The Ordinary Seamanby Francisco Goldman
“A stunningly well-written second novel from a major talent of great style and soul.” —The Miami Herald
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Francisco Goldman won accolades and international recognition with his stunning first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, the winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and a finalist for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In The Ordinary Seaman his incredible talents are again brought to the fore in an unsettling and beautiful story about life, death, and love.
The ordinary seaman is Esteban, a nineteen-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua who has come to America with fourteen other men to form the crew of the boat Urus. Docked on a desolate Brooklyn pier, the Urus turns out to be a wreck, the men—without the ability to return to their homes—become its prisoners, and the city of New York is transformed into a mysterious and alluring world they cannot penetrate. Esteban, haunted by his dead lover from the war, eventually gathers the courage to escape from the ship and embarks on a quest for a new life and love in the city. The Ordinary Seaman is both a richly human story of abandonment, loss, betrayal, and the power of love and a modern fable about America’s hidden immigrant culture.
“This book . . . is about powerless people who are victimized by social forces, and it brilliantly depicts the various ways they cope with it, in their actions and their inner lives. It is rendered with tremendous vitality, intelligence, and sweetness. That combination alone makes it rare in modern American letters.” —Mary Gaitskill, Salon
“A stunningly well-written second novel from a major talent of great style and soul.” —The Miami Herald
“A marvel of a book—vast, literate, human and entertaining.” —Oscar Hijuelos
“Goldman’s art lies in the juxtaposing of ordinary desires and extraordinary circumstances to create a pattern of wonderment; he has written an epic of the misplaced and misguided . . . a novel . . . with a rare largeness of heart. Here many apparently disparate things get acquainted, as happens in port cities. Goldman brings Spanish and English into a beautiful partnership. His descriptions of sex and bodies somehow evoke both the epicure’s taste and the starved lover’s raging appetite.” —Scott L. Malcomson, The New Yorker
“Goldman’s extraordinary second novel, The Ordinary Seaman, [is] a book that approaches mythic dimensions. . . . A fascinating, relentless story of psychological and moral complexity that confirms his stature as one of the brighter lights on the literary scene.” —Thomas Christensen, San Francisco Chronicle
“The novel is absorbing and moving . . . touching and provocative.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“A strange and suggestive historical novel of the present moment, The Ordinary Seaman turns out to be a surprisingly optimistic book—a story of escape, not confinement, an adventure instead of a disaster. The crew’s ordeal almost fades in the bright light of Esteban’s discovery of America—an America of immigrants still alive to its original potential.” —Edwin Frank, The New York Review of Books
“[The Ordinary Seaman]is an imaginative tour de force, a spectacular achievement by any standards. . . . Powerful . . . intelligent and engrossing. The complexities of the narration, the author’s stunning use of language (both English and Spanish), his careful probing of brotherhood . . . all are superbly rendered in Goldman’s expansive story. . . . [The Ordinary Seaman]is far from being an ordinary novel.” —Charles R. Larson, Chicago Tribune
“[In] The Long Night of White Chickens, Francisco Goldman showed himself able to operate successfully on several levels at once. . . . The Ordinary Seaman is actually even more ambitious. . . . A tightly wound narrative of hardship and survival . . . a powerful exploration of human behavior . . . as dazzling as it is exactly right . . . and memorably so.” —James Polk, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Francisco Goldman is an immensely talented writer and possesses sure literary instincts.” —Alvaro Mutis
“Francisco Goldman does what few can: he creates a world so real that when you have turned the last page, you say, ‘I’ve been there, and I will never forget it.’ . . . Often very funny and ribald, riveting because it is so generous and inventive . . . Here, a corner of Brooklyn becomes the exotic and foreign experience, and through Esteban’s eyes it is as mysterious and alluring as Tangiers.” —Sandra Schofield, The Dallas Morning News
“By turns absurd, moving, comic, and bawdy, The Ordinary Seaman tackles the genre of the seafaring novel as it hasn’t been done in New York City since Melville. . . . If the original seamen ever encounter Goldman’s version of their story, they’ll be no less enthralled than the rest of us.” —Allen Lincoln, Time Out New York
“Keenly observant and brilliantly unnerving fiction . . . a tale of almost surreal intensity . . . Goldman activates the tormented memories of his intriguing characters, relating their heart-stabbing stories in prose glinting with images both troubling and startlingly beautiful, reflections of his unflinching moral vision and impassioned inquiry into questions of conscience and love.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Stunningly good . . . [a] powerful novel.” —Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
“This is the epic voyage in a post-modern world. . . . Goldman gives his story both the inevitable feel of fable and the gritty texture of reality. . . . Aboard the rusting wreck of the Urus, Goldman discovers a new route in the great tradition of seafaring literature.” —Nancy Klingener, The Miami Herald
“Powerful . . . a searing picture of human vulnerability and courage . . . This novel should establish [Goldman] securely on the literary map.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A tightly woven tapestry . . . Goldman’s powerfully charged writing brilliantly limns this allegory of immigration and abandonment.” —Harold Augenbraum, Library Journal (starred review)
“Francisco Goldman is a state-of-the-art, contemporary hybridist . . . [a] deep evocation of the tormented entanglements of world capital and banana republic. . . . Goldman’s playful, tense-switching narration . . . gets so deep inside his character’s memories that you feel their collective nausea, which, like the shaky start of a peyote trip, is a prelude to the unfolding of painfully beautiful truths.” —Ed Morales, The Village Voice
“Goldman’s acclaimed debut, The Long Night of White Chickens,proves to have been no fluke; its successor is an equally compelling saga. Even more memorable is Goldman’s fresh and moving take on such matters as longing, love, cruelty and fellowship, probed in a poignant and original narrative.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The Ordinary Seaman is a contemporary odyssey, the chronicle of a journey that will not occur . . . brilliantly imagined. . . . The most striking aspect of The Ordinary Seaman is its language, a baroque Espanglés . . . which Goldman so deftly handles . . . the story of how a society comes into being . . . a Latino version of the settlement of America.” —Alberto Manguel, The Independent (London)
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1997
One of The Village Voice Literary Supplement‘s 25 Favorite Books of 1997
Chapter One — Miracle
When Esteban finally reached the airport in Managua it was nearly three in the morning and the airport was closed and he sat down on his suitcase on the sidewalk in the humid, buggy night to wait for it to open. Dona Adela Suarez had told him to be there at six. For the second time in two weeks, he’d ridden a bus all the way from the Pacific port town of Corinto to Managua. The colectivo from the bus stop had cost more than he’d expected, and he thought now that maybe he should have walked, though Sandino Airport was a long way from wherever it was he’d gotten off the bus in that invisible city of sprawling night that didn’t seem to have any center or outskirts, here and there a cow standing at the edge of the highway, a stretch of slogan-decorated wall, the disc jockey on the colectivo’s radio dedicating romantic ballads to the wide-awake war dead.
He sat on his battered cowhide suitcase listening to the predawn racket of the birds and roosters crowing nearby and others that sounded as faraway as the stars and chewed manically on his thumbnail and tried not to have too many thoughts. As a way of turning off the light on something that had just come to mind, wincing his eyes shut and then opening them wide to stare as if blindly into the dark seemed to work. Sometimes he took his thumbnail out from between his teeth and quietly said, “Chocho.” Several times he took her watch out of his pocket to look at the time: her watch, until she’d given it to him. And then he’d put the watch back into his pocket, and light another cigarette, letting the first exhalation mix with a long sigh while he silently spoke her name. Once he even said, out loud and emphatically, “Today you start a new life.” And then he felt excited and nervous in the pit of his stomach again, just as he had been off and on for weeks, ever since the afternoon he’d sat in Dona Adela Suarez’s office in Managua and she’d told him he could have the job.
It was still dark when a double column of soldiers stomped by on a predawn run, calling out in unison. And then, just when the sky was beginning to lighten behind the palms, the first of the airport workers, men and women, many dressed in green fatigues, began drifting in; and then they came more steadily; while travelers began arriving with mountains of luggage, entire families and others traveling alone gradually forming a long line behind Esteban; workers swept the sidewalk, gardeners marched out with their machetes; food and chiclet sellers, taxi drivers, beggar children, police all appeared out of the murky dawn to take up their positions. And he sat watching as if it was a performance meant just for him, thinking it was all like one of those parable-plays about the creation of the world according to the Indians. When the sole entrance to the airport finally opened, it was manned by soldiers, and he tried to explain his situation to them but lost his privileged place in line anyway because Dona Adela Suarez hadn’t arrived yet with his papers and passport. He retreated on the sidewalk and set his suitcase down. Within seconds an old man with silvery, receding hair who’d been waiting in line just a few places behind him stepped out too. The viejo, wearing a white guayabera and pressed tan pants, carrying a dark vinyl suitcase, walked limberly towards him with a preposterously excited smile lighting up his face and a bright, expectant look in his eyes, and said, “Until I overheard you at the door, chavalo, I was worrying that maybe I had the wrong day!” He laughed, his smile somehow became even wider, and he put out his hand and said, “Bernardo Puyano, a sus ordenes.”
“Esteban. Mucho gusto,” he said warily, shaking the happy viejo’s hand. He didn’t like being called chavalo.
“You’ve been to sea before?”
“Pues, no,” said Esteban.
“Claro que no, a cipote like you—”
“Esteban,” he corrected him.
“Si pues. I’m the waiter,” this effusive viejo went on, nodding. “Apparently there isn’t going to be an officers’ waiter—pues, my usual position—but just one waiter for the whole ship. Vaya, in times like these, a job like this, it’s like a kiss from God, no? And for a chavalito like you, what good luck!” The viejo lowered his voice and tilted his face closer so that Esteban could smell toothpaste mixed with coffee and something sour when he spoke: “Leave this shitty country behind. Vos, it wouldn’t surprise me if you found yourself in the arms of a blue-eyed, blonde gringita tonight, your very first night. Chavalo, you’ll see what it’s like to be a handsome young marinero set loose in the world!”
“What if we both have the wrong day?” asked Esteban.
“It can’t be,” he said. “I know Dona Adela said Sunday. And when I went to mass yesterday, it was definitely Saturday. The archbishop has personally blessed our voyage, patroncito.”
Esteban is nineteen, a war veteran, of course he doesn’t consider himself a boy, but Bernardo will never call him anything but chavalo, muchacho, chiguin, chico, patroncito, and, most annoyingly, cipote.
Dona Adela Suarez, a secretary with the shipping agency Teccsa Corporacion in Managua, had interviewed and hired the five Nicaraguans, including Esteban and Bernardo, who were to leave from Sandino Airport that morning, headed to New York City to meet the Urus: the old ship’s waiter, a middle-aged galley cook, and three ordinary seamen, the latter without any previous shipboard experience whatsoever. When Dona Adela finally arrived at the airport, she was carrying their passports and U.S. Embassy-issued seamen’s transit visas. It was the twentieth of June, and the Urus was to sail from New York four days later carrying, according to Dona Adela, a cargo of fertilizer to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. She wore big, clear-plastic-framed, octagonal, pink-tinted glasses, aquamarine slacks, and a white blouse with the English words over the followed by a colorful little rainbow printed all over it. To Bernardo the pattern on her blouse couldn’t have seemed more apt:
“Mi Reina de la Suerte,” he enthused, thanking Dona Adela yet again for his ship’s waiter’s job and giving her a clumsy one-armed embrace at the tiny airport bar, where the puffy-faced, slit-eyed cook had rum with his coke and the others just coke and Adela paid. “The Queen of Luck” was the sister-in-law of Constantino Malevante, a Greek ship captain who’d worked for many years on the Mameli line when the dictator Somoza owned ships, and who now lived in Miami making his living outfitting flag of convenience ships with Central American crews. Twenty-three years before, Bernardo had worked as waiter in Capitan Malevante’s officers’ saloon.
“And what is my new capitan’s name, Dona Adela?” asked Bernardo at the bar.
Dona Adela frowned behind her cake-plate glasses for a moment; then said she couldn’t remember, though she was sure Capitan Malevante must have sent it to her.
“Greek, I suppose,” said Bernardo, disguising his dislike of Greek capitanes, including Constantino Malevante, which over his last eighteen years of landlocked nostalgia he’d been exaggerating as much as he had the virtues of English shipmasters.
Esteban was the tallest of the five. His brown skin had a smooth, saddle-soaped luster, and his build was so slender and bony that his jeans and white, short-sleeved shirt seemed tenuously hung from his hip and collar bones. He wore the same pair of black combat boots that had accompanied him through two years of war.
One of the other two ordinary seamen was a coppery skinned teenager named Nemesio, who looked as if some unattached mass of superconcentrated gravity must follow him around everywhere like chewing gum stuck to the soles of his shoes: mournfully drooping eyes, forehead slanting into a massive nose descending at almost the same angle, hulking but sagging shoulders, chubby, squashed legs, his stone-washed jeans zigzagging down to his shoes, and a portly panza hanging over his belt—later, onboard the Urus, Nemesio’s nickname would be Panzon, though not just for that reason. Esteban quickly established that Nemesio had been in the army too, serving as an aircraft spotter right there in Managua, standing on a bald hill all day with two other soldiers taking ninety-minute shifts watching the horizon through binoculars, boring as hell; so far aircraft had only attacked Managua once during the whole war anyway. Which is why, Esteban suddenly thought, Nemesio’s eyes are so droopy: staring through binoculars at the white hot sky day after day, they’d melted.
The other ordinary seaman, Chavez Roque, nearly as tall as Esteban and even darker skinned, looked older than his twenty years, his cleft chin swarthy, chest hair brimming up through the collar of his blue polo shirt. He wore black jeans, old cowboy boots. Chavez Roque said he hadn’t been in the army, not exactly. He’d worked on a government road-building crew along the Costa Rican border, in the jungles of the Rio San Juan, but he’d been given militia training and an AK to carry, but he’d only fired it in “combat” once, when a tapir bursting from riverbank foliage startled him . . . missed it, pues.
“I was in a BLI,” said Esteban, lighting a cigarette. He was sure he saw respect still their expressions like the fleeting shadow from an airborne hawk. He didn’t have to say anything more. He’d been in one of the irregular warfare battalions.
“Maybe the war’s over now,” said the former aircraft spotter.
“Maybe,” said Esteban neutrally. Chavez Roque, turning his head to watch an hembra in tight jeans and stiletto heels walking past, said, “Saber, vos.” Onboard the Urus his nickname would be Roque Balboa.
When they’d boarded the plane, Esteban was disappointed to find himself seated next to the happy viejo. After the takeoff he craned forward for a glimpse past Bernardo at the airport military installations below, thinking of helicopters he’d ridden at the front. He saw five green military ambulances parked in a row, rear doors open, canvas stretchers on the tarmac, figures in fatigues and medical whites standing around waiting . . . So helicopters and planes were still flying mangled and bullet-punctured bodies in heated, vibrating pools of blood over jungles, mountains, and plains. Despite the cease-fire and all the talk of peace. The ambulances shrank to a row of capsules and vanished from sight, the corrugated metal roofs of hangars turned into huts, palms became weeds, the green and brown landscape plummeting, plummeting downwards like a whole country flung off a high cliff. Bernardo suddenly turned to him with an ecstatic grin and said, “Once again, chavalo, the old wolf to the sea!”
Then he sat back, remonstratively patted the armrests as if making sure they were really bolted in, and stared straight ahead, smiling beatifically into the air over the mounded tops of passengers’ heads, all this, Esteban supposed, in some further display of gratitude to his Queen of Luck. A profusely perspiring middle-aged steward, bulging cheeks, goatee, was wheeling the jingling liquor cart down the aisle. The scarlet-lipped stewardess, her hair a maelstrom of oiled, ebony ringlets, was still giving her safety lesson, her hands wagging the pinkish tubes—the voice on the intercom said to blow into these—protruding from the deflated life jacket bladders over her breasts. The blast of sun in the window turned Bernardo’s broad, spotted forehead as silvery as his hair, and Esteban reflected that he really did look like some benignly crazed old wolf: his chin was angular, and his lips looked as if they reached ear to ear, two long, thin, contented-looking seams.
The liquor was free. “Chivas?” said the steward grouchily, over and over, sliding his forearm over his slick forehead, underarm dark with sweat. And wine from France. Up ahead Esteban saw the cook reach out for another rum and coke, a gold chain bracelet dangling from his thick, hairy wrist.
Poured into clear plastic cups, flashing in sunlight, the wine looked like candlelight inside dark red glass. Or like bear’s blood.
“I’ve never drunk wine,” said Esteban. Not even in church. The men in his family, his tios and primos, didn’t go to church, though his mother did.
“All ship’s capitanes take wine with their meals, bueno, on Sundays at least,” said Bernardo. “Greeks, every night. I’ll try to sneak you a glass now and then, patroncito.”
“Bueno,” said Esteban flatly.
“The English prefer beer,” the viejo went on. “Every afternoon at three Capitan Osbourne would say, Beer O’clock! But he was never drunk. A grand man, chico. Capitan John Paul Osbourne was his name, but his friends called him Hay Pee.”
Bernardo took only coke with his peanuts, so Esteban did the same, though he felt entitled to drink whatever he wanted because this was a significant day, the start of a new life, and the airline ticket had cost him so much. He owed his tios the combined sum of the ticket and the fee charged by Dona Adela Suarez for getting him the job. After two months on the Urus he’d be able to pay them back and there’d still be four months to go; then he’d be able to sign on for a whole other year, provided his capitan was happy enough with his work.
“The best years of my life, muchacho . . .” No major port on earth, apparently, where Bernardo hadn’t walked with the long, loping steps and sinewy smile of a lighthearted and elegant officers’ saloon waiter. But he hadn’t been to sea in eighteen years, not since Clara, his second wife—Clarita was only twenty-nine when she died, he said. Of tetanus, horrible. She was German on her papi’s side, chavalo. And he was left with three little daughters to raise on land. All of them light skinned, just a little plump like their mother, and one, the youngest, even has blue eyes, though her mami didn’t. Raised them in the same neat little cement house with a cement porch out front that they all still live in now, in Managua, in Colonia Maximo Jerez. A house paid for with two decades of saved-up officers’ waiter’s wages and a loan from Clara’s much older cousin, a customs inspector in Corinto, like a father to her. Perhaps you know the family, muchacho? No, you wouldn’t, you’re too young, he’s in Panama now, left right after El Senor Somoza did. Never paid him back, never a word of recrimination. Maria, Gertrudis, and Freyda, muchachas maravillosas, educated, prepared. One a teacher, the other a secretary in the Trade Ministry though she keeps out of politics like all her sisters, and little Freyda still a student. Maria’s novio and Gertrudis’s eight-year-old cipote live at home too, a crowded little place, crowded but always neat and clean—Pues, he’s never produced a son of his own. But he has three grandsons, three little cipotes, Gertrudis’s hijito and two whom he’s never even seen, though it’s his dream to. Because he has two daughters from his first marriage too. The younger, who disgracefully has never married or forgiven lives in Greytown now, with her mother and mother’s new husband, an evangelical Protestant pastor, but the other, Esmeralda, restless like her papi, lives in Jerusalem. Si pues, in Israel. In Israel, Esmeralda became a Beauty Queen, chavalo! Married an Israeli policeman, they have a daughter and two sons. The Israelitas are the oldest and most noble race on earth, don’t listen to the lies they tell in our poor, hate-demented little country, muchacho. How many times has he sat on his porch in the evenings grieving over the state of our beloved Nicaragua, wishing for Israeli commandos to fly in and do away with our Nine Comandantes the way they did those terrorists on that hijacked plane at the airport in Africa!
Bernardo looked directly at Esteban, the forced vehemence of his expression contradicted by the clouded softness of his wide-open stare. Esteban merely returned it until the viejo looked away. His tios always talked like that, if not quite as screwily. What was it to him what viejos thought, except, chocho, why did they always seem to think he needed to hear strong opinions, and that he must be full of strong opinions about the same things they always had strong opinions about?
Seething, he barely listened while Bernardo chattered on about his years working as a chauffeur in Managua, the families he’d driven for, including one related to the Petrocelis. Bernardo hadn’t touched the lunch that had been served in the middle of his life story—Esteban had glumly passed up wine again—but now the viejito punctured the wrapping of his crackers with his plastic fork, carefully peeled yellow wax from his tablet of cheese, and cut the cheese into thin slivers, which he arrayed over two crackers. It was all he ate. Then he was talking about his daughters again. Esteban, devouring the gravy-soaked beef that was as mushy as eggplant in just a few forkfuls while his stomach roared with hunger, wondered what the viejo’s youngest daughter looked like, and who’d fixed the middle one, leaving her with child when she was what, fourteen or so? Bernardo said that his daughters’ paychecks were worthless now, vaya pues, like everyone’s. He felt he’d become a burden to them. Disgracefully, he hadn’t had any work in nearly two years, since the last family he’d worked for had suddenly gone to live in Venezuela. But he’d been going to see Dona Adela Suarez once a month ever since, pleading with her to convince Capitan Constantino Malevante to find a place for him on a crew despite his age. With the money he earns on this voyage, muchacho, he’s going to buy two chicken incubators! Then he’ll no longer be a burden to his daughters; he’ll have a dignified old age, because people always need chickens and eggs, especially now, when sometimes in Managua you can’t buy a chicken or even an egg anywhere:
“Son of a million whores, have you ever heard of a country running out of chickens?” He brought his fist down onto the armrest and fell silent a moment. And then he deftly switched the two meal trays, saying, “Here, take mine.” Esteban picked up the pineapple cake and began to eat it. Bernardo said, “All the meat that doesn’t go to the Comandantes or Cubans or Russians and I don’t know who else goes to the soldiers.”
Esteban had heard this so often he merely shrugged. He didn’t know where all the meat went. But his battalion, a BLI, rotated into the jungle for three-week stretches with a week at base or bivouacked outside some town in between, had rarely been supplied with anything to eat, never mind meat. The few campesinos they ran into in the depopulated war zones might have bananas to take, or even an ox, but never nearly enough chickens to feed a battalion. Otherwise they lived on fish from rivers and streams, hunted birds and rodents, macheted down makengue trees for the sopping, breadlike pulp at the heart of the trunk. In the jungle everything was always dripping wet, but sometimes you couldn’t even find a limon to suck; sometimes the nearest river or stream might be days’ march away, but there were insect-clouded bogs of undrinkable black water everywhere . . .
“You know what we learned to drink in the jungle? We called it refresco.”
“You were in the army? A cipote like you?”
“Can you guess what we drank?” He felt really irritated by this viejo now, his soft eyes intently fixed on him as if he’d asked him something much more personal.
“From coconuts, imagino pues.”
“That far in from the coast?” Esteban laughed. “No, the juice inside a monkey’s stomach. You kill a monkey and take out its stomach and poke a hole in it”—and he lifted his hands to his lips and mimed holding a wobbly sphere, which he slowly deflated in his long, spread fingers. Monkey stomach juice tasted like sweet fruit pulp blended with urine and grass.
Bernardo zipped an angry line in the air with a finger. “To send young muchachos like you off to die, brother against brother. How can it be?”
“Muchachas too,” said Esteban matter-of-factly, staring down at his tray. Now this annoying viejo was going to want him to explain war too.
“No se.” Esteban sighed. He picked up a sugar packet, bit off a corner with his teeth, and poured some sugar on his tongue.
After a long moment, Bernardo said, “The first time you get seasick, you know what to do? . . . Go forward, and bite the anchor.”
“Or drink gasoline.”
They didn’t talk much after that, though neither pretended to sleep either. The movie was eliciting an almost unbroken riot of yelping laughter and swooning squeals of Ay que lindo from the passengers. Esteban put on his headphones. A huge, slobby dog was in love with another huge, slobby dog wearing a pink bow in her collar, and because the two dogs didn’t want to be apart, the smiling, teary-eyed families who owned each dog had to decide what to do about this awkward situation, but then the dogs ran away together. They all lived in that usual America-land of big white houses, each in the middle of its own tree-shaded park. The enemy is the government and its warring policies, not the American people, no? When Esteban removed his headphones, Bernardo immediately turned to him and asked: “Have you fathered any children?”
“Pues, no.” Esteban scowled.
Eventually even the light in the window had paled. Esteban forced himself into a long, methodical daydream of female flesh and lovemaking. It didn’t work; he felt miserable, not at all aroused, trying to remember her and the way it had been in Quilali, the last girl he’d fucked and one of only three he’d ever fucked but the only one who’d ever let him do it up the culito, buried in jungle earth now, something of him still inside her scientifically if invisibly still inside her mixing into the rotting earth, verdad? In another half century he’d be this old waiter’s age. Puta, would it have stopped by then? This death blotting out love whenever he tries to conjure love, totally fucked up: like with that whore in Corinto last week, when she was naked on her burdel bed and suddenly all he could think of was her perfumed, satiny flesh and blood ripped apart sprayed through green underbrush while on her bed she rolled over on her belly like a dog thrusting hard round smooth little buttocks up at him, No te preocupas, amorcito, no pasa nada chupame aqui—smiling! If that putita had known what he was thinking, it would have been her getting the hell out of there as fast she could, no? No pasa nada. Ni verga. No pasa nada, mi amor . . . Was there a girl in one of the ports they’d be stopping at, maybe even someone he’d meet over the next few days in New York, or someone out there in their voyage along that part of the world where city and ocean air intermix, where people live caressed inside and out by opposite kinds of air and breezes, which is why they’re incapable of keeping things in, of keeping love hidden, no? Was there a girl who was going to bring love back to him, fill him with love as he swallowed the warm breath of her kisses, who was waiting for him right now in a shimmery haze of hot city and ocean air without even knowing him yet? He sat purposefully and suspensefully still, trying to imagine her. Should I make her older or younger? Rich or poor? Light or dark? What’s her name? What language does she speak? Should she pull her shirt off over her head herself, her chichis suddenly blooming and bouncing from under her elbows going up in a band of cloth, or will I unbutton . . . He turned his head away, staring down at the aisle so the viejo wouldn’t see the hot, wet stinging in his eyes—I’m ruined, no good for anything . . .
Later, when there was turbulence, Bernardo told him about chairs lashed to the legs of the officers’ mess dining table during rough seas and that the way to keep plates and glasses and silverware from sliding off was to soak the tablecloth with water, and even better than that, water that rice had been boiled in, if the galley cook had had the discipline and foresight to save it.
“A man who plans ahead is worth two, muchacho. But not this one. This cook drinks too much. First day on the job, and look, he’s arriving drunk. Have you seen how many rum and cokes he’s already taken?”
Maybe I’ll get a tattoo, thought Esteban. Should I get a tattoo? Up on my arm, not all over like prisoner tattoos. Elegant, with meaning, a sailor’s tattoo. Something that says, I’m leaving the earth to be reborn. A skeleton climbing a ladder up into the stars. Or navigating a ship through the stars. Otilio de la Rosa has a yellow fish outlined in red tattooed on his chest and a hummingbird on his arm and at the beach that chavala said, What are you, a pet store? and just like that he learned what a mistake he’d made.
On the way to Miami, where they cleared customs and immigration, the plane had stopped in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where among the passengers who boarded and filled the remaining seats were ten more young seamen on their way to New York to meet the Urus. But they wouldn’t all come together until Kennedy Airport, gathering around the gargantuan, hairy-shouldered American in basketball shorts who met them in the arrivals area, a cardboard sign that read “Urus” in scratchy black marker held from the bottom in two hands against his chest. After that day they’d never see him again, but whenever the crew had cause to recall him, they’d refer to him as El Pelos, The Hairs, or just Pelos. He had black hair cut short like a yanqui soldier, wore work boots with bright orange laces and a sleeveless T-shirt with his shorts, and his muscular arms and broad shoulders were totally matted with bristly black hair. “Hi. How are ya,” he said over and over as they gathered around, scrutinizing them with gray eyes as quiet and watchful as a mistrustful child’s. When he’d finally counted to fifteen he said, “All here? OK, let’s go.”
He led them outside, this odd and uneasy American, into a late afternoon heat as stupefying as any which mundanely withers Nicaragua’s coastal plains, and left them, faces burning, standing on the sidewalk while he went for the van. A moreno porter wheeling an empty cart back inside shouted at them, “Que vaina? Son equipo be beisbol, no? Campeones!” and raucously laughed. Is that what they looked like, a baseball team? Sun and clouds had dissolved into a haze the color of boiled, yellowing cauliflower. The airport, a vastness of sooty concrete and glass and traffic, was all by itself the biggest, noisiest, and most unfamiliar city Esteban had ever been in, though it wasn’t as if he’d never seen such places on television or in movies. He stood gaping at the endless clamor of yellow taxis pulling up in a flurry of shouts, doors and trunks flapping open, slamming shut, roaring off—yet the air, for all the commotion, the constant, ripping thunder of takeoffs and landings overhead, felt utterly still; humid, petrol-fumed air and a faint rankness of old crab shell, the ocean somewhere nearby.
Behind the open trunk of a radiantly polished red car, a blonde stewardess in a crisp white blouse was tightly entwined in a ravenous kiss with a handsome young man, mouths deeply tunneling. Her honeyhued elbows and arms shifted around his neck; she seemed to be trying to press herself ever more tightly against him, hip to hip, head tilted back, hair falling down like poured, shimmering grain. The man dropped a hand from her waist to her nalgas, her starched skirt denting like soft tin around his big-knuckled fingers, cheeks underneath springing back, wobbling the shimmering fabric around those flagrant indentations. They went on kissing while the crew watched, each in his own way sharing the sweltering heat between the two clamped bodies, running their tongues over their own sweat-salted lips, feeling their own humid shirts clinging to their skin. Then the lovers broke apart as if they’d agreed to do it for exactly so many minutes and seconds; he shut the trunk, they walked to opposite sides of the car, got in, and the car drove off. “Hijo de la gran puta,” one of the crew inevitably growled, others clucked impressed assent, they stood marveling and grinning as if they’d all just had their first providential taste of life at sea.
They shook hands, exchanged names; there really wasn’t much more to say, they’d be spending the next six months together and maybe more, so what was the hurry? Nearly everyone struck a pose of friendly reserve, serious and casual, as if to say, I’m a good guy, but don’t think I can’t be a cabron. Though a few seemed stuck in wary surliness, or seemed to think they were superior. The cook, squinting through swollen, reddened eyes, stinking of sweat and rum, put out his hand to everyone. “Jose Mateo Morales. Soy el cocinero.” “Marco Aurelio Artola, electrician.” “Tomaso Tostado, ordinary seaman”—Tomaso Tostado had a gold tooth. Bonnie Mackenzie, the one moreno on the crew, a wiry and cherubic costeno from Puerto Cortes, was an ordinary seaman too, and, despite his name, said he doesn’t speak much English, bueno, un poco, mon, fock, brother; knows the words to eight Bob Marley, but, brother, take the lyrics apart, try to use a word here and a word there to speak his own thoughts in English, it comes out sounding like a parrot making senseless noise. Regarding Esteban’s qualifications as an ordinary seaman, Adela Suarez had asked him if he was literate and if he knew how to use a paintbrush, and that was almost all she’d wanted to know.
The van was like a small bus with four rows of seats, hot and airless despite the air-conditioning. The cook sat up front with El Pelos, whose shoulders rose over the back of his seat like the tops of folded, hairy wings. Esteban sat by a window, with the irritating viejo squeezed in beside him.
Marco Aurelio Artola, the Honduran electrician, a freckled, twenty-year-old mulatto whom they’d nickname Canario because of his high, twittering voice, said he’d thought New York City was going to be pretty flat, planito planito, with just one building rising over everything, the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower. All his life he’d been seeing the Watchtower on the cover of the Jehovah’s Witness publications a proselytizing barber in his pueblo was always pressing on customers.
So that was funny, the crew’s first shared laugh: how could he be so bobo? “What, you never watch television?” one of them scoffed. “You never watch Kojak?” When the teasing subsided, Bernardo turned to the fuming electrician and asked if he’d ever been to sea before, as if such unworldliness were impossible in a seaman.
“No. I’m an electrician, I worked in Tela. Y que?”
“And for that you were hired to work on a ship, chavalo?”
“Bueno, what’s a ship, a building that floats, no?”
“Last month we fixed this old hotel, so fucked up the wires still had cloth insulation, all shredded, worn out. We rewired it top to bottom, ve?”
The one they would call Cabezon because of his immense, gourd-like head, had been hired as an engine room mechanic, but in Honduras he’d worked as a mechanic in a fish canning factory that also produced fish bouillon cubes from offal: turbines, boilers, diesel engines, there wouldn’t be such a difference. Except on the ship he’d be earning more than a dollar an hour and saving every cent, while in Honduras he’d earned five dollars a day. The moreno from the coast said that wasn’t so bad, he’d earned three. And in Nicaragua? No jodas, grumbled the cook from the front, people weren’t even paid with real money anymore, even frijoles had become rich people’s food.
It turned out that everyone but Bernardo and the cook had been hired based on qualifications only conjecturally related to shipboard ones. The crew included two electricians, two mechanics, a cook, a waiter, and nine ordinary seamen; nine Hondurans, five Nicaraguans, and one Guatemalan. The Guatemalan was the other electrician, his last job with an oil exploration company in the jungles of the Peten—like so many chapines, he had a reserved demeanor, and because of that and also because it’s a well-known joke all over Central America that Guatemaltecos are only born to give their army more people to murder, his nickname onboard would be Caratumba (Tomb Face). The other mechanic, the pretty boy they’d call Pinpoyo, had worked with heavy construction equipment, Caterpillar diesel engines. While everyone in the van chattered on, Esteban saw Bernardo looking worriedly at the back of the cook’s head, as if willing him to turn around and say something about this.
“It’s having experienced officers onboard, a good chief engineer, that matters,” said Bernardo firmly. “Everyone else just does what they’re told.”
The van rushed along the elevated expressway, bounced and vibrating. Esteban had only felt this way in helicopters before, not even in IFA trucks, sweating and slightly nauseous and trying to see everything. He saw a cemetery so vast and withered it looked like a whole miniature, firebombed city. How could anyone be happy here, living in an endlessness of factories, refineries, windowless slabs, who knew what it all was? He peered down into side streets as if into the bottoms of suddenly snatched away boxes, dirty brown brick, yellow tienda signs, figures walking along serenely like drunks at dawn through yellow-brown air; he saw people sitting in chairs by sidewalk cooking fires, some in their underwear apparently like at home, but they were so quickly past. Was that corn growing on that rooftop? He would never walk down those streets at night, never. The expressway curved, and skyscrapers filled the van’s window on the other side; he rocked and craned trying to see, glossy gray skyscrapers looking like they’d be blinding in the sun. The van swerved, El Pelos hit his horn, shouted, “Fucking Chinese,” words Esteban understood, though the rest of Pelos’s sullenly muttered invective was lost on him. Bernardo murmured in his ear, “They’re going to have to be good teachers, these officers, chavalo. It’s lucky the Atlantic doesn’t make itself truly dangerous until October, bueno, generally.”
The Island of Skyscrapers and lights in the sky like fireflies before dusk and the behemoth bridges hanging in a sudden openness of ocean and sky. Tugs, barges, traffic streaming alongside the river. A gleaming white freighter berthed by a neat row of rectangular, blue warehouses down there, but that wasn’t where they were going: the expressway bent downwards and away, soon pulling them through an endless row of iron girders supporting traffic overhead, the van filling with shadows. Industrial buildings, a row of narrow, dilapidated houses, a gasoline station, a pink sign with the black silhouette of a naked woman kneeling like a mermaid, hands clasped behind her head. Morenos in sleeveless T-shirts and hats on a corner, children on bicycles; a long row of dull brown brick buildings, trees growing between them. They turned down a street lined with immense old brick warehouses. They drove along the long brick marine terminal yard wall.
El Pelos handed an envelope to a uniformed man in a booth, who waved them through, into the stilled complexity of the port. Here and there masts, derricks, and the bristling tops of monumental ships’ superstructures protruded over the roofs of numbered terminal buildings. Motionless cargo cranes against the sky. Parked truck cabs. Sheds and warehouses with aluminum siding. A man driving an empty forklift out from behind a long row of containers. It was Sunday evening; perhaps that was why there didn’t seem to be much going on. But El Pelos kept on driving for a surprisingly long time, deep into what seemed to be a deserted and apparently defunct end of the port, where the buildings were much older, abandoned looking, made of crumbling brick and concrete. Sandy wastes of weeds and built-up earthworks suddenly opening on a patch of beachfront fronting a long, broken pier. A smashed, hollowed-out car chassis in a rubble-filled lot. They passed a small, listing old freighter apparently resting in eternal dry dock inside a fenced in, overgrown, scraggly-treed yard, leafy squirrel nests in the conning tower and a squat black dog barking at them from the bridge, an inner tube hung with rope from a bridge wing. An elephantine warehouse built of tattered gray wood, an emptiness of darkening sky and water glowing like a movie screen through huge, gaping doorways.
Esteban was conscious of Bernardo’s breathing next to him in the now quieted van, his emphatic, almost rhythmic exhalations. They came to a pothole-ripped parking lot partially enclosed by brick wall, a rusted chicken-wire fence lying on its side all the way across it like the undulating spine of a long-dead dragon. At the far end was a cluster of sheds and low buildings with smashed and boarded-up windows, a ruin that looked like a row of concrete-encased rolls of toilet paper that had been pounded down with a giant sledgehammer, and in front, a tall, concrete, rectangular structure—an old grain elevator—towering against the bands of coloring sky low on the horizon behind it: “Ve? Ahi esta, el Watchtower,” said the twittering electrician, but now no one laughed. They drove over a flattened portion of the fence and around the front of the grain elevator and onto a paved finger pier with a freighter berthed on one side, blocking most of the covelike basin from view.
The crew got out of the van and stood on the pier with their suitcases, looking up at the darkened and silent ship looming over them like a cold canyon wall, breathing the familiar stench of stagnant waterfront rot. The immense, rust-smeared hull seemed suffused with an almost lavender glow against the hot dusk’s powdery blue sky streaked crimson and orange. Around Esteban his crewmates’ faces all seemed to be glowing too, their eyes and teeth, their short-sleeved shirts and white guayaberas.
El Pelos had stayed in the van’s driver’s seat, his long, hairy legs protruding from the open door, smoking and listening to rock music on the radio. They were waiting for el Capitan.
“Bueno, es un barquito, no?” said Tomaso Tostado after a moment, sounding quietly elated, his gold tooth flashing. Some brought out cigarettes and passed them around, smiling. Well, it is a ship, thought Esteban, surprised he felt so relieved to have arrived, at the end of this long day, to at least this certainty of a ship. He held cigarette smoke inside himself and looked up at the ship, feeling tired and satisfied. He slapped a mosquito away. A perfectly regular-looking ship, sturdy and capable, and he was going to work on it. Who cared that it was berthed in the middle of desolation? What difference would that make in a few days, when they’d be out to sea?
It may have been a modest-size freighter by modern standards, 400 feet long, floating well above its load lines, but it looked enormous to Esteban. Three derrick-rigged King masts protruding over the long main deck. Urus painted high up on the prow against a dark smear covering up what must have been its previous name; Urus, Panama City on the stern. But there were no lights onboard; everything looked painted with shadows. The deckhouse, whitish, speckled with dark gashes, was back near the stern; two rows of black portholes visible beneath the bridge and wing; a smokestack. The ship’s ladder was up. Water rustled heavily against ship and pier, slapped pilings. The heat still held itself over everything like someone at the very end of holding his breath.
Then Esteban heard Bernardo whispering in his ear that the ship was nothing but a broken eggshell, chavalo. Esteban stared straight ahead into the iron hull. What made the viejo think of an eggshell?
“No lights,” whispered Bernardo. “No electricity. It’s a broken eggshell, chavalo.”
Esteban looked at him: Bernardo was holding his cigarette between two fingers as if it were some fine Cuban cigar, seemingly studying it even as he said, “The mooring lines don’t even have rat guards, ve?”
It was nearly dark when a car, headlights on like cat’s eyes, came around the grain elevator and onto the pier. A sleek black Mazda. El Capitan, pues. They could see the back of his head inside the car, a strikingly oblong head with small, close ears. The door opened, and the man who unfolded himself from the driver’s seat was so tall, skinny, and angular he looked like an elongated shadow of himself rising on a wall. His head was shaved nearly bald; he wore neat jeans, a black belt, and a white T-shirt, shiny black rubber-soled shoes. He stepped back and gently closed the door, turned and looked at them with tender sheep’s eyes. In his thirties, probably. A high forehead and a prominent nose and small, thin lips puckered as if they were scornfully kneading a mouthful of thread even as he looked them over with his spurned lover’s eyes. He looks like a priest, thought Esteban. Some young Spanish Jesuit who shaved his beard off yesterday.
“Hola, bienvenido,” called out el Capitan. “Espero que no fue demasiado cansado el viaje.” His voice had a youthful, slightly querulous timbre. He stood with one hand thrust straight down into his front pocket, elbow tucked against his side. Then he said, “Momento,” and walked slowly over to the van, one long arm loosely dangling. Well, he speaks Spanish anyway. He wasn’t what Esteban had imagined a capitan would look like, but he seemed formidable enough, no? A certain gravity. Educated seeming. Carries himself well enough. Esteban glanced at Bernardo—was the viejo going to call el Capitan chavalo and cipote too? But Bernardo was staring up at the shadowy deck, his expression rapt and sardonic, lower lip curled. Poor viejito, thought Esteban, he’s let all his frantic good hope collapse over nothing because he’s so used to everything always going wrong, all that grateful mierda about good luck just a desperate hoax.
El Pelos had turned his radio off and sat listening, mouth open, to el Capitan. And then el Capitan pulled his wallet from his back pocket and paid Pelos without counting the bills and slid the wallet back into his pocket just like that. Esteban liked the way el Capitan pushed the door closed for Pelos and then stepped back, watching as Pelos started the van and lifted his hand in a wave—el Capitan merely nodded—and backed off the pier, waving again at the crew as he went past, his pallid face looking swollen and ghostly.
There was someone onboard, maybe that was what Bernardo had been watching. They heard a sudden clanking and, looking way up, saw that a man in white pants and untucked shirt had just stepped out through the gangway, onto the still-raised aluminum accommodation ladder running parallel to the bulwark and rail. The man walked out along the ladder’s length almost like a tightrope walker, with careful, emphatic steps, his weight slowly sinking it. But when he reached the end of the ladder, he was still high above the pier, the ladder only slightly slanted downwards—then they heard him laugh; it must have been a laugh, but it sounded like some faraway bird squawk or monkey shriek, coming from up there in the dark. Clasping both railings, the man on the ladder bent at the knees and began vigorously jolting himself up and down, over and over, stomping-jerking the ladder down in an uproar of quaking aluminum, screeching hinges and winch cables, stomping it all the way down until the bottom step was just a foot above the pier. They could see him clearly now—black, curly hair, big smile, lively eyes, about the same age as el Capitan. He kicked at the platform folded up against the ladder’s railing until it was horizontal, but instead of stepping down onto it, the man glanced at the crew on the pier and called something out to them in English and then started immediately back up the ladder. What had he said?—they were words Esteban knew, it had sounded as if he’d said, I love and then something else . . . not you, it couldn’t have been you, some other word, no? I love you? It had been some other word. Watching the man hurry back up the ladder, Esteban suddenly saw a dog, eyes glinting through the dark, crouched as if frozen in midyawn-stretch near the top, forepaws extended down over two steps.
When the crew carried their luggage up on deck, the grinning man was waiting for them, and the dog, a German shepherd, was standing by his leg, the second German shepherd Esteban had seen that day. For the second time that day Esteban was suddenly and sickeningly reminded of Ana, the East German tracking dog his company had spent an experimental few days following through the jungles of the Rio Coco region along the Honduran border; Ana had led a point squad right into a fatal ambush and had just had the time to tear out an already wounded contra’s throat before being torn apart by bullets herself. Though the German shepherd at Miami Airport, leashed to a uniformed officer, padding around the baggage carousels sniffing, as if with feigned nonchalance, at everyone’s luggage, had seemed much more Ana-like. This German shepherd stood panting loudly, long tongue hanging down, dripping silvery filaments of drool into a puddle between its paws.
The curly haired man was shorter, paler, and stockier than el Capitan, with a full mouth, a short neck, and restless, sharp, brightly dark eyes. His pants were baggy, frayed at the hems over dirty white sneakers, his untucked, short-sleeved shirt mostly unbuttoned over his hairless chest. He held a long, yellow-rubber-encased flashlight in two hands in front of his waist.
El Capitan introduced him as Mark, el primero oficial, or first mate. Then el Capitan did a strange thing; he told them the dog’s name before he’d told them his own: Miracle, which he even translated, milagro. Mark stood smiling at them, his eyes beaming cheerfully.
“Y yo me llamo Elias,” said el Capitan. “Y soy tu capitan.”
Probably Greek, thought Bernardo bitterly. Claro. Scavengers and perverts of all the oceans. The crew stood in a group by the portside rail, backs to the collapsed skeletons of piers and smashed terminals, Capitan Elias, el primero Mark, and Miracle facing them from the gap between plank-battened holds. There were no lights; ship and cove were like a blacked out city, the deck a long expanse of, to Esteban, mainly indistinguishable shapes.
“Be very careful where you walk, muchachos,” Capitan Elias said, leading them across the beam. He was so tall, skinny, and erect that in the darkness he looked a part of the ship itself, a long piece of spar that had detached itself and come to life. “There are still some unrepaired spots on deck you can fall through, all the way down to where we won’t even be able to hear you calling for help,” he said, and for the first time, he laughed, a brief, low titter rising from his chest, fluttering out through his teeth.
Behind the stern, past the grain elevator, and over the port, looking much closer than they could possibly be, Manhattan’s clustered skyscrapers glowed, giant rectangles of refrigerated light in the hot sky.
Capitan Elias said, “I’m afraid I have to apologize about the lack of lights and plumbing.” There’d been, he said, an accident when the ship, purchased by its new owner, was en route to Brooklyn from a place called New Brunswick, in Canada. A small explosion in the crankcase, causing a fuel line fracture, sprayed fuel, hitting a hot exhaust pipe, which had started a fire. Capitan Elias said the fire had done a wonderful job on the ship’s electrical wiring and cables. The cables and wiring were connected to the ship’s generators, which were connected to the switchboard, which distributed power to the ship’s circuit breakers, radar, winch controls, steering gear, plumbing, ventilation, to the hydraulic pumps driving the diesel engine and everything else, nearly all of which, he said, was perfectly shipshape otherwise. So it wasn’t really as bad as it sounded. They were still waiting for some spare parts, new circuit breakers, due to arrive any day now from Japan, isn’t that right, Mark? In other words, hombres, until the wiring was repaired and the ship was brought up to class and could be newly insured, they would be delayed in port. Lots of deck work to be done too, rust removal, painting, welding, nothing out of the ordinary, it wouldn’t take long.
Capitan Elias spoke in a calm, straightforward way, explaining everything meticulously, a man who wore his authority lightly, who wanted to be trusted rather than feared—he reminded Esteban of a certain kind of army officer soldiers trust because they know he’s careful, telling them what they need to know instead of trying to inspire them with noisy heroics. But Bernardo was aghast, couldn’t believe his ears, because he’d detected a clipped, subdued echo of Capitan J. P. Osbourne’s British accent in Elias’s perfect nautical Spanish, of a jovial but restrained condescension that inspires respect and obedience rather than resentment—unlike the cynical disdain of Greeks, their boorish capitanes no better than truck drivers. Impossible that this skinny gargoyle dressed like an adolescent could be an English shipmaster! It must be a trick, a nostalgic hallucination summoned by the billowing dread fogging his eyes and ears . . . But in the coming weeks the rest of the crew would realize that Capitan Elias spoke the way he did, saying “Nicara-goo-wah” and “Mana-goo-wah,” because his accent was British, though tempered by years of living amidst other languages and accents; and his Spanish, especially when he was excited, they would notice, was often peppered with odd bits of slang, mainly Mexican, though soon el Capitan would be adopting theirs’ too. Guey was a word he would use a lot. Way-y-y. “Pinche gueys.” Jose Mateo, the cook, would say that he’d often heard younger Mexican seamen use that word, which usually didn’t seem to mean anything more particular than “you” or “you guys,” though sometimes el Capitan would also say, “Don’t be such a guey.”
Capitan Elias said, “The Urus, I have to acknowledge, was delivered to its new owner in less than ideal shape. But Mark and I wouldn’t have accepted our commissions, hard as maritime work is to come by these days, if we hadn’t felt confident about this ship. The engine, the hull and holds, the cargo gear, this is all in excellent condition. If it hadn’t been for that fire . . .” and he held out his hands and shrugged. “As soon as she’s repaired, we’ll sail, with the usual complement of additional officers and crew, who have already been hired and are waiting for us. So this is our job, caballeros. The Urus is a ship we’re all going to feel proud of.”
From far out in the harbor came the long blast of a ship’s horn, and Capitan Elias paused, seemingly relishing the sound and then the silence, suddenly interrupted by the rising and subsiding yauling of cats coming from somewhere out there amidst the rubble of the cove. Miracle whined. And el Capitan said:
“One more thing. I know you’re all tired and want to get to bed, but I think this has to be explained. The Urus, of course, has a Panamanian registry . . .”
And he told them to think of it like this: onboard they were in Panama, contracted seamen protected by that country’s sovereign laws. Onshore they were in the United States, where, of course, for the next four days, until their seamen’s transit visas expired, they were perfectly legal. But they all knew what rough places port cities could be, and this was one of the most dangerous, especially once they left the port yard and entered the streets around “los proyectos.” They didn’t know how often the police found murdered seamen on the sidewalks and in the alleys or in abandoned warehouses or floating down some harbor channel at dawn, stripped of wallets and papers, no way for the police to know who they were or where they came from or how to contact their families, they ended up buried in an anonymous pit on a paupers’ cemetery island in the harbor while their ships sailed away without them, their crewmates and officers probably assuming their missing mates had just jumped ship, certainly a common enough circumstance.
Capitan Elias said, “Oiga! If you want to jump ship, try your hand at life in New York City, go right ahead, I’m not going to try to stop you.” And then he laughed, one of those brief, lugubrious titters. “But please leave us a note or tell somebody if you do, OK? Just so we’ll know what happened.”
Then el Capitan quickly translated what he’d just said for Mark, and Mark grinned down at his shoes, shaking his head. Some of the crew, including Esteban, forced themselves to smile too.
“Los proyectos,” said Capitan Elias, “son problematicos.” The projects ran parallel to this end of the waterfront, on the other side of the wall beyond those trees over there, block upon block of government housing for the very poorest people, with different heavily armed drug gangs controlling different blocks of buildings and stretches of street. They didn’t like strangers wandering through, said el Capitan, though of course they saw a foreign seaman as the Golden Goose, wads of shore leave money stuffed into his pockets and not knowing where in hell he was going. Capitan Elias said he would avoid los proyectos entirely if he were them. Drugs onboard, of course, would result in immediate termination of employment. And if you pick up a woman, be sure to use a condom. He looked forward to six months of profitable tramping, hopefully more, who knew where they’d be headed, all over the Caribbean, South America, Europe, the Mediterranean, ports a lot livelier, with a lot more to offer and a lot cheaper, than Brooklyn’s.
Then Capitan Elias said that was enough for now, Mark would show them to their cabins. And Mark switched on his flashlight and began to walk towards the deckhouse, the dog following.
As soon as Bernardo and Esteban were alone in their sweltering cabin, the viejo said, “This isn’t a miracle. It’s a disaster.” Later, when the old waiter would adopt the stray cat and teach it to sit like a dog by his side while he sat at his daily chore of sifting and plucking roaches and roach shit from rancid rice, he would even counterbalancingly name the cat that, Desastres. But Miracle would live on, and Desastres would end both disastrously and somewhat miraculously . . .
Mark’s flashlight had briefly illuminated a scarred steel box with paint-peeling bulkheads, mattresses laid on the floor, bedding folded on top. Their deck-level cabin, like all the cabins and everything else in the first two stories of the deckhouse anyway, had been stripped of all furnishing or decoration. Even watertight doors and many of the porthole covers had been removed. In the galley and mess el Primero had beamed his flashlight into the dense darkness of an iron cave, showing the cook and waiter a butane gas two-burner stove on a table, some pots and pans and utensils, a hefty wood-paneled water tank mounted on a high steel shelf.
They heard the Mazda start up and drive off the pier, taking their officers and Miracle back to wherever it was they spent their nights. Mosquitoes whined around Esteban’s head.
“El Capitan wears a wedding ring,” said Bernardo as they made up their beds, both sweating profusely in the airless dark. Esteban, kneeling, leaned back for a moment and laid his palm into a warm puddle where the dog had drooled.
“They both seem buena onda,” he said, furtively wiping his hand along the bottom of his mattress. They seemed cheerful, sincere, no?
Their porthole held a broken slice of dirty pane, though no breeze or soft ray of diluted light penetrated its open half. Bernardo pushed the porthole cover all the way open. Then they lay on their beds, unable to see each other. Esteban felt the longing for sleep throbbing through his body, but his mind stayed wide awake. How strange, he thought. This morning we were all in Nicaragua or Honduras, and now here we are, left alone on a ship with no lights or plumbing on the other side of the world, in the middle of nothing, in Bruklin, Nueva York, not far from people supposedly disposed to murder us for money we don’t have. He listened for some far-off sound of malignant life from los proyectos, but what he mainly heard was the viejo’s dilapidated breathing and heavy sighs.
After a while Bernardo, as if he were talking out loud sadly and only to himself, said, “But luck is this way, verdad? It’s not for everybody, no?”
“When the ship is fixed, we’ll sail,” said Esteban vehemently. “We’re still getting paid. Vos, we’re getting paid to work, y que?” It was stifling! And the mosquitoes!
“This ship is a broken eggshell,” repeated the viejo flatly. “It’s ready for scrap. No lights or plumbing or fans! And el Capitan, I see no capitan there, he’s just a deluded ninote, with the air of a pervert no less.”
“Why would they have us come all the way up here to work on a ship that’s a broken eggshell? Where is the logic in that . . . Bernardo?”
A pervert? He couldn’t bear him! He shut his eyes and then opened them again and stared into the darkness and didn’t even look over when he heard the old waiter’s quiet, wheezy weeping. Why did they have to share a cabin! He clenched his teeth, listened to the silence that wasn’t silence at all, to faint scrapings and pattering through the fathomless expanse of floating iron—iron and not, hijueputa, a floating eggshell!
Well, at least the viejo isn’t a pato, he thought. His tios had warned him, but he already knew that ships’ crews were supposed to be full of hardened patos. Years of long, lonely voyages leaving them twisted, still wanting women on land, boys at sea. A muchacho like you has to be ready to fight like a cornered tiger in defense of his physical integrity, his tio Beny had warned. Watch out for the patos buying you a beer in the mess, dropping a sleeping pill in. But it didn’t look like there was going to be any beer for sale on this ship—and no one had ever even been to sea before, except the cook and this weepy old waiter. Chocho, viejo! Tranquilase, you’ll get your chicken incubators!
In the morning Esteban was the last to wake. He went out on deck and found the rest of the crew gathered at the portside rail, drinking the instant coffee that Jose Mateo and Bernardo had brewed in the mess and served in plastic cups. There was nothing to eat, Bernardo informed Esteban in a portentous tone, because rats had gotten into the carton of donuts their officers had left them the night before. The coffee burned their fingers through the plastic, so everyone was gingerly balancing his cup on the rail while they stared out in appalled, sleepy silence at the blighted landscape surrounding them. A pile-lined earthen barrier, topped with gravel, enclosed one side of the cove, but to portside the cove was lined with the abandoned, wrecked shells of old warehouses, offices, and shipping terminals—one terminal, its blue paint eroded by age and salt, looked like a giant circus tent, sky showing through its broken slats, faded lettering in English, French, and Arabic over its broad doorways: “Wienstock Spice Co.” They saw gulls balanced on one leg atop the stumps of collapsed piers. To stern stood the defunct grain elevator with its cracked, discolored whitewashed facade, and the rubble of the old grain terminal behind.