Beach Rat

Beach Rat

Eloy unfolded a bronze etching wrapped in cloth. From the grooves, I could see a figure wearing a sanitary mask, spine straight and settled over a doctor’s chair in an examination room. The name of the local health clinic written on the bottom. While the bronze warmed over the hot plate, Eloy showed me other etchings. His grandmother stretched over a bed. A withering frame, a floating tray, a stick finger grasping at the air. Another one displaying his naked friends, limbs knotted to limbs.

We weren’t alone in the studio he’d driven us to in the next town over: lanky kids from la autónoma with red spots across their faces tilted their heads up from the wood and bronze and limestone they carved into as he led me to the most private corner, his hand—the roughest palm I’d ever touched—laced into mine.

We’d met only a week ago on the beach. The town was mostly just beach. I had come into a little money from Tía Dyna’s death, and had decided to finish my dissertation here until not a penny to my name was left. One morning in, and Eloy sat beside me on the worn beach chairs one could rent for the entire day for just a buck. He offered me a pilsner. I accepted.

Now, he was teaching me about the inks and acids, the techniques to pull the color, the blotting, the talc he dug the heel of his palm to, and he ran his hand over and over the bronze, and I thought he deserved everything in the world. It was the most generous feeling I’d ever experienced; I wasn’t usually a good person, I thought, not one who thought selfless things like this, and I felt my cheeks grow hot. But, watching him, I did want him to get from life what he desired. Eloy deserved that, and more. He ran the end of his palm again until it knocked into his other hand draped in a piece of cloth splattered now in ink.

Do you want to try? Eloy said. He held my hand, hammered the palm down into the tub of talc, and together we made swipes at the bronze plate. The ink vanished little by little. I think that’s good, Eloy said. When he ran the plate through the press and the print was done, Eloy asked me if I liked it. I did, but I could see that he didn’t. Do you like it? I said.

With his pinkie, he pointed out the mistakes. The background was not cream-cream, not the color of the paper itself. It should be closer to that, he said. He then ran his finger over a thick line. This had been a mistake in the etching process which he’d have to fix. I considered these mistakes; the print still looked good to me. And I thought of the empty walls of the hostel room I’d been renting. Selfishly, I hoped he’d offer me the trash print.

I asked him what he’d do next. He said he’d take the proof and use it as a reference to improve upon the bronze plate. He then grabbed me by the hand and led me to the photography studio upstairs. He arranged me on a chair, a white curtain draped behind, and he snapped photos from the camera that dangled from his neck. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had taken a photo of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had allowed someone to.


Eloy showed me what he called, simply, “the community” next. The cabins made of bright pine that dipped into the foot of the rolling green hills. The dusty clearing from which volleyball nets sprung. The center with the thrifted appliances that left flakes of rust in their dragged trail.

He told me it was all just temporary. That this experiment in arcadia had slowly become simply an exercise in exhaustion. Days spent on the farm, where they tilled, pulled, packed giant carrots into wicker baskets for vegetable soup. Turnips and potatoes and onions too. When they couldn’t bring pickaxe to hard ground any longer, they stretched over dirt, baked under blazing sun. On the other end of the property they plucked coffee fruit, filled large vats. They sold bags of whole beans at the market every week. Every week they set up stalls, bartered with the locals until they drove back in the ‘94 Ford Ranger from which dark fumes tumbled into the sky in stocky pillars, the trunk still with its stacks of produce. In stolen time they swam underwater, underneath waterfalls. In managed time they crowded dark huts with their damp bodies, taking in the ceremony. Cracked mugs topped with lemon, honey, mushrooms. They awoke exhausted, “renewed.” Sleep-rumpled, eyes like fresh bruises, they cooked breakfast for the masses. Muesli and eggs and fresh orange juice and toast too. By afternoon, they swung from branch to branch of the mango tree, letting the ground fill itself with the thud of fruits bowling downhill. They fell against each other, into each other, bodies knocking on bodies. They spread, they sprawled, golden flesh filling horizons. They were sore from all of it. The farmwork. The bodywork. The mindwork. Not to mention the jungle. It was fetid and soggy, impenetrable and green. They sat along the menacing edges, peering past its spindly walls, wondering what stood beyond. The capital, sure. But what else? Panthers black as night, anacondas the lengths of small ships, jumping spiders spewing venoms. If they walked far enough, whacking slapping fronds with dulled machetes, they’d eventually find their parents. But none of them had wanted that. Life here, he thought, with Albie, was at least somewhat better.

It was Albie who had founded the community, drawing them in from rest stops. Naive backpackers curving down the Pan-American Highway. The chance to live off the land was too good an opportunity to pass up. That they would take small doses every other day hadn’t seemed alarming then. The larger doses come weekend, too. But the months passed in a state of neverending hardship. They weren’t farmers, none of them were. They hadn’t initially thought it foolish to make a profit from their wares, relying on bartering only if need be. But they rarely left the market with some dent to life’s many challenges, and they didn’t have cash for basic necessities either. Petty shoplifting was not uncommon. Swiping credit cards from tourists in town, too. What other choice do we have? Eloy said.

I told him I understood.

Eloy kissed me, then led me to his cabin. The jungle hummed outside.

Later, in my room, I stared at my computer screen. Rather than work on my dissertation that was vaguely an investigation into Carole Maso’s oeuvre and its influence on contemporary literature, I began writing about Eloy. The smidgen of a feeling that was a lot like love that had spread inside me in only a matter of days. The community.

Albie, too, who I hadn’t yet met.


Morgana called me a beach rat. It was true; so far, I’d spent my days stretched alone across chairs by the sea, doing nothing, or with Eloy, doing nothing. All I had written so far was what had come to me the evening before. It wasn’t fiction, but it wasn’t not fiction either.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, I said.

But you’re drinking the lemonade too fast, Morgana said.

We were wrapped in hammocks, swinging in the hostel’s courtyard. Morgana was German-born, but had spent her twenties backpacking across Latin America. She settled here only when she got married to Juan Daniel, the two of them opening up a hostel out of the home his dead parents had left behind. He was a surfer, always out on the water. I called him a beach rat too. I guess there’s a reason people end up here, she said.

I asked her what she knew about the community.

She said, They’re not very successful at the market.

And Albie? The owner, the leader.

Oh, she said. I think he’s a pervert. Always trying to get them into orgies and stuff. I’ve been around free love all my life, but there are lines one doesn’t cross.


I don’t know that word, coercion. She shrugged and returned to the socks she’d been knitting since we first met. I thought of other words as she unspooled wool—fear, intimidation—before she worried at the web of lavender with her fingers.


I was being a beach rat when my phone buzzed. Sporadically, I picked up wi-fi from one of the bars along the coast. My mother asked me how I was liking the homeland. I told her it was good. She asked me when I planned to see Tía Leza and her sons. I told her I hadn’t planned that far ahead.

You have to see them, she said. My sister left you all that money. It would be unforgivable to the others if you didn’t show your face.

I don’t know why she left me anything at all.

My mother sucked her teeth. I said, I’m grateful, of course. I just can’t even remember the last time she saw me. Isn’t that weird to you?

No, she said. You were her favorite, and she always admired your decisions. Going back to school. Writing those little articles. Even if none of us understand them. You took the chances she was always afraid to take.

Did she want to be an academic?

She wanted a life outside of what was expected of her, she said.

Then: What were your cousins going to do with money like that? Spend it betting on cock fights? My mother said this and I thought of how I wasn’t spending it much differently. My costs were just as frivolous. In some ways, they were actually worse—I already had a steady enough income through the university, health insurance, shelter, essentials my cousins didn’t necessarily have on their own. That I was here at all was a privilege. And when I asked my mother if she thought Tía Dyna had been gay too, the line went cold.

Eloy sank into the chair beside mine. I told him I’d lost connection. A bucket of beer bottles drowned in ice hung from his fingers. He handed one over—we clinked and we drank.

At night, he followed me to the hostel. He had to wake early because he was on breakfast duty, so we were quick into arranging ourselves over the mattress made of straw. Peeling away at our clothes. Falling into each other’s arms. He smelled of dirt, he smelled of feed. Sand fell from his locks of golden hair. I knew I smelled of a body drenched in beach. I don’t think either of us cared. From the courtyard, Morgana flicked at the strings of her banjo.


I was being a beach rat when a stranger the next day asked me if I was Eloy’s friend. From his tanned and sinewy body, his worn leather sandals, his cotton tie-dye shorts, I assumed he was part of the community. I told the man yes. He said, Eloy’s in jail.

He’d been caught pinching a tourist’s wallet. And because Eloy was American, it wasn’t so difficult to have him released. On the streets, his eyes were downcast. Are things so desperate? I said.

He’s trapped us, can’t you see that?

You need to leave, I said.

I sometimes forget how young you are, he said. It isn’t so simple. I can’t go anywhere without money.

I told him we were the same age.

He said, I wouldn’t even know where to go for that matter.

We’re the same age, I said again.

But you haven’t lived. This isn’t the library. The quad. We aren’t sitting in fucking study carrels. It’s life and death here. Won’t you see that?

I didn’t think it was a matter of life and death, but I didn’t say this. I asked him instead if his family couldn’t help. Not everyone has relatives like yours, he said, and he gnawed at his grit-coated thumb until blood ran from its edges. I fell silent. In the conversations we’d had, his family didn’t sound so awful, and so I was confused. He flicked his thumb so droplets of blood splattered against the dusty ground and then he stared at the sun. I slowed at a cart selling bags of green mango smothered in lime, salt, hot sauce. When I turned, Eloy was gone.


Days passed without seeing Eloy. I spread myself across beach chairs, waiting for his sun-kissed figure to show with a bucket of beer. He never did.

Smoke rose from the hills one morning while I was at the beach. A gut feeling told me it was coming from the community. I hailed a mototaxi and navigated the driver into the tangled knolls beyond the sea. He dropped me off at a bend where smoke lifted in sheets. I can’t go any further, he said, and so I cut through the trail until I reached the entrance.

It was burning. The cabins made of pine. The community center. The volleyball court. All of it was burning, sucked into a heavy, gray haze. The plastic netting whined, whittled itself into a stack of molted nothing. Embers spurted into the air in muted clonks. I covered my face, waiting—for what?

What other choice did we have? the person beside me said. I pray that Albie is only ash. That we can finally return to life. He said this and reached for his neighbor’s hands. Pressed tight, so tight. All of them, bowing their heads down. They had cast the fire over him. They had heard him scream.

I was shaking when I returned to the hostel.

In my room, I waited for Eloy to arrive. He never did.

It didn’t occur to me until the morning after to check my backpack. And when I did, I found a credit card had been taken.

I waited until the afternoon to call my bank; I thought maybe he needed the money more than I did.


Morgana made margaritas in a blender she’d set-up in the hostel’s courtyard. Stinky backpackers spotted the floor, fresh from some new adventure, dreadlocks arranged into nests above their heads. She had yet to properly grill me over Eloy; I knew it was coming.

I was on my second glass when she did finally sidle herself beside me with a frown. You’ll hear from him, she said. He’ll apologize.

I’m not so mad, I said. Can you believe that? I don’t even know if I’m disappointed. I’m not even surprised. I guess I just wish he’d have asked me for help rather than steal from me.

And how do you feel about the attempted murder part?

We don’t know the facts, I said.

They were banking on that man to still be inside. They wanted him dead.

Haven’t you ever wished for someone’s death?

Morgana stared at me. No, she said. I haven’t ever.

Then: Did you wish for your aunt’s death? I can see why death is no big thing for you. It’s a miracle-bearer. I don’t wish for anyone to die.

I told her the only reason she even had a business was because of death.

You’re so young, she said. How’s the book?

The room was spinning when I abandoned the party. It took me a moment to notice what I had missed before. Leaning against the wall was one of Eloy’s prints. It was the image I’d seen him working on in the studio. Only, this time, the mistakes were gone. The color of the paper shone through. The thick line was now thin like the others. I ran my finger over the frame. Perhaps, I thought, it was equal to the money he’d stolen.


I was being a beach rat when a figure rose through the throng of bodies pushing down the coastline. He was hunched, his face covered in bandages from which fluids seeped. He stopped at the beer shack, sinking into a stool facing the sea. I took my empty pail and I sat beside him.

Do you surf? I asked.

Do I look like I surf? he said.

What gets you going then?

I believed in people once upon a time. We hold so much power. The universe is ours. But I’m coming to believe we’re all just selfish shells of something that was once great but isn’t any longer.

I don’t know a single person who isn’t pursuing their own agenda at any given time.

What’s your agenda? he asked.

I’m here to get to know you.

You’re a beach rat.

I’m here to write a dissertation I no longer believe in. I don’t think I believed in it very much in the first place.

It seems we’re at a turning point. I believe I will be disfigured forever, and a small part of me looks forward to it. I never liked being looked at. I was attractive before, if you can believe it. People will still stare, sure, but I know they’ll try their best not to. But before, people gawked at my beauty.

With a beauty like that, it must have been easy to get people to do what you want.

You need charisma for that, too.

Did you lose that with the fire also?

His eyes flitted in my direction.

Do you have family here? I asked.

Yes, he said. I was born in the capital, but wasn’t raised here. I thought I could make a home of it. Now I’m not so sure.

I told myself the next time I visited I wouldn’t tell my family. That I’d make a proper feast of the country. But things got complicated. People expect me to show up, people who never once showed up for me.

I’m all about burning bridges now, he said.

I don’t like the view from up here.

Are you scared?

The future is so uncertain.

There’s only ever a fork in the road. You either go right or left.

Even if there’s only two options, the whole trajectory of my life will change.

Are we still talking about your family?

Did you ever sleep with your disciples? Drug them?

Disciples? I’m just a man who once owned a farm.

We’re never just one thing. We’re forks too.

Well, this fork has to go change his bandages.

Albie rose from his seat. He cut through the crowd and I followed. Past the colorful houses that lined the cobblestone streets of town all packed together. Past a wrought-iron fence that spilled into a yard of wild grass and chickens. Past the door he left open, the terracotta tiles of his front hallway inviting me inside.

In his bathroom, I sat on the toilet and watched him remove the bandages. I stared: beneath the raw flesh slick with ointments, I could see the ghost of his past self. He was beautiful. I told him as much. I said, Does it make you uncomfortable? I see it. Your beauty.

Tears built and fell from the corners of his eyes.

I will hate you forever, he said.

Don’t go, he said.



About the Author

Joshua Vigil lives in the Pioneer Valley. His fiction has appeared in HobartHADMaudlin House, and elsewhere.


Photo by Shorty McFea on Unsplash