparza's office."
"There was a terrible mistake. Somehow your records got mixed up with another patient's. You don't have cancer."
"I'm not going to die?"
"No. It was a big mis–"
Silence. Ernesto looked at his phone. There was no signal. The battery was dead.
"I'm not going to die," he said to himself. "I'm not going to die."
Laughter chased the words from his mouth as he grabbed the brim of his hat and tossed it joyously into the air. "I'm not going to die!" he cackled. "I'm not."
The hat landed in the valley between the waves where he floated. Ernesto put his head back and gazed at the clouds moving across the sky. They revealed a hidden moon, shining now just for him, he thought. He took another swig from his Cuervo, draining the bottle.
When he looked back where his hat had landed, something seemed odd. It was still floating, but it wasn't alone. Something was floating beside it. Something that rose from the water like the crown of his hat. Could it be another sombrero, Ernesto wondered.
Another hat in the water so close to his own? It looked like the crown of a hat. But shapes in the moonlight are deceiving. Shapes silhouetted by passing clouds and expensive tequila.
Ernesto brought the Cuervo to his lips, then realizing it was empty, tossed the bottle at what he thought was the second sombrero. It jerked and slithered away.
His mind and mouth not quite in sync, he began to speak again, "I'm not..."
But he left his sentence unfinished as the movement of the water turned him round and he realized he was now encircled by sombreros. Sombreros that were closing in.
A chill ran through Ernesto Abrigon. A chill that shivered him to the bone.
His mind began to leap about. He saw himself back in the doctor's office and remembered the feeling of hopelessness he had when he was told his disease would be fatal. His thoughts then catapulted to the defiance he mustered when he decided to escape his fate and die in a manner of his own choosing. His brain then raced to how he had felt only moments ago when he learned he wasn't going to die after all.
But then reality gripped him like the jaws of a primordial predator. The bluster and bravado and the belief he always had in himself sank to the center of his soul as he looked upon the vast, black emptiness. Empty, save for the circle tightening around him.
It was now all too chillingly clear. This time there would be no mistake. There would be no reprieve. El jeffe was no longer in charge. Ernesto Abrigon would not decide for himself how he was to leave the world. This diagnosis...this penance, came from a higher authority.
BIO: Joe Kilgore is an award-winning veteran of the advertising business who has plied his trade around the world. Recently, he has turned to fiction (as if advertising wasn't) and penned short stories that have been published in Writers' Journal, The Creative Writer, RambleUnderground.org, and Moonlight Mesa, as well as one published novel, The Blunder. You can learn more about Joe at his website: www.joekilgore.com