Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Now, 111 nights later, Esteban lies awake shivering in two rank t-shirts and jeans and rotted socks under his thin blanket on his mattress on the floor, thinking, Oye? What if he just takes the lifeboat? Rows away somewhere. Vos, like that Dutchman who fled Corinto in a rowboat. Row where? Row away or run away. Where?
The cabin’s mineshaft darkness hides the viejo but Esteban can hear him sleeping or waiting to sleep, his steady but softly sputtering breathing like barely percolating coffee in an old enamel pot. Often Bernardo sleeps with his eyes open, like a mule. The October night’s damp chill fills the pitch-dark cabins like wet smoke. But only Esteban, though he doesn’t realize it, has the beginnings of an asthmatic respiratory condition, caused by so many months of breathing paint fumes and solvents and powdered rust and steel and wet weather and bad sparse food and that soaring September fever and croupy cough. He doesn’t wheeze, his throat doesn’t close, and though at times his breathing feels terrifyingly shallow, he exhales freely, so it isn’t that kind of asthma. Every time he starts to drift off to sleep, a rebellious spasm in his breathing wakes him to quivering lungs that feel full of cold bright light, spreading from there into all his nerve endings with a tingling phosphorescence …
Chilled nerves aglow and tingling, he thinks, Tonight I escape. Then, hijoeputa, why doesn’t he get up and move? He needs to visualize this escape in a practical and encouraging way, except he’s missing the details, he might as well be planning an escape into the Milky Way as into the city; and so it’s just another insomniac fantasy, not even soothing, though few of his nighttime fantasies, thoughts, scenarios, are ever soothing. Where will he go in the city?
And what does Bernardo see, sleeping with his eyes open? Happy things or sorrowful? Though Esteban can’t see him in the dark of the cabin, the viejo sleeps and dreams that way now, eyeballs like glimmerless frogs’ heads protruding from black, still water in a jungle-canopied bog. Bernardo is dreaming that he’s in the officers’ saloon pantry on a ship steadily approaching a great port; he’s finished washing up the officers’ silverware, and now he’s laying bananas into a wicker basket for the morning. Though the engines have been slowed, the ship’s bulkheads vibrate from the propeller’s churning the too shallow water of the channel. Tugs bump up alongside, softly jolting the ship. He lays out a new tablecloth on the officers’ dining table, sets it for breakfast. The officers’ smoking lounge, the gleaming galley, are both deserted. He steps out into the corridor, and hearing the sound of dominoes slapped down on a tabletop coming from the crew’s mess, looks inside, sees dominoes arrayed over a table, four empty chairs. He climbs the stairs to his cabin to change for a night on shore, seeing no one. He goes outside onto a rear deck for a smoke, and glancing up at the bridge wings, he’s surprised to see no one there either, no harbor pilot or ship-master or officers. He climbs the steps to a wing and finds the bridge completely empty too, wheelhouse panels and radar screens glowing, no one manning the quivering wheel, a lamp on over the nautical charts table and no one there. Directly beneath the wing a tug, at a skewed angle like a feeding pilot fish, churns alongside the hull. A long, narrowing, double row of red and white buoy lights mark the channel through the placid, wide waters leading to the city illuminated on the horizon … . When the ship is finally settled alongside a pier, he sees mooring lines flung out from the deck, snaking through the air, but he sees no one tossing them, no one on the pier to catch them. Cargo cranes like long-necked, petrified dinosaurs rising up in the quiet night over warehouse sheds, the cluttered yard, but he sees no stevedores, no parked vehicles that could belong to waiting shipping agents or immigration officials. Yet when he goes down on deck and descends the accommodation ladder to the pier, he finds a yellow taxi waiting there. There’s a driver at least, a moreno with a thick, wrinkled neck, though he never speaks or turns around to glance at him as they drive into the city, nor is there any reflection of the driver’s face in the rearview mirror. They drive through the poor peoples’ neighborhoods beyond the port, darkened, shabby buildings and streets, no traffic, no one out walking. Suddenly they pass a small, whitewashed building with strung light-bulbs around the door and along the roof, the parking lot crowded with milling moreno men in white T-shirts holding paper cups and bottles in brown bags, and then it’s dark and deserted again, and there isn’t even a driver anymore, the taxi is driving itself, the driver must have gotten out to join the other men back there. Now quiet panic floods his chest. The taxi pulls over to a curb, and he opens the door, gets out, and the driverless taxi drives off. He’s on Bourbon Street, in New Orleans; of course he’s been here before. But everything looks closed, though here and there he sees illuminated neon signs protruding over the sidewalk, colors softened by the mist hanging over the street and the street-lights’ wreaths of silvery vapor. He walks down the long row of shuttered restaurants, bars, stores, signs displaying nude women. He feels neither happy nor sad now, neither frightened nor at ease. But he’s glad he didn’t have to pay for the taxi. And he has an adamant erection. The ship leaves in a few hours, he doesn’t have much time to enjoy his time on shore, that’s what he’s thinking. He finds a bar, its front open to the street, glowing beer signs, a jukebox, racked glasses and bottles behind the long empty bar. He sits at the bar but there’s no bartender. He sees himself sitting there in his clean fresh clothes, with this unsated and hopeless though nonetheless pleasing erection in his pants, his expression satisfied and patient over having found at least this one place still open. After awhile he gets up and goes behind the bar and pours himself a draft beer and carries it back to his stool and sits there slowly drinking it, looking out at the graying neon-tinged street. He realizes he’s on the very verge of comprehending something, that there is something he’s always believed to be true that in fact is not, he feels it in his chest, this new yet still wordless certainty suspensefully dawning …
A frog, an ear, a worm, a tic, a beast, a black marketeer and speculator and a pato—the Dutchman owned a hardware store with a house attached near the Corinto port gates and La Turba came and painted his walls with those insults, then stood out in the street chanting and screaming them. And the Dutchman came out of his house and walked right through La Turba, eyes burning straight ahead, face and even bald head glowing red with fury and humiliation like some just-defrocked priest, walked all the way down to the beach while the jeering mob and excited children, including Esteban, followed and the Dutchman pulled a rowboat off the sand and into the water without even taking off his shoes or rolling up his pants and got in and started to row. While he was still close to shore he looked ridiculous, a splenetic and exaggerated Dutchman rowing, but the more he dwindled from sight, the more his emphatic dignity seemed to grow. Everyone watched until he was just a fleck against the sunset, the color inflamed sky seeming to proclaim his radical strength. And when night swallowed the Dutchman up, even the darkened ocean seemed fretful with chastened worry. Esteban had thought it an almost magical act and confused himself, ardently hoping a passing ship or fishing boat had eventually picked the Dutchman up or that he’d at least reached an island in the Gulf of Fonseca and hadn’t rowed into a mine. But even back then he knew to keep such thoughts to himself in front of his tíos, who accused La Turba of murder, his tíos who were modest bisneros, dollar hoarders, speculators and black marketeers themselves. That was the year La CIA mined the harbor, blowing-up that Japanese freighter and another, Panamanian like this one, and attacked and burned the oil storage tanks, black smoke and flames billowing into the sky like a volcanic eruption … .
He’ll row out to sea like the Dutchman did. Just sit in the lifeboat waiting out there, for a real ship to pass like the Dutchman must have, pick him up, give him work, wash dishes, anything, get his life going again just like that! The Urus has a lifeboat, and another embarkation deck where another lifeboat should be. Not like they’ll be needing lifeboats any time soon, no? One afternoon a few weeks after they’d arrived, Capitán Elias suddenly ordered a lifeboat drill. They’d already spent much of that heat-torched day repairing the jammed, rusted winches that cranked the lifeboat-davits forward and back over the embarkation deck—and finally succeeded! Seven ordinary seamen, including Esteban, hands, arms and clothing black with warm lubricating grease, crowded in and sat in the boat waiting like nervously grinning astronauts for it to drop. But el Capitán stood by the release lever just watching, his lids partly lowered over something like contemptuous amazement in his eyes, thin lips pinching a paperclip-smirk into his cheek, until an oppressive suspense filled the boat with a weight heavier than water. Capitán Elias, who was usually so polite and even friendly! Suddenly helpless rage had flooded Esteban like waves of nausea before vomiting: in a flash he’d understood that Capitán Elias had only ordered them into the lifeboat because he was frustrated and bored and for some reason had decided it would be amusing to see them sitting there—as if seeing them sitting there like that somehow confirmed some idea he already had about them! But the crew had been excited and eager to test the lifeboat because they were frustrated and bored too, and at least they’d fixed the winches! Capitán Elias then coolly said that that was enough, what did they think, that he was really going to drop the lifeboat? How were they going to bring it back up? Did they want to dive into that steamy muck and swim around, haul it out and carry it back up themselves? And when el Capitán turned away, he laughed, a high-pitched short yelp of a laugh. They remained sitting in the boat, humiliated and stunned, as if each was privately wondering what he could do to recover his pride right now and coming up with nothing. Then, without uttering anything but a few low curses, they climbed out one by one … .
Sometimes, when Esteban is alone in the cabin and is sure that Bernardo is busy in the mess or with some other chore, he reaches into his suitcase and pulls out the dirty green sock which by now is his cleanest and most intact sock but which he has sacrificed to the wristwatch he keeps hidden inside—when capitán or primero aren’t there, it’s the only working watch or clock on board now, the two clocks the crew has left being useless since they have electrical cords attached. It’s a little Mickey Mouse watch, with a red plastic strap, and though it still works, he’s never even adjusted it for the times zones passed through flying to New York. Sometimes he stares at the time as if at a mildly interesting insect wriggling in the palm of his hand. Usually he lies back on his bed and holds the watch to his nose, his lips, the worn-smooth plastic back of this watch which holds no lingering scent or taste of her though it rode against her skin for however long she owned it before she gave it to him. Just as the time it counts, ticking forward, holds no trace of her either. Often he goes more than a week without taking the watch out and looking at it. Sometimes he just reaches into the suitcase, squeezes the sock, thumbs the hard little shape inside.
Sometimes it drizzles for days at a time, the sky a cold sponge of gloom pressing down on the ship, frigid puddles seeping into their cabins—they miss the warm sudden downpours of summer falling like hammer blows all over the ship, the thunder and lightning that made them feel as if they were in a savage storm at sea on a ship so sturdily navigated that not even a tidal wave could lift it or make it roll.
Sometimes they see hawks and falcons circling, colorless sharp specks high in the sky; they’ve never seen one dive towards the cove, but they’ve seen them doing so farther away, beyond the blocked horizon, out over the harbor. And in the sky over Brooklyn, they regularly see far-away tight flocks of pigeons swooping and dipping like giant kites. Gull shit rains down on them.
Sometimes at night Esteban hears brief crackles of gunfire in the distance, thinks of ambushes that are over in the time it takes a column of bodies to fall down, in the time it takes for a column of troop-jammed trucks to turn into an immobile wall of torn and twisted steel, smoke, blood, and screams … .
No one is quite the same person he was when he arrived in July, not on the outside, certainly not on the inside: time fills them like the stagnant air in a flourishing mushroom cellar.
A dead ship, a mass of inert iron provocatively shaped like a ship, holds no snug dreamers at night, just 15 fucked-up marineros shivering and waiting for sleep. Every night they send themselves out on the same forced marches through the same interior landscapes of recalled, imagined, and reimagined pleasures, mostly having to do with love. But even the most pleasing and arousing and seemingly reliable love scenarios become harder and harder to bring to life after too many visits—though these keep smiling invitingly as if nothing has changed, smiling as if they really wish nothing has changed and are maybe even denying to themselves that they’ve grown bored and just don’t desire their lonely marinero’s calloused touch anymore, they say tomorrow night it will be okay again but then it’s even worse; they fade, turn coldly reluctant and finally exasperatingly dull; they break your heart a little, when you just can’t bring a favorite love scenario to spectral life anymore. Then you have to, just have to turn to something or somebody else … .
But insomnia is also like another person lying in bed beside you, verdad Esteban? It’s yourself, keeping you company. Your mind, lying brightly awake beside you, while you turn away from it, burying your face into a stinking mattress, your body exhausted from being exhausted. Insomnia is a woman lying perfectly still beside you while you toss and turn Estebanito, sometimes she reaches out a dry cool hand and caresses your pene so stealthily that not even the viejo sleeping with his eyes open like a mule will notice; or sometimes she reaches out a hand and touches your shoulder, reaches out all the way from that warmly lit yellow-painted room in León, she’s one of two sisters who shares it, although, Esteban, she’s also lying right there beside you at the same time. It’s a school night and they’re listening to El Amante Loco de La Loma’s radio show. For all the manly Castilian butter of his voice, they say El Amante Loco is actually a Spanish dwarf who came to León with a Mexican circus and then stayed behind. But what a voice! She told Esteban once that just hearing it made girls shiver and smile. All you men out there, listen to what El Amante Loco de la Loma has to tell you: A woman doesn’t want your resentments, jealousies, your crazy bad thoughts, save that for the cantina, compañeros, or for that sad song you’re going to write, set it to music and then pretend it doesn’t belong to you. A woman wants joy, happiness, pleasure, and if she tells you she wants you to be that new modern man, to open up that sad bird cage in your heart and let all your complaints and worries and misfortunes come hopping squawking and flapping out, don’t do it ’manos. Listen to El Amante Loco, he’s never wrong, never milks the wrong leg, amputates the wrong cow, pollinates the wrong train, boards the wrong flower, and now for this marvelous old bolero from Bola de Nieve … . La Marta sits on the bed combing and combing her hair while the bolero plays, solemnly frowning as she forces herself to remember all the brave young compañeros fighting at the war fronts, her sister sitting on the opposite bed with an examination book open on her lap, lightly obliterating with her pencil eraser some equation she’s just realized she set down wrong. Both sisters wear long loose white t-shirts to bed, and lately Esteban lets himself briefly savor the smooth sturdy curve of her bare thighs leading back into the shadowy crevice, a glossy centimeter of scar tissue on her gleaming shin like a foreboding amidst soft brown angel’s hair. How long do we have left to live, sister? How many months and days left to you, to me? It will happen 23 days after the true love thing. Shhh grosera, goodnight, turn off that ridiculous Amante Loco. Do you think he tells the truth? Leave the light on so Esteban can watch us. He doesn’t need light. His brain and lungs are full of light … .
Esteban pushes off his blankets, sits up gasping cold air. He’s never told Bernardo, never told anyone on board, about the volunteer nightmare battalion from León, about la Marta and her sister. Once he told the old man about Ana the German shepherd tracking dog and he kicked up such an hysterical fuss Esteban swore never to mention war to him again.
He sits at the edge of the mattress tying on his boots with electrical wire laces and moments later steps from the short passageway out onto the deck and looks up at the lights of small planes scattering like mercury beads into the far corners of the night. A helicopter banking towards the glowing skyscrapers, abandoning its futile search for some sign of life from the Urus and her crew buried somewhere down there in the darkness. The decanted thunder of yet another descending airliner. The night sky is always busy, always awake too.
Francisco Goldman’s first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a PEN Faulkner Award finalist. The Ordinary Seaman will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press in February, 1997.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.