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“This meeting of the Kaplan University chapter of Sigma Sigma Sigma will come to order,” said Sir Warwick Carlisle, president of the frat as he gaveled for silence. “Give me your attention.”
The brothers seated along the long mahogany table in the dining room of the frat house, dressed as usual for the monthly house business meeting in khaki trousers, white shirts, the green, gold and black diagonal stripe ties of the Tri-Sigs, and green blazers with gold buttons and the fraternity patch on the breast pocket quieted down. The seniors, all of whose Tri-Sig frat names were taken from the TV series Firefly, were nearest the head of the table. Next to them were the juniors whose house names had been taken from characters in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. At the lower half of the table sat the sophomores, named for various of the Marvel Comics X-Men. And at the foot sat the newly admitted members of the Tri-Sig pledge class, namesakes of the male crewmembers of Captain Jonathan Archer’s NX-01 USS Enterprise.
“Dues and expenses are up to date, and the cooking rotation is working out well. I’m not as happy with the house-cleaning, however. Master Ki-Adi, Captain Ohnaka, you’re the mentors for Trip and Hayes. They aren’t doing a good job; this place is starting to look slovenly. Straighten them out.”
The custom was that each junior was assigned a pledge to help along once they were admitted to membership. For the next two years, the mentors would guide their protégés along the pathways of the frat, teaching them Sigma customs and taking responsibility for them. Good work by the freshmen reflected favorably on the juniors; likewise, failure to perform or bad acts reflected badly. How one brought his protégé along counted for a great deal when the outgoing seniors selected the officers for the next year from amongst the juniors. The way Warwick had dealt with Jim Powell had had much to do with his being made president of the Kaplan chapter this year. The juniors named for a Jedi Master and a pirate captain glared at their charges with the silent promise they’d be ripped up one side and down the other for embarrassing them.
“Last item. The National Chapter has decided where the annual Spring Break trip will be. They’ve made a deal with a hotel in Manzanillo, on the southwest coast of Mexico. It’s a big tourist port best known for its fishing and snorkeling. However, a member of the National Chapter who has been there reports that the beaches are excellent and a lot of Mexican and Canadian girls are to be seen there; and there are clubs in the town and at a couple of the resort hotels. Plus which, if you like tequila it’s dirt cheap and because the cruise ships call there they have booze for sale to tourists for way below wholesale up here. Manzanillo hasn’t been ‘discovered’ and done to death the way Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Acapulco have been. And being it’s so far south, it’s outside the drug cartel war zone on our southern border.
“If you’d like to go, a sign-up sheet is posted on the bulletin board by my door, along with the airfare and room costs. A 50% deposit is due the first of next month, and the balance a month later. If you aren’t paid in full a week before departure, you don’t go; and there will be no refunds except for illness or a genuine family emergency.
“Any questions? No? Then I declare this meeting closed.” He rapped the gavel. The brothers surged out of the dining room and up the stairs to Warwick’s room to read the flyer and cost breakdown sheets he’d posted, and to sign up for the trip.
An hour later, Jim’s concentration on the paper he was writing for his History of the Civil War class was broken by a knock on his door. A new brother stuck his head in.
“Professor X? The prez is looking for you.”
“Thank you, Brother Mayweather. My respects to Sir Warwick, and I will be along in a minute.” The freshman Tri-Sig looked at him oddly before he closed the door.
A few minutes later, Jim knocked on Peter Carlisle’s door on the second floor of the four story mansion. In the 1900s when the university had been founded in southern Dutchess County, the rich industrialist who had decided to be sure his not-overly-bright grandchildren had at least one college they could get into had taken over a failed seminary out in the sticks from New York City to be its campus. He also bought up the nearby summer places of New Yorkers who wanted country getaways in more fashionable areas; and in turn college fraternities (and later, sororities) purchased the mansions from his estate. The Tri-Sig chapter at Kaplan had been established just after World War I, and the brothers themselves had rebuilt the upper floors of their mansion into dorm rooms for the brethren and small suites for the officers. The principal difference was the suites on the second floor each had their own bathrooms, as opposed to communal baths on the upper floors where the rank and file brothers hung their hats. The frosh lived poker oyna under the eaves in what had been servants’ quarters back in the day, little changed from when the place had been built. The sophs and the juniors occupied the third floor, with a few lucky juniors on the second; the seniors had the larger rooms and suites on the second floor to call home. The first floor held the public rooms of the frat plus the dining room and the kitchen, while the basement had been converted into a private club and a laundry. It was generally conceded that the Sigma Sigma Sigma house had one of the better fraternity house layouts on campus.
“Come in!” Jim heard through the heavy door. He walked in and over to the walnut office desk where his mentor was working on something. Peter leaned back in his executive chair and looked at his charge.
“You asked to see me, milord?”
“Yes, Professor. Sit, sit, sit.” Jim sprawled into Warwick’s club chair as the chapter president looked him over. He was still the same gawky, awkward guy on the autism spectrum he’d first laid eyes on as a “legacy” the previous year, who usually looked past people rather than looking at them; was often unsure how to behave, especially around girls; and with the disconcerting habit of answering all questions honestly. He looked much better since Warwick had taken him in hand, guided him through buying a new wardrobe, ordering him to see a barber and a nail tech every two weeks without fail, and requiring him to read and be tested on a number of books on manners, but compared to the other Tri-Sigs he was still the resident geek. He frowned, unsure how to begin.
“I see you’ve signed up for Spring Break.”
“Yes,” Jim agreed, fishing his wallet out of his pocket. “Do you want me to pay for it now, Warwick? I have my credit cards right here …”
“That’s not why I asked you to come see me, Prof. I don’t know how to say this gently –”
“Then just say it, boss. You’ve always been straight with me.”
Warwick sighed. “Jim, are you really sure you want to do this? Don’t you remember when happened last year, when you went to Fort Lauderdale and all of the girls you met either wouldn’t talk to you or gave you a verbal smackdown? Remember that little Phi Mu who made a date to meet you at the Café Matorano on Seminole Way, never showed, and then claimed she thought you meant the other Café Matorano in downtown Lauderdale when you confronted her with it, right before she laughed in your face? After that bitch was done with you, you looked like a puppy that had had a tin can tied to its tail and been kicked down the street! You hardly talked to anybody after that, and you stayed in your room with the door locked. And when you did come out of your room, the only places you went were to the nearest fast food joints and the beach at night, when there was no one around.”
“Look on the bright side, boss. I had a wonderful meal and I got to watch the best bits of The Godfather while I was eating.”
“That’s not the point! Dammit, I just don’t want you hurt again.
“Look. I know you’re autistic, though not as bad as many, and you have a memory that is eidetic or near enough you need a magnifying glass to see the difference. But even with all the work your brothers and I have done with you, for all practical purposes you might as well be one of George Lucas’s droids when it comes to interacting with girls. Last spring break, you went down in flames in an American town where everyone speaks English. How do you think you’re going to cope in a resort city where they no habla Inglese?”
“Bastante bien. Yo hablo a español. Tenia cuatro años en la secundaria, y era miembro del Club Español.”
Warwick stared at him. “You speak Spanish?”
“Yes. Not like a native, of course, unless the native is from Castile. Castilian is kind of like High German compared to what they speak in Mexico, but even though I don’t really think in it I can generally make myself understood. Sometimes on the weekends I drive down to Spanish Harlem to buy papayas and mangoes, and eat in little restaurants just to listen to the people talking, people from Central America and Puerto Rico mostly. It keeps my ear in.”
“Well, that could help. Having a native-speaker may cause some girls from other colleges who are spring breaking to appreciate you more.”
“Besides, milord, I know very well girls look at me like I belong in a zoo. But I’m not going on a drunken pussy hunt the way everyone else is. Manzanillo is famous for its sportfishing, snorkeling and scuba diving. I qualified as a diver in high school, and there is a wreck in a bay north of the city that’s shallow enough for amateurs to try. It will be my first wreck dive. I expect to be so busy fishing and diving, I won’t miss the non-attention of the girls.” He did something he did not often do because he found it so difficult: he met Warwick’s eyes. The chapter president’s expression was somewhere between reluctance canlı poker oyna and acceptance.
“Well, if you’re sure, Prof. You want to make the deposit now?”
“No, I’ll pay the whole thing, milord.” Jim handed Warwick a black Amex card. He ran it though the card scanner he plugged into his cell phone and that was it: Jim Powell, known to his Tri-Sig brothers as Professor X, was going to Manzanillo.
That weekend, Jim drove home to the house he had inherited from his parents when he was fifteen. He walked into the kitchen and found his housekeeper Consuela and his cousin Fiona just sitting down to dinner. After being hugged by both of them, he joined them at the table. Dinner conversation consisted of catching up with each other. Both of them were astonished at his having signed up for the fraternity’s trip to Mexico, but for different reasons.
“Querido niño, do you not follow the news?” asked Consuela. “The State Department has issued travel warnings for Mexico!”
“Not for all of it, mi querida mami, and mostly just for the border region. Manzanillo is a tourist port on the Pacific side, down toward Guatemala. It’s almost a thousand miles south of the U.S. border. The narcoterrorists don’t bother with it because it’s on the wrong side of Mexico and too far south for smuggling to us. From what I have read, the drug of choice there is alcohol. They sell a lot of whiskey, rum, tequila and such to tourists off the cruise ships and Canadians who’ve flown in for the sun and fun. It seems more Canadians than Americans go there.”
“That’s as may be, Jimmy, but are you a slow learner or what?” asked Fiona. “You’ve gone on these trips before. Junior year with the Spanish Club to Spain; senior year to the Dominican Republic; last spring to Fort Lauderdale. In high school, the girls in your class treated you like shit – “
“Fiona Kilkerran, you mind your manners!” snapped Consuelo. “At home or not, ladies do not swear!”
“I’m sorry, mamacita,” said Fiona, momentarily abashed, “but you know I’m right. They went out of their way to embarrass and humiliate Jimmy, and their attitude poisoned any chance he might have had with the Spanish and Costa Rican girls, who are very aware of how the chicas yanqui treat their classmates and respond appropriately.
“That trip you made to Fort Lauderdale last year? You came home paler and unhappier than you left! You’d have had more fun if you’d taken the train down to New York City, checked into a hotel, and picked up some bimbo in a bar every night after you spent the day seeing the sights! And now you want to go to Mexico? Do you think your frat rat buddies are going to treat you any better this year than last? That the girls will magically think you’re a stud-muffin? Or are you just a glutton for punishment?”
“Fee, I am not going on this trip to meet a girl and drag her into bed. I settled that in my own mind before I went to Sir Warwick to sign up. You know I’m a ‘water baby.’ Manzanillo is a water sports resort. They have sportfishing, parasailing, water-skiing, snorkeling, personal watercraft, and scuba. There is a wreck, the steamer San Luciano, in the next bay north that’s shallow enough for snorkeling, and six or eight good dive sites are within easy reach. There is a lot more there than girls and booze, I assure you!”
“Well, when you put it that way,” said Fiona. Changing the subject, she went on, “Barton Comstock and I are meeting tomorrow morning to go over the books. You want to tag along, even though it’s not your turn?”
“I only came home to pick up my dive gear. I’d be happy to go to your meeting with you.” She smiled at him. She had had the usual home management courses in high school and had a sharp bullshit detector, but it was Jim who had taken accounting courses at the local community college after being declared an emancipated minor who could really read the accounts and understand what he was seeing.
Over the next two months, Jim practiced his scuba technique in the Kaplan University pools, in the big pool with the 10 meter dive platform by choice. The school’s swimmers and divers got used to seeing him at the bottom of the pool. After awhile, they even asked if he’d help them out by critiquing their entries into the water, which he was happy to do.
As Spring Break drew closer, the national chapter provided more information. The fraternity had chartered an Aeromexico 737 that would originate in New York with the northeastern brethren coming down by bus and the North Central Sigmas coming in on feeder flights from Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh before going on to Dallas – Fort Worth. There they would meet up with other flights with Tri-Sigs from the West Coast and the Southeast aboard before flying direct to Playa del Oro International outside Manzanillo. The flight time for the brothers flying out of New York would be about eight hours, but what with the stop at DFW to pick up the internet casino ones flying in from all over, the duration would be more on the order of nine or ten hours. According to Warwick, the airline was loading three times the amount of booze they normally carried. Jim made a mental note to make sure his electronics were fully charged and that he had at least two books with which to pass the time.
Thanks to the fraternity’s connections with the Athletic Department (Warwick and Badger were wrestlers; Master Ki-Adi was a stand-out in track in the 100 meter and 400 meter dashes and the 4 x 100 and the 4 x 400 relays; and Anakin was the power hitter on the university’s baseball team), the Tri-Sigs were able to borrow one of the motor coaches normally used to transport the university teams to away games. They loaded their luggage into the cargo bays at eight o’clock in the morning and made the trip to the airport to endure the indignities involved with clearing security before they could board the chartered airliner and begin the trip to Manzanillo.
The flight to Dallas was reasonably quiet, but after the two additional streams of Tri-Sigs came aboard and the airplane crossed into Mexican airspace, the rules on drinking and smoking changed and things got rowdy. The one-class airliner was at about 95% capacity, and Jim was seated alone just ahead of the galley in a row considered undesirable because the seats did not recline far.
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
Jim looked up from his book, written in Spanish, to find one of the three stewardesses looking down at him with a winning smile.
“Please, sit, señorita,” he said in Spanish. She gracefully slid into the aisle seat next to him and sighed.
“You speak Spanish?” she asked in that language.
“After a fashion,” he said. “No one is going to mistake me for a native, I have to work at it, but I can generally make myself understood.”
She gestured to the book. “And you read it, I see.”
“Better than I speak it. My reading level is somewhere around the sixth or seventh grade; I still have trouble with colloquialisms and slang.”
She eased off her shoes, sighing with relief as the two inch heel pumps dropped to the floor. “I’m Graciana. Charter flights pay better than scheduled flights – we get a premium for taking them – but you never know what kind of passengers you’ll get. I’ve been propositioned half a dozen times, my buttocks have been slapped, and three rude bastards have grabbed my breasts since we started out. American manners seem to correspond directly to the level of liquor in the bar; the fewer bottles left, the lower the standard of behavior! It’s getting rowdy back there,” she gestured disdainfully with the jerk of a thumb. “I hope we land at Playa del Oro without my having to slap somebody.”
“The solution may be more liquor, not less, for the rude ones. They can’t hold as much as they think they can. A couple more drinks, and they will either pass out or dash to the bathroom to vomit their guts out.”
“I shouldn’t be bothering a gentleman like you with my problems.”
“Oh, it is my pleasure. I seldom have the company of a beautiful woman with whom to practice my Spanish.” Graciana and Jim conversed pleasantly and she accepted his offer of a foot massage gratefully. After a few minutes, she motioned to the book he had been studying before she had settled herself next to him.
“What are you reading?”
“A guide to the dive sites of Manzanillo. I figure that if I visit one a day, I can do the good ones while I’m there, with a couple of days left over for fishing.”
She looked at him. “Do you have a charter booked yet?”
She took a pad of notepaper from the seat pouch in front of her. Producing a pen, she wrote a few lines, tore the sheet loose, and handed it to him.
“That’s the name and phone number of my cousin Emiliano. He is captain of the Ojo Grande, a charter boat in Manzanillo. He’s been doing this for 30 years and knows where the fish are.” Looking at Jim as she slipped back into her shoes, she fluttered her eyelashes like a fan and added, “The second phone number is my cell phone. I’ll be on vacation starting next week, and Emiliano has invited me to stay. Give me a call if you like. Who knows what might happen?” She got up and returned to the galley as a ping! announced someone wanted something. Jim raised his eyebrows in surprise before he carefully folded the paper and tucked it into his wallet, a bemused smile on his face.
At Playa del Oro, he left the airplane (with a wink and a squeeze of the hand from Graciana as he deplaned), retrieved his suitcase, fishing and dive gear bags from the luggage carousel and joined the queue going to the Plaza del Mar. Dumping his gear on the table in his single room, he changed into beach wear and went back out the door. The lights from the hotel dimly illuminated the beach and the water’s edge. Jim stood on the hard packed sand, feeling the waves wash over his feet, inhaling the clean salt air. Stepping out of his sandals, he set them above the high water mark, dropped his shirt on top of them, and waded into the Pacific for a swim.
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