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Authors: Shelby Hiatt


BOOK: Panama
8.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Shelby Hiatt

Houghton Mifflin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston New York 2009


Higher in Canada

I lie in bed and study the shadows on my ceiling, leafy and stretched oblong, not so different from the ones in Dayton. I try to work out what I feel about this new place, think I'll never fall asleep. Then the scent of Mother's Dayton soap in the sheets blurs me and I'm anesthetized into deep, dark Panama night.

She is fifteen, ready for something—anything—to happen. What happens is Panama. The U.S. government has asked her father to help build the Canal. The whole family will go, be a part of this historical event.

But Panama isn't as she imagines. Americans live in the Zone, which has been designed to look and feel just like an American town.

She wants more. She wants different.

The fantasy is out there. She'll find it.

Jacket photo of young woman © 2009 Veer
Photo of Chagres River © 2009 Blaine Harrington III
Jacket art & design by Carol Chu

Copyright © 2009 by Shelby Hiatt

All rights reserved. For information about permission
to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Houghton Mifflin is an imprint of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

The text of this book is set in Adobe Garamond.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file.
ISBN 978-0-547-19600-8

Manufactured in the United States of America

MP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Darren and Brett

The Isthmus

1913. Panama. 3
A sweltering classroom.

Mrs. Ewing's Friday reminder: "Put your books away. Don't leave anything on top of your desk." She claps to get our attention but it's not necessary. We go through this every week. "Oil gangs coming tonight," she says.

But the oil gangs won't come inside tonight—they're for standing water and mosquito larvae around the building. Mrs. Ewing has an idea the air absorbs trace amounts of oil that seep inside and cover everything with a film—we have to clear our desks.

I shove everything in with my notebooks. I squeeze my pens and pencils together and jam them back, pay no attention to order or torn paper. I used to care about that kind of thing, no longer. I'll soon be at the cabin and none of this matters.

Minutes later the whole class, more than thirty of us, rides on the train that takes us home. Swift and efficient, the Canal Commission Railroad trundles beside the Cut, rocking, swaying, tunneling through sultry afternoon air toward Culebra. I keep a dreamy eye on everything—the gorge outside and the hijinks in the passenger car.

Alan carefully places his banana peel on the hat of a man sitting in front of us—Alan is the class comic. The man must be a tourist, because he wears a felt fedora with a brim and a crease in the top that perfectly cradles the banana peel. We stifle our laughter.

The man never moves, only reads his
Canal Record.
The other passengers don't notice, and in a few minutes he gets off at Barbacoas with the peel still in place. It's truly comical. Chalk one up for Alan—a man carrying a newspaper and briefcase with a banana peel on his hat. The man passes our window, the peel at eye level, and we fold with laughter.

Out on the platform people begin to notice. A kid points and his mother lowers his hand but she's smiling, and other heads turn and there are sniggers. The man grows uncomfortable and confused. Inside the train we're howling. We've cut loose, although my version of cutting loose is a languid, bemused look that I float out from my remote world.

The Barbacoas stop is short. The train pulls away and the man is still walking straight and stiff as though he's in Cincinnati, wondering why people are staring.

But this is not Cincinnati. This is the Canal Zone, and I'm enjoying this prank as much as the others. I'm part of the student mob and in two more stops I'll be getting off. There'll be no laughing at me. I'm one of them and insulated from their pranks, though it wouldn't bother me if I weren't. That's because I'm insulated in my private world from everything and this is the stop closest to the cabin where Federico lives. He's waiting for me and we'll spend two erotic hours together.

Nobody knows about this, not even the students, or I'd be their reigning queen, something that might have mattered to me some time ago but not now. Federico's waiting.

While they are laughing at a man with a banana peel in his hat, I'm amused because I have a secret that is much more interesting than their juvenile caper.

This is the best time of my life and these are the best kids I know, and in the flashing Panama sun I can't imagine it will ever end.

The Midwest

Ten years earlier. Dayton, Ohio.

We live next door to Wilbur and Orville Wright. (They have to live somewhere.)

They're a nice family: Carrie, the housekeeper; their sister, Katharine; and Milton, their father, who's called the Bishop. It's a position he has in the United Brethren Church—he's not the head of a diocese. But he is serious and scares the bejesus out of me, he's so humorless and proper. We're regular small-town citizens. Everybody calls Wil and Orville "the boys" and knows they're working on a flying machine, but it's nothing special. It's what they do, tinker and putter all day—they've been at it for years.

Two older brothers live on their own, and since their mother died they're a family of five. They're in the house next to us on Hawthorne Street, and since we are only three—Mother, Father, me—the Wright boys are like my brothers.

They work at their shop on Third Street or in the shed out back and they let me help. I hand them tools and it makes me feel important. That's my earliest sense of self, being useful, and it's a nice feeling. So I'm pretty happy most of the time. Actually, I'm energetic and exuberant. I climb trees, build things, pattern myself after the boys as best I can.

They need starch boxes because they're the right size to make a model wind tunnel. I run home, empty Mother's starch into a mixing bowl, and bring back the box. Carrie empties hers and I deliver both boxes to the shed. I watch Orville and Wil put together the first wind tunnel and I think,
With help like that you can do most anything.
I absolutely believe it. I really am innocent. So is everyone around me.

I don't want to play dolls with Rosie Fisher down the street. She's Catholic, which is all right, but she goes to Catholic school with different friends and eight brothers and sisters. She's not in my world. She seems like a foreigner, and anyway, I'm not interested in dolls. I prefer the boys and their gizmos and half-built wings and spokes and gears hanging on the wall.

When I stay for supper at the Wrights', they say grace, then talk about work: "...altered the truss wires to give an arch to the surfaces ... Pass the beets, Katharine ... Spliced the broken spars and ribs ... we're ready to put the cloth back on ..."
interesting, not Rosie's dolls.

As for the grownups, I don't mess with them. Parents are strict, all of them. The Bishop is so stern, I think he's channeling the word of God. My parents are like him and I never disobey, don't even think of it. I never throw a temper tantrum; I say golly and dang in anger like everyone else and have to beg to go with the boys to Huffman's pasture for gliding, an afternoon of such harmless fun I'm always amazed at the effort it takes to get permission. But my parents usually give in, and because I'm a "good girl" and "no trouble," I'm allowed to go the next time—earned permission through good behavior. I'm trained and obedient.

The boys dress like accountants and wear starched white collars every day, bent over a drill in the shop or going headfirst off the rails at Kitty Hawk. There is no derring-do in Dayton, which seems right to me, and I think it is the best place in the world to live, which it probably is, what with Teddy Roosevelt charging around expanding the American Empire. It's early in our new century and the U.S. is in Cuba and even the Philippines, where the Senate finds us guilty of war crimes—big events and far-off. Yet right next door the boys are working on something really big and we don't realize it.

I too am at the edge of a big event and no one knows, certainly not me. I sit in our pear tree and watch the world go by.


1903. December 17.

My ninth birthday. Orville wires the Bishop from Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk late in the afternoon: "Powered flight. Twelve seconds. Fifty-nine seconds by end of day."

From my perch in the pear tree I see the telegram arrive, know it's from the boys, and call over to Carrie.

"What does it say?"

"Not much." She's on the porch pulling her sweater close—it's cold. "Just the speed and distance this time"—and with a big smile—"...they'll be back by Christmas." (Orville makes the turkey stuffing.)

I climb down and dart into our kitchen. I tell Mother the news and she's politely interested—Orville's stuffing is unparalleled.

It doesn't occur to me that Orville and Wil's flight should be treated like a big event. I don't wonder why reporters haven't already come inquiring: "How do you feel about the boys? Have they always wanted to do this?" "Well, yes. They work at it a good deal of the time."

The flight's under a minute. It's powered, the first in a world obsessed with the idea, but at fifty-nine seconds the
Dayton Journal
won't think it's worth an item. Won't mention it at all the next day.

We're a pretty evenhanded crowd in Dayton, tend away from drama.

I continue to run back and forth between our houses, getting information about the boys, checking on the baking of my birthday cake. The excitement mounts. It seems there can't be anything bigger or better or more dramatic that could happen and then Father walks in.

He hangs up his coat and turns to us.

"Teddy Roosevelt's building a canal," he says.

I go stock-still.


"Going to finish the one the French started and they want me."

He's excited but doesn't show it. That's not his way, which is why I'm so captured by his news. He's always calm, but I can see in his eyes something is cooking.

Mother looks in from the kitchen. He takes a letter from his suit pocket and reads. "We are in the process of recruiting engineers and would like to interview you for a position." He looks up with a smile. "From the Panama Canal Commission." He has a square face, a balding head, and a relentlessly friendly demeanor.

Mother says nothing—not a good sign—but I'm used to her imposing presence, so it doesn't keep thoughts of Panama from swarming my mind, wondering where it is and what it's like and what all this means. Panama must be near the end of the world—it has to be wildly exciting.

The thought of a new life somewhere else suddenly trumps flying at Kitty Hawk or working in the boys' shop or even the modest celebration of my birthday. But I contain myself because demonstrations of emotion aren't allowed in our house. No squealing. No jumping.

Father knows how to navigate the moment. He slips the letter back into his suit pocket and turns to me. "How's my birthday girl?"

"Just fine. The boys flew."

"Did they, now?" (Small potatoes compared to Panama.) "Good for them."

This is when he'll settle with his paper into his overstuffed chair, turn on the radio, and wait for Mother's call to supper. But this time he doesn't do that. He sits, picks up the paper, and doesn't read a word. He doesn't once twirl the radio dial. Instead he smiles to himself, slips the Panama letter out of his pocket, and reads it again, which confirms my suspicions. With the second reading of the letter, I know it has to be a fantastic place.

I lean on the arm of his chair and bounce my legs off the floor.

"Where is Panama, Daddy?"


After 1903.

Mother rejects the idea of moving to Panama and Father begins the task of gentle persuasion. He brings up the subject discreetly over the months and the years, working on Mother but never overwhelming her—he knows how to do this. It's not unlike building a flying machine the Dayton way: dogged, with quiet perseverance.

Canal construction continues. So do letters from the Commission. I grow taller. The boys' flying machines grow bigger. Mother begins to give in, all this gradual.

She asks questions: schools, living accommodations, trips back home. Father gives her accurate information, especially about the colony called the Zone, a strip of land five miles on each side of the canal transformed into something totally American. No sudden culture shock for her to fear.

He wears her down like water on a stone.


Fifteen years old.

I'm a teenager. It's 1910. One day, for no reason I know, Panama comes up and Mother relents. "Only three years. It should be interesting," she says.

I can hardly believe my ears. After all this time and with only a few words she's caved. Father is elated but contains himself—the last years of construction are better than none. For me it's a rush of enormous excitement, a sea change in my life, which has become increasingly provincial and boring. I'm an adolescent and there are fires kindling in me that need a place to combust, which doesn't seem to be Dayton and by now I'm convinced is Panama—been nurturing that thought for years reading about the country, keeping up with canal stories. I'm instantly ready to go.

Our departure happens fast. Father leaves first, excited as a boy. Mother and I follow. I feign sadness at leaving school friends but I can't wait to hurtle toward the tropics. Mother is hoping the whole thing will pass quickly.

The Wrights promise to look after the house, which we carefully latch and lock. There are early-morning teary goodbyes from Katharine and Carrie and a stiff "good journey" from the Bishop. The boys, already at the shop, wished us well the evening before. I'm jumpy. The departure feels like it's taking forever.

BOOK: Panama
8.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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